Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tasting the Sweetness

On the patio under a clear, bright sky. With the usual randomness of undisciplined daydreaming, a goulash of jumbled thoughts sloshes around in my head, among them images of writer Alfred Kazin’s Brooklyn childhood. Maybe it’s a hint. I go inside and hunt up my copy of Kazin’s A Walker in the City, pull it down and settle with the last section looking for the gateway to slip once more into that earlier recollection of the writer’s childhood.

Alfred Kazin was born the son of Jewish immigrants in the Brownsville section of East Brooklyn in 1915. Until his death on his 83rd birthday he was prolific as an author, literary critic, teacher and cultural historian. His first book, On Native Grounds was published in 1942 attracting great acclaim for the twenty-seven year old. He followed the first with ten other books, writing up to the day of his death.

Kazin perhaps had much in common with contemporary New York Times journalist and walker, Nicole Krauss who wrote in harmony with Kazin, ‘I like to walk to be alone with the world, not to be alone. In this way, walking is a lot like writing. Both writing and walking (as I know it) are fueled by a desire to put oneself in relation to others. Not in direct contact—some aloneness wishes to be preserved—but contact through the mediation of language or shared atmosphere of a city street.’

A Walker in the City came out in 1951. This second book is a memoir of the writer’s youth in Brownsville, a marvelous odyssey of walks with Kazin through the streets and rooms of a child growing into youth and manhood—a minute portrait of a Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1920s and 30s. In the simplest labeling, it is the immigrant experience in early twentieth century America seen through the eyes of a boy walking the streets of his Jewish neighborhood. The book is filled with pages of deliciously simple prose that rolls around on the tongue like a favorite taste in perfect clarity. Here is a sampling of that prose from the book’s last chapter titled, “Summer: The Way to Highland Park.”

‘Summer was the passage through. I remember first the long stone path next to a meadow in Prospect Park where as a child I ran off one summer twilight just in time to see the lamplighter go from lamp to lamp touching each gas mantle with the upraised end of a pole so that it suddenly flamed. On the other side of those lamps, the long meadow was stormy-green and dark; but along the path, the flames at each lamp flared in yellow and green petals. Then, that summer I first strayed off the block for myself, the stone steps leading up from the lake in Prospect Park had stalks of grass wound between their cracks, were white with dust and drops of salt I thought came from the peanuts whose smell was everywhere in the park. But there was also some sugary taste in the air that day like the glazed wrapper around the cracker-jack box—and at the bottom of the box, caught by my sticky fingers, some fife or whistle which I blew that glorious warm Sunday full of cars from all over and the Stars and Stripes over the bandstand and the band in their colored coats and the dust flying up from everybody’s shoes as we came over to hear.

Summer was great time. I think now with a special joy of those long afternoons of mildew and quietness in the school courtyard, now a lazy playground, and of the main hall, where the dust rose up brown as we played quoits against the principal’s door.’

As the memoirist recalled… ‘I taste the sweetness of summer on every opening on my face.’ — A perfect description of the reader’s experience in A Walk Through the City.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm. Rereading that passage has me now wanting/needing to find my copy among the shelving or stacks here in the house or in the garage. As you know, have enough books to spend and hour looking and not find it. Whether successful now or later, with passages like that, it deserves dusting off and allowing the words to sing again in a reader's head.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America