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Sitting on the marble steps of the old, traditional American church, I began to feel cold. Two oriental lions, carved out of old white marble, surrounded me. Their faces were mean, and they seemed to be staring at something. As the beasts remained perfectly still, tiny creatures – black ants and brown bugs –very busily walked on their backs.
As I looked around from my cold spot on the step, I could see an old, brick house. This house was like none other on the block. With a large American flag hanging on the door, this house – a symbol of the American dream – stood taller than all the other houses. My attention then shifted to two great big evergreen trees on each facade, and the beautiful bed of flowers, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, wrapped tightly around the base of the house – the tracings of an American summer.
There was a light through the upstairs’ window of the house. I could see a mother sitting with her baby son. Although all I could hear were the many crickets singing softly in the night, I knew that the loving mother was telling a bedtime story to her sweet and sleepy child.
My America is a very beautiful place, not only because of the big cities, tall buildings, stone statues, and pretty flowers, but also because of the people who make America what it is today. Knowing within every blue, black, brown, green, and gray eye you see on the streets of America – and like me, every window you look through – there are stories, hopes and even dreams, this thought brings me the greatest pleasure, as it did Alfred Kazin. Kazin’s greatest pleasure came looking at the many historical landmarks that New York had to offer and thinking of the many people who struggled to make those astonishing contributions.
In “Summer: The Way to Highland Park” (1951), Kazin takes us into his childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, describing his America with such tactile distinction that we too can “taste the damp sweetness of Italian cheese” and “see the clumps of red and brown meat dripping off [the] sausage rings” (Kazin 332). “You cannot grow up in that kind of environment, without absorbing and re-expressing a fantastically physical world,” states Kazin in an National Public Radio news recording.
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Walking through the streets of New York deepened Kazin’s feelings for American literature, painting, and especially history. Kazin discovered in reading “the road map to a freer territory” (Smith). “ I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville” (Kazin 335). Exploring this new territory, much like the explorers in the past who would go west in search of gold, and open space, new territory and the “promised land,” Kazin was doing the same thing metaphorically. He wanted to leave his immigrant identity behind. He read to find the new territory where he could claim a new identity. Kazin was looking for this promised land in reading.
Of Kazin’s many readings, he mentions The Brown Decades by Lewis Mumford. “The Brown Decades were created by the brown spectacles that every sensitive mind wore, the sign of renounced ambitions, and defeated hopes; the inner world colored the outer world. The mood was sometimes less tragic; but at bottom, it was not happy” (Mumford 7). Kazin makes reference to many of the historical figures in this book. He mentions John August Roebling, whom Mumford describes as the creator of the Brooklyn Bridge – not only the finest quality of construction the “nineteenth century” is able to present universally, but possibly, the most entirely adequate building that emerged in America–Thomas Eakins – a reflection of the Brown decades whose “infinite curiosity, patience and exacting sense of workmanship” directed him to be classed among the finest artists in his decade–and Emily Dickinson, whose existence and works were merely acknowledged by a small population in the course of the Brown Decades, unveiling, with a generally ideal and delicate standard, her poems of: “the subtle ironic tragedy that underlies human relationship” (Mumford 97, 211, 212, 26). These are just a few of the great contributors, which Kazin developed a close and loving image of.
It was Kazin’s desire to learn that drove him to the library every evening. Walking became his way of gaining awareness of his America. Reading became a way of finding himself in his place of isolation. In Kazin’s eyes, this was “America” (“everything just outside of Brownsville”[Kazin 335]) whose glamorous institutions – the New York Public Library, or the Brooklyn Bridge – spoke of an American past that this son of Jewish immigrants was determined to make his own.
Gladestone, Brooke. “The Life and Times of the Prominent Literary Critic.” All Things Considered. Natl. Public Radio. 5 June 1998.
Kazin, Alfred. “Summer: The Way to Highland Park.” Inventing America: Readings in Identity and Culture. Ed. Gabriella Ibieta and Miles Orvell. New York: St. Martins, 1996. 330 – 35.
Mumford, Lewis. The Brown Decades: A Study of The Arts In America. 1895. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.
Smith, Wendy. Rev. of A Walker in the City, by Alfred Kazin. Nov. 2000 <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0156941767/qid=975687829/sr=1-1/107-4587164-3534156>.