I am going to talk about Alfred Kazin’s last book, “God and the American Writer,” because he told me, after I heard him lecture on the subject when we were attending a writer’s conference in Moscow, that it would be his ultimate statement about American letters. It was not that he thought that writers in other countries had less concerns about God. It was that the relationship with a deity, adored or denied, reverenced or mocked, had been for American practitioners of the written word, a more searing, a more tortured, even a more nagging experience. And this was presumably also true of Alfred himself, for he was the quintessential American writer.
We were a nation settled, except for the native Indians, entirely by Immigration. God, or the image of God, had to have been in the mind of the newcomers from the first landings. For it was a new world, a new Eden, a new trial, a second chance for mankind, a kind of afterlife, a new Heaven, a new Hell, God’s country.
Of course, the puritans brought Calvinism with them. Witches were hanged in Salem, nineteen of them, and one man pressed to death, but America is still vocally ashamed of this, though no country in Europe, where witches were not hanged but burned alive, and by the thousands, gives it a second thought. Which of course has its own relevance to America and religion. We reveled gloomily in guilt. Johnathan Edwards insisted that even children were not exempt from hell fire, and his disciple, Samuel Hopkins, affirmed that the willingness to be damned for the glory of God was the test of true regeneration.
Alfred in this wonderful book takes us through every variation on his central theme. As he states, he is not so much interested in the artist’s profession of belief as he is in the imagination that the artist brings to his tale of religion in human affairs. Emerson declared his central doctrine to be the infinitude of the private mind; he began as a religion but ended as literature. And while seventeenth century Massachusetts was controlled by religion and Mississippi is still deep in it, neither Hawthorne nor Faulkner, for all their obsessive interest in the subject, was personally a believer. Edmund Wilson, a descendant of the Mathers who approved the Salem witch hunts, stated: “We must simply live without religion,” yet it was he who popularized our knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Emily Dickinson treated God casually. In one poem she wrote: “Of course I prayed / And did God Care? / He cared as much as on the air / A bird had stamped her foot / And cried—’Give me.'” As Alfred puts it, “she did not write to mollify God, to ward off evil; she wrote because she and she alone could find in religion the adventures of her utterly independent, endlessly speculative soul.”
Abraham Lincoln seems to have been turned from agnosticism to a kind of faith by the hideous stress of war. After pointing out, at the end of the conflict, that both sides had invoked the deity, he concluded: “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The almighty has his own purposes.”
And for William James religion had replaced God. “As the Son became far more real than the Father, so religion is forever real, especially to those for whom God is not.”
One of Alfred’s last speakers is Hemingway. Lady Brett in “The Sun Also Rises” tells Jake that deciding not to be a bitch makes her feel good, that it’s “sort of what we have instead of God.” He replies: Some people have God. Quite a lot.”
Alfred was far from thinking that the loss of the deity was a fatal one. He suggests that the mockery in the nineteen twenties and thirties of the old time religion in H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Thorsten Veblen, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Parker, and Ezra Pound may have been the mark of a second American enlightenment. But in a foreword to this book dated October 3, 1996 he is more skeptical. What does it mean, he asks, now in America “where the great majority go to church, synagogue, and mosque, where many confess to believe in the devil, where fundamentalists have captured the Republican Party South and West, where every attempt is being made to brook no separation between church and state?” It means, he warns us gravely, that “a political, intolerant, and paranoid religion, always crowing of its popularity, is too public and aims to coerce the rest of us.”
And he ends his book on this ringing note: “The individual [in America] on his way to becoming a writer was all too conscious that it was his ancestral sect, his early training, his own holiness in the eyes of his church that he brought to his writing. He became its apostle without ever having to believe in it, in anything—except the unlimited freedom that is the usual American faith.”