A Walker in the City Summary

Alfred Kazin

A Walker in the City

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A Walker in the City Summary

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A Walker in the City is the 1951 autobiography of American Jewish author Alfred Kazin. A survivor of some of the most trying moments of the Great Depression, Kazin writes primarily about his time growing up in a small suburb during those years, and his youth before the Great Depression hit. Kazin’s family members were ostracized by most of their neighbors for being Jewish and intellectual—aspects that became more and more taboo in the years leading up to and through World War II. Kazin meditates on questions of belonging, showing how his experiences of alienation and poverty contributed to his identity and life path.

The autobiography begins later in Kazin’s life, when he returned to Brownsville, his childhood suburb, outside New York City. Returning with a whole life behind him, he perceived the suburb and its banalities and eerie sameness more wisely. He remarks that he was an outsider as a child, even before he had the words and concepts with which to fully realize it. Kazin continues to think of the suburb as a transient place, where people stay for a while only because they intend to leave it to enter the “real world”: Kazin, at the time of writing the biography, is ambivalent about whether there exists such a place.

Kazin considers his childhood. His poor, Jewish upbringing engendered in him a yearning for a world, not only physical and social, but also spiritual, moral, and intellectual, outside the narrow boundaries of Brownsville. He attended a Christian school and was one of the only Jews. The order and philosophy of his educational environment always seemed stranger to him than it did to his peers. He did not resonate with the teachings of the Christian church he was made to attend, and he struggled with a speech impediment. His intellectual life, partly as a consequence of his desire to retreat from the parts of the world that were hostile to him, was aspirational and deep. He was drawn to Socialist ideologies early on for its messages of liberty and equality.

The second part delves deeper into the psyches of Kazin’s family members and their relationships with each other. The heart of the Kazin household was always the kitchen: there, he came to know his mother best and interacted with guests. As he grew older and began to desire women, he eroticized his mother’s female friends due partly to their stories of the lives in Europe they had left when they immigrated to the United States. Their stories resonated with his own feelings of alienation, instilling in him a deep belief that though many people make the most of what they have, their “real” lives often exist abandoned or relinquished, elsewhere.

The third part of the autobiography is a meditation on Brownsville and the emotions it stirred in Kazin. He focuses on his experiences as a precocious Jewish kid who observed the hypocrisy of people who claimed to be faithful to their religion. This hypocrisy led Kazin to be distrustful of organized religion as a whole. He found refuge in the arts and humanities, frequenting museums and galleries. When he was old enough to get around by himself, he often took trips into the city to explore. The inner lives suggested by artwork and artifacts convinced Kazin that artists and thinkers had more meaningful experiences and thoughts than suburbanites who blindly followed religious texts.

The last section of the memoir considers the year when Kazin was sixteen. That year, he first read the Christian New Testament and began to consider Christianity more deeply. Though it caused him to recognize value and beauty in the religion, he remained a religious skeptic. The book ends with Kazin’s memory of a day he walked on the border of Brownsville. In the distance, he saw the skyline of New York City. The experience of seeing, simultaneously, the two worlds he ricocheted between and was so ambivalent about belonging to, caused him to realize that there was never a life “beyond” his own. Rather, over his life, he learned to integrate these dissimilar worlds into his identity, and in doing so, opened up a whole array of new possible futures.

A Walker in the City presents a conception of individual spirituality focused on the cultivation of identity through intellectual and open engagement with new, sometimes troubling experiences.