The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 14 March 2007

A Walker in the City

by Alfred Kazin

This is a beautifully-rendered memoir about one man's childhood in the remote regions of Brooklyn in the early part of the last century. The author was born in 1915, at a time when old farmhouses and large tracts of open land could still be found in what is now, more or less, the middle of Brooklyn. He lived in a tenement, in a row of tenement houses, but there were decaying farmhouses just across the street. The neighborhood, once the town of Brownsville, was inhabited by Jewish (many of them Russian) immigrants settling in America in the classic tale of the immigrant family seeking a better life for their children. The book was written in 1951, when Kazin was just 36. One could argue that we could be nostalgic for Brooklyn in the 50s, let alone for the 20s and depression years of which he writes. Kazin's writing is lyrical and fluid, though dense, making this small book a slow read. But his imagery, the nostalgic attention to the details of which a young boy is acutely aware, and the population of the stories with the characters of his youth, make this a compelling book. There is a young man's dreamy quality, taking in the landscape as he begins to wander more and more widely from his home. He sees the glittering towers of Manhattan, miles away, and envisions his own future. He loves the libraries where he discovers the whole wide world. He explores his religious heritage and inclinations. And he remenisces about the sights and smells of the long languid summers on his tenement block. Throughout, without sounding too sugary sweet, Kazin conveys a deep nosalgia and attention to physical detail. Perhaps the very prototype for the mid-century memoir of an urban childhood.

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See Also: [Downtown by Pete Hamill]