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Stanford judges award Alfred Kazin lifetime achievement award

STANFORD -- Alfred Kazin, one of the greats of American letters, received the first lifetime Achievement Award in Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin on Jan. 9, as more than 100 authors and celebrities braved the blizzard of the century to cheer his success at a New York gala.

Presenting the award, which comes with a $100,000 prize, were Alan Schwartz, executor of the Truman Capote Literary Trust, and Elizabeth Tallent, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program, which was chosen by the Capote trust to administer the award and choose the recipient.

"I'm 80 years old and every little morsel of recognition is appreciated, so I'm very pleased with the award," Kazin said in a telephone interview from his home in New York.

"I've always felt, and often said, that critics never win anything. I've gotten the usual fellowships and such, but this is the first prize of any monetary significance - and I think of even more academic significance."

Kazin said he had "the most nostalgic, happy memories" of Stanford, where he was a visiting fellow in 1977-78, and where his son Michael, a professor at American University, earned his doctorate in American history.

Although he has been hospitalized and undergone two operations in recent months, Kazin said the morning of his award banquet dawned brighter than usual.

"It's a beautiful day and the sun is finally shining, so I feel very lucky. The only thing wrong now is the damn snow."

The Stanford Creative Writing Program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was selected by the Capote trust to administer the award, and three Stanford faculty members judged the six nominated critics. Judges were Tallent; John L'Heureux, novelist,
short-story writer and professor of English; and Paul Robinson, literary critic, cultural historian and professor of history.

"There are critics of sympathy and critics who take a more skeptical approach," Tallent said of Kazin's work. "While he expresses his reservations, you feel that his preference is to write from affection, and that his best criticism is grounded in a really rapt affection."

Unlike the Nobel or Pulitzer prizes, which are awarded for single literary works, the prize given to Kazin celebrates his lifetime work in literary criticism.

"When you look at the body of Kazin's work, the wide range of intelligence of the man and the incredible literary empathy he brings to everyone he reads, it's clear that he, above all others, should receive this prize," L'Heureux said.

Robinson noted that Kazin had almost single-handedly defined and charted the field of modern American literary studies.

"As the heir to the tradition of Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, Kazin writes what I would call appreciative criticism," Robinson said. "He's very much interested in the political sensibility of the writer, but his criticism is not aimed at deconstructing the literary artifact to show its underlying political or ideological structure.

"Instead, his criticism is fundamentally literary in its orientation, and he's a man who is intensely excited by literature and endlessly surprised by it."

The Truman Capote Literary Trust was established by the author in his will and is funded by his posthumous royalties. The achievement award is given in memory of Newton Arvin, a close friend of Capote's and a scholar who is best known for his writings on Melville and Hawthorne. In 1960 Arvin was retired from his position at Smith College after he was arrested by state police and charged with possession for exhibit of obscene materials. Although Arvin was found guilty by a district court and did not appeal the verdict, Capote sought to redress what he considered a wrong to his friend in his will.

The Capote trust chose Stanford to select the recipient of the lifetime achievement award, which will be presented every four years. The Iowa Writers Workshop was chosen to administer a $25,000 prize that will be awarded annually for a single work of literary criticism.

"The trust was very specific in wanting the Writing Program to administer the award, rather than an English department or a humanities center," L'Heureux said. "The idea was that it is literary criticism, rather than a theoretical approach, that does something to enhance literature."

The Capote trust also provides Stanford with two Truman Capote Fellowships in Creative Writing that are given to one poet and one fiction writer each year.

The three Stanford judges began meeting two years ago to select a panel of writers and editors who recommended candidates for the lifetime achievement award. Panelists were Sven Birkerts, Jorie Graham, Wendy Lesser, Luke Menand and Thom Gunn. The faculty members then read the body of work of the six nominated critics, and unanimously chose Kazin.

The Capote trust had stipulated that the award be given to celebrate "a body of work that reflects those ancient virtues of the best literary criticism: intelligence, insight, sympathetic imagination, illumination, the love and propagation of literature that opens the possibility for human growth and understanding."

Widely regarded as a pioneer in establishing modern American literature as a field of literary criticism, Kazin published On Native Grounds in 1942, when he was only 26 years old. He examined the work of writers from around the world in Contemporaries, published in 1962, and addressed American novelists in his 1973 work, Bright Book of Life. He also is the author of four books of memoirs, A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, New York Jew and Writing Was Everything.

"Kazin is someone you encounter very early on in your literary education," Tallent said. "There were different books of his that were important to me at different times in my life, but the thing I loved best this time was the writing he did about his own contemporaries.

"I think I've read everything that's been written about short stories, and the thinking he did about the short story form was very impressive and very beautifully written. He's just a great 'read.' "



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