Vivian Gornick in The Nation:
In New York Jew, published in 1978, Alfred Kazin recalled that the “twin reading rooms” of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street “gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers…. I was hungry for it all, hungry all the time. I was made so restless by the many minds within my reach that no matter how often I rushed across to the Automat for another bun and coffee…I could never get back to my books and notes…without the same hunger pains tearing me inside.”
What, exactly, was the “it” that the 22-year-old Kazin was so hungry for, sitting in the library in 1938? It was the English language. Not the American, the English. He was mad to read it, and also to write it, teach it, interpret it; to swallow it whole; to possess and be possessed by it. This was the “powerful amenity” he craved for his own life. Immigrant Jews who had fallen in love with English had been sitting in public libraries in New York since the 1880s, and many of them had longed to be intimates of the language in exactly the same way; but at the turn of the 20th century, to think of the language as anything other than a means to an end would have meant that you had climbed the ladder of acculturation three steps at a time. It wasn’t until the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, that this longing had begun to articulate itself with some real, rather than fantasy-ridden, hope of fulfillment. The first generation of college-educated Jews, born in America around 1914, was itself only half-in, half-out; but the hybrid experience alone allowed for their consideration of the exotic notion that English as a destiny might be seen as something other than utopian.