Monday, September 21, 2009

Back to School Special, Part II

Exhaulted literary critic Alfred Kazin grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1910s and 20s. The neighborhood then was a working-class, mostly Jewish place, full of row houses and tenement buildings. Kazin documents his early life in A Walker in the City, published in 1951.

Brownsville, Brooklyn: A general view across the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. About 1920. Eugene L. Armbruster Collection, NYPL.

Of special interest to us are his ruminations on how education was tied to success and Americanization. The son of immigrants, Kazin felt, even as a child, the pressure to represent his parents in this strange new world.

Here's an excerpt from A Walker in the City:

When I passed the school, I went sick with all my old fear of it. ...I felt as if I had been mustered back into the service of those Friday morning "tests" that were the terror of my childhood.

It was never learning I associated with that school: only the necessity to succeed, to get ahead of the others in the daily struggle to "make a good impression" on our teachers, who grimly, wearily, and often with ill-concealed distaste watched against our relapsing into the natural savagery they expected of Brownsville boys...

It was not just our quickness and memory that were always being tested. Above all, was our character. I always felt anxious, when I heard the word pronounced. ...Character was never something you had; it had to be trained in you, like a technique. I was never very clear about it. On our side character meant demonstrative obedience.

I was awed by this system, I believed in it, I respected its force...

I worked on a hairline between triumph and catastrophe. Why the odds should always have felt so narrow I understood only when I realized how little my parents thought of their own lives.

It was not for myself alone that I was expected to shine, but for them - to redeem the constant anxiety of their existence. I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being — what they were. And that there was shame in this was a fact that everyone seemed to believe as a matter of course...

It was in the sickening invocation of “Americanization,” the word itself accusing us of everything we apparently were not.

- Posted by Kate Stober

1 comment:

  1. Wow. This was a great post -- glad I finally found it. Thank you!


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