Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
Missing a Beat: The Rants and Raves of Seymour Krim
By Seymour Krim
Ed. Mark Cohen (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010)
Review by Jim Feast
Although I can’t say much for the writing, which is repetitive, shallow and windily overblown (along with being sometimes being abrasively sexist), I can’t say enough to recommend this reissued book of essays by Seymour Krim, Missing a Beat, as a profound documentation of the mentalities of the New York City literary milieu from the 1940s to the 1970s, something nearly on par with Cowley’s Exile’s Return of the previous era.
Even here, though, we have to be careful. I’m not saying his judgments on writers, of which the book is filled, are particularly accurate. Far from it. For instance, in talking about Jewish writers of the time, he heaps all his praise on Mailer as the supreme master. Today, I think, few would put Mailer in the same, higher league of Bellow and Heller or even Roth. But that’s hardly central to what Krim’s book accomplishes, which is portraying in a full-bodied, exciting way the intellectual energy of the time.
Does it seem like I’m taking too much away from Krim with this series of backhanded compliments? Before I explain why I think he is significant writer, let me take a little more away from him. The world he depicts is one he strenously questions, but never in a fundamental way.
Let me explain what I mean. The hip literary scene Krim describes is filled with young Turks who obsessively discuss and expiate on, at great length (both in journals, such as Commentary, Partisan Review and the New York Times Book Review, for all of which Krim wrote, and in party/bar conversations) the greats of world literature and thought. But when Krim comes to reflect on it, he feels all this chatter and writing was timed wasted. Not because the greats didn’t merit attention, but that the activity was not done in a search for truth but was simply a game of high-brow one-up-man-ship.
That is certainly a keen observation on Krim’s part, but it does not actually dig into the coterie’s underlying premises. Note this passage, “familiarity with great work was as causally expected of a person as familiarity with the daily paper.” And this: Krim was trying to integrate “the deluge of suggestive, often profound thought.” When I read such passage I was wondering what books and authors he had in mind. Was it Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals? Or Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations?
No, wait he was only talking about fiction writers. What might these books be? Is it an extremely cerebral piece, such as the late James of The Golden Bowl? Or one at the outer edge of the avant garde, such as Beckett’s The Unnameable? No, not at all. It’s such volumes as Studs Lonigan, Native Son, and Sons and Lovers. Huh? These last three novels are all of the highest quality, but hardly works that call for deep intelligence to read.
My point is not to poke fun the pretensions of the in crowd, ones which Krim couldn’t see through – and I’m being a trifle unfair, since the list of greats also contains Kafka, Proust and a few other heavyweights -- but to note a deeper one, an insight that establishes, for me, Krim’s outstanding value.
The New York scene was ruled by a coterie of taste makers whose judgments were on a very unsure footing. Aside from a few exceptions, who were usually emigres, they did not have a wide knowledge of philosophy or letters, though what they did know, they knew thoroughly. Further, what they comprehended was not particularly complex, but they strived mightily to make it seem so. What they set out to provide for the U.S. intellectual strata: Profundity made easy.
Let’s get to the heart of Krim’s argument. What accounts for this distorted intellectual environment? Krim divides the scene he knew into two camps: uptown and outer borough Jews. The Uptown group, who went to Yale, Harvard, and so on, tended to rule the roost, lording it over the second contingent who went to CCNY and other less prestigious campuses. However, the irony was that, in stark contrast to the Uptowners, the CCNY group had truly educated themselves, had read everything (including the Groundwork) and could talk about it. Moreover, in Krim’s more colorful description: “The young Jewish swingers who had gone to CCNY and Brooklyn College … were on the whole much smarter, shrewder, wiser-neurotic, startlingly at home with abstract thought … than their crew-cut counterparts who made it at Princeton or Harvard.”
You can see the problem facing the Uptown elite. They had to shore up their prestige, against the more educated group, and so created a pseudo-intellectual cult around certain “deep thinkers,” with writers such as Joyce and Faulkner on the first tier and Lawrence and Farrell on the next. Though Joyce and his peers were hardly easy reads, they were not brain busters at the level of Husserl or Heidegger. Concocting this list of geniuses allowed the in group to create a formidable (if largely bogus) intellectual milieu to which only those deemed worthy were admitted. Vying for attention and entry to this preserve consumed the energy and vitality of aspiring writers, as Krim charmingly and devastatingly explores. As he put it, to try and fit in with the elite arbiters, he ended up so that “my innocence was raped (willingly) by the obviousness of intellect instead of the subtlety of soul … [for that group to which he fought to enter] over-evaluated abstract articulateness and lured me into imitating its way.”
But there’s a second part to this story, and this is where our own publication, Evergreen Review, and its editor, Barney Rosset, come in.
Krim eventually got fed up with life inside the in-group fishbowl and barreled away from the scene, declaring his independence by writing for the Village Voice, Soho Weekly and Evergreen Review, magazines and papers that were distinctly outside the elite orbit, purveyors of the type of culture he associated with his friend Milt Klonsky, who paradoxically joined a wide-ranging intellectual sweep with an intimate feeling for street life, pairing classical learning with funk. In Krim’s words, “Milt combined the outward toughness of the streets – specifically, the teeming, unprivate be-quick-witted-or-be-suckered streets of the Bronx and later Brooklyn – with a fine, mystical, extraordinarily sophisticated mind.” Klonsky was in the same pattern, in fiction, of Bellow’s Herzog, or, in real life, Rosset.
(As an aside, let me say that, as Krim puts it, in marking the lineage of educated renegades, “Jack Kahane … had the courage to publish the first edition of Tropic of Cancer in Paris, Barney Rosset took up the cudgels from there.”)
Krim is upfront about what drove him to drop out of the in crowd and throw in his lot with the outsiders. In one (vulgar) word: tail. He was introduced to a more exuberant, lively, unashamed life by his frequent (three or four times a week) visits to Harlem, where he went in search of sex.
Inhibited as he was, a shy, bespectacled nerd, he was afraid of women. And when facing those of his own crowd, he was thrown back further into defensive celibacy by the mind games and coquetry (as he saw it) of West Village, hipster women. His solution was to patronize black prostitutes.
He admits this may not be the most ethical or helpful way to gain sexual experience. In fact, in some of the most searchingly cogent passages in the book, he notes that by going to prostitutes, he is contributing to the degradation of blacks, whom, in other contexts, as a progressive, he fights against. He also pens this significant passage on white privilege in general:
[In Harlem] I had a sense of security and well-being precisely because of my color. For the first time in my adult life I felt completely confident and masterful in my relationships with both sexes because society judged me the superior … my Harlem experience made me feel … like a southern white, understanding for the first time the tremendous psychological impregnability of the crackcr … in having an ‘inferior’ class beneath him.
It is this stimulus, contact with a much more visceral and vital world, which brings him to leave the empyrean and write in a down-to-earth, more electric style.
(Another side reflection, as I see it, Rosset was never tempted to go the “respectable” route Krim followed so long, because in his young manhood, Rosset had seen years of action in the Chinese theater during WWII, which disabused him of any idealist cant about life. This made him cleave to writers who told it like it was, be they Genet, Miller or the Kerouac of The Subterraneans. Rosset always seemed to say, “Pretensions be damned.”)
This is not the place to take these reflections further, though Krim in this book does describe trenchantly and well other aspects of the time, such as celebrity worship/envy and Jewish themes. In might be worthwhile, though, in closing to mention the one article in this collection that did appear originally in Evergreen Review, namely, “Epitaph for a Canadian Kike.” In this piece profiling Sam Goodman of the No Art movement (a powerful Dadaist reaction to memories of the holocaust by the Jewish artists), he describes Goodman as a powerful, iconoclastic creator who is also, up close, a decidedly déclassé and obnoxious personality. According to Krim, Goodman is a “smalltime bitching Canadian mockie who was always downgrading the U.S. in the most cowardly fashion, yes, shamelessly lusting for its goodies and then biting, no, shitting all over the hands that fed him.” Though personally put off by Goodman, Krim helps him mount his show, recognizing that it is this type of character that offers the antidote to the hierarchical, over-credentialed, vain and shallow literary circles, which dominated (then and now) the New York intellectual scene, while lacking the flash, grace and solid humanism upheld by players such as Krim, Rosset and Grove Press.