Interview: Mark Cohen on the Beats and why Seymour Krim Matters

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
July 26, 2010

Seymour Krim was one of the most distinctive critics and essayists of mid-20 century New York City, as well as one of the must unjustifiably forgotten. In his decades-long career, Krim mixed with the New York Intellectuals of the 1940s, the Beats of the ‘50s, and the New Journalists in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But Krim was always more of his own writer than a movement man, and though he made important contributions to each group, he didn’t fully belong to any of them.

Born in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan in 1922, Krim was orphaned by the age of 10, an event that had a significant psychological impact on the rest of his life. After attending the University of North Carolina for one year Krim moved back to New York, where he broke into the pages of highbrow magazines writing polite pieces of literary criticism. After suffering a mental breakdown in the mid-1950s he changed his style drastically, adopting an all-out confessional voice to discuss such sensitive issues as race, homosexuality, insanity and suicide.

Though his writing has been unfairly neglected since his death in 1989, a new collection of essays selected by Mark Cohen and published by Syracuse University Press, “Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim,” aims to bring Krim back into the public consciousness. In his introductions the collection, as in his 2007 essay on Krim for ZEEK, Cohen argues that Krim was not just a prescient social critic, but also a Jewish American writer along the same lines as Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. In this interview, ZEEK books editor Ezra Glinter talks to Cohen about such Krimian subjects as the state of American Jewish studies, Black-Jewish relations, and his favorite Krim sentence of all time. –Ezra Glinter

ZEEK: So how did you first discover Seymour Krim?

Cohen: I was on upper Broadway in New York where there were these tabletop bookseller guys. There was one particular sad sack bookseller up near Columbia University with a card table and really just a handful of books, and there was a first edition of Krim’s “Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer.” It came out in 1961 in a very flimsy little paperback, was reissued in 1968, but this was the 1961 version and it had that black and white photo of Krim kneeling behind the cannon, and the list of topics written down the left hand side of the cover: Jews Negros, Sex, Suicide and so forth. I thought it was worth a dollar. And I read [the essay] “Making It” and I was knocked out. I said, who the hell is this? And that started it.

Zeek: What was it that attracted you so much to Krim’s writing?

I’m really interested in modern Jewish culture and literature, so by the time I discovered Krim I was reading and writing about Bellow and other aspects of Jewish American literature for a long time, And the second I read Krim I said, this guy’s voice, this voice is what made me fall in love with Saul Bellow, it’s the same wonderful Jewish American voice that Bellow made a complete revolution in American literature by channeling, and I found it in Krim as well. And I was also pleased to find a Krim-Bellow overlap, because Bellow published one of Krim’s essays in his own journal called The Nobel Savage back in the 1960s.

Zeek: Did you decide right away that you were going to help get Krim’s work back into the public eye?

Well, for years I didn’t really know what to do about it. I got all of his out-of-print books through Internet booksellers. I read everything he wrote. I saw that a lot of his work was uneven, not every word was a gem. There were a lot of essays that really didn’t stand up to the test of time. But there were enough that did. And of course I was fortunate not to bring any baggage to it. When I spoke with and interviewed people who knew him, family, people who worked with him, there were a lot of essays that I enjoyed just for the pure thrill of them as a piece of writing, while others who knew him couldn’t look at them objectively because they knew what these essays meant to Krim’s career. And I’m thinking particularly of “Normal Mailer Get Out of My Head,” which Krim published in 1969 in New York Magazine, which was then a center of New Journalism. And I think the essay’s terrific. I think it’s a terrific exploration of fame and envy among writers and a really honest exploration of Krim’s struggle to resist the Sirens. I think it’s a terrific, exciting, fun piece of writing.

Zeek: So how did this new collection come about?

At the beginning of 2007 I read an article that talked about the fact that it was going to be the 50th anniversary of “On the Road,” and I thought to myself, this is an opportunity to talk about Krim, because he is the missing Beat. He edited the landmark Beat anthology, but all the recent anthologies, and there’ve been a slew of them, he’s been left out consistently from every single one of them. It’s more than just an accident or an oversight. There’s an unspoken agreement that he simply didn’t belong in these collections and I thought it was a shame for him to be forgotten, and so I wrote the piece that appeared in Zeek in 2007, arguing that he should be adopted in Jewish Studies Departments. And then I put together a book proposal and sent it out to university presses, and here we are.

Zeek: Why do you think Krim has been forgotten and neglected?

I do think that as far as the Beat anthologies are concerned, given the change in the cultural climate with the explosion in multicultural studies and the role of ethnicity in our literature, it’s impossible to read Krim today and not see the amount of Jewish content in his work. And I think that’s had something to do with it. And I don’t consider that antisemitism, I think it’s a matter of what the people call periodization. For the purposes of teaching and careers and literary history there has to be people who are in and people who are out. And that’s fine. I actually agree that he’s less a Beat writer than a Jewish American writer. My argument was that he shouldn’t be forgotten, so where does he fit in?

Zeek: And you would say he fits in the field of Jewish American literature.

I had a long autodidactic education in Jewish American literature and culture, and I thought, well, there’s no way this guy doesn’t belong. And it really is amazing that he’s been so completely overlooked. The explosion in Jewish cultural studies has allowed people to write on every conceivable aspect of Jewish American life and culture. There are serious articles about Betty Boop cartoons, about Barbie dolls, about everything you can imagine and the role that Jews had in creating them, so his MIA status is really extraordinary.

Zeek: So why do you think he’s been left out of that tradition?

I think two things: First of all Krim was writing nonfiction, and the Jewish American scene was associated with fiction, and to a lesser extent poetry. To a much, much lesser extent with nonfiction. I think there’s still a hesitancy to include nonfiction and to know what to make of it, so I think that’s one reason that he’s been left out. And I think the Beat writers are themselves looked at with suspicion and looked askance upon by the academy. I don’t think it’s well covered or well taught or respected. And look, is “On the Road” a great novel? That’s debatable. There might be some good reason why the Beats aren’t looked at all that kindly. But there comes a moment in any reader’s life where you pick something up and you have to trust your taste. And if you trust your taste, and you like it, then you have to have the guts to admit to yourself that you like it and to argue for it. And that’s where I found myself with Krim. I wasn’t going to second guess myself or be embarrassed by my taste.

Zeek: Speaking of taste, how did you go about selecting the pieces for this book?

I made sure that I read everything and reread everything that he published in his three books. Then, his papers are held are the University of Iowa because he taught writing there. And they have a very, very comprehensive online index of every article, and I requested many articles from them. And from those archives I found stories that I was not familiar with, like “Sitting Shiva for Henry Miller,” and the New York Times article about Menachem Begin, and the article that was unpublished anywhere which was called “Black English or the Motherfucker Culture,” which I felt was very important to publish because he wrote bravely and insightfully about Black American life. He was praised for what he wrote by James Baldwin when Baldwin reviewed his first book in the pages of the Village Voice, and I thought it was an important piece and because the study of Jewish-Black relations is such an enormous part of Jewish cultural studies, and I thought that was another thing to consider when making a judgment of Krim’s importance in Jewish American literature and culture. He was attracted to the subjects that attracted Jewish American writers, and one of those subjects was Jewish-Black relations, or Black life itself. It brought out the differences that they felt from the Black community and of course their affinities as well. So it was a very provocative subject for Jews to write about and it interested them terribly and it also interested Krim enormously.

Zeek: Why was that particular piece never published?

I think part of the answer is that Krim probably never finished it to his satisfaction. The version that appears in the book is a version edited by myself. I worked for weeks on it to make a coherent argument that included everything I could find that he had written that seemed to be of a piece with the major argument. So I didn’t try to make the article more inflammatory than it was, and I didn’t want to clean it up, I just wanted to make it comprehensible and readable. So I don’t think he ever finished it, but he worked on it really hard, it wasn’t something that he tossed off and forgot about. He worked on it and kept working on it trying to get it into shape, and it was something that he felt very, very strongly about it. And there’s one sentence in that essay that is one of the greatest sentences I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece of writing, and it’s absolutely just phenomenal, and I read it again and again just for the writing. For me it’s Henry Milleresque, it’s Bellowesque, its just extraordinary. Here it is:

I accept this is true, but at the same time as a user and lover of our common language I protest as much as anyone the self-indulgence of its wallowing, the attack on my standards and privacy, the unwanted bath in street-corner biology, the unasked-for intimacy that the user’s imagery creates, the nerve, the chutzpah, presumption, contempt with which my ear is used as a free toilet bowl by some cunt-struck black cat who wants to impose his sadomasochistic fantasies on the world, thinking that by yoking them to a clenched fist he has the right to smear my head with ignorance, obsession, the meat-view of life, hammering down every nuance and creative possibility into a monotone of one-syllable appetite and force.

You don’t write a sentence like that if you’re not absolutely engaged with every fiber of your being with what you’re writing. And that’s the great, great gifts that I think the reader gets from Krim – it’s the immediacy, the one-to-one communication, of being gripped by the writer – it’s the basis of what literature is all about.

Zeek: How do you think Krim’s writing has aged, especially when it comes to the subjects of race, and race relations?

I don’t think it’s aged or become antique or obsolete, I challenge any white middle class reader to say he’s a racist. I think reading it today I don’t see a racist, and I hope people don’t resort to that charge, I think it’s untrue. But I feel so fortunate to have James Baldwin’s words to defend Krim, because he needed defending, even in his own time. Krim was willing in all his writing, not just about Black life, to be pilloried. To be thrown rocks at. I guess he was tremendously affected by his own crack-up in 1955 and he had lost his normal fear, and he was willing to do and say things that other people are just not going to say or do, they’re just too darn risky. And even to trust yourself that you’re not giving in to some weird part of yourself that shouldn’t be fed and petted. But he was willing to own up to the whole man of who he was. That was what Krim was doing in all of his pieces, trying to live a true human existence. Who are you? – Be it. It’s not good enough? Too bad.

Zeek: Do you think this collection will help bring Krim back into the spotlight?

Honestly, I hope it will, but it’s a small event, not a major event. What I think it has a shot of doing is attracting the attention of people who teach in universities, who teach Jewish American literature, people who teach journalism, people who teach courses in the personal essay. Anyone who’s teaching works of Vivan Gornick or Normal Mailer or — I don’t know if anyone teaches the work of A.J. Liebling, they should — or the novels of Bellow and others. Anyone who teaches about Black-Jewish relations, anyone who talks about bohemia and the Beats and life in the Village in the ‘50s. I think there’s a number of other areas that Krim sheds light on, and I hope that people in universities whose job it is to teach these areas will consider including Krim. I think he’s a dissident voice in all of all of these areas.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by