Arts & Culture

The Resurrection of Seymour Krim

The literary outlaw isn’t the same romantic figure as Bonnie & Clyde, Johnny Cash or Billy the Kid.  People like Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Terry Southern aren’t folk heros in the eyes of the public — they’re simply writers.  … Read More

By / June 28, 2010

The literary outlaw isn’t the same romantic figure as Bonnie & Clyde, Johnny Cash or Billy the Kid.  People like Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Terry Southern aren’t folk heros in the eyes of the public — they’re simply writers. 

But at least Didion, Mailer and Southern’s work gained an audience, and their careers could be looked at as successful.  Seymour Krim is a different story.  Krim is a figure whose name seems to be forgotton when writers of his generation (Roth, Bellow and Mailer) are mentioned, but whose work was just as vital and just as edgy.

Mark Cohen is trying to right that wrong, and recently edited Missing a Beat: The Rants and Raves of Seymour Krim (Syracuse Press). 

What initially drew you to Seymour Krim?

What drew me to Krim was a dark spot in my own make-up that Krim spoke up for. Sometimes I just don’t feel like being big about it, whatever it might be, and I want to rant and make it clear that I’m right and they’re wrong, period. But what kept me attached to Krim was his ability to direct that anger at himself and, through the magical act of reading, myself. And then on the other hand, sometimes Krim is right. His attack against the Greenwich Village hep cats of the late 50’s who emulated black life and slang because it was so cool, baby, deserved the slap across the face that Krim delivered. I guess, finally, I saw something in Krim that I saw in my greatest literary love, Saul Bellow. There’s a yearning for direction, a sense of the strangeness of life, and a moral insistence that, sure, can be petulant and nagging, but someone’s got to remind us that we’re not what we think we are or should be. Because what the hell are we, really? Are we so hot? I was very glad, by the way, to discover that Bellow published a key Krim essay in 1960 and again 40 years later in a "best of" collection.  Where is Krim’s place in the landscape of American literature?  Right now Krim’s place on the landscape of American lit is right under that offshore rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. He is off the map. Underground is big time compared to his position. But if we made a Candy Land map of the American literary scene I would not put Krim between Kerouac Canal and Mailer Mountain. Krim is a non-fiction Saul Bellow. His article about the poet Milton Klonsky is Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift in 30 pages. His cynical alter-ego in "Making It!" is the voice of Bellow’s Reality Instructors. Krim was drawn to the exciting postwar American scene and its language and energy and the Jewish poets and bullshit artists and makeout artists that lit up New York. But he also had a 1930s soul, a Depression soul, and also a depression soul, and some of his pieces deliver a sadness overdose that you only find in forgotten Thirties writers like Daniel Fuchs and the great but unbearable stuff from Charles Reznikoff. Which is to say that Krim was one of those talented sui generis cranks who doesn’t play well with others.

Do you think that there’s anybody who’s picked up where Krim left off?  Is there anybody today that’s delivering a slap to people the same way Krim did? 

Has anyone followed in Krim’s footsteps? Well, I haven’t read Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, but if the Times can be trusted Krim could be the real-life model of Lipsyte’s "unlikeable, lovable protagonists" who are the "self-loathing, mediocre secret geniuses who can set our people free."

In fact, the current moment is probably more hospitable to Krim than his own time. During the 1950s and 1960s, for Krim’s generation (not the boomers), there was little doubt that fame and monetary success were achievable and great and Krim’s Jeremiah routine was not going to win him any friends. But in our post-stock market/housing market collapse and the fading of the idea of instant riches for everybody the loser anti-hero, such as the one that Lipsyte apparently created, has great appeal. I think a great many people are asking themselves, what now? What will be my American dream, now that I didn’t turn out to be the founder of Google or a great author or whatever. In other words, people are looking for someone to defend ordinary life (a hated concept in America). I was reading a 1960 James Baldwin essay the other day and he wrote, "the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement." Quite right, and Baldwin a year later praised Krim mightily. So, Lipsyte’s The Ask, and Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament, which is probably closer to the mark because it’s nonfiction, are Krimian. We’ll probably see more of it. 

What was the process for putting this book together?  Did you select specific pieces and decided they were the ones that would represent Krim?  Were there any pieces you regret not including?

I had a clear two-fold point of view for the book. First, that Krim has been excluded from Beat anthologies because of the abundant Jewish material in his essays and, secondly, to argue that Jewish studies department should include Krim on Jewish American literature and Jewish American culture reading lists. His work is good enough to merit consideration as literature, which too heavily focuses on fiction. And his work illuminates many of the themes of Jewish American postwar life, so sociologists and historians should also read him. 

With this in mind I reviewed all his published works, which includes three essay collections published during his lifetime and one posthumous collection. I also reviewed uncollected published essays held in the Seymour Krim Papers archive at the University of Iowa, and also his unpublished manuscripts there. There was no problem finding enough Krim work with strong Jewish content. It’s everywhere in his work. And the great realization was that I would not need to make difficult choices about including lesser pieces because they are more Jewish or dropping great pieces because they have no Jewish content. The overlap between the best pieces and the Jewish pieces was nearly complete.

But I also wanted to give the reader a way of making sense of the collection beyond the Jewish issue, so I arranged the book into four sections devoted to different topics: Intellectuals, Whites and Blacks, Success and Failure, and Jews. Several of the essays in the Intellectual section contain explicit and provocative Jewish material, and the same is true for his essays on Whites and Blacks and Success and Failure. As I said, the Jewish issue is everywhere. The difference is that in the Jews section the essays are about Jewish identity, whereas the other essays explore Jewish issues to illuminate other topics.

One essay I probably should have included was his 1959 Revolt of the Homosexual, which ran in the Village Voice. It is structured as a debate between a gay and straight guy and each brings up the experience of the Jews to support their points. It is a very Jewish essay. 

Do you think you’ve done Mr. Krim a service by editing this book?

Well, yeah, I think I have. There is still touchiness in some quarters about the Jewish writer label and not everyone was crazy about my plan to call Krim a Jewish writer. But Krim wouldn’t have had a problem with it. In his great anti-intellectual rant, What’s This Cat’s Story? he recalls that someone called him a Jewish intellectual. What bothered him about it was the intellectual part, not the Jewish part. He wished that his friend had called him a Jewish writer instead. 

But Krim is dead, and so there’s a limit to what anyone can do for him. I was more focused on serving readers like myself who turn to literature not merely for entertainment but as a kind of emotional oil rig that drills way down inside us until it hits the valuable material buried there, under tons of pressure, and releases it in a gusher of feeling. That’s the service Krim does for us. He releases that underground pressure. But the resulting spill doesn’t have to be cleaned up. It isn’t toxic. It’s good for you.