Arts & Culture

A Roundabout way to get to Seymour Krim

Here’s a roundabout way to get to Seymour Krim, the forgotten Jewish Beat writer who was briefly a star in Greenwich Village after his articles on Jews, blacks, success, madness and other touchy topics were collected in his 1961 Views … Read More

By / February 26, 2010

Here’s a roundabout way to get to Seymour Krim, the forgotten Jewish Beat writer who was briefly a star in Greenwich Village after his articles on Jews, blacks, success, madness and other touchy topics were collected in his 1961 Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, which backed up its smartaleck title with a foreword by Norman Mailer.

I was trolling through the web looking for things to get me going when I found a review of The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, a novel about a Jewish gangster, his protégé, and a host of lovable Yiddish-speaking characters set in 1963 Brooklyn. And that made me think of "Wonder Bread," the 2007 American Scholar article by the no-nonsense Melvin Jules Bukiet that fried such novelists for serving up a dream Brooklyn of the past.

Bukiet accused them of a writing crime Krim never committed:

"They’re sheep in wolves’ clothing who manage to write about bad things and make you feel good." 

Bukiet explained what’s wrong with that:

"What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience."

Krim, that’s your cue: let’s hit them with the opening line of your 1969 "Epitaph for a Canadian Kike."  That will set the tone nicely. 

"How much of what I’m going to say about Sam Goodman-yes, Sam, I’m trying to come to terms with you at last, you prick, you enduring pain in the world’s ass!-is "true," actual, the way it really was, and how much is my own anxiety-specked creation I don’t know, ultimately; but if God existed and he wanted a view of Sam on earth (or Sam on concrete since I only knew him in N.Y.), as heaving and personal as anyone else’s protests today, I would tell him what I am about to tell you and, in working it out, myself."    

That’s not the voice of a man who had any trouble admitting that what is, is. Krim can pass Bukiet’s test without studying or cheating. He was a natural.

On the first page of "What’s This Cat’s Story?" Krim’s intellectual autobiography and the lead essay in his debut Cannoneer collection, he announced a writing manifesto that equaled in passion and verve the pledge Saul Bellow had made years earlier on the first page of his first novel. Bellow’s Dangling Man threw over reticence in favor of candor and talking nonstop as if he had "as many mouths as Siva has arms." Krim declared that the essays in his book were "actually grapplings with life, desperate bids for beauty and truth and the slaking of personal need, hot mortal telegrams from writer to reader."

The "slaking of personal need" that marked both writers’ appearance was no coincidence. Both participated in the same post-WWII release in writing of American Jewish energy, imagination, frustration, ambition, and self-definition. And though this Bellow fanatic would never let his enthusiasm for Krim equate their importance, the danger today is underestimating Krim, not overestimating him.

Krim first published his personal, explosive, honest essays in 1957 in the Village Voice, and he credited Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for showing him a way to break free from the polite literary criticism he had been writing for years. Those credentials and signposts allowed Krim to find his first literary home with the Beats. But he’s been evicted. In the 20 years since his death, every Beat anthology has excluded him.

Meanwhile, Krim has retained the Jewish fans he had from the beginning and added more. Mailer’s foreword implicitly identified Krim as a Jewish writer when he hailed him as "the child of our time, he is New York in the middle of the 20th Century, a city man" whose writing exhibited "shifts and shatterings of mood as screeching and true as the grinding of wheels in a subway train." Bellow published Krim’s "What’s This Cat’s Story?" in a 1960 issue of his journal, The Noble Savage. It wasn’t a slip-up. Forty years later the piece reappeared in a collection of the best articles Bellow-the-editor ever published. The novelist and critic Phillip Lopate remains a dedicated supporter, and Vivian Gornick called Krim "a Jewish Joan Didion." She also put Krim’s gut-wrenching essay on winning and losing, "For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business," on her list of The Ten Greatest Essays, Ever.

Part of the reason for this fan club becomes obvious once the Beat-colored glasses come off. Jewishness appears everywhere in Krim’s work.

Mailer fascinated Krim as a "New York Jewish novelist who had crashed out of the parochial" scene into "the splendid chaos of everyone’s U.S.A." Mario Puzo enjoyed an unbroken link with Italian peasant culture while Krim had weakened himself because he "wiped the ancient Hebrew out of myself to become an American." The poet Milton Klonsky was one of those "bitterly slanted and harsh-talking Jewish boys" who offered Krim an example of streetwise Jewish manhood.

But just as important as these Jewish topics is Krim’s writing style, which delivers the "rapid, nervous, breathless tempo" that for Irving Howe was a hallmark of the Jewish-American writing style. Howe took no notice of Krim, but another Irving did. Literary critic Irving Malin called attention to Krim’s "brilliant, energetic prose rhythms" on display in sentences such as this one from "The American Novel Made Me":

"Do I therefore mean, to hit it squarely, that writing fiction for me and my breed was a pimply kind of revenge on life, an outcast tribe of young non-Wheaties failures getting their own back, all the shrimpy, titless, thicklensed, crazyheaded dropouts and sore losers of American youth resolving in the utter misery of the dateless Saturday nights to shoot down their better-favored peers in the pages of a novel?"

That freedom-loving, high-octane, testosterone-spiked says who? voice is the voice found in some of the great works of Jewish-American literature, a voice that has remained at the center of Jewish writing until today. Not a straight line but a jagged,

cardiac-arrest line of passionate spikes and depressive dips connects Krim to J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Joseph Heller’s Yossarian, journalist Sidney Zion, Norman Mailer, playwright David Mamet, and also to the authors of today’s comic and often frankly autobiographical Jewish screeds produced by Michael Wex (Born to Kvetch), Shalom Auslander (Foreskin’s Lament), and Steve Almond (Not That You Asked).


Mark Cohen is the editor of Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim.  You can read more at his blog Stumbling Into Jews