Arts & Culture

Seymour Krim and Intellectuals

So you want to be an intellectual. Well, that’s not surprising. "For two thousand years the main energies of Jewish communities . . . have gone into the mass production of intellectuals," the art critic Harold Rosenberg once wrote.  But … Read More

By / April 2, 2010

So you want to be an intellectual. Well, that’s not surprising. "For two thousand years the main energies of Jewish communities . . . have gone into the mass production of intellectuals," the art critic Harold Rosenberg once wrote.  But be careful what you say you want. You might get it.

Because the avalanche of books and movies that marvel at the Olympian minds that once ruled New York – you know the list: Prodigal Sons; The New York Intellectuals; Arguing the World; The Rise of the New York Intellectuals — obscures a powerful countertrend. Lots of smart Jews hated that scene.

Norman Mailer felt that his "deepest detestation was often reserved for the nicest of liberal academics." Saul Bellow loved the life of the mind but felt that "the intellectuals one meets are something else again." And in Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character tries to sneak a quickie with his wife during a party packed with intellectuals. "It’ll be great," he tells her, "because all those Ph.D.’s are in there, you know, like … discussing models of alienation and we’ll be in here quietly humping."

Not many hated the intellectuals as much as Seymour Krim. But not many people could get angry like Seymour Krim.

Some of Krim’s gripes were sour grapes. Before he came out swinging with Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, his 1961 breakthrough collection of essays, he was a wallflower on the Greenwich Village intellectual scene. But Krim soon realized that his outsider position gave him a good view. From the edges he could see how intellectuals misled people like himself-educated Americans interested in the life of the mind but not sure how to get there.  In the 1950s, Krim had asked for directions to the life of the mind and got lost among the intellectuals. Though he had started out wanting "to be a big stubborn writer in the grand tradition that laid waste to crap and lying everywhere," he ended up writing literary criticism that was destined for oblivion upon publication. Here’s a sample sentence from the Hudson Review.

"Considered in a broader perspective for a moment, Miss McCarthy might be taken as a not entirely fair example of a school of fiction-writers which Partisan Review has, by its temper if not its express wish, encouraged, and whose self-conscious"-but that’s enough.


Does it sound like what you wrote in last semester’s Advanced Seminar on the Novel? Or maybe how your cousin is talking lately? Then pay attention.

When Krim looked back on his intellectual period in "What’s This Cat’s Story?" he saw that a culture of genius worship made him hate himself for possessing more modest talents, which were nevertheless crucial to his only chance at success and happiness.

"I was committing myself to impossibly high standards that made me feel less like giving out with my own untested jazz than ever," Krim wrote. "Seen coolly it was disgusting self-murder but there was no one to tell me this because almost all of my friends were caught up in the same narrow pocket, becoming increasingly more exacting, fussy, competitive, fanatical, less human in their writing and standards."

Even geniuses fall into this trap, as Krim realized in his remembrance of his friend Milton Klonsky, a promising but failed poet. His loving tribute to Klonsky is one of Krim’s greatest and most moving essays. It is a miniature Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s fictional portrait of Delmore Schwartz, another brilliant, destructive and doomed poet.

For Krim, Klonsky was the man who could do it all. Village poet, intellectual, ladies’ man, brass-balled Jew and champion joint-roller, Milton Klonsky was Krim’s hero, his ideal, the world-historical individual who expressed what the mental and sexual energies of New York’s Jews were yearning to become. And, if not, it was certainly what Krim was yearning to become.

Krim swooned when he saw that Klonsky knew "the most formidable of the contemporary headachemakers like Kafka, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Joyce, Yeats, Stevens and critics like Coleridge, Blackmur, Tate, I. A. Richards (with a Trilling read for mere entertainment like a mystery). Klonsky’s mind seemed to contain the entire hip literary-intellectual university."

You had me at April is the cruelest month, is how we’d say it today.

But that was just for starters. Klonsky was a "hard-driving stud also," and it always gave Krim a "feeling of reassurance, of the world spinning right, when I looked over my shoulder and saw Milt stroking a soft palm and purring out his line of mesmerizing jive."

More important than all of that, however, was how Klonsky had worked out being a Jew.

Krim knew Klonsky in the late 1940s and early 1950s, long before public displays of a cool Jewy style. The whole problem of how American-born, English-speaking Jews were going to formulate a public Jewish personality was a real problem. Anti-semitism was a common fact of life. When he met Klonsky, Krim was trying to evade his Jewish self, "wipe out the ‘Oy vey’ self-sneeringness, awfulness, shameness, strangeness, which had vomited all over my psyche after I got my first dose of lipsmacking anti-kike contempt."

But Klonsky didn’t suffer from a "sense of Yiddish shame." He "acted like a man, not someone castrated and squirming because of their racial unease." And to Krim Klonsky’s secret was that he didn’t come from the more assimilated world that had formed Krim and that had weakened his "manhood in order to ‘get in’, to be white Anglo-Saxon imitations."

Unfortunately, despite all of Klonsky’s mesmerizing attributes, he too was eventually crushed by his unrealistic insistence that his poetry intimidate and conquer, vanquish all competitors and exalt the age. The result, as Krim realized, was that Klonsky wrote mostly in his own mind, which rejected "the unfinished feats of poetry that his creative monster threw up for inspection."

Schooled on the greatest stuff ever written, Klonsky fell into the trap of not being great enough for himself.

Still want to be an intellectual?


Mark Cohen is the editor of Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Kim.