Missing a Beat
The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim
Syracuse University Press: 296 pp., $29.95
We hear a disproportionate amount from the writers who "made it." The ones who hustled, stroked the right egos and fought their way through the doors of the establishment: It is their books that line our shelves. This doesn't mean these authors haven't experienced resentment, jealousy and bitterness, but one suspects that the multitudes of literary losers — the silent majority that tried again, failed again and failed better — could offer a more caustic point-of-view. That is, if anyone would remember them.
One particularly vocal loser is the late Seymour Krim, whose work is collected by Mark Cohen in "Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim." For Krim, the issue wasn't getting his voice out there: Over the course of three decades, he wrote for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Playboy, New York, the Washington Post and Vogue, published a few essay collections, won a Guggenheim and a Fulbright and taught at an Ivy League university.
Still, he found great affinity with the failures, in part because he aspired to so much more. "I wanted to swallow the entire … world and spit it out again not merely as an artist but as some kind of literary-human-intellectual God," Krim once wrote. A mess of bad habits and unpopular opinions, a status-obsessed spitfire inhabiting an anxious historical moment, a Manhattan Jew who "wiped the ancient Hebrew out of myself to become an American," Krim was perhaps inevitably primed for disappointment. But as he put it, "One life was never quite enough for what I had in mind."
During the 1950s, when book review supplements were at the height of their influence, Krim played the game, mingling with the cultural gatekeepers while writing reviews and essays that aimed for high-toned profundity. But in the autobiographical piece "What's This Cat's Story?" (1961), he waved goodbye to this decade-long quest for approval — which at one point led to a nervous breakdown — and pointed himself toward "a high art of my own making which would combine the sensuousness of great literary style with the startlingness of an unprecedented approach."
In chronicling his crippling attempts to read the great authors, keep up with the newest radical-highbrow scholarship and mingle with the social elite — all at the same time — Krim produced one of the great anti-intellectual screeds of his time. Coming on like Kerouac, he indicted the spokesmen of his age for using "too many words to say too few things that matter today to life-bombed kids." The work of becoming an intellectual was fraught with peril; Krim was devoured by the "anxiety of influence" years before Harold Bloom popularized the term. "I knew gifted, fresh, swinging writers who told me in moments of confidence that they knew they weren't 'great' or 'major,' " he wrote, "and their voices were futile with flat tone when they confessed to this supposed weakness: as if the personal horn each could blow was meaningless because history wasn't going to faint over them. History, the god of my grotesque period, the pursued phantom, the ruby-circled mirror of our me-worshipping egos which made monomanical fanatics out of potentially decent men!"
Krim's verbose, misogynistic, endlessly vulgar vernacular caught some of the bop inflections of the Beat era, but the Beats never welcomed him. Certainly he cared more about the concrete than the numinous: You wouldn't find a naked Krim penning odes to the higher consciousness on the beach at Big Sur. More urgent was the psychic tsunami of personal need, the prickly everyday demands of solipsism. Nobody else wrote about status-envy and disgruntlement with the same level of honesty. Nobody else thought it worth the risk.
Paying unpragmatic heed to the seriousness of his vocation meant alienating any powerful figure who posed even a minor threat to his integrity. There was no reason for him to cite Jimmy Breslin's casual use of the term "Jewboy" in a New York Times book review. (Breslin sued the paper.) Nor was there any reason to call out Norman Mailer's "use of writing for Personal Competitiveness, Personal Power and the Proclamation of Personal Superiority" in an essay called "Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head!" — after Mailer had graciously written the foreword to a collection of Krim's work.
Assessing this collection of "rants and regrets" means asking whether Krim ever became the writer he wanted to be. His 1969 essay on the influence of the American realist novel claims (only somewhat convincingly) that traditional fiction no longer speaks to the exigencies of modern life, an argument that anticipates David Shields' "Reality Hunger" by four decades. Krim either invented New Journalism or imagined it over and over until it showed up. But his final essays, including "For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business," reflect his sense of himself as perennial outsider, present at the dress rehearsal of nearly every major midcentury literary movement without ever taking the stage to receive the applause.
Street-level sociology was Krim's forte, and he wrote unflinchingly about the relationships between blacks and Jews. His 1957 "Anti-Jazz," conceived as a corrective to Mailer's "The White Negro," lambasted white hipsters for superficially imitating black slang and manners without acknowledging the desperate conditions of ghetto life. Tellingly, Krim does not invoke the possibility of social change, but merely asks whites to recognize their hypocrisy. This was nevertheless enough for James Baldwin to pronounce Krim "almost the only writer of my generation who has managed to release himself from the necessity of being either romantic or defensive about Negroes."
So what do we make of this high-octane rabble-rouser, who took his own life with an overdose of barbiturates in 1989? While Krim howled his eloquent resentments at the moon, the Mailers and Didions and Wolfes carefully cultivated their legacies. "Yes," Krim once wrote, "except time catches up and passes us all and the dead, a few, overtake the living and eat their vitals away by the strength of an appetite that roars from the other side." Consider that a threat.
Gottlieb writes for the Nation and Dissent.