MISSING A BEAT: THE RANTS AND REGRETS OF SEYMOUR KRIM edited and with an introduction by Mark Cohen
Syracuse University Press. 236 pages. $30. ISBN 978-0-8156-0948-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns March 2011
Seymour Krim's reputation suffers from his not being easily placed in a convenient pigeon-hole. Was he a Beat? Well, he did have some links to that group through editing The Beats, one of the liveliest anthologies of their work and generally speaking positively about them. Was he a New York Jewish Intellectual? He was certainly Jewish and an intellectual, and when he was younger wrote for publications associated with the Manhattan critical community. Was he a creative writer or a journalist? He started his writing life wanting to be a novelist but most of his published work appeared in newspapers and magazines and can best be described as journalism. Was he one of the New Journalists who, in the 1960s and 1970s, grabbed the limelight as they combined reportage with accounts of their personal involvements in the situations they reported on? He did write very much in that style once he broke free of the restrictions encountered in his early career, and there have been suggestions that, in some ways, he almost pioneered the methods of New Journalism.
The problem is that Krim always seemed to be on the fringes of these various groups, with the consequence that when they're written about he often rates only a passing mention, if that. There are several major Beat anthologies, for example, but most of them ignore his work. The same can be said about books devoted to the New York Intellectuals. I have ten on my shelves but only three of them mention Krim, and then only briefly. As for the New Journalism, most of the attention is paid to Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and others like them. Krim is considered a minor player in the game. It's easy to see why he's often a forgotten figure.
He was born in 1922 into a well-to-do Russian-Jewish immigrant family. His father died when Krim was seven and his mother soon began to show signs of mental instability and committed suicide in 1932. According to a sister quoted by Mark Cohen, there was "a pattern within the family of mental aberration, "and an older brother had problems and died when he was lobotomised. Krim himself later had a breakdown which affected his life and literary activities.
Although, like many good writers, he never completed a university education, he did read widely when in high school and was particularly impressed by many of the writers of the 1930s, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, and John Dos Passos. Mark Cohen notes that Krim felt that "as a Jew and the child of immigrants he stood, in Alfred Kazin's words, "outside America,"" and Krim himself thought of the novelists he admired as representing "the America OUT THERE and more than anything I wanted to identify with that big gaudy continent and its variety of human beings who came to me so clearly through the pages of these so-called fictions." He did enrol at the University of North Carolina but dropped out after a year and moved to Greenwich Village in 1943.
He missed out on military service through bad eyesight and other problems, but worked for the Office of War Information as a writer and by 1947 was reviewing books for the New York Times. By 1951 he had broken through to prestigious intellectual publications like Commentary, Commonweal, The American Mercury, and the Hudson Review, though mainly with criticism. A couple of short stories did appear in New Directions anthologies, and a fragment from a novel-in-progress was published in The Tiger's Eye, but it was obvious that, despite his desire to be a writer of fiction, Krim had the kind of mind that was more inclined to different areas of writing. Some years later, when he wrote the brilliant "What's This Cat's Story?" he claimed that his urge to write fiction was killed off by a need to be seen in print quickly with reviews and the pressure of the intellectual community he mixed with which assigned more status to criticism than creative work. The truth was that Krim didn't have the imaginative stamina required for a sustained attempt to produce a novel.
The work that he published prior to the mid-1950s, leaving aside the few bits of fiction, was conventional in terms of its use of language and development of ideas. It suited the sort of publications it was in and was intelligent and astute, but could probably have been written by any number of young, aspiring critics. A good illustration of how he wrote can be gained from the pieces from this period reprinted in the enlarged edition of Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer published in 1968. They are usefully contrasted with his post-1955 writings. It was a combination of a breakdown in 1955 and the arrival of the Beats on the scene around the same time that gave Krim the impetus to try something new. He recalled, "the Beats came along and revived through mere power and abandonment and the unwillingness to commit death in life some idea of a decent equivalent between verbal expression and actual experience." And he also wrote about "the revivifying power of the Beats" and the "actuality of the Beat messianic excitement."
It probably helped that, with the advent of new writing, new magazines sprang up to give it outlets. Krim found a platform in the Village Voice and it printed several of the pieces which not only brought him to the attention of the Greenwich Village bohemian community but also aroused the interest of well-known writers like Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. The open, personal and jazzy style was something different and Krim knew how to be controversial. He wrote about relations between blacks and whites and pointed out that white hipsters, anxious to establish their apartness from American society by identifying with blacks through an appreciation of jazz, simply didn't understand what lay behind the music. They romanticised it and didn't acknowledge the prejudice and poverty and violence that blacks had to put up with. He also wrote about the growing militancy of gays in New York and the decline (as he saw it) of traditional fiction and the rise of much more personal writing which would blend fact and fiction. There was in addition a frenetic piece, "Making It!" which dealt with the growing cult of celebrity and still reads accurately today. A short-lived little magazine called Exodus gave Krim space to look at his own experiences in Harlem and, in "The Insanity Bit," to give an honest account of what led to his breakdown and his encounters with psychiatrists and others in the medical profession.
Krim's Jewishness was a key factor in his writing once he'd opened up his style and feelings, and Mark Cohen, referring to how he's relegated to a background role among the Beats, makes the interesting suggestion that, "The steady drumbeat of Jewish topics in Krim's work is almost certainly what has made him unwelcome in Beat anthologies. Allen Ginsberg's role as a Beat icon does not refute this argument. Where Krim wrestled with Jewish issues that confronted him in his daily life, Ginsberg, though of the same American-born generation, wrote immigrant literature when he wrote on Jewish themes. His masterpiece, Kaddish (1961), is a memorial to a dead Jewish world, as is "To Aunt Rose."
I suppose it could be asked where Seymour Krim could go once he'd created a style that enabled him to place himself at the centre of whatever subject he was dealing with. He had to earn a living which meant that he had to take on editorial jobs and get his work published in newspapers and magazines which paid well. Over the years he wrote for Playboy, Vogue, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and many more, though he also still sometimes contributed to smaller publications. But he needed money and took on different assignments to get it. If I can bring in a personal anecdote, I had a letter from him (it's undated but I'd guess it was around 1973) from an address at the University of Puerto Rico where he was teaching. In it he says that if his contract with the University isn't renewed, "I'll move over to Penn State for the Dec-March term. I Need the bread to pay off gambling debts."
Krim taught at other educational establishments in addition to those mentioned above, though always on a temporary basis. Like his publishing record it added up to what Mark Cohen calls, "an impressive but spotty résumé that often made Krim feel like a failure." Was he a failure? The pieces collected in Missing a Beat can be a reasonable way to test how successful he was, though they are only a small selection from his total output and my own notion is that it's necessary to read the contents of the three books published during his lifetime to get to grips with the real Seymour Krim. But I'm reviewing Missing a Beat so I'll look at that. It certainly has some of the best of his early work, including "What's This Cat's Story?" which is not only a wonderful personal account of his involvement with the New York literary scene of the late-1940s and early-1950s, but also provides a fascinating glimpse of a particularly talented group which included Chandler Brossard, Weldon Kees, Clement
Greenberg, Manny Farber, and Anatole Broyard, all of whom went on to make their mark in one way or another. In a similar vein, the long piece about Milton Klonsky, another Greenwich Village resident though never as well-known as the others, is a tribute to someone Krim saw as a teacher (in the informal sense) who would "radically change my formless young life." It painted a picture of a young, impressionable Krim but also said a lot about Klonsky who had such rigorous intellectual standards that he often found it difficult to complete anything to his own satisfaction.
"The American Novel Made Me," Krim's long memoir of growing up in the 1930s and being influenced by contemporary novelists, is a key piece: "I was literally made, shaped, whetted and given a world with a purpose by the American realist novel of the mid to late 1930s." With this in mind I think it's easy to understand why, in the personal journalism, he was always engaging with the real world. An essay like this shows him at his best, but I have doubts about other articles that he published, sometimes against the advice of friends. Norman Mailer had praised Krim and even written a short introduction to one of his books, but "Norman Mailer, Get out of my Head" attacked the famous novelist because he had become such a public figure, and as Mark Cohen says, "bristles with the aggrieved ego of the would-be famous." Another example of Krim's compulsion to launch attacks on people he'd previously had good relations with came when he accused the noted journalist Jimmy Breslin of anti-Semitism and also questioned his abilities as a novelist. It's difficult not to think that the "aggrieved ego of the would-be famous" had got to work again, and Breslin responded by calling Krim "a little, resentful failure."
I haven't mentioned all the pieces in Missing a Beat and I'm not convinced that they represent the best of his work. It's only fair, though, to mention that the book is in a series dealing with "Judaic traditions in literature, music, and Art," so there is an emphasis on how and why Krim used and dealt with his Jewishness in his writing. Mark Cohen's excellent introduction deals effectively with this and helps explain why Krim often acted as he did.
I've always been fascinated by Seymour Krim, ever since I first came across his work in publications like Exodus, Evergreen Review, and the Village Voice. I read him in The Beat Scene, bought The Beats when it came out, and picked up copies of Swank, the men's magazine he edited four sections of Beat writing for, in back-street bookshops where the respectable didn't go. In 1963 I wrote a short article, "Pin-up Lit.," for The Guardian in which I pointed out that some good and interesting writing could be found in publications like Swank and Nugget, where Krim had a job for several years. I wrote to him at Nugget and enclosed a copy of the article and got a friendly letter in reply, along with a copy of the first edition of Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. We had an on-and-off correspondence for a few years and I met him in London and found him friendly and informative. I was working on an essay, "Krim's Story," which was published in Stand in 1971. I sent him a copy of the magazine and got a relaxed reply from him, but I suspect that he may not have really appreciated my conclusion that his best work to that date had been in Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. He wrote: "It seems that I'll never match that damned first book, but life keeps moving me on and I have to write about it differently." A few years later (1977) I published his short "A Letter from America," about a journey south by Greyhound bus, in Palantir, a little magazine I was then editing.
That was our last contact and I only occasionally saw his name in magazines. He was said to be working on Chaos, a book-length manuscript that would represent his ideas about America through the form of creative non-fiction. A few pages from it that did get into print after his death didn't suggest that it was ever likely to be published. It seemed too formless to be able to sustain its interest for very long. Krim had a heart-attack in the mid-1980s and his health suffered to the point where he could hardly function. Mark Cohen says: "Rather than decline into helplessness, Krim planned his own death." He committed suicide in 1989.
Missing a Beat is a good book, despite my mild reservations about some of its contents. I've already referred to Mark Cohen's informative introduction and there's also a useful bibliography. Seymour Krim may not have been a major writer but he was often a very good one.