(Please welcome Mark Cohen, author of Missing A Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim and proprietor of the culture blog Stumbling Into Jews. — Levi)
Author and literary critic Seymour Krim has fallen off today’s Beat bookshelf. But when he let loose in 1957 with his slanted, rankling, fight-picking essays in the Village Voice he was a Beat, because what else could he be? Especially when he saluted Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as his escape hatch from literary criticism, his pre-Beat beat. And then in 1960 he edited The Beats and appeared in The Beat Scene. Still, his first and most celebrated book of essays, the 1961 Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, made it clear he was less a Beat than one of the establishment’s casualties (unless that’s one category of Beat). With its foreword by Norman Mailer, and back cover summary of Krim’s publications and death-riddled family history, Nearsighted Cannoneer is torn between sticking its tongue out and making excuses for what the reader will find inside. Krim mined that inner tension his entire writing career, which produced two more collections of essays, garnered him a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, and brought him teaching posts at Columbia and Iowa. Since his death in 1989, Beat anthologies have ignored him. But he still has impressive fans, including James Wolcott, Phillip Lopate, and Vivian Gornick, who called Krim “a Jewish Joan Didion.”
“You talking to me, Ginsberg? It sure sounds like you’re talking to me.”
That’s about the attitude that forgotten Beat writer Seymour Krim — a study in crankiness, literature devotion, uncompromising insight and New York intemperateness — took toward the famous opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s generation-making Howl. The poet may have seen “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” but Krim wanted it on the record that he wasn’t one of them. Or as Krim might have said if Sam Goldwyn hadn’t already said it, “Include me out.”
The big-splash January 21 premiere at Sundance of a new movie about Ginsberg’s poem, also called Howl, overlaps with my new no-splash Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim, giving me the long-desired chance to hit two Beats with one piece. But those worried that this post will be too promotional can rest assured. The Krim essay in question, “The Insanity Bit,” is not included in Missing a Beat.
On the face of it, there was little for Krim to worry about. Ginsberg didn’t have Krim in mind, and Krim doesn’t claim that he was the target of Ginsberg’s lament. But as a New York Jewish writer whose mother committed suicide, whose mentally unstable brother died on the operating table during a frontal lobotomy, and who lived in the Village since the early 1940s hanging around poets, writers, and intellectuals until he had his own crack-up and holiday in Bellevue, Krim could have served as Ginsberg’s inspiration if Carl Solomon had moved to Westchester and become an accountant.
So, with some justice, Krim felt he was within his rights to respond to Howl.
The response didn’t come immediately. Krim didn’t compose his thoughts on the social and political meaning of his own 1955 breakdown until 1959, when “The Insanity Bit” appeared in Exodus, a short-lived quarterly published by Judson Memorial Church. The essay was reprinted in Krim’s Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer.
“The Insanity Bit” let everyone have it, including Krim himself. He called fouls against the home team and the enemy. Yes, the psychiatrist who told Krim that Greenwich Village was a “psychotic community” proved that such terms should lose their threatening power. They are just “used by limited individuals in positions of social power to describe ways of behaving and thinking that are alien, threatening, and obscure to them.”
But did that get Krim off the hook for spitting at his family, exposing himself, running “barefooted in the streets?” Not on your life. Because Krim had evaded ways of behaving and thinking that were alien, threatening, and obscure to him. The doc put down the Village just as Krim had put down Uptown. He saw that he had cultivated “the snotty sense of superiority usually felt by the young American writer” and remained “a tormented man-kid who had never steeled himself to face the facts of life.”
So, really, what chance was there that Ginsberg would emerge unscathed against Krim’s kamikaze attack of honesty? About Howl’s opening line Krim wrote:
I believe this is lurid sentimentalism.
And then came the throwing of the gauntlet:
I had not been ‘destroyed by madness,’ Mr. Ginsberg!
(For the record it is only fair to note that Krim paused to call Howl “an exciting achievement.”)
No, Krim was not destroyed by madness. But it was a close call. While he chided himself in the essay for his immaturity regarding the facts of life he also sought a greater “connection between what people actually are and what they are permitted to show.” He tried to make that connection in his writing and his life. It was a romantic project at odds with a shrewd awareness of human nastiness, which he also tried to juggle. Bridging the gap between the romantic and shrewd threatened to split him apart, and Krim’s best essays comment on this very American flesh wound. Like a surgeon in a teaching hospital, Krim advises on the best stitch to repair the damage as he sews himself up.
The characters in Ginsberg’s Howl also try to close the gap between what people are and what they can show, but despite his passionate sympathy it is not clear Ginsberg thinks it a good idea. Those “who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time” had alarm clocks fall “on their heads every day for the next decade.” Some “threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism.” That was inspired. But others “in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table.”
That humorlessness, Krim would have to agree, is a sure sign that Ginsberg was right. People can still be destroyed by madness.