A very real person.
What does it mean to consider yourself a Jew if you have no interest, let alone belief, in the religion, no connection to Jewish organizations or Zionism, minimal knowledge of Jewish history and culture, but only a strongly ingrained sense that you are somehow, indubitably, Jewish? One response to this question comes from Philip Roth's character Nathan Zuckerman, who claims he is a Jew on account of anti-Semitism. In this case, considering oneself a Jew is at least a kind of ethical stand: to deny being Jewish, to try to "pass" for Gentile, would seem not only a betrayal of one's identity but a tacit endorsement of anti-Jewish prejudice.
For literary critic Mark Krupnick, who grew up in the 1950s in a New Jersey neighborhood not far from Philip Roth's, the same motive seems to have been at least one factor in his sense of Jewish identity. But, unlike Roth, for whom Jewishness is a given, an accident of birth, like having hazel eyes, Krupnick was engaged in a life long quest for direction and self-understanding that involved seeking out specifically Jewish role models.
Born in Irvington, N.J., in 1939, Krupnick died of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease) in 2003 at age 63. He began working on Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination shortly after being diagnosed with this debilitating, fatal disease in the spring of 2001.
A professor who had written many articles in a lively journalistic mode (as distinct from a more academic one), Krupnick was probably best known for his 1986 book, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism, a thoughtful study of the career and influence of the renowned literary critic and New York intellectual who had the distinction of being the first Jew to gain tenure in the English department of Columbia University.
Now, in this posthumously published collection of 17 essays, Krupnick (and the editors--his wife, Jean Carney, and his friend, literary critic Mark Shechner) have given us a powerfully affecting book not only to remember him by, but also to set us thinking. These candid, intensely personal essays, many written under conditions of increasing disability and in shadow of what he knew to be his own impending death, cover a range of provocative subjects, from Jewish novelists and critics such as Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Yale professor Geoffrey Hartman, to matters of cultural criticism in general, along with more specific questions like "Why Are English Departments Still Fighting the Culture Wars?" There's even an amusing essay on newspaper obituaries, as well as an outspoken diatribe against what Krupnick felt to be the banal, misleadingly rosy view of illness and mortality presented in Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom's best-selling book of conversations with another victim of ALS, Brandeis sociology Prof. Morris Schwartz.
Krupnick taught at Boston University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and ended his days as a professor at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Although he made a brief foray into the arcane realms of French literary theory by editing a book on critic Jacques Derrida in the early 1980s, Krupnick much preferred a less academic, more journalistic, plain-spoken style. This is why Lionel Trilling and the rest of that set of politically and culturally engaged writers and critics known as the New York intellectuals played such an important role in his life.
Although his Ukrainian-immigrant father ran a successful furniture business and his mother worried enough about her son's college prospects to send him to a private school, Krupnick recalls the limitations of his upbringing: "I had been raised in a household without religion, politics, worldly sophistication or learning. Neither did we have more than a few phonograph records or more than a dozen books.... My parents did not have much formal education ... or religious orientation. Their strongest sense was of being Jewish." Young Mark's sense of his Jewishness was equally strong. As a bright young Harvard undergraduate, he felt the need to look elsewhere for intellectual and political guidance. The people he turned to were the New York intellectuals: liberal, anti-Stalinist champions of high culture, including Lionel and Diana Trilling, Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, William Philips, Mary McCarthy, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Abel, Dwight Macdonald and Alfred Kazin, to name some of this set (also known as the Partisan Review crowd), which may not have consisted entirely of Jews, but which certainly might be characterized as predominantly Jewish.
Many of them the children of immigrants (or, in the case of Rahv, who came to this country in 1922 at age 14, as an immigrant himself), the New York intellectuals, like others of their generation, started off as communists (or, at least, in sympathy with communism) in the early 1930s, when capitalism seemed to have plummeted the world into the Great Depression. But as the hopes promised by the Russian Revolution gave way to the grim realities of Soviet life under Stalin, Rahv, Philips and others in their circle broke with fellow leftists like Lillian Hellman and Malcolm Cowley who continued to defend Stalin and the Party line. And, at a time when Socialist Realism was the artistic credo of many a leftist, Rahv, Philips and others whose work appeared in the pages of the journal they co-founded in 1934, the Partisan Review, enthusiastically embraced the kind of "elitist" art--both classic and Modernist experimental--that orthodox communists eschewed or denounced.
What drew the young Krupnick to the New York intellectuals, however, were not their political and aesthetic squabbles with fellow leftists, but the mere fact that here were people writing with clarity, conviction, passion and knowledgeable authority about literature, culture and politics in a way that stimulated and engaged his mind.
Initially, of course, it was their articles and books he turned to, looking for ways to reconcile a commitment to the egalitarian values of leftist politics with an admiration for the accomplishments of high culture. Later, Krupnick came to know, work with and, in some cases, fall out with some of these people. Rahv, a founding editor of the Partisan Review, was Krupnick's doctoral director at Brandeis. In 1970, he sought out Krupnick's help in starting what proved to a short-lived journal called Modern Occasions, intended to rival the Partisan Review, which he now felt was going too far out of its way to embrace anything trendy. Krupnick's interesting, highly personal essay on his experience, "Philip Rahv: 'He Never Learned to Swim,'" was turned down as too critical of Rahv by magazine editors in America. The essay was published only in Britain--until its appearance in this book.
Three essays in the collection are devoted to Lionel Trilling, who was always the least polemical, most cautious and Olympian of the New York intellectuals, as behooved a man who had had to find his place in the groves of what was then a very genteel (as well as Gentile) academia. Krupnick went through a period of being disillusioned with the New York intellectuals in general and Trilling in particular for being insufficiently sympathetic to the 1960s student leftists. Trilling's wife, Diana, was so shocked by Krupnick's criticism of her husband, that she became a dedicated foe of his, as he recounts here in one of the essays.
Although Krupnick admires the New York intellectuals for their concern with real-world culture and politics, he doesn't really seem to have grasped why anti-Stalinism was so important to them. True, as he says, their intense focus on quarrels between leftists often blinded them to the threats posed by right-wing ideologies. But it was the ability of ethically minded leftists, from the Socialists of 1903 to the anti-communist liberals of Trilling's day, to dissociate themselves from communism that enabled leftists to take leadership roles in European and American politics. If only Krupnick and other liberal academics of his generation had taken similar pains to dissociate their leftism from both the violent tactics and the anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, anti-bourgeois diatribes of extremist groups of the 1960s, liberalism might have fared better in the decades that followed.
But Krupnick, in any case, would later return to his old mentors--this time less for the specific content of their arguments than for what they meant to him as role models and human beings: "[T]hey were always more to me than persons with whom to argue. I sensed that they were like me in that they had put themselves together somewhat in the same way I had." Having to carve out identities for themselves, as he realizes, they were often overly contentious and judgmental. "But one of the things I learned from them was to call things as I see them."
Krupnick's title, Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination, alludes to a central theme in the work of Trilling. An admirer of literary Modernism, which included conservatives like Faulkner, Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as out-and-out Fascists like Ezra Pound, Trilling was moved to lament that were was "no connection between the political ideas of our educated class and the deep places of the imagination." (Too bad he forgot about the liberal-minded, philo-Semitic Modernist genius James Joyce and his brilliant countryman Samuel Beckett.)
As Krupnick explains, Trilling found this quality of being in touch with "the deep places of the imagination" not only in conservatives like Eliot, but also in the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel, among the many enthusiastic supporters of the Russian Revolution who were later devoured by it. Trilling responded strongly to Babel's portrayal of the passionate, violent Cossacks as wonderfully noble primitives, even while knowing them to have been not only enemies and killers of Jews, but also the strike-force repeatedly used against all progressive, liberalizing or revolutionary movements. In a funny way, Trilling, like others of his generation, was brainwashed by the Modernist manifestos against Romanticism, Victorianism and "sentimentality," which a later generation of critics, notably Harold Bloom, would expose as self-serving, unfair and unwarranted. Indeed, Krupnick draws an interesting contrast between Trilling and Bloom. Trilling, he feels, renounced his attempt "to scale the heights and plumb the depths of the imagination," while Bloom created a uniquely imaginative mode of literary criticism.
Few critics are more subtle, sensitive and rarefied, less like the streetwise New York intellectuals, than Bloom's fellow Romanticist Geoffrey Hartman. Yet in later years, after Krupnick met him in person, Hartman became, as Shechner observes, "one of his ego-ideals, an embodiment of what he hoped he might be." While Krupnick was not especially drawn to Hartman's writings on French theory, he was moved by the way that the older man, who left Germany for England as part of a Kindertransport, found solace in the English countryside and the poetry of Wordsworth. And Hartman's later work as a founder and director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University provided Krupnick with a sense of how to ground one's scholarship in the historical and personal aspects of one's Jewish identity.
Indeed, to Krupnick, Hartman's scholarship offered a sounder way of approaching the Holocaust than Cynthia Ozick's fiction on that subject. In his essays on Ozick and Roth (whom he rates more highly than her), Krupnick locates a common ground shared by these two otherwise very dissimilar people. In both cases, he feels, the deep places of the imagination are associated with experiences of vulnerability, betrayal and humiliation, emotions that, over the centuries, have certainly woven themselves into the history of many a Jewish identity. Krupnick's friend and editor Shechner recalls him as a wonderful conversationalist with a gift not merely for holding forth, but for listening carefully and drawing other people out. The essays in this collection--some feisty and contentious, others more gentle and reflective--not only convey the ceaseless liveliness of his mind, but leave us with the unmistakable sense that we have come to know a very real person.
Reviewed by MERLE RUBIN
We are saddened to report that MERLE RUBIN died in November 2006. She was 57. A graduate of Yale University, she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Virginia. Her reviews appeared regularly in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and Christian Science Monitor.