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Seymour Krim to William Saroyan: A Letter

William Saroyan and George Jean Nathan in New York (1940) (courtesy the author)

Typing in The New Yorker’s deserted offices on a summer night in 1942, Seymour Krim, 20 years old and briefly employed at the magazine, wrote to my father, William Saroyan, who would soon turn 34 and was just then at the height of his fame. Still, with his draft notice and marriage to my mother only a few months away, my father’s moment as the literary golden boy of the Depression years was soon to pass. Here is Krim, a young man addressing his elder and better, a wunderkind of the literary moment:

Dear Saroyan:

The office is acutely quiet at this particular hour in eternity, and I’ve got some particular points about a number of things to hit you with. You’re such a goddamned exhibitionist, put on such a wonderful show, that it is difficult if not impossible to speak with you seriously and cogently without an audience; I’m taking this opportunity, this medium, this hour, in fact, to try and put across to you something of what I feel and think. Amen.

All artists, I feel, however their plea of objectivity, create their characters in their own image; you’re no exception, in fact, your specific glory is the original and unique quality with which you endow the fragments of your imagination. Fine, all right — but: without discipline, which you lack, the very beauty of your men and women is ineffably scarred by excess; the poetic metaphysic, which you sing, becomes pretentious and adolescent; the very wonderful sadness and joy, the whole synthesis, at once noble and tragic and magical is lost, ruined; lifeless. Your defects glare like hot neon bulbs: sloppiness, confusion, rootlessness, affectation, pretense, laziness (work does not mean writing one play after another; work means making as perfect as possible the specific product) and a lot more. Notice, I am not criticizing you outside of your genre; I am not telling you that you are anti-intellectual (afraid of abstract scientific method and the truth it finds), a romantic, unrealistic (you don’t realize, for instance, that political action in an industrialized society must be collective; that your “poetic anarchism” is made up of fine, beautiful words, but is impractical by definition in the complex mélange — economic, psychologic, and biologic – of modern society) a poor academic thinker (by academic, I mean using accredited methods of philosophic investigation based on palpable, objective knowledge), etc.

You are lacking in all the points mentioned; but I can’t take you to task on those grounds; they are your limitations — congenital, hereditary, they will be with you to some extent as long as you live and write — they are your defects and, at times, because you are not encumbered by pedagogical humility (concerning your lack of knowledge), they are your good points. What I am shouting about is your abuse, not of what you lack and will always limit you as an artist, but of your talents. You abuse your genius, your particular glorious talents by sloppiness, excess, failure to cut it to the bone, affectations, etc.

You were the white-haired boy in American letters for a while: and Christ! you deserved it. When I was fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and now twenty, you made me laugh and cry and marvel at the human creation. You touched the very core of the miracle time and time again: what lovely charm, what wondrous mystery, what infinite love! What a noble sonofabitch you are! I followed your stuff up through the years — from puberty, to young manhood —and you widened the eyes of my soul continuously, brought supernal music and god-like poems out of parts of experience that are now always magical and incredibly lovely to me.

I say that to let you know where I stand: we always are more vehement criticizing things we respect and admire more than those which leave us apathetic. It seems to me a lousy utterly shameless crime to masturbate with your gifts when a little hard work could change the thing into a wonderful lay — you follow my figure of speech, I hope. “My Heart’s in the Highlands” was a clear, clean, wonderful fable; Jesus, how you laid bare the human heart! But look — you were working with the Group (all right, maybe you thought some of them were phony, etc., but they and Bobby Lewis provided you with that directorial discipline, that impersonal, professional hand that is a necessary evil to the artist); Time of Your Life and Love’s… Song were done by Dowling, I think.

“The Beautiful People” was your own and it showed it: the artist is so close to his own work that his view becomes warped, malformed, the emphasis is placed in the wrong place. The “People” showed that clearly; what was a profound myth, in your conception, became a novelty, a burlesque of your own talents. It needed cutting, concrete integration, it had to be worked on. The symbolism — instead of being filled with love and charm and golden music of angels — became top-heavy, Loring became a mockery of something true, the spontaneous glisten of your words, ideas, became too rich, too satiate, the shadow and color wasn’t evenly dappled, the whole goddamn thing, in fact, needed pruning, rewriting, considered direction by someone other than yourself.

Unless you get to work on the two plays you’re doing now, the same thing will happen. You’re surrounded by jerks, ass-kissers, sycophants. The whole swift, rootless, shystering, incestuous Broadway existence swallows your work now; hell, you were a kid from Frisco ten years ago, freezing in a four-dollar a week room, yet you had the world by the nuts. Jesus, how I remember that old phonograph in your early stories, and I nearly broke my prick laughing when you burned all those wonderful books in wonderful foreign languages, to keep warm; not laughing at you, Saroyan, but with you, with you like fine music at the whole human comedy. What’s happened? You’ve gone soft, the fat life, the liquor, the cunts. You should have married a fine, round, jolly, wise peasant woman and had thirteen kids. I mean it.

I’ve said this much so far, so let me add that you haven’t got too much consideration for others. Don’t get me ass-wise: what I mean is that you walk with the angels so much, that in normal human intercourse, you embarrass people. Like today. You force me to hurt Bodenheim’s feelings, you exploit me before others. As though you said, “Look here, boys and girls,. Ain’t this kid a riot? Smart, knows all the big words, outspoken, sincere. Look at this American character, Mr. Seymour.” In other words, instead of wanting to listen to what I want to say to you, you’re more interested in the impression on an audience, more in the exhibition than the use.

I’m not a fresh, wise, smart, bright young man. I’m a hell of a lot more. I’ll do work some day, probably in the novel, maybe the drama. I’ll have to prove that, to myself as well as you and a million others. My conception of existence is entirely different than yours. My life and outlook is taut, swift, burning, hyper-sensitive, living in a world of jazz and narcotics and class-war, and unemployment, and seeing my Jewish friends being disgraced on the streets. But, hell, we all sense this monstrous, noble, tragic, wonderful miracle in different ways, and I respect and admire your genius and that of Tom Wolfe and Faulkner and O’Neill and Malraux and Joyce and even Odets (I’m Jewish don’t forget, and I can sense things in his work that hit me directly) and ten other great men. So if I’ve said things, been a smart bastard, don’t be offended; my goddamn pride makes it impossible to call you Sir, to show you the respect and deference which you deserve from a kid who has nothing to show for the big game he talks.

One thing, Saroyan. This kid Schloss is really on the ball. He’s intelligent, creative, swift, can act, write, take shorthand like an ace (he’s modest, he can’t throw the shit like me, but don’t let it deceive you). Give him a job: secretary, stage manager, actor, let him work on the Human Comedy with you, and Christ! you’ll see real talent. He’s got the discipline, the independent judgement, the critical mind to make your show. I’m not crapping; that kid amazes me sometimes, he’s so quick on the trigger. Before I sign off, even if you don’t take the advice of this mercurial genius, the best of luck on the whole production, no crap, that comes from the heart.

                                             Keep ’em flying,

                                                         Seymour M. Krim

William Saroyan (1940) (via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

Twenty years later my father would make regular affectionate mention to me of Seymour Krim, who, barely out of his teens, had interviewed him for The New Yorker and had now published a collection of personal essays, Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, which I counted among a handful of special books to reach me in my New York adolescence. Yet Krim, whom I never met but had a brief correspondence with just before he died in the late 1980s, had nothing like the meteoric career of William Saroyan. He never wrote the novel he alludes to, nor the plays. But there is something here that seems to challenge any such summary. At 20 he is equal to this wunderkind, who evidently, earlier in the day, had made him wince, and he dresses him down with an appreciative shrewdness that my father clearly valued.

The paradox is that these two writers lived at such opposite poles of the American experience while sharing all the fundamental things and valuing each other as they did. What is it, exactly, that separated them so fatefully?

One answer might be form itself. My father was, technically speaking, a writer who was engaged by form to a unique degree. All his life, he made (mostly) abstract drawings and watercolors, which, despite the level of his achievement — which is posthumously being recognized — he kept largely to himself. I’m talking about thousands of drawings and thousands of watercolors, done, so far as I can tell, as a kind of tonic aesthetic exercise. Then, too, when he made his breakthrough with the short story, it was literally a formal breakthrough; he wrote a different kind of story than had been seen before, but one that had parallels in the music and painting of his time, both of which he followed with respectful, eclectic interest.

On the other hand, Seymour Krim, at 20 in this letter, is very nearly at the top of his form. As a writer, he would later build a case against the novel as all but obsolete, and press for the naked urgency of first-person testimony, in essence confession, which he found permission and precedent for in the newly arrived Beat Generation, specifically Kerouac and Ginsberg; and Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer is a major document in the same literary canon that gave us Howl and On the Road.

But formally speaking you will find little in Views that isn’t already there in the letter: he speaks more deeply in the later essays, but the pleasure of it, similar to the pleasure in my father’s best stories, is the voice itself, which is fraternal and celebratory even while it delves into the darkest corners of his experience. To be sure, Krim made a breakthrough with these essays, which are among the greatest and grittiest in our writing. But Saroyan was a kind of literary inventor who took delight and sustenance from the invention itself: his new story, like the plays that followed, had something akin to the exhilaration of bebop before it actually happened, a musical articulation that included not just a melody, but various asides and spontaneous solos, variations on the melody from above, below, close-up and far away, as it were, the way Picasso or de Kooning saw a woman in his life in a painting.

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