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Testament of a Dying Man: The lasting work of a scholar on his last legs

July 6, 2006 By:
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Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination, the final work by critic and professor Mark Krupnick, comes with a lot of baggage, though not in a completely negative sense, if such a thing can be said of so loaded a phrase. There's a back story to this book, recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press, that sometimes threatens to dominate the entire enterprise, and even cloud your judgment at times. You see, Krupnick wrote many of the various essays that comprise the work while he was dying of amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. He was then in his 60s. His wife, Jean J. Carney, who along with critic Mark Shechner, edited the volume, writes in her foreword that the first thing her husband did when he got the diagnosis was check out all the books about ALS at the University of Chicago library, where he taught. The second thing he did was start this book.

The working title was "How to Die," which Carney notes "reflected his intention to produce a how-to manual that would draw on his experience of living with the certainty that he was going to die -- not just in the abstract -- but in a year or two and in a way that seemed, well, unseemly."

Carney remarks that there wasn't much on that original "How to Die" disk because Krupnick turned quickly to writing about the New York intellectuals, "whom he had discovered at the Harvard library at 17. Away from family for the first time, he literally had picked through shelves looking for writers whose language and manner of expression made him feel at home."

The New York intellectuals, most of whom were Jewish, formed the locus of Krupnick's scholarly interest well into his 50s, both as a critic and a professor. But his wife says that, about 10 years ago, as he was trying to pull together a book on this group of contentious writers and thinkers -- his working title for it was "Whatever Happened to the Jews?" -- he grew so frustrated that he announced he was through with them forever, that they had nothing more to say to him.

Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination, notes Carney, is how-to-die meets whatever-happened-to-the-Jews. "What is so moving to me is how, as Mark would say, under 'a death sentence,' he returned to this community of writers who had brought him so much stimulation and energy at earlier periods of his life and wrestled with the particular kind of death he knew was coming by wrestling once more with them."

Carney describes many of the physical disabilities Krupnick suffered over the two-year period of his dying, but I will spare you the details. Carney includes them not to make us squirm or for shock value or for us to pity her or him. She wants us to know that her husband met each day heartily, and that the one thing that didn't change during all the bodily degeneration was his work on this book.

"He worked every day, reading and thinking in the afternoon, writing in the morning. He kept the texts nearby for reference but used no notes. Compared to his earlier work, there were few revisions. I think he knew that the power of his experience was such that highly glossed language, which he treasured and used to effect on other occasions, was not the point. Nor were indirection or understatement. Bold, even blunt, he was sure-footed in his writing (though certainly not on his feet). The physical act of typing was labored, but the writing flowed more easily than at any time of his life. He wrote un-self-consciously and matter-of-factly, and was surprised that visitors were surprised at the number of hours he worked."

Foundational Subjects

All of the usual suspects who functioned under the rubric New York Jewish intellectuals are gathered here: Lionel Trilling, who was the subject of a full-length work by Krupnick, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism; his wife, Diana Trilling; Philip Rahv; Alfred Kazin; Irving Howe; Saul Bellow; and even Edmund Wilson, who hailed from an earlier generation but whose path crossed those of these later intellectuals, in life and in interests. (The piece analyzes Wilson's "gentile philo-Semitism"). There are several other subjects addressed in the book -- a truly heartbreaking farewell that the dying professor had his wife read to his colleagues at his retirement party -- but the true interest of the work resides in what Krupnick has to say about the personalities who made up his earliest literary love, his foundational subject.

Krupnick himself explains in his introduction that the disease he suffered from drove him back to these writers, intensified his interest "in the most elemental ideas, fantasies and feelings of the persons I discuss in these essays. I had always been something of a moralist who sought to arrive at bedrock by an untheorized approach that combined close reading, a study of social-cultural contexts, attention to individual temperament, and other factors. Some of these essays in this collection were originally published when I was healthy; indeed, one of them, on Philip Rahv, goes back to 1976. However, half of these essays, including all of the longer ones, belong to the last few years. That accounts for the more intense focus in those essays -- on Trilling, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Geoffrey Hartman and Philip Roth -- on the most elemental issues: life and death, love and hate, sex, gender, and the like."

Readers with an interest in any of these writers will come away with something solid and insightful after reading these pieces, but I distinctly have favorites: the essays on Rahv and Diana Trilling. The reasons for this, I've determined, is that what connects them is not analysis and appreciation, as is the case with so much else in the book, but a certain emphasis in the former on literary gossip of the highest order and in the latter a display of sheer, splendid invective.

Philip Rahv, for those who need an introduction, was one of the major figures among these intellectuals, most famous for co-founding Partisan Review, the central publication among these writers, from the 1930s through the '60s. But in the summer of 1970, Krupnick tells us, Rahv was starting on a new life. His wife, Theo, had died a couple of years before in a freak fire, and Rahv had not been well following that traumatic incident. In addition, he'd recently quit Partisan Review but was beginning again with a new magazine, to be called Modern Occasions, and had asked Krupnick to be one of the associate editors. (Krupnick says that Rahv fell out with his Partisan Review co-editor William Phillips over the latter's printing of Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on Camp." Rahv thought Phillips had come under the sway of the chic drivel produced by the '60s youngsters.)

Krupnick's piece, devoted almost entirely to describing the staff's strenuous efforts to bring Modern Occasions to fruition, is a colorful portrait of its subject, as well as an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at how this guru of the intellectual set handled the quirky types he drew around him to write for and edit his short-lived, inevitably doomed magazine.

My second favorite piece is called "The Trillings: A Marriage of True Minds?" and it's a demolition job -- what Rahv was always asking Krupnick to write for Modern Occasions -- of Diana Trilling's book about her marriage to Lionel, The Beginning of the Journey, whose title echoes that of Lionel Trilling's only novel The Middle of the Journey. Diana had never stopped bad-mouthing Krupnick for criticizing her husband in his full-length work about the writer. Krupnick got his revenge in this wicked dismemberment of Diana's portrait of her influence on Lionel's career. You can literally feel Krupnick's juices flowing and, considering that there's so much sadness hovering over the making of this book, it's just sheer fun -- intellectual fun, of course -- to read.

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