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Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination
By Mark Krupnick
Edited by Jean K. Carney and Mark Shechner
The University of Wisconsin Press
Can you fall in love with a man after he dies? Can his ideas be so moving that you wish you had the chance to tell him how his final literary effort helped you understand the relationship between literature and life, between reading and thinking?
At 61, literary critic Mark Krupnick (1939-2003) was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) and, having only two more years to live, rallied his weakened body but still-sharp mind to produce a book that would clarify the meaning of his life's work.
The book, Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination, is the culmination of his efforts, and if it is true that a man's essence becomes more apparent as he approaches death, then Krupnick's final essays reveal a man of extraordinary intellect and passion. Although not a religious man, there is a spiritual sense about him - and a bristling anger.
The key question Krupnick tackles is: "How do you live as a Jew when mostly you live in your head?" In an attempt to put some pieces of his own interior puzzle together, Krupnick returns to the critical study of his literary influences - an effort he began 40 years earlier. He returns to the texts without the rancor or envy that accompanies youth, and mines nuggets from the works of his heroes - Lionel Trilling, Cynthia Ozick, Geoffrey Hartmann, Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow and others - in order to figure out his final thoughts about life and death, sex and love and the horror of illness.
A few days after his death, Krupnick's wife found a note on his computer that he had written only days earlier, in which he tried to explain why these Jewish authors - his "secular rabbis" - mattered so much to him.
He claimed, "They are important to me not for their ideas but for their presence; their humanity. I am critical; how they created themselves; self-definition; separate self-studies... They came from similar roots; provided me with a community; so why am I critical? They provided me with help on the journey. But I became like them: critical... They were like friends. Conversation. A continuing conversation in my head."
CONVERSATION MEANT a great deal to Krupnick, who remembers an emotionally hungry childhood often spent riding in the car with his father, who would rarely utter a word. The elder Krupnick ran a wholesale textile business in Manhattan. Krupnick remembers growing up in a vacuum, a place devoid of life, love, passion and reading - all the things that would become his lifeblood. His father had emigrated from the Ukraine in 1920 and never adjusted to America. His mother was from the Lower East Side. Both parents seemed anemic in responding to their surroundings, but Krupnick was already starving for experience and by 17 was in love with the world of New York intellectuals. He was reading voraciously, and soon left for Harvard and then Brandeis, where he received a doctorate in English Literature.
His editor, fellow literary critic Mark Shechner, insists that Krupnick was always in a state of flux, an artist who "lived more in the interrogative mood than in the declarative." He refused to follow the usual staid path of a university professor. He traveled to England to study psychoanalytic theory with Anna Freud. He taught at many universities. He found the petty feuds and polemic battles in academia fatiguing, and finally found a haven at the Divinity School in the University of Chicago, where he was welcomed as a secular scholar.
His most intriguing group of essays deals with the renowned literary critic Lionel Trilling, the first Jew to become a tenured professor at Columbia at a time when his gentile colleagues still feared him as some ungodly combination of "a Freudian, a Marxist and a Jew."
Eager to fit in, Trilling, in Krupnick's assessment, began a series of compromises with himself in order to assimilate into the elite academic world he yearned to be a part of. Krupnick believed that Trilling began his career with a dazzling brilliance that waned as his desire for acceptance grew. He became too controlled, too poised, too much a gentleman of manners, and his writing suffered. He remained locked in polemics about contemporary issues, but his own voice had become muffled. He was disturbed by Trilling's noticeable silence during the anti-war Vietnam protests at Columbia.
In the foreword of the book, Krupnick's widow Jean Carney writes movingly about living with Krupnick near the end of his life. She describes watching him struggle to rummage through his books, sadly remembering how "there was a sensuous elegance to his system, characteristic but for its astonishing slowness. He put aside the cane and took each book in his hands, feeling his way into its upholstery by pressing his fingertips into the cover, the binding, the paper. I have seen him make those moves thousands of times. It's the way that his father taught him to feel his way into the fabric when he took him to New York's 'rag district' on buying trips for the family business. Mark always said that he 'felt his way into a text,' and the process with every new book began with gently creasing the front and back covers, going through the book page by page, folding pages back and forth, getting the book ready to rest in his hands."
The same care and attention should be paid to this beautiful book.