Hilton Kramer R.I.P.

Goodbye to a valiant crusader.

I spent twenty-one years in classrooms, from kindergarten all the way through graduate school, and when I was done I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with my life.

I had collected an M.A. and Ph.D. in English because I loved reading and writing, but by the time I was done with the whole thing, and had published a few articles along the way in journals with names like English Language Notes and The Yeats Eliot Review, it had become clear to me that I was, by temperament, simply not an academic, and that I did not want to grow old as an English professor, churning out dry, scholarly papers about Henry James or Theodore Dreiser or whatever that the world didn’t need and that virtually nobody would read.  In any case, what with the advent of deconstructionist criticism, feminist criticism, and other such abominations, it was clear to me that English departments were moving very quickly in a direction that had nothing whatsoever to do with the love of reading and writing.  Rather, their focus was increasingly on politics – specifically, lockstep far-left politics.  And instead of striving to write prose that was as clear and direct as possible, ambitious young English professors were aiming for the very opposite: obfuscation, pretentiousness, deliberate obscurity, the point, almost always, being to veil the fact that they didn’t really have anything to say.

I didn’t want to spend my life trudging down that sad, dead-end road.  What to do, then?  How was I to make my way in the world?

One day in 1983, around the time I received my Ph.D. diploma in the mail and threw it in a drawer, I dropped into one of my favorite bookstores, the legendary Gotham Book Mart on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan.  (Like many of my favorite bookstores, and many of my other favorite places in New York, it is now no longer there.)  Among the wonderful things about the Gotham was that it contained a big room consisting mostly of waist-high sets of bookshelves on top of which the latest issues of hundreds of literary and cultural journals were arranged in alphabetical order, so that you could poke through them, and page through them, with ease.  Every month or two I would spend an hour or so catching up with these publications, and maybe, if I had the money, buying one or two.

On that day in 1983, amid all the familiar titles, I discovered copies of two or three issues of a magazine I’d never seen before.  I was immediately taken with it.  First of all, it was just plain beautiful – the design, the typeface, the layout, the feel of the paper, everything.  Second, once I opened it and began reading, I realized that I’d stumbled across a community of people with whom I strongly identified.  The articles were about literature, art, classical music, and culture generally, but they weren’t written in the pretentious academic prose to which I’d become accustomed, and the writers didn’t approach their subjects with the usual political presuppositions and prejudices.  No – these were men and women who were plainly saying what they actually thought, and were doing so in language that was consistently intelligent and engaging.  Nor did they mind tipping over sacred cows, including the sacred cows of the left, although they did so in the most elegant possible way.  In short: real writing by real people about real stuff.

The magazine was called _The New Criterion._  The issues I perused at the Gotham Book Mart were its very first.  It was edited by Hilton Kramer, the former chief art critic of the New York Times and one of the most imposing names on the New York intellectual scene of the day.

Audaciously, I wrote to Kramer, including some clips of my published work – which at that time didn’t amount to very much – and asking if I might write for his magazine.  I didn’t hold out much hope, but thought it was worth a try.  To my surprise, I received a reply almost at once from Kramer himself (this was back when letters were typed on pieces of paper and stuffed in envelopes, which were then stamped and placed in something called a mailbox), asking me for more information about my critical approach and tastes.  I answered his questions as best I could, and the next thing I knew I was reviewing three books by and about the novelist Thomas Wolfe for The New Criterion. 

Being asked to write for The New Criterion made me up my game.  I worked at striking the right tone, finding the right voice.  I looked more closely at the work of the critics whose writing styles I admired the most, including people (such as Gore Vidal) whom I didn’t exactly agree with about a whole lot of things.  And above all, I studied Hilton’s own writings, which, I soon found, were models of intellectual ardor, aesthetic discrimination, and critical independence.  He was a world-class champion of true aesthetic greatness, of high modernism in literature and art, of human liberty, and, most broadly, of civilization itself; and he was an enemy of fashionable, trashy postmodernism, of all the new, pernicious “isms” that rejected the very concept of aesthetic or literary merit, and of Communism and its fellow travelers (of whom he had known many on his own journey).  He was always serious, because he took culture and art seriously and had a genuine, and thoroughly legitimate, sense of urgency about the direction in which culture and art were headed.  But his seriousness was never a dull, plodding affair.  He wrote with the passion of a crusader, and with an acerbic wit that was inimitable.  I loved to read him on anything, even on obscure artists in whom I had no interest, simply for the joy of experiencing his prose.

I thought my first assignment for The New Criterion might turn out to be a one-off, or that, if I was lucky, the editors might invite me to write for them again in a year or two.  Instead, after that first review, they asked me to do another for the next issue.  And then another.  And another.

Four or five months into my tenure at the magazine, I faced what felt like a test, although I know it was not meant to be one.  I was assigned to review a book that I liked very much but that I suspected Hilton was not very crazy about.  At least I was sure he wouldn’t like some of the things I had to say about it.  When I submitted my review (which I delivered, as always, by hand – it was another world then!), I thought that this would probably be my last assignment for The New Criterion. On the contrary: when Hilton telephoned (as he always did) to accept the review, he acknowledged that he disagreed with me but that this was “good for the magazine” and that he would be running my piece not as a review, in the back of the magazine, where I had resided quite happily up until that point, but as an article, up front.  That told me something about the man, and the magazine, to which I had hitched my cart.

I kept writing for The New Criterion every month.  Indeed, I ended up writing for it every month (with, I believe, only one or two exceptions) for ten years.  During those ten years, I wrote more pieces for the magazine, and more pages altogether, than anyone else, and I was proud of that.  Thanks to my exposure there, I was soon writing regularly for plenty of other places and actually making something that could almost be considered a living.  But however many publications I wrote for, The New Criterion remained my home base: the people at The New Criterion were my second family, and Hilton, if I dare say so, was a second father.

Hilton died on Tuesday.  On the same day, my friend Terry Teachout, in a post on his blog, noted that he found Hilton (who was about thirty years older than us) “so intimidating that it was impossible for me to get to know him more than superficially.”  I know exactly what Terry is talking about.  For ten years I had lunch with Hilton every couple of months, but I never stopped being a bit anxious about it beforehand, even though I knew he would put me at my ease immediately and that I would have a whale of a time with him.  Why was I anxious?  Because he was a formidable conversationalist in the old-fashioned sense, an Oscar Wilde of the lunch table, brilliantly heaping scorn on (for example) the travesty of an art exhibit that he had just checked out that morning at the Whitney, on the ridiculously over-hyped novel-of-the-season that he’d just finished reading, and on whatever absurd excuse for serious cultural coverage he’d glanced at in that morning’s New York Times.  Virtually everything he said was quotable.  His talking was better than almost anybody else’s writing.

In short, he turned every lunch (at which the wine always flowed freely) into an event – a work of art in itself.  But this could be (to borrow Terry’s word) an intimidating experience for a young writer, especially one who’d just rolled out of bed after writing all night and scarcely felt capable of putting a coherent sentence together.  Still, as I say, he always put me at my ease immediately: unlike some people who are labeled intellectuals, he didn’t feel a need to turn a conversation into a contest; when having lunch with me, he talked about things he knew I knew about, and always made me feel as if I were actually making sense and saying something of value.  Most important, at the end of every lunch, I walked out of the restaurant as if on air – and desperately eager to get back to my writing.  For every one of those lunches served, for me, as a powerful reminder of what we were all in it for.  Almost every sentence Hilton uttered on those occasions brought home for me the meaning and importance of the battle we were waging for aesthetic and literary values, for freedom and civilization and true classical liberalism, against the left’s cultural nihilism, relativism, and perverse fondness for totalitarians.

I parted ways with The New Criterion in 1993 for reasons that need not be gone into here.  Let me just say that I cannot look at the website of The New Criterion nowadays, and see the cover of the latest issue, without experiencing an emotion akin to the feeling one has about the home one grew up in.  And when I learned that Hilton had died, I felt I had lost a member of the family.  I am exceedingly grateful to have known him; everyone who cherishes freedom and the glories of Western art and culture should be grateful that he existed.

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