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Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 13122
ISSN: 02760045
Journal code: PRCF

He dreamed that he was actually the hero of a legend, going back to his sophomore year at Columbia and taking the football team on to glory at the Rose Bowl, following with an A in Chemistry, running the fastest mile ever run in Madison Square Garden, being scouted by the Yankees for their baseball team, becoming a great actor playing King Lear, impressing Madison Avenue by writing "a book so golden and so purchased with magic that everybody smacks their brows," and ending up knocking out Joe Louis and becoming the world's heavyweight champion.

Kerouac, Ann Charters

We are all victims of the imagination in this country. The American Dream may sometimes seem like a dirty joke these days, but it was internalized long ago by our fevered little minds and it remains to haunt us as we fumble with the unglamorous pennies of life during the illusionless middle years. At fiftyone, believe it or not, or believe it and pity me if you are young and swift, I still don't know truly "what I want to be." I've published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who's Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I'm as open to every wild possibility as I was at thirteen, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat.

One life was never quite enough for what I had in mind.

At fifty my father was as built-in as a concrete foundation and at fifty-five he was crushed out of existence by the superstructure of his life. I have no superstructure except possibly in my head. I literally live alone with my fierce dreams, and my possessions are few. My father knew where he stood or thought he did, having originally come from an iron-cross Europe, but I only know that I stand on today with a silent prayer that tomorrow will bring to me my revelation and miraculize me.

That's because I come from America, which has to be the classic, ultimate, then-they-broke-the-mold incubator of not knowing who you are until you find out. I have never really found out and I expect what remains of my life to be one long search party for the final me. I don't kid myself that I'm alone in this, hardly, and I don't really think that the great day will ever come when I hold a finished me in my fist and say here you are, congratulations. I'm talking primarily about the expression ofthat me in the world, the shape it takes, the profile it zings out, the "work" it does.

You may sometimes think everyone lives in the crotch of the pleasure principle these days except you, but you have company, friend. I live under the same pressures you do. It is still your work or role that finally gives you your definition in our society, and the thousands upon thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls. Many never will. I think what I have to say here will speak for some of their secret life and for that other sad America you don't hear too much about. This isn't presumption so much as a voice of scars and stars talking. I've lived it and will probably go on living it until they take away my hot dog.

Consider (as the noble Dickens used to say about just such a lad as I) a boy at the turn of the '30s growing up in this land without parents, discipline, any religion to speak of, yet with a famished need that almost unconsciously filled the vacuum where the solid family heart should be, the dizzying spectacle of his senses. America was my carnival at an earlier age than most and I wanted to be everything in it that turned me on, like a youth bouncing around crazed on a boardwalk. I mean literally everything. I was as unanchored a kid as you can conceive of, an open fuse-box of blind yearning, and out of what I now assume was unimaginable loneliness and human hunger I greedily tried on the personalities of every type on the national scene as picked up through newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, and just nosing around.

And what a juicy parade through any inexperienced and wildly applauding mind America was then, what a nonstop variety show of heroes, adventurers, fabulous kinds of human beings to hook onto if you were totally on your own without any guidance and looking for your star in a society that almost drove you batty with desire. In my earnest role-playing the philosophical tramp and the cool millionaire-playboy were second nature to me, as were the style and stance of ballplayers, barnstorming pilots, polar explorers, radio personalities (how can I ever forget you, gorgeous-voiced Ted Husing?), generals, bridgebuilding engineers, treasure-hunters, crooners, inventors. I wanted to be and actually was Glenn Cunningham, Joe E. Penner, Kid Chocolate, Chandu the Magician, Eugene O'Neill, a Gangbuster. If you're old enough, tick off the names of the rotogravure big-shots of the time and see Seymour impersonating them in his private magic theater. And later on when I had lost my adolescent shame and knew myself to be a freak of the imagination, even wallowed in it, I identified with women like Amelia Earhart and even the hot ripe early pinup girl, Iris Adrian, and transvestited my mind to see the world through their long lashes and tough lace. Democracy means democracy of the fantasy life, too, there are no cops crouching in the corridors of the brain. Dr. Freud's superego hasn't been able to pull its old-country rank over here, even though it's tried like a mother, or should I say a father?

But my point is this: what a great fitting-room for experimentation, a huge sci-fi lab for making the self you wanted, America was for those of us who needed models, forms, shapes we could throw ourselves into. Obviously, everyone from my generation didn't chuck caution out the window even if they felt the lure, as I did, of a new make-your-own-lifesize-man era. Some of my more realistic contemporaries narrowed it all down early and became the comparative successes they are today. Whether it's making a lot of money selling scrap in a junkyard (Ed Feinberg) or writing thrillers for connoisseurs of kinkiness (Patricia Highsmith), they all had to focus clearly, work hard. As traps and frustrations of fifty-one close down around me, with all the small defects and petty hurts that sometimes seem to choke away all thoughts of the unique Homeric journey of the inner person in America, everyone's inner person, I salute them for achieving some of what they wanted. Nobody gets it all. But I salute anyone in this bewildering dreamland of a nation who has managed to cut through the wilderness of tangled trails to some definite cabin of achievement and reward.

Yet those of us who have never really nailed it down, who have charged through life from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, from new project to new project, even from personality-revolution to personality-revolution, have a secret also. I'm sorry to say it isn't the kind that desperate people can use to improve themselves, like those ads in the newspaper. Sadly enough, it IS the kind that people in my seven-league but very leaky boots often take to psychiatrists, hoping to simplify their experience because they can't cope with the murderous tangle of it. But for those of us who have lived through each twist and turn, the psychiatry sessions, the occasional abyss, the endless review of our lives to see where we went wrong, and then come to see our natures as strange and special manifestations of a time and place that will never come again, there is a wonder in it that almost makes up for the beating we are beginning to take at the hands of the professional heavyweight world.

Our secret is that we still have an epic longing to be more than what we are, to multiply ourselves, to integrate all the identities and action-fantasies we have experienced, above all to keep experimenting with our lives all the way to Forest Lawn to see how much we can make real out of that prolific American Dream machine within. Let me say it plainly: our true projects have finally been ourselves. It's as if we had taken literally the old cornball Land of Opportunity slogan and incorporated it into the pit of the being instead of the space around us; and fallen so much in love with the ongoing excitement of becoming, even the illusion of becoming, that our pants often fall down and reveal our dirty skivvies and skinny legs. The laughter hurts, believe me, but it doesn't stop us for very long. We were hooked early.

What it comes down to is that the America of the pioneer has been made subjective by us. The endless rolling back of the frontier goes on within our heads all the time. We are the updated Daniel Boones of American inner space. Each of our lives, for those of us in this countrywide fraternity, seems to us a novel or a play or a movie in itself, draining our energy but then at other moments lifting us up to spectacular highs, yet always moving, the big wagon-train of great new possibilities always crushing on. The fact that all of this is private doesn't make it any less real. What it does do is make us ache with hopelessness at times as to how to find a vocation for this private superadventure serial out on the streets of life.

I know for a fact that I wanted to become a novelist in my teens just so that I could be all these different personalities and events that it was physically impossible for me to be any other way. As a matter of fact, I feel that the writing of the realistic/romantic novel in America (and they were usually one and the same, with the hairy details just used to tack down the sweep of imagination) came out of these basic human needs to transcend the one body, and temperament you were born with in order to mingle imaginatively with a cast of thousands that could only exist in a monster-country like ours. Others wanted to become actors for much the same reason, to impersonate all the people they could not be, but in my case I wanted to compose the script itself so that I could participate in the minds as well as the outward actions of characters who were all extensions of myself and my own mad love affair with the fabulous diversity of this society.

I never accepted the discipline or, finally, the belief in a pure fiction separate from myself and never became the marvelous novelist of my teenage ambition. But I was an inward one, just as so many young kids today shoot movies in their heads with themselves as the leading character. I think it was just an accident of history that made me good at words instead of the sounds and pictures which are the newest language, but I feel little superiority at being able to pitch a word or two compared to those like myself in other ways who are tongue-tied. What unites us all is that we never knew except in bits and pieces how to find a total expression, appreciated by our peers, in which we could deliver ourselves of all the huge and contradictory desires we felt within. The country was too rich and confusing for us to want to be one thing at the expense of another. We were the victims of our enormous appreciation of it all.

Even though, with words coming easily to me, I began in my twenties that long string of never totally satisfying jobs as Office of War Information rewrite man, assistant pulp editor, motion-picture publicity writer, motion-picture script reader, book reviewer, finally editor of a magazine, I was always looking past them. When I heard a great black blues singer, I wanted to incorporate that sound in me and even tried singing in Greenwich Village. When I saw a handsome movie star close up, I thought that was my birthright also and went to a plastic surgeon to try and make me look more like this example of male beauty. When I had saturated myself with the brilliant records of Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, I thought that I too should improvise in a nightclub and even played a small engagement in the Midwest to painfully act this dream out. Whatever I saw that was good in others and which I didn't possess, I tried literally to add to my nature, graft on to the living flesh. It seemed to me, and I'm sure to those like me who haven't yet spoken, that American society was essentially a launching pad for the endless development of the Self.

We cared more about trying to enlarge and extend the boundaries of being what we were, of demonically sucking all of the country's possibilities into ourselves, than we did about perfecting a single craft or profession. As I've said, it was a beautiful, breathless eagerness for all the life we could hold inside, packed layer on layer like a bulging quart container of ice cream. Granted that in a way it was the most rank kind of selfishness and self-absorption, yet this too was forecast and made part of the national inheritance in 1870 when Walt Whitman chanted, "One's-self I sing - a simple, separate person; yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse." That's what this democracy was for us, a huge supermarket of mass man where we could take a piece here and a piece there to make our personalities for ourselves instead of putting up with what was given at the beginning.

But this lovely idea became for some of us a tragedy, or at least a terrible confusion that wasn't counted on at the beginning. When do you stop making a personality? When do you stop fantasizing an endless you and try to make it with what you've got? The answer is never, really. You keep adding and subtracting from that creation which is yourself until the last moment. Once begun, it is not a habit that can be given up easily. Some people who started off this risky life-game with high hopes found that after a while they were unable to live with the self they began with and unable to come close to the self, or selves, they desired to be. They üve in pain, and some are no longer living at all, having found it too bitter to take.

In my own case, because of the fluency with words, I was able to express my own longings and desires with personal statements in print as the years went by, and thus I wasn't as completely frustrated as those other dreamers I know who have run the gamut of jobs and flings at movies, writing, dancing, politics, and yet have never found a home to match their imaginations. Simply put, they never found a form to contain them, or have only caught it momentarily, and then it was gone.

During my twenties and thirties, even into my forties, it was exhilarating to learn and be involved at this and then that steaming source- the Partisan Review brigade of radical intellectuals, then the Beat Generation, then a wonderful fling at daily newspaper reporting on the New York Herald Tribune, then the breakthrough (to my mind) of the New Journalism. I was confident as are all American nomads of the jeweled highways of the imagination that there would be a sudden confluence of all the roads at some fated point and then I would put it all together with a gorgeous thunderclap. No soap. Actually all of this can conceivably happen, but the mathematics are against you as time goes on. Yet time is just that factor we don't want to hear about until it elbows us in the nose.

We know all along that time is squeezing us into a corner while we mentally rocket to each new star that flares across our sky, and yet we can't help ourselves. We forget that our contemporaries are building up wealth of one kind or another, reputations, consistency, credit in the world, and that it counts for more as age settles down around all of us, the very age we have denied or ignored. In a way, those of us who have lived higher in the mind than on the sidewalk making and revising our salad of possibilities have stayed younger than we should have. We have even been sealed off from our own image as it's seen by others.

Yet each one of us sooner or later gets the elbow that reminds us that the "real world" we have postponed making a deal with, in fact played with like Chaplin kicking the globe around in The Great Dictator, has been evaluating us with a different set of standards than the ones we have been applying to ourselves. If we have been snotty towards ordinary success, proud and mysterious as we followed the inner light, even making thoughtless cracks about those who settle for little, then the day always comes when our own inability to put it all together is seen by another who wants to cut us down to size and our lives suddenly explode in our faces. Mine came in February of 1970 when a brash, unshy public personality I know, an ex-pal who came hungry and swinging off the city streets, reacted violently to a piece of public comment I made about him and a book he wrote and sent me a bitter telegram calling me a "failure" who spent his sniveling days carving up his betters. My payoff after all those invisible high-flying years!

I was living in Europe at the time, where the attitude towards personal success and failure is much less of a real distinction than over here because of the evenhanded wounds of recent history. Everyone was badly hurt by the war. Even today one man or woman's fate counts for less than some kind of minimum well-being for masses of people who are trapped by political and economic circumstances beyond their control and must learn to live, cheerfully if possible, without much hope for large personal triumphs. It is a relief for Americans who come from a society that glorifies individual achievement to the aching and breaking point to live over there for a while, and try to recuperate from the American heat in a different psychological climate. In fact many of our permanent expatriates are just the kind of people I have been talking about all through this communication, a band who have never found themselves by our official standards and perhaps never will, but who can live more at peace beyond our shores with less money and less strain than at home.

I, too, had been unkinked in this easier, we're-all-fucked-together-so-let'smake-the-best-of-it environment, self-lulled into thinking I was as rich and potential a human gold mine as I always believed- as all of us in my camp want to believe - when the dirty American word "failure" winged its way across the water and hit me where it hurts. It was obviously not the way I saw myself, the way any of us saw ourselves, always living on the lip of hope, the great configuration of our many possibilities always within an inch of being jigsawed together, the intensity of our days denying to us that we had wasted them. But I wanted to face the word in all of the ugliness it stirred up for anyone who came out of the middle class, which means most of us. It suddenly and brutally defined to me the price I had paid for my bid to be everything that proposed itself to my imagination. Maybe I never had a choice, and would have been an uncertain performer at whatever I did, but my decision to aim at the stars had been a conscious one and this was the way it was being weighed on the common man's do-it-or-shut-up scale. (My ex-friend's strength as a personality and writer is precisely his common- Joe instincts; ditto for what he doesn't see.)

I don't know if my fellow visionaries will tolerate the word "failure" when members of their blood families, looking to them for money, status, some tangible outer sign of the golden inner constellations they claim to have traveled, fling this ancient curse at them. Perhaps they should not accept it in any sense and preserve the innocence that started them on a quest beyond materialism, petty achievement, the reduction of their many selves into one Kodak-pure white shirtfront on which a conventional medal can be pinned. Perhaps.

But I personally am not ashamed of the tag, although it tore a hole through my pride. As Jack Lemmon said recently, "Success is always somebody else's opinion and not your own," and so it is with failure as well. Obviously the majority of skeptical life-scarred adults who have seen their own illusions go down the drain will not be as sympathetic as we were to the lavish possibilities we envisioned in our minds, the many shapes we wanted to translate this into, the difficulty of using our American birthright to the full in a totally exploratory way. They want results as time tightens its grip on all of us. And it is only partial results, inconclusive, shifting, mistake-riddled, unfinished, that we mostly have to show as we start the final lap. So it is foolish not to admit that they are right as far as they go, the hardboiled dockers of money, product, prestige, the pragmatiste who check off winners and losers only and not whatmight-have-beens or any fancy complexity of motives.

But if you are a proud, searching "failure" in this society, and we can take ironic comfort in the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of us, then it is smart and honorable to know what you attempted and why you are now vulnerable to the body blows of those who once saw you robed in the glow of your vision and now only see an unmade bed and a few unwashed cups on the bare wooden table of a gray day. What we usually refuse to acknowledge in our increasingly defensive posture is that we chose our royal inner trip out of an excess of blind faith, out of a reach beyond what we might have had if our desires had been less granthose. I can't really criticize this, I think it is inherent in the American mystique to want to go all the way to the limit of your imagination, but if we are straight about it we must accept that we are in large part responsible for the jam we are now in.

In my own situation I know only too well that from childhood and adolescence on I clutched at the habit of dreaming up a glittering future, always, instead of putting my head down and slugging my way through the present. I must confess that in an almost reflexive sense I still find myself doing this childish number, as do so many of those other poor lovely romantics who are like me. It's a primitive method so native to us by now that it is part of us. What was once a psychological choice when we were young, in other words, has now become for many of us a habit as hard to kick as junk. The handy magic of relying on the future, on tomorrow, to knit together all the parts of a self that we hoarded up for a lifetime can't be stopped at this late date, or won't be stopped, because our frame of mind was always that of a long-odds gambler. One day it would all pay off. But for most of us, I'm afraid that day will never come- the original hopes, their extravagant range and spaciousness, and yes, their lack of specific clarity and specific definition, were beyond translation into deed. They dramatized our lives for a good long while and then turned slightly sour when people began to ask for proof.

For a minority, and I still believe this, the special form they seek to pull it all together will unexpectedly click into place after years of turning the key this way and that. And as for myself, I am lucky I guess in that I can write about this very phenomenon that I live while others who experience it just as toughly, maybe even more so, are without the words to tell you what they have gone through. Maybe that is my "revelation," the final "me," my purpose in the schemelessness of things after looking so strenuously in all directions and being so discontented with what I can apparently do without strain.

But this is a poor second to what I wanted and I will never be satisfied with sketching my own portrait and that of those like me when it was action we finally craved, after all those dress rehearsals in the mind, and not self-analysis. America worked on us too hard, when you get right down to it. We imaginatively lived out all the mythic possibilities, all the personal turn-on of practically superhuman accomplishment, stimulated by the fables of the media. We were the perfect big-eyed consumers of this country's four-color ad to the universe, wanting to be one tempting thing and then another and ending up, most of us, with little but the sadly smiling hope that time would somehow solve our situation. When I've been brave, I've told my friends who share my plight that this is no longer a true possibility to hang on to. Time will most likely repeat itself. We will most likely repeat ourselves. Most of my friends agree, with that hard twinkle in the eye that unites all of us who have earned it.

But you cannot separate us from the deepest promise of the country as it was lived within by very sensitive poets without a tongue, so to speak, and perhaps the ultimate failure of the country. This last is not an easy thing to say, even in a time in which America-baiting is the rage. Like most of us in the failure business, I am, we are, patriots so outrageously old-fashioned that we incorporated the spirit of the country in our very heads, took literally its every invitation to the greatest kind of self-fulfillment ever known. There's something beautiful about being an American sucker, even if you pay for it with tears and worse. We were millionaires of the spirit for at least twenty adult years before we felt the lowering of the boom, and in the last analysis it is the spirit, the attitude within, a quality of soul, that this country has to offer to history much more than its tangible steel and the bright blood too often accompanying it.

It might be, and this is the tragic point of intersection between our lives and that of the land that produced us, that America in its ultimate sense was never anything but promise, the future, the hope of one day putting it all together- just like us- and that the reality has always been disappointment after that initial fairy-tale spring rain upon the green longings of its children. I don't mean this in a sour-grape sense, please accept that such a motive is beneath me; I would never damn the country as a whole because I have not gotten out of it what I so fervently wanted. But I truly think that the Idea of America was so overwhelming to those of us who bit right to the core of the infinitely juicy hope that it had to let us down on a sheer reality-level, even if we had come close to acting out the wondrous. We, like the nation itself, were so impressed with our potential that we took victory in everything for granted. And both of us have been pounded into pretty fair philosophers as a result of recent events.

Those of us who climbed the hill on the basis of our country's promise, and are now going down the other side, can't reclaim any of the years spent in the most exalted daydreaming. All we can do is suggest other values to our kids which will in turn be passed on to theirs. But perhaps we fed our visions into the atmosphere, and added to the depth and richness of a different new America to come. Perhaps this seeding of the air will one day be credited to us, the mostly unknown soldiers of the last innocent battalion who fought for the American Dream on the most intimate level it can be conceived of. It was too immense not to embrace.

"For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" first appeared in Seymour Krim's essay collection You & Me, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974. It is reprinted herefrom Mark Cohen's Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim, Syracuse University Press, 2010, with the kind permission of Mr. Cohen and the Estate of Seymour Krim.

Author affiliation:

SEYMOUR KRIM (1922-1989) was an essayist and editor, and a contributor to Playboy, New York Magazine, the New York Times, and Village Voice.

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