To any reader who may doubt it, I can attest that the public Hilton Kramer—the culture warrior, the corrector of taste, the defender of high modernism against the titters and travesties of Pop Art and after—was indeed the real Hilton Kramer. He was incapable of being anything other than what he was, a moralist in the field of aesthetics. He arrived at his convictions through looking hard at art and then testing what he saw against his heart, soul, mind, and historical imagination. He was the straightest of arrows, constitutionally incapable of striking a pose to win an argument or the confidence of others. He could not dissemble. In conversation, as anyone who ever talked with him will vividly remember, the full spectrum of emotion—anger, disgust, amazement, amusement, hilarity—played across his features with an almost childlike immediacy, transparency, and absence of guile. You knew where he stood—and where you stood with him—at any moment and on any subject. He was forever present and accounted for, always fully “on” because, for him, there was no such position as “off.” He was The Real Deal.
But the public person was not the whole of him. The forbidding critic was also, behind the scenes, a gentle encourager of young talent. I am privileged to have known him privately, as my boss, my editor, and my friend. I spent the best part of my thirties, from 1989 to 1995, in the room outside his office at The New Criterion. I was hired as a receptionist who could also read copy. Little by little, as I earned his trust and interest, he brought me along, in time inviting me to do more than I would have felt comfortable asking to do, including line-editing his pieces and attempting the first few pieces of my own. Hilton had learned firsthand from Philip Rahv, who accepted his journeyman’s essays for Partisan Review, that a young writer must be “given permission” to begin, must be given a protected space in which to try out his ideas, and that he needs a sincere and eager editorial sponsor to ask him regularly “What will you write for me next?” I believe that Hilton, by coaxing out my first reviews and showing me that I could meet his standards, was in some way repaying his debt to Rahv through me. I always wanted to do my best for him, to emulate the example he set, to reflect back a little of the light he shined my way. And on some level, in everything I attempt in the way of writing and editing, I still do.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 29
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