Hilton Kramer R.I.P.

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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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  • Schlomotion

    Damn it, Bruce! Why don't you write like this most of the time? I would believe this heartfelt eulogy even if it was written about an apple on a desk. Can't this be the real you? It is the real you. I'm serious.

    • Anonymous

      no one asked you, schmuck

      • Schlomotion

        Are you speaking on behalf of Bruce Bawer?

  • http://Baersart.com Jane Larson Baer

    Hilton Kramer viewed my paitings at my Artists Loft Gallery in the SoHo art district of New York City in the 1970s and wrote about it.

  • DogsHateRomney

    Kramer tended to oppose federal funding of the arts which is good!
    As conservative artist, art director, antique dealer, former gallery owner, and Laguna Beach judge (myself)…..

    "….a critic is a person whom knows the way; but can't drive the brush."

    To a large extent, what was happening with Hilton Cramer is an analogy for comparative humanistic politics.

  • Mannie Sherberg

    Mr. Bawer: Small wonder that Hilton Kramer admired your writing: you write superbly. This is a moving and, of course, deserved tribute to a fine man and a fine American. Every man's death leaves a hole in the fabric of the universe, but, in Mr. Kramer's case, the hole is huge. He had a capacious mind — and there seem to be fewer and fewer of those these days.