May 1, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 15

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    Krupnick, studied New York’s literary and political critics

    Mark Krupnick, Professor in the Divinity School and the Committee on Jewish Studies and one of the nation’s leading scholars of Jewish-American intellectual life, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease Saturday, March 29, at his Chicago home. He was 63.

    A member of the faculty since 1990, Krupnick devoted much of his life to studying the New York intellectuals–a group of literary and political critics, most of them Jewish, who rose to national prominence in the 1940s and 1950s, and whose writing appeared in opinion journals such as Partisan Review and Commentary.

    Of all his work, Krupnick is best known as a critic of Lionel Trilling, said Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Professor in the Divinity School. His 1986 book, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism, a critical analysis of the most distinguished of the New York intellectuals, and the most important literary critic of his generation, was significant not only as a seminal work of scholarship, but also because of its boldness, Lincoln said. “Mark ultimately faulted the master (Trilling), not for any technical or aesthetic lapses, but for a failure of courage, leadership and moral vision when it came to Vietnam.”

    Krupnick’s life-long fascination with the New York intellectuals began in his teen-age years. Weeks before his death, Krupnick completed a manuscript titled, Jewish Writing: The Deep Places of the Imagination, a collection of his essays, including those on Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and other Jewish intellectuals. The University of Wisconsin Press will publish this forthcoming book.

    “What distinguished Mark’s writing about New York intellectuals is that he knew these people,” said Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School. “He wrote about these people with a deep understanding and sensitivity.”

    In addition to his book on Trilling, Krupnick edited and introduced Displacement: Derrida and After, a collection of original essays on his second major research interest, theories of textual interpretation.

    But, like the New York intellectuals he wrote about, Krupnick was drawn to writing essays rather than full-length books. “Mark believed the classic essay was the finest form of scholarly expression,” said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School. “It could be technical in orientation yet deeply accessible.”

    As an essayist, Krupnick addressed a vast number of themes, ranging far beyond his academic interests. Altogether, he published nearly 200 full-length essays, review essays, shorter reviews, brief articles and op-ed pieces on such varied topics as his detestation of sports utility vehicles and the sale of donor eggs for in vitro fertilization.

    Krupnick wrote several of his most celebrated essays during the last years of his life. After learning of his terminal illness two years ago, he increasingly wrote about death and dying. Particularly fascinated with a genre–writing about death–Krupnick, who had himself written obituaries for the English paper The Guardian, studied the obituary like a literary form and wrote an essay in last fall’s American Scholar titled, “The Art of the Obituary.” He also wrote an essay in the Chicago Tribune that admonished a culture in which terminally ill patients are told to never give up hope.

    “If anything,” said Doniger, “his style as he approached death became even bolder. He was compact and direct, and he never hedged.”

    Born in Newark, and raised in Irvington, N.J., Krupnick graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College in 1962, with an A.B. in American History and Literature. During his Harvard years, Krupnick took a two-year leave of absence and moved to New York. There, he became a research assistant on the sports desk of the New York Post and spent time frequenting the cafés and bars of Greenwich Village, including the Cedar Bar, where the Abstract Expressionists imbibed.

    “I think his interest in the New York intellectuals was largely autobiographical,” said Lincoln. “He was a smart Jewish kid who went to Harvard at a time when that was still unusual. He hung out in the Village with people who had unfashionable and unconventional opinions.” The difference between Krupnick and the intellectuals he wrote about was that “he didn’t care much about politics. So rather than focus on the politics of the day, he became a critic of the critics,” said Lincoln.

    Krupnick earned his M.A. (1963) and Ph.D. (1968) from Brandeis University. While at Brandeis, he won a Fulbright scholarship and spent a year studying at Darwin College at the University of Cambridge.

    In 1966, following his year of study at Darwin, Krupnick began teaching full time at Smith College. In 1968, he joined the faculty of Boston University as an assistant professor of English. In 1974, he joined the English department faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1979, he moved with his family to Chicago, so his wife, Jean, could pursue a doctorate in Human Development at the University, and to stay close to their young son. His commute to Milwaukee ended when he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1987. Although he was a literary scholar, Krupnick joined the faculty of the University’s Divinity School in 1990.

    A frequent contributor to magazines and journals, Krupnick was an associate editor at the Boston-based journal Modern Occasions from 1970 to 1972, under his mentor, Philip Rahv. Krupnick also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Chicago’s Newberry Library. In 1995, he received an award for literary criticism from the Society of Midland Authors.

    Krupnick is survived by his wife, Jean Carney, Chicago; his son, Joseph Carney Krupnick, Chicago; his mother, Betty Krupnick, Mountain View, Calif.; and two sisters, Elyse Krupnick, Mountain View, Calif.; and Janice Krupnick Suzman, Chevy Chase, Md.