Aaron Kramer's Biography
Table of Contents
- Youth (1921-38)
- Kitty and College (1938-41)
- Marriage and Work (1942-44)
- Back to NYC (1944-46)
- Recommitment and Anticommunism (1947-49)
- McCarthyism, FBI Surveillance, Leaving the CPUSA (1950-55)
- Remaking a Life and Career (1956-61)
- Adelphi Suffolk and Earning a PhD (1962-66)
- Dowling, the Vietnam War, the Faculty Strike (1967-77)
- Grandparents (1977-89)
- Retirement (1990-95)
- Last Years (1996-97)
- Bibliography and Sources
During the winter of 1996/97, while he was hurriedly copy- editing the three books that would soon comprise his posthumous publications, Aaron Kramer had become convinced that, following his death, all his work would be forgotten and disappear. He was tormented by the prospect that his family and friends would throw out the many cartons of manuscripts, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and scrap books he had carefully collected and arranged during the course of his life and which were now stashed in his Oakdale, Long Island, home’s many closets and basement. Even the establishment between 1994 and 1996 of an Aaron Kramer archive in the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as well as earlier, smaller dedicated collections and archives at Harvard, Brown, SUNY Buffalo, and SUNY Stony Brook, did little to dispel his fear that he had vanished from American literature. For a man who in his youth had been used to extensive public acclaim as a people’s poet, favorable reviews in important periodicals, and a steadily growing reputation as a translator of German and Yiddish poets, the decades of critical silence following the McCarthy era had been abrupt, painful, and complete, akin to a biblical fall from grace. As he neared his death in April 1997, Kramer despondently declared his conviction that his life’s achievement would soon be neglected and lost forever.
3. Youth (1921-38)
Aaron Kramer was born at home, a cold-water flat, on Williams Avenue in the East New York section of Brooklyn on December 13, 1921. The son of Hyman and Mary Click Kramer, he had an older sister, Regina, born three years earlier. Hyman, an immigrant from Ukraine, was a low-waged bookbinder. Sometimes he attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish his own business, for example as an occasional proprietor of a small goods stall in Union Square, Manhattan. Mary, an immigrant from Poland, had done domestic and cafeteria work. The Kramers were among the working poor. The parents’ immersion in the socialism and communism of Eastern Europe and their membership in the Communist Party in the United States shaped young Aaron’s sociopolitical consciousness.
The Kramer family moved to 29th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1934, where the reality of Depression life often burdened them with limited family income. Not having a room of his own, young Aaron slept in the kitchen. Not until after 1934 was there a telephone in their home; family calls were made and received at the corner candy store’s public phone.
Kramer’s poetic talent manifested itself early while he was attending PS 174 in East New York. An admittedly unruly student in Miss Pearl R. Bynoe’s first grade class, he often ignored her assignments and daydreamed instead. One day he began to write his first poem, “something about a man asleep in a haystack.” Instead of scolding him, Miss Bynoe (as Kramer would always refer to her) read his poem aloud. Miss Bynoe then asked him to try to write another poem. Her affectionate encouragement and the class’s applause caused him to become her “best scholar.” At the end of the school year, Miss Bynoe gave him a gift of several pieces of oak tag on which she had written out his poems. Kramer cried. He would later recall that Pearl R. Bynoe instilled a love of poetry in him. He never forgot her. In fact in 1974, Kramer returned to PS 174 after establishing prizes in honor of her memory for the best poems written by students at his old elementary school, read the many of the poems aloud (just as Miss Bynoe did more than forty years earlier), and awarded the prizes himself.
When he was just twelve, his first published poem, “Milk,” appeared in a local newspaper. The complete text is lost; however, “Milk” included these lines (which his daughters incompletely recalled):
Milk the purest food
The drink of health
. . . The fluid stands on the table of wealth . . .
Better than all foods compiled
What is better for a child?
In 1935, while in junior high school, Kramer declared himself a “people’s poet.” He was already publishing poetry in New Pioneer; for example, his uncollected “My Song” appeared in the April 1934 issue also when he was twelve. After a dispute with the editors over a misprinted line in "The Statue" in the August 1936 issue (the young Kramer was adamant that his lines appear without typos, transposed lines, or other errors – a trait he would manifest throughout his life), Kramer stopped submitting to New Pioneer and began publishing in the children’s section of the Sunday Worker.
In 1935, Kramer entered Abraham Lincoln High School in Bensonhurst. Because of his intellectual ability, he skipped grades and graduated in 1937 at the age of fifteen. While there, he published in the school literary magazine as well as continuing regular publication in both the Sunday Worker and the Daily Worker, which printed poems such as “Ballad of Tom Mooney” (September 26, 1937) and “In the Land of Olives” (January 16, 1938) among others. During this time, he became a member of the Young Communist League. In September 1937, he entered Brooklyn College.
4. Kitty and College
In 1938, Kramer and his future wife Katherine (Kitty) Kolodny, then fourteen, met at the secular, socialist Yidddishkeit bungalow camp, Camp Kinderland, on Sylvan Lake in Hopewell Junction in upstate Duchess County, New York. The young woman from the Bronx utterly fascinated Kramer who was on summer break after finishing his freshman year at Brooklyn College.
By that same year, he had written such a considerable body of poetry that Hyman Kramer encouraged him to publish a collection in a volume. Kramer’s first book, The Alarm Clock, appeared in April 1938 in an edition of one thousand copies sponsored by local branches of the International Workers Order and the Young Communist League of Bensonhurst and partially underwritten by his proud father. The Alarm Clock includes an introduction by Mary Mack of the Sunday Worker. In poems such as “Thought on a Train,” “The Shoe-Shine Boy,” “Have You Felt the Heart of America,” and “Smiles and Blood,” Kramer demonstrates his engagement with the fundamental social issues like labor, racism, and class struggle that would concern him for the rest of his life.
While attending Brooklyn College, Kramer usually walked the four miles to campus from his home on 29th Street because he could not afford the nickel for public transportation. During this time, he began studying German, among other reasons so that he could read Heine and Rilke in the original. As a member of the Young Communist League and the American Student Union, he was also intensely involved in political as well as literary activity on the campus. However, he soon discovered that the young communist and labor writers on Observer, the college literary magazine, deeply influenced by Modernist poets like W. H. Auden, who was then teaching at Brooklyn College, scorned the rhymed poetry Kramer was writing as old-fashioned and outdated. He had already begun experiencing a similar resistance to his lyric poetry from the Young Labor Poets group whose workshops he attended in Manhattan. Kramer later recollected that “[t]here began a titanic, if secret, struggle within me, which has even now not entirely been resolved, between the role of ‘people’s poet,’ spokesman for the ‘voiceless millions,’ in traditional stanzas and accessible language, and the yearning to master 20th century techniques, to win acceptance by all my older staffmates on Observer.” [add Howard Pierson anecdotes]
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of August 22, 1939 engendered Kramer’s early doubts regarding the Communist Party, USA. Like many other American Communists, he was embarrassed by the CPUSA’s willing accommodation to the betrayal of its principles represented by the pact, even though some considered the pact necessary for the survival of the Soviet Union. Instead of being an anti-fascist force, the CPUSA, commencing with the pact, now championed American neutrality toward Hitler and the fascists. Kramer’s relationship with the party would become increasingly troubled until his complete break with it in 1955.
During this period, Kramer issued his second volume of poetry, Another Fountain, privately printed in May 1940. Another Fountain focuses on a range of social and political issues: the Spanish Civil War in “Sunlight” and “Dave Duran,” Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression in “The Ballad of Two Heroes,” racism in the United States in “Summer,” and an early criticism of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in “The Soul of Martin Dies.”
In 1941, Kramer at nineteen graduated from Brooklyn College with a BA in English. Since poverty was still an issue, he could not even afford to buy a copy of Broeklundian 1941, the college yearbook, in which his graduation photograph does not appear although he can be seen sitting with his fellow Observer editors in another section of the yearbook. Kramer had wanted to become a teacher but was advised that because of his slight lisp, in actuality merely a strongly sibilant New York accent, he would likely never pass the New York City Department of Education speech test. Several months later he was drafted. When his physical examination revealed an ulcer, he was excused from active duty.
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