LONG BEFORE I met Seymour Krim, I knew him by the book reviews he published in the Chicago Tribune -- in the late 1960s or early 1970s -- when I was a college student at the University of Illinois Circle Campus or shortly afterward. One page of this man's criticism let you know you were in the presence of a mind, the product of an intensely lived life and thousands of hours of reading and study. He was in that sense one of the last of that most precious dying breed, the man (or woman) of letters. But he was more than a well-trained, biting intellect -- he was a fighter with words, and to read his reviews was as exciting as watching Hurricane Carter take the breath out of a fabulous opponent in five seconds flat. Long before I'd ever published a word, there were some pretty big literary names saying the same thing about Seymour Krim. "Seymour Krim's mind is straight and deep as hell," said Jimmy Breslin. James Baldwin wrote that Krim's autobiography, Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, published in 1961, "is the most candid and truthful record of that time {the 1940s and 1950s} that I have ever read." But perhaps the greatest tribute came from Krim's old sparring partner in the New York literary arena, Norman Mailer. Mailer, who has put down almost every great American writer of our time, wrote that Krim's "prose is as brilliant upon occasion as the electronic beauty of our lights, his shifts and shatterings of mood as screeching and true as the grinding of wheels in a subway train." When I first went to meet him, in 1978, I knew scarcely more about him than that he had once held this rather eminent position among the heavyweights of his generation and then somehow descended to the trade of book reviewer. I had some hint of his eccentricity, however, in the fact that he had stopped using his first name, and now wrote under the enigmatic byline of just "Krim," though he abandoned this affectation in later years when he was writing for The Washington Post Book World and other book reviews. I was researching my biography of Jack Kerouac, Memory Babe, and Krim had written one of the first really sympathetic and intelligent pieces on Kerouac, as well as on the Beat writers in general -- a long essay, which served as introduction to Kerouac's Desolation Angels (1965). Whereas most of the critics until that time had seen the Beats, and Kerouac especially, as dope-taking, antisocial hoodlums who had only taken up art as a way of shirking their patriotic duty as hard-working, middle-class consumers, Krim had seen their quest for a larger range of human experience as an embodiment of the American dream itself, and a lot more courageous version of it than the one created by Madison Avenue and robotically accepted by the man in the gray flannel suit. Our first meeting was magical, and it set the tone for the unconventional friendship that followed. It was a rainy day in May, just after his birthday, and I had come from five consecutive interviews, with a broken umbrella, hair disheveledand drenched to the skin -- I certainly did not look like the tweedy academic biographer he probably expected. And where I was expecting an imperious literary lion, I found a big, baggy-pantsed, bear-like, jowly, genial, slow-moving, gravel-voiced mensch in a one-room flat on 10th Street in the East Village, whose entire literary set-up consisted of a plain wood desk, a small manual typewriter, a shaded high-intensity lamp, a telephone and one long wall of books. (I later found that he earned a good part of his meager income by selling his archives as fast as he created them to the University of Iowa, and also selling off the endless review copies of new books with which publishers deluged him.) He warmed me with a pot of tea -- he enchanted me with the candidness of his interview (and a tale of how Kerouac had enchanted him one night in a bar by offering Krim his own barstool) -- and then he performed an act that to this day astonishes me for its magnanimity. In 1960 Krim had edited what was arguably the best anthology of Beat writing, called simply The Beats. Krim took his own copy off the shelf, his only copy, filled with all his personal notes and emendations, and gave it to me, as a gift outright. When I read Krim's own contribution in the anthology, an essay called "The Insanity Bit" (probably the most famous piece of writing he ever did), I understood not only why he related so well to the Beat Generation, but why he had showed such surprising kindness to the rumpled, frazzled would-be writer who had wandered to his door. Though in the early 1950s Krim had written for Commentary, Partisan Review, Hudson review, and The New York Times Book Review, he had not come to that elite literary world in the usual manner. He was born to a poor Jewish family in the Bronx in 1922; his father died when he was 8, and his mother killed herself when he was 10. In high school he had started writing, and had gone to the University of North Carolina in emulation of the novelist Thomas Wolfe. But after a year he'd dropped out and returned to New York, where he survived on hack writing until the sheer brilliance of his work forced its way into the slicker publications. And then, in the summer of 1955, he'd had his mental breakdown, which was the turning point in his life. At the age of 33, he ran barefoot through the streets of New York, exposing himself, spitting on relatives, and physically threatening a variety of people -- till he was locked away in Bellevue and given insulin shock for schizophrenia. After he was let out, he rented a hotel room in Newark, with the intention of killing himself with barbiturates -- but that night, the sight of an earthy, frolicsome dancehall girl convinced him to stay alive. Nevertheless, when he told his psychiatrist about his planned suicide, he was immediately locked up again in a mental institution on Long Island, where he was given the even more barbaric treatment of electric shocks. Months later, when he was finally released, he had come to believe that neither he nor most of his fellow inmates were truly insane. Instead, he saw them as ordinary, good-intentioned souls tormented by the complexity of modern life. "The majority," he wrote, "had lost confidence in their own ability to survive in the world outside." As for himself, he claimed that he "needed an excuse to force some sort of balance between my bulging inner life and my timid outer behavior." From then on, Krim would attempt to live as fully on the streets as on paper. He moved to Greenwich Village, doffed suit and tie, and began wearing corduroy vests, checkered lumberjack shirts, and -- what became his trademark -- the oversize, short-beaked cloth worker's cap that was the trademark of the old-time lefty. He used his experience as a bohemian writer and intellectual, struggling to maintain his integrity, as both the substance of his own writing and the touchstone by which to judge the works of others. After Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, Krim published only two more books, both of them collections of his essays and reviews -- Shake it for the World, Smartass (1970) and You and Me (1974). He felt no sense of inferiority about publishing his small pieces, but instead tried to pack everything he knew into them in a poetic, condensed manner. He hoped to publish another such collection before he died, which he wanted to call "Why Not Take All of Me? " But the problem was that as time went on, he fell farther and farther from the literary mainstream. At the end, he told me, he was connected to the world "like a mountain-climber" by "a lifeline of about 50 people -- writers, editors and agents -- who respect my work." And yet he never lost his ambition to do that greater work that he so admired in literary titans like his friends James Farrell and James Jones. Since the publication of Cannoneer, he worked steadily, albeit sometimes at a snail's pace, on a great nonfiction novel, a magnum opus, to be called "Chaos." It would be filled with real people, real conversations, and real experiences of both street life and literary life in America, but at the same time it would be permeated by his own imagination, just as Cannoneer had been. AS AN older writer to a younger writer, there were two really important gifts Krim bestowed on me. The first was the teaching that there is nothing more destructive than competitiveness among writers. "Why can't writers just talk to one another as people?" he used to say. "Why do they always shy away from talking about the things that matter in their work? It's foolish to be bitter because your talent is not as big as someone else's." The other thing he taught me is that "it's not the amount you produce in a lifetime, the oeuvre, but it's the dedication, the keeping on." A true writer, he told me, never blunts his intelligence by taking the easy bet and merely going for commercial success -- he never quits writing, no matter how difficult or painstaking it becomes. "You lay it down brick by brick," he told me, "so that in the end when someone comes along to test it, he can thump it -- like a doctor thumps your chest -- and find that it's solid and true." The heart metaphor was not accidental. In May of 1986, while teaching on a Fulbright grant in Haifa, he suffered a silent heart attack, which destroyed half of his heart muscle. Doctors in New York told him that he would die of congestive heart failure within five years. Month by month he grew feebler, till he could scarcely walk a block, even taking baby steps, without growing breathless. He had to quit his part-time teaching job at Columbia University because he could no longer manage the stairs there. The last time I saw him was in November 1988. I promised to try to get back to New York to see him again soon, but he said, almost angrily: "You don't have to! We're in touch -- we're in touch." We hugged -- he did not rise from his chair, it was too much of an effort -- and I had a premonition that I wouldn't see him again. I felt that I needed to carry away some message from him for posterity, so perhaps a bit brashly, I asked him how he'd managed to survive so long under such adverse conditions. "I've been depressed plenty of times," he answered, "but when I'm feeling that way, I always try to reach out to some others. I like to play helper. It gives me a little bit of a sense of being part of the world, of having made a bit of difference for having lived." As I walked from his building that night, the bells of St. Mark's in the Bowery began to chime. On August 30, he was found dead at his desk by his nephew Donald Krim and his lawyer Bruce Ricker. A note explained to the police that he had followed the instructions for a painless death provided for terminal patients by the Hemlock Society. He did not want to grow so weak that he might be attacked on the street, or linger for months in a hospital. Another note asked that his ashes be scattered from the George Washington Bridge, in the shadow of which he had been born. It was not a death he meant us to grieve over. I remember him telling me that last night: "I'm not afraid of death. I've lived a full life. It's only the transition from life to death that's difficult." Gerald Nicosia, author of "Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac," is currently at work on a history of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement.