The White Negro
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Norman Mailer published his essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” in Dissent in 1957. It was reprinted in Mailer’s collection Advertisements for Myself in 1959 and republished in pamphlet form by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in 1959. According to Mailer biographer J. Michael Lennon, “The White Negro” became the “intellectual manifesto” of the Beat Generation, just as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road represented the mythical roadmap and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl the poetic testament. “The White Negro,” Lennon said, was “the most discussed American essay in the quarter century after World War II” and “the most reprinted essay of the era.”
Post-WWII era: two greatest horrors of the 20th century: the Holocaust and atomic warfare; Beats lived and wrote in the wake of these cataclysmic, earth-shattering events, feeling that they were living at the end of the world; they had a distinct sense of Western civilization in decline.
Cold War: threat of nuclear annihilation caused people to question the meaning of life and death; the fact that millions of people could be destroyed through no fault of their own tended to make some people like Mailer and the Beats question what their lives, and therefore their deaths, were really about.
The Cold War also led to paranoia over the threat of communism, McCarthyism—propaganda, political repression, and conformity; Post-WWII economic boon; period of economic prosperity and materialism.
Another effect of economic prosperity was the growth of mass culture: mass media advertising and marketing that imposed uniformity of styles and desires and encouraged people to become mindless consumers.Growth of the middle-class and of suburbanization: ideal of corporate success, nuclear family; domesticity, monogamy.
Since its initial publication “The White Negro” provoked controversy. Among Mailer’s contemporaries, Norman Podhoretz (1958) harv error: no target: CITEREFPodhoretz1958 (help) lumped him together with Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg as “Know-Nothing Bohemians” and castigated him for his suggestion that violence, including sexual violence, represented a legitimate response to the instinctual repression of his age. Friend and colleague James Baldwin (1988) harv error: no target: CITEREFBaldwin1988 (help) wrote in “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” that Mailer’s views on race were founded more on fantasy than on fact, and he dismissed his fellow author’s implicit claim to hipness. Some of the more sympathetic critics like Laura Adams (1976) harv error: no target: CITEREFAdams1976 (help), Robert Solotaroff (1972) harv error: no target: CITEREFSolotaroff1972 (help), and Robert Ehrlich (1978) harv error: no target: CITEREFEhrlich1978 (help) concentrated on the essay’s existential themes; faced with the possibility of mass, impersonal death as a result concentration camps or atomic weapons on one hand, or the certainty of a “slow death by conformity” on the other, the hipster, as Mailer said, chose “to divorce [himself] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that unchartered journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self” and “to the encourage the psychopath” in himself, that his, to follow his instincts even at the risk of anti-social behavior. To Alan Petigny, the hipster presented “an alternate vision of the self…during the Age of Eisenhower.” Joe Wenke extended this theme, seeing in the hipster a figure who “reveals the romantic possibilities inherent in alienation as an existential approximation of the Adamic condition.”
More recent criticism of the essay, viewed through the lens of Gender Studies and African-American Studies, testifies to the essay’s continuing relevance as an important cultural touchstone. Gary Marx attacked Mailer’s stereotypical construction of African-American identity. Frederick Whiting (2005) harv error: no target: CITEREFWhiting2005 (help) and Steve Shoemaker (1991) harv error: no target: CITEREFShoemaker1991 (help) critiqued Mailer’s assumptions about gender and homosexuality as suggested by his masculine, heteronormative rhetoric, which Andrea Levine saw as Mailer’s attempt “to ‘remasculinize’ the Jewish body” in the wake of the Holocaust. Over sixty years after its initial publication, critics have continued to find Mailer’s essay relevant, if not indispensable. In Hip: The History, John Leland (2004) harv error: no target: CITEREFLeland2004 (help) frequently referenced the essay as a crucial stage in the evolution of what it means to be hip. Maggie McKinley revisited Mailer’s endorsement of violence in the essay, countering earlier criticism with the observation that “Mailer clearly believes in the power of violence, yet like [Hannah] Arendt, his writings (both fictional and nonfictional) also suggest that he sees the damage that might be wielded by violence, especially when that violence is used by governments as a mechanism of totalitarian control.” Most recently, Lauren Michelle Jackson (2019) harv error: no target: CITEREFJackson2019 (help) borrowed Mailer’s title to explore the study of white Americans’ appropriation of African-American culture.
Our search for the rebels of the generation led us to the hipster. The hipster is an enfant terrible turned inside out. In character with his time, he is trying to get back at the conformists by lying low . . . You can’t interview a hipster because his main goal is to keep out of a society which, he thinks, is trying to make everyone over in its own image. He takes marijuana because it supplies him with experiences that can’t be shared with “squares.” He may affect a broad-brimmed hat or a zoot suit, but usually he prefers to skulk unmarked. The hipster may be a jazz musician; he is rarely an artist, almost never a writer. He may earn his living as a petty criminal, a hobo, a carnival roustabout or a free-lance moving man in Greenwich Village, but some hipsters have found a safe refuge in the upper income brackets as television comics or movie actors. (The late James Dean, for one, was a hipster hero.) . . . it is tempting to describe the hipster in psychiatric terms as infantile, but the style of his infantilism is a sign of the times. He does not try to enforce his will on others, Napoleon-fashion, but contents himself with a magical omnipotence never disproved because never tested. . . . As the only extreme nonconformist of his generation, he exercises a powerful if underground appeal for conformists, through newspaper accounts of his delinquencies, his structureless jazz, and his emotive grunt words.— Caroline Bird, “Born 1930: The Unlost Generation,” Harper’s Bazaar, Feb. 1957[d]
- It’s worth noting that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) credits Mailer as the first writer to use the adjective “white” to qualify “Negro”. This usage, as well as other observations he makes throughout the essay, suggests that Mailer was actually on the cutting edge of the idea that race was not merely biological but cultural as well, i.e., a social and cultural construct.
- The word “negro” is no longer really in use, and these days would be considered racist. That was not true in the 1950s, however, when Mailer wrote the essay. It would be another 10-15 years or so before the term African-American became prevalent as preferred usage. Readers then and now might find Mailer’s essay implicitly racist in the assumptions he makes about the daily lives of African-Americans, and that’s a valid criticism, but Mailer was attempting, however successfully or unsuccessfully, to identify with African-Americans and to acknowledge the influence African-American culture exerted on the dominant culture, at least among the select few who considered themselves Hip.
- The sub-title ‘Superficial Reflections’ self-deprecatingly reflects Mailer’s awareness of the difficulty of his project.
- In her article, which Mailer excerpts here, Bird clearly viewed the phenomenon of the Hipster through a critical lens; Mailer, characteristically combative, perhaps prefaced his essay with this quote in order to contrast his view of the Hipster with that the status quo intelligentsia, who largely ridiculed the Beat generation authors as well.
- Lennon 2013, p. 239. harv error: no target: CITEREFLennon2013 (help)
- Lennon 2013, p. 220. harv error: no target: CITEREFLennon2013 (help)
- Mailer 1959, p. 339. harv error: no target: CITEREFMailer1959 (help)
- Petigny 2007, p. 186. harv error: no target: CITEREFPetigny2007 (help)
- Wenke 2013, p. 67. harv error: no target: CITEREFWenke2013 (help)
- Whiting 2005, p. 60. harv error: no target: CITEREFWhiting2005 (help)
- McKinley 2015, p. 69. harv error: no target: CITEREFMcKinley2015 (help)
- Adams, Laura (1976). Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer. Athens, OH: Ohio UP.
- Baldwin, James (1988). "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy". Collected Essays. New York: Library of America. pp. 269–285.
- Ehrlich, Robert (1978). Norman Mailer: The Radical as Hipster. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
- Gutman, Stanley T. (1975). Mankind in Barbary: The Individual and Society in the Novels of Norman Mailer. Hanover, NH: The University Press of New England.
- Holmes, John Clellon (February 1, 1958). "The Philosophy of the Beat Generation". Esquire. pp. 35–47. Retrieved 2019-03-23.
- Leland, John (2004). Hip: The History. New York: Harper Collins.
- Lennon, J. Michael (2013). Norman Mailer: A Double Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Levine, Andrea (2003). "The (Jewish) White Negro: Norman Mailer's Racial Bodies". MELUS. 28 (2): 59–81. Retrieved 2021-03-15.
- Mailer, Norman (1959). "The White Negro". Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam. pp. 337–358.
- Malaquais, Jean (1959). "Reflections on Hip". In Mailer, Norman. Advertisements for Myself. pp. 359–62.
- Marx, Gary T. (1967). "The White Negro and the Negro White". Phylon. 28 (2): 168–177. Retrieved 2021-03-15.
- McKinley, Maggie (2015). Masculinity and the Paradox of Violence in American Fiction, 1950-1975. New York: Bloomsbury.
- Mosser, Jason (2017). "'The White Negro': A Selective Bibliography". The Mailer Review. 11 (1): 208–224. Retrieved 2020-10-20.
- O'Neil, Paul (November 30, 1959). "The Only Rebellion Around". Life Magazine. Vol. 47 no. 22. pp. 115+.
- Petigny, Alan (2007). "Norman Mailer, 'The White Negro,' and New Conceptions of the Self in Postwar America". The Mailer Review. 1 (1): 184–193. Retrieved 2021-03-15.
- Podhoretz, Norman (1958). "The Know-Nothing Bohemians". Partisan Review. Vol. 25 no. 2. pp. 305+.
- Polsky, Ned (1959). "Reflections on Hip". In Mailer, Norman. Advertisements for Myself. pp. 365–69.
- Shoemaker, Steve (1991). "Norman Mailer's 'White Negro': Historical Myth or Mythical History?". Twentieth Century Literature. 37 (3): 343–360.
- Solotaroff, Robert (1972). Down Mailer’s Way. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Wenke, Joe (2013). Mailer's America. Stamford, CT: Trans Uber LLC.
- Whiting, Frederick (2005). "Stronger, Smarter, and Less Queer: 'The White Negro' and Mailer's Third Man". Women’s Studies Quarterly. 35 (¾): 189–214.