The White Negro

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57.1 59.8a The White Negro 1 2 3 4 5 6 Bibliography  
Wn-eyes.jpeg
Written by
Norman Mailer
Note: A scholarly edition.
Permalink: https://prmlr.us/wn

“The White Negro” was first published in Dissent, Fall 1957, where Mailer was a long time contributor and board member. Later, it was published as a stand-alone book by City Lights in 1959, then by Mailer in Advertisements for Myself, also in 1959. Most recently it appears in Mind of an Outlaw, 2013. Added to Project Mailer as part of an educational project and an example of a potential Digital Humanities scholarly critical edition.

Historical Context

Same as that for the Beat Generation:

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.

Style

Complex syntax: Mailer is trying to develop a complex argument, so his prose reflects the process of working through the task he has set for himself, to define this new phenomenon, post-WWII Hip and the Hipster, and he used his style as a means not just of articulating but discovering what he wants to say.

*     *     *

The White[1] Negro[2]
Superficial Reflections on the Hipster[3]

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[4]

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The sub-title ‘Superficial Reflections’ self-deprecatingly reflects Mailer’s awareness of the difficulty of his project.
  4. 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.