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Norman Mailer endorsed murder, or so his critics would have you believe. Christian Lorentzen goes back to the essay in question and finds Mailer guilty only of a prophetic inquiry into violence and rebellion ...



Obituaries necessarily render great exploits and infamous outrages in the space of a sentence or a paragraph. When Norman Mailer died in November at the age of 84, his life was duly lauded and summarised in all major newspapers. An obituary for the New York Times by Charles McGrath, a past editor of the Times's Book Review, approached 3,500 words. (Among Mailer's recently deceased peers, William Styron rated 2,500 words in the same paper; Elizabeth Hardwick, a little over 1,500.) About half-way through after the Brooklyn boyhood, the graphomania at Harvard, the stint in the Pacific during the second world war, the literary celebrity at a gentle age for "The Naked and the Dead", two subsequent novels that fell short of the first, the founding of the Village Voice; but before the wife stabbing, the Quixotic mayoral run, the ear-biting, the two Pulitzer prizes, etc we come across this paragraph:

The most famous, or infamous, version of [his personal philosophy of hipsterism] was Mr Mailer's controversial 1957 essay, "The White Negro," which seemed to endorse violence as an existential act and declared the murder of a white candy-store owner by two 18-year-old blacks an example of "daring the unknown."

As a summary of the controversy relying perhaps too heavily on the timid construction "seemed to endorse" this is not exactly inaccurate. But it is worth returning to the original essay to determine whether Mailer was indeed endorsing what he seemed to be endorsing.

"The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster" appeared in Dissent in the fall of 1957. It was collected a year later in Mailer's "Advertisements for Myself", and remains in print thanks to a 1998 anthology, "The Time of Our Time". Just shy of 9,000 words, it was not the first serious meditation on whatever was meant by the term "hipster." (In 1948, Anatole Broyard, whose mixed ethnicity would itself become a matter of controversy, had published "A Portrait of the Hipster" in Partisan Review.)

The passage to which McGrath points occurs within parentheses:

(It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong 18-year old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act even by the logic of the psychopath is not likely to prove very therapeutic for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak 50-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one's life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act it is not altogether cowardly.)

Let us first note that the murder alluded to is hypothetical and the races of both the perpetrators and the victim are unspecified. Mailer also hedges his own judgment of the hypothetical hoodlums' actions: "courage of a sort", "not altogether cowardly." He is neither endorsing nor condemning. Rather, he is attempting to understand a mentality that generates violence. (And this parenthetical remark falls during his extended digression upon the mentality of the plain old psychopath, as opposed to his real subject, the "philosophical psychopath", whose "narcissistic detachment" negates his drive toward "the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy.") Something like this re-emerged in Susan Sontag's controversial response to the September 11th attacks, published in the New Yorker a week after the event: "In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

Courage is the subject of "The White Negro", and here, too, it is a morally neutral virtue, hardly distinguishable, in Mailer's usage, from mere nonconformity, or "the rebellious instinct." The traumas that set the scene for his essay were the Holocaust and the atom bomb, which unleashed "psychic havoc" on "almost everyone alive in these years"; and the second world war, "a mirror to the human condition that blinded anyone who looked into it." As a result, man's own "murderous" reflection took the form of an American "super-state", against which any dissent the McCarthy years a recent memory might be converted to "a note upon his life which could be called in any year of overt crisis."

Within this context, Mailer speculates upon the mentality of the rebel variously labelled "white Negro," "hipster," "American existentialist," and "philosophical psychopath" who attempts to escape the spectres of the bomb and the concentration camp as well as the "slow death of conformity" in the realms of race, sex and violence.

Mailer deploys an especially baroque style here a syntax more convoluted than you'll find in, say, "The Naked and the Dead" or "The Executioner's Song" weaving in and out of the idioms of old-style sociology and old-style psychoanalysis. It is for this reason, I suspect, that the essay has always lent itself to misreading. (I dare say the style is also one of my favourite things about the essay they just don't write 'em like that anymore.) Critics, not to say enemies, mistake a probing interest in motivations for violence for an endorsement, even a celebration, of violent acts. But neither is "The White Negro" a condemnation. It was an inquiry into an emerging present and a speculation upon the future which is now both past and present.

Reading "The White Negro" today when so many of the concepts and words the essay relies on are obsolete or altered beyond recognition requires the sort of annotation usually reserved for Shakespeare. The word "Negro" itself has been shunned for at least three decades, and the crude politics of race has yielded to the gentler politics of "diversity" (even if blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites). Miscegenation, when Mailer wrote, was terrifying even to liberals; now it may give us America's next president. If one of the goals of Mailer's existential heroes was "absolute sexual freedom", in our time avowed virgins and monogamists are suddenly the radicals.

Perhaps the most endearingly dated section of the essay examines the usage of irreverent lingo: "man, go, put down, make, beat, cool, swing, with it, crazy, dig, flip, creep, hip, square." We learn that "to be beat is therefore a flip." Crazy, man. I dig.

Mailer may have been prescient about the 1960s: "a time of violence, new hysteria, confusion, and rebellion...likely to replace the time of conformity". But the generational violence he took to be paradigmatic in 1957 the young hoodlums murdering the middle-aged candy-store owner has been eclipsed in the cultural imagination by a host of new threats. Now we have the terrorist and the school shooter, neither of whom is simply a thrill-seeking rebel. The foreign terrorist is alien, while the domestic terrorist of recent memory, who blows up a government building or bombs an abortion clinic, is the opposite of hip. Call him the radical square. He strikes out of resentment for a society in which conformity is no longer triumphant. The school shooter, meanwhile, is a similar creature of resentment, who lashes out at his peers after failing to earn their acceptance.

But plenty of what Mailer prophesised has come to pass. He predicted either widespread rebellion marked by violence, or that "Hip would end by being absorbed as a colourful figure in the tapestry." As it happened, the absorption came after the rebellion. Mailer saw the hipster class which he estimated at around 100,000 "politicians, professional soldiers, newspaper columnists, entertainers, artists, jazz musicians, promiscuous homosexuals, and half the executives of Hollywood, television, and advertising" as a rebel elite that had succeeded the radical Marxist elite of the 1930s at a time when dissent was no longer safe. Whereas Marxism is now less seditious than laughable, the rebel aesthetic has been absorbed and co-opted by the only elite we have left the wealthy.

It seems hardly a week passes that we aren't subjected to a profile in New York, the New Yorker, or the New York Times Magazine of some courageously trend-bucking tycoon rebel. Whatever violence is left isn't perpetrated by hoodlums in candy stores; it grinds away quietly behind the phrase global capitalism. Meanwhile, the character who in the style pages and the service magazines appears under the name hipster is distinguished mostly by the eccentricity and capriciousness of his consumption, repopulating blighted neighbourhoods and ironically reappropriating exhausted cultural artefacts. The menace is gone, but the hipster remains now as merely the most colourful figure in the tapestry of commerce.

(Christian Lorentzen is an associate editor at Harper's magazine.)