This morning in lecture I mentioned that I’d be posting links to some additional discussion relevant to our discussion of Ginsberg’s Howl and its multiple cultural contexts. Though most of the lecture was devoted to situating Ginsberg, following Ric Burns, who followed Marshall Berman, within the Jacobs/Moses melodrama on the theme of “urban renewal,” I also wanted to spend a little more time tracing connections from Howl back to some earlier material from the course: The Jazz Singer in particular. There’s a melodrama of assimilation/alienation that runs alongside the tension between Moses’ modern city and Jacobs’ defense of traditional neighborhood life that relates to what Diana Trilling famously identified as Ginsberg’s self-deprecating ethnic humor. Here are a couple paragraphs from Trilling’s account of Ginsberg’s reading at Columbia University in 1959, which her husband, the famous critic Lionel Trilling and Ginsberg’s former teacher, along with several other Columbia English department members, refused to attend:
How different it might have been for Ginsberg and his friends if they had come of age ten or fifteen years sooner was one of the particular sadnesses of the other evening . . . as the poets read their poems, whose chief virtue, it seemed to me, was their “racial-minority” funniness, their “depressed-classes” funniness of a kind which has never had so sure and live a place as it did in the thirties, the embittered fond funniness which has to do with one’s own impossible origins, funniness plain and poetical, always aware of itself, of a kind which would seem now to have all but disappeared among intellectuals[.] . . .
I hadn’t quite realized how much I missed it until Thursday night when Ginsberg read [his poems] . . . and they were still funny in that old racial-depressed way but not nearly as funny and authentic as they would have been had they been written before the Jews and the Italians and the Negroes, but especially the Jews, had been awarded a place as Americans-like-everyone-else instead of remaining outsiders raised in the Bronx or on Ninth Avenue or even in Georgia.
But they have their connection with us who were young in the thirties, their intimate political connection, which we deny at risk of missing what it is that makes the ‘beat’ phenomenon something to think about. As they used to say on Fourteenth Street, it is no accident, comrades, it is decidedly no accident that today in the fifties our single overt manifestation of protest takes the wholly nonpolitical form of a group of panic-stricken kids in blue jeans, many of them publicly homosexual, talking about or taking drugs, assuring us that they are out of their minds, not responsible, while the liberal intellectual is convinced that he has no power to control the political future, the future of the free world, and that therefore he must submit to what he defines as political necessity. . . . [T]he connection between “beat” and respectable liberal intellectual exists and is not hard to locate: the common need to deny free will, divest oneself of responsibility and yet stay alive.
Lots of stuff going on here: her simultaneous apology for and dissatisfaction with the Cold War cowardice of her erstwhile comrades, the uptown/downtown drama that would continue to play out for the next few decades, her discomfort with the openness of Ginsberg’s sexuality, the narratives of ethnic identity and assimilation. It’s the latter I’m most interested in for the purposes of this post: I’m curious to know whether readers think it makes sense to draw a connection between Trilling’s simultaneous nostalgia and shame for an earlier unassimilated, even “ethnic,” Judaism, on the one hand, and the Beats’ cross-racial identification with African-American culture on the other.
That last note, signaled by Ginsberg’s reference to “negro streets” in the first few lines of the poem, was the subject of several posted on PWHNY last year around this time. One had to do with Norman Mailer’s infamous description of the “hipster” (sometimes conflated with the Beats, but ultimately a broader social type, I think) as a “White Negro.” From that post the following seems relevant, and if I’d had time I would have put the quote from Mailer up in lecture today. Writing last year about last year’s Beats lecture I said:
In parsing the poem’s invocation of “angelheaded hipsters” “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” I wondered aloud in lecture what relation Ginsberg’s imagery had to Norman Mailer’s infamous essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which appeared in Dissent the year after Howl was published and was collected in Mailer’s 1959 book Advertisements for Myself. (The essay used to be on Dissent’s website in full, but it looks like it’s been removed; here’s a meditation on it that followed Mailer’s death a few years ago.)The quote I put on the screen contained Mailer’s formulation of the idea that white and black outsider cultures had come together, in the Village, to form a new type: the hipster, which Mailer considered synonymous with “the white negro.” Here’s the quote:
“In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed–the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact of American life. … marijuana was the wedding ring.”
Since we were short on time — lecture was coming to an end — I didn’t have time to elaborate or contextualize as much as I would have liked. It may not have been clear where Mailer positioned himself in relation to this new cultural type, but in fact he’s not being a crank complaining about a phenomenon he finds disturbing. Rather, he identifies himself with the hipster/White Negro he describes. By identifying spiritually with black men’s alienation (and with their primitivism and virility, which he also celebrates as psychopathy), he argues, white men can achieve better orgasms and feel more courageous about life in general.
Of course there’s a lot in his idea that’s offensive, absurd, and so stereotypical it’s hard to believe he took himself seriously. Still, it’s just one in a long train of attempts on the part of white artists and performers we’ve examined (Jolson and O’Neill most recently) who seek both to imagine themselves or their characters as part of some form of cross-racial exchange and, in doing so, to mark their status as outsiders. It’s hard not to see the connection to Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters, Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man,” and Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger.” Should such efforts be dismissed as misguided out of hand, or is there something more interesting to be said about attempts, however flawed, at a sort of cosmopolitan imagining? Are there more nuanced things we could say about ways in which cultural production doesn’t respect notions of cultural purity?
In comments on that post, Lenora Warren, one of our TAs, offered this by way of reply:
I think we can give Smith and Mailer the benefit of the doubt given the contexts in which they were were writing. From the link you gave it seems that Mailer is at least trying to understand forces that produce that kind of alienation. My problem is with the term “cross-racial exchange.” I don’t see an exchange so much as I see repeated attempts by white artists to assume or inhabit black personae. In doing so they reduce the negro to a type: the “violent” type, the “oversexed” type, or the “the nigger.” I don’t think celebrating the type counts as cross-racial exchange. It seems too one-sided.
Well put, though we’ve also looked at many ways black culture in New York was formed in cosmopolitan exchanges with other groups, including Villagers. We’ll have more to say about Patti Smith next week. If you need something more light-hearted than Mailer to use as a palette cleanser, try this: Our related run-through of hipster history last year even included the bit-part played by Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog.