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III. America in Black and White

Renaissance Man, Man of his Times: Norman Mailer’s "The White Negro" and Literary Manhood in 1950s America

Matthew Kriz
p. 145-160


Cet article réexamine l’essai controversé de Norman Mailer publié en 1957, "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster", étudiant sa réception historique ainsi que le rôle qu’il a joué dans l’élaboration et la redéfinition des notions de masculinité dans l’Amérique des années 50. Il examine d’abord la manière dont l’essai de Mailer a été perçu par différentes générations d’universitaires spécialistes de littérature. Cet essai a été, en grande partie, sorti de son contexte historique par la première génération de critiques de Mailer et c’est son importance par rapport aux œuvres de fiction ultérieures de Mailer qu’ils ont prise en considération. A l’inverse, une nouvelle génération de critiques s’est beaucoup intéressée à "The White Negro," mais pas beaucoup à l’œuvre de Mailer. Au lieu de cela, ces critiques ont vu dans cet essai un signe historique des préoccupations des années 50, époque souvent marquée par la croyance naïve en un individu transcendant et par une vision de la notion de race simpliste et essentialiste.
L’article avance ensuite l’argument que ces deux points de vue critiques sont pertinents, mais que leur faiblesse vient de ce qu’ils négligent d’étudier. Cet article suggère qu’une lecture mesurée de l’essai peut être faite en l’examinant à la fois à partir de la place qu’il occupe dans la tradition littéraire américaine (et de la manière dont Mailer la perçoit), tradition considérant l’auteur comme un génie (mâle) persécuté et éprouvant le besoin d’échapper aux contraintes d’une société (féminisante), et en même temps comme la réflexion de quelqu’un qui est préoccupé par les questions des années 50 : conformité, culture de masse et problèmes raciaux. Il propose que l’essai soit lu comme une condamnation de la définition de la masculinité dans les années 50, la solution donnée par Mailer à ce problème étant la libération sexuelle, ce qui équivaut à un repositionnement de la masculinité américaine, qui n’est pas vue uniquement comme définie par une classe moyenne blanche hétérosexuelle.

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  • 1 For example see Kaufmann, Leeds, Lucid, Solotaroff, and Radford, as well as the texts discussed in (...)

1It would be an overstatement to call Norman Mailer a forgotten figure in American literature. His death in 2008 was met with the lengthy obituaries in the prominent daily newspapers befitting a major writer. From a more scholarly perspective, the peer-reviewed Mailer Review has published annually since 2007, and the Norman Mailer Society holds an annual academic conference. Most academic studies that look at some form of American culture in the 1950s or 60s will have Mailer’s name in the index. That being said, Mailer criticism is certainly not the over-crowded room that it was in the 1970s and early 1980s. From the late 1960s forward, the number of book length academic studies dedicated to Mailer had reached into the dozens1 with these studies supplemented by large biographical works like Peter Manso’s gossip-filled Mailer: His Life and Times and dedicated chapters by prominent scholars such as Alfred Kazin (Bright Book of Life). Noted theorist Frederic Jameson published an essay on Mailer in the early 1970s, and it appears as if there was a time when it was impossible to discuss the state of American literature without mentioning Norman Mailer. At one time Mailer’s literary stock was so high that Richard Poirier, in his book length study of the author, could write that Mailer is "the only writer of prominence in English who can be expected to deliver a work that deserves comparison with Faulkner or James" and further "no one now gives more hope that language may still be the potent instrument of human need in its confrontations with the benign as well as the wicked forces of institutionalized life" (2). Poirier’s language provides a clue to the relative dearth of criticism on Mailer. It is no longer fashionable (nor has it been for some great long while) to speak of language as a "potent instrument of human need" and the American literary canon has moved away (somewhat) from the capital "A" Author model that celebrates the passing of the torch from one great white male author to the next. Essays like Nina Baym’s "Melodramas of Beset Manhood" (1982) and Jane Tompkins’ "Sentimental Power" (1985) that suggested a move beyond the five white males celebrated in F.O. Mathiesson’s 1941 American Renaissance point to the shift in focus that American literary criticism has undergone. Consequently, works that focus on the greatness of an author and the size of his talent have fallen out of favour, as have discussions of an author’s "vision."

2It is no surprise, then, that someone like Norman Mailer, very much vested in the idea of his own greatness and in the concept of something akin to a great literary tradition, is no longer the most discussed writer of his era. What is surprising, at least superficially, is that when he is discussed, it is most often for one relatively short piece of writing from relatively early in his career. Mailer’s 1957 essay "The White Negro," recognized by most of his earlier backers as being extremely influential in Mailer’s later literary pursuits, is now being used by many cultural studies critics as a kind of historical marker of the 1950s, both for its exaggerated concerns over 50s conformity and its problematical (to say the least) conceptions of race and black masculinity. But, where earlier Mailer criticism may have been guilty of taking Mailer out of his historical context, content to compare him to earlier major figures and speak almost exclusively in terms of style and structure, later criticism risks making Mailer too much of a subject of history, neglecting not the historical factors to which he was responding, but much of his actual response. In focusing so much on one essay, this criticism risks taking Mailer outside of his own context. The aim of this essay, then, is to try to unite these two factions of Mailer criticism, using "The White Negro" in this attempt, but doing so by examining something that is, I will argue, at the heart of both Mailer’s writing and the cultural wars of the 1950s and 60s: the attempt to define and alter American masculine identity.

3Before beginning my own discussion of "The White Negro," and to negate the need to repeat in my analysis points that others have already made well, I think it necessary to review how what I am terming the "two factions" of Mailer criticism deal with the essay. The first faction appears mostly in books, essays, and book chapters published in the 1970s, and it reaches a culmination with Joseph Wenke’s attempt at a totalization of Mailer’s vision in his 1987 Mailer’s America. For Wenke, as for many of the earlier wave of Mailer scholars, it is important to separate Mailer’s work from Mailer’s own larger-than-life persona. Wenke explains that his study "attempts as much as possible to elucidate and evaluate Mailer’s work without being distracted by his imposing personality" (83). While this strikes me as a doomed endeavour, Wenke’s attempt here is one shared by many earlier critics and otherwise apologists of Mailer, and is indicative of the treatment that “The White Negro” receives. To take such an essay—which, among many other things, finds something liberating in the beating to death of a shop owner by a group of juvenile delinquents—as something strictly grounded in reality would also require a protracted discussion on the character of the essay’s author. The turn made by Wenke and others is then to suggest that "The White Negro" is in fact a work of fiction, a character sketch that will reappear in a more fleshed out way in Mailer’s novels of the following decade. Wenke makes this explicit when he states that "‘The White Negro’ is essentially an act of myth-making presented in the form of an essay; it is a work of fiction that has as its hero a prototypical character, manifestly Adamic, and manifestly the model for both Stephen Rojack and D.J. Jethroe" (71). For Wenke, the essay is a means to an end, and some of the more problematic aspects of it—Mailer’s caricaturing of the "Negro" above all else—are seen in terms of Mailer’s myth-making. He explains: "Mailer uses the social fiction of the Negro as primitive merely to illustrate his own myth of primitivism, which has its symbolic source in the Adamic tradition of American literature" (78, emphasis mine). Wenke moves the essay out of the discussion of the actual and the political and into the fictional and metaphorical, taking Mailer out of time, so to speak. There is indeed value in pointing out Mailer’s strong attachment to tradition in American literature, and I will come back to this attachment later on, but for now I want to focus on the ahistorical aspects of the earlier criticism.

4In Mankind in Barbary (1975), another significant study of Mailer’s oeuvre, Stanley Gutman makes a similar move of pulling "The White Negro" out of its immediate historical and political context. Gutman explains his reading here:

Ostensibly, "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," is a meditation on the implications of the hip phenomenon … the essay is, nevertheless, more than a descriptive study of the philosophical underpinnings of a small modern subculture; it is an expression of the philosophy, theology, and vision of Norman Mailer—his credo (68).

Like Wenke, Gutman argues that "The White Negro" is more important in what it tells us about Norman Mailer and his vision than what it can tell us about the ostensible subject matter. The hipster, in this interpretation, is merely a plot device. What is more important is that "this essay is a keystone to understanding [Mailer’s] novels" (67).

5Gutman also avoids addressing the problematic racial representation in the essay by making the Negro a metaphorical, rather than actual figure. He posits that Mailer is claiming "that the search for sexual freedom and fullfillment is, in some way, the central drama of our times, that the Negro is the guide for this search and, in the minds of hipsters, represents the divinity they are seeking" (85). In making the Negro into a sort of spirit guide, the actual plight of African Americans is made secondary. The understanding of the "Negro" here is meant to be the Negro as the hipster understands him, and this absolves Mailer, somewhat, from the rather specious claims he makes about everyday African American existence. Perhaps more importantly for Gutman’s purposes is that this reading enables him to put this racial problem aside. Concluding his paragraph that deals with the oppression of Blacks in America, Gutman states: "The issue, it seems to me, is not so much whether Mailer is correctly assessing the Negro or the hipster, but what kind of solution to human problems he is proposing and whether this solution has credibility" (86). The point of the essay, then, is to be found outside the immediate problems of a specific group of people, and instead concerns a more universal subject: human problems on a general scale.

  • 2 Wenke’s book came out in 1987 and Thomas Hill Schaub’s American Fiction in the Cold War, which cert (...)

6As I noted in my introduction, the second faction of Mailer criticism, while not all that far apart from the first faction in terms of time period,2 is much different in its approach to Mailer’s work. This shift in approaches can be seen in Steve Shoemaker’s article "Norman Mailer’s ‘The White Negro’: Historical Myth or Mythical History?" where Shoemaker, taking the assertion made by critics like Wenke and Gutman that Mailer is a Romantic, sets out "to explore the effect of what might be termed historical and historicist pressures on the Romantic myth as manifested in Mailer's work" (343). Shoemaker wishes to dispute the argument that Mailer’s work can be allowed to exist outside of time. Calling Wenke anachronistic, Shoemaker argues that Wenke’s reading "is decidedly out of step with the present trend toward ‘new historicist’ approaches in literary criticism" (344) and goes on to delineate how "The White Negro" can be read historically, attempting, as he puts it, to "Greenblatticize the romantic approach to the essay" (345). To do this, Shoemaker does what Wenke and Gutman do only sparingly, namely he brings contemporaneous figures like James Baldwin into the conversation, and he attempts to situate Mailer’s essay in a particular cultural moment. This cultural situating distinguishes his essay from previous interpretations of Mailer’s work:

‘The White Negro’ seems to me to stand at that intellectual or discursive juncture when a crucial conceptual shift takes place and that key ‘50s’ descriptor of the self, ‘alienated,’ reveals its flip side, ‘ideologically constituted.’ When this shift occurs, the state of alienation, formerly conceived as a condition in which man is severed from his fundamental ‘nature’ by the mechanisms of society, is reinterpreted as a state of being in which man is so thoroughly a product of these societal mechanisms (read ‘ideology’: the most fundamental mechanisms are discursive) that it is impossible to speak of any "natural" state at all (Shoemaker 347).

The turn Shoemaker makes here is to suggest that the kind of ahistorical Romanticism previously ascribed to Mailer is perhaps impossible. Rather than acting as an outside observer of ideology, condemning a society that he views as corrupting, Mailer is himself a subject of that ideology, and try as he might, he cannot write something that divorces him from the prevailing ideology of his time; instead he shows himself further connected to it.

7This line of argument is also espoused by Thomas Hill Schaub in the chapter "Rebel without a Cause: Mailer’s White Negro and Consensus Liberalism" that appears in his American Fiction in the Cold War. Schaub argues that, in spite of Mailer’s wish to excoriate his culture, his essay is nevertheless a reflection of it:

One can trace a complex of influences that Mailer uses to breathe life into ‘the white Negro’ and to establish the social importance this figure may soon have for our culture. At the same time, these influences are a set of exposed discourses from the forties and fifties, which we may read as evidence of culture speaking through Mailer (Schaub 138).

Schaub is here reading Mailer’s essay not only as influenced by its culture, but also as a serious reflection on that culture, downplaying the metaphoric aspect of the essay as much as earlier criticism inflates it. For Schaub, "The White Negro" is a rather convoluted piece of cultural criticism, but a useful marker of the time period. It "is not only an expression of discontent with consensus liberalism, but a record of the ways in which Mailer’s radical intentions were subverted by the prevailing discourses of the liberal culture he wished to repudiate" (138). Schaub suggests that Mailer’s focus on the individual as a solution to conformist culture was hardly radical, in that everyone in the 1950s was concerned with conformity (it seemed dangerously close to communism) and the individual had been celebrated throughout United States history. For Schaub, Mailer’s subject figure, the hipster, is a sort of sexual capitalist, who focuses only on his individuality at the expense of any kind of collective action. What Schaub’s reading does, perhaps more so even than that of Shoemaker, who is still concerned with Mailer’s larger body of work, is to separate "The White Negro" from Mailer’s œuvre, to look at it much more as a cultural document.

8Given the continued focus on historicism in literary studies, it is not surprising that more recent works have followed the lead of Schaub and Shoemaker. In a 2007 article Alan Petigny, writing for The Mailer Review, uses context to make the racialized remarks in "The White Negro" more palatable. Petigny turns to "The White Negro" to show that Mailer was actually reflecting a current of social unrest in the 1950s. Petigny cites a number of sociological and psychological studies that show how religious teachings and strict moral standards for sexual conduct were changing drastically during the period. The most recent published essay that discusses Mailer, Douglas Taylor’s "Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity" again looks to "The White Negro" as a cultural marker, this time in terms of masculinity and how it relates to race in the 1950s. While Taylor makes his opinion on Mailer’s essay apparent from the onset—"Mailer’s ‘The White Negro’ tells us more about the repressed fantasies of white men than it does about what it means to be black" (Taylor 70)—his study anticipates the direction I wish to take with the remainder of my space here, which is to look at "The White Negro" specifically, and Mailer as a figure in general, through the lens of masculinity studies.

9I have given so much space to reviewing the criticism surrounding "The White Negro" because I wish to make it apparent that the essay, whatever its faults and merits, has been considered as significant for more than fifty years, which is not to suggest that it has passed some sort of literary test, but rather that there is still much that can be gleaned from it, both in terms of cultural scholarship and in terms of Norman Mailer’s œuvre. It is particularly relevant to studies of American manhood in the 1950s. Gutman’s statement that the essay is concerned with "human problems" could be altered to read "the problem of manhood." To borrow a phrase from Nina Baym, "The White Negro" is very much a melodrama of beset manhood, and the forces besetting this manhood are both contemporary to the essay and deeply rooted in American literary history. Both of the above approaches to the essay have much merit, and both are necessary to understanding the masculine mode that Mailer seeks to define with his essay.

10As much of Mailer criticism has noted, he was keenly aware of literary history, especially American literary history, and the pressure he felt to be a great author had much to do with the literary giants he saw as his predecessors. There is much masculine rhetoric in Mailer’s attempt to measure up to his perceived forefathers, and this can be seen in some of the asides in Advertisements for Myself, Mailer’s semi-autobiographical text that serves as a sort of 1950s greatest hits (and misses) collection for his writing. "The White Negro" appears in this volume, but so too do the traces of strange little incidents involving William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. We see Mailer getting into a war of words with Faulkner over his comments on the South. Mailer’s publisher had sent the comments to Faulkner. Faulkner’s response comes out as a jab at Mailer’s manhood:

I have heard this idea expressed several times during the last twenty years, though not before by a man.

The others were ladies, northern or middle western ladies, usually around 40 or 45 years of age. I don’t know what a psychiatrist would find in this (Mailer 1959, 333).

11Mailer responds to Faulkner in kind, giving back to the older author what he had sent:

Like many novelists who have created an extraordinary body of work, Mr. Faulkner is a timid man who has led a sheltered life. So I would not be surprised if he has had his best and most intense conversations with sensitive middle-aged ladies (333).

  • 3 Though writing much work that was considered journalism in the 1960s, Mailer described his third pe (...)

12While the banter displayed here is not much above schoolyard ribbing, what is interesting in Mailer’s comment is the image he depicts of the "novelist." Coming from someone who always looked at himself first and foremost as a novelist,3 this description warrants a closer reading. In order to do so it is worth revisiting Baym’s argument in "Melodramas," which positions the American literary giants (Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Twain) as reclusive loner figures deliberately removing themselves from the constraints of a society that wished them to submit to its femininity. Civilization, in this reading, is feminized, and the only way the intrepid male figure can save himself from its influence is to escape from its confines (Baym 131-32). We can see this manifested in the Pequod in Moby Dick, in the raft voyage of Jim and Huck in Huckleberry Finn, and in Thoreau’s attempt to banish himself to the woods in Walden. The concern in Baym’s argument is that this archetype of the author in American literature caused generations of critics to ignore anything that did not fit into its relatively narrow confines, but the prevalence of such an archetype suggests that someone like Mailer would obviously be familiar with it. As I stated above, "The White Negro" refers to this archetype, but we can see Mailer wishing to do something different with it, responding, in doing so, to his past as well as his present.

13That Mailer’s concern in "The White Negro" is one of masculinity is evidenced in the series of paragraphs decrying the grim conformity of the present. After setting the scene with talk of nuclear Armageddon and death by gas chamber, Mailer writes:

One could hardly maintain the courage to be individual, to speak with one’s own voice, for the years in which one could complacently accept oneself as part of an elite by being radical were forever gone. A man knew that when he dissented, he gave a note upon his life which could be called in any year of overt crisis. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve (Mailer 1959, 338).

14As many who write on the essay have noted, Mailer’s concern here is with individuality, and the impossibility of individual expression in what was seen as a conformist society, but more specifically Mailer is concerned with the connection between individuality and manhood. In doing so he is both evoking the kind of argument put forth by David Riesman in 1950’s The Lonely Crowd that corporate culture was producing men who were "other directed", meaning that they looked to others in positions of authority to make decisions. This was seen to be in opposition to the previous mode of masculinity, which Riesman identifies as "inner-directed" and more directly linked to entrepreneurial pursuits (Riesman 15). All of this of course played out on the terrain of masculinity with women not even allowed on the field. Thus Mailer’s solution to the loss of the manly individual is to find one buried in the rubble created by conformity:

It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist—the hipster, the man who [knows that] … the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on an uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self (Mailer 1959, 339).

15The discourse here can obviously be linked to those works of the American Renaissance mentioned above. What did Thoreau suggest if not to divorce oneself from society? The impending threat is perhaps different—fear of instantaneous death rather than fear of suffocation through everyday commerce-driven activity—but the solution remains the same. For both Thoreau and Mailer, manhood cannot thrive under society’s constraints.

16David Leverenz in Manhood in the American Renaissance defines three paradigms of manhood that had existed in the United States from its inception until the 1850s. Leverenz calls these paradigms "conceptual categories never fully existing in the world yet useful for studying more complicated social stresses" (73-74). Leverenz sees the first two paradigms (the patrician paradigm and the artisan paradigm) as defining the colonial period and early republican period, but as being surpassed by the third, the entrepreneurial paradigm. Leverenz explains:

[A]s Marxist historians have emphasized, I argue that the basic class conflict between 1825 and 1850 comes with the rise of the new middle class, for whom manhood is based much more exclusively in work and entrepreneurial competition. Traditional norms of dignity and social status, implying as they do a relatively stable world of small villages, can mitigate the basic connection between manhood and humiliation. In a world of much greater mobility and competition, manhood becomes a more intense anxiety (74).

17Leverenz’s basic contention is that much of what men do is motivated by the fear of being humiliated in the face of other men. In the enterprising world of increased industrialization there were fewer positions that could be seen as stable and secure: status was dependent on the latest economic pursuit, making this economic pursuit, in terms of manhood, the only thing that mattered. Leverenz works to show how the authors of the American Renaissance fought against this paradigm in different ways. Emerson fell from patrician security and resented the fact that the artist did not enjoy the same special status in the United States that he did in Europe (Leverenz 100) and Thoreau spent much of his energy railing against the dominance of the economic mode. In the classic outsider narrative, these authors defined their manhood against the prevailing mode, but class parameters—the fact that the entrepreneurial paradigm is a middle-class endeavour predicated on the idea of equal opportunity for the enterprising (Leverenz uses Benjamin Franklin as the prototype for this model)—made theirs a conflicted and unstable position.

18Moving forward one hundred years to the period in which Mailer wrote "The White Negro," we can find another paradigm shift in American manhood, or at the very least a perception of one. Leverenz explains that the entrepreneurial paradigm was lessened in its severity through "the quick rise of a managerial class, and large scale bureaucratic organizations [which] eased the stress and risk of competition" (74), but by the 1950s the perception was that the immensity of the bureaucratic organizations had caused competition to atrophy. I have already mentioned Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, and joining Riesman’s text were other sociological studies like C. Wright Mills’ White Collar (1951) and William H. White’s The Organization Man (1956), each concerned with the hold that corporate America had on the nation’s middle-class, and each, consequently, speculating on the state of the national manhood. Arising out of this speculation were novels like Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (1961) which focused on the problem of reconciling the anonymity of corporate employment with individual manhood, and counter-cultural movements like the Beats as brought to literature by such writers as Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. "The White Negro" participates in this conversation in its efforts both to intellectualize the seeming delinquency of the Beat movement and escape the middle-class focus of the sociological discussions. Nonetheless, as Schaub and others have pointed out, Mailer cannot escape his period, nor can he, I argue, escape his literary antecedents. For, just as Thoreau and Emerson would find it difficult to argue against middle-class enterprise without sounding patrician and elitist, Mailer has difficulty attacking middle-class conformity without sounding like the entrepreneurial individualist. He may talk about primitivism, but his language has its roots in 19th century America: "one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society" (339). In invoking the frontier and the Wild West, Mailer is evoking the swashbuckling entrepreneurial spirit of the previous century, a definition of masculinity that is as contradictory as Thoreau’s, who in "Walking" evokes the frontier as an escape from society even while admitting to the inevitability of society spreading with the frontier (Thoreau 1862).

19Mailer’s reference to earlier models does not lessen his essay’s significance in the debate over manhood that was being waged in the 1950s, nor Mailer’s own importance in working to define that role. Mailer’s works are all very much concerned with what it means to be a man in America. Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, portrays a number of different masculine types coexisting in the same platoon while fighting the Japanese during World War II. Various masculine archetypes are personified: the totalitarian General Cummings clashes with the Patrician Lieutenant Hearn, while the scheming Stanley anticipates corporate ladder climbing and is contrasted to the entrepreneurial Wilson and further contrasted with the outsider Red. In later works Mailer continues to pit paradigms of manhood against each other, suggesting the devil made manifest in self-made tycoon Barney Oswald Kelly in An American Dream and sending up corporate gamesmanship and cronyism in Why Are We In Vietnam? But perhaps his most significant and most controversial examination of contemporary American manhood is to be found in "The White Negro" and this is because Mailer brings the issue of race to the forefront.

20Mailer’s depiction of the lives of African Americans has opened his essay up to much contemporary scorn. Eric Lott dismisses it in a sentence, noting "Norman Mailer’s ‘The White Negro,’ a text whose mythologies are as telling as its analysis, is of course the twentieth-century reinvention of [19th century] homosocial and homosexual fascinations" (Lott 54) and Andrew Hoberek submits that "The White Negro" is an example of the wrong kind of call to action that can be seen mirrored in cultural studies today, the kind of "‘transgressive’ politics of style, [which are merely] … romanticizing those excluded from power rather than seeking to open power up" (Hoberek 67). Passages like the following make it clear that Mailer is romanticizing the "black experience":

[T]he Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro has stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could … he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasure of the mind for the more obligatory pleasure of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm (Mailer 1959, 341),

  • 4 C.F. An American Dream Chapter 8, esp. p. 254 and Why Are We In Vietnam? "Chap 10. "

21There is almost nothing in the above that one could conceivably put into print today. Mailer’s friend James Baldwin lamented that "the myth of the sexuality of Negroes [is a myth that] Norman, like so many others, refuses to give up" (220). Yet Mailer’s fascination with male sexuality would seem to extend farther than the "Negro" as the great amount of homosexual temptation he puts into both An American Dream and Why Are We In Vietnam? suggests.4 In concluding, I want to return once more to Mailer’s literary antecedents to see how he rehearses earlier debates about manhood while responding to those of his own time.

22As Leslie Fiedler explains in "Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!" there has been a long tradition of homosocial desire expressed by the white American male towards the African American male. Fiedler claims that this desire is expressed only benignly, in terms of a myth, which he explains is a "sense of that love can survive only in the obliquity of a symbol, persistent, archetypical, in short, as a myth: the boy’s homoerotic crush, the love of the black fused at this level into a single thing" (522). This myth, the desire of the white male for the racial other of the same sex, Fiedler finds manifested in what he terms "classic boys books" like Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where in both cases there is a chaste yet somehow sexualized friendship between a white character and a black character. It is easy to see how Mailer’s text fits into this historical precedent, with the sexual description of the Negro given above and Mailer’s insistence that the hipster is on a quest for "the apocalyptic orgasm" (Mailer 1959, 347), but where Fiedler sees this relationship as benign—there is no real threat of a sexual encounter in either Huck Finn or Moby Dick—in "The White Negro" this relationship is more complicated. The possibility of a sexual encounter is not only present, but sought after, as Mailer writes the hipster must "find his courage … in the act of love, find a little more between his woman and himself, or indeed between his mate and himself (since many hipsters are bisexual), but paramount, imperative is the necessity to make it because in making it, one is making new habit, unearthing the new talent which the old frustration denied" (351). By "making it" Mailer means to create, but implicit in this process is the idea of reimagining boundaries, both racial and sexual. The sexual agency that was previously denied—Queequeg and Ishmael can share a bed in Moby Dick without there being anything remotely sexual about it—is seen by Mailer as there for the taking. Mailer suggests that what is looked at as "other," be it black manhood or homosexual manhood, can no longer simply be foreclosed. While Mailer can be chastised for marking this manhood as somehow deviant, he is still suggesting that there is nothing homogenous about American manhood.

23Taken literally, "The White Negro" can be seen as a call to revolution, or at least "a psychically armed rebellion whose sexual impetus may rebound against the antisexual foundation of every organized power in America" (356). Inflammatory rhetoric aside, the rebellion that Mailer is seeking is a sexual one, and when he speaks of "organized power" he is of course speaking of power that is rooted in a certain type of masculinity. For Mailer, the widespread culture of conformity decried by so many liberals is a culture of impotency and sexual repression. If white masculinity, in its normative state, had become "antisexual," it follows that that the 1950s American white male had become a defective model. Mailer searches for a replacement for that model in a caricature of black masculinity, but he was not the only one searching for an alternative. While On the Road’s Dean Moriarty’s desire for any "lil ole gal with that lil sumpin down there tween her legs" and his cries of "I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!" (Kerouac 11, emphasis in text) suggest man in a regressive state, they are also (however naïve and misogynistic) indicative of a similar desire to question the sexual standards associated with normative masculinity. Alongside Kerouac’s Moriarty looking to expand the boundaries of heterosexual masculinity, the same era also finds Allen Ginsberg boldly claiming a place for gay masculinity, most notably in Howl. Mailer’s old friend James Baldwin also makes gay masculinity his subject in Giovanni’s Room, looking especially at the effect that avowing one’s homosexuality has on one’s masculine identity, and he details his own struggles with his masculine identity in his response to "The White Negro." Looking beyond literature, the decade that followed Mailer’s essay featured a cultural revolution where sex played a very large role, and while this may not have resulted in the violent uprising that Mailer predicted in "The White Negro," it does lend validity to Mailer’s assertion that a change in sexual norms would result in a change in societal norms.

24I want to close by returning to Mailer’s oeuvre, which was of such great concern to his earlier critics and of so little concern to his later ones. Surprisingly, in the two novels that follow the essay (Mailer’s only novels of the 1960s)—An American Dream, and Why Are We In Vietnam?—while both white masculinity and sexuality are very much at the forefront, there is very little in the way of a sexual revolution led by marginalized figures. Mailer’s characters are sex-obsessed, but their behaviour is still portrayed as deviant, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of those around them. Ironically, the new masculine hero sought after in "The White Negro" is more likely to be found in the works of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Baldwin, among others, than it is in the fiction of its own author. Yet, in some ways this makes sense, as it shows that Mailer’s political concerns reached farther than his immediate concerns as a novelist. In invoking sexuality, even in a caricatural way, he is doing what his literary predecessors did not, but also what his contemporaries certainly were doing, proving his connection both to his literary past and his political present.

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Baldwin, James, Giovanni’s Room, New York: Dial P, 1956.

-----, "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son [1961], New York: Vintage-Random, 1993, 216-32.

Baym, Nina, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors," American Quarterly, 33 (1) Winter 1981, 123-39.

Fiedler, Leslie, "Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!," Mark Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy, 2nd ed. Gerald Graff and James Phalan eds., Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 519-25.

Ginsberg, Allen, Collected Poems: 1947-1980, New York: Harper, 1984.

Gutman, Stanley T., Mankind in Barbary: The Individual and Society in the Novels of Norman Mailer, Hanover, N.H.: UP of New England, 1975.

Hoberek, Andrew, The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Jameson, Frederic, "The Great American Hunter, Or Ideological Content in the Novel," College English 34 (2) 1972, 180-197.

Kaufmann, Donald L., Norman Mailer: The Countdown (The First Twenty Years), Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1969.

Kazin, Alfred, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer, Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

Kerouac, Jack, On the Road [1957], New York: Signet, 1968.

Leeds, Barry H., The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer, New York: NYU P, 1969.

Leverenz, David, Manhood and the American Renaissance, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: BlackFace, Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Lucid, Robert F., Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work, Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Mailer, Norman, Advertisements for Myself, New York: Putnam, 1959.

-----, An American Dream [1965], New York: Vintage-Random, 1999.

-----, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel The Novel as History, 1968, New York: Plume-Penguin, 1994.

-----, The Naked and the Dead, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1948.

-----, Why Are We In Vietnam?, New York: Putnam, 1967.

Manso, Peter, Mailer: His Life and Times, New York: Penguin, 1985.

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick, or The Whale [1855], Los Angeles: U of California P, 1979.

Petigny, Alan, "Norman Mailer, 'The White Negro,' and New Conceptions of the Self in Postwar America", Mailer Review, 1(1) 2007, 184-93.

Poirier, Richard, Norman Mailer, Frank Kermode, ed., New York: Viking, 1972.

Radford, Jean, Norman Mailer: A Critical Study, London: MacMillan, 1975.

Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, 1950, New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

Schaub, Thomas Hill, American Fiction in the Cold War, Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991.

Solotaroff, Robert, Down Mailer’s Way, Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1974.

Shoemaker, Steve, "Norman Mailer's 'White Negro': Historical Myth Or Mythical History?," Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 37 (3) Autumn 1991, 343-60.

Taylor, Douglas, "Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity", Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 52 (1), Spring 2010, 70-101.

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden [1854], New York: Signet-Penguin, 1999.

-----, Walking [1862], Bruce Rogers, ed., Boston: Riverside P, 1914.

Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [1885], London: Macmillan, 1983.

Wenke, Joseph, Mailer’s America, Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1987.

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1 For example see Kaufmann, Leeds, Lucid, Solotaroff, and Radford, as well as the texts discussed in this essay.

2 Wenke’s book came out in 1987 and Thomas Hill Schaub’s American Fiction in the Cold War, which certainly looks at Mailer as being of his time, was published in 1991.

3 Though writing much work that was considered journalism in the 1960s, Mailer described his third person self in The Armies of the Night most frequently as "the novelist" (Mailer 1968).

4 C.F. An American Dream Chapter 8, esp. p. 254 and Why Are We In Vietnam? "Chap 10. "

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Bibliographical reference

Matthew Kriz, « Renaissance Man, Man of his Times: Norman Mailer’s "The White Negro" and Literary Manhood in 1950s America », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 145-160.

Electronic reference

Matthew Kriz, « Renaissance Man, Man of his Times: Norman Mailer’s "The White Negro" and Literary Manhood in 1950s America », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 15 April 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Matthew Kriz

University of Calgary

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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