The writer only has himself to blame for the cancellation of his work
Random House, the publishing giant, recently cancelled plans to publish a collection of Norman Mailer’s political writings on the centenary of his birth in 2023 after a junior staffer objected to the title of his 1957 essay, ‘The White Negro.’ Mailer’s essay celebrated what he took to be the uninhibited, expressive ethos of the African-American ‘hipster’, with his jazz, style and dance. This ‘Hip’ sensibility was contrasted to the spiritually repressed and boring ‘Square’ quality of white America.
Left-modernism is the dominant ideology in western elite culture, sometimes referred to as the ‘successor ideology’. It’s an uneasy compound of liberalism and socialism in which the cartridge of liberalism, with its historic concern for the rights of minorities and desire to be free of social constraints, is plugged into the slot in socialism’s victim-oppressor console once reserved for the working class.
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Mailer’s Beat Generation exemplified the Left-modernist ethos, valorising the downtrodden as spiritually superior to the white middle class. Mailer’s critique in ‘The White Negro’ recalled Carl Van Vechten’s 1926 novel Nigger Heaven. Van Vechten belonged to America’s first generation of cultural Leftists, the Young Intellectuals, who brought drug-taking, modern art and critiques of white Protestantism to New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1912-17 period.
Van Vechten’s innovation was a form of slumming in which white bohemians started ‘going up to Harlem’ to see black jazz. Like Mailer, Young Intellectuals like Van Vechten viewed African-Americans as a source of spiritual depth and liberation from the oppressive structures of Protestant white America. As Mailer wrote in his essay, ‘In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-à-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro.’
The phenomenon of WASP Americans turning against their own ethnic group began in pre-World War I Greenwich Village. For Randolph Bourne, a key figure in the Young Intellectuals, writing in 1917, ‘The Anglo-Saxon element is guilty of what every dominant race is guilty of in every European country: the imposition of its own culture upon the minority peoples.’ Bourne equated ‘Anglo-Saxondom’ with ‘masculine domination’, blending anti-whiteness and feminism into a kind of wokeness avant la lettre.
By the 1920s, in the wake of immigration restriction and the prohibition of alcohol, the Left-modernist critique of the country’s WASP ethnic majority had become a staple of the American literary world, featuring in novels such as Main Street or even The Great Gatsby.
Where socialism believes in equality-in-similarity, Left-modernism celebrates equality-in-diversity, with little emphasis on community. As radical fifties avatar C. Wright Mills confided, he could appreciate liberty and equality, but not fraternity. Left-modernism appealed to bohemian intellectuals because it allowed them to combine artistic experimentation and self-expression with egalitarian politics. When the Soviet Union banned artistic experimentation in favour of socialist realism in 1938, this helped alienate a significant section of the western cultural Left, many of whom turned against communism.
From the 1910s to the 1960s, Left-modernism largely managed to keep its twin balls of radical Leftism and modernist individualism in the air. But with the victory of civil rights and the rise of minority social movements — as Left-modernism acquired institutional power through the expansion of universities and television — the ideology wobbled on its axis, elevating its Leftist superego over its modernist id.
Viewed through its new politically-correct lens, the anti-white romanticisation of black Americans exemplified by Van Vechten or Mailer became a personification of the very whiteness they railed against: a micro-aggression rooted in colonialist domination and cultural appropriation.
Mailer chose to ride the shark of anti-whiteness, so his estate shouldn’t be surprised when it turns on him.