by Eric Kaufmann
Tuesday, 4
January 2022
Debate
14:30

Norman Mailer is reaping the anti-whiteness he sowed

The writer only has himself to blame for the cancellation of his work
by Eric Kaufmann
Not so hip anymore

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.

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.

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James Joyce
James Joyce
8 months ago

The most significant aspect of this tripe is that the cancellation was caused by a single “junior staffer.” This is significant because it shows that the “adults” supposedly in charge of anything really, fear the people they employ, the people they teach, the people they lead.
Merriam-Webster, the famous dictionary people, completely changed the definition of the word “racism” because of a complaint by a single college student. Racism used to be defined, broadly, as “an irrational fear or dislike of a particular group.” Fair play. Have a look at the new definition: unreadable woke speak.
The reality of our world is that white people have far fewer rights than COWs (citizens of Wakanda). White people are cancelled for using the n-word, Dave Chapelle uses it to great comic effect. I don’t use the n-word, think it’s chavish, uncouth, but I don’t think that it’s the worst thing ever. Want to call me a name–give it a go!
This insanity extends to American citizens. In some cases–and this is true–they have fewer rights than illegal aliens. Tell me more. Jury trials have been in the news lately as a bedrock foundation of the American system, where justice is blind. That’s the ideal anyway. But in many cases, so called “dreamers” and other illegal immigrants are not treated as though justice is blind, if they commit what some deem a “minor” infraction. In some states in some instances, the right to a jury trial exists ONLY if one faces punishment of more than 6 months in jail; if 6 months is the maximum penalty, you have to have a bench trial.
But some courts have recently held that this supposedly fundamental right does not apply to Americans but does apply to illegal immigrant invaders. Because in theory they have “more to lose,” i.e. they could be deported, they but not Americans have the right to a jury trial in ALL cases. And this utter insanity has been upheld by appellate courts.
The system, at least in America, has gone off the rails.

Peter LR
Peter LR
8 months ago

Why didn’t they tell the junior staffer to look for a job more suited to their fragile offensive-taking sensitivities?

David Bell
David Bell
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

It seems extraordinary that one junior worker can exert such an influence over management. The publishing biz is not one to invest in.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Why didn’t they tell the junior staffer to far cough?

James Joyce
James Joyce
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Because they are afraid. There was a podcast on HONESTLY where the medical professors–teaching medical students–were absolutely afraid of doing anything that could possibly offend anyone. On this podcast was a clip of a medical lecture where the physician professor abjectly abased himself because one of his slides indicated “man” or “woman,” and since these biological facts are no longer allowed to be referenced IN MEDICAL SCHOOL, he groveled before his students.
This was so extreme that it was eye-opening, but the concept is not: those “in charge” are seriously afraid of those they supposedly lead. In no way can this be good for society, good for the future…..

David McDowell
David McDowell
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Or did they secretly agree with the junior staffer’s extremist political affiliation and use him/her/they as an excuse to have done what they’d have liked to do anyway.

Warren T
Warren T
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

“The wisdom of youth.”…..no one ever said in the history of the world.

Christopher Hilton
Christopher Hilton
8 months ago

Burn his books, desicrate his grave. The only correct thing to do. Such an evil man. How dare he be cleverer than you – and a great writer too.
Cancel all brilliance. You know it makes sense.

Last edited 8 months ago by Christopher Hilton
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
8 months ago

The Deer Park is a truly great novel.

Christopher Gelber
Christopher Gelber
8 months ago

Huh? Mailer’s estate reaps now what was sown by an essay title in … 1957? That was the year of Kerouac’s On The Road. Elvis was still brand new, Chuck Berry hadn’t yet gone to jail, the Civil Rights Act was still several years off, Brown v Board of Education had been decided a couple of years earlier but was far from taking root, there were still segregated water fountains in the 1950s. Be-bop jazz was still nascent, with Miles and Coltrane playing together in what was perhaps the first great modern jazz union, while Roy Rogers had a TV show. What is this writer talking about?

Last edited 8 months ago by Christopher Gelber
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
8 months ago

“Miles and Coltrane playing together in what was perhaps the first great modern jazz union,”

Not for me, I’m afraid. That was Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie (in a radically different league from the other two).

Last edited 8 months ago by Arnold Grutt
Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
8 months ago

The only evil doer here is Random House. Craven and pathetic. You might as well cancel any creation of any human being in any time of history. Leave it and discuss, if you must.

Warren T
Warren T
8 months ago

They now need to stop publishing the Holy Bible, since it mentions slaves and masters.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago

The phenomenon of WASP Americans turning against their own ethnic group.. Mailer became a personification of the very whiteness they railed against: a micro-aggression rooted in colonialist domination and cultural appropriation.”
This is missing one very crucial point. Mailer like very many of the originators of anti-white theories and movements was one of the chosen people for whom identifying as white seems to be optional, depending on the circumstances.

Shoel Silver
Shoel Silver
8 months ago

Your message would have been clearer if you had capitalized “chosen people”.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
8 months ago

I’m not a cancellationist, but these people do sound unpleasant – self-indulgents who exoticise and fetishise people for a frisson in their lives.

Jock Encombe
Jock Encombe
8 months ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

I was given a copy of Mailer’s ‘The Fight’ (about the Ali vs Foreman ‘Rumble in the Jungle’) for Christmas. A great book about boxing but some of his comments about black people and culture are unpleasant and clearly racist.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
8 months ago

Mr Kaufmann is a relatively unique voice in being able to track down the American origins of Wokeness. It’d be interesting to see from him a discussion of the infusion of continental philosophy with the likes of Marcuse and Derrida into this mix which I suspect was key to building of some of the foundations on the fertile ground they found in America.
Incidentally, at the end of The Atlantic article, Randolph Bourne makes a call to the younger intelligentsia of America for progress. This must’ve been shortly before the Russian intelligentsia (where the word originated) gave way to the Bolshevik Revolution leading to countless dead in the gulags.

Last edited 8 months ago by Emre Emre
Warren T
Warren T
8 months ago

I actually read the entire piece by Norman Mailer, “The White [email protected]#ro” and was flummoxed by it. He must have written that piece while under the influence of some bad mushrooms at the time.

Last edited 8 months ago by Warren T
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
8 months ago

Jeez Norman must be really upset.
Maybe Colston can console him.

Michael Sweeney
Michael Sweeney
8 months ago

Dear Unherd,
I left The NY Times to NOT read nonsense like this. Please stick to your core of “people not herd”.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
8 months ago

This reads like one of those cod academic papers some scientists send to the journals just for a laugh.