Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party, by Michael Szalay (Stanford University Press, 336 pp., $24.95)
Michael Szalay’s unusual book, Hip Figures, is largely an account of that moment in the 1960s when, in the words of Gore Vidal, “politics and literature officially joined forces” by incorporating the black conception of “cool” into the critique of conventional middle-class morality. Though written in the obscurantist jargon of postmodernism and saddled by Szalay’s attempt to show how the novels of the 1960s instantiated Marx’s pre-modern labor theory of value, the book offers some valuable insights.
Szalay argues that the work of novelists such as Norman Mailer, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, and William Styron made them “the most important political strategists of their time.” They paved the way, he rightly argues, for the creation of the contemporary liberal lifestyle of upwardly mobile people who, in their twenties and thirties, are square by day, swingers by night. Today, we might call them hipsters. By the time they settle into genuine adulthood, they’re no more capable of defending the bourgeois virtues that propelled their careers than a Communist commissar would be. But Szalay’s thesis also entails considerable overstatement: the sixties novelists, he asserts, cleaved the ties between economics and culture that Daniel Bell identified in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. A writer less attached to antique Marxist categories would have noted that the split between culture and economy was, in large measure, a matter of unprecedented affluence undermining the self-discipline and social relations that had long buttressed economic prosperity.
After signing the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson exclaimed: “Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend . . . the two currents will finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come” as “the American Negro [claims] his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life.” It was an optimistic vision. But another novelist, Ralph Ellison, saw the potential underside: “It was as though the word had gone out, that the outsider, the unacceptable, was now acceptable, and young people translated that to mean that all of the suppressed psychological drives, all of the discipline of the instincts, were fair game. ‘Let it all hang out,’ they said. ‘We have become black men and women.’” As the riots and revolutions of 1967 and 1968 would make clear, the costs of this liberation were high, though they remain invisible to Szalay, who seems only to see their promise.
In his marvelous Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charles LeDuff describes how the intersection of unprecedented prosperity and cultural liberation wrought havoc on his once-solid working-class family. His beloved “hellcat” sister turned hooker and was murdered. Her daughter, his stoner niece, overdosed, and one of his brothers lingered in a crack den. In the 1970s, while Japanese competition demanded renewed American economic commitment, the scourge of Aquarian prosperity produced divorce, drugs, and school dropouts. “What our generation failed to learn,” writes Leduff, “was the nobility of work. An honest day’s labor. . . . For us, the factory would never do. And turning away from our birthright—our grandfather in the white socks—is the thing that ruined us.”
It was not just closed factories, but people closed off to work, that sent cities on a downward spiral. In his 1959 book, Advertisements for Myself, Norman Mailer anticipated and welcomed the rupture: “The next collapse in America may come not from the center of the economy, but within the superstructure of manners, morals, tastes, fashions and vogue which shape the search for love of each of us.” Robert Penn Warren saw the dangers of that rupture and, like Ellison, worried that it would cut blacks off from the promise of American life. Penn Warren feared that the hipsters who became Mailer’s “White Negroes” could constitute a political vanguard that would hamper blacks’ ability to enter the American mainstream, as LBJ had hoped they would do.
Penn Warren anticipated Detroit under the leadership of the badass hipster Marxist Coleman Young, who served as the city’s mayor from 1973 through 1992. Young rejected middle-class values. He effectively dismantled the police force while presiding over 20 years of arson, armed robbery, assault, and outmigration. His Maileresque mayoralty left the city devastated and African-Americans more marginalized then before.
Nearly a half-century after the Voting Rights Act, African-Americans are more than ever saddled with the burdens of a black underclass—a reality that should be a matter of great concern in academia. It’s not, in part because professors like Szalay are stuck in a time warp, using the “magic” of postmodernism to distort the historical record. He’s hardly alone. A few years ago, I listened to a gaggle of academic presentations explaining how the riots of the 1960s, which left sections of American cities in ruins, were actually liberating moments. Szalay offers an English-lit version of these fantastical accounts. But unlike his compatriots, he notes that some, like Penn Warren and Ellison, saw the shape of what was coming. If only for that, his book is worth reading.