Book Reviews

Minority Rapport

The surprising connections between the Democratic Party and the postwar American novel.

By Len Gutkin

Tagged Democrats

Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party By Michael Szalay • Stanford University Press • 2012 • 336 pages • $24.95

Last year, French presidential candidate François Hollande released a campaign commercial showcasing support across Paris’s racially diverse suburbs with a rather surprising soundtrack: Jay-Z and Kanye West’s infectious radio hit “Niggas in Paris.” The song, of course, has nothing to do with French electoral politics and everything to do with its composers’ hedonistic globetrotting, but Hollande presumably hoped it would highlight his own commitment to France’s marginalized minority communities. If the Hollande campaign’s bizarrely cavalier appropriation of the n-word is unthinkable in an American context, the core strategy will prove familiar. In an Obama campaign ad last year, a well-known rap star—Jay-Z again—lent the President his support, flanked by images of multiracial crowds. As in the Hollande spot, progressive, racially inclusive politics are emblematized in the figure of a popular black musician.

Michael Szalay’s book Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party came out a few months too early for the author to consider the Obama/Jay-Z commercial. That’s too bad, because Jay-Z’s official endorsement of the President—and, equally important, the President’s and by extension the Democratic Party’s endorsement of Jay-Z—would have made a fitting coda to Szalay’s impressive, wide-ranging study. Hip Figures traces three braided trajectories. It is a social history of the Democratic Party from its loss of the South to the election of Obama; it is an account of American “hipness” across the same period; and it is a study of the racial politics of the American novel after 1945. Along the way, we get informative mini-histories of such attendant cultural phenomena as jazz and Madison Avenue advertising. The book’s “central contention,” Szalay writes, “is that, over the last fifty or so years, a range of predominantly white fantasies about hip have animated the secret imagination of postwar liberalism and, more concretely, organized the Democratic Party’s efforts to redress ‘the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.’ ”

These liberal fantasies include the relatively benign, such as that of blacks’ quintessential American authenticity—their regional association with the Old South and its folkways, for instance. But they could also be disturbingly racist. Consider Norman Mailer’s notorious celebration of blacks’ alleged existential psychopathy in his essay “The White Negro”: “Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive…. It is therefore no accident that psychopathy is most prevalent with the Negro.” Such projections of glorified marginality, titillating to countercultural whites like Mailer, were the underbelly of liberal whites’ identification with African-American struggle. Think of the “yippie” Abbie Hoffman comparing “a fifteen-year-old kid who takes off from middle-class American life” to “an escaped slave crossing the Mason-Dixon line.” Ultimately, whites found in the black hipster—supposedly at odds with a deadeningly conformist society—liberating energies of opposition, personal freedom, and the drive for justice. But they also found convenient vehicles for their own reveries of cultural revolt.

But why novels? According to Szalay, “the fantasies of hip that have mattered most to liberalism first emerged in novels”; novelists were, therefore, “the most important political strategists of their time.” This last strikes me as a bit of calculated overstatement, or the kind of hyperbole that can result from disciplinary distortion, as when a musicologist attributes the rise of the bourgeoisie to the invention of the piano. As it happens, Szalay contextualizes his treatment of the novel with relevant discussions of other cultural forms, most importantly music, which vies with literature for top billing in this history. But Szalay reminds us that during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, novelists were granted access to politicians in ways hard to imagine today. He cites Gore Vidal’s retrospective assertion that during Kennedy’s presidency, “politics and literature officially joined forces.” There’s also Kennedy’s friend William Styron remembering a request by the President to meet black novelists: “Did I know any Negro writers? Could I suggest some Negro names for a meeting at the White House?”

Hip Figures is about the complex dynamics of blackness’ symbolic function within the Democratic Party. It’s commonly accepted, of course, that the GOP exploits its base’s well-known antipathy to African Americans. Rick Santorum’s notorious pronouncement in last year’s Republican primaries that “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money” is a recent case in point. The “black people” involved here are entirely notional; as Gary Younge pointed out in The Nation, Santorum’s concerns were expressed in a place, Woodbury County, Iowa, with a 13-percent rate of food-stamp dependency and almost no African Americans to speak of.

Szalay’s study insists, provocatively, that the exploitation of symbolic blackness is not the exclusive preserve of the GOP, although the two parties’ strategies are hardly identical. One project of Hip Figures is to complement what we know about Republican racial resentment with a picture of the equally problematic, if ultimately far less sinister, use of the idea of blackness by Democrats. An example: the “mutually reinforcing” role blackness played in two key projects of the Johnson Administration, civil-rights legislation and the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. Szalay observes that Johnson “often linked African Americans and their culture with the arts legislation” and argues that he saw “his commitment to the arts as part of his commitment to black political freedom.”

He quotes Johnson at the 1965 White House Festival of the Arts: “Your art is not a political weapon, yet much of what you do is profoundly political.” Art and civil rights become the twinned soul, as it were, of the Democrats’ domestic policy, an alignment Johnson signaled when, explaining “the true meaning” of the Arts Festival, he vowed to “help move toward justice for all of our people.” While Szalay’s account can be unclear in explaining how the Administration’s yoking of civil rights and the arts actually affected white or black voting patterns, his reading of Johnson’s rhetoric remains illuminating.

Republicans themselves, of course, have something like the Democrats’ use of symbolic blackness in mind when they accuse liberals of “playing the race card,” or, more poisonously, “race-hustling,” formulations that obscure more than they reveal. A virtue of Szalay’s study is that it allows us to think about Democrats and symbolic blackness through a more useful lens than that of either race-baiting Republican demagoguery or self-congratulatory Democratic triumphalism. We all know about Republicans and race. Szalay helps demystify modern progressivism’s own complex racial subconscious, which, while less toxic than the right-wing variety—and sometimes even downright praiseworthy—nevertheless depends on some awfully strange brews of fantasy and projection.

Michael Szalay is an English professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the stakes of his argument are as much about the history of the twentieth-century American novel as they are about the Democratic Party. His first book, New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State, argued that the political imagination animating American modernism took fire not just from the mass political movements of fascism on the one hand and communism on the other (a familiar story in accounts of modernist art) but also, less obviously, from Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hip Figures continues to explore the link between mainstream Democratic politics and the novel.

In the work of such authors as Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, and Ralph Ellison (the only black writer considered at length, which is appropriate given that Szalay’s focus is on “white fantasies”), Szalay discerns something like the experimental working-out of the Democratic Party’s relationship to symbolic blackness. When, in John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, a conservative and racially resentful Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom ends up taking in and learning from a black radical named Skeeter, Szalay finds the novel attempting to “convert Rabbit from his pro-war commitments to Eugene McCarthy’s ‘coalition of conscience.’ ” Such negotiations always take place around the concept of “hip,” a category that eludes easy definition but which, for Szalay’s purposes, has at least two core characteristics. First, it is a white professional-class projection of a kind of underground rebelliousness associated by its WASP aspirants with nonwhites. (These are typically African Americans, although other groups might do as well—think of beatnik fascination with the Far East, for instance.) Second, hip allows the professional classes to forget who they are and become something cooler—like a jazz musician:

[W]e must acknowledge that many of the white professionals and managers who experienced bebop—difficult to perform and yet seemingly committed to the appearance of ease—took from it an aesthetic vision ultimately valuable for its capacity to sublimate demanding physical labor, and the social relations that organized that labor, into something more easily exchangeable.

I wonder if Szalay doesn’t make too much of bebop’s supposed capacity to erase labor and its relations. After all, the apparently effortless execution of the very difficult is a longstanding feature of many kinds of performance—it is hardly confined to bebop. Perhaps more important than virtuosity per se, though, is bebop’s potential to transform race into a form of purchasable blackness whites could buy. This is by now an old story—what’s more familiar than white suburban kids feeling black through popular music?—but Szalay gives this cliché its history. In the wings here is Theodor Adorno’s infamous claim (which Szalay does not quote) regarding jazz of the thirties: “The skin of the negro as well as the silver of the saxophone was only a coloristic effect.”

Black skin is a “coloristic effect” precisely for those professional-class white listeners who hoped their appreciation of black music could become, in Szalay’s words, “moments of consumption that promise transcendence.” Szalay’s discussion of white identification with blackness depends largely on University of Virginia English professor Eric Lott’s 1993 study Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Minstrelsy, as Lott shows, involved more than simple caricature, and the racism that animated it partook of a complex blend of fear and attraction, identification and revulsion. Blackness as an American “cultural commodity” was in no small part a result of the minstrel show. Crucially, according to Lott, the social influence of minstrelsy did not evaporate with blackface itself: “Every time you hear an expansive white man drop into his version of black English, you are in the presence of blackface’s unconscious return.” In Szalay’s updating of this history, hipness makes available (to whites, at least) a kind of safe racial cross-dressing, creating the possibility that “members of one group might become members of another, and yet remain themselves.”

And the novel—the upper-middle class art form par excellence—repeatedly dramatizes whites’ attraction to a commoditized blackness. This attraction was identified by Robert Penn Warren in 1965 when, in Who Speaks for the Negro?, he described young whites’ desire to “enter romantically into Negro taste in music, Negro taste in this, that and the other.” Readers of Updike’s Rabbit, Run will remember an agonized Harry Angstrom’s abortive cross-country drive, during which jazz on the radio precipitates Harry’s lovingly indulged alienation from his suburban existence. Szalay reads Rabbit’s nighttime drive as exemplary of the psychosocial structure of hip:

After Rabbit sees the boy [a “tall colored boy” at a gas station whom Rabbit has an impulse to hug], the music on the radio changes; first becoming “old standards and show tunes,” the melodies later “turn to ice as real night music takes over, pianos and vibes erecting clusters in the high brittle octaves and a clarinet wandering across like a crack on a pond. Saxes doing the same figure eight over and over again.” On the heels of this account of what we must assume is some version of bop, music so presumably anti-commercial that it must be described with a dense concatenation of figures as opposed to song names, Rabbit enters a diner and feels himself “unlike the other customers.” He then asks himself, “Is it just these people I’m outside or is it all America?” This is, in a nutshell, the experience for which he has been longing.

Where does all this leave the Democratic Party? Szalay sees the hip novel as a testing ground and model for forms of inclusiveness and racial cross-identification necessary to the Democratic Party’s coalition culture—a history that intersects at a key point with the history of advertising. As viewers of “Mad Men” will recall, the Kennedy campaign made far savvier use of emergent advertising techniques than their opponents. The Democrats exploited advertising agencies’ newly established practice of “market segmentation” (which was itself created in part to target African-American markets without alienating white consumers) in order to speak to multiple, potentially conflicting constituencies at once. Unlike Kennedy, Nixon failed to understand the logic of market segmentation: He spoke to white Protestants, the country’s numerical majority, instead of forging a coalition comprised of multiple minorities whose needs were somehow united even while being held separate.

“Hip” would become the ultimate sign and medium for this kind of coalition. “Whether selling cars or Democrats,” Szalay writes,

advertisers faced the same problem: how to appeal to blacks without alienating racist whites…. Hip offered a solution, in some obvious and not so obvious ways. It represented an effort to generate socially permissible codes of identification between white and black Americans; faced with the increasing momentum of the Civil Rights movement, both the advertising industry and the Democratic Party realized at the start of the sixties that their fortunes depended on these codes. Both realized, also, that these codes were most effective when tolerant if not productive of racial fluidity.

Szalay follows Thomas Frank in ascribing the invention of hip advertising to the firm DDB, whose famous Volkswagen campaign deployed a knowing, ironic relationship to consumerism (for instance, in the VW Beetle’s well-known “Lemon” ads, which debuted in 1959). Szalay reports that “ethnic locutions” (as opposed to the WASPy speech that had been the norm) began to appear in advertisements after the Volkswagen commercials. Such locutions “appealed to those in the majority eager to distance themselves from Anglo-Saxon life in their acts of consumption.” The ironic idiom of the new advertising is what made such interethnic acts of consumption safe: If a WASP buys a Cadillac after seeing an ad aimed at a Harlem hipster, he can participate in—or consume—blackness while retaining the prerogatives of whiteness.

As Szalay sees it, Democratic coalition-building is analogous to, and even borrows its strategies from, hip advertising. I find this abstractly compelling, but I wish that Szalay had included more discussion of actual political advertisements. He mentions that both the Kennedy and Johnson campaigns—“more closely attuned to the changes in taste that led to the creative revolution”—hired DDB, and cites in particular DDB’s fear-mongering 1964 “Daisy” commercial suggesting that a vote for Goldwater was a vote for nuclear annihilation. But how was the “Daisy” ad “hip” in any of the ways Szalay describes?

Kennedy was the first politician to understand how “hip” could be used to marshal a diverse and potentially self-divided Democratic base—or at least so thought Norman Mailer, whose Esquire article on “the Hipster as Presidential Candidate” argued that Kennedy was possessed of the “patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.” What better candidate for the disillusioned Rabbit Angstrom of Rabbit, Run?

The fiction Szalay treats includes, besides the Rabbit novels, Warren’s All the King’s Men, Chandler Brossard’s little-known Greenwich Village novel Who Walk in Darkness, Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting…, Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and Joan Didion’s Democracy. As this wide range of texts suggests, the “hip” that Szalay is after is a shifting thing, difficult to pin down and adaptable to a range of contexts. What it always involves, though, is a kind of white flirtation with its own idea of blackness.

Toward the end of his book, Szalay discusses the perceived crisis in the Democratic Party as, from 1966 onwards, “white voters from across the economic spectrum in the South and the West had begun to leave the party because, most historians have tended to assume, they were alienated by the depth of its commitment to civil rights and the aspirations of blacks generally.” By the early 1990s, he recounts, “a spate of books, such as Peter Brown’s Minority Party, pointed to this ongoing trend and argued that the Democrats would never win so long as they were closely associated with blacks and, by extension, the welfare state.” Szalay sees Bill Clinton as having negotiated this situation by separating out “the twined imperatives of hip, its emphasis on individual liberty on the one hand and social justice on the other” even as he maintained “the African American patina that the party had always possessed.” (He was, after all, Toni Morrison’s “first black President.”) Enter the period of the Democratic Party’s “welfare-reforming” neoliberalism.

To claim that the Democrats have maintained a longstanding strategy of exploiting symbolic blackness is not at all to suggest that they are not the better party for minority voters, or to assert, as Republican pundits routinely and absurdly do, that black voters ought to defect and join the Republicans. But it is to recognize that the Democrats’ association with symbolic blackness—never stronger than with a black President—can help paper over their failure to work toward justice for actual blacks. As the Columbia University political scientist Fredrick C. Harris put it in a recent New York Times piece, Obama’s apparent lack of interest in such crucial problems as racial profiling and black imprisonment rates suggests that “when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.”

In his Obama campaign commercial, a suited Jay-Z discusses “having someone in office who understands how powerful our voice can be.” Images of black Obama supporters are followed by images of white Obama supporters. The President himself expatiates on the rap star’s exemplarity: “To me the idea of America is that no matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from, you can make it if you try. Jay-Z did. He didn’t come from power or privilege, he got ahead because he worked hard, learned from his mistakes, and just plain refused to quit. That’s the promise of this country, and all of us have the obligation to keep that promise alive.” More images of mixed-race crowds. This is the weird climax of what Szalay at the end of his study refers to as the neoliberal hip ushered in by Clinton and continued by Obama. Here we have a black rapper—the least accessible and hence most attractive avatar of hip for a white upper-middle class awash in countercultural fantasies—described in the Horatio Alger terms of corporate success, and that success marshaled in the service of the country’s first black President, a centrist Democrat who has inherited Clinton’s neoliberal economic policies and Bush’s expanded wartime powers. Recalling Szalay’s discussion of hip’s coalition-building efficacy, the ad depicts in succession black crowds, then white crowds, then mixed crowds—not lingering too long on any demographic, lest the elastic potential of hip harden (become too black?) and alienate the far less certain white vote. To quote Jay-Z, who is himself quoting Mailer’s CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost, “To be continued, we on that Norman Mailer shit…”

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Len Gutkin is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Yale University. His reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi, and Bookforum.

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