While abstract ideas of “power” and “politics” are catnip to contemporary literary figures, the actual exercise of political power in the American electoral process tends to be their analytic kryptonite. But things were not ever thus. Michael Szalay’s fascinating new book, Hip Figures, reminds us of a time, not long ago, when literary intellectuals set great store by mainstream political parties, and vice versa. Szalay’s book focuses on the postwar era—a high-water mark, he contends, for the mutual influence of mainstream politics and American fiction. “In the decades following the Second World War,” he writes, “during the heyday of the American novel’s prestige, when it was unclear to the Democrats how they should understand the base of their power or the nature of their interests, it seemed plausible to . . . novelists that they might change the party in significant ways.”
Evidently, it seemed plausible to the Democrats, too. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in particular, flattered and cultivated writers; Gore Vidal stated that 1960 was the year when “politics and literature officially joined forces.” William Styron went sailing with JFK and regaled the president with tidbits from his research for The Confessions of Nat Turner. Even writers who weren’t hobnobbing with the political elite felt strongly about their party’s candidates: Ralph Ellison called Johnson “the greatest American President for the poor and for Negroes” and loved his “unreconstructed Texas accent”; and a young Joan Didion “voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater” and commented decades later, “Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter.”(She later drifted into the Democratic Party, in reaction to the rise of Ronald Reagan, and was much taken with Jesse Jackson in 1988.)
The four decades after 1945 marked an epochal shift in the Democratic Party. The party’s transformation was complex, and Szalay tracks it along several axes, from the increasing prominence of what he, following John and Barbara Ehrenreich, calls “the professional managerial class” to the growing importance of African Americans, who “between 1936 and 1964 . . . represented the single largest new voting bloc to enter the party.” The Democrats’ postwar political strategy required them to appeal to these new black voters without alienating educated white professionals—and here, in Szalay’s story, is where “hip” enters the picture.
“The fantasies of hip that have mattered most to liberalism first emerged in novels,” Szalay claims—though, like many students of the idea, he’s hard-pressed to supply a sure-footed delineation of what does and doesn’t count as “hip.” Ultimately, he decides that hip is about a certain performance of race, and more specifically about a performance of the relation between black and white. Norman Mailer’s 1957 manifesto “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” is the key text for Szalay: “In . . . the phrase ‘white Negro,’” he writes, “we witness the strained union of two groups; it performs uneven integration on behalf of a party still committed, in 1957, to the aftereffects of Jim Crow.” Throughout Hip Figures, Szalay develops an extended—and, at times, strained—comparison between midcentury hip and nineteenth-century minstrelsy, interpreting both as ways of generating “socially permissible codes of identification between white and black Americans.”
This hip synthesis of white and black, Szalay believes, was what helped the Democrats gain the advantage in the 1960s, and novelists were some of its primary champions. Mailer famously called Kennedy “the Hipster as Presidential Candidate,” writing in Esquire 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” that he thought the candidate possessed.
Mailer, as per usual, hogs a lot of the attention in Hip Figures, but Szalay also finds time to rescue some lesser-known authors from the archive, providing generous and intriguing readings of writers such as Chandler Brossard, Richard Condon, Ishmael Reed, and Hal Bennett.
As Szalay’s argument progresses, he engages increasingly with books and writers for whom he seems to have more contempt than respect; words like repellent and appalling begin to crop up fairly regularly. This moralistic rhetoric tends to mar otherwise excellent discussions of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, E. L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux. Szalay is particularly tough on Didion, the only woman in his roster of hip literary interlocutors. “Didion wants us to know that she likes people who happen to have black skin,” Szalay writes of a scene in Slouching Towards Bethlehem; “what she doesn’t like, she insists, is any form of symbolic blackness.”
Hip Figures begins and ends with the 2008 election of Barack Obama—a landmark moment in the politics of race and hipness alike. In ideological terms, however, Szalay notes that Obama shares many points of affinity with his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton; like Clinton, he observes, Obama embodies a brand of neoliberal hip—with the obvious additional advantage of actually being our first black president, thereby claiming the laurel Toni Morrison famously bestowed on Clinton in 1998.
It’s not clear just how much of this analysis will prove out in the Obama era’s feints toward a “postracial” politics. Maybe, just maybe, we’re also “posthip”—in which case the story Szalay tells would indeed end in the Clinton era, with the contest between hip and square giving way to one between plutocrats and technocrats. It’s much more likely, though, that the specters of hip will continue to haunt our politics, and we owe Szalay a debt for laying them out in such critical detail here.
Evan Kindley is the managing editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is working on a book called Critics and Connoisseurs: Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture.