The Lineages of Conformity in Mailer’s The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”

The Lineages of Conformity in Mailer’s The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”

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Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay, titled “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”, traces the lineage of conformity (and, as a result, nonconformity) in American society post World War II, as well as the counter-cultural reaction of the time, the “white negro”.
Considered a cultural phenomenon, these “white negros”, or “hipsters”, as Mailer deems them, distanced themselves from white culture, and adopted black styles of clothing, language, and music. However, this phenomenon seemed to be somewhat isolated, appearing specifically in cities where the “Negro culture” had much to offer, in places such as New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. (Mailer) These hipsters represented a fascination or an interest in this type of culture—the American existentialist met the danger and violence that emulate from the Negro lifestyle.
Most notable to me in “The White Negro” is Mailer’s presentation of the hipster as a psychopath. Disillusioned by the approaching and seemingly inevitable apocalypse (with two world wars already in the back pocket, and in the midst of the Cold War, it was nearly impossible not to anticipate some sort of violent end), Mailer identified Hipsters as those rejecting conformism and seeking immediate gratification. He predicts that the 1960’s will bring about "a time of violence, new hysteria, confusion, and rebellion...likely to replace the time of conformity". (Mailer)
The white negro attempts to escape the conformity of the time through not a pursuit of instant gratification can lead to the ultimate clash with society—violence.
Hardly distinguishable through this definition/identification of the violent and psychopathic hipster is the idea of courage, though. Mailer writes, “Hip...

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...g things in their own way, like creating a new trend, for example. Both hipsters and psychopaths are driven by true ambition, an ambition that allows them to create and follow their own vision as opposed to a vision created by and impressed upon them by society.
And similarly, not everyone understands hipsters. In what may be one of my favorite passages of the essay, Mailer writes, “What makes Hip a special language is that it cannot really be taught—if one shares none of the experiences of the elation and exhaustion which is equipped to describe, then it seems merely arch or vulgar or irritating.” (Mailer) These hipsters, both in Mailer’s yesterday and our today, are closest to their inner consciousness, most in touch with their views of society and culture. If one cannot “speak the language”, per se, one cannot truly begin to understand or connect with them.

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