Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer and Brossard at the Roots of Hip

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer and Brossard at the Roots of Hip

Article excerpt

Chandler brossard and norman Mailer'share membership in the same literary generation, and there their resemblances largely cease. But there was a time in the mid-1950s when their paths crossed. Both men had published novels that explored the phenomenon of Hip, and Mailer was about to publish an essay that would define it. Brossard, for his part, had written off the hipster altogether. So if their subjects were similar, their minds were hardly attuned. But they made some marks on each other.

Brossard recalls a visit to Mailer's Connecticut house in 1956 or '57 that was marred by the usual macho posturing and finally spoiled by Mailer's insistence that they box. "No, Norman, " Brossard told him, "what you really want is for us to fall into each other's arms and cry and hug, covered with blood ... I don't like blood, and also it sounds kind of homosexual to me" (Manso, Mailer, 245). Mailer laughed the moment off, but it may have been in his mind a year or two later when he entered a mixed judgment on the competition in Advertisements for Myself.

   Chandler Brossard is a mean pricky guy who's been around, and he'd
   have been happier as a surgeon than a novelist, but he is original,
   and parts I read of The Bold Saboteurs were sufficiently
   interesting for me to put the book away--it was a little too close
   to some of my own notions. Brossard has that deep distaste for
   weakness which gives work a cold poetry. I like him as a man but I
   think there are too many things he does not understand. (469)

It's the perfect combination of hugs and blood.

Brossard, for his part, was to be offered a second shot many years later in a remark quoted by Peter Manso in Mailer. "In a terribly paradoxical way, there's a very usable emptiness in Norman. The fact that he assumes these various accents ... he's got the Chandler Brossard one too, which at one point made me think: You, Norman, really are an unemployed actor looking for a big role" (327). The remark is critically intended, but, as we'll see, the play of self against role is a defining characteristic of Hip. And the brief exchanges between these writers, no more than literary gossip at one level, have a role to play in introducing the subject at hand, in part because Hip is the art of encounter and such moments offer a fine display of the art: writers at war with the gloves off (one bow to Papa Hem), letting their match subside into the brittle nuance of one or another literary form.

Under all this something more serious was stirring. It looks like a waxworks now: the sharp suits and shades, the gliding walk, the pot, the bop, the language! But Hip was not some passing fad to be lost in the pages of Life. It's still around--as a mournful humanism, an ethical nihilism, a fact in life and a possibility for fiction that's far from exhausted. Brossard and Mailer were present at the creation. Some notes on their connection follow.

Norman Mailer's essay "The White Negro" first saw print in Dissent in 1957, was embedded in the quickie anthology The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men a year later, and was finally published, together with a clutch of related documents by Mailer and others, in Advertisements for Myselfin 1959. The essay thus offers its own definition of Hip well after Chandler Brossard had introduced the figure of the hipster into his first novel in 1952, a fact Mailer himself was ready to note, though, interestingly, he saw Brossard's achievement as more lexical than literary: "Hipster came first as a word--it was used at least as long ago as 1951 or 1952, and was mentioned in the New Directions blurb on Chandler Brossard's Who Walk in Darkness" (Advertisements 372). But for both writers the type was less invention than discovery.

While Hip as a term and the hipster as a figure may be difficult to date precisely, both are easy enough to trace. Linguistically, the term derives from "hep, " the prewar jazz musician's sobriquet for an alert and intuitive per former; historically, the figure may have taken his name from Harry "the Hipster" Gibson, a postwar pianist in New York. …

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