October 10, 1997
The heroes of American literature:
Whitman, Thoreau, Kerouac, Miller, Ginsberg, Mailer all share America’s obsession with the individual. Their works are primarily about the ego doing its own thing. They are quirky, individualistic, bloody-minded: lone cowboys, riding into an eternal distance, silhouetted against the landscape, appearing to fade from view but in reality doing the opposite - sticking the barrel of their pen into our midriff, ordering us to raise our hands, and then making off with our humanity.
Who can read these authors without feeling inferior to them? They are more aggressive, more daring, more nobly self-destructive than the rest of us. Their failures are our weaknesses; their triumphs theirs alone. We are not asked to participate but to applaud, to admire,and if we can’t admire then to condemn - notoriety being as good, perhaps better, for sales than simply being noticed.
Steinbeck and maybe Dos Passos excepted, American writers have no social or political conscience - except where they can turn themselves into politically-correct rebels with themselves in the centre, not of the action (that would be too obvious) but of the focus of discontent. Mailer and Ginsberg stood on the front line of protest against the Vietnam war; but they treated it as a literary event. “Let’s get arrested. Let’s give the army shit. Fuck the president.” The language and the sentiments of the campus, written from the air-conditioned safety of a New York apartment or a Long-Island cottage, under the influence of a full belly and with a bourbon or a smouldering joint at their elbow. Neither could imagine what it meant to huddle in a Cambodian shack while agent orange burned your fields, your livelihood and your skin; or to be black and poor in the trashcan backstreets of Detroit. Not the protest that mattered, but the ego in the protest: me and my feelings in the big, bad, corrupt, putrescent planet called America.
But these writers are doing no more than expressing the American myth about itself: the individual is all; anyone can “make it”; everyone should make it. And if you don’t make it, the fault is yours pussy-cat. A writer’s job is to be a bigger, meaner, louder writer than anyone else.What you need to be heard is a powerful set of lungs - and an appetite for fame. How do you like it? Over-easy with fries, plenty of mustard, a dash of originality, hold the sincerity. Every dish to order; any mix of ingredients on the list.
Whitman and Thoreau are the originals, first and greatest; the creators of the American literary persona. “Shake off the fetters of convention”, they tell us, “Care solely for your own fulfillment. Let nothing stand in your way. Whether you benefit someone else, or even humanity at large hardly matters, your effect on your fellow creatures being a by-product - like sawdust - of hewing the timber of your own life. Not a single character, in the work of either, beyond themselves. Thoreau sailed and rowed along the Merrimack with his brother. But who is his brother? What did he think? Or say? Or feel? What conversations took place round the camp-fire beneath the unpolluted stars, amid the nocturnal rustlings of the wilderness? We don’t know. Any more than we know who stood next to Mailer in the ranks of the Armies of the Night. Or the characters that Whitman met in his wanderings on the blue shores of Ontario.
Whitman and Thoreau gave us a new language of the self; a language for a New World; rich, individualistic, liberating, egocentric.They wrote triumphantly and their works come to us, even now, like a release, as if they are leading us from a stuffy room into open territory where the air is fresh, the fields green, the forests dense, the horizon bright with possibility. And we are moved, and excited; our lungs swell, our heart pounds. Maybe we should quit our job, and trip round America, like Kerouac.
But in time the message shifted. The world of Whitman and Thoreau became that of Miller, Mailer and Ginsberg (and, I might add, of Erica Jong and Philip Roth). Self-fulfillment became self-indulgence. The fundamental preoccupation of American writers of the modern age - one that, despite its narrow focus, entertains them endlessly - is jerking off. For men ‘getting it up’ and for women ‘getting it good’ : every last one a Catcher in the Rye.
A writer’s object is to shock
What better way than to rehearse
With different words the same old verse
The one about the cunt and cock.