The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 (2002) 345-370
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All the King's Men; or, the Primal Crime
In January of 1964, Robert Penn Warren left his office in the English Department at Yale and set out for Mississippi and Alabama, where he would interview black leaders of the Civil Rights movement. A compilation of these interviews, Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965) is Warren's most comprehensive rumination both on racial inequality and his long and often ambivalent relation to it. At the start of his literary career, this unrepentant Southern Agrarian defended segregation and railed against what he took to be the North's self-righteous concern with black welfare. And for close to forty years, Warren would temper his gradual, reluctant acceptance of integration with bitter, indignant denunciations of any Federal action that might impose upon the South a moral vision not entirely its own. Who Speaks for the Negro is without doubt Warren's most heartfelt denunciation of Southern bigotry. But as self-assured as this book at moments feels in its defense of civil rights, it too equivocates over the place of state intervention in redressing the South's systematic denial of these rights to its black citizens. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Warren should conclude by shifting the terms of his inquiry away from thorny questions of rights toward a consideration of the more properly cultural effects of integration. Ambivalent about what it means for anyone—let alone a government—to act in the name of an oppressed minority, Warren more confidently decries the imaginary "identifications" that lead Northerners actually to act like African Americans. 1
Not quite willing to dismiss the political activist, Warren turns his scorn on an altogether different kind of activist, the modern hipster, that paragon of this century's sexually and racially-inflected politics of style. Even more noxious than the do-gooder's effort to reform a way of life of which he is ignorant is the at times concomitant tendency to want actually to live in an African American body. The desire for these adolescent identifications, Warren objected, Freud in hand, was as empty as it was common:
Civilization thwarts us, we are starved for instinctual and affective satisfactions—or at least have to locate them well down in a hierarchy of values and subject them to dreary postponements. So we turn to the Noble Savage. Or civilization tarnishes us, for we live in a texture of conflicting values and move in a maze of moral casuistries which block or distort what we regard as our purer and more generous impulses. So we turn [End Page 345] to the Noble Savage. Or civilization gives us only false and derivative knowledge, and has cut us off from the well-springs of experience and truth, from nature and our deeper selves. So we turn to the Noble Savage. He becomes the symbolic vessel of a number of things we yearn for, the image in which we find our vicarious satisfactions. 2
This kind of primitivism had been familiar to the American scene at least since the twenties, and had recently taken a particularly noxious turn in Norman Mailer's "The White Negro" (1957), which advised aspiring hipsters to identify with urban black Americans in order "to create a new nervous system for themselves." 3 Despite its antipathy toward psychoanalysis and its vitriolic denunciations of therapeutic culture, Mailer's essay draws mainly from Freud's Civilization and its Discontents to depict a postwar society as repressive in its hostility to instinct as it is deadly in its collectivizing, systematizing procedures of population management. Mailer describes and endorses an emergent youth culture fleeing from this beat scene for the urban haunts and imagined styles of "the Negro," who "had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could." 4 The hipster acted like black men in what was to Mailer the justifiable hope that some of their sexual potency—nourished by years of living in the face...