Thursday, May 02, 2013
An Interview with Literary Outlaw Alan Kaufman
I sent Alan Kaufman, the editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and the final entry of the Outlaw anthologies trilogy, The Outlaw Bible of American Essays, a note telling him I was using the The Outlaw Bible of American Literature in my Urban American Literature course at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.. He wrote me back:
"Here's a little anecdote that you might want to impart to your students, as a point of interest. On Tuesday, I was invited by the Sheriff's ...Dept, as part of National Poetry Month, to go into San Bruno County Jail to speak about writing to a group of incarcerated largely African-American military veterans. I asked the inmates if they'd heard of Robert Beck? Hands shot up. 'You mean Iceberg Slim!' they called out and proceeded to reel off the titl! es of his books, PIMP, TRICK BABY, et al., and all kinds of inside information about him. Then, I asked: have any of you ever heard of Donald Goines? More hands shot up!! He wrote, they called out, NEVER DIE ALONE, BLACK GANGSTER, WHORESON, et al. and again poured out a wealth of details about his career and life. Had I put the same question to a room full of literary-minded caucasians, as I often have,I would have gotten blank stares. One of my aims, in editing THE OUTLAW BIBLE OF AMERICAN LITERATURE was to break down this segregating literary wall that still exists in our country. Two worlds, in which one knows nothing about the fact that writers like Goines and Beck are the biggest selling authors in their communities nationwide. But because of their color and because, as the inmate veterans said Beck and Goines "Keep It Real" they are, to this day, and despite being spellbinding writers of high literary merit, critically ignored, and left completely out of the national ! discourse. So, it's heartening to know that college students are using this book and gaining exposure to the Other side of American literature. Thank you for your courage in fostering that."
I asked Kaufman for an interview and he generously consented:
Doug Holder: Give me your definition of a literary outlaw.
Alan Kaufman: Well, the sense that I mean is largely in an American vein. But even there, one must distinguish in kind. For example, Hemingway and Faulkner were very much in the mode of the Damun Runyon hobo/bohemian writer popular at the time-- one who consorts with riff-raff and criminals and the like, a vein that begins with Twain and Whitman and Melville—the 'Redskins' referenced in Philip Rahv’s seminal essay 'Palefaces and Redskins'--and extends through Sherwood Anderson who, one day rose from the paint factory he owned, walked onto the railroad tracks and in a state of breakdown ended up in Chicago, where he became a writer (in realty he made it to, I think, Cleveland, was rescued by his wife and for years continued to work in the advertising business for years whole writing his novels). This refutation of respectability was succinctly American. Only an individual driven to the extreme edge of personal crisis could conceive of abandoning Capitalist respectability for a precarious life of art: one had to be literally nuts to become an uncompromisingly honest writer. As mentor to Hemingway and Faulkner, Anderson passed this model along. And yet this very tradition stops short of Henry Miller who never achieves the acceptance conferred upon these predecessors.
Miller is an important point of divergence. Because though both Hemingway and Faulkner wrote early on with a sense that the respectable is antithetical to great art—that, as Faulkner put it, “a great novel is worth any number of old ladies”--in other words, a writer must be willing to break every rule to express his truth-- still, and despite that Faulkner liked to disport in ragged tramp clothes and Hemmingway never washed--they achieved the unequivocal embrace of the mainstream and even won Nobel Prizes. This is perhaps because they offered versions of the self that were, in the wake of the First War’s horrors, forgivable, understandable, even admirable: a whole generation emulated Hemmingway's hard-bitten and private code-driven heroes.
But there is nothing “admirable” about Miller, who stands in guffawing disdain of America and her values and surrealistically dances, so to speak, on what he perceives as America's air-conditioned zombie corpse. He was a hedonistic and an Europeanly selfish prophet of total rejection of whatever his world stood for.--closer to Spengler then Whitman(he claimed both as influences). And though he earned the praise of such writers as Orwell and Huxley, he could never be fully embraced by the mainstream and to this day remains, an outsider. And even when he finally gained broad commercial success once my friend, co-editor and also publisher Barny Rosset brought out Miller's Tropic of Cancer, he yet faced pernicious rejection---his book stood trial before the Supreme Court, and after a a couple of decades of being read to the amusement of chiefly hippies or the likes of Norman Mailer who appreciated Miller for all the wrong reasons, the author fell from sight again. Today, far fewer read Miller then ever before.
Thus, a literary outlaw is a writer who has either lived on the margins of society or else felt themselves to be relegated by personal circumstance to an extreme edge of human experience.
The author's sense of separation, alienation must be deeply personal and profound. This experience births a new and often radical sort of perspective –though not necessarily political-- that demands to be expressed in an effort to bridge the gulf between oneself and humanity, to make a case for ones membership in the common plight; a corrective to an injustice.
No one ever wanted full acceptance more then Miller. Near the end of his life he campaigned vigorously for a Nobel Prize, to no avail. The very notion was ludicrous. Yet, poignantly, he tried. So, too, with Charles Bukowski, considered a consummate rebel, but who wrote, at the end of his life, about the joys of paying for Hollywood dinners with a gold credit card. Only a true outlaw could grasp the pleasures of finally gaining acceptance.
As such, outlaw writers are inherently more moral then the very society that outlaws them. For in portraying his or her condition the outlaw writer who really craves acceptance learns, since everything is at stake, that any sort of internal or normative restriction on absolute naked honesty constitutes not merely betrayal of their experience but of the literature they are seeking to form. This alone is a paralyzing dilemma. But then, if the decision to write is made the writer often discovers, paradoxically, that not only do the popular formal conventions prove inadequate to what he or she must express but that the only way to express it is through outright transgression—artistic and moral---against the most sacred premises of the society and its literature.
The irony of this must be grasped. For the writer who feels cast out of and seeks somehow to reclaim his relationship to society can only do so by a literary act of complete iconoclastic destruction of acceptable ideas and forms, which in turn only marginalizes the writer even further . The work provokes response ranging from outright dismissal or critical scorn, commercial rejection or social ostrcacization to legal resort and even threats of violence.
This is true of everyone from Allen Ginsberg, poet of HOWL, to Iceberg Slim, author of PIMP. Each are cases made against a version of social norm that has proved, in the author's own experience, not merely hypocritical but savagely murderous. Sometimes, though, as in the case of Donald Goines, author of the masterpiece 'Never Die Alone', one finds among the subterranean social strata of one’s own impoverished and criminalized milieu a vaster reading audience then any mainstream writer could ever dream of having. Goines, brilliant by any standard, is widely known among chiefly Black men incarcerated in American prisons, and remains largely unknown to the mainstream..
DH: I share with you a Jewish heritage. Do you think Jews are natural outlaws?
AK: Because my mother was a French-Jewish Holocaust survivor I was inculcated early on with the sense that even among American Jews I did not belong to a normal state of affairs that the blood of horror and survival ran in my veins. Her tales of horrific ordeals in the war were my childhood Harry Potter stories. She imparted to me a very keen sense that the world of the Holocaust was another kind of world then the one we know, and that though ignored and denied, yet it lurks everywhere, awaiting its return, to devour the rest of us Jews that Gentiles neither grasp nor care about what happened to our people at Auschwitz, Belson, Buchenwald.
My father, a Bronx-born Jewish street guy, came from a very criminalized family. Two of my cousins died at Rikers Island. A third died with a needle in his arm in his mother's bathtub. Neither of these two experiential trajectories are typical of most Jews.
And yet, they are signifiers of an outlaw fate that begins in the Torah when Abraham, the first Jew, an iconoclast, smashes the popular idols of his day, renouncing commonly worshipped deities like Moloch and Baal who horribly required devotions of child sacrifice. A great deal of the Torah is an account of the Israelite effort to purge child sacrifice from the world. Perhaps this is the birthing essence of morality itself, which begins in the helpless child's need for protection from the parents and the parents’ efforts, against all cost, to provide it. Abraham refutes these child-murdering deities through the expression of an innate moral sense that is so alive in him that it drives him to rebellion against the very norms and Gods of his day, in favor of an invisible God who is a new kind of moral authority, a personal God, one guiding Abraham's steps through the very world that he revaluates as not only not commonplace but actually corrupt.
Abraham is an ultimate kind of outlaw of extraordinary faith and courage. That is what I find so moving about the Akidah, the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham's faith in the essential ethical rightness of his God is so complete that even when he is presented by that God with a seeming contradictory command, to sacrifice his own son, he goes through every step, each motion of the horrific ritual, right to the very last knife-plunging finale when, dramatically, the Angel stays Abraham's hand.
The meaning of this, I think, is that Abraham knows implicitly that his God would never permit him to perform child sacrifice. That God's ethical sense is what guides his, Abraham's own hand, rather than Abraham's own flawed and human personality. But none of this has yet been codified. It is Abraham, the outlaw iconoclast, following his own deviating outsider code, like any Robin Hood would, or Hells Angel.
And then, in Judaism, the most beloved figures, David and Moses are outlaws. Moses, born an outlaw by Pharisaic edict that all first-borns of the Hebrews are to be slain, is saved and lives to not only kill an Egyptian overseer, for which he must lam it out of Egypt but then, leads his entire people out of Egypt—an illegal act of rebellious exodus for which he and the others are pursued, hunted, by Pharaoh’s charioteers, who intend to kill them, man, woman and child.
In the desert, once Moses goes up to the mount to get instructions from God, the Hebrews quickly resort to idolatrous behavior. Moses, in turn, smashes God's commandments on their heads—an irreverent act of personal anger. I mean, God wrote His laws on those tablets with a fiery finger! To destroy that text as an act of their affirmation suggests a literary method that prefigures the Modernism of Joyce and Hemmingway by thousands of years. And then, having brought the Hebrews to the borders of the Promised Land, Moses is banned from entering. He must, even in death, retain his outlaw status. For the outlaw, the smasher of convention, there can be no accommodation, no rest.
There is a Chassidic explanation somewhere that Moses was not allowed to enter the Land because he had killed the overseers, just though it was—that God's holy prophets cannot, under any circumstance, kill. Thus, the Chassidim regard Moses as an outlaw. But I like to think of it rather that Moses was a visionary and that a visionary cannot cross over into his own vision. He, like the artist, is outlawed from that which he summons from out of the imagination.
David, the most beloved figure in Judaism, was, of course, for a time, an outlaw, who served as leader of a mercenary band, who raided and pillaged. As king he was a murderer and a shameless philanderer. Yet, we love David, for his courage, his hubris, his artistry, his beauty and his powerful and repentant poetry in the Psalms.
We Jews have lived on the margins of normal human society for millenniums, hounded, rejected, ghettoized, refused, slain—though that, I think, produced a kind of culture of delusion which made us blind to the real meaning of the coming of Hitler. In some sense, we Jews once more occupy a mindset strangely not unlike that of Jews before the Holocaust. A paralyzing denial about the threatening shadows growing over us.
Zionism was born out of a sense keenly felt by Theodore Herzl (himself a consummate assimilationist his first solution to 'The Jewish Problem' mass conversion to Christianity) that we Jews are doomed never to find acceptance among non-Jews and thus the only possible recourse for us is to possess our own State and military.
Interestingly, he was at the time of the writing of The Jewish State --his call for Jewish statehood--the Paris correspondent for the Neu Frei Presse, the NY Times of his day. He was a journalist of the stature of, say, Thomas Friedman. And he came feverishly to his conclusion that a Jewish State was our only hope after witnessing the public denigration of Alfred Dreyfus, a fully assimilated and completely loyal French-Jewish army captain, who was falsely accused of treason and condemned like any common outlaw to a lifetime of penal servitude in the penal colony in French Guyana, a hellish fate.
Of course, events proved that Herzl was right. Fifty years later, still without a state of our own, six million (!) Jewish men, women and children were systematically slaughtered by the Nazis and with the fairly complete cooperation of the European nations
Today, Israel, Zionism and Jews as a people face increasing marginalization on a global scale—an effort to delegitimize not only the Jewish State but the very right of Jews to exist at all. For if modern history has incontrovertibly proved anything, it is that a Jewish people without a state and army of our own are doomed to certain annihilation.
Lastly, Jewish marginalization has produced a tendency among our writers to either embrace the literary mainstream and all its compromises with a zeal verging on self-righteousness---the writers who came up with Partisan Review, like Bellows, Roth, Malamud (once known as the Hart,Shaftner and Marx of Literature) or else to go in the complete opposite direction of literary outlawry, like Ginsberg, or d.a. Levy, or Tuli Kupferberg, or even, strangely, the reincarnated Henry Roth of 'Mercies of A Rude Stream' who goes from classic modernist to late-age shameless post-modern self-revealer of a lifetime of incest with his sister, and other fascinatingly sordid revelations.
DH: Do you find that the outlaw poets and writers you published some years ago are now part of the canon to a greater extent?
AK: Yes and no. Today, writers like Iceberg Slim and David Goines are no better known than they were before I published The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The Outlaw Bible of American Literature and The Outlaw Bible of American Essays. On the other hand, thanks to those books they have gained more audience then before among the young, college-educated elite. Some, like Sapphire, have gone through the roof of success and kept going. But is Sapphire part of the Canon yet? Popular, yes; canonized: no. Hubert Selby Jr. is still pretty much overlooked today. Mid-career writers like Patricia Smith, Luis Rodriguez, Paul Beatty have gone on to become respected their books issued by excellent publishers, yet none have reached higher then, say, a mid-list status in the mainstream lit world. And others like d.a. Levy or David Lerner, though more widely recognized for their brilliance, are no more widely read then before. Their names are known. A poem here or there remarked. But nothing more. Or take Kathy Acker, whose name was once a byword of literary discussion. Kathy is almost completely forgotten today. No one reads her. I've been shocked to mention her name to younger writers who return blank stares: 'who's that?' they ask. In other words, the Outlaws still are waiting for their day. The greatest achievement of the Outlaw anthologies was to articulate for future scholarship a new stream of literary discourse which is now part of the larger discourse, and to familiarize young high school and college students—future scholars-- with this kind of writing, and these sorts of authors. Someday, they will be recognized as more then anomalies ---admired for their strange brilliance, their terrifying candor, their gutsy innovations.
DH: There is always a fascination with criminal writers from Genet to Jack Henry Abbott... What do you think the source of this fascination is?
AK: The belief that out of extreme experience some brand new insight into the human will be revealed. Also, there's the Walter Mitty’s voyeurism of the cowardly conformist who vicariously spits in the face of his or her oppression through reading about the outsider life of real revels. Also, behind it is a human intuition that when the chips are down, when authority mutates abusive evil, only outsiders with nothing to lose will dare to risk everything in order to defy it. This was actually borne out during WWII in France by the fact that oftentimes the early resisters were outsiders. A criminal has the ability to pretend to be legal, a square citizen, while secretly conducting his or her illegal enterprise. That is integral to the mounting of a successful act of resistance. It's little known for instance, that Samuel Beckett, a complete literary outsider in every respect, and despite his Nobel Prize, was also an active member of the French Resistance, for which he received a Croix du guerre. He never talked about it. In The Sorrow and The Pity we meet one of the first Parisian resisters: a pipe-smoking Beat-style weirdo with a taste for opium, a penchant for outsider lit and who looks like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and William Burroughs. By the way, as a young man slumming in Nazi Germany in the 30's, Burroughs subversively married a Jewish woman to enable her to escape from Hitler's grasp. So, we sense, or hope, romantically, that the outlaw will possess a rough code of justice that will pull through in a pinch. Sometimes they do.
DH: You have a memoir out about your life--and your trials and travails with booze. What is it about booze and the muse? Do you think a lot of young writers and poets are fixated on libations of one sort or the other. Have booze and drugs helped you creatively?
AK: The book you're referring to is DRUNKEN ANGEL, which just came out in paperback. The hardcover appeared last year. It's my second memoir, actually. The first, JEW BOY, recounts my experiences as the son of a survivor. DRUNKEN ANGEL chronicles my hellish descent into alcoholism and the incredible turnabout in events that lead to my becoming clean and sober, which I now have been for 22 years. Of course, yes, I bought into the whole drinking and drugging myth of the American literary genius. The problem was, I couldn't write a thing worth a damn while drunk. For that reason I strongly suspect that, say, Bukowski was not actually a real alcoholic, but just a drunk who could control his drinking as needed. This was recently confirmed for me by his long-time consort and biographer, Neeli Cherkovski, who said that Bukowski was, in a sense, a very high-maintenance drinker who could keep a job for ten years in the post office while he built his career and crank out book after book. So too Faulkner and Hemmingway. Bad drunks, yes. Alcoholics: I don't think so. A true alcoholic dosen’t write and publish book after book after book and sustain a career in Hollywood or off hunting big-game. Of lucky, he maybe produces one book, like Hubert Selby Jr., who comes out with LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and then descends into a nightmare addiction and poverty. It was only when he got sober that he began to generate the other books which kept him alive as a writer. I knew him through the publishers of my book JEW BOY, Fred Jordan and Barney Rosset, who did the paperback and hardcover respectively. Selby Jr. when sober he was the dearest man alive. He once asked me in a telephone chat if I was sober and when I replied yes, revealed that he had 25 years clean and sober. I nearly fell out o f my chair with surprise. For me, the real writing of books and anthologizing of others began when I stopped drinking in 1990. Drinking had taken me into the streets of the East Village where I was dying. It killed every possibility to be a writer. Realizing that, and with help from another writer, I began my climb out, one day at a time, and the books have come one after another ever since. No, I don't believe that drugs and alcohol are necessary to the creation of literature: to the contrary—they are the enemy of creation.