An Interview with Literary Outlaw Alan Kaufman

On May 22, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

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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:

Alan Kaufman

Alan Kaufman

“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.

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.

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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.

 

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