The Artificial White Man Critical Essays

Stanley Crouch


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Artificial White Man is a trenchant criticism of the popular culture that exploits identity politics and social divisions for commercial and personal gain and thus undercuts the collective quest for authenticity. Crouch’s favorite authors are those who write in the tradition of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Jorge Borges, who tell epic stories and create universal myths. With characteristic gumption and perspicacity, even while using expressions that some may find offensive, he forces readers to look at the popular culture with a critical eye. Some may find his rejection of rap and hip-hop narrow-minded or his interpretation of jazz as the main metaphor for African American creativity exaggerated.

While the book bemoans American culture’s presumed obsession with authenticity, it is anything but a philosophical discourse on authenticity. Rather, Crouch’s essays constitute a literary exploration that critically reflects on the illusions, pretensions, conventions, and divisions created in the name of ethnic and tribal identities. Crouch is not a systematic thinker but an iconoclast.

Crouch is critical of writers and celebrities, regardless of their race or social position, who use race for commercial gain or to elicit sympathy. For instance, he excoriates Michael Jackson for using race in the service of self-interest. Cultural and political separatists such as Malcolm X and Franz Fanon are also cited as dealers in blaxploitation. Crouch is also contemptuous of those academics who write in the mold of European intellectuals and who do not appreciate the unique cultural mélange that the United States and its long democratic tradition represent. He argues that intellectual support for a universalistic vision can be extracted from American literature itself. He favors a philosophy that recognizes Americans’ historical failures as diseases to be overcome with the medicine of what he calls a “tragic optimism.” Beneath the rough and ready style that occasionally surfaces in Crouch’s writing, one finds an author sincerely advocating openness to a universal humanism that transcends all national, geographical, and ethnic divisions.