Lenny Bruce Nat Hentoff - Essay

Nat Hentoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bruce has been exiled from the American way of laughter because of his unyielding insistence on excavating his material from our most cherished hypocrisies and most anxious self-images. His main trouble, and it's getting worse, has come from his attempts to make "dirty" words innocently naked again. He is engaged in showing what those words—and reactions to them—disclose of the sexual and other hang-ups of the moyen American….

For the most part, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People is scoured of self-pity. Essentially it is a sometimes piercingly funny account of the odyssey of Leonard Alfred Schneider, battling through the myths endemic to a Jewish upbringing in New York, seeing other parts of the world from the outside as a Navy gunner and learning the slippery ropes of show business. There are incidents of farce and fraud (with Bruce not always the victim) and sudden illuminations (such as the Marseilles brothel which could have been the setting for Genet's The Balcony). And there are transient times of surcease from being a stubbornly provocative loner (as in his love affair with and marriage to a stripper)….

Bruce's book, like his monologues, is kaleidoscopic in structure, but it has an organic unity in that it keeps coming back to Bruce's unremitting attempts to break through shibboleths and credos-under-glass to find out what is—in himself and in this society. It is a dangerous game, even when you make your audiences laugh…. In a sense, deeper than Norman Mailer's fantasies at the time, Lenny Bruce was and still is The White Negro. (p. 10)

Nat Hentoff, "Only When It Hurts," in Book Week—New York Herald Tribune (© 1965, The Washington Post), November 7, 1965, pp. 8-10.∗