Being Stanley Crouch is about as bruising a vocation as there is in what passes for--or remains of--polite literary society. One can't bring up the books and columns Crouch writes without careering into the jargon and aesthetics of street brawling. Unavoidably with Crouch, the notion of "brawling" gets framed in both literal and figurative terms. This past July, after Crouch assaulted the novelist and critic Dale Peck at a fashionable restaurant in New York's West Village, Crouch's former employer the Village Voice placed this "pimp slap" in the context of previous scuffles in public places, including one in the offices of the Voice that cost him his job many years ago. Sparring with Harry Allen, an African-American colleague, over the respective merits of hip-hop and jazz, Crouch put Allen in a chokehold. (Crouch, in case you haven't heard by now, believes hip-hop is a pestilence infecting and slowly killing everything it touches. "Scum of the earth" is among the nicer things he's said about "gangsta" rappers.) The more recent "pimp slap" was provoked by Peck's vitriolic pan of Crouch's novel Don't the Moon Look Lonesome, published some four years earlier in The New Republic. The skirmish gave the tabloid gossips a chew toy that lost its entertainment value after a day, if that long. In the grand cosmic scheme, it was just another thirty-second advertisement for Stanley Crouch's notoriety, a vainglorious diversion from his ongoing mission to set America's head straight on matters of race and culture.
For those of us who prefer those aspects of Crouch's public persona that let him be urbane, trenchant and illuminating--as when, say, he's a principal talking head for Ken Burns's recent PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson--all this shoving and slapping around is an unseemly, egregious waste of his time and ours. Also, it's redundant. When Crouch is incensed about something, his lush, ripe prose morphs into a bludgeon, attacking with such quick, unrelenting force that its target is initially too dazed to strike back in kind. You'd think that would be enough to cut an intimidating figure on the cultural scene, and most times it is. But when you add to this gadfly's cluttered portfolio his mission to advance the increasingly quixotic cause of jazz music through his consultant's gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center (and you could stuff yards of column space itemizing the critical tussles involving Crouch on jazz aesthetics), you're tempted to believe that it's easier to haul a baby grand piano on your back from the Bronx to Brooklyn than it is to hold the full-time job of being Stanley Crouch.
You also can't help but conclude that the strain of that full-time job brought about the mild stroke Crouch suffered late last year--from which he's recovered nicely enough to pick up where he left off at his New York Daily News columnist's post: blasting holes in liberal and black-nationalist orthodoxies, ganging up on hip-hop and so on. How long (oh, baby, how long) can he keep hammering his way through the zeitgeist's soft spots before he drops from exhaustion? Just talking about the extracurricular pugilism can wear you out, and its novelty, as Norman Mailer could attest, wears thin with age. These days one senses that even Crouch's longtime critics, the black cultural nationalists and hip-hop cognoscenti, have worn themselves out shouting "Sellout!" "Tom!" "Neocon!" and other epithets at Crouch's bearish frame. Maybe it's because the taunts either slide off his back or make him stronger. Or maybe his critics have finally noticed that, unlike other African-Americans tarred with the neoconservative brush, Crouch, like Mailer, isn't to be understood too quickly. Or, for that matter, classified too glibly.
Whatever the case, it's past time for Crouch and his audience, pro and con, to broaden the parameters of their dialogue. Which is why The Artificial White Man is a sight for sore eyes. This is Crouch's best, most expansive collection of essays since his first, Notes of a Hanging Judge, published in 1990. The two collections in between, The All-American Skin Game, or, the Decoy of Race (1995) and Always in Pursuit (1998), had their respective high points (in Skin Game, the inquiries into the O.J. Simpson trial, The Bell Curve and Mr. Sammler's Planet; in Pursuit, the re-examination of Go Down, Moses, the messianic urge to link John Ford's vision with Duke Ellington's). But for the most part, the pieces in those books stretched out riffs Crouch had already played to better effect in Hanging Judge, which will probably last longer than any of his other books because it now reads less like an inventory of hot-button provocations than the autobiography of a restless mind coming to terms with the consequences of breaking free from dogma and consensual hypocrisy.
The title of the new collection dares Crouch's baser critics to interpret it as self-description. But it's the subtitle, "Essays on Authenticity," that nails down the book's true purpose and brings into sharpest focus what Crouch, beneath the bluster, has really been up to all this time: investigating and challenging any and all notions of what is "authentic" in American life. And for "authentic" one could substitute "hip" or "bullshit-free" or whatever hip-hop euphemism enjoys the greatest currency at the moment. Media hoodoo and image politics may have helped Crouch become a celebrity. But he has never yielded in his distaste for superficiality. If you get him far enough away from the spotlight, it's even possible to hear Crouch call himself on his own bullshit. (When Hanging Judge's blunt candor is turned inward, it's easy to see why even some who disagree violently with his opinions find it hard to stay mad at him for very long.)
So woe to those who think they've got Crouch figured out before they dive into Artificial White Man. Consider, for instance, his appreciation of John Singleton's Baby Boy. Those who have Crouch nailed down as a spoilsport when it comes to contemporary black pop culture doubtless believe he would have led the big, loud chorus of critics' boos that greeted Singleton's 2001 movie about coming of age amid sex and violence in South Central LA. Instead, Crouch praises the movie for not submitting to what he's long perceived as the "new minstrelsy" of hip-hop music videos, "where gold teeth, drop-down pants and tasteless jewelry abound." "Singleton," writes Crouch, "is after more than props. He questions the mores of his characters and shows young black men caught in ritual behavior that is about arrested development on one hand and bitter rage at their limitations on another.... At one point, with a tragic depth one would find exceptional in any American film, a character prays that he and his buddy be shown the way but, if they cannot be given a direction, the young man asks God to 'forgive us for being lost.'"
If it's possible for a commercial filmmaker to grow and reach for such depth and complexity, Crouch figures there's no excuse whatsoever for writers of books not to make similar leaps of conscience and consciousness. That's why the two most withering essays in Artificial White Man, "Segregated Fiction Blues" and the title essay, go medieval on authors who either evade or misuse America's cultural and ethnic complexity.