Comprehensive but overwrought account of how American-style coolness became the purported universal ideal.
New York Times style reporter Leland takes on a quasi-academic and too-knowing voice in traveling through seemingly discrete and rarefied kingdoms of hipness. “There is no instruction manual for hipsters,” he avers, “but there are archetypes of hip.” He focuses on transformative cultural figures marginalized in their own time, mixing Melville, Whitman, Chandler, Bugs Bunny, raconteurs, criminals, Beats, jazzbos, druggies, rappers, and good-time girls into a percussive gumbo. In 15 long essay-chapters, he proposes understanding hip (derived from hepi, “to see” or hipi, “to open one’s eyes”) as a cultural process that over 150 years traveled from the fringe to America’s mainstreamed consumer core. He sees certain nodes as particularly relevant, such as the urban postwar ferment that threw writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg against volatile musical personalities like Charlie Parker. Previous to the Beat explosion, “underground” subgenres like noir and bebop flirted with the mainstream, as did the Harlem Renaissance and Greenwich Village bohemianism; by the 1960s, Madison Avenue was happy to co-opt and repackage hip’s signifiers in music and clothes. Leland identifies race as the great unacknowledged engine here, creating a more ambiguous narrative than mere “love and theft”; other chapters explore the hidden energies contributed to hip’s genealogy by women, tricksters, criminals, and substance abusers. Although he grasps the process by which diverse cultural elements undergo synthesis—e.g., the connections among the war, the Beats, and all that came later—his prose (“The streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Silver Lake in Los Angeles comprise a theme park in the key of hip”) is more reminiscent of terminally unhip David Brooks than of edgier critic-provocateurs who’ve previously explored this territory, like Thomas Frank, Lester Bangs, or Nick Tosches. Leland’s study may be revelatory to those under 25; it will seem familiar to people awake for the media’s “alternative nation” and Gen-X deluge of the ’90s.
Codifies underground myths for both academe’s cult-studs and the trucker-hat set.