It is hard to write fairly about Lenny Bruce now that he’s dead. At least it is difficult to be just, in the way that he, in his more realistic moments, might have preferred. For Bruce became an issue in the last years of his life. He became the focus of controversy between opposing vested interests, neither of which really gave a damn for the man himself. The complementary roles of mascot and victim proved inevitably fatal, and through a strange mixture of simple-minded vanity and courageous generosity he lived up too thoroughly to a public personality partly supplied by his sponsors and tormentors. In the end it led quite inexorably to an ordeal which both sides, with different types of satisfaction, saw coming a long way off. The villains of the piece were all those thick-necked hypocritical authorities who hounded him down, in state after state, until he was finally too poor, too weak, and too confused to survive. All along he was up against a brutal, prejudiced society which somehow seemed unable to afford the easy conversational freedom that Bruce offered to his audiences. But we, his sponsors, his eager fluting publicists, must also bear some of the responsibility for the way things turned out. Bruce was in many ways a willing sucker for the sort of martyrdom upon which affluent, free-thinking liberals vicariously thrive. His dreadful ordeal through the courts, destitution, and ultimate death, provided a nice, flourishing proof of the liberals’ conviction that the world is cruel, repressed, and indifferent. But Bruce was too ready to sacrifice himself on behalf of this demonstration. He was too accommodating, and those of us who supported him in print were sometimes too excited, or else too selfish, to notice that Bruce’s uneducated simplicity often led him to yield without criticism to the flattery of over-elaborate interpretation. Underneath all that hipster cool, it is to be remembered that Bruce was rather an innocent bloke, badly read, and so keen to be accepted and admired by educated people that he was sometimes deceived by the over-complicated program which certain missionary intellectuals read into his act. It’s possible that he suffered very badly from being taken up quite like this. As intellectual support for his act grew, he began to take seriously all that stuff about being the prophet of a new morality and would replace a lot of his regular material with sententious sermons. He would quote from Doctor Albert Ellis, M.D., recite dubious pharmacological justifications for “pot,” and generally became quite boring.
HE WAS SO GENEROUSLY open to intellectual flattery, so pleased to discover that he had authoritative support, that he sometimes failed to realize how much he was being used as a dispensable stalking horse for middle-class liberal dares. Strangely enough, by stepping up the dirt in the service of this mission he was to some extent being exploited by a mirror image of the very prejudice which finally hounded him to his death. I can still, with…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.