The Ginger Man as a Postmodern, Vulgar Structure
James Patrick Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955) follows Sebastian Dangerfield on his many adventures in Dublin, Ireland. Dangerfield, like Donleavy, is an American studying at Trinity College, Dublin on the GI Bill. He enjoys drinking, and often abuses and cheats on his wife, Marion. Sebastian, from a moral standpoint, is completely deplorable for his actions and alcoholism; however, Dangerfield has a magnetic personality and is almost loveable for his hedonistic impulses and comic mishaps. Vulgar and rude, he goes about his day stealing, fighting, drinking, and generally causing problems for himself and anyone in his immediate area. Dangerfield makes his motivations clear throughout the novel, so the reader never has to guess at the fact that Dangerfield hopes to inherit from his wife’s father, and use that money to live in leisure and pay for liquor. The profane themes of the novel coupled with Donleavy’s vulgar humor caused many problems during early attempts at publication, and Donleavy’s innovative style of writing causes further problems when trying to categorize the novel. Despite these problems, The Ginger Man belongs in the American literary canon for its complex, polished story, held together by vulgar comedy.
Like The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemmingway and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Ginger Man was widely considered vulgar around the time of its publication. In the case of The Ginger Man, the vulgarity caused an exceptional amount of trouble due to the recent rise of McCarthyism. In 1952, Donleavy presented the novel to Scribner’s, where four editors thought it was “one of the best manuscripts ever brought to the publishing house,” but refused to publish the novel until Donleavy “removed some of the more objectionable parts,” (McKaughan). Donleavy submitted again without making any changes, and was again rejected. Donleavy explains why he refused to make any changes in an interview with the Paris Review; “I had a sense that the book held itself together on the basis of these scatalogical parts. That its life was in these parts. And I was quite aware that cutting them would be severely damaging to it,” (McKaughan). So, in the interest of preserving the ‘life’ of the novel, Donleavy refused to remove the vulgar elements around which the novel is structured. Almost 50 publishers would reject The Ginger Man, due to the vulgar and scatological elements.
After being rejected by every publishing house he approached in America, Donleavy returned to Ireland. Before long, he was introduced to Brendan Behan, a member of the Irish Republican Army who would later become a famous playwright. Behan suggested that Donleavy send his work to the Olympia Press in Paris. Donleavy, at the time, was unaware that the Olympia Press was a “dirty book company” and that his work was published in the entirely pornographic Traveler Companion series (McKaughan). Donleavy knew of the legitimate side of the Olympia Press, which had published works by Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and even Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The Ginger Man was published in 1955 in the Traveler Companion series because it was regarded as a ‘good book’ and the owner of the press believed it would legitimize the series and stave off legal troubles with the French Government. Publication of The Ginger Man in the Travel Companion series upset Donleavy, but because the novel was now published in an unexpurgated edition, he was willing to make concessions in other publication efforts. Donleavy found a British publisher and the book received good reviews, but did not receive major success until the American paperback version was published in 1963. The novel was officially banned in the United States and Ireland for 20 years following publication.
The vulgar nature of The Ginger Man caused significant problems for Donleavy while trying to publish his novel. Donleavy, in his reluctance to change his manuscript, preserved the driving mechanism of The Ginger Man, the vulgar humor. Publication in the Olympia Press put his work in the same publishing house as other great works of literature deemed vulgar, such as Lolita. The shared origins of these vulgar works make their assessment and comparison more natural. Lolita, often heralded as one of the greatest works of English literature, presents an arguably more vulgar story in elegant prose. The Ginger Man presents a vulgar character, often in vulgar terms, in an innovative and unique style of writing. Both these novels stand out from the corpus of works published by the Olympia Press because they have literary merit. If they were simply novels using vulgarity as some sort of gimmick, they would be lost in a list of pornographic titles under the Olympia Press. Instead, they exemplify superb writing, and their vulgarity adds another dimension to that writing. The ability of these writers to balance a polished, well-structured narrative in a vulgar subject, or through vulgar terms sets them apart as superior writers. These writers stand above those who write on ‘inoffensive’ subjects, because vulgar writers fight an uphill battle toward recognition and fame.
While The Ginger Man can easily be compared to Lolita in terms of their vulgarity, other facets of the novel prompt other comparisons. The Ginger Man shares attributes with several other novels already widely anthologized as part of the American literary canon. Most notable are the elements of the International novel that are found in both The Ginger Man and Daisy Miller by Henry James. Donleavy and James, both American expatriates, write about Americans running wild around Europe causing a commotion wherever they go. The essential elements of the stories match perfectly. The comparison reaches further still when considering that immediately after the publication of Daisy Miller, authorities on etiquette “displayed [Daisy] as an example of what American girls should not be and do,” (Hoxie, 474). In short, Daisy’s behavior was considered vulgar and undesirable, similarly to Dangerfield’s.
Although Daisy Miller and The Ginger Man share qualities of an International novel, the latter cannot be so easily defined as such. Since its publication, critics have tried to categorize The Ginger Man, but the novel does not lend itself to any obvious classification. Donleavy’s ability to blend humor with themes of existential crisis and lower to middle class sympathies caused literary critics to debate “whether Donleavy belonged with Britain’s Angry Young Men, America’s black humorists, or France’s existentialists,” (Donleavy). Bringing Donleavy’s writing style into consideration further confuses the task of placing him. Ginny Dougary of The Times describes his writing style as “a combination of whiplash narrative and stream of consciousness, punctuated by the four-line haiku that were to become his trademark,” (qtd. in James). Incorporating stream of consciousness in a novel set in Dublin inevitably harkens back to James Joyce and his works, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Yet Donleavy’s style, while referring back to past authors, remains distinctly unique and innovative.
By blending themes and seeming to fit into several contemporary literary categories, Donleavy falls most easily into the tradition of postmodernism. His tendency to recycle past styles of writing and incorporate them into his own unique voice places him again in the postmodern camp. Looking at his contemporaries (especially authors published in the Olympia Press) like William Burroughs, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett, Donleavy, by shared context and tendency to write vulgar literature, finds himself again classified as a postmodernist. Classification as a postmodernist offers a less specific idea of who Donleavy is and how he writes, but also provides the most accurate description of a novel that incorporates varied themes and blended stylistic traditions.
J. P. Donleavy intended for The Ginger Man to be “a novel that would shake the world.” (McKaughan). With its vulgar themes and postmodern style, the novel did exactly that. The Ginger Man stands among literary giants such as Lolita and Daisy Miller for its rich publishing history and blatant disregard for prescribed notions about vulgarity. This postmodern novel challenges the established American literary canon with a complex, meaningful story structured around vulgar humor.