Remembering Norman Mailer

by
Erik Grayson

 

In his introduction to a 2003 collection of essays devoted to the late Norman Mailer, Harold Bloom deems the author “the most visible of contemporary novelists,” echoing an ambivalence shared by many literary critics since Mailer first burst onto the scene with the publication of The Naked and the Dead in 1948 (1). His visibility, ultimately, came to define Norman Mailer, earning him as much praise as criticism. Mailer’s accessibility provided readers and critics with a rare connection to a generation of American writers known for cultivating an increasingly reclusive relationship to the public. (It’s no coincidence that conspiracy theorists often suggested Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, and William Gaddis were actually the same faceless person). Mailer’s detractors viewed his accessibility more as the posturing of a self-centered publicity hound than as a generous willingness to dissolve the boundary separating celebrity from fan. Regardless of Mailer’s motives, few can deny the author’s preeminent position among American postwar writers though, with the possible exceptions of George Plimpton and Truman Capote, no other author of his generation possessed a literary career so inextricably linked the nonliterary sphere as Mailer.

Mailer’s famed ego and larger-than-life persona originated in his childhood. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1923, Norman Kingsley Mailer was dubbed “perfect” by his doting mother and was soon regarded as a genius by his eccentric father, a chaps-wearing, cane-carrying, Cockney-accented Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant from South Africa. In a profile heralding the publication of Ancient Evenings in 1983, Mailer reflected that “[t]hat baroque element in my style, the sidewinder in me…all comes from my father in some funny way” (Brenner 36). Mailer’s mother, too, seemed to have a strong influence on the author’s character, giving him the Hebrew name Nachum Malech, or “Norman King,” because, as Carl Rollyson notes, “Fanny thought of him quite literally as the family’s sovereign” and would treat him accordingly (3).

Mailer entered Harvard University at age sixteen, younger and less self-assured than most other members of his freshman class. Lacking “[t]he braggadocio and macho bearing” that would become fixtures in his public persona, the young man quietly began studies in aeronautical engineering (Mills 38). Not yet the hobnobbing gadfly he would become, Mailer spent most of his spare time reading the major figures of literary Modernism and inaugurating his legendary—if exaggerated—habit of scribbling three thousand words daily. In 1941, Mailer’s “The Greatest Thing in the World” was selected by Story magazine as the year’s best short story by an undergraduate. By the time he graduated two years later, the indefatigable Mailer had penned several unpublished novel-length manuscripts.

Drafted into the Army, Mailer shipped out in 1944 for the Philippines, where he fought as a rifleman in the 112th cavalry and later served as a cook in occupied Japan. Although he did not see much combat first-hand, Mailer gathered enough material to write The Naked and the Dead, the first major American literary work to emerge from the War. Though later novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow supplanted Mailer’s novel in most critical assessments of the defining wartime work, The Naked and the Dead catapulted the twenty-five year-old to the literary stardom he enjoyed for the rest of his life. Still, some critics dismissed Mailer as derivative, citing the author’s thematic and stylistic debts to Leo Tolstoy, John Dos Passos, Herman Melville, James T. Farrell, and Ernest Hemingway. Mailer, however, would prove to be unique.

The novel’s key shortcoming is its realism. Although an exceptionally acute sociological study of lower and middle class men working together in the military, and a gripping psychological portrait combat, The Naked and the Dead simply does not plumb the larger philosophical concern one finds in Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Gravity’s Rainbow. Mailer limits himself to the literal depiction of the Pacific conflict. Though Mailer’s debut novel contains bits of the existential terror and cold war paranoia one associates with Yossarian’s absurd struggle against Cathcart, Billy Pilgrim’s inability to adjust to peaceful civilian life, or Tyrone Slothrop’s terrifying confrontation with a conspiracy spanning decades and continents, it lacks the bravura and force of these later novels. What Mailer’s novel does auger is his ability to transform the mundane into literature, an ability he perfected in his later New Journalist writings.

The 1950s, however, were anything but halcyon years for the previous decade’s literary superstar. The publication of Mailer’s second novel, Barbary Shore, sparked the first of the several critical firestorms marking his controversial career. Given the novel’s almost formulaic Kafkaesque mood and overtly leftist political sentiments, Mailer was panned by many as a hack writer whose latest “paceless, tasteless, and graceless” production “collapses under the weight of its polemics” (“Last”; Prigozy 261). Despite its harsh reception, however, Barbary Shore marks one of the first serious literary attempts at making sense of the growing tensions between the state socialist East and capitalist West and established Mailer as a decidedly iconoclastic writer very much at home on the fringes of American society, willing to criticize the jingoism spreading among his countrymen.

Mailer’s third novel, The Deer Park (1955), brings to light some of the darker elements of life in Cold War America. Drawing upon his own experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood as well as Elia Kazan’s capitulation to the House Un-American Activities Committee, The Deer Park tears the sheep’s clothing off the corrupt structure of Hollywood economics to reveal the wolves lingering behind the scene. Fashioning himself as an outlaw, Mailer dabbled in New York City’s burgeoning bohemian subculture, listening to jazz, experimenting with drugs, and consciously altering his accent to confuse and irritate interviewers. For the remainder of the decade, Mailer focused on cultivating a hipster persona, honing it in the columns he would write for The Village Voice, the pioneering alternative newspaper he co-founded with two friends in 1955. Writing with what The New York Times recently referred to as “a homespun, Greenwich Village version of existentialism,” Mailer gained some prominence as a social commentator, fending off critics who dismissed him as a literary one-hit-wonder (“Norman Mailer”).

Capitalizing on the existentialist zeitgeist and infusing it with Marxist sentiments, Mailer published his infamous essay, “The White Negro,” in 1956. The essay, which praises the adoption of elements of Black subculture by White ‘hipster’ youths as a philosophically heroic act, highlights Mailer’s bolder qualities, both positive and negative. In it, Mailer appropriates aspects of the postwar European philosophy made famous by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, and applies a watered-down version of it to a new generation of Americans. While his celebration of African-American culture may have contributed in some small way to the burgeoning civil rights movement, Mailer also fetishized and distorted Black culture. Further, the bravado with which Mailer unabashedly praises the beat generation embodies the sort of self-congratulatory (and self-defeating) elitism associated with its most obnoxious elements. Mailer did not publish another novel until 1965’s An American Dream, focusing on a nascent style of writing that would soon establish Mailer as one of the New Journalists of the 1960s, alongside the aforementioned Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Advertisements for Myself (1959) was Mailer’s Bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as an unapologetically ambitious young man. At turns immature and profound, self-deprecatory and self-aggrandizing, Mailer’s collection of essays, rants, interviews, and stories established the writer as one of the nation’s most prominent cultural commentators, and certainly the one with the loudest voice. In November of 1960, as the writer drunkenly prepared to announce his candidacy for mayor of New York City in the following year’s race, Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife. Although Morales decided against pressing charges and Mailer was released after a brief evaluative stint in Bellevue Hospital’s mental health ward, the altercation colored the public’s impression of Mailer. The incident would be cited by numerous feminists as evidence of the author’s misogyny, especially following a debate with Germaine Greer in 1971, during which he publicly opposed the use of birth control.

While embracing the restless spirit of the counter-cultural sixties, Mailer contributed columns and essays to Esquire, Commentary, Playboy, the New York Review of Books and Dissent, building a body of work he would tap into to produce a series of well-received collected volumes. In addition to 1968’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer dabbled in film, starring in, directing, and producing Wild 90 (1968), Beyond the Law (1968), and Maidstone (1969). While many critics saw Mailer’s social and cinematic self-promotion as evidence of a disturbing brand of narcissism, Mailer playfully poked fun at himself, penning a series of self-interviews for various publications in which he simultaneously indulged in unabashed self-aggrandizement while acknowledging the comedic aspect of it.

Largely motivated by the economic strain of having to support dependents from four marriages, Mailer published An American Dream in 1965. In a scene eerily reminiscent of Mailer’s stabbing of Morales, the novel’s war hero-turned congressman protagonist, Stephen Rojack, drunkenly murders his wife. As a result of Mailer’s handling of women in An American Dream, Kate Millett scathingly critiques Mailer in Sexual Politics, her seminal study of the treatment of women in literature. In response, Mailer published The Prisoner of Sex (1971), in which he frequently digresses into outright attacks on Millett, Steinem, Greer, and Friedan. In a review of The Prisoner of Sex for The New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal famously grouped Mailer with Henry Miller and Charles Manson as part of “a continuum in the brutal and violent treatment of women,” sparking a highly public feud between the two writers that would continue for the next fifteen years (qtd. in Cabot). In spite of his harsh tone and bombastic statements, Mailer’s jeremiad is less the ranting of a misogynist than the impassioned—if misled—concern of the artist for the freedom of expression. Ironically, Mailer’s status as a major American writer helped to bring feminist discourse from the fringes of a nation’s consciousness to the center of mainstream America.

Mailer wrote prolifically throughout the 1970s, publishing Of a Fire on the Moon in (1970), which chronicled the Apollo moon landing; St. George and the Godfather (1972), an account of the year’s presidential campaign; Marilyn: A Biography (1973); and The Fight (1975), which recounts the legendary boxing match between George Forman and Muhammed Ali—a body of nonfiction work in which narrative voice becomes a character on par with the subjects it describes. Despite the centrality of Mailer’s voice in his writing and his admitted sense of self-importance, Mailer also revealed a profound dissatisfaction with himself as he approached fifty. In 1972’s Existential Errands, for instance, Mailer acknowledges his fear of not producing the proverbial Great American Novel that would legitimize his career and establish him as more than a minor author who had published one major work of fiction.

Still, The Executioner’s Song (1979), his epic chronicle of Gary Gilmore’s life and death, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980, and established Mailer as America’s foremost nonfiction novelist. The process of writing the book, however, also marked another instance of Mailer’s life and work intersecting in the most unpleasant of ways. While researching Gilmore’s time in prison, Mailer received a letter from Jack Henry Abbott, an inmate who offered to provide the author with insight into Gilmore’s life as a convict. Impressed by the “the literary measure” of Abbott’s letters, Mailer believed that the man could become “a new writer of the largest stature” if given the freedom to write (Mailer xvi). Believing that Abbot could “get noting more” from prison, Mailer famously lobbied for his parole (Mailer xvi). Despite the patronage of his famous friend, however, Abbott could not keep himself out of trouble, murdering a waiter shortly after his release. Though Mailer’s favorable assessment of Abbott’s writing proved prophetic when In the Belly of the Beast, a selection of the latter’s letters to Mailer, topped bestseller lists, Mailer again found himself under fire for what some perceived as his support of violence. Mailer’s concern for Abbott, however, like his screed in response to the feminist critique of his writing, was largely motivated by a concern for unfettered literary expression in the face of attempts to silence it. Mailer’s efforts to free (literally and figuratively) Jack Abbott resulted in tragedy, but also revealed an idealistic and humanitarian side to an author many would not have suspected to be a romantic.

Ancient Evenings (1983) reestablished Mailer as a master fiction writer. Mellowing in his later years, Mailer settled into the role of literary patriarch, regularly attending black tie benefits and serving as the president of the influential PEN American Center. Mailer published Tough Guys Don’t Dance (a film he also directed and for which he wrote the screenplay) in 1984. By his seventieth birthday in 1993, he had quit drinking and, despite increasingly frailty, Mailer continued writing with vigor. 1991’s epic novel of the CIA, Harlot’s Ghost, received a warm, if not wholly positive, critical reception and marked Mailer’s return to political fiction. Two biographies—1995’s critically-panned Portrait of Picasso and 1996’s nonfiction companion to Harlot’s Ghost, an exhaustive biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, Oswald’s Tale—and 1997’s The Gospel According to the Son, a novel about Jesus Christ, occupied Mailer for the remainder of the decade. With its focus on the human aspects of Christ’s life, The Gospel According to the Son was met with some of the same resistance as Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mailer was criticized for bringing the veracity of Christian scripture into question.

While Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and Joseph Heller’s Closing Time will likely emerge as the great postwar epics published by American writers in the 1990s, Harlot’s Ghost and Oswald’s Tale offer as chilling an interpretation of Cold War politics as any of Mailer’s contemporaries. With a Manichean vision of humanity, Mailer locates the sources of conflict in the individual or in the entertainment industry as often as he identifies it in the clash between East and West. Though not as popular as the novels published at the same time by DeLillo, Heller, or Roth, Mailer’s writing during the 1990s must be included in any retrospective of the decade’s emergent post-Cold War fiction.

In 2007 Mailer published his final novel, The Castle in the Forest. Returning to the Second World War for inspiration, Mailer adopts the voice of a demon possessing the body of a young man named Dieter to narrate the life of Adolph Hitler. Critically hailed as one of Mailer’s finest efforts, Castle examines the naked truths of human mortality the author explored in his first novel through the mature lens of an author approaching his own mortality in a way the younger Mailer simply could not imagine in 1948. In November, while working on a sequel to The Castle in the Forest, Mailer died of acute renal failure.

Norman Mailer was many things during his life: a prodigy, an Ivy Leaguer, a soldier, a husband, a novelist, a journalist, an actor, a politician and, most importantly, a voice. From Depression-era Long Branch to war-torn Manila, from Harvard Yard to the Hollywood hills and back to Greenwich Village, Mailer observed the best and worst of American society and wrote about it. Though we may fault him for his egocentrism or cultural dilettantism, we cannot ignore Mailer’s voice. In his towering successes and colossal failures, we find ourselves, naked but never dead. Cold War America lives in Mailer’s words. The hopes, fears, concerns, and ambitions of a generation fixated on celebrity, crime, heroism, and pleasure found expression in his writing. Now that we have lost his voice, it is time to attend to the words and reflect on ourselves, on our vanity and audacity. After all, we no longer have Mailer to criticize.




                                                 Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. Norman Mailer. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cabot, Dick. “In This Corner, Norman Mailer.” New York Times Online. Nov. 14, 2007. Accessed 23 Dec. 2007 <http://cavett.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/in-this-corner-norman-mailer/>

“Last of the Leftists.” Time. May 28, 1951. Available online. Accessed 22 Dec. 2007. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,890122-1,00.html>.

Mailer, Norman. “Introduction. In the Belly of the Beast. By Jack Henry Abbott. New York: Vintage, 1981. ix-xvi.

Mills, Hilary. Mailer: A Biography. New York: Empire Books, 1982.

“Norman Mailer, Towering Writer with Matching Ego, Dies at 84.” New York Times. Nov. 11, 2007. Accessed 22 Dec. 2007. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/10/books/
11mailer.html?_r=1&hp=&pagewanted=all>

Prigozy, Ruth. “The Liberal Novelist in the McCarthy Era.” Twentieth Century Literature. 21.3 (1975): 253-264.

Rollyson, Carl. The Lives of Norman Mailer. New York: Paragon House, 1991.