Mailer - and I'm not feeling too well myself

God damn it. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Mailer's dead.

I saw him read last year, and typically he chose a nicely salacious passage from his last novel with which to entertain the largely white haired audience. There were even males in the audience - Mailer's career spanned the time when there was actually an intelligent, novel reading segment of American malehood, hard as that is to believe now. Of course, those guys are disappearing, and their places being filled by the usual male shitheads, heads filled with babyish action movies, so imaginatively illiterate that they are unable to make it all the way to the end of a Penthouse letter.

I wrote a piece for the Austin Statesman last year about the Mailer exhibit at U.T.'s Harry Ransom center. I had to radically rewrite the piece to get it published. Here's the unadulterated piece. It is newspaperish. Sorry about that.


Although writers may be, as Shelley once said, the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”, museum exhibits about writers tend to put them in a more modest light. A writer usually exists in a hidey hole and produces manuscripts, which are then made into books, if he or she is lucky. The writer mopes, drinks, procrastinates, writes letters, and is, more often than not, married and divorced many times. We can see the manuscripts under glass, we can see the book covers, we can gaze at some photographs of the writer, friends, and family, but we usually make this pilgrimage to pay tribute to the books themselves.

The upcoming HRC exhibit on Norman Mailer is a louder thing entirely. Rather than the archaeology of a living arrangements of a celebrated pen man, this is, rightly, an x ray of contemporary American culture, touching on all the cold war currents – celebrity culture, the Vietnam War, black power, crime and media – that are still with us as we try to create our own, shaky post Cold War models. It is hard to think of another American writer as plugged into our discontents, a more persistent critic of the (in his words) ‘barbed wire cocoon of … middle class life’, and a more conflicted egomaniac than Norman Mailer. His career provides not only the basis of this exhibit, derived from the purchase of Mailer’s archive last year, but also for a three day symposium of scholars, activists, enemies and friends, capped by a panel on which it is hoped that Mailer will participate himself, and a showing of the four films he directed at the Alamo Draft House. The latter are an especially nice touch. D.A. Pennebaker, the filmmaker with whom Mailer worked, loaned his own prints for these rarely seen movies. According to Jameson West of the Austin Film Society, who suggested the film festival to the HRC, the early films – Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and the legendary financial disaster, Maidstone, are a ‘holy grail’ to cinephiles.

From best selling author to hip

In a self-revealing passage in Armies of the Night, his book about the march on the Pentagon in 1967, Mailer writes about seeing himself in a documentary that

“for a warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter – he had on screen… a faint taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable – the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.”

Mailer was raised, however, to be a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, in a household in which he was the much loved and loving son, who made his family proud by going to Harvard and studying to be an engineer. Then came World War II. Mailer, who really wanted to be a novelist and saw himself as the heir of the great generation of novelists before him – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Steinbeck – joined not only out of patriotic feeling, but out of his sense of the literary main chance: the biggest novelists, the Tolstoys and the Hemingways, wrote about war.

According to his official biographer, Robert Lucid, [shall I say, who was interviewed for this story?], he was, in effect, a nice young man at Harvard. “His mother said, in an interview with Manso [another biographer], that when Norman got out of the army, there was something missing. There was a gentleness that was taken away.” Mailer himself has said he discovered the best part of America in the obscenity of American military humor and conversation. He had, also, picked up experience in the Pacific theater of combat that went into the The Naked and the Dead. When he finished that novel, he went to France with his wife, Bea. He returned to find that it was an overnight sensation. He was one of the first literary ‘stars’ of the WWII generation. While the book endures, and provided Mailer with an steady income in the fifties, Mailer has never ranked this novel among his favorites. He has often said that he did not feel that the style of the book was something unique to himself. To find out what was unique to himself, Mailer commenced a long hegira to his own style, during which he produced two novels: Barbary Shore, which was greeted by an almost universal Bronx cheer by the critics, who not only hated it but hated it gleefully; and, Deer Park. This, too, at least in Mailer’s opinion, was not given the critical reception it deserved – although over the years it has come to be viewed as one of the few great Hollywood novels. For Mailer, however, whose ambition was not simply to write novels, but to write novels that were as newsworthy and change making as presidential elections or World Series, there was a sense that he had come to some unlucky impasse in the American culture itself in which even the greatest novel wouldn’t have the effect it should have. Something had either gone dead in the American nerve, or in the form of the novel itself.

According to Lucid, at the same time Mailer was wrestling with these writer’s issues, he continued in full flight from being the ‘nice guy.’ This was accelerated by his marriage to Adele Morales in 1951, after divorcing Bea. Adele was a painter who ran with the abstract expressionist set and mixed with New York’s beats. Norman and Adele became habitués of the bohemian circles in New York as well as in the circles of the literary establishment. In the demi-monde of the beats, heavy drinking, experiments in sex, curiosity about drugs and the outer limits of experience were norms long before the birth of the sixties counter-culture. Adele, self confessedly, loved drama. And Mailer, self-confessedly, was getting interested in ‘the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy.’ The result was a marriage with the quality of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf:’ a traveling show of ugly party scenes, continuous tension, and games of infidelity – all of which fed into the more and more frenzied tone of Mailer’s writing, which found its rhythms in a series of essays for a weekly newspaper Mailer helped found, The Village Voice. Many of these were collected in an unusual book entitled Advertisements for Myself. Michael Lennon, a Mailer scholar who, for years, kept Mailer’s archives, said about his own interest in Mailer, “the trigger for me was Advertisements for Myself.” This was true for many in the coming sixties generation. The book gave birth to a new tone and attitude that turned into the cultural politics of the sixties.

At the center of this attitude is an essay beginning: “Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” No other essay Mailer ever wrote had the impact of The White Negro: superficial reflections on the hipster. Here thoughts Mailer had been revolving about politics, race, sex, and metaphysics finally achieved critical mass in a style that Mailer would only deepen for the next fifteen years.

In the essay, Mailer outlined his Manichean view of the possibilities in the present day world situation. Given the looming possibility of mass death, one had two choices. One could exist in the face of that risk as an existential bravo, embracing the input of the senses and impulses and even one’s most hideous fantasies as they lead you to actions which may annihilate any control you could exert over your life. This was the path of the ‘existentialist.’ Or one could strangle the muddled vital impulse by opting for ever greater levels of security, and a society that exiled the primitive, the raw, and the ambiguous. The outlaw or the conformist – these were the options.

The complexity in this essay can easily be hidden by the wild and romantic investment Mailer makes in the ‘primitive’ black male – who he sees as the ultimate sexual player, marked for violence in an America in which the sounds of lynching parties still rumble in the basement of the collective psyche. This ‘negro’ of Mailer’s is an odd creature, touched by the prevailing racist codes of the fifties, yet still as recognizable as the semi-serious heroes in today’s gangsta rap. In the sixties, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver would defend Mailer against charges of racism by James Baldwin, seeing Mailer’s mythic street fighter as the prefiguration of black power. Equality of opportunity, for Cleaver, as for Mailer, meant equality of threat. Still the importance of this essay in Mailer’s work is not so much for its racial mythology as for the fact that here he finally he forged the connection between our historically unique vulnerability, materialized in the bomb, and the root of that condition in our search for invulnerability. Out of our fear arose the promise that technology would give us a final solution – power, goodness and absolute invulnerability. The latter project led not only to the atom bomb, but to the technological colonization of every outcropping of nature in our lives: of sex, with birth control; of food, with the sacrifice of taste to the mass production of fruits, vegetables and meats; of our living spaces, with the clutter of homogenous franchises, the rise of faceless business architecture, and the increasing loss of regional particularity; and of course, in art itself, with the merger of aesthetic standards and mass marketing. In later essays in the sixties, Mailer overlays this technophobia with a final, cosmological touch – the nature that technology tries to crush is related to the beleagured status of Mailer’s existential God, conceivably outgunned by his loveliest creation, Lucifer. While many took this to be Mailer playing with language, all indications are that Mailer wasn’t fooling. In the best intentions, Mailer saw the signature marks of the devil; in the worst criminals, he saw the workings of divinity. There is nothing Mailer hates more than the liberal idea, expressed by Hannah Arendt, of the banality of evil. Mailer has never backed away from his belief in both God and the Devil – and finds the embarrassed liberal attempt to eliminate the latter as delusive as the conservative’s notion that he represents the intentions of the former.

These insights led Mailer throw himself into the countercultural politics of the sixties. In 1960, as Mailer was writing an influential, pro-Kennedy essay in Esquire, he also planned to run for Mayor of New York. His idea was that he would appeal to those never appealed to by politicians: the homeless, the outlaws, the gang members. All of which came to a halt on November 19, 1960, when, at the party thrown to announce his mayoral intentions, a clearly disassociated Mailer stabbed his wife Adele.

Adele survived, and decided to divorce him instead of imprison him. Mailer got off with a few weeks observation in Bellevue. But he was now marked as a violent man, a reputation he both used – his next novel, The American Dream, begins with the hero killing his wife – and objected to. In the sixties, Mailer seemed to be wired to everything that was happening in America. His early, prescient opposition to the Vietnam war, and his idea that the anti-war movement should move out of the traditional ways of doing politics, deeply influenced the movement. His book, Armies of the Night, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. He was a familiar presence on tv talk shows, and rarely a boring one. And he finally did run for the mayor of New York City, using his unorthodox strategy, in 1969. Fortunately for Mailer, he lost.

However, he ended the decade broke (from financing his film Maidstone, a monumental flop) and a little worn out by the assassinations, the election of Nixon, and the launching of the Apollo 13. The last seemed to signal the triumph of the technological power he associated with Satan. On all fronts, Mailer seemed to enter the seventies as a loser. Yet, as Lucid argues, the seventies is perhaps his most artistically successful decade. It includes the biography of Marilyn Monroe, The Fight (Mailer’s classic account of the Ali-Foreman fight) through Executioner’s Song to Ancient Evenings in 1983.

From Male Chauvinist to Ancient Egypt

Mailer began the seventies by launching a strong attack on women’s liberation. In retrospect, this was an almost suicidally foolish thing to do for a writer. The audience for novels was shifting, as men began to desert fiction and women became the core audience for the novel. Mailer became, in the media, a caricature of the male Neanderthal, and sometimes seemed to gleefully help on the process. A TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show, in which he was supposed to debate Gore Vidal (who had infuriated Mailer by writing in a review that ‘There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression’) added to his notoriety as a wild man. On the aesthetic level, however, the feminist movement seemed to have more of an impact than he admitted. His best writing of the seventies either centered on women – the biographical ‘novel’ of Marilyn Monroe – or were anchored in female characters of a much more considered complexity, such as in Mailer’s portrait of Nicole Baker, Gary Gilmore’s lover, in Executioner’s Song.

At the same time he was picking fights with Germain Greer, Mailer also maintained his fascination with criminals. This lead to what some consider his best book. Larry Schiller, “a hard-scrabble guy,” as Michael Lennon calls him, had bought the rights to Gary Gilmore’s story. Gilmore had killed two men in Provo, Utah. Condemned to death, he asked the state to execute him, in spite of the pleas of his lawyer. A circus atmosphere surrounded the execution. Gilmore requested death by firing squad. Schiller had already teamed up teamed up with Mailer to do the Marilyn Monroe book. He persuaded Mailer to do Gilmore’s story. The result was absolutely uncharacteristic of the Mailer people had grown accustomed to. Mailer, or his ego counterpart, seemed to drop completely from the text. The story gathers its own momentum in unadorned, unsparing paragraphs, seemingly beyond the author’s biases or control. Joan Didion’s review of the book is famous in its own right, and its description of what Mailer is up to still seems perfect: ‘The very subject of “The Executioner’s Song” is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.”

But Mailer’s next, real life encounter with a convict didn’t come off so triumphantly. A convict named Jack Abbott began to write Mailer letters. Mailer found them astonishingly good. He arranged to get Abbott paroled, and his letters published at the same time. But in July 1981, in the same month that Abbott’s letters were coming out and merely three weeks after he’d been released from prison, he knifed a waiter to death. Mailer came in for some very hard press from the New York tabloids.

In 1983, Mailer’s highly touted ‘big novel’ was finally published. A long novel about ancient Egypt was not what one expected, exactly, from the heir to Hemingway’s throne. Ancient Evenings received decent reviews, but it never made the impact Mailer’s previous novels made. In the current literary atmosphere, which is more accepting of fantasy and alternative realities, it would perhaps have fared better. The Egypt of three thousand years ago, in which death and reincarnation are facts of life about which the reader just has to get around as he or she can, reflects to a large extent Mailer’s own conclusions about the nature of the world. Michael Lennon points out that Mailer was always interested in point of view, but always had trouble escaping from the prison of the first person, even though he had a firm belief in his own extra sensory ability to escape from his own person – to influence events by directing his mind’s eye at them. His solution in Armies of the Night and the works of the late sixties is to externalize himself as “Mailer’ or ‘Aquarius.’ In Ancient Evenings, with a narrator who can read minds, he can combine the objective and the subjective in a wholly different way, breaking down the reader’s sense of fundamental categories.

No justice, no peace

In his debate with Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett show, Mailer had said, “By God, I may be writing on the floor, but if you taught me something about writing, I’d look up and I’d love you for teaching me something about writing.” As Lucid puts it, “it is almost impossible to separate any horrible or mundane thing he did from the underlying strategy to be a writer.” By 1983, Norman Mailer was the writer he’d set out to be. It was the era of the Pied Piper, as Mailer called Reagan. Mailer was settling into a more established role himself. His marriage to his sixth wife, Norris, did not progress from epic battle to epic battle – it was actually rather stable. Mailer worked on his CIA novel, Harlot’s Ghost, engaged in a few literary cat fights – notably, with Tom Wolfe – and seemed to be generally in that retreat we accord to venerated writers whose most upsetting writings are now coolly embalmed by graduate student’s in the clammy terms of whatever literary theory is in fashion. The ambitious, even megalomaniac notion of the writer as a fighter pitted against the malign intentions of the culture was out of synch with 80s culture. In 1991, Mailer did manage to make waves with his semi-defense of American Psycho, Brad Easton Ellis’ much abhorred novel. For Mailer it horrifyingly inversed the premise of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities: in this novel, it was not that the rich, in contact with the underclass, committed crimes, but that the rich were the criminals from the get-go, and the underclass was its privileged victim. At the same time he was carrying the torch for this anti-corporate stance, Mailer alienated some of his older audience by seeming to make piece with the world of intelligence he probed in Harlot’s Ghost. He made a speech at CIA headquarters, a building he would formerly have picketed. One wondered if all the fires were banked.

Recently, it looks like they are still active. Mailer’s denunciations of the war in Iraq have been issued with as much fire and brimstone as the early speeches against the war in Vietnam. They are logically continuous with the view of the world he worked out long ago, as a young man, after The Naked and the Dead. His appearance in Austin in 2005, coinciding with the announcement of the purchase of his papers, was turned into an opportunity for provocation as Mailer once again spit fire against the war, and against Bush’s administration.


There is a Jewish myth recounted by the philosopher Shestov that goes like this: when the angel of death comes down to close the eyes of man, the angel’s body is all covered with eyes. Sometimes the angel discovers that he has made a mistake. The term of the man’s life that he has come for still has more time to go. So the angel pulls one of the eyes off his body and gives it to the man. “ … then the man sees strange and new things, more than other men see and more than he himself sees with his natural eyes; and he also sees, not as men see but as the inhabitants of other worlds see: that things do not exist "necessarily", but "freely", that they are and at the same time are not, that they appear when they disappear and disappear when they appear. The testimony of the old, natural eyes, "everybody's" eyes, directly contradicts the testimony of the eyes left by the angel. But since all our other organs of sense, and even our reason, agree with our ordinary sight, and since the whole of human "experience", individual and collective, supports it, the new vision seems to be outside the law, ridiculous, fantastic, the product of a disordered imagination.” Such men are then considered mad. Shestov simply says, “And then begins a struggle between two kinds of vision, a struggle of which the issue is as mysterious and uncertain as its origin.”

Surely of the writers of his generation, Mailer has been the one most gifted or cursed with this kind of outlaw vision. It has lead him through stunts, exhibitionism, some incredibly stupid posturing, and some extremely valuable prose in which something outside of the normal run of human experience, some possibility in an age that erected absolutes into weapons at the same time as it destroyed absolutes in all domains of intellectual life, still lives. Who, in the present state of American culture, in which all our present claimants to outlaw visions are cleverly obeying the dictates of marketing campaigns, is Mailer’s heir? Nobody. The line is extinct.