Norman Mailer: Autocrat of the Remainder Table


    There was a time in this country when bright young men did not dream of directing films or inventing software. They wanted to write: books,  fiction--what some liked to call "The Great American Novel." This generation included Gore Vidal whose grandfather had been an august senator and James Jones, a self-taught prodigy out of the Midwest--but none was brighter--nor more driven--than Norman Mailer.

    Born in 1923, the son of a South African Jew, and an adoring mother, Mailer was given the middle name Kingsley-- after malech, Hebrew for king. Later, his mother said, "I thought Norman was perfect"--an opinion she held throughout life. (Peter Manso, Mailer: His Life and Times, New York, Penguin Books, 1985) But Mailer's father was a struggling accountant, and the young prince grew up working class--in the grimy New York borough of Brooklyn. The streets of Crown Heights during the Depression provided some education--with their hardness, neighborhood rivalries, and "fug you too" philosophy. No wonder in later years Norman would survive decades of literary wars and misalliances. But as the son of ambitious parents, Norman may have learned that survival skills are not an entree into the Establishment--for that a degree was required and a classy one too. So, like many city boys, Norman burned up the public school competition and enrolled in Harvard--determined, at 17, to become-- as he put it--a "major writer."  His tuition was paid by a rich uncle, a chocolate manufacturer who had invented the chocolate covered cherry.

     Norman found that Harvard was divided by more than just quadrangles. The school was run by scions of old families, prep school graduates--an elite, arrogant crowd that later crowned themselves, "The WASPS." In rare (or maybe not so rare) moments of self-pity, Mailer would tell intimates that at Harvard he lacked the right clothes, the right accent, the right religion.

     Norman Kingsley Mailer's four years in Cambridge were very ordinary. He wrote for the school literary magazine, boxed, and played dormitory football. Later, he would boast that he had been "a bit of an athlete," in his John Garfield, tough alley style. Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America was at war, and Mailer wondered which theater, Europe or Asia, he would write his novel about. Still, Norman was in no hurry to join up. After graduation in 1943, he returned home to Brooklyn (with a B.A. in engineering, cum laude) worked on a novel about a summer job he had had in a Boston mental hospital, and waited for Uncle Sam to call. Finally, in 1945 he was inducted, assigned to a Texas National Guard unit that had been mobilized, and was shipped to the Philippines, landing on Luzon at the tail end of the campaign.

    In the South Pacific, Norman strung telephone lines for the engineer corps and took part in skirmishes with the retreating Japanese. A fellow soldier later remembered that Private Mailer "had more combat with his supervisors than he did with the enemy." After the war ended, Norman spent a few months as a cook with the U.S. occupation forces in Japan.

    Following his discharge, Norman returned home to write his novel, a fictionalized account of a Pacific battle. He called the book, The Naked and the Dead--an epic title he had previously used for a play at Harvard. The story was about a tough three day patrol behind enemy lines that had taken place before Mailer joined the unit but that he had heard about from those who survived.

    Mailer's book was a huge success, and he was lionized by the press in that pre-television era in a way that no first novelist would be today. There were only a few stray dissenters (whose number, however, would grow over the years). Mary McCarthy called the novel redolent of "ambition"--as opposed to talent--and young Gore Vidal found the story a rerun of Dos Passos--a "fake," even. But in 1948, at the age of 25, Norman Mailer was famous.

    Hoping to sell his book to the movies, Norman headed to Hollywood. The film colony did not roll out the welcome mat. Producer Sam Goldwyn showed up at a meeting in his bathrobe and lectured the young author on screen writing. When no major studio optioned his book, Mailer worked on an original screenplay with his friend, Jean Malaquais, and soaked up the local color. (Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, London, Headline House,1988 ed.)

    The screenplay remained unproduced, and Mailer turned to another novel, The Deer Park, which appeared to be a fictionalized account of director Elia Kazan's troubles with HUAC - the Congressional investigating committee--as well as Mailer's own remembrances of Goldwyn. The book had a weird sexuality--one minor character was a homosexual pimp--and, for a time, there were doubts it would be published. Supposedly, Alfred Knopf, the patrician publisher, asked an editor in disdain, "Is this your idea of the kind of book which should bear a Borzoi imprint?" ( Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, New York, Berkley Books, 1970 ed.)

    When published in 1955, The Deer Park sold only moderately well and was widely panned: One reviewer called it, "The year's worst snake pit in fiction." Another critic found the plot "crummy" and "sordid." (Over the years, however, the book acquired a cult following that would include a UCLA film student named Jim Morrison.) But, by the time the novel was published, Norman had moved beyond Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Bestsellerdom was no longer his shtick. The "Psychic Outlaw" was Mailer's new hero; he became the prophet of hip. Along with several friends, Norman co-founded The Village Voice and published manifestoes in small circulation journals. 

     At first Mailer acted as Voice circulation manager, then wrote a puffed up column on his new philosophy. Other staff members found him overbearing, egotistical, inconsiderate. Dan Wolf, a Voice co-founder, told him: "Norman, for a socialist, you're acting like the worst capitalist in the world." (Hillary Mills, Mailer: A Biography, New York, Empire Books, 1982)

     After Mailer blew up over a typo, editor Wolf canceled the column, and Norman was off the Voice. "He was bullying everybody," a confrere complained, but this setback did not slow Norman down.

    Sex, politics, drugs--in different combinations and various configurations--were throughout the 1950s favorite Mailer themes. He wrote a short story about a college girl's (involuntary) encounter with anal intercourse (which led some early feminists to question Norman's own sexuality)--and romanticized marijuana as "the smoke of the assassins." (This was before Lee Harvey Oswald made the scene.)

   In an essay entitled, The White Negro, Mailer took on the complicated subject of race relations. Unfortunately, Norman's dialectical insight went over some people's heads. After reading the essay, James Baldwin, the great black novelist, confessed: "I could not, with the best will in the world, make any sense out of The White Negro." (James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, New York, Dell Books, 1978 ed.)

   But for Norman, the 1950s were only a foretaste of the adulation that covered him in the 1960s; that unrestful era was "the time of his time." Meetings, protests, marches--Norman Mailer was everywhere. It was as though LBJ had conjured up the Vietnam War for Norman--and God then sent him Nixon. At one cocktail party Norman challenged McGeorge Bundy, LBJ's foreign policy adviser, to a fistfight. The bespectacled State Department official declined. Apparently, there were no Green Berets around for Norman to take on.

    For a time, Mailer could do no wrong; his home-movies were shown in art houses and applauded by critics. He won a Pulitzer Prize (1969) for The Armies of the Night--a journalistic novel in which he was the main character in the march on the Pentagon to stop the war. The technique of writing of himself in the third person--Mailer did this, Mailer said that--was borrowed from Henry Adams that Boston Brahmin hipster (and anti-Semite) whose 1918 autobiography was a Harvard bible. Two world class protesters, Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald, were accorded supporting roles in the anti-Pentagon saga. Macdonald, in fact, had been protesting everything--World War II, capitalism, the Third Edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, even-- for years. Of Lowell, Mailer wrote: "You, Lowell, beloved poet of many, what do you know of the dirt and the dark deliveries of the necessary?" Political correctness was not yet in vogue--but it was hardly Norman's turgid prose that also earned him the National Book Award that year.

    In politics, as in art, fashions change. With the advent of Ronald Reagan, Mailer's career steadily went into decline. The Great Communicator filled the entire arena. There was no room on stage for side shows or freaks. Mailer tried but his potboilers and a coffee table biography of Marilyn Monroe failed to regain his early fame. The Monroe book was launched at a press conference at the Algonquin Hotel--the literary landmark where Dorothy Parker and her circle had exchanged witticisms and repartee. Norman revealed that the theme of his study was that the right wing had murdered the sex goddess to frame Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The ghosts of the Round Table must have had fun with that one. A more earthly critic, John Simon, described the biography as "very demented." Even worse, Diana Trilling, the den mother of the Upper West Side critics, chided Norman for writing the book for money.

   When it became known that Mailer's book on capital punishment (The Executioner's Song) had been based upon another's research, Truman Capote commented that Norman "...was just a rewrite man like you have over at the Daily News." (Lawrence Grobel, Conversations with Capote, New York, NAL Books, 1985)

   Being on the wrong side of history can happen to anyone. But these times must be especially galling for Norman Mailer. Old comrades now style themselves "neo-conservatives" and write on social issues for right wing journals.

    The "shit storm" that Norman predicted in the sixties never materialized. Instead of finding himself in old age a prophet, Norman has become--in the classic put down of that era--marginalized and irrelevant.

Ron Martinetti for AL. This profile appeared on American Legends in January 2000; Norman Mailer died in 2007. He continues to be regarded as a major American writer of the last century, the subject of criticism and biography.

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