Algis Valiunas: Norman Mailer: The Naked Novelist and the Dead Reputation

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[Algis Valiunas, a frequent contributor to Commentary Magazine, has written this year for us about John Cheever, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.]

As the second anniversary of his passing approaches, it is worth asking: How is Norman Mailer, without question the most famous American writer of the second half of the 20th century, to be remembered? It is a measure of Mailer’s effect on the culture, for better or for worse, that answering the question is a pressing and valuable task. Are we to esteem him, in the words of Newsweek’sMalcolm Jones, as “a writer who [was]—and there truly is no point debating this now, is there—one of the very greatest authors of his time”? Or was Charles McGrath of the New York Times closer to the truth when he wrote that “he was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. . . . And if he never quite succeeded in bringing off what he called ‘the big one’—the Great American Novel—it was not for want of trying”?...

... It would take the war to bring out Mailer’s mature literary gifts. He was drafted in April 1944 and wound up serving in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry, which afforded him the experience for the breakthrough novel he wanted. The Naked and the Dead (1948)tracks an American Army patrol on a Japanese-infested island. The perils of combat endured and the ordeal of climbing a jungle mountain come to nothing as a horde of bees attacks the patrol and sends the men careering blindly down the mountainside; the patrol’s mission proves pointless, as the deciding battle is won elsewhere.

One soldier’s reaction to the approach of combat sums up Mailer’s vision of this war: “He was weak and terrified, and he didn’t understand.” In the vein of such other World War II classics as James Jones’s From Here to Eternity and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, tyrannical and bloody-minded superiors, fascistic just like the enemy, command hapless dogfaces with no regard for the soldiers’ humanity.

There is no sense in Mailer that the war is being fought for noble ends against a foe that is remarkable for its barbarity and whose triumph would be catastrophic. America might have some catching up to do with the overt fascists when it comes to evil, but our leadership bears the seeds of great political wrongdoing.

This first novel made Mailer a literary star at the age of 25 and ensured his celebrity for life. Celebrity, of course, comes with a caveat: you will not be most known for your most worthy accomplishment. Mailer had run into trouble with prospective publishers because of the raunchiness of his soldiers’ language. To ensure that his book could legally be sent through the mails, he substituted the word fug for the more conventional form of the expletive. When Mailer was introduced to Tallulah Bankhead at a party, she is said to have said, “Oh, so you’re the young man who can’t spell.”

Mailer would either disavow or tip his hat to Tallulah’s wit depending on how he felt at the time. A 60’s rock group would call itself The Fugs in honor of Mailer’s bowdlerized ejaculation. It is not necessarily the sort of thing a writer longs to be known for, but Mailer would note the homagewith evident fondness in what is probably his most esteemed book, The Armies of the Night (1968). By then every contribution to his notoriety was welcome.

Before, though, some of his most earnest offerings would meet with a cold reception. His second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), set in a Brooklyn boardinghouse, is essentially a long political conversation that winds among the glories and monstrosities of socialism and ends in murder. It is mostly a tiresome affair, top-heavy with theoretical disquisition, and the critics generally hated it, much to Mailer’s surprise; he thought the love feast would go on forever. Still, there is some wisdom to be found in it, as when McLeod, a former Soviet apparatchik who played a bureaucratic part in Trotsky’s assassination, offers his view on the ultimate failure of socialism: “You might say the human function of socialism . . . is to raise mankind to a higher level of suffering, for given the hypothesis that man has certain tragic contradictions, the alternative is between a hungry belly and a hungry mind, but fulfillment there is never.”

That Mailer intended this to be the definitive word on the matter, however, seems unlikely. In the 1953 review-essay “David Riesman Reconsidered,” he wrote, “As serious artistic expression is the answer to the meaning of life for a few, so the passion for socialism is the only meaning I can conceive in the lives of those who are not artists; if one cannot create ‘works,’ one may dream at least of an era when humans create humans, and the satisfaction of the radical can come from the thought that he tries to keep this idea alive.”...

Mailer felt obliged to make literature, or better yet a demonic theoretical broadside, out of his hump-piles and pungent smoke. His notorious essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” (1957) celebrates the men and women who, in the teeth of death as it awaits them in the 20th century, by thermonuclear blast, extermination camp, or cancer, “set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self,” “encourage the psychopath in [themselves] . . . [and] explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore -sickness.”

The passage that horrified even sometime admirers and sealed Mailer’s stinking notoriety justifies and indeed honors the murder of a 50-year-old candy-store owner by two young hoodlums, for so apparently cowardly an act requires the courage of facing down the law: “The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.” To dare the unknown marks Mailer’s consummately vital man, the man who really knows how to live. Energy rather than goodness is the measure of his worth.

The increasing wantonness of his life and the unhinged abandon of his thought were the portent of something truly loathsome. At a Saturday-night party in November 1960, after Adele locked herself in the bathroom with another woman, the drunken and disoriented Mailer stabbed his wife, piercing the pericardial sac and nearly killing her. While she lay in the hospital, he wandered the city and even appeared on a television show with Mike Wallace, advocating that jousting tournaments (horses, armor, lances) for juvenile delinquents be held in Central Park. When he did go to the hospital looking for Adele, the police arrested him. Despite Mailer’s protests that if he were committed to a mental hospital, his writing would be forever suspect—“My pride is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of”—the magistrate sent him off to Bellevue; after 17 days of observation, the medical authorities declared him sane. He wound up pleading guilty to the stabbing and received a suspended sentence and three years’ probation. In 1961, at the 92nd Street Y, he read the following poem: “So long as you use a knife there’s some love left.”...

.. But he was also hell-bent on fame as the whimsical passions of the hour dispensed it, craving the narcotic of his outsize image in the press and on television, perpetually measuring his accomplishment against those of his contemporaries and invariably proclaiming himself biggest.

His vulgarity was a more significant factor in his allure than whatever he possessed of high aspiration. The way his most serious ambition was joined to his crassest need made him singularly appealing to a literary public that fed on nonsensical political ideas and fantasies of artistic superstardom, with its fabulous perquisites of cultural ubiquity, wealth, and hot sex.

He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the body’s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. -Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorified—not quite what Eliot had in mind.

Until he is forgotten, Mailer should be remembered not only in a fool’s cap and bells but also in a scoundrel’s midnight black. For in an age crawling with intellectual folly, he was one of the reigning dunces, even his best works were shot through with adolescent fatuities, while the worst of his words and deeds were stupid and vicious without bottom. One is torn between wishing that his memory would disappear immediately and wanting his remains to hang at the crossroads as a lasting reminder to others.

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