Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Chapter 1: The Ghosts of the Past
- Chapter 2: Dissent
- Chapter 3: A New Gospel
- Chapter 4: “The Liberal Party”
- Chapter 5: Man the Machine
- Chapter 6: “The Woman Question”
- Chapter 7: “The Non-Jewish Jew”
- Chapter 8: “A World Elsewhere”
- Chapter 9: “The Last Serious Novelist”
- Select Bibliography
In his celebrated essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” (1852), Marx made the following observation: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”1 In the case of Norman Mailer, this distinction may be more complex. Certainly Mailer regarded himself for most of his life as a singular figure, destined to make a seminal contribution to literature and beyond. His mission statement in Advertisements for Myself (1959) would remain an indelible part of his literary persona for his entire career: “The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.”2 Literature and the literary artist were sacrosanct for Mailer. In the same way, the novel for Mailer was not merely a form of entertainment, but an act of divination, a mode of revealing hidden mysteries and truths. Moreover, the novel was also a moral enterprise, a test of one’s virtue. Only the best and the brightest could succeed and even then they could never rest assured with their achievement.
It wasn’t merely Mailer’s competitive instinct that made him a perspicacious literary critic. He compared himself constantly with other novelists of his generation to determine whether he was endowed with genius, with that special artist-sensibility that would make him tower above his peers. In his essay, “Some Children of the Goddess” (1963), Mailer once again espoused the high gravity of the novelistic endeavor, as if writing a major novel were tantamount to acquiring the Holy Grail: “A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel.”3 However, not only does the novelist risk his personal integrity, but also that of his own society, since the novelist in Mailer’s cosmology, if he achieves greatness, becomes a sort of philosopher king, who can guide the society in a more enlightened direction or as he writes in his study of Henry Miller: “A writer of the largest ← 9 | 10 → dimension can alter the nerves and marrow of a nation.”4 If he fails, the society is condemned to wallow in darkness or, as he posits in the same work: “What collective loss of inner life would have come to English people if Shakespeare had failed to write.”5
If Mailer defined himself as a tragic figure risking everything for the rewards of art, then he was certainly not loath to portray himself as a comic figure bumbling through society, committing one faux pas after another. It is difficult to know where his mad antics began and contrivance ended. Some of us still remember the Norman Mailer who appeared on countless network talk shows on American television, intoxicated and barely coherent, who succumbed to the most flagrant acts of tomfoolery at public lectures and political demonstrations, as he so brilliantly portrayed in The Armies of the Night (1969), who seemingly regressed (if indeed these episodes were not contrived) to levels of bullying and scatology that would ill befit a patrician of letters. Throughout Mailer’s life two personas repeatedly and unexpectedly appeared: Hamlet and Falstaff, which explains in part why it becomes difficult to assign him either to tragedy or to farce.
1. A Singular Figure
It is however not only churlish behavior that is the stuff of farce, according to Marx, but simple imitation. Historical personages for Marx were either actors who played unique roles or epigones impersonating a role that no longer had any historical originality. Marx, of course, realized that not only did historical protagonists enjoy wearing costumes and posing as someone else or even lack the imagination of inventing new characters and new narratives, but also that the familiar element of anxiety seemed to govern their choices:
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.6 ← 10 | 11 →
Apparently history as a stage play engendered a certain orientation for the principal actors in tumultous times, providing them with a way of coping with their angst amid the process of revolutionary change. Thus, according to Marx, Luther cannot merely appear as Luther in revolutionizing Christianity, but must disguise himself as the Apostle Paul. Or the French Revolution of 1789/1799 must adorn itself in the frippery of the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, or the Revolution of 1848 cannot initially unveil itself in all of its bourgeois sobriety, but must mask itself in the guise of the French Revolution of 1789. This staging of events and narratives not only provides a sense of orientation, but also a mission for the actors involved. If bourgeois society is inherently prosaic, according to Marx, then embellishing it with the lineaments of tragedy and high drama suffuses its aims with a sense of urgency that it could otherwise never hope to evoke among its followers. The difficulty for Marx is that some historical events and actors employ costumes to achieve revolutionary goals, whereas others use these costumes to escape from their historical challenges.
Mailer fits very neatly into Marx’s analysis of history as theatre. A consummate actor, Mailer played a role markedly original in post-Second World War American society. Robert F. Lucid argues almost rhapsodically: “Among the generation of writers who emerged from the war [World War 2] and devoted their lives to the creation of a body of literature, he [Mailer] is one of the very few who have [sic] grown into a permanent, irreversibly realized presence.”7 Not only did Mailer attempt to create a fresh literary persona, but he was also driven to wrestle with the most profound questions about the meaning of America. When we think of Mailer’s contemporaries, those to whom he was at one time close, none of them emerged as a public figure, with the exception of James Baldwin and Gore Vidal. Although William Styron wrote novels containing some of the seminal themes of the twentieth century, he never emerged from his artistic solitude, apart from the post-publication lionizing, except for one brief moment ← 11 | 12 → when he was embroiled in a controversy with a group of black intellectuals after The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) had appeared.8 James Jones, Mailer’s other friend and perceived rival after the initial success of their first novels, also wrote works about America, which included a careful examination of societal values, all couched, like Mailer’s first novel, in the setting of combat and war, but, like Styron, he never showed any interest in entering the public forum.
This is not to suggest that American novelists solely remained in their studies and never engaged with the world. They were, as Richard Kostelanetz reminds us, involved in literary campaigns to become successful.9 They had to court publishers and editors and think about the perils of the marketplace. But ultimately they remained novelists and removed themselves from the public limelight. As stated, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal were the only writers contemporaneous with Mailer, who sought to exert a greater influence. In Baldwin’s case the motivation was obvious: he had to contend with the so-called “Negro question,” which was an issue directly concerning his own person. This clear and present danger to Baldwin’s own existence as an American and as a writer led to his becoming a public personality. Not only did he appear on television as well as other public forums, but he also developed his own version of the impassioned essay. Some critics of Baldwin, including Mailer, argue that he achieved greater success with the essay than with the novel. However, this overlooks the fact that Baldwin was a writer in the larger sense of the word than solely a novelist. His desire to change American attitudes to race and hence to enable America to realize what he believed was her higher purpose impelled him to adopt a variety of literary forms to inculcate these changes. In this sense he attempted to become the moral conscience of the nation, tirelessly reminding his audience that by recognizing African-Americans as human beings with full rights, they were also moving to a higher stage of humanity itself.
Gore Vidal was a different case altogether. As he wrote in his partly autobiographical memoir, “During the next quarter-century I re-dreamed the republic’s history, which I have always regarded as a family affair.”10 Starting out as an insider in the American scene, Vidal developed a strong animus to American power and ← 12 | 13 → its protagonists, ultimately becoming the proverbial outsider—expatriate and challenger of sexual and political norms. Still, in more cultured times, Vidal was a frequent guest on network talk shows, engaging in many famous television debates. Even his outsiderness was tentative, since he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1960. The overriding theme of his writing, very characteristically American, was that America had lost her way. Instead of adhering to the enlightened world of the Founders, America had become an empire, attempting to impose a regime of injustice upon her own people and the world. For Vidal the Gilded Age had never ended; it only became an indelible part of American society. Akin to Baldwin, Vidal came to be more recognized for his essays and criticism than for his novels. In reality, he was a writer, wishing to find a place in what he called the “Agora” in order to remind America of her original moral mission.11
In contrast to the above-named writers, Mailer’s career encompassed another dimension. He was not merely the engagé intellectual, who felt compelled to speak out on public issues; he was also the teacher, the mentor, the prophet, who would lead his people out of their present morass.12 But Mailer did not conceive of himself merely as a teacher. Nor was he a politician or statesman, although his ambition also drove him to make an abortive attempt at public office. Instead, he reinvented himself as an artist-hierophant, who aspired to lead his people to another plane of moral and spiritual existence.
2. The Epigone
Although he believed that he was singled out to play an original historical role, Mailer at the same time not only perpetuated the tradition of homegrown prophets, such as George Lippard or Emerson or Whitman, but also seemed to embody ← 13 | 14 → a presence from another culture and another time.13 If Marx’s thesis of historical personages assuming the identity of prototypical figures in order to realize their historical mission is apt, such as Cromwell adopting the trappings of Old Testament prophets to topple the Stuarts, then Mailer assumed the persona of the self-proclaimed prophets of literary Modernism, or as Wyndham Lewis called this coterie, “the men of 1914.” These artist intellectuals were not merely content to achieve literary fame; they were more concerned, even obsessed with changing consciousness, altering the course of history, reforming and revitalizing culture and society.14
Literary Modernism, as recent critics have shown, was a highly contentious movement, characterized by vibrant conflict. What finally crystallized from the struggle of various modernist groups to achieve hegemony and influence was what one critic has called “the Joyce-Pound-Eliot paradigm of Modernism,” which, in effect, meant that other alternative variants of Modernism were either eclipsed or submerged.15 This triumphant version of Modernism spawned its own ideology, as well as its own poetics, which eventually established itself as the authoritative incarnation of Modernism. This result of this literary politicking led to Modernism institutionalizing itself at universities and in the literary establishment in general, ultimately evolving into a new orthodoxy.16 The young Norman Mailer, studying creative writing and literature (together with his engineering major) at Harvard from 1939–1943, was, thus, initiated into a modernist canon, a canon that not only was to define his literary work, but also his literary persona.17
Few American intellectuals after the Second World War were immune to Modernism. In fact, it appeared that many of the battlegrounds that had been an ← 14 | 15 → essential part of High Modernism reemerged during this period, most notably the “mass society debate,” as if Ortega and other critics of modernity had never written their reproving tomes on the rise of “mass man” and the concomitant dissolution of high culture.18 However, Mailer went further than his contemporaries. He had a compulsion to fuse theory and practice. It was not enough for him to write about the modern predicament; he had to live the part. He had to construct a literary identity that had its roots in European modernist dissent. In short, Mailer began to live out the idiosyncracies, excesses, manic forms of behavior, histrionics, all of the public displays of the modernist intellectual and artist. In this sense, Mailer’s life was his art, inducing him to assume many of the ideological positions and social roles (e. g. iconoclast, enfant terrible, neighsayer, bohemian) previously adopted by Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and especially D. H. Lawrence.19
This explains, in part, why Mailer appeared to many in the intellectual community in the 1950s and 1960s to be an outlandish figure, disturbed and dangerously self-destructive, why many at the time thought he had gone mad or could not be taken seriously as an intellectual or a novelist.20 Mailer was of his time, yet simultaneously recapitulated past lives and past struggles. If Modernism espoused the healing power of violence, Mailer had to go out and look for fights in bars or on the streets or brawl with Nazis in police wagons or challenge Sonny Liston, or horrifyingly attempt to murder his wife. If drugs became a part of modernist habit, Mailer had to experiment with pot and peyote in order to reenact the familiar modernist quest for alternative states of consciousness. Given Mailer’s sense of calling, his dedication to literature, it became apparent that Mailer’s excesses were part of a programmatic attempt to construct an identity of a modernist literary artist. It was certainly no small step to transform himself ← 15 | 16 → from a Jewish boy from Brooklyn to the seer of an entire nation and culture. By changing his accent and speech patterns and cultivating new mannerisms and habits, Mailer seemed to prepare himself for his new role as America’s great prophet, fulminating and lambasting obsessively about the iniquity and contagion of the modern world.21
While Mailer attempted to present his version of Modernism as fresh and original in the 1950s, he seemed at the same time to consciously adopt certain costumes and styles of previous modernists, most notably Ernest Hemingway.22 Predictably, Mailer had to make the pilgrimage to Paris after his release from the army (1947–1948), where he frequented the haunts of the great expatriates of the Twenties. After returning from Paris, he found himself drawn, like many of his literary forbears, to Hollywood (1949), where he attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, again reiterating the plight of his predecessors, to find a profitable niche.23 In 1954, he journeyed to Mexico for six months where he began to develop an interest in bullfighting, which later became the subject of a book and an important motif in his novella, “The Time of Her Time” (1959).24 All of these journeys had been undertaken by earlier modernists—Mailer’s heroes—and it appeared in many ways that Mailer was reenacting the trials and tribulations of his celebrated mentors.25 ← 16 | 17 →
This was reflected in his choice of themes for his novels. Just as the previous generation of writers wrote about the Great War, so did Mailer in his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), attempt to write the great war novel of World War II. His next novel, Barbary Shore (1951), could be apprehended as a reworking of the so-called proletarian novel of the 1930s, however modernized and eccentric. His third novel, The Deer Park (1955), was, as Leslie A. Fiedler pointed out, written in the tradition of the Hollywood novel, already established inter alia by Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West.26
3. The Iconoclast
Mailer’s struggle to wrest a place for himself in the American intellectual establishment in the 1950s and 1960s not only led him to seek his orientation in the past, but also to embrace the more extreme positions on deciphering the meaning of modernity. Every writer and thinker invents his own lexicon, which encapsulates the principal tenor of his thought. In Mailer’s case, this was even more conspicuous. Throughout Mailer’s opus, spanning a period of almost sixty years, certain topoi repeat themselves in a catechismic mode. Thus, dread, anxiety, plague, cancer, disease, liberal, middle-class, totalitarian, existential, root, form, man, and waste, inter alia, structure Mailer’s social criticism and worldview, bestowing upon his work a unity and sense of purpose rare among American writers. Many of these topoi belong to the standard fare of literary Modernism, although the ways in which Mailer employed them were derived from an impassioned process of reflection and aesthetic intuition. They were also part and parcel of a carefully premeditated literary and intellectual development.
Since Mailer perceived his literary career as having a higher calling, he subsumed his fiction and his non-fiction under the desideratum of making America intelligible to itself. This explains why his fiction and non-fiction frequently overlap. For example, his novel Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) attempted to explore the reasons for America’s involvement in the ruinous Vietnam war and thirty years later his collection of essays Why Are We at War? (2003) attempted ← 17 | 18 → to peruse the reasons for the so-called war on terror. Both were attempts to decipher America’s enigmas. In the same way, An American Dream (1965) examined the subterranean forces in America’s soul life, comparable to his later imaginative biography Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (1995), which explored the undersides of one of the most calamitous events in recent American history.
This may also explain why Mailer was fond of mixing genres, crossing the borders of fiction and non-fiction. It wasn’t merely that Mailer was preoccupied with the possibilities of incorporating both fictional and non-fictional elements in his work in order to forge a new narrative or that his sensibility was more rooted to the historical or the factual.27 Fiction and non-fiction or their endless combinations and permutations were merely vehicles for exploring his endless obsession with interpreting America to itself, coupled with his self-anointed role of being America’s seer.28
Mailer was not compelled to adopt the role of the iconoclast or outlaw. A new identity was already waiting for him in the wings. The New York intellectuals had already established themselves in the 1950s. Long divorced from their youthful days as Trotskyites at City College, many of the leading New York intellectuals had made their peace with America, and were consequently reaping the appropriate rewards: they were now the new guardians of culture.29 Founding magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary and Dissent and being awarded chairs at universities, they began to dictate the good tone in matters of culture and politics. The new intellectual in the 1950s had to be a modernist in cultural matters and a liberal anti-Stalinist in politics. More importantly, they felt obliged to relinquish their critical stance. As Morris Dickstein writes, “The political intellectuals sang the virtues of American life, with its pluralism and pragmatism, its procedure by consensus and its presumed freedom from ideology and ← 18 | 19 → moralism.”30 There were of course exceptions. Irving Howe and his coterie still thought of themselves as democratic socialists and Dwight MacDonald sloughed off and donned a continual array of intellectual pedigrees. But generally the New York intellectuals were both fascinated by the avant-garde and at the same time equally repelled by any form of totalitarianism, which meant that they accepted the Cold War with all of its imperatives and constraints.
Despite embracing cosmopolitanism in aesthetic matters, the New York intellectuals, however, did not always remain immune to ethnicity and local color. A new kind of writer emerged, who became very fashionable and very successful. The so-called American-Jewish Renaissance belonged to the literary scene of the 1950s and 60s, with such figures as the schlemiel, the victim, and the congenial neurotic, soon becoming staples of mainstream culture. The Jew, as Leslie A. Fiedler noted, soon ceased to be the perennial outsider; instead, Zion came to Main Street, and Jewish writing itself became an integral part of the literary canon.31
Although this role was awaiting him and the literary marketplace was beckoning, Mailer never allowed himself to become merely an American-Jewish writer. As he wrote in his scathing review of Bellow’s Herzog (1964), the new topos of the anti-hero was not worthy of the human project. Rather it exemplified the malaise that had infiltrated itself into every fiber of American life and was threatening to demoralize it completely.32 If assailing Bellow’s fiction were not enough, he also launched into a venomous attack against “the Family”—his friends and colleagues—in his review of Norman Podhoretz’s broadside, Making It (1967), where he took Podhoretz to task for disappointing the expectations of the reader by vacating his radical stance and accommodating himself to the “Family’s” patronage:
What more fascinating event, after half a book’s work of the best preparation, to see our latter-day Sorel make it and lose it and make it again with The Family, that peculiar colony, aviary, and zoo of the most ferocious, idealistic, egotistic, narcissistic, cultivated, constipated, brilliant, sensitive, brutally insensitive, half-productive, and near-sterile gang of the best and worst literary court ever to rise out of the immigrant ranks of a nation.33 ← 19 | 20 →
Mailer’s feud with the New York intellectuals illustrated his general ambivalence—his desire to become a literary celebrity and at the same time to remain an iconoclast.
Mailer’s secession from the reigning values of the culture makers in New York was precipitated by his conversion to Hip in the Fifties, especially his thesis that criminal acts of violence were creative and liberating and contributed to restoring the psychic health of their perpetrators.34 Mailer’s thesis was not so far from the pale as might be expected. His contemporaries also recognized the significance of violence in American culture, but divested it of its therapeutic value, preferring to fashion the hipster as the adversary in a morality tale, struggling against the anti-hero, who was, in fact, searching for a viable set of values to transcend his alienation. For example, Bellow’s novel The Victim (1947) narrated the conflict between two men, one Jewish and ultimately a liberal-humanist, the other Gentile and a proponent in Bellow’s cosmology of amoralism, i. e. modern nihilism—a plot element that remained an indelible ingredient in Bellow’s fiction. The narrative is so constructed that the first person narrator attempts to sway the reader to support his quest for a more ethical and humane world, with the Gentile antagonist finally ceasing his persecution, and eventually becoming part of the establishment, which is further evidence in Bellow’s novel of the superiority of the Jewish protagonist’s moral vision. In Bernard Malamud’s, The Fixer (1966), the simple Jewish tradesman living in Tsarist Russia becomes the moral conscience of humanity, suffering martyrdom in order to demonstrate how far humanity has strayed from the path of righteousness. In Malamud’s earlier novel The Assistant (1957), the Jewish shopkeeper assumes the functions of a rabbi, educating the young, violent, Gentile criminal. Unlike “The White Negro,” where the gratuitous act is proclaimed as an existential act of liberation and the shopkeeper’s death at the hands of the criminal is heralded as a necessary sacrifice, The Assistant ultimately shows how the Jewish grocer defuses the criminal’s propensity to violence and leads him on the path to discover a higher form of humanity. The novel ends with a symbolic flourish, with the young criminal becoming circumcised and converting to Judaism.
Mailer’s opposition to the reigning set of literary conventions and norms was elevated to a critical theory in understanding contemporary American literature. Daniel Fuchs argues, “From time to time literary history generates an ideal ← 20 | 21 → polarity which goes a long way towards defining the complexity of an age.”35 According to Fuchs, Bellow and Mailer exemplify this “polarity,” constituting the “thesis” and “antithesis” of what he calls “the modern tradition” in post-war American literature.36 More precisely, Mailer is Bellow’s “cultural anti-self.”37 Since Bellow formed the center of Fuchs’s interest and his preference, he defined Bellow approvingly in what might be regarded as a traditional liberal-humanist: “The central distinction is political, for Bellow represents the conservative liberalism Mailer affects to despise. For Bellow there generally is a politics of civility, a possibility of more than fragmentary consensus, a middle grasped from the periphery in an often exasperating but finally decent society which represents a civilization worth preserving.”38 This does not accurately express Bellow’s achievement. Like many writers of the modernist tradition, Bellow may have been cautious and even crotchety in his pronouncements on society and politics. However in his fiction he could often be relentlessly radical and iconoclastic. We only have to think about the deeply disturbing early work where Bellow cultivated alienation and magical realism as postulates in his struggle to come to terms with America. Both Bellow and Mailer embodied different modalities of Modernism, having recourse to different models and conventions, yet both developing distinctly recognizable modernist postures and traditions.
4. The Modernist Turn Redux
In the mid 1950s when Mailer was attempting to complete The Deer Park (1955), his struggle with the literary establishment came to a head. It was, as he admitted many times, the most crisis-ridden period of his life, both personally and professionally. As he was constructing his literary autobiography in Advertisements for Myself, he found himself recapitulating the narrative of many modernist writers before him, illustrating what may be referred to as the modernist moment—the moment when the modernist writer comes up against bourgeois society in all of its various manifestations and declares his opposition, while at the same time wresting a new literary identity for himself. As Michael Levenson writes, “So much of the story that these figures told themselves was a tale of resistance and tyranny. The name of the tyrant changed—the Editor, the Lady, the Public, the ← 21 | 22 → Banker, the Democrat—but whatever the scenario the narrowness of the oppressor was seen amply to justify the violence of the art.”39 In Mailer’s case all of these figures became “tyrants” in the course of his career. But at that very delicate time in the 1950s when Mailer was attempting to redefine his literary persona, it was the New York publishing world that represented the bourgeois attack upon art and genius.
In a sense it was a classic modernist set, as Mailer portrayed it, replete with Philistines and artists, men of venal character and those with an uncompromising commitment to literature. There is something anachronistic about the entire narrative of Mailer’s struggles with the powers that be to have his novel published, with the young writer contending with craven editors and publishing houses, all displaying the same admixture of mendacity and Victorian squeamishness that earlier modernists had experienced. It was as if all the battles over Sons and Lovers (1913) and Ulysses (1922) had never been fought. More importantly, Mailer the writer underwent an important rite of passage:
Not easy, one could argue, for an advertising man to admit that advertising is a dishonest occupation, and no easier was it for the working novelist to see that now were left only the cliques, fashions, vogues, snobs, snots, and fools, not to mention a dozen bureaucracies of criticism; that there was no room for the old literary idea of oneself as a major writer, a figure in the landscape.40
The breach with bourgeois society was consummated when Mailer began to resemble a character in one of his fictions, with one significant difference: unlike Hearn or Eitel, Mailer traversed the borderland from liberalism to radicalism, surrendering in the process any ties to conventional morality or to the traditional career of the successful novelist. No longer “the figure in the landscape,” he stylized himself as the uncompromising outsider, who discovered the moral legitimacy of violence in himself: “I turned within my psyche I can almost believe, for I felt something shift to murder in me.”41 Something significant happened to the ambitious Jewish boy from Brooklyn. He had redefined himself as “the psychic outlaw.”42
Despite Mailer’s rage at the powers that be, he had obviously intuited something in the literary marketplace at the close of the 1950s. In his review of ← 22 | 23 → “Waiting for Godot” (1959), while acknowledging “the despair of the twentieth century” inherent in Beckett’s play, he ended his review at the same time with a coda to a new, more promising time:
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- 2015 (October)
- literary history literary criticism biography political theory
- Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 318 pp.