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Mailer: A Biography, by Hilary Mills

One-Round Writer?

Mailer: A Biography.
by Hilary Mills.
Empire Books. 477 pp. $14.95.

For forty years the reviewing of new American writing has been dominated by critics who have sought to extend the argument enunciated by Alfred Kazin in On Native Grounds (1942): American writers are the victims of their society. Never once has it occurred to these critics that in our time the reverse argument applies: American society is the victim of its writers. The American writer once conducted honest quarrels with his country; now he hurls fantastic accusations that are nothing but projections of his own problems. A case in point is Norman Mailer, as Hilary Mills’s biography inadvertently makes clear.

Miss Mills’s strong suit as a biographer is her sense of drama. Thus she opens her book with the wild press conference staged by Mailer in the aftermath of his testimony at the trial of Jack Henry Abbott, the convict whom Mailer had helped to get released from prison on the grounds that he was a literary artist of incalculable talent, but who had subsequently pulled a knife on a young waiter in a New York City restaurant and stabbed him to death.

As Mailer confronted the reporters, he looked, says Miss Mills, like a “senior banker.” A dark blue, three-piece suit draped his thickening frame. His completely white hair was cut conservatively short. Beside him sat his beautiful sixth wife. “1 certainly have the strongest feelings and hopes that Abbott will not get the maximum sentence,” Mailer began. “Abbott is a very complex man with great gifts. . . . [He] didn’t benefit from this. The only people who have gotten anything out of this whole mess are the ones who are calling for more law and order, and more law and order means moving this country toward a fascist state. . . . I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent.”

At this point the incensed reporters interrupted with a volley of exceedingly tough questions, in the midst of which the beleaguered novelist suddenly assumed another personality. The man who looked like a banker started to shift from foot to foot like a boxer, while the carefully cultivated voice of a Harvard-educated author gave way to “the mean Southern accent he had adopted during World War II, a voice reminiscent of Rod Steiger’s sheriff in In the Heat of the Night.” As in the past, Miss Mills observes, “the emergence of his Southern inflection presaged the explosion of the Mailer temper.” He accused a woman reporter of having hate in her eyes. He answered another questioner with paranoid references to “lying headlines” and “scumbag journalism.” Finally he yelled, “Fuck off. No more questions.”

The novelist’s Raskolnikov-like claim that literary artists have the right to get away with murder and the ensuing counterattack on the reporters by his satanic Southern double give the opening of Mailer the makings of a Dostoevskyan tale, but a few pages later it becomes clear that Miss Mills does not share even a particle of Dostoevsky’s passion to uncover inner life. She completely finesses the questions raised by Mailer’s pathological performance at the press conference by gently referring to his behavior as “paradoxical” and to his personality as “complicated.” These evasions turn out to be typical of the entire biography. No matter whether Miss Mills is talking about Mailer as a scrawny college student hooked on the muscular Hemingway or as a wealthy celebrity hooked on convict chic, her hopped-up, newsmagazine prose lacks any sort of penetrative power. Having botched every opportunity to bring Mailer’s motivations into the light, the biographer concludes her book with a bouquet of clichés worthy of a toastmaster at a testimonial dinner. “One thing is certain: Norman Mailer is an individual of enormous imagination, courage, and energy in an age that too often seems devoid of such traits.”

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Our first chance to make our own exploration of Mailer’s motivations occurs in the biography’s second chapter, “Young Mailer at Harvard.” On his arrival in Cambridge in the fall of 1939 the boy from Brooklyn was only sixteen years old. Nevertheless, he already knew that he wanted to major in aeronautical engineering. It was “a practical choice,” Miss Mills explains, “for the only son of a second-generation immigrant family seeking to raise himself a notch above the . . . lower-middle class.” English A, the required freshman course in composition, transformed his dreams. Not only did he discover that he loved writing fiction, but he found that he was very good at it. Assigned readings in Hemingway and other modern American writers also broke upon his mind with the force of religious revelation.

In pursuit of his new goal of becoming the Hemingway of his generation, Mailer enrolled in advanced writing classes offered by Theodore Morrison and Robert Hillyer, as well as in the literature courses of such teachers as Harry Levin. Furthermore, he began to submit short stories to the Harvard Advocate, and was soon invited to join the magazine’s board—an invitation which in turn led to membership in the prestigious Signet Society, the undergraduate literary club. Clinching proof that he had found his true calling came from beyond the university; at the end of his sophomore year, Story magazine awarded him first prize for a Hemingwayesque account of three hustlers in a poolroom.

Obsessed by Hemingway’s personal legend as well as by his literary achievements, the young man further emulated his idol—or so he thought—by getting drunk in Boston bars and throwing phantom punches at friends. Yet in one highly revealing respect he did not attempt to follow in the older writer’s footsteps. From the moment that America entered World War I, the seventeen-year-old Hemingway had been enthralled by the dream of having military adventures. His efforts to enlist were initially thwarted by his father’s opposition to the idea, and subsequently by the revelation that his eyesight did not meet army standards. Nevertheless, the first anniversary of America’s involvement in the war found the youth en route to the dangerous fighting in northern Italy as an officer in the Red Cross. Eighteen-year-old Norman Mailer responded to America’s entrance into World War II in a quite different fashion. He not only carried on with his college work, he did not even bother to accelerate it. Unlike the huge majority of young men who entered Harvard at the same time he did, Mailer was graduated in June 1943, after a normal four years of study.

What permitted him to stay on at Harvard was the fact that as a student of engineering sciences he was deferred from the draft. His biographer asserts that he continued to study engineering “partially to please his mother,” who still wanted him to learn something practical. In spite, however, of her use of the word “partially,” Miss Mills does not go on to mention any other factor that might help to explain Mailer’s curious decision not to switch out of engineering into English—which in the light of his burgeoning literary ambitions it would have been logical for him to do. In any case, he took no steps to persuade his draft board to alter his classification.

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Following his Harvard graduation, the would-be Hemingway of his generation laid plans for writing a novel about World War II—but still made no active effort to become involved in it. On the contrary, he passively accepted the discovery that his draft board had apparently misplaced his file. In the fall of 1943, the civilian author finished revising a novel about a mental hospital and tried to peddle it to a publisher in New York. In January 1944, he celebrated his twenty-first birthday in Brooklyn. A month later, he got married in Yonkers. Toward the end of March, he finally was inducted into the army, but did not go overseas until January 1945, when at his request he was sent to the Pacific. Arriving in the Philippines, he was given a desk job with the 112th Armored Cavalry Regiment, first as a typist, later as an interpreter of aerial photographs. In the evenings he read Spengler’s The Decline of the West, interspersed with doses of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Realizing that somewhat rawer experiences would have to go into the making of his war novel, he then asked to be reassigned as a rifleman in an intelligence and reconnaissance unit. By the time the reassignment came through, however, the back of the Japanese military and naval strength in the Philippines had been decisively broken. Consequently, the action he saw bore no comparison to the ricocheting hell to which Hemingway had exposed himself in the Hurtgen Forest the previous autumn, or to the bombardments along the Piave in 1918 which had almost cost him his life. Mailer himself has admitted that he only took part in “a couple of firefights and skirmishes,” and his first wife would later tell Miss Mills an even less impressive story: “He took a few potshots, but I don’t remember worrying every day that Norman would get killed. It wasn’t that kind of fighting any more.”

He finished out his military service baking desserts in the army of occupation in Japan, and returned to civilian life on May 2, 1946. By June, he and his wife were installed in a bungalow on Cape Cod, where he wrote the opening pages of The Naked and the Dead. The 721-page novel was completed in a fourteen-month spasm of furious work.

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Miss Mills characterizes The Naked and the Dead as “an anti-war novel,” as did its original reviewers in 1948, many of whom also likened it to the disillusioned war fiction of the writer whom Mailer admired above all others. The comparison, however, could not be more misleading. The anti-war novels of Hemingway and Mailer are as dissimilar as the combat experiences of the two authors. A Farewell to Arms voices in its most memorable passage a bitter disenchantment with the moralistic rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson, whereas The Naked and the Dead slavishly reflects the moralistic rhetoric of an even more misguided politician, Henry Agard Wallace.

Encouraged by the militantly radical girlfriend who became his first wife, Mailer had gradually developed a considerable interest in current events. By 1946, he knew where he stood on a whole range of issues, including and especially Soviet-American relations, which worried him very much. “The whole year that Norman was writing The Naked and the Dead was a scary year,” his first wife recalls. “We were afraid war was going to break out between Russia and the U. S. We wanted better relations with Russia. We wanted to stop the cold war.” Mailer tried to stop it in two ways. First, he joined Wallace’s Progressive Citizens of America, an organization devoted to arranging rallies at which Wallace and other fellow-travelers berated Harry Truman as a warmonger, decried the intervention of the U. S. in areas that the Soviet Union aspired to control, and conjured up visions of eternal peace based on Soviet-American friendship. Second, Mailer did everything he could think of in the novel he was writing to discredit both the government and the people of his native land, so as to make it plausible to think of America as the aggressor in world affairs. (Mailer supported himself while writing this vehemently anti-American book by drawing on the unemployment benefits of the G.I. Bill of Rights. That he was biting the hand that fed him was a thought that apparently did not occur to him.)

The Naked and the Dead not only does not praise the United States for its victory over fascism, it argues that fascism is on the verge of victory inside the United States. The same looming threat of homegrown Hitlerism that Mailer would invoke in the course of demanding forgiveness for Jack Henry Abbott was first introduced by him in The Naked and the Dead, in conversations between the Douglas Mac-Arthur-like General Cummings and his Harvard-educated aide, Lieutenant Hearn. Not even the most irresponsible of the peacenik speeches that Henry Wallace delivered in 1946 and 1947 went further than Mailer does in the Cummings-Hearn conversations to make American resistance to Soviet imperialism look like a sinister fascist plot:

The concept of fascism [says Cummings] merely started in the wrong country. . . . America is going to absorb [Germany’s] dream, it’s in the business of doing it now. . . .

We’ve become destiny, eh?
Hearn said.

Precisely. . . . After the war our foreign policy is going to be more naked, far less hypocritical than it has ever been. We’re no longer going to cover our eyes with our left hand while our right is extending an imperialist paw.

The tarring of America with the brush of fascism is established dramatically as well as philosophically, in scenes throughout the book which depict American servicemen as drunken, anti-Semitic bully boys. Ruminating on the loutish behavior of the other members of his platoon, the young Jewish soldier Goldstein concludes, “They were just a bunch of anti-Semi ten. . . . That was all the goyim knew, to run around with loose women, and get drunk like pigs. . . . It’s hard to remember all the fine ideals. Sometimes even with the Jews in Europe I don’t know why we’re fighting.” Inasmuch as the novelist wants Goldstein’s uncertainty as to why any sensitive person would wish to fight for America to become the reader’s uncertainty as well, he eventually reinforces the Jewish soldier’s ruminations with a flashback on the early life and sordid times of a soldier from Boston named Gallagher, in which we learn virtually nothing about the city except that it is populated with anti-Semites. In Gallagher’s Boston, “the synagogues and cemeteries are fouled with language and symbol. ‘The fuggin kikes’ and the cross or swastika. ‘I am distressed to hear of it,’ says Governor Curley, Saltonstall, Tobin.” As for Gallagher himself, he is devoted neither to the Catholic church nor to the Democratic party nor to any other typical institution of Boston Irish life; he is a member, rather, of a group called the Christian Union. (“We gotta start mobilizing and get ready, the International Jews is tryin’ to get us to war, an’ we gotta get them first, . . . they take all the jobs. . . .”)

Even more unforgivable than Gallagher’s lack of historical representativeness, however, is his failure to interest us as a person. For all his xenophobic fury, Mailer’s Boston Irishman never comes alive; instead of convincing us that he is a flesh-and-blood human being, Gallagher merely makes it clear that his creator once read James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. Like the young John Dos Passos before him, whose World War I novel Three Soldiers was the model for the multiethnic portrayals in The Naked and the Dead, the young Mailer had an imaginative reach that far exceeded his grasp—and it takes a very firm grasp indeed, as Henry James once remarked, to make American life yield up its secrets. The flashbacks in The Naked and the Dead range far and wide over the American landscape, but there is a deadly sameness about them which testifies to how little the author knew about the nation he sought to vilify.

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The only soldier who stands out from the crowd, the only character in the novel whose life story compels belief, is Sam Croft, the sergeant from west Texas. Although Croft is the most diabolical incarnation of Mailer’s vision of American fascism, he is no mere cartoon figure, drawn to illustrate a thesis. Croft, we feel sure, is a man whom Mailer had met. Croft, in fact, is a satanic Southern version of Mailer himself. So intensely did Mailer identify with his alter ego—perhaps alter id is the term I am looking for—that he endowed him with his own features. A thin, blue-eyed young man of medium height, Mailer was distinguished, in his biographer’s words, by a “narrow triangular face.” Nothing better exemplifies Miss Mills’s lack of psychological concentration than her failure to realize that those very words are contained in Mailer’s description of Croft: “A lean man of medium height but he held himself so erectly he appeared tall. His narrow triangular face was utterly without expression. There seemed nothing wasted in his hard small jaw, gaunt firm cheeks and straight short nose. His gelid eyes were very blue. . . .” If we allow for a certain amount of romanticization, Sam Croft is Norman Mailer to the life. And if the so-called “mean Southern accent” that Mailer adopted during World War II was in fact an approximation of a west Texas twang, then Croft is a phonographic as well as photographic reproduction of his creator.

In the early 1950’s, Hemingway remarked to his son Gregory that “Mailer’s a psycho, but the psycho part is the most interesting thing about him. Chances are he won’t be able to throw another fit like The Naked and the Dead. But if he does, I better watch out. There’ll be another Dostoevsky to contend with, and no one lasted more than three rounds with Mr. Dostoevsky.” Without much question, the “fit” that Hemingway was talking about was Mailer’s creation of Croft. For in setting forth the savage incidents of the sergeant’s life—his gratuitous murder of a striker in a labor dispute, his nonstop love-making with his hot-pants wife (“Crack . . . that . . . WHIP!”), his bouts of drunkenness, his discovery that he likes to beat the women he sleeps with, his smoldering, endless hatred of “EVERYTHING WHICH IS NOT IN MYSELF,” his nurturing over the years of “a crude unformed vision” which finally takes shape in the South Pacific in the form of arranging for Lieutenant Hearn’s death at the hands of the Japanese and then of compelling Hearn’s men, who are now under his command, to make a meaningless assault on a mountain whose name means nothingness solely for the purpose of satisfying his lust for power—in setting forth these savage things Mailer reaches and sustains such a high level of emotional urgency that he simply had to be tapping the “psycho part” of his own soul. The great irony of The Naked and the Dead is that Mailer lent credibility to his accusation that the spirit of fascism was at work in America only when he offered his own double as proof.

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The literary genius that Mailer first displayed in his characterization of Croft has never deserted him. From “The Time of Her Time” to The Executioner’s Song, his later work is studded with unforgettable scenes of sex and violence, with astonishing metaphors, with brilliant musings on the realms of darkness underlying the American dream’s bright surface. Yet Hemingway was right when he doubted that Mailer would go on from The Naked and the Dead to become the American Dostoevsky. For the author of The Naked and the Dead, unlike the author of Crime and Punishment, was not in the least appalled to discover a dualism in his nature, and therefore had no interest in resolving it. Instead of trying to overcome the obsessions that haunted him, Mailer settled for acting them out. The splendor of Dostoevsky’s career arose out of his belief that men must atone for their sins and that atonement can only be achieved through suffering. The horror of Mailer’s career is defined by his conviction that crimes should be forgiven without punishment. His accounts of a cold-blooded killer named Gary Gilmore and (in The Armies of the Night) of a drunken opponent of the Vietnam war named Norman Mailer may have brought him megabucks and book awards but that is not because they possess a Dostoevskyan depth of understanding, it is because their praise of pathological behavior has fitted the temper of a self-pitying time. In Hemingway’s prize-ring parlance, the author of The Naked and the Dead has proved to be a one-round fighter.

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