Commentary Magazine


The American Norman Mailer

Some future literary historian will doubtless be able to name the precise moment at which the big change in American literature occurred, and to give the reasons why it occurred at all. When, and from what combination of causes, did ambitious young men cease trying to write the Great American Novel and set about trying to re-write the Great American Novel? To the 20′s generation, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Walden, James’s novels, The Red Badge of Courage were all inspirations of one or another kind and degree of intensity. By what historical process did the same works and writers become what they so often are to writers today: sacred ancestral presences, established rituals to be gone through again and again, challenges to greatness, often veritable models?

The tendency began, I suspect, among certain surviving members of the 20′s generation itself—writers who had lived to see the closing of European horizons by fascism and war, to be affected at home by the nostalgic spirit of The Flowering of New England and the vast body of criticism and scholarship stemming from it. Faulkner was perhaps the chief of these. In “The Old Man” and “The Bear” such ancestral themes as the big hunt, the open boat, the River God, the primitive initiation assumed a ritualistic air, although there was enough of the original Faulkner in those tales to make them masterpieces of a kind. Similarly with Hemingway’s belated contribution to the same tendency, The Old Man and the Sea, of which a French critic has observed that it is “classique, trop classique,” while maintaining, as I do, that the story has enough of the “vrai Hemingway” in it to keep it alive. Indeed, such narratives represented a genuine mutation in the works of Faulkner and Hemingway, and they have become, in turn, an influence on the younger writers.

Norman Mailer is among the more intrepid and protean of these younger writers. He would not be caught dead, I imagine, in the act of venerating the past or anything else. By his own testimony, the contemporary he most admires and envies is not “the most perfect writer” among them, namely Truman Capote; nor is it Gore Vidal, who has the best “formal mind” and most highly developed critical capacities. It is that rank original, who conceivably has never read a classic, James Jones. In fact the book in which Mailer offers these and other evaluations, many of them less generous, of his contemporaries, is rank with his own passion for new experience and his ambition to write the great novel of the future. A big unruly book, bearing a title that stuffs the mouth with consonants, and containing materials that in their variety defy definition, Advertisements for Myself (Putnam, 532 pp., $5.00) is partly an anthology of Mailer’s shorter writings (though with specimens of some of his novels), partly a series of commentaries on them and his career in general.

As his career so far has been somewhat spotty, and he knows it, the book is rich in evidence bearing on his disappointments. There is blame for the several publishers who, out of prudery or prejudice, refused to accept the moderately daring The Deer Park; for the reviewers who, when the book was finally brought out, failed to appreciate its merits, as other reviewers had slighted Barbary Shore, his earlier novel; for the public whose taste has been corrupted by prosperity, television, and other recent phenomena. There is also blame, candid and often penetrating, for Mailer’s own part in the process: his sometimes aimless malingering; his giving of himself on occasion to large febrile projects which came to nothing; his repeated misjudgments of people, situations, and his own abilities. Advertisements for Myself is chaotic; its tone is uncertainly pitched between defiance and apology. So much is this the case that anyone can easily lay hands on its jugular, and many reviewers have done so and thought they severed it. But the condition of Norman Mailer’s life and art is that his jugular remains exposed. With all its faults in view, Advertisements for Myself is a confessional document of considerable interest and an engrossing chronicle of the postwar literary life. It is also an extremely funny book, for Mailer’s gifts as a humorist are among his most reliable gifts. The one thing that his candor and wit leave unmolested is his own heavy dependence on the literary past, on what has been done.

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He once embarked, he tells us, on “an enormous eight-part novel” and still proposes to complete it in some fashion and at some length—“Will it be a thousand pages?” he asks himself. This projected work he describes as “a descendant of Moby Dick.” But is American literature so familial an affair that a novelist must conceive of his books in this genealogical way? Professions of piety apart, how is the projected novel really related to Melville’s novel? 7/8/2006Mailer remarks that The Deer Park was an outgrowth of his original project for a novel in eight parts—a black sheep of the white whale family, perhaps. Yet neither The Deer Park nor the fragments of the original project included in Advertisements shows any connection whatever with Moby Dick except one which seems to me unfortunate. “Call me Ishmael,” Moby Dick begins, as no one needs to be reminded. And Mailer’s “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” which he says was to have served as “prologue to the early scheme,” begins: “I would introduce myself if it were not useless. The name I had last night will not be the same as the name I have tonight. For the moment, then, let me say that I am thinking of Sam Slovoda.”

This seems to me one of those conscious echoes which merely succeed in being wordier and shriller than the original. For the rest, the attraction of Moby Dick to Mailer, as a writer of future novels, seems to consist largely in its bulk, profundity, and prestige. It is to him, I should imagine, an image of literary power rather than a work to be admired, learned from perhaps, and then returned to its place of honor. And to judge by Advertisements, the literary past is all the weightier for him because it includes the achievements of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and others of their vintage, all of them together representing to him a massed accumulation of potency. How did he come to write his first published book, The Naked and the Dead a novel of army life in the late war? “. . . I may as well confess I had gone into the army with the idea that when I came out I would write the war novel of World War II.” With this idea in mind he did serve in the army (proudly, as a rifleman) and he did produce, punctually, efficiently, and as if on demand, The Naked and the Dead. But what an idea, and what a phrase, “the war novel of World War II”! The war novel? To be sure, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and others of their time had used their varied experiences of World War I in the writing of a lot of enormously varied books. Not they, but later journalists and sociologists, lumped those books together in the misleading, the unreal, category of “war novels.” And when the second war arrived, the same crowd created that demand for “the novel of World War II” which Mailer determined to meet.

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Advertisements for Myself testifies to his constant preoccupation with those 20′s writers, in their capacity not merely as war novelists but as symbols of literary prestige in general. Hemingway represents a special example and challenge to Mailer throughout Advertisements. He tells one story which, trivial as it looks, is actually significant of his relation to the muscular master. He once mailed to Hemingway, personally a stranger to him, an unsolicited copy of The Deer Park and presently got the package back from Havana unopened. As it happened, he was not too sorry to have the book returned, for he had written in it certain words which he now regretted. After some manful sparring in Hemingway’s own vein, he had said that he was “deeply curious” to learn Hemingway’s reaction to the book. That “deeply curious” had come to seem to him a false note.

Now, Mailer admits that the Cuban postal system, rather than Hemingway, may inadvertently have administered the seeming snub. Yet he includes the episode in Advertisements. And one can readily see why he does, just as one can see the point of other apparent irrelevancies and absurdities memorialized in the same volume; these contribute much to its truth and humor. The significance was that the Hemingway whom Mailer addressed was the wrong Hemingway. He was not the young Ernest who conscientiously created the Hemingway art and who, if he had survived, might have shown interest in a young artist like Norman Mailer. The Hemingway he addressed was the swaggering Papa of the later legend, who naturally wouldn’t “know” Mailer.

No Olympians can ever have looked more Olympian to an outsider than Hemingway and the others have looked to Mailer. Faulkner, he tells us, recognized his existence only by ridiculing his extravagant claims for Negro sexuality. And Mailer, coming of literary age in the 40′s when the older writers were already established, already moneyed, be-prized, widely translated and imitated, acquired a mixed feeling for them. His genuine appreciation of their work was laced with a strong sense of their material stature—their reputation, influence, position in the literary market place. One sees, too, that his disposition to regard them, and the literary past in general, in this light, arose not only from the fact of his coining of age at this formidable phase of their careers. He also came of age at a moment of rapidly growing prosperity and expanding culture in America, when similar rewards seemed to be within reach of himself and other aspiring young writers.

Hence, probably, the dreams of worldly power which, in the pages of Advertisements, give unmistakable signs of being conjoined to his legitimate literary ambitions. Unmistakable? He has been “running for President for years,” he says, and applies the same phrase to James Jones. Such truculent admissions are evidently supposed to induce in the reader a state of amused shock. To me they represent a rather depressing confusion of purposes. Why, with a thousand-page novel to finish, does anyone want to be President, unless he fears that he will never finish the novel?

In his three novels to date, as in Advertisements for Myself, Mailer is often a formidably good writer. He also gives, beneath the bluster of Advertisements, an appealing account of himself as a person. Scattered throughout that book are wry tales of the predicaments in which he has landed while trying to sustain the life of a free spirit in an unfavorable age. No doubt he sees himself, in Norman Podhoretz’s phrase, as “a battleground of history.” Advertisements may, as Alfred Kazin affirms, resemble Fitzgerald’s The Crackup in showing “how exciting, yet tragic, America can be for a gifted writer.” But Mailer’s battleground has at least these resemblances to a city playground: it is strenuous, competitive, gang-conscious, cruel, sporting, amusing. And though America is unquestionably exciting to Mailer, it is wonderful how little he ever allows it to become tragic. Indeed, his response to the excitement of it is intense enough to preclude his feeling “deeply” any tragedy in it. One of the advantages of Advertisements over his novels is that the sense of excitement and the laughter get full play here, unembarrassed by any need to write, or rewrite, the Great American Novel. America represents wonderful sport and adventure to Mailer; and they get better as America itself seems to him to grow more corrupt and menacing. Tom Sawyer scarcely relishes his grim games of life and death more thoroughly than Mailer does his experiences as soldier, revolutionary, Hipster, junkie, and associate of pimps and call-girls. And like a far more mature and engaging Tom Sawyer, he relishes “evil” in proportion as he himself is incorrigibly moral.

Or, at least, in proportion as he is preoccupied with “morale,” a slightly different matter, I admit. In his well-known and brilliant essay “The White Negro” he formulates the cult and discipline of the Hipster, a charming but probably doomed phenomenon of recent years. He quite possibly over-formulates Hip, schematizes it, makes its ways and words merely antithetical to those of its enemy the Square, reduces it to a kind of cross between a game and a form of hygiene. Hip makes for a livelier vocabulary, a more stylish way of carrying oneself, more and better orgasms. Thanks to Hip, a bi-sexual Negro Mailer knows gets as much of a charge out of a certain chick as out of a battalion of Marines. There’s a testimonial to Hip as conducing to fair play and a well-rounded life. Hip is good for you.

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Something of this same two-way attitude toward experience seems to me to enter into Mailer’s novels, helping to account for both their virtues and their shortcomings. On one of his sides he rejoices in that “appetite for life” which he admires in James Jones. Sheer experience, experience for its own sake, leads him on. And just as this makes him a comparative rarity among younger writers today, so it constitutes his living relation to the older American writers—his living one, that is, as distinguished from the relation by way of familial piety and emulation. But on another side he has an equal hunger for ideas, a hunger that is not so well satisfied by what he can produce in the way of intellectual nourishment. The various forms of enlightenment which the older writers brought to bear on their experience seem to have crystallized, for Mailer, into a vague, self-conscious sort of wisdom. This has sought to express itself in appropriate ideas, Marxist or Nietzschean (Hip has Nietzschean roots, as Norman Podhoretz implies) or Freudian. Of these the Freudian is Mailer’s most pervasive source of ideas and images. It is astonishing how often in his novels an authoritative older person is engaged in trying to assist some younger, more amorphous person to maturity (Eitel, the movie director of The Deer Park, is eager to help his mistress “grow up,” and Marion Faye, the glorified pimp of the same book, has a similar relation to his call-girls and junkie acquaintances.) But the Freudian ideas, like those of other derivation, often operate not to reinforce and clarify his experience but to embarrass and devitalize it. The author himself seems frequently to approach his material as the learner, the disciple, the patient, eager to grow up.

The result in his novels is, as I say, a sort of tug of war between his passion for experience and his felt need of enlightening ideas. And it is in The Deer Park, that survivor of what was to be his eight-part colossus, that Mailer’s contradictions reach their maximum intensity. When Alfred Kazin calls The Deer Park a “somehow sick book,” “peculiarly airless and closed,” I feel obliged to assent even while rebelling against the J. Donald Adams-like adjectives. (The Deer Park brings out the old Adams in us all.) For this novel about the sex life, the political, social, and business problems of Hollywood personages gathered in a resort resembling (I gather) Palm Springs, is frequently paralyzed by its opposing intentions. The manners prevailing in this unpleasant pleasure resort are superbly observed. The conversation of Hollywood magnates is admirably comic. The routines of the call-girls form a weird dance-like pattern within the slowly moving narrative. In the rendering of such things Mailer’s passion for experience is matched by his expert knowledge of what he writes about. How does it happen, then, that this panorama of iniquity is constantly threatening to turn into a waxworks display? For one thing, Mailer’s trio of heroes, Eitel, Faye, and O’Shaugnessy, are too sententious and loquacious and self-conscious. In their frequent colloquies they constitute a sort of committee interminably “chewing on” (in committee jargon) the agenda of the day. And with much help from the author, by way of his often intrusive comments on the action, they just about chew the hell out of it. Literally, they all but convert the experience of modern corruption into something inert, dry, and abstract. Here is an encounter between Marion Faye the super-pimp and a young Mexican delinquent:

Marion had not seen him in a long time. Paco had been picked up in a robbery and had lived a term in state prison. The fact he dropped in like this after an absence of two years did not startle Faye. Such things were always happening to him.

“I hear you’re peddling gash,” said Paco, “you got some gash for me?”

It was weird. Paco was neurotic, Faye thought, a pimply dreamy kid, begging for dough. In his family his mother hounded Paco, he used to call her dirty names; in the clubhouse he would lie around for hours reading comic books; once he announced he wanted to go to the South Seas. Even at the age of seventeen, tears came into his eyes at a harsh word. And now he was a junkie, and he needed a fix. Sudden compassion for Paco burned Faye’s eyelids. The poor slob of a pachuco.

As Faye is already well known to the reader at this nearly midway point of the novel, we do not need to be nudged by the author into realizing that he is unstartled, “such things were always happening to him.” Nor does Faye’s curiously psychiatric relation to the boy gain in convincingness by our being told flatly that “Paco was neurotic.” (Surely an understatement!) Indeed Faye is not what he or Mailer thinks he is but a sentimentalist, with his (ouch!) “pimply dreamy kid” and his (Ouch!) eye-scalding “compassion.”

In Advertisements for Myself there are many indications that Norman Mailer will pull out of his difficulties, which are in part the difficulties of other writers of his age and time. The achievements of the literary past inevitably acquire an excess of prestige by contrast with the present creative stalemate. And since the creative stalemate happens to coincide with a condition of unexampled economic prosperity, it is natural that writers should dream, not only of rewriting the American classics, but of running for President. With his essential humor, sanity, and (yes!) humility, Mailer seems to perceive much of this situation and to give promise of reconciling his appetite for life with his appetite for ideas. But a novel in perhaps a thousand pages? Raintree County approached that length, I believe, but Moby Dick, in my edition, runs to only 822.

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