Fifty Years ago, Norman Mailer was, after J.D. Salinger, postwar America’s most famous writer of literary fiction. Today Mailer’s name no longer figures other than sporadically on lists of important postwar writers. It is instructive to recall that in 1959, he counted himself among “the strong talents of my generation, those few of us who have wide minds in a narrow overdeveloped time.” This brash claim was typical of Mailer, and he would have expected nothing less six years after his death than the publication of two or three thousand-page biographies.
We have one, in fact, J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life (Simon & Schuster, 960 pages), and it is the authorized biography. Though far too long for any reasonable purpose, it turns out to be both decently written and, for much of its excessive length, unexpectedly interesting. What makes it readable is that Lennon, though a friend of Mailer’s during his life and an admirer of his work, is neither uncritical nor deluded about his subject. Lennon views Mailer as something not far removed from a lifelong drunken adolescent—albeit one of genius and, even more important, of near-Dickensian industry.
One need not agree with his biographer about the genius to recognize that Mailer’s industry was singular. Few American novelists of similarly serious purpose have understood so clearly what it takes to succeed in the literary business, and fewer still have been so willing to pay the price of success, not merely in their youth but throughout their lives.
Born in 1923, Mailer seems never to have considered doing anything but becoming a great novelist. (“Before I was seventeen I had formed the desire to be a major writer.”) He sought experience not for its own sake but as a source of material that would ultimately go into the novels he planned to write. This was true above all of his military career, so much so that he later confessed to having worried after Pearl Harbor “whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific.” Yet he did not enlist: Mailer was drafted in 1943 and sent to the Philippines, where he spent just enough time under fire to write vividly about the experience of combat.
The result was The Naked and the Dead (1948), which he would later dismiss as the work of a “bold amateur.” It is a young man’s novel, but it shows that Mailer was a born describer, and the best parts are as impressive an exercise in purely pictorial literary naturalism as has ever been produced by an American novelist:
A soldier lies flat on his bunk, closes his eyes, and remains wide-awake. All about him, like the soughing of surf, he hears the murmurs of men dozing fitfully. “I won’t do it, I won’t do it,” someone cries out of a dream, and the soldier opens his eyes and gazes slowly about the hold, his vision becoming lost in the intricate tangle of hammocks and naked bodies and dangling equipment.
Unfortunately for Mailer, he longed to be something more than a describer. “If a writer really wants to be serious he has to become intellectual, and yet nothing is harder,” he told an interviewer in 1951. The problem was that he lacked the intellectual’s mental equipment, being a bright but undisciplined thinker who was fatally susceptible to grandiose and often preposterous theories.
This was already evident in The Naked and the Dead, which Mailer came close to ruining by weaving into its otherwise straightforward pages a Stalinist subplot about a homosexual general of fascist inclination who is portrayed as an emblematic American authority figure: “You’re a fool if you don’t realize this is going to be the reactionary’s century, perhaps their thousand-year reign. It’s the one thing Hitler said which wasn’t completely hysterical.”
At least as problematic was that Mailer poured into The Naked and the Dead all of his modest experience (he had gone to Harvard at the age of 16). When it became a best seller and made him famous, he found himself at a loss creatively, so much so that Lennon correctly portrays the book’s success as the turning point of Mailer’s career:
The largest drawback of fame was that it cut him off from real experience, as he called it, the kind he’d had in the army, experience that was thrust on you, as opposed to the kind one sought. “I used to feel that I didn’t know anything because I got rich too soon,” he said. “I used to feel sorry for myself.” But after some years of demeaning his fame, he started to enjoy it…recognizing that being famous at an early age was a genuine, if unusual, experience.
It was, however, an experience about which he would have nothing noteworthy to say, at least not in the medium of fiction. His next two novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), portrayed New York’s left-wing milieu and Hollywood in a confused and confusing manner that failed to impress the critics or engage the public. Mailer, it seemed, was incapable of building a lasting career on his early success.
Yet build he did, though not in the way that he or anyone else had expected. To be sure, he continued to produce variously bad novels for the rest of his life, albeit at increasingly irregular intervals. But from the mid-50s on, it was as a writer of nonfiction that he imposed himself on the literary scene. First came a series of essays, the most widely discussed of which were “The Homosexual Villain” (1955) and “The White Negro” (1957). In these, as would always be his wont, he spun his own idiosyncratic preoccupations into wild-eyed generalizations about American culture. (“There is probably no sensitive heterosexual alive who is not preoccupied with his latent homosexuality.”)
These pieces, which were collected in a volume characteristically titled Advertisements for Myself (1959), were impressive for their “sheer intellectual and moral brazenness” (Norman Podhoretz’s phrase). Such brazenness was an uncommon commodity in the buttoned-down Eisenhower era, and it temporarily persuaded thoughtful readers who eventually lost patience with Mailer’s woolly thinking that there was more to him than met the eye.
Having repositioned himself as a novelist who also had something important to say outside the realm of fiction, Mailer then made the logical leap of turning himself into a full-fledged literary journalist—but not a conventional one. Bewitched by John F. Kennedy’s tinselly glamour, he wrote a piece for Esquire called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” (1960) in which he combined the cold-eyed observation of the naturalistic novelist with long passages that disguised his starry-eyed crush on Kennedy and passed at the time for advanced political thought:
This lurching, unhappy, pompous and most corrupt nation—could it have the courage finally to take on a new image for itself, was it brave enough to put into office not only one of its ablest men, its most efficient, its most conquistadorial (for Kennedy’s capture of the Democratic Party deserves the word), but also one of its more mysterious men (the national psyche must shiver in its sleep at the image of Mickey Mantle-cum-Lindbergh in office, and a First Lady with an eighteenth-century face).
It is hard for present-day readers to grasp how different “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” was from the standard-issue political writing of the 40s and 50s. “When it came out,” Pete Hamill later recalled, “it went through journalism like a wave. Something changed….Rather than just a political sense there was a moral sense that came out of the piece.” That “moral sense,” needless to say, was nothing more than 60s liberalism avant la lettre, the same vision of the politician as hipster-savior that today shapes how aging baby-boom journalists write about Barack Obama. But in 1960 it was fresh enough to propel Mailer into a second career that won him the lasting celebrity that his first three novels failed to generate.
To write such pieces was a diversion from Mailer’s goal of producing a novel that would be, in his oft-quoted phrase, “the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters.” It also fed his ego to the point where he became all but incapable of writing about anything without also writing about himself. Not for him the carefully self-effacing third-person style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Instead he wrote essays in which a character named “Mailer” figured prominently, above all in The Armies of the Night (1968). In this “nonfiction novel,” he described his own participation in the 1967 “March on the Pentagon,” assuring the reader that he himself was at least as important as the events that he was portraying:
His consolation in those hours when he was most uncharitable to himself is that taken at his very worst he was at least still worthy of being a character in a novel by Balzac, win one day, lose the next, and do it with boom! and baroque in the style.
This bait-and-switch species of journalism went over for a long time with the reading public, though on rare occasions Mailer managed to airbrush himself out of the picture long enough to produce a book as disciplined as The Executioner’s Song, his 1979 “true life novel” about Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer who asked to be executed by a firing squad as quickly as possible. For the most part, however, his nonfiction “books” were heavily padded magazine articles that Scott Meredith, his agent, described with brutal candor: “All he does is write these 30,000-word articles for Life and everybody else and then turns them into books. And some of them are good books, but he’s not writing narratives. They’re really big essays.”
So how did Mailer stay afloat for so long? By selling himself as a personality. And that is the real story of J. Michael Lennon’s book: the creation and marketing of a public figure.
One can go on at endless length—as Lennon does—about Mailer’s public life, but there is nothing edifying about it at all. It is childish, squalid, and pitiful, from stabbing his second wife to contriving to get yet another murderer, Jack Henry Abbott, paroled on the grounds that he was a talented writer who had rehabilitated himself, after which Abbott committed a second murder. But it did serve the purpose of publicizing his literary activities, such as they were. According to Lennon, Mailer was interviewed more than 700 times. Nothing about him is so revealing as that number.
Did he do what he did in order to become famous? Yes and no. He never seems to have consciously marketed himself as a product, but he did want to be a celebrity—at times desperately so—and in the end it is impossible to tell the difference. Moreover, Mailer understood that his journalistic career was at best a lucrative sidetrack. In The Armies of the Night, he reports a conversation in which the poet Robert Lowell told him that he was “the best journalist in America.” Mailer retorted that “there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America.” Taking the point, Lowell added, “Oh, Norman, oh, certainly, I didn’t mean to imply, heavens no, it’s just that I have such respect for journalism.” And once again Mailer—at least by his own account—topped Lowell, replying, “Well, I don’t know that I do.”
That is the last word on Norman Mailer. For whatever reason, be it a hunger for fame or the need to pay the bills for his six marriages or the never-to-be-acknowledged fear that he was incapable of writing great novels, he diverted his energies into a form of writing that he seems to have viewed at times with something not unlike contempt. And what came of it? Two or three good books amid a desert of ephemera. A sad story and a very American one, a tale of a genuinely talented man who confused ends with means, one who summed himself up in The Armies of the Night by admitting that he had “learned to live in the sarcophagus of his image.” Nor does anyone care very much about that faded image anymore, save as a cautionary tale of how not to lead the writer’s life.