Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6154
Mailer, Norman 1923–
Mailer, an American, is a novelist, essayist, social critic, and film-maker. He is one of America's most controversial and most visible literary personalities. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Mailer's radicalism is of an indeterminate sort, the kind that expresses itself preëminently, perhaps, in images and fictional constructs rather than in abstract schema…. [His] dislike [for any kind of collective action] lies at the heart of his first novel and has often been interpreted as making his critique of capitalist society an entirely negative one; nevertheless The Naked and the Dead is a radical novel which affirms and does so within its own logic as a literary work.
Mailer's novel has a number of faults, not the least being that it sounds at times like a pastiche of the novels about World War I. The echoes of Dos Passos, another individualist rebel, are especially insistent: the interchapter biographies in The Naked and the Dead combine the techniques of the biographies and the narrative sections in U.S.A., and the fact that all of these individual soldier lives are thwarted and stunted by a sick society seems clearly reminiscent of the social vision at the base of the trilogy….
If, as Mailer himself has stated, the book "finds man corrupted, confused to the point of helplessness," these qualities particularly express the personality of that key figure, Lieutenant Robert Hearn, a confused liberal intellectual who, like the middle class in Marxist theory, is caught between the hammer and the anvil of great antagonistic forces. In him Mailer skillfully fuses form and content, for Hearn partakes in and thus links both of the power struggles which operate simultaneously in the book, in each holds a kind of ideological middle ground, and in each is defeated. In order to understand Mailer's radical purpose, however, it is necessary to see that the same alternative to defeat exists in both struggles….
Mailer seeks to demonstrate the inability of power moralists to manipulate history in opposition to mass will. If The Naked and the Dead is taken as the accurate sum of all its parts, it must be considered, as Mailer himself has declared, a positive and hopeful book rather than a negative and pessimistic one…. More skillfully than most radical novelists Mailer has solved the problem of the ending which with artistic inevitability affirms the author's belief. Incident flowers organically into idea.
Walter B. Rideout, in his The Radical Novel in the United States 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society (copyright © 1956 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the publishers), Harvard University Press, 1956, pp. 270-73.
The price of success for the best of our writers is the recognition of a special and unredeemable failure. The career of Norman Mailer, though mostly exceptional, is a case in point. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), was overpraised for reasons having little to do with its achievement into an extraordinary popular and literary success. At twenty-five, Mailer had written, he was told, that mythic slouching beast of our popular criticism, the great American novel. Influenced by Dos Passos and Hemingway, The Naked and the Dead is an amibitious, panoramic, powerfully rendered realistic novel which only occasionally transcends the meaning of particular experiences—the charged raw materials of the war itself. What the novel does brilliantly is evoke the experience of war: the heat, the wet, the odors, the fear, the stupidity, the waste, the degradation, the unmitigating and unredemptive nightmare of the battlefield. As is often the case with antiwar novels, however, the impulse of The Naked and the Dead—its secret fascination with the violence of war—subverts the liberal high-mindedness of its intention. In the chaotic universe of war, the power drive of Mailer's villains, Croft and Cummings, seems a more positive virtue than the uncommitment of Red, the humility of Goldstein, the innocent liberalism of Hearn, or the weakness of the others, the naked and the dead.
If Mailer avoids the trap of self-imitation in his later two novels, he avoids it at the exorbitant risk of testing, with the odds contrived against him, the durability of his talent. Both Barbary Shore (1951) and Deer Park (1955) are adventurous failures, quixotic attempts at redefining the possibilities of the task. While The Naked and the Dead is not nearly as good as its reputation, Barbary Shore and Deer Park are not nearly as bad as theirs. Much of Deer Park, in fact, is Mailer at his best. Marion Faye's dope dream, the shrill Hollywood parties, the love-making of Elena and Eitel are as charged with the energy of insight as almost anything in contemporary fiction; yet other parts of the novel, especially Sergius's hallucinatory dialogue with God at the end, are incomparably, embarrassingly indulgent. It is Mailer's peculiar exhibitionistic gift to be from one moment to the next either better or worse than anyone. As with The Naked and the Dead and Barbary Shore, the point of view of Deer Park is not so much ambivalent as vaguely defined. What is being satirized in the novel? What is Mailer affirming? Does it matter? Deer Park is a curious failure; it is an alternately impressive and atrocious serious novel.
In recent years Mailer seems to have emerged as a more significant essayist than novelist—along with Baldwin, the most apocalyptic of our literate journalists. It is ironic that Mailer wrote the essays ostensibly to keep himself in the public eye while he was working on an ambitious ten-volume novel, "the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters." Instead of the ten-volume marvel, we have a new one-volume novel from Mailer [Deer Park] … which is, if such a distinction is still possible, Mailer's most embarrassing performance to date. Yet one still believes in him. For all his posing and chest-thumping, his success-mongering and clownish self-parody, he is an authentic talent, capable at his best (as in the story "The Man Who Studied Yoga") of touching the very deepest nerves of contemporary experience. Mailer remains now, as after the publication of his first novel, a potential major novelist who has not yet written a major novel.
Jonathan Baumbach, in the "Introduction" to his The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1965 by New York University), New York University Press, 1965, pp. 9-11.
Listen to Mailer and he'll tell you that no one makes the American idiom move and liberate as well as he. We need not argue whether that confidence is misplaced in principle for Why Are We in Vietnam? has plenty wrong in plain fact. There is, first, the intellectual pitch: as we read about some Texans bear hunting in Alaska, we learn why we are in Vietnam. Mailer's politics, thus, are rather like those of Doctor Strangelove in their really simple notion that what's wrong is that we have let people from our west run the country. You can tell them by their accents, and if Mailer's teen-age narrator doesn't call them "preverts," he's got all the other names….
Why Are We in Vietnam? participates in every American myth about America; every gesture asks that it become a staple in our textbooks because it fits in most of our more obvious conceptions of ourselves. That's not all that's wrong with it, but it is enough.
Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 4, Winter, 1967–68, pp. 669-70.
The Deer Park has some virtues, primarily comic ones …, but it finally fails as a play because Mailer is neither content to work in abstractions (however nonrealistic his play's form) nor able to create the characters that he otherwise needs. This weakness may be the result of his conscious attempt to avoid conventional plot, to write, as he says in the Introduction, a play that "went from explosion to explosion … from one moment of intensity or reality (which is to say a moment which feels more real than other moments) to the next—a play which went at full throttle all the way." Without the "dramatic scaffolding, connective tissue" that he cuts away, an audience comes to the scenes lacking the emotional freight that the characters presumably carry, and although they will not find it difficult "to fill the spaces" (there is exposition enough), the scenes are likely to remain dull and flat…. Too many of the explosions are pure disquisition, not interesting enough in its own right and, because of the problems in characterization, not dramatically compelling as argument in which ideas become weapons.
Gerald Weales, in his The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1969 by Gerald Weales), Macmillan, 1969, p. 221.
What are the requirements for reading Why Are We in Vietnam? None. I offer, nonetheless, a small exercise in hurtful meditation. Let us recall one or more of these:
- The liquids of love.
- A pimple invisible beyond adolescence.
- Adrenalin, vintage a few seconds.
- The aroma of our burial urn.
- Sweat gathering in the palm of the hand.
- An animal with yellow or green eyes.
- America now.
Norman Mailer has never been to Vietnam. Neither have I. Fact and fiction have now become the same, and they require from us a new consciousness. The novel as history, history as fiction. Precisely Vietnam.
Obscenity is crucial to this novel.
Obscenity repels us first, then it disturbs. When we say that it bores us—how debonair!—we try to keep ourselves intact. We are, after all, what we are because we have transformed outwards its demands.
Obscenity is protest. We are right to fear it; vengeance befouls its breath. The return of the repressed. Obscenity begins as protest, ends as assault. Afterwards, release.
Obscenity reminds us of corporeal experience. Unheroic man, clowning between food and excrement, blood and semen. This is the comic element.
Obscenity celebrates; there is sacramental power behind its reductive rage. Nothing merely personal, nothing perishable. The force of obscenity moves the stars.
Obscenity reaches for the root of language, clutches the mystery. When the thick sap rushes upwards, symbols explode. This is also the force of obscenity.
Obscenity, Henry Miller says, seeks "to awaken, to usher in a sense of reality. In a sense, its use by the artist may be compared to the use of the miraculous by the master."
Obscenity, in Mailer's novel, repels and releases. Does it also constrict? Rarely. Its spirit is genital, procreative….
It takes an America lover to recognize another. Mailer is a deep lover of America. Anyone who cannot see this may be hiding something worse than treason from himself….
America as scavenger. Why are we in Vietnam?…
The language hops and bops, a new, obscene, metaphysical language full of wit, conceit, learning, defiance, misery, insight and self-delight, hallelujah and hallucination, maddog viciousness, full of smell, full of touch. Mailer knows that the hierarchy of senses tumbles from sight to hearing to taste to smell to touch—the more primitive, the more ineluctable. The senses are here. This is why the language rarely lapses into anti-language, neon color, or stroboscopic sound….
Revolution is no longer radical enough.
The imagination is the teleological organ of evolution. It predicts and fulfills change. At the center of every fancy, a fact waits to be born.
Your violence: the ultimate resource of your enemy.
Creation is the masterwork of Eros, and its Form is Change. Metamorphosis is paedamorphosis.
Guilt: the obscene debt we owe our ancestors. Guilt is to responsibility what onanism is to love.
Choose Life. But choose Death over Immortality. Evil is the flower of Immortality as vampires and werewolves know.
Silence: the alteration of consciousness.
You said there were Barons and Counts among men. I said there is Faustian and there is Orphic heroism. We can agree on "the aristocracy of achieved talent," and the enhancement of life in its struggle with itself. But the warring vision can have its snobberies too. The sweat or blood we shed waters the laurel tree from which leaves are taken to crown prettily our head.
More: the time has come for man to break the syntax of his dreams, and speak a language stones and gods can hear. Harlem and Dallas are not the same though every night they meet secretly in our dreams. The stones are dumb to their converse, and the gods yawn.
Who knows but at the silent, magnetic Pole America still waits for Columbus to be born?
Ihab Hassan, "Focus on Norman Mailer's 'Why Are We in Vietman?'," in American Dreams, American Nightmares, edited by David Madden (© 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 197-203.
Norman Mailer's use of the word "existentialist" has become by now something of a running joke, or owlish put-on. Since he has coupled it with every conceivable school of noun, it is impossible to tell precisely what he means by it. But if it has something to do with making yourself up as you go along, then it may be the right word for him after all.
Until recently, I had supposed that the one link between his various identities was the wish to be a genius in each. "Genius or nothing" has been his proposition—the greatest whatever, novelist, playwright, moviemaker of his generation, nation, universe (depending on his afflatus that day): not simply the most talented, although he uses the word a lot, but something beyond talent. In his acting roles, he has used the names Pope and King; but transparently, the one he was groping for shyly was God….
Rolling with the times is part of what being a genius is all about. American writers are especially prone to think of themselves as spokesmen for their generations, so that the line between prophet and journalist is a blurry one at all times.
Thus it is no accident that Mailer wrote the first big war novel, subsequently managed to hook himself on to both the Beat Generation and the French Existentialists, jumped off in time to catch the Negro express, elbowed briefly to the front of the Peace Movement, worked Viet Nam into the title of a novel (an almost infallible sign of charlatanry) and caught up with the movie fad, all in no time at all. And who is the first writer to tell us about the moon? This is just an abridged survey. In between he wrote a play, which he considered the most exciting theatrical event since World War II; then, having established his genius one more time, he left the form behind. Who goes to plays anyway?
An opportunist? Of course. Prove to him that there's anything wrong with that. In personal style, he is the greatest of the businessmen-adventurer writers. I have seen him pull out a wad of notes to bet on some trifle, then plunge the notes into a wine glass to prove his ascendancy over money. Mailer is not a primitive in this respect, but a conscious follower of tradition. His old crony, Seymour Krim, recently accused him of introducing crassness and success-worship into American letters. But in fact, Scott Fitzgerald could have written the same about Hemingway, and Edith Wharton could have written the same about Scott Fitzgerald. Here as elsewhere, Mailer is not always the innovator he appears….
The question for us is not why Mailer keeps shedding his skin, but whether it has been good for him. In terms of artistic production, his career is a disappointment so enormous that it almost begins to look impressive. He had the makings of a first-rate naturalistic novelist, but veered from that, either because it was too easy, or because the jig was up with naturalistic novels; and he has not lingered long enough in any other form to master it. When he does do something outstanding now, as in parts of Armies of the Night, it will usually be found to be in the old naturalistic mode. His descriptions of persons and places are demoniacally acute. But he gains no help from the forms themselves. His movies are just like his speeches, his play was just like his novels; the necessity of being a genius flattens them all out indiscriminately.
Mailer rejects, like Lucifer, the principle that to be great you must first be good. In his famous novel, The Naked and the Dead, he did try simply to be better than his rivals, to win within the rules. But he has not allowed that to happen lately. He has produced work for which words like "good" or "bad" are simply irrelevant. Mailer has some intelligent ideas about art, yet artistically his later work is slapdash and even amateurish. His novel, An American Dream, is gawky and improvised; his play, The Deer Park, hard-breathing and stilted. Submission to form requires some minimal self-effacement, and Mailer can see no point in writing if not to advertise. It is inconceivable that he would ever write something anonymously—or write a single page without announcing his presence. Naturalistic novels were too anonymous and he dropped them. Good movies are anonymous too, so he makes bad ones. Good actors are anonymous, so he comes on as a ham. "Greatness," as Orson Welles has shown, can actually war with goodness; genius can obliterate talent….
His feats of introspection began to treat wider and wider sectors of experience. His strategy was to become the subject he wanted to write about—a cop, a politician, a burned-out romantic—and then simply to write about himself. Without taking his eye off Mailer for a minute, he became a first-rate reporter.
This imaginative projection requires colossal nervous exertion. And Mailer seldom cheats. He may be a chameleon, but he is a sincere one. He really does turn into those things. To do so, he surrenders trappings of Self that other writers cling to; although he talks about himself relentlessly, he is quiet about his origins, his parents, his childhood, anything that would nail his ego down to specifics and keep it from reincarnating. He has passed the ultimate test of sincerity. Lots of bright well-behaved boys have toyed with romantic insanity, but Mailer actually got there. It cannot have been easy for a mathematics prodigy and "nice little Jewish boy from Brooklyn" to turn into an authentic wild man, but he did it—up to a point. That is, he takes turns being crazy and being sane….
His gravest handicap is that his worst moments are often his most genius-y, and he sometimes seems to cultivate them for just that reason, though the critic in him must know better. His foolishness can seem, at times, too calculated, a sane man trying his damnedest to be crazy. (Everybody knows that geniuses are crazy, don't they?) In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder whether Mailer is crazy at all. His clipped speech and watchful eyes suggest that the frenzy may be the fruit of calculation. But even if so, he has been true to its demands, has laid the pressure of occasional madness on his brain and has got some fine writing moments out of it, as well as some passing bad ones.
If he just forgets about masterworks and sticks to the rather special art of direct self promotion, his future will still be interesting. Because he gives himself unstintingly, opening his lungs to experience with a romantic willingness that comes close to being noble. Also, from our less exalted point of view, a weather vane with that kind of accuracy is something to prize. Watch Mailer: if he turns to contemplation, buy a prayer mat; if he stays with politics, expect huge voter turnouts. As Mailer goes, so goes the nation. That is the form his genius takes.
Wilfrid Sheed, "Genius or Nothing: A View of Norman Mailer," in Encounter, June, 1971, pp. 66-71.
Mailer's position [on women, in The Prisoner of Sex] is similar to that of the antibellum slaveholder. If they recognized the validity of criticism, they must give up the psychological and material advantages gained from slavery, or live openly as hypocrites. They chose to construct an elaborate defense based on putative differences between blacks and people. Mailer's sentimental, romantic premise, and the "conclusions" he draws, are the same self-serving stuff. His response to feminism is summed up in a book about himself, opening with the easy assertion that he could do it—be a housewife—no sweat! and ending with the equally silly statement that to be allowed "free search" to look for "that one man in a million" (Tin Pan Alley would blush) is what women's liberation is about!
Helen G. Hill, "A Prisoner of Sexism," in Mediterranean Review, Fall, 1971, pp. 48-50.
That Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968) straddles [the] boundary [between fiction and reportage] is very clearly advertised by its subtitle: 'History as a Novel—The Novel as History'. The first part … is, in Mailer's words, 'nothing but a personal history which while written as a novel was to the best of the author's memory scrupulous to facts'. It is distinguished from a straight autobiographical narrative primarily by the fact that Mailer writes about himself in the third person, thus achieving an ironic distance on his own complex personality which is one of the chief delights of the book…. This self-irony enabled by the third-person narrative method also licenses Mailer to describe his fellow-participants … with a mischievous candour that might have seemed impertinent in a conventional autobiography, and to indulge in a good deal of prophetic cultural generalization about America which, like 'ideas' in a novel, we judge by their plausibility, rhetorical force and relevance to context rather than by the stricter criteria of logic and verifiability….
It is less easy to describe the narrative principles of the second part of The Armies of the Night, partly because Mailer himself seems confused about them. When, at the beginning of this section, 'The Novel as History' he speaks of 'the novelist … passing his baton to the Historian', he seems to mean that the narrative method of Part I, in which events were seen from one, limited point of view, in the manner of a Jamesian novel, will be exchanged for the method of the historian, who assembles and collates data from various sources and presents a coherent account of a complex sequence of events.
The mass media which surrounded the March on the Pentagon created a forest of inaccuracy which would blind the efforts of a historian; our novel has provided us with the possibility, no, even the instrument to view our facts and conceivably study them in that light a labour of lens-grinding has produced.
I take this to mean that, both for the writer and for us the readers, the research into the self that is carried out in Part I has exposed and purged the inevitable bias of any human report. Thus the 'novel' has given the 'history' a unique kind of reliability. About half-way through Part II, however, Mailer abandons this claim … [and] announces that Part II 'is now disclosed as some sort of condensation of a collective novel…. Mailer thus claims the freedom to enhance his narrative with vivid invention…. [He] uses to advantage a novelist's gift for caricature by violating the rules of modern historical method (though the convention is a very familiar one in classical historiography).
The Armies of the Night implies no disillusionment on the author's part with the novel as a literary form: on the contrary, it reaffirms the primacy of that form as a mode of exploring and interpreting experience.
David Lodge, in his The Novelist at the Crossroads (© 1971 by David Lodge and used with his permission), Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 10-12.
Mailer's sense of self is of a multitude of selves, constantly interacting, seemingly contradictory, each of them feeling like an embattled minority. He is, in his view of it, like a composite of America, and it is not surprising that his birthday celebration should be thought a fit occasion for announcements of national importance. Just as there is no single self who is Mailer, but rather a dialectically-active, even punishing play of selves, so there can be no discrete separation of occasions, and a birthday is a political, sexual, familial, social and literary event all at once. He is a writer who cannot ever see one thing except in dialectical opposition to, or in some circuitous relation with, a multitude of other things. He is concerned always with secret sources of power, and with that paranoia which precisely traces out the hidden webs of connection between public life and private obsessions. The effect upon his style is to open his paragraphs to a great variety of tones and vocabularies, each modifying and competing with the others….
Mailer has become of late so predictable and mechanical and repetitious in his use of polarities—nature and technology, God and the Devil, obscenity and concept, sex and death—that he has not yet earned the right to be called what he called Lawrence: 'a cauldron of boiling opposites.' He has not yet grown to the dimensions of his ideal 'Novelist'.
But it would be unfair to one of the great living masters of our language merely to criticize him for not meeting such nobly high self-imposed standards. The urgency in Mailer for some coherent system is evidence, indeed, of how much chaos he is willing to imagine and willing to engage. His conduct in public or on TV is one aspect of this: a refusal to act only in obedience to some predetermined pattern or to the demands of a particular medium. He won't stick to a prepared text if, inside, he is simultaneously responding to what might be called a sub-text. If this Mailerian quality has at last become predictable, we can nonetheless be grateful for the liberating motive behind it.
Now at a crisis in his career equivalent to the early period of exhaustion after The Deer Park, Mailer is uniquely situated to escape the trap that often turns American writers into imitators, and finally into unconscious parodists, of themselves. His situation is unique because some of his most brilliant work is literary self-criticism. In The Prisoner of Sex there are already hints of a healthily negative assessment of where he is, of boredom with characteristic and familiar ways of doing things. Finally, he is even at 'war' with his own achievements, and out of this may emerge still other, different forms for himself, for contemporary life and for our language.
Richard Poirier, in The Listener, November 8, 1973, pp. 626-27.
I think [Norman Mailer] has great histrionic gifts. Now, that's a bit snide, and I don't want to be snide. In a different climate he probably would have been a first-class semirealistic novelist of the type of Victor Hugo or parts of Dickens. But he's been seduced by all the apparatus of modern media, journalism, and everything else. Money is a bit too easy to make from that. I'm perfectly prepared to believe that Dickens in modern America with his particular histrionic talents would have found easier ways of making a fortune than by writing novels.
C. P. Snow, in "A Conversation With C. P. Snow," by J. Robert Moskin, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 6, 1974, p. 20-2, 47.
Mailer is concerned to poke around in our collective (and, to him, always menacing) unconscious, and to suggest [in The Faith of Graffiti] a variety of occult or free energy connections. (Jung and Reich live on in Mailer.) Thus the motivations and sources of … graffiti are not simply the obvious ones—the drabness of the slum, the Latin urge to colorful display, the macho lure of physical risk and danger, the human desire to make one's surroundings one's own and leave one's mark upon them, the stylistic influences of comic books and TV ads—but include, for instance, possible secret emanations across time and distance from all art, cave to Pop….
Mailer … is not really interested in visual aesthetics (for mundane example, whether colorful curlicue signatures enhance bleak buildings—or handsome subway cars), but rather, and as always, in the enticement, the thrall, the dread, the value, and the metaphysics of risk alone. This is a central and recurring theme in Mailer's work, and … in exploring and celebrating risks he advocates illegal or destructive or antisocial action without regard to consequences. The attacks tend to be simplistic, and Mailer's responses tend to be evasive: interestingly, the evasiveness—at times sly, at times clownish, at times brilliantly glancing off the point—is often the meat of his entertainment….
There is a notion abroad that writers are overpaid. They are not. Nor is Mailer. He is a star, a celebrity; he is also one of the very best, most imaginative (yes, riskily imaginative), and accomplished writers working anywhere in the world today. He makes less than many stars in other fields (sports, rock), less than many writers of negative quality, and less than many executives of newspapers and news magazines that apparently begrudge his, or any really good writer's, making more than a minimum wage.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Mailer on the IRT," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), May 6, 1974, pp. 97-8.
Of course the Norman Mailer we all know and dislike is simply not the same man who wrote The Naked and the Dead when he was 25. Its young, likable author was a modest Harvard graduate and war veteran who didn't even want Life to take his picture because his novel was supposed to stand by itself (perhaps a typical attitude for a young literary man of the time, but still praiseworthy). The text's the thing—and the text, even if it seemed a pastiche of Dos Passos, Farrell, Hemingway, and even Fitzgerald, was often brilliant. Its faults were the faults of a very young author, an author who showed unlimited promise. Now Mailer has outlived that promise. He is more than twice as old, a noisy hack writer who occasionally hits a good streak. How did he lose so much?
First success went to his head; then failure. His second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), never really finds an appropriate way to handle its subject; a crude allegory with little logic and no characterization, it is probably the worst novel ever written by an up-and-coming young writer….
Mailer must have eventually realized how bad Barbary Shore really was—or why would he have basically rewritten it as The Deer Park (1955)?… Still, the incredibly clumsy Barbary Shore was written to argue a view, while The Deer Park seems written primarily for the continuing market in melodramatic Hollywood novels; if its supporting cast holds up better than most, its hero has the hopelessly adolescent reek of third-rate fiction….
Mailer had not been able to handle success; now he couldn't handle failure. He had already turned to the drugs, savagery, and overwhelming megalomania that made all his writing of the late Fifties so vulgar, so blatantly obvious, so dull—culminating in Advertisements for Myself (1959). Afterward he began to improve, and there was a four-year period between 1964 and 1968 when it looked as if Mailer would amount to something after all. During those four years he published his best work, The Armies of the Night (essentially a personal memoir of the march on the Pentagon), as well as some noteworthy shorter articles and two idiosyncratic novels, An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?… I find [Why Are We in Vietnam?] derivative in style, unconvincing in tone and locale, and especially unappetizing because it intends to be comic and Mailer's sense of the comic is, in every sense of the word, crude….
[Surely] the greatest of all unimportant mysteries on earth is why some people praise Norman Mailer's style; Mailer is an extremely sloppy woodsman flailing away at the tree of art with a dull axiom.
Charles Nicol, "Studying the Sloppy Woodsman," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 21, 1974, pp. 710-11.
The whole first phase of [Mailer's] public performance, lasting up through 1967, was rife with a basic, if somehow friendly, warning: don't believe all this in too simple a way, he was saying—we are all involved in an illusion. The author was pointing toward a second stage in his public career, a stage in which performer and audience together might examine from a special angle this curious relationship between a culture and its heroes. Why Are We in Vietnam? in 1967, brought the first major phase of his career, the celebrity phase, to a conclusion. His endless array of faces had by this time marked him the Lon Chaney of American letters, and his celebrity lore, rich in the rhythm of personal disaster counterpointed by victorious recovery, began to take on the resonance of legend. As if to mark a point, he was that year even elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but the really significant new development took the form of two cinéma vérité movies, Wild 90 and Beyond the Law, in both of which he functions simultaneously as director and star. In accepting this duality of role, Mailer introduced into the apparently already completed compound of his public formula a radically new element: he introduced detachment….
When Mailer, the director, stood back and, as it were, joined the audience in viewing Mailer, the figure on the screen, he established a perspective hitherto unheard-of in the career of an American public figure. It was the detached perspective which identified his central narrative device in The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, both published the next year, and of the two nonfiction narratives that followed these: Of a Fire on the Moon in 1970 and The Prisoner of Sex in 1971. It is again central in the huge third movie, Maidstone, shot in 1968 and two years in the cutting. In the third-person device we stand back with Mailer and critically analyze the character and actions of the hero, one "Norman Mailer," an artificial construct whose composition invites and promises to repay careful study. It is a construct which, as a matter of record, had mightily stimulated the public imagination over the previous decade, and a detached analysis of how the thing operated would necessarily tell the student much about this matter of the culture's imaginative needs.
Of the many things that differentiate between Mailer and the two public writers who came before him [Fitzgerald and Hemingway], perhaps the most crucial is that he was trying to make the public do something importantly different—he was not so much trying to establish the importance of art and the artist in the public imagination as he was trying to create self-recognition in that imagination. Consciously or otherwise, Mailer in some way perceived that things had reached the point at which a new set of Great Profiles would no longer serve the imaginative needs of the individual in the culture, perceived that just as the star system in Hollywood had died out, so had the public's capacity to find surcease in simple fantasy. What the imagining individual in the culture needed now was the experience of standing back and watching himself imagine, to become conscious of the needs revealed by his dreams, and to know clearly the significance of those needs. It was hardly the destroying of illusion that Mailer was after—illusion is the artist's gold—but rather a conscious awakening to the fact and function of illusion in our lives, and a consequent sophistication that might keep us from the danger of cultural self-deception. To this end he began disassembling his "self," showing the pretentious clown, the seeking reporter, the bewildered student of technology, the once-confident sexolog lost in the mazes of the mystery, the cop, the crook, the movie maker who wants to be president. All are shown in the detached light of analysis, and the point of the analysis is to teach the audience that all of these figures were created to feed that audience's appetite for fantasy. Mailer has begun disassembling himself, and he is doing it yet, doing it in so intricate a way as to defy a simple prophecy of how it will all turn out. But it is at least clear that it is the process of creation, not the product alone, that he wants to bring into the light, and it is just as clear that in so doing he is forging a legend for himself that our imaginations will not easily let die.
Robert F. Lucid, in American Scholar (copyright © 1974 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 464-66.
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