Mailer, Norman (Vol. 1)
Mailer, Norman 1923–
American novelist and social critic, best known for his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)
The Naked and the Dead was a solid job of realism and social criticism in one of the main traditions of American writing. Mr. Mailer's second novel Barbary Shore is a drama of ideas that is held together by a symbolic framework of complete human frustration. It is fashionable, it is literary by current standards, it is well done, but I think it is a mistake….
[There] is no human center in The Deer Park; no balancing episodes of warmth, affection, or generosity. Love is indeed a dirty word; and we read through the story in much the same way that we follow the movie scandals in the magazine called Confidential; this also is clever journalism. Like his closest literary forebear, Dos Passos, Mailer has no confidence in human nature itself, and perhaps no mature experience with it. The social values in this novel, too, if they are intelligent, decent, liberal, are based on a biological void.
How tragic it is to be without illusions, even if they exist, in a writer's craft, only to be dispelled. That is probably Norman Mailer's central flaw, his central need; and meanwhile curious undertones of juvenile malice also appear in his work. He may be the latest type of Bad Boy in our national letters, whose problem is to grow up.
Maxwell Geismar, in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 171-79.
Mailer's novels, at least for me, personify the dilemma of novelists who are deeply concerned with history but dangerously oversimplify it; if they seem consumed by their interest in sex it is because they are always seeking some solution for "the times." In many ways Mailer seems to me the most forceful and oddly objective novelist of his age, objective in the sense that he is most capable of imagining objects to which a reader can give himself…. Yet Mailer's interest in the external world has dwindled to the point where the theme of sexual power and delight—which Mailer feels to be a lost secret in contemporary life—has become a labyrinthine world in itself. Mailer now seems bent on becoming the American Marquis de Sade, where once he seemed to be another Dos Passos. Yet the energy, the often unconscious yet meticulous wit, above all the eery and totally unexpected power of concrete visualization are curious because Mailer is able to make more of a world out of his obsessions than other writers are able to make out of the given materials of our common social world.
Alfred Kazin, "The Alone Generation," in Harper's, October, 1959, pp. 127-31.
Norman Mailer is one of the few postwar American writers in whom it is possible to detect the presence of qualities that powerfully suggest a major novelist in the making. Anyone trying to describe these qualities would be likely to dwell on Mailer's extraordinary technical skill, or on the boldness and energy of his mind, or on his readiness to try something new whenever he puts pen to paper. What seems even more remarkable, however, is that his work has responded to the largest problems of this period with a directness and an assurance that we rarely find in the novels of his contemporaries. Mailer is very much an American, but he appears to be endowed with the capacity for seeing himself as a battleground of history—a capacity that is usually associated with the French and that American writers are thought never to have. He is a man given to ideologies, a holder of extreme positions, and in this too he differs from the general run of his literary contemporaries, so many of whom have fled ideology to pursue an ideal of sensible moderation both in style and philosophy. To follow Mailer's career, therefore, is to witness a special drama of development, a drama in which the deepest consciousness of the postwar period has struggled to define itself in relation to the past, and to know itself in terms of the inescapable, ineluctable present….
It is true, I think, that Mailer's phenomenal talent for recording the precise look and feel of things is his most impressive single gift, and there is some ground for arguing that in deserting realism he has made insufficient use of this power. But it was not by arbitrary choice that Mailer abandoned realism, any more than it was by arbitrary choice that he wrote as a realist in the first place….
The Naked and the Dead … shows an exceptionally gifted young writer in the years immediately after the war discovering what he did not know he knew—that American liberalism is bankrupt because it cannot provide an answer to the challenge with which history has presented it…. Ultimately what Mailer was looking for—and has continued to look for—is not so much a more equitable world as a more exciting one, a world that produces men of size and a life of huge possibility, and this was nowhere to be found in the kind of liberalism to which he committed himself in the earliest phase of his literary career.
It is characteristic of Mailer—and, I believe, of the essence of his strength as a novelist—that he never pays much attention to intellectual fashion…. He must always work everything out for himself and by himself, as though it were up to him to create the world anew over and over again in his own experience. He abandoned what was then being called "unreconstructed" liberalism only when he could see at first hand why it was wrong to support it, and even then he did so in his own good time and for his own special reasons. Certainly he must be the sole American example of a liberal who responded to the cold war by rushing to embrace revolutionary socialism…. It would be impossible to guess from a reading of [Barbary Shore] that the case it constructs with such loving care had ever been challenged or refuted or in the least damaged. Nor would it be easy to guess that objective conditions played their own imperturbable part in the break-up of revolutionary socialism as an active political movement. Everything in Barbary Shore seems to hang on the will of the people involved, and in this sense Mailer is right to describe the book as "existentialist" in spirit…. But if Barbary Shore exhibits an almost perfect internal coherence, it also suffers from a certain straining for effect, a certain shrillness and melodramatic solemnity of tone often verging on the pretentious that contrast very sharply with the flawless pitch of The Naked and the Dead. The source of this trouble seems to be Mailer's unwillingness to make any use whatever of the techniques he learned to handle so well in The Naked and the Dead and his attempt to write in a completely new style. Here again we see him beginning from scratch, repudiating the help of his own past as vigorously as he repudiates the help of everyone else's. But there is more to Mailer's desertion of realism than that. To write realistic fiction a novelist must believe that society is what it seems to be and that it reveals the truth about itself in the personalities it throws up, the buildings it builds, the habits and manners it fosters; all the writer need do is describe these faithfully, selecting whatever details seem to him most sharply revealing and significant, and the truth will be served. But Mailer's point in Barbary Shore is precisely that our society is not what it seems to be. It seems to be prosperous, vigorous, sure of itself, and purposeful, whereas in fact it is apathetic, confused, inept, empty, and in the grip of invisible forces that it neither recognizes nor controls. To write about this society as though the truth of it lay embedded in its surface appearances would be to endow it with a solidity and substantiality that it simply does not possess. The only hope of making any sense of such a society is with reference to the invisible forces that work in and through it and that cannot be described but that can be talked about abstractly and pictured allegorically. In delineating the world of the cold war, then, what Mailer tries to do is convey a sense of the strangeness of the way things are and to evoke a feeling for the overpowering reality of the invisible forces that supply a key to this strangeness….
Whereas Barbary Shore seems to have been produced by a mind shut in upon itself and glowing with the febrile intensity of a lonely intellectual passion …, The Deer Park exhibits a newly liberated capacity for sheer relish in the look and feel and sound of things. Mailer is now back in the world that he deserted in Barbary Shore, though it is by no means the same world that he evoked in The Naked and the Dead.
Norman Podhoretz, "Norman Mailer: The Embattled Vision" (1959), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 179-204.
Norman Mailer is a novelist of undeniable power. He is unpredictable, extreme, edgy, and disturbing in the genuine sense that his aim is always to get at the root of things, to impart the radical view of life….
Mailer's demon is obsessed, as all his novels in some way or other testify, with the meaning of power: the condition of vitality itself in the personal, social, and historical realms. Ideologies are merely the political foil of this radical awareness of life, as sex is its personal expression. This, in crude outline, is the logic of Mailer's development….
Given its kind of world and its type of heroes, it is not surprising to find that the structure of The Naked and the Dead exhibits most properties of the ironic form. The structure, in fact, can be construed as an ironic edifice to the nakedness and mortality of man.
For one thing, its vast sweep over the battlefield, and back in time into the lives of men, creates an image of controlled disorder. Chance, the very form of the book seems to say, is the necessity which controls men….
Compassionate as Mailer wants to be, his tone strikes us with a secret sardonic note, as if the author were jeering at the stupid delusions of his characters. The ambiguity is there because the true sympathies of Mailer are divided between victims and oppressors alike…. The style of the novel reflects the same ambiguity. Cold and dispassionate, it pretends to be objective, naturalistic. Human agony is simply another phenomenon in the universe, mortality a fact of existence. The style brutalizes what it seeks to describe; it reduces the scope of our apprehension to the most common denominator. Yet it allows, despite all this, the straining quality of human life to come through….
Rigid, even static, the surface of The Naked and the Dead conceals violent life underneath. It is the kind of life hard to disclose, difficult to dramatize, for it is blind and impulsive.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 140-50.
The most extreme and ambitious talent of our time is perhaps Norman Mailer. It is a mistake, I think, to define his achievement by his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. His essay, "The White Negro," gives to anger the dignity of a metaphysical principle. And the lurid imperfections of Barbary Shore and The Deer Park are the source, I feel, of the controlled violence in Advertisements for Myself. Power, demonic, instinctual, and human, is the crucible into which Mailer's values are cast, burnt out of their dross, and refashioned.
Ihab Hassan, "The Character of Post-War Fiction in America," in English Journal, January, 1962, pp. 1-8.
Quite apart from the deleterious influence of our government, our publishers, our official morals—and apart from all the obscene words about television and the cowardice of the "squares" and the marvelous sexuality of Negroes and the necessity of Hip—how good are Norman Mailer's novels? My answer would be that The Naked and the Dead is a good novel, though too literary, with worked-up army detail that is thin compared with James Jones's From Here to Eternity, and with only one real character in it, the General, who is too obvious a villain; that Barbary Shore is hysterical politically and a bad novel by a writer of obvious talent and guts, so that everything in it makes its mark, but not as a work of art; that The Deer Park is an extraordinarily uneven and somehow sick book with something peculiarly closed and airless about it. I felt this painfully when I read the novel, and Mailer says in Advertisements that he rewrote the novel under marijuana. I am neither shocked by this nor moved to admire Mailer because of it; I do think that The Deer Park is not what Mailer thinks it is….
He has a remarkable intelligence, and this book shows it; a marvelously forceful and inventive style; great objective gifts as a novelist. On the other hand, his intelligence, though muscular, has no real ease or quietly reflective power; he is as fond of his style as an Italian tenor of his vocal chords, and he sometimes tends to overpower when the more manly thing—if I may touch on a major concern in this book—would be to convince; his sense of reality, though boldly critical, it often obsessive in its self-consciousness. On the whole, Norman Mailer is very, very good indeed—not better than ten million other fellows, as he thinks one has to be, but good.
But what will become of him God only knows, for no one can calculate what so overintense a need to dominate, to succeed, to grasp, to win, may do to that side of talent which has its own rule of being and can never be forced.
Alfred Kazin, "How Good Is Norman Mailer?," in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 246-50.
Mailer's observations [in Cannibals and Christians] are passionate rather than considered, emerging from the heat of the moment; inevitably, for every one that seems penetratingly right, there is at least one that seems wildly wrong. The book, then, is one of those endlessly interrupted, endlessly renewed monologues from the extreme psychological edges of modern experience which Norman Mailer has offered us before and will, I hope, again. For all that it is not a new form. In its fragmentary spasmodic structure the book really exemplifies an aspect of modern life which Mailer catches vividly in a few pages on the cult of the absurd…. One knows that Mailer is fairly committed to a rather comminatory tone, and it would probably be quite possible to find a foolishness or an exaggeration on every other page of this book. The fact remains that I would be a lot less worried if Norman Mailer were a lot less worried….
It is one of Mailer's avowed intents to attempt to restore to modern man some of the more primitive dreads in the interest of renewed psychic vitality…. Mailer's demonism, then, is perhaps an attempt to provide identities for unidentified threats and forces, a way of transforming an enfeebling paranoia into a vitalizing dread. "Today the enemy is vague," he revealingly said in an earlier essay, and one can see how throughout his more recent work he has tried to dissipate that vagueness by postulating pairs of opposed extremes….
Take [Cannibals and Christians] not as a new work of art, nor as a series of conclusions and prescriptions, but as the record of an unusually sensitive modern urban consciousness, and it has a great deal to tell us about the way we live now. Or, perhaps Mailer would say, the way we die now.
Tony Tanner, "In the Lion's Den," in Partisan Review, Summer, 1967, pp. 465-71.
The finest of the American war novels remains Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, and yet what one chiefly remembers of this work is a theme which rises above war …—namely, the emergence of a new doctrine of power…. For all its faults, The Naked and the Dead is the most massive picture America has given us of the futility of war, as also of that residue of intransigence which is to be found in all servicemen, however clamped down by inhuman discipline…. None of Mailer's later work can compare with this, his first novel, though perhaps the adverse critical response to his second—Barbary Shore—sent him sullenly to a wrong track in The Deer Park and An American Dream. Whatever its first critics said, Barbary Shore represents the only possible sequel to The Naked and the Dead, since it develops the theme of the 'power morality' adumbrated by General Cummings in that book. The theme is worked out in somewhat Kafka-like terms, in darkness, through mysterious symbols and intrigues. It is in many ways a more modern novel than The Naked and the Dead, but it is less direct and deliberately chooses the smallest possible mise en scene—a rooming-house—and a tiny cast of characters.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 49-51.
Essentially Mailer is in the tradition of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century English and American primitivism. He believes man to be essentially good…. Visions of human goodness inevitably acquire either rational or theological overtones. In Mailer's writing the latter appears to dominate. With a diction weighted as heavily with religious as with erotic terms, he speaks out like a moralist, thundering anathemas not at the licentious of heart but at the insensible of spirit.
If Mailer seems to occupy the incongruous philosophical position of advocating change of the political-economic structure of society by a revolution in its habits of coition and achievement of utopia through the apotheosis of murder, his worship of the power that devolves from sex and murder seems to be even more perverse. Power is a key word for him…. [But a] conventional release of spirit, a going out of self with the resultant joy—an existential control over self, not a totalitarian authority over others—is what ultimately fascinates Mailer in the mystique of sex and death.
Max F. Schulz, "Mailer's Divine Comedy," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1968 (© 1968 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 36-57.
Mailer had won his first round with a skillful and moving but conventional novel in the realist-naturalist vein. Everything since The Naked and the Dead, with the exception of a handful of stories from the late forties and early fifties, has been radically innovative in both substance and essential form—without satisfying current conceptions of what constitutes serious literary experimentation. (p. 5-6)
The Naked and the Dead is much more than a "war novel."… [There] is no mistaking that the island itself, and the mountain at its center which Sergeant Croft commits himself and his platoon to conquering, acquire an almost Conradian symbolic significance in the eyes of their chief beholders…. Combat, for Mailer, is the chief means by which the higher laws of life become incarnate in human experience. War is his external subject matter in The Naked and the Dead; but his internal theme is the "crisis in human values"—identity, humanity, man, and the nature of their enemies in our time.
With war as the background typification of generalized external crisis, Mailer develops his internal themes by two principal means: first, extensively, through a number of Dos Passos-like diagnostic biographical portraits of a cross section of the fighting men; and second, intensively, through the protracted psychic struggle of mind and personality that takes place between Major General Cummings, the crypto-fascist commanding officer of the invading American forces, and his aide, a questioning liberal named Hearn…. One notices not only that a true hero is lacking from the novel's epic-like action, but that his opposite, a forceful antagonist, is lacking too. And yet a large enveloping energy has gathered, thrust forward, and come through to significant issue. (pp. 9-11)
The Naked and the Dead, then, even if substantially conventional in form and style, is nevertheless one with the rest of Mailer's work in the apocalyptic energies of its vision. (p. 12)
Life threatened in our time by the forces of death is Mailer's subject everywhere. When he writes as a realist, as in The Naked and the Dead, life is stalemated and defeated by the forces of death. In the next two novels [Barbary Shore and The Deer Park] the intensities of anxiety and dread underlying Mailer's subject matter begin to dominate the rational, circumjacent forms of the realist, distorting them in the direction of the expressionistic and the surreal. And with this modification of form comes a coordinate modification of the heroes in whom the issue of the life-death struggle is finally centered. (p. 18)
Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, both of them fictional investigations of the operative laws of death and endings, are novels that end with beginnings. Mailer's next novel, An American Dream, published in 1965, is in every way an extension and intensification of the manner and substance of its two predecessors. It begins, significantly, with an ending: the hero saves himself from spiritual death by committing a murder that restores him to life, action, growth. (p. 18)
In The Presidential Papers the pattern of personal crisis and salvation of self traced in Advertisements has been transmuted, by the chemistry of analogy so characteristic of Mailer's imagination, into the public terms of politics and history. But though the drama is now public rather than private, Mailer's self is no less central to the action. (p. 27)
The Armies of the Night … is unquestionably one of Mailer's best books—passionate, humorous, acutely intelligent, and, as always, eloquent in its empathy with the drift of history. It has new riches in it, too, of a more incidental kind, such as a gallery of sharply intimate verbal cartoons, highlighted with the reflected pigments of Mailer's own uniquely anxious self-image, of such primary men of our moment as Robert Lowell, Dwight Macdonald, and Paul Goodman. But most striking of all are its undercurrents of a softer emotion than we have been used to finding in Mailer, a new tenderness for life that lets him muse warmly along the way on his troubled love for his wife, his children, his mythic America. There is even a touch of nostalgic religious craving in it, a small recurring thirst for "Christ." But though the texture of feeling is more varied, the old Mailer, familiarly gravid with the epic furies and ambitions of a diminutive Brooklyn Achilles, still prevails. (p. 30)
[It] is clear that Mailer's uniqueness as a mid-century writer lies in his conscious cultivation, in the manner of Yeats, of a dynamic interrelation between his art and his life-style. Intensely himself, he is nevertheless the writer reborn in the dimension of public man. Engorged with the inclusive themes of his age and his nation, his work is nevertheless deeply personal. (pp. 31-2)
As recently as the early sixties, fairly literate people—often critics and teachers—were still saying that though Mailer certainly had a novelist's gift he "couldn't write."… [And] it was at least evident that these people … weren't reading him, whether or not they couldn't read him…. Because they weren't reading him it wasn't possible to argue with any hope of success that his "beliefs" were the poetical vehicles of a metaphysician's speculative insights; that he was the was also an authentic and sophisticated intellectual; that if he was temperamentally the inclusive artist, he was also deftly capable of the lean and compact virtuoso performance, and that his style—ranging the spectrum from slang to sublimity—was a distillate of all the rest into a shimmering and variegated brilliancy of words. (pp. 32-3)
Mailer's style is a style of eddying gusts and pointed audible silences textured on a background of the musing, ruminating, wondering human voice. Voice is the style's medium; its creative means are the instrumentalities of wit and amplification. Its end is to disclose, through dynamic interplay of the reciprocal rhetorics of incision and proliferation, the submerged realities of experience. Through implosion and explosion of the facts and patterns of common life, it intends to force a new vision upon the reader—to transform him, galvanize him, free him to become the vehicle of apocalypse. (p. 34)
But [there are also] weaknesses: a dulling of awareness through a persistence in urgency that is too relentless; a flatness, stockness, vagueness in characterization often, when the fictionist in the author inevitably capitulates to the didact; and a tendency to flatulence, garrulousness, clotted heaviness, that threatens to choke the naturally vigorous life of the prose. (p. 35)
Criticism has been made to confess at last that Mailer is a symbolist and mythmaker, the alchemy of his imagination being capable of turning excrement, madness, and perversion into lambent revelations of the condition of man and God; that he is a true intellectual—acute, sophisticated, and dead serious in his probing criticisms of the life of his time; that he is an extraordinary prose stylist in the big-voiced American tradition of Melville and Faulkner; and that he is fortunately endowed, as most apocalyptics are not, with the easing human graces of wit and humor. (pp. 41-2)
Richard Foster, in his Norman Mailer ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 73), University of Minnesota Press, © 1968 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
Two major themes loom large in all of Mailer's fiction: that of social ills and that of the plight of the individual in contemporary society. Each of the novels proceeds simultaneously on two levels, social and individual…. Mailer's earliest work grows out of the tradition of social criticism of the thirties: … he is most clearly influenced in The Naked and the Dead (in both subject matter and mechanics) by Dos Passos, Farrell, and Steinbeck, with the significant distinction that Mailer invests less hope in the individual common man than do these writers. [But] by the time he wrote An American Dream, Mailer had shifted from a position of total despair at the plight of the individual, to one of very carefully qualified hope. (p. 4)
When Mailer is good he can be very good, and when he is bad there is no one worse. But it must be said that the most dismal failures of his art proceed from the same persistent motivation: the desire to go beyond what he has already achieved, into unexplored regions of his talent. Thus, in his refusal to remain static, he may desert a successful formula only to fail, as in Barbary Shore or Why Are We in Vietnam?; or he may succeed in his experiment, as in An American Dream. (p. 207)
Mailer draws a clear distinction between the atheistic existentialist and the mystic, and himself embraces the values of the latter. The central difference lies in the attitude towards death. Where the atheist rejects any appreciation of the proximity of death because he refuses to romanticize it, the mystic sees the awareness of the presence of death as a meaningful experience. Certainly this concept is recognizable as one of the primary motivations which inform the character of Rojack in An American Dream, as he makes repeated excursions to the edge of death in the attempt to define himself and to grow as a man. (pp. 228-29)
Another distinction which Mailer goes to great lengths to draw is that between the psychotic and the psychopath. The latter term is very definitely not a pejorative one to Mailer, since he feels that the American existentialist is, by the very nature of his commitment to his own needs and his rejection of societal restrictions a "philosophical psychopath." Further, this is a condition which must be maintained by the White Negro if he is to survive as an individual. The concept of the psychopathic state as a positive good ties in with Mailer's idea of himself as a "psychic outlaw."… Mailer [shows] that while the psychotic may move in and out of his insane state, the psychopath maintains a constant, long-term, antisocial attitude and is not characterized by the hallucinations and other dramatic symptoms displayed by the psychotic. The distinction, then, is one of rationality and of voluntary choice. That is, the psychopath is a sane man, living rationally in the real world, but motivated by an antisocial attitude. The "philosophical psychopath," Mailer's White Negro, goes a step beyond the more conventional psychopath, whose selfish needs are pursued in an antisocial but socially conditioned (hence rather trite—almost conventional) manner (such as rape). Rather, the hipster's actions are motivated by a conscious desire to "codify … the suppositions on which his inner universe is constructed." While his actions are not always rational (he is "incapable of restraining his violence"), the underlying philosophy which informs and encourages them very definitely is. He may not be able or willing to control his psychopathic state, but he does wish to understand it. Although it is not socially acceptable, it forms for him a personal "inner universe"; a dynamic system of values to which he subscribes in place of externally imposed societal values. (pp. 229-31)
Mailer's ideas and the art and actions which they inform are consistent and valid within the structure of his personal philosophy. Their validity to each reader is dependent upon the number of assumptions he shares with Mailer. But they are totally valid, of course, only to Mailer himself. Because Mailer is aggressively opinionated on every subject, his ideas coincide only at certain points with those of any other individual or any group. (p. 252)
Barry H. Leeds, in his The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer (© 1969 by New York University; reprinted by permission of New York University Press), New York University Press, 1969.
Mailer … has been very busy establishing himself as the great American writer for people who don't read. Stravinsky invented a helpful new formula for criticism when he remarked that "Wagner is the Puccini of music." By the end of the 'sixties it had become reasonable to propose that Hemingway is the Norman Mailer of literature. The Mailer career more and more desperately resembles a travesty of Hemingway's. Mailer too, as Cyril Connolly foresaw, "retired into public life" and is now a full-time political journalist and public nuisance, not just in his hot-off-the-firing-line accounts of the Pentagon march and the 1968 conventions and the jolly astronauts, but in so preposterously literary a hasty-pudding as Why Are We in Vietnam?, post-Joyce, post-Hemingway, post-Faulkner, post-Burroughs, post-mortem…. Mailer's opinions aren't even unorthodox or timely: despite all the churning-up of no-longer-dirty words and stale scraps of hippie-commune mysticism he is as automatic as a New York Times editorial, James Reston in fright-wig and topless bikini.
Marvin Mudrick, in his On Culture and Literature (© 1970; reprinted by permission of the publisher Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1970, p. 199.
No one in American letters since Thoreau has insisted as much on literary egocentricity as Mailer. In the process the core of self created in his prose has unmistakably repeated the image left by Thoreau—cocky as hell, full of Chanticleer's pride and strut in surveying mimic empires, for Thoreau the environs of Concord, for Mailer any contemporary arena smelling of power.
Morton L. Ross, "Thoreau and Mailer: The Mission of the Rooster," in Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1971, pp. 47-56.
Norman Mailer's contribution to the growth of a new left in the 1960s has been so visible and extensive as to make an attack on his work from a point of view on the left equally awkward and humbling. We confront a writer whose reading of the essential life of American culture has from the beginning contributed to a left vision. The Naked and the Dead (1948) provides a military metaphor for social totalitarianism. Barbary Shore (1951) is a fable of left politics, some would say an allegory…. The Deer Park (1955), An American Dream (1965), and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) have in common, among other things, an existential underground peopled with psychic outlaws whose contorted inner life is both a condition and an explanation for the rise of a new left. Of a Fire on the Moon (1970) struggles to master the technology and corporate style of American capitalism. The Presidential Papers (1963), Cannibals and Christians (1961), and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) represent a form of political and cultural inquiry more intensely and consistently influential in shaping the radical imagination in the '60's than the work of any other contemporary American writer. But none of Mailer's books contributed so magnificently to the expansion in awareness of those ready for left politics as Advertisements for Myself.
Robert Merideth, "The 45-Second Piss: A Left Chronicle of Norman Mailer and The Armies of the Night" (© 1971 by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana), in Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn, 1971, pp. 433-49.
Mailer is a lesser, latter-day Zola in more ways than one. Where Zola tested on his pulse the grime and poverty of Paris, Mailer brings to bear the sensitivity of his balls on the rape and rage of Harlem. Zola immersed himself in the sensuality of poverty; Mailer in the poverty of sensuality. Their infatuation with the poetry of squalor is counterbalanced, not by what they suppose is its opposite, but by its complement, a belief in the objectivity of recording concrete facts: the documentary encases the poem; the novel as journalism, journalism as the novel. At its best, as in Germinal, The Naked and the Dead, its romantic realism produces some powerful, if random, moments….
Mailer … makes conscious many of the assumptions by which and in which we live. This is one of the supreme merits of his art, it is one of the supreme disasters of his politics. A conscious artist, he exposes to us the conventions, ideas, relationships of our society; but because, at the same time, he is—despite his artistic detachment—inhabiting them and believing them, he also promulgates all the myths he is exposing. Take a simple example: he constantly announces that he is a Left-wing Conservative. Because he believes in his own 'comic heroism,' his own sublime individuality, he sees this as a completely logical choice—and so it is, but only in the sense that it is utterly obvious. What else would a prosperous middle-aged man who has made his name on eccentricity espouse, but radical conservatism; it is the most normal choice in the world, or rather, within the possibilities of American society.
Juliet Mitchell, "So the Revolution Called Again….," in Modern Occasions, Fall, 1971, pp. 611-18.
There now seems to be widespread agreement—not only among his literary contemporaries but large segments of the reading public—that [Mailer] is the most exciting and important writer in America. The interesting question is why this presumably self-evident fact of Mailer's genius has taken so long to be acknowledged, why even sophisticated people have had to learn to live with it as if it were a loathsome disease, after overcoming extremely powerful feelings of distaste, while legions of the semiliterate, the sort who never read books but know exactly which writers they detest, appear to harbor the most astonishing hostility to Mailer's face, physique, voice, manners, and morals and seem unable to understand why he was not put away long ago.
John W. Aldridge, "The Perfect Absurd Figure of a Mighty, Absurd Crusade," in Saturday Review, November 13, 1971, pp. 45-49, 72.
In its esthetic play with the levels of reality "Maidstone" [the film, rather than the book Maidstone: A Mystery] is a marriage of the violent dislocations of Godard's "Weekend" with the playful theatricality of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Once again, the theoretical aspect is less congenial than what finally emerged. Mailer at the end of "A Course in Film-making" [the essay] concludes that in the search for reality "the ineluctable ore of the authentic is our only key to the lock," and too often in his essay the "authentic" seems to have something to do with the documentary….
I like the film "Maidstone" very much, its wit, its frequent visual beauty and its unique infusion of emotion into what might have otherwise been dry Pirandellian exercises. [Maidstone: A Mystery] is more important for the light it casts on Mailer's other work. It is a staging ground for later experiments with narrative method, for example, the emphasis on mood in [Of a Fire on the Moon].
But what remains compelling about both film and book derives less from Mailer's theory than from his acute sense of deception and self-deception, in the characters of others and especially in his own, and his willingness to change his preconceptions…. At its best [Maidstone: A Mystery] explores with charm and power one of Mailer's great themes, the potentialities of human character. Like Bottom's dream it is an exploration that has no bottom.
Leo Braudy, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 19, 1971, pp. 2-3, 25.
For better or for worse, the Mailer we know today is a self-creation dating from that period in his life when he emulated the hipsters and defended the Beats. Whatever the source of the energy he received from them, it eventually proved enough for him to remake himself into a very different writer. He has created a great personal myth from the elements he found around him then. He is his own greatest work.
Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation, (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971, p. 98.
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….
What does the existential future hold for him? Who knows? With his vitality, he could make the return to Art, which is barred to most who leave it. He has formidable equipment, though not limitless…. If Mailer's fierce competitiveness damps down with middle age, and he sticks to what he does best, his master-works may lie ahead….
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, "Norman Mailer: Genius or Nothing" (1971), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 9-17.