Mailer, Norman (Vol. 2)
Mailer, Norman 1923–
An American novelist, essayist, and film-maker, Mailer has written The Naked and the Dead, An American Dream, Armies of the Night, and Why Are We in Vietnam? (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
What strikes one in reading Mailer's earlier nonfiction, and strikes one with even greater force in Cannibals and Christians, is precisely this quality of exacerbated, nerve-end responsiveness to every shade and color of experience. To read Mailer in almost any of these essays is to learn all over again, if one has ever learned, just what it is like to possess the whole courage of one's perceptions and to be willing to offer them as the final proof and reference of judgment…. Mailer possesses in abundance a sophisticated and radically skeptical intelligence, a tough sanity of self-valuation which is an adjunct of his creative vision rather than the repressive schoolmaster of it. For Mailer's gift is not merely his ability to feel or his capacity to think, but his capacity to feel his ideas as if they were passions, and to endow his passions with some of the practical force and symmetry of ideas….
It might … be argued that Mailer's move away from the novel—and I consider An American Dream, since it is more metaphysics than fiction, to be an illustration rather than interruption of that move—is at least partly the result of the very intensity of his response to the violence done to the imagination by the events of the last ten years. It is possible that he has found the contemporary scene too exhilarating and too preposterous to be imaginatively rendered, and that it comprises experiences which are so very real to him, and at the same time so shockingly nightmarish, that to write about them in fiction would be to cancel out their immediacy and relegate them to the safe remove of illusion. For their whole point and horror is that they are happening here and now and not in any novel…. Then too, it becomes obvious when one considers the drift of Mailer's interests in recent years, that his conception of his role has radically altered, and that he is no longer content with the relatively passive position of novelist, but has ambitions to take a more active and influential part in the public life of his time. It would appear that he has shifted from a desire to revolutionize consciousness in the novel to a desire to revolutionize opinion in the areas of politics, sexual morals, and international affairs.
John W. Aldridge, "Victim and Analyst" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1966 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, October, 1966, pp. 131-33.
An American Dream is a dreadful novel, perhaps the worst I have read in many years, since it is infinitely more pretentious than the competition. Mailer's novel is bad in that absolute fashion that makes it unlikely that he could ever have written anything good.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Norman Mailer's Yummy Rump," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 274-78.
Norman Mailer … remains the strongest potential talent of the group [of writers who first came to prominence after World War II] and the best literary mind of the war generation. Yet his personal and polemical writings continue to seem more interesting than his novels, and his prejudices more interesting than his ideas. His failure to find his line in fiction after The Naked and the Dead has evidently caused him to seek in sheer raw experience the intensity he cannot create in art, and in the process to mistake the quick thrills of notoriety for the solid satisfactions of earned success.
John W. Aldridge, "The War Writers Ten Years Later," in his Time to Murder and Create, McKay, 1966.
For a good many years now Norman Mailer has been making a determined effort to exploit all the resources of literary and social outrageousness in order to impress himself in a major way on the life and thought of his time. At no point in the course of this effort has the going been easy for Mailer; in fact, it has been so difficult and personally taxing that one often supposed that his ultimate objective was not the moral reformation of his society but the annihilation of himself. The fight he has carried on has made almost superhuman demands on his will power and his courage; it has caused deep erosion of his ego, even at those moments when his ego has been most insufferably in evidence; and inevitably it has provoked him to follies and excesses that have done him and his work serious harm….
[It] has cut down on the quality of his achievement as a novelist by giving almost everything he has written since The Naked and the Dead a curiously strained, claustrophobic quality that seemed to speak of the existence of creative ambitions too intense for his creative grasp. One could sense in both Barbary Shore and The Deer Park that the main current of his energy was trying to go elsewhere, trying to engage certain crucial ideas that were beginning to take shape in his mind, but was being balked by some recalcitrance in his material or some limitation in his language. Deep within those books one felt the pressure of something big growing, a vision or prophecy or simply a hatred that was perhaps too radical and disturbing to find embodiment in the conventional forms of the novel, perhaps too radical and disturbing for Mailer himself, who seemed to be reaching out for reassurance and support even as he was energetically engaged in alienating just about everybody….
He took it for granted that his really decisive competition was not with his contemporaries, for whom, on the whole, he had little respect, but with the most distinguished of his predecessors, and he continued to hold out for the kind and degree of popular success he assumed had been theirs….
[When] he came to write Advertisements [for Myself] and the Esquire essays, Mailer experienced an immense release of inhibitions and was able for the first time to confront his feelings and ideas in their full complexity. He found it possible to make complete use of his resources not only as a highly skilled worker in language but as an intuitive thinker of almost superhuman sensitivity to the psychic realities of his time. And he expressed this sensitivity in a style that combined the mean talk of the hipster and the edgy rhetoric of psychiatry into a prose instrument as lethal as a switchblade. Hence, it would appear that, far from being a symptom of failure, Mailer's excursion into the essay was actually a vital preparation for the moment when his language would at last be adequate to his ambitions, and he would be ready to undertake the major creative breakthrough that his novel, An American Dream, so clearly represented, a novel in which Mailer for the first time made sustained use of his new style in fiction.
There were, of course, many readers and critics who felt that the book represented not a breakthrough but the final stage of breakdown. It was severely criticized by some very respectable and responsible people, and one could certainly understand why. By conventional standards it was an unpardonably ugly book and, taken in terms of its story, a profoundly silly book, full of grotesque and implausible occurrences and characters who appeared to be uniformly insane. But what the critics failed to understand was that it could not be properly judged by standards normally applied to the novel and that, for all its ugliness, it was essentially a work of humor and self-satire, most humorous in those places where it treated derisively some of its most serious-seeming effects. It was a burlesque treatment of the obscene version of the American Dream that possesses the unconscious mind of America at the present time, and what appeared to be, and patently were, excesses and absurdities were also an integral part of the humorous intent, and perfectly in keeping not only with the psychotic quality of the dream but with the tradition to which the book seemed most clearly to belong, the tradition of the prose romance, in which fantasy and fact, witchcraft and melodrama, myth, allegory, and realism combine to produce what Richard Chase has called "a profound poetry of disorder." The book's antecedents were not the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen but the romances of Cooper, Melville, and Hawthorne, and one of Mailer's contributions was to rehabilitate the form of the romance and adapt it to the literary needs of the immediate present. The book, in short, was an examination not of human and social surfaces but of our fantasy life, a vastly hallucinated yet deeply real account of the American dream become in our day the American nightmare….
As a piece of fiction the book had, to be sure, outrageous flaws. Mailer committed every sin known to literature, but like his hero he somehow succeeded in getting away with murder. For the book's defects could do nothing to alter one's impression that it was the product of a devastatingly alive and original creative mind at work in a language capable of responding with seismographic sensitivity to an enormously wide range of impressions. There seemed to be no limit to what Mailer was now able to do with words…. In fact, it is possible to say that in it Mailer brought to full development a prose idiom of higher sensitivity to the exact condition of contemporary consciousness than any we have had in fiction since the best work of Faulkner, and that he managed through that idiom to create an image of our time which will undoubtedly be recognized as authoritative for this generation….
Mailer stands alone among his contemporaries in possessing a coherent metaphysics of the human condition as it now exists. He also stands alone in possessing an intellectual force that is at the same time a dynamic and uniquely personal imaginative vision. He alone, therefore, seems likely to possess the power to shift us out of our old comfortable modes of seeing and feeling and cause us to experience the shock of recognition we always experience when we have placed before us realities seen for the first time with the honesty of a truly original talent.
John W. Aldridge, "Norman Mailer: The Energy of New Success," in his Time to Murder and Create, McKay, 1966.
[A certain] sexuality informs Norman Mailer's adaptation of his novel, The Deer Park, which illustrates usefully the cleft in Mailer's writing. On one hand there is the by now duly recognized journalist of verve and talent; on the other, the still not properly assessed novelist of verve and very little talent. So desperately eager are we for substantial novelists in our post-Faulkner era, that we are fanatically loath to relinquish hope in a Mailer, a Baldwin, and many even less likely pretenders, compared to whose chances those of the Bourbons and Hapsburgs to regain their thrones are positively rosy. The one defense consistently advanced in Mailer's behalf as a creative writer is his energy, but no amount of it is going to extricate an author who has stuffed himself into An American Dream, which is not a novel but an orgone box.
John Simon, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1967, pp. 297-98.
[Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night is a book composed of] two almost antithetical parts, as the subtitle indicates: "History as a Novel, The Novel as History." The first part, some 215 pages, is the narrative of Mailer's participation in the October 1967 anti-Vietnam war March on the Pentagon; the second part, about 70 pages, is a history of the entire March as pieced together from various sources. The subtitle is emblematic: if Truman Capote can invent "the non-fiction novel," Mailer can go him one better and invent two new genres. All three, however, are merely variations on a very ancient genre: megalomania. "History as a Novel" is almost unrelieved self-promotion, often in atrocious prose, tiresome but shot through with glimmers of brilliance. "The Novel as History" is, except for a few characteristic lapses, controlled, imaginative, compassionate and even masterly. Mailer continues to be Janus-faced: novelist manqué masquerading as enfant terrible to one side; journalist extraordinary and vigorous essayist to the other….
Mailer has found the way to make megalomania pay off doubly. He has invested his book (like Podhoretz) with an air of the confessional, and gets points for his honesty. Then, with a joke or two, a qualifying epithet or three, he undercuts his flights of self-deification, and so (unlike Podhoretz) gets further points for grace, wit, and a charming modesty at the core of his megalomania. In fact, the establishment and his audience have driven Mailer into becoming a clown-hero-scapegoat for their vicarious satisfaction, with results that redound to no one's glory.
John Simon, "Mailer on the March," in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1968, pp. 541-45.
Mailer is a phenomenon in the face of which distinctions crumble and categories dissolve; it is perhaps the chief way in which his ambition to be "disruptive" and powerful has come to be fulfilled. His career has been almost impossible to follow and judge if we think of it as an American literary life among others. More like that of a movie star, it can be seen moving to successive new currents in the public air, its principle of momentum and its spring of aspiration being compounded of both the artist's hunger to insert his consciousness into the folds of the world's experience and the fevered, twitchy compulsions of the gallery god, the externalist for whom fame is the indispensable protection, at every moment, against inner chaos and the oblivion that waits for all ego. He is the self-made man of literature, the parvenu who having arrived feels the Furies still at his back and knows he has to cover up the fact that his origins are at least as much as other men's in ordinariness and prosaic dreams.
He is the writer-out-with-the-boys, the jolly poet of tough talk, the philosopher of the uppercut and the metaphysician of the sixty-yard pass for a touchdown, but he is also the dying god, the stricken prophet, the St. Sebastian of modern utterance. The most savage critic of America, he is held more tightly than any of his contemporaries in the grip of one of her chief horrors and blasphemies: the cult of success. At one and the same time he incarnates the American careers of "winning" and "losing," time pinioned and time transcended, making it and being left out, intimidating the world and being spread-eagled by its indifference. In his strange arrogance and equally strange candor, his contradictory hungers and rival ambitions, he moves, usefully for us all, at the center of a quintessentially American confusion of all the realms of being….
He is a new kind of American romantic, his own man and yet also very much the product of our times. As the voice of the abstract and engineered and hygienic has grown louder, his own has risen; as politics has threatened us with madness, he has cut his extravagant capers, turning messy cartwheels in the middle of a deadly oratorical contest and a tableau vivant of lies. Yet he is not simply an opposition, a jester undermining with slapstick and violent guile the ruling self-assurances of the age; he is no antic, sage defender of what has been lost. A voracious, unclear, partly inherited and almost wholly anarchic demand that the world be reconstituted, be made equal to him, puts him in the company of the great dissident and utopian literary egos—Rousseau, de Sade, Tolstoy, Lawrence—with the difference, apart from questions of genius, that he is a contemporary American who knows that prophecy, like any other commodity, has to be sold and that ideas are bought today mainly in conjunction with personality….
With no other American writer is it so necessary to keep shuttling between the man and the work, not in order to bring into play some scheme of biographical criticism or to get confirmation about the one from the other, but because Mailer has made it impossible to separate the two…. Mailer has lived in public, discharging his personality (whenever he isn't physically demonstrating it) as successive waves of comment, opinion, rough poetry, visions, prophecy and exhortation. Everything he writes, moreover, is an act, of a kind he likes to call existential, although as we shall see he has given the word a set of idiosyncratic and wholly unhistorical meanings. It is one of the mainsprings of his effectiveness and yet at the same time one of the blurring effects he has had on intellectual discourse that he has so strenuously insisted on the existential nature of these literary actions; and it has become increasingly clear that he has done it in order to separate his writing as widely as possible from "pure" literature, from writing conceived of as an alternative to action, as contemplation, the creation of pure forms and ideas….
[For] all the hoopla of his self-canonization as a novelist he is essentially a traditionalist when it comes to fiction, having neither innovated nor carried any existing mode to the end. His fiction, one is sometimes tempted to suspect, is fashioned in sincerity all right, and has its proper victories on occasion, but it is also his way of claiming legitimacy as an artist in order to then use that prestige for a hearing for his more pressing ambitions….
In the middle fifties, when Mailer stepped into his role as philosopher at large and thinker maudit, what was present in the atmosphere for his use—what he had not drawn up out of himself as original utterance—was a triad of potential motifs: the Negro as post-Western man, the hipster as contemporary hero, and existentialism as weapon and deliverance. Three wraiths, legends or hypotheses for the mind seeking excitement, they were perfect instruments for the breaking up of the old psychic and spiritual means of apprehending the world and the old institutional ways of looking at it. And they were fine themes for romantic, superb, ready-at-hand characters, for a spent novelist, inspirations to a prophet's roving eye….
[His report on an anti-Vietnam demonstration in Washington turned into] a book, not a report, and it is the best book he has ever written, the culmination of his multiple careers, the thing he was slated to do. With it he has entered American consciousness in a central way, all doubts ended about his qualifications for being central, most of his claims honored. In The Armies of the Night the rough force of Mailer's imagination, his brilliant wayward gifts of observation, his ravishing if often calculated honesty, his daring and his chutzpa all flourish on the steady ground of a newly coherent subject and theme. His subject, as it has always been, is himself, but this time a self balanced between objective events and private consciousness in a more original and more resonant way than it has ever been before. And his theme is just that relationship between the self and history, the ego and actuality, which he had been seeking to fulfill in all his writing and with which he had wanted to make the inimitable mark of his presence felt.
Richard Gilman, "Norman Mailer: Art as Life, Life as Art," in his The Confusion of Realms (© 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 81-153.
[Mailer believes] that social structures thwart individual intensity, and … he sees the crucial human drama to be played in the conflict between man's thrust for omnipotence—god-like freedom and power—and the limitations of his condition which prevent him from activating that omnipotence. Both of these themes pervade Mailer's fiction. As a writer, he is caught between the rebel's recognition of limits and the revolutionary's claim upon absolute power. The omnipotence that Mailer's characters pursue is analogous to what Sartre describes as the identification of the for-itself with the in-itself. In the impossibility of that identification man is, for Sartre, a "useless passion." Mailer recognizes a similar impossibility as the radical character of the human being, but finds in it a pathos which he has never quite elevated to tragedy. Where other novelists find this paradox and this pathos something their characters must reconcile themselves to, Mailer makes them the sources of unresolved tension. Mailer's novels resound with moral "shoulds" and "oughts," with instructions on how to achieve omnipotence. But the tension is never broken; his people never become gods….
Mailer tacitly assumes that the highest good is individual life: growth, feeling, vision, the exercise of that part of the self which is most unique. It is valid to say that … this good presupposes a satisfactory society in which the individual achieves some of his growth by his concern for others. But Mailer focuses his attention upon the way in which the individual works out such exercise….
If one is to exist intensely as his individual self, he must not rely on other people's values or some pre-existent social pattern to determine his own choices for action. The most individual person—what Mailer calls the "hipster" or the "American existentialist"—abandons the old circuits and well-traveled roads, and without charts or maps or assurances of safety explores "the rebellious imperatives of the self." Like Husserl, he brackets the world. Because he travels his own new territory, he cannot know what to expect; every act, therefore, is a gamble. Because they imply an affirmation of what is most true of the human condition, they are moral acts.
Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 369-70.
Mailer alone among contemporary American novelists strenuously insists on accepting the terms of death, darkness, and the unconscious and on living with them as immediate personal dangers. He alone persistently maintains that in the quest for selfhood one must include the Evil Impulse….
A mystical awareness of death, of sex, and of God is what Mailer … [describes] as the American existentialist experience. How can mystical awareness be pro-grammatically described, one wonders. It cannot. However, Mailer proposes a creed of activism as an opposing counterpart to a modern European brand of existentialism with its rationalistic, atheistic, pessimistic bias; and though the activistic creed proposed may seem extreme, it is not without its relevance to the American scene, the good and the bad of that scene, the abundance and energy in American life which might go either way—toward perversion, total madness, and collective death, or, through madness and violence, toward new possibilities.
Mysticism—Hasidic or American existentialist—cannot be programmed; it must be imaged, as the Hasidic rabbis, the zaddiks, knew. But Mailer's activistic mysticism cannot be confined in a parable-like short tale or a poem; it is not concerned with the God of the churches, or, for that matter, with an absolute God, but with God in experience, a God who is unconfined and may emerge only through a particular man's experience of Him….
In An American Dream, Mailer has made his primary character, Stephen Rojack, the narrator of his own story, a superhero; his settings, political and metaphysical; and his theme, magnificent and large. Stephen Rojack, the superhero as an activist who seeks his identity by following the imperatives of self, is perhaps the first of his kind. One expects of the superhero a certain typicality of character, which is established early and kept unchanged throughout the narrative, like that of Odysseus or James Bond: the fortunes of the superhero may change with his shifting situation and his various adventures, but he himself remains steadfast and true to type. His character is untouched; he does not change or grow. On the other hand, one expects the modern activist hero to learn, change, grow in a constant process of moving and becoming. As his situations change, his experience changes; and responsive to every experience, he feels varieties of hate and love and, in a constant state of flux, he becomes more this or that, more himself, an atypical particular person, an accumulation of his own past moments, but responsible only to the self he finds in the immediate moment of the present and to the transcendent self which is a future goal.
Helen Weinberg, in her The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction (reprinted from Helen Weinberg: The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction; copyright © 1970 by Cornell University; used by permission of Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1970, pp. 126-30.
Both Mailer and Ruskin are great and incorrigibly egotistical writers obsessed with the urge to tell us who we are and where the world is headed; both seem to have to write much too much in order to write anything good at all, and we can treasure both not for their books, but for those passages that turn, stop, explode, only to turn and explode again, and again. Giddy with contemplating their grandeur or the world's doom, the brain of each seared with excess of perception, surely it is only in eras when we want others to tell us who we are and where we are going that such writers appear, become famous in ways mere literary types never are, feel needed, indeed, because they are. [Perhaps] the metaphor for Mailer is Ruskin, mad stylists making the world the arena for their seriousness about themselves….
Roger Sale, "Watchman, What of the Night?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), May 6, 1971, pp. 13-17.
Norman Mailer was justly hesitant to write about Apollo for Life. After all, is Hemingway's spiritual son, the celebrator of human conflict as the test of courage in the cosmic war between God and Satan, the proper chronicler of what is essentially a technological feat rather than a human drama? But Mailer had lost his race for mayor of New York, he had lost another American Dream off the Chappaquiddick Bridge, his marriage was deteriorating, and he needed money. So he renamed himself Aquarius and tightened his nerves to enter a land that in his novels had been as alien and ominous to him as the lunar surface itself: Houston, the odorless, colorless Manned Space Center, the faceless palace of America's new royalty, the Technological Wasp. In The Naked and the Dead and Why Are We in Vietnam?, Texas had given Mailer his most violent and frightening men; in Of A Fire on the Moon it was to give him his most impenetrable heroes—astronauts, bland mechanical men, as interchangeable as the parts in the machines that would carry them aloft.
Ill at ease with his material and committed to describing an event he could not possibly experience firsthand, Mailer "interprets" the flight to fit the philosophical scheme of his other books. He expands what might have been a fine reflective essay on one aspect of American culture into a 472-page compendium of superfluous technical description, astronaut dialogue, a Whitmanesque catalogue of spaceship parts, cosmic superstition, a disquisition on the "psychology of machines," and political-religious speculation that the real function of the Wasp in history had not been to create Protestantism and the corporation but to fulfill the Christian sense of mission by taking us to the stars.
In his attempt to understand the moon trip in terms of his own eschatology, Mailer correctly perceives that the profoundest implications of Apollo 11 are moral. If God is using man as His agent to reveal His vision of existence across the stars, then God is not love but courage and the fulfillment of His mission takes precedence over the needs of mankind. Otherwise, man is simply sublimating his unmanageable violence in meaningless journeys to dead areas because he has neither the wit nor charity to solve his real problems.
In my judgment Mailer's book fails because he is unwilling to face the implications of this latter conclusion. Mailer the political journalist is sucked in by Mailer the philosopher of technology. He is diverted from his real subject—human motivation and political responsibility—into worrying over what is essentially a secondary issue, the relationship between men and machines…. To imagine that space is the prize to be won in a war between God and the Devil or that the moon is the writer's mistress tells us very little about human freedom and what is happening to America.
Raymond A. Schroth, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 7, 1971, pp. 216-18.
[When] Norman Mailer [came] in with The Prisoner of Sex … [he stole] the show from the bluestockings. He is what it lacked: a go-getting whistle-stop clown. In an interview, he once let out the joke that he didn't hate women; he just thought they ought to be shut up in cages. Nothing for it then (when one of the women beat him to the front page of Time magazine) but to get into the cage with them. A paranoiac with a good boyish punch, a gentle eye, a sentimentalist—four wives, clearly not interested in women but in something they had got—yet with sensible flashes in his rage and savage laughter, determined on the spotlight, he rips around. He is as sweeping and discontinuous as an excited woman, yet he has considerable relics of what Norman Douglas called the "male attributes of humility, reverence and a sense of proportion." He has brought a sparkle to a dismal scene, and if, at the end, one can't make out whether he is swimming or sinking—nor can he—he has one huge advantage over his enemies: he is a brilliant writer with sharp insights, and he has passion, which they have not. His satirical metaphors are very funny. They are also accurate.
V. S. Pritchett, "With Norman Mailer at the Sex Circus: Out of the Machine," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1971 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1971, pp. 40-2.
In itself The Prisoner of Sex is not worth much attention. Its subject, Women's Lip [sic], is worth none. But almost a quarter of a century has passed since The Naked and the Dead announced the rise of a brilliant young writer; it is time to ask where exactly he is now and where he is likely to go.
His road has been precipitately downhill. He hit the floor with King of the Hill earlier this year. The cliché says he can only go up from the bottom, but with The Prisoner of Sex he is just crawling around on the canvas as the count nears ten. What has he accomplished in 23 years?
Stylistically he is in the great literary tradition of the late Judge Michael A. Musmanno, though in each succeeding book he writes like the last man he reads, as Hubert Humphrey talks like the last man he hears. The Prisoner of Sex is Miller upon Musmanno. As a rhetorician Mailer perfects in this work his single syntactic invention, the use of "yes" as a conjunction, using it here to construct sentences hundreds of words long, dragging themselves around like wounded snakes. He said once his ambition was "to become consecutively more disruptive, more dangerous and more powerful."
Failing to do that with his writing, he ran for mayor of New York, making himself a classic example of Eric Hoffer's Creative Poor—abortive artists who, unable to change themselves, set about to change the world. He assaulted the barrier against the fundamental four-letter word in The Naked and the Dead with his three-letter "fug," but now that he can—and does—write any filthiness he can think of, wallowing at last in the ordure he once was allowed only to stir with a stick, he makes us wonder whether censorship protected rather than hindered him, making us suppose there was more in his writing than he was permitted to say. Permissiveness stripped him naked and left him moribund if not quite dead.
So what is his function, now that so much evidence is in? Bill Buckley called him "an utter and hopeless mess." That is a supportable view, but I take a more religious position. I think him to be a cosmodemonic joke whose destiny was predetermined in the evening of Creation's sixth day, when all serious work was done. The omniscient eye of Providence must have seen his use as a bit of fun for these sad, latter days—to appear on the Merv Griffin Show talking about serious things with Mickey Rooney defensibly drunk or Margaret Mead indefensibly sober. That is his manifest destiny and he should thank God for it. It is not given to many men to know so clearly why they have been put on earth. Let him accept it and stop trying to push himself beyond his capacities by trying to be a boxer, writer, or mayor.
John Greenway, "Norman Mailer Meets the Butch Brigade," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 27, 1971, p. 815.
Hindsight points to the possibility (made stronger with each new piece of non-fiction) that Why Are We In Vietnam? will sound the end of Norman Mailer as novelist. The Armies of the Night, Miami and The Siege of Chicago, Of A Fire On The Moon, or so-called "nonfiction novels," indicate that for the first time in his literary career Mailer is repeating himself. As the celebrated reporter of History or the journalist of belle-lettres, Mailer (of the middle years) now makes language the handmaiden of History, American-style. History makes its move, while Mailer's language now marks time. His twenty year experiment with language comes full cycle in Why Are We In Vietnam?, where he pushes the limits of language too far, until the Word boomerangs and marks him as another convert to the current distrust of language as a possible source of answers….
Some of his more recent views on power, violence, minorities and revolution that surfaced strongly in An American Dream, after a ten year dry run without a novel, bob in and out of Vietnam? like ideological grace notes…. Mailer as philosopher [is] on a tightrope between absurdity and sublimity. A reader may feel mystified as to where the philosophizing ends and the clowning begins. The same mystery holds for Vietnam?—metaphysics in the style of metalanguage. Is this flushing out of old ideas a way of making room for the Mailer of the middle years, whom the literary establishment now concedes is one of the best journalists in America?…
Ever since Naked and the Dead Mailer has been on a hunt for an ideal hero or one to be emulated in terms of America's survival. Now in Vietnam? the quest for a hero has turned as atavistic as the novel's image of America. Instead of a flesh and blood protagonist being shaped by American experience, a happening in language acts as a kind of makeshift heroism. D. J. has no face. His is the identity of a naked voice. His is an omniscience without form, except for sound, a spewing out of cultural facts, as if the Voice of America were beeped back to the homefront as a dark comedy…. D. J., in the long run, hints at the limits of a twenty year quest, a time when Mailer will retreat from fiction to fact and revert to a style of heroism that takes to a no-man's-land between culture and self. Already there is a whisper of the future master journalist who will equate the drama of history with the pseudonym of self. Meantime in Vietnam?, a reader can either tune in or turn off the Word as hero.
But in the final view, the Word is also the villain. This is to say that Vietnam? looks like the final phase (or, at least, a leveling off) of Mailer's twenty year experimentation with language. From the neo-naturalism of The Naked and the Dead, to the flip allegory and blind essay of Barbary Shore, to the cool narrative line of The Deer Park, to the aesthetics of magic and mood of An American Dream, Mailer's novels have sampled much of the literary styles of two decades. Now in his fifth novel, Mailer's trip with the Word comes to roost. Vietnam? is a blast of now language, America, 1967. A slice of pop dynamics….
Looking ahead to the new Mailer—spicing the essay with the techniques of fiction—Vietnam? may become Mailer's footnote to fiction. It is simultaneously his most literary and anti-literary book. Mailer has never given the Word a greater workout, while pushing it past the limits of workable sound and sense. Unless language and experience in American evolve into a one-way harmony and meaning, Why Are We in Vietnam? will stand as Mailer's last attempt to do a novel as fiction, the price for his trip to the dark side of the Word.
Donald L. Kaufman, "Catch-23: The Mystery of Fact (Norman Mailer's Final Novel?)," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1971, pp. 247-56.
We have known for some time now that we read Norman Mailer not for what he may reveal to us of the furtive lessons in the universe. We read him not for moon talk, not for mayor talk, not for marches or wars on women, but because he is "our genius," our galoot of modernday letters. He is as permanent as Andy Warhol or Jackie Onassis. He is medium and metaphor; he is infinitely vulnerable….
There is the world and its truth, whatever that is. And there are Mailer truths. In reading these pieces [Existential Errands], one should, can only, do so with the blood rather than the brain: Mailer has taught us to be existential…. Mailer unveils the universal through the acutely personal. And one senses the mensch within Mailer—not the superlative or fraudulent, the boisterous or mistaken metaphor as he might appear to America, but the man of his own inner scruple, hankering, as do we all, to be a prince to himself. His metaphors and allegories and symbols (whether it's the mountain-as-Moby Dick in [The Naked and the Dead], or even put-ons for Kate Millett) conceal something deep, something rapt, else they would possess no power to disturb and delight our bleak souls. And this man does.
Cynthia Buchanan, "We Read Mailer Because He Is Our Genius," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1972, pp. 27-8.
From the very beginning Norman Mailer has exhibited a literary ambition that can best be called imperialistic. He has wanted to translate his life into a literary career and then to translate that literary career into history….
Of all American writers perhaps since Henry James, Mailer is the most committed to the romantic view of the artist, the novelist, the creator of imaginative forms that can serve as alternatives to social, political, and linguistic forms proposed by non-artists. At the same time his mind is possessed of an unrelieved anxiety that he might be confused with someone else, especially another writer of any approximate similarity of position, that he might not decisively enough even exist, that his revolutionary stance will not appear wholly original….
It isn't too much to say that Mailer regards his achieved style (its mixture of "concept" and "obscenity," of intellectual jargons and hip vocabularies) as an image of America as well as of himself….
Only in writing can Mailer exist in a form that embraces his contradictions; only in writing about a historical occasion after it is over can he give form to feelings that, expressed at the time, threaten to mutilate the form that he is searching for in the occasion. The time of his time probably has no historical equivalent, only a literary one. The form of history most tolerable to him is made of his own language existing in a kind of suspension, productive of a turmoil of meaning that public events are designed not to sustain but to ameliorate….
Mailer is fascinated by dialectical encounters in which hunger for power, fascination with mystery, and any kind of lust work to the possible destruction of opponents rather than the destruction of oneself. And yet it is he himself who gets hurt in public, and only in his writing can he arrive at anything like his true but still tense equilibrium. Dialectics are his hope of sanity. Existing uncomfortably as a mere person rather than what he calls a Being, a mere character—partial, moderated—his only alternative outside writing is to turn destructively on himself with scatology. Where Mailer is not, by virtue of the act of writing, able to control a situation, the hidden thrust of his energy is toward the sacrificial waste of himself.
Richard Poirier, "Mailer: Good Form and Bad," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 22, 1972; used with permission), April 22, 1972, pp. 42-6.
Lesser literati look hopefully for signs of Norman Mailer becoming at least something of a cultural institution. But 17 books and a lot of action later, it is still just as hard to pin down that inspired, inspiring hustler as ever. He manages himself in true Fast Eddie, sting-and-pop style, spinning off arcanely brilliant insights and pesky existential challenges (his views on black power, for example) to poor mortals who are run daily through media's de-braining machine and thus have no gut for prying open society's drooping, pus-crusted eye and heaping grit on inflammation. Mailer, like an Ahab hunting many whales, is ever game to play sandman.
Nobody writing today conveys as a total package the sense of danger, profundity, complexity, and murderous irony of modern life's workaday miracles and lustrous booby traps as Mailer does. Maybe he makes up half, but it reads wonderfully. Under his eclectic, eristic sensibility, whole cosmologies take shape from rocket gantries, spermacidal jelly, alligator shoes, or Hubert Humphrey's epigrams. Is he having us on, is all that sinisterly worded stuff really there? It sounds so good, so right. Mailer changes masks with every flutter of the strobe: Jove, Job, Jeremiah, Jack the Lit Crit Ripper, Pal Joey, bobbing and weaving with his crooked smile like some medieval dancing bear, the gleam in whose eye springs from the secret knowledge that he's going to have your arm up to the elbow….
In close-up, Mailer is great, tooling his incandescent pensées with Pascalian precision. On any subject here [in Existential Errands]—drugs, booze, God, black power, liberals vs. conservatives, the coming conflict between technology and magic—he is never without a really original analysis, one that fascinates as it penetrates. And besides, Mailer is probably the most entertaining thinker at work today. That alone is worth the prise of the fuming and nodding his readers will experience.
S. K. Oberbeck, "Like an Ahab Hunting Many Whales," in Book World (© The Washington Post), April 30, 1972, p. 5.
As we know, to read Mailer is to watch an imagination generating selves suited to the diversity of its engagements with experience and possibility. The activity matters more than its products, which are to be judged not simply by their relation to objective circumstances—the subjects, conditions, or whatever else the writer addresses himself to (though of course judgment can't wholly avoid these terms)—but also, and mainly, by their success in representing the processes of intelligence and feeling that brought them into being….
To say that Mailer has learned through writing novels how to continue as a writer and a man does not, of course, turn the novels themselves into laboratories or gymnasiums—I think them more important and valuable than any of the nonfiction, as it happens, if only because they are so much more offensive, more challenging to our conventional wisdoms about art and life. Novels have, however, been healthy for him in the past, making possible the brilliant performances as essayist and reporter from Advertisements to Armies of the Night and Cannibals and Christians, and it might not hurt him to get back to the old drawing board yet again.
Thomas R. Edwards, "Keeping Up With Norman Mailer," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), June 15, 1972, pp. 21-2.
The astonishing thing about Norman Mailer is that having conducted his one-man high-wire extravaganza for much of his very public life, two shows daily whether or not he was in shape for either, he has so seldom fallen. Stagger, stumble, trip, grope—yes; but not fallen, at least not all the way down…. Mailer always gets there more or less intact because, in his discursive writing anyway, he's the best after-dinner talker in American letters.
All he needs is an occasion worth the effort, a theme that excites his fancy, and spacious room for maneuver. Existential Errands, a grab-bag of twenty-eight pieces written over the past five years, provides some fine enabling occasions, and others that are merely errands for bringing back the bread, a form of roadwork….
[His] power derives from mass, he thrives in and by his excesses; and, when we are not driven mad by them, we delight in them.
Some of his excesses—stylistic, syntactic, metaphoric—we can do without. Old and bad oratorical habits have persisted over the years, tricks of speech, annoying little flourishes meant to be endearing. Some oddities are the penalties of free-wheeling improvisation which may strike gongs in the auditor's ear but which fails to resolve in the eye—the mode here being closer to speech in the grand manner than to writing. I do not refer to sheer bumbling clumsiness, usually of the more plodding, flatfooted kind, more often than not a misbegotten attempt at levity, for which Mailer simply does not have the deftness of touch. I refer rather to those excesses which yield when they are right, the memorable moments….
Still, for the true improvisational artist, everything is grist for the mill, it being his special gift to spy out relations where none existed before (a working definition of metaphor).
Saul Maloff, "Mailer on the High Wire," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co. Inc.), June 30, 1972, pp. 361-63.
Norman Mailer is a recent and extreme example of a writer who has tried to be the literary historian of his own work, and who in the process has tended to usurp the interpretive, even quite often the evaluative, function of criticism. His self-explanations and assessments are abundant to a fault. He gives so much that one gift is not evidently more important than another, and like an overgenerous lover he finally induces almost a lethargy of gratitude. A man who offers more than anyone wants is in danger of being taken for granted, even of being resented for forestalling what the reader would like to give of himself. Mailer, especially in his most recent work, leads our reading, organizes our impressions, assails us with interpretations of himself that prevent all but the stoutest reader from responding at his own pace, or with free enthusiasm to things that are on the periphery of Mailer's organizational formulas. It is all but impossible to have a peaceful or casual relationship to his writing. Even after the most obedient attention, the reader is seldom rewarded with any sense of achieved calm. Probably the reason is that Mailer himself is continually agitated and dissatisfied, and that he is always redoing what he has done by his subsequent commentaries on it.
Mailer's writings are best considered as one large work. However thematically repetitious, it is a work which constantly comes alive with extraordinary accumulations of intensity and brilliance. It is nonetheless a chaotic mixture that awaits some larger redemptive effort; so that despite The Armies of the Night and Why Are We in Vietnam?, Mailer now is like Melville without Moby Dick, George Eliot without Middlemarch, Mark Twain without Huckleberry Finn. The present dangers are that he is applying to new issues and circumstances methods that he has already worked to exhaustion and, even more, that his achieved self-explanation has come to precede him to experience. In treating the moon shot, the Ali-Frazier fight, or Women's Liberation, he seems locked into a system that one hoped he could have transcended.
And yet it is, of course, Mailer himself who created this hope. By sitting so frequently in self-judgment upon his past he is always implicitly proposing for himself some fresh start in the future. If one gets impatient with his habitual mannerisms—the dualisms and the mixtures of styles that are meant to catch the contentions at work in the whole culture—part of the reason is that they represent the souring of what once was a fresh start. The now too familiar methods that portend a crisis in his career were invented to save him from an earlier, probably more threatening one. They saved him from becoming a mere literary writer, one whose acceptance of the protective cover of moribund literary manners all but alienated him from the vital changes in his society. He is still relying on the persona of the perpetually embattled writer that he began to create in the pieces, particularly the prefatory comments, collected in Advertisements for Myself in 1959. The degree to which this persona was invented for literary purposes and the degree to which it is a necessity of his life is doubtless a mystery even to Mailer.
Richard Poirier, "Norman Mailer: A Self-Creation," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1972, pp. 78-85.
My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it's a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself has changed. Now I confess I have never read all of The Naked and the Dead. I do recall a fine description of soldiers carrying a dying man down a mountain (done almost as well as the same scene in Malraux's earlier work). Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life, but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbons of a Dos Passos work.
Gore Vidal, "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements," in Nation, January 2, 1960 (and collected in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972, by Gore Vidal, Random House, 1972, pp. 75-86).