Mailer, Norman (Vol. 3)
Mailer, Norman 1923–
Novelist, essayist, social critic, film-maker, and "public man," Mailer is one of America's leading (and most controversial) literary personalities. He is a prolific writer, exhibiting in his books a remarkable diversity of concern and achievement. His intensely subjective reportage and his ubiquity as a literary performer have elicited a unique profusion of critical commentary, including highest praise and screeching obloquy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
It is a final irony before which even he flinches that [Mailer]—who began as a middlebrow best-seller, then lapsed into obscurity—returns to popularity [with Advertisements for Myself] among a minority who find in his simple-minded intransigence on the subject of sex a metapolitics compatible with their own loss of youth and poverty. Such readers turn to Mailer not as a good writer, but as a rebel whose rebellion threatens (alas) nothing.
Indeed, Mailer is not a really first-rate novelist at all—and it is here [in Advertisements] that the pathos of his exemplary position is compounded. The Naked and the Dead is a cliché-ridden rewrite of the standard post-World War I protest novel, its villain-general half Daily Worker Fascist and half G.I. faggot. One is not surprised to learn in this volume that the book had been half-conceived by the undergraduate Mailer before he had ever left Harvard to go to the war. Barbary Shore is a belated thirties novel dissolved into incoherence by a hysteria irrelevant to its politics. And The Deer Park, for all its evident honesty, loses its sexual point amid the stereotypes of two decades of anti-Hollywood attitudinizing. Only now  is Mailer beginning to escape from the limitations of the middlebrow protest novel, as he takes up—late as usual—the cause of the hipster and Reichian genitality.
Leslie Fiedler, "Antic Mailer-Portrait of a Middle-Aged Artist," in Forum-Service, January 2, 1960.
Whether Norman Mailer will become the great writer he candidly admits he is ambitious to become, no one can yet say. For all of his chest-thumping and bugle-tooting, he has a sharply realistic sense of the odds: he knows that a writer who sets out on a deliberate search for peril may end by paying heavily in strength and spirit. But one thing is clear, that simply as a writer he is enormously, even outrageously talented.
Anyone who wishes to see how remarkably versatile Mailer is, as well as how fiercely he has painted himself into an intellectual and literary corner, must first look at his Advertisements for Myself, a miscellany of stories, excerpts from novels, essays, musings and conundrums, all packed together with an italiziced running commentary which forms a rough-stroked picture of the artist as young Seeker, Rebel and Outside Dopester. At the moment this book may well be more interesting than Mailer's [early] novels, for in it, I think, he has packed more of his essential drives and desires. A rowdy, intense and exciting book, it assaults without equivocation almost all the decorums of liberal moderation and cultural respectability….
Mailer is one of the few younger writers who has made his public self—his personality, his ideas, his claims—into a matter of legitimate interest, in a way a writer like Hemingway once did. In both the best and weakest sections of the book, one is struck by Mailer's absolute unwillingness to settle into his achievement, his impatience with a style as soon as he comes close to mastering it, his devotion to restlessness as a principle of both life and work….
[One] can also see the weaknesses which have marked Mailer's fiction until very recently: first, that his prose, betraying too strongly the influence of 'thirties journalism, is often flat and ungainly; second, that while superb at evoking an aura and springing a sequence of action, he has not yet looked into or cared about a character deeply enough so that the character can burst out of the fictional schema and into something like a life of his own….
Mailer seems to have turned toward a generalized quest for new sources of energy, new sources of motion and rebellion, in which sexuality is in danger of becoming a mere metaphor. At one point he suggests that for man to restore his self and reaffirm his potency would mean to re-create the vital image of God, since God cannot be God until man becomes man. God becomes the name of his desperation.
This mixture of Lawrence, Emerson, Reich and some Marx carries the further implication that the achievement of sexual well-being or even a proximate version of it would have revolutionary social consequences, though I think that here Mailer's argument staggers a little. For he never succeeds in showing why the transfer of energy need take place from sexuality to sociality, other than remarking, almost as if he had lapsed into ethical culture, that "in widening the area of the possible, one widens it reciprocally for others as well." Mailer seems to be falling back upon a curious analogue to Adam Smith's invisible hand, by means of which innumerable units in conflict with each other achieve a resultant of harmony and cooperation. Here again one can see Mailer's hunger for new possibilities and modes of transcendence, even if they break forth in claustrophobic sexual images….
Irving Howe, "A Quest for Peril: Norman Mailer," in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 123-29.
The trouble with An American Dream as a novel is precisely that in it Mailer [has] lost his cool. The tone is hectic, sometimes raucous and, above all, anxious. You would never guess from it that Mailer has written the most alive and intelligent prose of his generation, a style in which his swarming ideas and insights, imaginative depth and intellectual pressure work effortlessly together, making The Naked and the Dead the finest book to come out of the war. He still has his moments….
Mailer's strength as a novelist and essayist has always been his sense of which issues are on the edge of erupting into the American consciousness. An American Dream was begun in September 1963. Two months later the private, bedroom violence he described was given overwhelming political expression when Kennedy was assasinated. Since then murderousness has proliferated like cancer in the States: Philadelphia, Miss., Selma and Harlem. It has status and recognition, it has class. It even has its own formal political parties and extremist platforms: the Black Moslems, the Klan, the Birchers. One of Mailer's finest pieces was his defence of hipsterism, 'The White Negro'. An American Dream might be sub-titled The White Black Moslem—written, of course, by Norman X….
An American Dream remains a political novel. It is written to shock people into recognizing the underforces that run their lives and society; it is written to change things a bit. Maybe it would have more chance of doing so if it had been dashed off less like a pamphlet, impatiently, carelessly, to do a job; not so much a way of life, more a programme. Even so, there are touches of genius about it, as there are about everything Mailer writes. It may not be the masterpiece he promised at the end of Advertisements for Myself, but it is a splendid fill-in on the most improbable fictional character since Moby Dick: I mean Norman Mailer.
A. Alvarez, "Norman Mailer's An American Dream" (originally published in The Spectator, 1965), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 213-17.
Beginning with The Naked and the Dead … and carrying through to Vietnam, Mailer has interpreted his generation's wars and warriors as manifestations of deeper tensions in civilian life. Since, for Mailer, man is most himself in crisis—skirting death, teetering on the brink of a ledge, dodging federal marshals in a dash for the Pentagon—conflict is the condition in which his nature can best be explored. In his Manichean vision of the universe, Mailer's paradoxically gentle, religious hero's freely plunging into violence is most likely to bring him into contact with God….
Mailer becomes America. For him, as for the Transcendentalists, the structure of the universe duplicates the structure of the individual self, all knowledge begins with self-knowledge. He has so steeped himself in contemporary culture, drawing together so much of our literary history, political conflicts, pop art, and religious heritage, that in his work we experience both a writer and a nation becoming, struggling, splitting, groping for a new form.
His method, of course, is artistically dangerous. As Richard Gilman pointed out, Mailer has blurred the distinction between life and art, thought and action. He has disregarded the traditional meanings of philosophical and theological terms and has defined his own brand of existentialism entirely in terms of doing. He has abandoned the artist's traditional role of transcending politics at least to some degree, staking his whole career on the conviction that he is his art, and that he is legitimately his own most appropriate subject matter. For him, existentialism is the "feel of the human condition." For each book he reshuffles the cards of his sometimes unorthodox political, sexual and quasi-suicidal experiences—four marriages, arrests, a stabbing, socialism, bouts with alcohol, marijuana and mescaline—translating his ego into a literary portrayal of American life. Interpreting himself as the contemporary version of the Renaissance man, growing as he charges from activity to activity, he conjures up a vision of God remarkably like himself—an imperfect being at war with other gods, fighting the Devil (God's waste) and worthy of love because he is growing and because he is weak.
Mailer most successfully synthesized his life, literature and theology in The Armies of the Night…. Here he found his voice in a new impressionistic, almost Joycean journalism, giving contemporary history the existential historian's subjective sympathy without sacrificing the novelist-journalist's detachment. Here he gave his most mature and perceptive presentation of the central political theme he introduced in The Naked and the Dead: a diabolic totalitarian strain co-exists and interacts with the dominant American Christian democratic culture….
His heroes are Hemingway romantics with danger-filled pasts, but inhibited by physical or psychological weakness, war wounds, amnesia or half-memories of violent events in their early years. We explore their lives through flashbacks or long-winded narrations embellished with political rhetoric. Often they are engaged in some enterprise that is worthless or destructive but which has been rationalized according to some higher ideal. They climb mountains that do not need to be climbed, produce movies that are artistic trash, pursue grizzly bears in a hunt that corrupts the hunters. They risk their lives in morally ambivalent symbolic acts: they violently storm the Pentagon on a "peace" march or invade Chicago in a protest which is morally right but (here I must disagree with him) symbolically empty. Each enterprise is in its own way a barbarous endeavor, taking its toll in moral integrity or human lives, revealing the beast within man.
Raymond A. Schroth, "Mailer and His Gods: Norman Mailer Goes to War," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 9, 1969, pp. 226-29.
Norman Mailer is the most stubbornly political of living American novelists, a fact that explains a certain element of tough strength in most of his work as well as the increasingly problematic status of his fiction since The Naked and the Dead. He is shrewdly realistic about political actualities yet doggedly hopeful about man's possibilities, and this peculiar mix of wry knowledge and romantic faith has made it progressively more difficult for him to write in the fictional modes of conventional realism about a play of political forces whose chief effects seem to him the destruction of human meanings, the institutionalization of unreality, the mass production of inobtrusive and bottomless despair….
Mailer has the kind of imagination that delights in the nice observation of concrete particulars but at the same time is powerfully drawn to athletic, not to say fantastic, play with theory. The way he has variously resolved the pull between these two aspects of his imagination has in fact determined the formal disposition of his novels. The most impressive achievement of The Naked and the Dead is in the painstaking accumulation of acute observation: Mailer skillfully catches every line of ethnic feature, each elided nuance of regional accent, the tone and touch and look of particular American lives lived in particular American milieux, and the novel he builds from such observation has a massive solidity unlike anything he would write afterward….
As Mailer in the 1950's made clear for himself the distinctive meaning of his enormous ambition as a writer, he came to recognize that the chief role to which he aspired was not descriptive but, in the proper biblical sense, prophetic: The "sour truth" he admits to at the very beginning of Advertisements for Myself is that he is "imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." The uncompromising clarity of prophetic vision he sought in order to reveal the inner nature of the spiritual condition from which all our political ills issued could easily be clouded or thrown out of focus by excessive attention to surface detail, and this in essence is what happens through many pages—even brilliantly written pages—of The Naked and the Dead….
It may sound a little inane to say that the subject of any literary work is reality, since that is obviously true in some sense of all serious literature, but that otherwise vapid truism has a peculiar and informative applicability to all Mailer's fiction from The Deer Park on. What he confronts centrally for the first time in The Deer Park is the special power of American society to mask, sham, evade, forget reality, to seduce its individual members into giving up on engagement in the real world; and the ultimately political nature of his moral imagination is reflected in his effort here to show how this American style of cotton-candy insulation from reality allows a society to perpetrate horror and obscenity at home and abroad with hardly a twinge of conscience….
There is an element of militant genius in Mailer that makes most of what he has written interesting, original, in some way worthy of respect, but the soft underside of his genius is his tendency to self-indulgence, and that has been abundantly evident in his last two novels. One suspects that it has shaped too many of the pleasurable fantasies of An American Dream; in Why Are We in Vietnam? it exerts an almost constant pressure on the rhetoric of the novel. It may be that Mailer tries to do too many things at once here. There are patches of free-associating, science-fiction fantasy attacks on American reality in the manner of William Burroughs, but they are never sustained with Burroughs's manic intensity. There are brief theoretical analyses of the psychosexual ills at the root of corporation-run U.S.A., but these never achieve the subtlety or specificity of articulation of Mailer's own essays on similar matters in Cannibals and Christians and elsewhere. Above all, there is the serious parody—written, I fear, with an eye to Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel—of the archetypal American tale of the wilderness hunt for some absolute, primal beast….
Both in An American Dream and in Why Are We in Vietnam? Mailer strains to imagine "politics as a part of everything else in life" by representing it in acts—sex, murder, hunting—that become ritual and symbolic as the tests of true or bogus heroism. The Armies of the Night reverses this procedure, describing an overtly political event with an electric awareness of the "everything else" that is implicated in it and that explicates it. In this case the heroism which for Mailer is essential to any genuinely human politics is ironically focused in the comic heroic figure of the novelist himself…. The egotism is, I would suggest, a hold on sanity in an insane historical situation. Where collective moral sensibility translates itself into blank-walled Pentagons, into flailing truncheons at home and flamethrowers in distant places, a self-critical but irrepressible egotism is a way of asserting that individual will and character still count for something, that it is still imaginable, possible, perhaps even useful, to try to affirm one's own humanity through action….
The Armies of the Night is probably Mailer's most fully achieved book and certainly his most successful engagement of politics through a narrative form. The implications of this achievement, to be sure, for the future of the political novel are at best ambiguous. When horror, absurdity, bizarre incongruity, conscious and unconscious madness, come to dominate the institutions and public acts of political life, and political protest as well, fictional invention may pale by contrast or overstrain itself in the effort of competition with reality. Perhaps in such a predicament one valuable service a novelist can perform is to try to come to grips directly with actual events. It may well be that at this point in history we all need the aid of the novelist's imagination simply to help us imagine what seems to be more and more unimaginable—the real world in which we have to live, make decisions individually and collectively, and still struggle to shape a livable political future.
Robert Alter, "Norman Mailer (1923–)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 321-34.
Norman Mailer's standing as a proper literary figure has been less and less in doubt in recent years, and [the] selection [of Armies of the Night] for national prizes and awards was surprisingly well received in all concerned quarters. In fact a lot of readers who had doggedly stuck by Mailer while he was producing one after another of the most compellingly unsatisfactory books being published in a mountingly unsatisfactory era fell on Armies with exaggerated noises of approval; there was offputting talk about his finally proving his claim to be the "best writer in America," and so forth. Yet I think it is a masterly book according to its kind—and what I would especially call attention to is the way it grows into its power and eloquence (not transcending the occasion but responding to it, pursuing it, with an unstinting fullness of consideration) by adopting, or reinventing, a classic American literary mode: the exploratory personal testament in which the writer describes how he has turned his own life into a practical moral experiment and put it out at wager according to the chances, and against the odds, peculiar to his time….
In his earlier books some excess of personal insistence—willfulness, egotism, unregulated ambition—kept Mailer straining after more than he could satisfactorily deliver; more, it also seemed, than his found or improvised materials could intrinsically support. Yet the failures always seemed to be of execution rather than of imaginative purpose. He was a writer made as impatient by his own inventions as by everything else, in literature or out of it, that was offering itself for public acceptance; a writer growing more and more distrustful of the whole established occasion of literary making. He clung to the idea of The Novel as the great field of the fame he thirsted for and to the older idea of (as he still puts it in Armies, though with an ironic detachment) the writer's "responsibility to educate the nation," yet he seemed in the event to disbelieve in both the old novel and the old pedagogic rationale with an intensity that was sometimes the only halfway convincing sign of real originality, real seriousness. Critical reactions were fairly uniform in their disapproval. It was a reviewer's commonplace that Mailer belonged to publicity rather than to literature….
Mailer has been saying for years that the great contemporary subject was totalitarianism. Now we are all saying that, or something like it, and feeling it with a paralyzing oppressiveness. His obsession, as it used to seem, with conflicts of power and brute force, with pitting himself against rivals (not just other writers but more ferocious antagonists like Sonny Liston, the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson), with combat to the death against some vast imaginary Thing called various names but most ominously "cancer," no longer strikes us as ersatz Hemingwayism but as a kind of nervy common sense; and we read him now with all the interest a witness-bearer deserves whose obsessions have been borne out by the explosion of actual events.
Warner Berthoff, in his Fictions and Events: Essays in Criticism and Literary History (copyright © 1971 by Warner Berthoff; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1971, pp. 301-03.
Norman Mailer seems to me to belong in the great tradition of American writers in his paternal anxiety for the fantastic variety of American voices that for him articulate the dangerously fluid but exhilaratingly alive condition of American society. His works are an effort to locate some enliveningly tensed coherence among the many voices he has absorbed into himself and has heard around him. I would take his engagements with language as political rather than simply literary ones: they are a way of discovering how to hold together elements that perhaps by nature would tend to destroy one another, both in a political and in a literary structure….
More than anyone else of his time, Mailer is implicated, in every sense of that word, in the way we live now. He is the stout literary contender for the English language, in competition not simply with others (he's nearly beyond that) but with anything—transistors, newspapers, tapes, the sound of helicopters, all the media—that presumes to represent reality. It's no holds or obscenities barred, except in Miami and the Siege of Chicago where he creates false extremities in order to rest, stylistically and politically, at some spectatorial middle ground. At his best he seeks contamination. He does so by adopting the roles, the styles, the sounds that will give him the measure of what it's like to be alive in this country. He takes on the literary responsibility for the condition of our civilization, and of course he's despised by those who simply think the condition will pass if we attend to our classes in literary knitting or talk the usual kind of sense. He does all this not to wallow but to push through with some renewed sense of his own human shape, with his own unique and liberating sounds. Alien forces can be dealt with, he would seem to say, only by allowing them to become internal, by inducing their internalization—though he finds it increasingly hard to internalize the young—in order that they may be transformed or routed within the battleground of his own organism….
The body that Mailer imagines as his own is … quite literally, for him, the body politic; it's therefore proper that he writes so often about vomiting, urinating, bodily stench, feces, and the tensed closeness of the organs of creation to the organs of waste….
The self whose history is being reported in The Armies of the Night acted in the past within limiting circumstances peculiar to that moment in the past; the self who is making the report, doing the writing, is acting in the present under quite different historical and, above all, literary pressures. The Mailer of the march to the Pentagon is not the Mailer writing about the march, which means that there has to be yet another, a third Mailer, the one who is anxious to make this distinction. The highly involuted narrative organization of Why Are We in Vietnam? reveals even more fully Mailer's wariness about the potential traps of reportorial or narrative or interpretive acts. As a result, the hero D.J. (Disc Jockey to the World) from whose mind the novel is taken, as from a tape contrived by William Burroughs, whose work is indispensable to this novel, is allowed to exhaust all the possible implications of what has happened to him and what he is freely allowed to imagine happening to everyone else. Like Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, D.J. is a superb interpretive critic, among his many other accomplishments, and he gives several spiritedly obscene throw-away interpretations to the readers.
Richard Poirier, in his The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (copyright © 1971 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 5-16.
[The] informing influence of the machine [as the force of anonymous brute mechanism] can nowhere be studied with greater interest or reward than in Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. To reread The Naked and the Dead in these terms is important on two counts. First, it views the book in a light that has not been trained on it before, and that illuminates and enriches our understanding of it as a novel. Second, it underlines and clarifies the function of the machine as a controlling metaphor in World War II novels by demonstrating the organic importance of that metaphor in the first really significant, probably the best, and certainly the most imitated of those novels….
The Naked and the Dead has been interpreted in a number of ways. Mailer himself has maintained that it is an ultimately hopeful "parable about the movement of man through history." Admitting that it sees man as corrupt and confused to the point of helplessness, he insists that it also finds that "there are limits beyond which he cannot be pushed, and it finds that even in his corruption and sickness there are yearnings for a better world. Most readers have denied these positive elements, making the book a pessimistic, bleak, and hopeless account of men defeated before they start by all sorts of deterministic forces. Some see it as a roughly existential document in which the horror and absurdity of war are presented as normal in the context of the human condition at large, which is itself essentially absurd. Still others—perhaps taking Mailer at his word—put it in the class of novels in which war is horrible enough, but still an educational, broadening experience in which the soul is tested and purged by adversity, and positive values triumph. Each of these interpretations is defensible; the book is by no means clear in its thematic conclusions.
The central conflict in The Naked and the Dead is between the mechanistic forces of "the system" and the will to individual integrity. Commanding General Cummings, brilliant and ruthless evangel of fascist power and control, and ironhanded, hard-nosed Sergeant Croft personify the machine. Opposing them in the attempt to maintain personal dignity and identity are Cummings' confused young aide, Lieutenant Hearn, and Private Valsen, rebellious member of Croft's platoon. Mailer fails to bring this conflict to any satisfying resolution: at the novel's end Hearn is dead and Valsen's stubborn pride defeated, but likewise Croft is beaten and humiliated and Cummings' personal ambitions thwarted. But while the resolution of the conflict may be ambiguous, the nature of it is not. The principal burden of the novel is to explore the condition of man struggling against the depersonalizing forces of modern society….
Cummings is a man so imbued with the machine, its language, its power, its values, that he not only defends it as the instrument of military and political control, but has allowed it to penetrate to the very depths of his being. It is his aphrodisiac; the object of his lust and passion. He confounds its forces with those of life and regeneration, its objects with human beings. Thus Cummings' function as symbolic character has crucial implications for the central theme of the novel: that the machine is capable of extending its domination to the most fundamental levels of man's existence; of becoming a threat to his very nature and to his humanity.
Randall H. Waldron, "The Naked, the Dead, and the Machine: A New Look at Norman Mailer's First Novel," in PMLA, 87 (copyright © 1972 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), March, 1972, pp. 271-77.
Mailer's career has not … described an unbroken decline. The Armies of the Night (1967) represented a genuine if partial recovery, and his latest book [St. George and the Godfather], though it is narrated by the now overly-familiar Aquarius and journeys through the usual Mailer territory, is a decisive improvement over recent disasters like King of the Hill (1971), a short but still tedious mixture of machismo and apocalypse concerning "the fight of the century" between Ali and Frazier, and The Prisoner of Sex (also 1971), an act of empty self-importance probably without rival in recent American letters. But it is surely small praise to say that the Mailer of the past six or eight years has not always touched the nadir of his gifts; and it remains true, I think, that nothing he has done in the past decade comes near to the seriousness and resonance of his flawed but brilliantly promising earlier work—the first three novels and especially the long stories, "The Man Who Studied Yoga" and "The Time of Her Time," both included in Advertisements for Myself (1959)….
[The] great strength and value of the earlier Mailer—vestiges of whom survive in The Armies of the Night, though rarely later—had been to awaken even in his older readers an authentic sense of spiritual endangerment but also at the same time to complicate and frustrate it: so that he was then able to dramatize not only the spirit's yearning for transcendence, its ache and discontent, but also the self-deceptions and simplifications such yearning encourages. This Mailer, who has absented himself from the later work but whom I would wish still to honor, was the enemy of psychological or political simplicity. He tried, as he said in an interview reprinted in Advertisements for Myself, to penetrate "into the nuance of things." If he succeeded imperfectly, still he gave promise then—most impressively in the tangled political agonies of Barbary Shore, in the moral complexity and generosity of "The Man Who Studied Yoga," and in the encompassing ironic candor of "The Time of Her Time"—that he might become almost as rare and precious to us as he imagined himself to be.
David Thorburn, "The Artist as Performer" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; (© 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, April, 1973, pp. 87-93.
This brilliant book ["Marilyn"] gives off bad vibes—and vibes are what Mailer is supposed to be the master of. "Marilyn" is a feat all right: matchstick by matchstick, he's built a whole damned armada inside a bottle. (Surely he's getting ready to do "Norman"? Why leave it to someone who may care less?) But can we honor him for this book when it doesn't sit well on the stomach? It's a metaphysical cocktail-table book, and probably not many will be able to resist looking for the vicious digs and the wrap-up on the accumulated apocrypha of many years, many parties. To be king of the bums isn't really much. What are we actually getting out of "Marilyn"? Good as the best parts of it are, there's also malevolence that needs to be recognized. Is the great reporter's arrogance so limitless that he now feels free to report on matters to which he's never been exposed? Neither the world nor Marilyn Monroe's life should be seen in Norman Mailer's image.
Pauline Kael, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 22, 1973, pp. 1-3.
Norman Mailer's book on Marilyn Monroe is shaping up as the book industry's most scandalous event since the Clifford Irving hoax with Howard Hughes. As it happens, "Marilyn" is largely a critique and cannibalization of earlier writings on the subject, and much of the controversy seems to have arisen from Mailer's belittling of his predecessors as if they were his research assistants….
But what may have been lost sight of in all the confusion is that Mailer has manfully transformed a tackily commissioned coffee-table project into a personal crisis….
Since there is no writer maler than Mailer, the cultural coupling of two sex symbols, one a prisoner of sex and the other a hostage to Hollywood fortune, makes a certain amount of mythic sense. The built-in publicity value alone is beyond measure, and Mailer's professional talent is virtually beyond dispute. To say, therefore, that Mailer's latest venture is more readable than admirable, and that it displays more charisma than character, or charity, or even courtesy is to say that it is the least we might have expected under the circumstances.
Of course, Mailer is an old hand at confounding his critics by confusing their categories. What is Mailer's "novel biography," after all, but the New Journalism transported to those outer limits of perception where the lies of art whore around with the lies of gossip. If Tom Wolfe with his invisible white suits and his chastely uncommitted persona embodies the voyeuristic branch of the New Journalism, Mailer with his mauled machismo thrusts upward and outward as New Journalism's most extended exhibitionist branch, veritably its Lenny Bruce of letters.
Andrew Sarris, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 12, 1973, pp. 1-3.
The movies—his own in particular—have become very nearly an obsession with [Mailer], but in a much larger sense he has identified himself with the ephemera of our popular culture, the periodic brouhaha of championship boxing matches and elections, the monumental explosion of flackery that was the moonshot, the flotsam and jetsam of our generation taking its shape from the informing presence of … Trashman!…
Norman's wrestlings with the meaning of Marilyn is, "in that favorite word of the publicity flack, curvaceous," not a sensuous and hardly a sensual curve, but a time-curve, a psychic bending back in a gesture of possession, and as the camera closes in and peers over the writer's shoulder, whom do we see taking shape in his hands but—Norman Jean!
His victory? No, nobody will ever know Marilyn Monroe. Myth Marilyn Monroe. She grows younger as we (and Norman) grow older, like the photographed faces of young soldiers fixed for eternity with question mark eyebrows, naked and dead, forever floating in a lens of amber, amen.
John Seelye, "The Naked and the Dead," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), September 1, 1973, pp. 25-7.
What is truly shocking about Marilyn is not so much that Mailer is writing a biography of someone he didn't know and doesn't bother to research properly; nor is it the absurd overestimation of that person's talents and scope; nor yet the metaphysical balderdash about karma and double souls and Chinese reincarnation; nor even the arrogance and foolishness with which he figures out by spurious near-anagrams of their names that Marilyn and Mailer were destined for each other (or really the same person, I'm not quite sure which). The capital offense of this book is the rant, the bombast, the fustian, the sheer ludicrous and ugly overwriting of it. If the content is worthy of Preminger's Laura, the style is rather like Popeye the Sailor's arm after the ingestion of spinach: Mailer flexing his verbal muscles to the point where his prose is not a good read but a grisly roller-coaster ride along a biceps gone berserk….
The tastelessness is less in the prurience than in the ineptitude….
Despite a few flashes of common sense, some insights and an occasional bit of lucid exposition, Marilyn is a very poorly written, very demented book, by someone whom our deluded critics persist in treating as a major, perhaps our best, writer. And it won't do to say that Mailer has only lately gone over the bend: There is less than a Chappaquiddick wheel's deviation between these onanistic lucubrations on the late sex star, the nude and deceased, and that supposedly brilliant first novel on the naked and the dead.
John Simon, "Mailer's Mystic Marriage," in The New Leader, September 17, 1973, pp. 21-3.
Mailer's finest critics, like Poirier and Leo Bersani and Tony Tanner, tend to err by adopting him for their gentler, more complex vision of the world. They make him more humane than he probably is. They see him as critical of the magic and machismo of which he is more likely the victim. They insist on his mastery of the shifting tones and meanings of his prose, whereas I think he has bravely and erratically delivered himself up to the vagaries of language in his time.
Of course Mailer is a wonderful ironist…. But his irony is floating and playful rather than critical. Mailer is capable of passionately believing in something he has just shown to be quite incredible. He has many voices, many selves, as Poirier reminds us. He is, as Poirier memorably says, "the most accomplished ventriloquist of styles now writing in English." And Mailer is right to prefer his multiplicity to a more artful unity. There are evils and energies in America which will not speak at all unless they speak through Mailer. He is the ordinary guy as bad guy, he is the indiscreet charm of the American bourgeoisie. But then he speaks so well for the enemy because he is in large part the enemy, and we can't have him as our hero as well. We cheat Mailer and ourselves by pretending he is tamer than he is….
The strained, silly language [of "Marilyn"] … gives the whole sentimental game away. Mailer, like the courtly Elizabethan gent he is at heart, is spreading out his cloak for Marilyn, playing a beefy Walter Raleigh for this damaged Fifties princess. He is wooing her with a poem, trying, even now, to take her away from Arthur Miller. Mailer confesses to this, his "secret ambition" when he lived near the Millers in Connecticut, and adds, with that rueful, phony humility he puts on so well, that he now knows he would have "done no better than Miller." Yet here he is, busy doing better, offering Marilyn all his understanding and sympathy, everything she never got from all those men who let her down. Eternity is not too late for Mailer's homage, and he will eclipse Miller and DiMaggio and Yves Montand in the way he knows how: on the page, in his prose. His strategy with Marilyn is exactly analogous to his performance in The Armies of the Night as Poirier defines it: he will come alive in writing where he was ignored or insignificant in the flesh.
But if it now seems predictable that Mailer should want to compete for Marilyn rather than interpret her, this can't have been at all clear to him when he took on the job. We need to recognize what a good idea this book was. "Set a thief to catch a thief," Mailer murmurs, "and put an artist on an artist." What he means, surely, is set a myth to catch a myth. Who but Mailer, a mythological figure in his own write, ought to tell the story of a fellow-inmate of that American Madame Tussaud's inhabited by Sinatra and the Kennedys and DiMaggio? Mailer's fantasy has always played in precisely that pantheon, in those big, interdepartmental leagues of stardom. The first sentence of An American Dream, after all, names Jack Kennedy, and Rojack receives a message from Marilyn herself on the last page of the same book….
Mailer's talent and inclination, as he says, are for sniffing out the center of a situation from a distance, and this is what he has tried to do with Marilyn. He has tried to leap from a handful of facts into a full-blown myth, "a literary hypothesis of a possible Marilyn who might actually have lived and fit most of the facts available." The italics are Mailer's, and he could hardly sound less like a man throwing caution to the winds.
What is wrong with the book is not Mailer's recklessness but his timidity and piety. He is writing a book, he says, which will "stray toward the borders of magic," but all he can do is mention witches and covens when he can, mumble portentously about the soul and eternity … and overwork what poor coincidences he can find in Marilyn's life….
This is the best Mailer can do by way of magic. His language is tired and full of self-quotation, and his psychology a sort of muddled borrowing from R. D. Laing, who I should have thought was muddled enough to start with…. In the face of this kind of stuff Mailer's appeal to professionalism—he had to meet a deadline with the book, and "in a polluted and nihilistic world, one clings to professionalism"—seems downright shoddy. What kind of professional meets his deadline with any old rubbish?
Michael Wood, "Kissing Hitler," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), September 20, 1973, pp. 22-4.
Trash is what The Brothers Karamazov turned into when Hollywood made a movie of it, though the novel suffered no harm because it was already there in the world, intact; it still reads as well as it ever did. But maybe a story itself involved with trash, as Marilyn Monroe's was, can be damaged beyond repair if a teller as powerful as Mailer mangles it before it has been told well…. Every good story, like any story which becomes part of popular consciousness, must have a fairy-tale spine. To be potentially great, a story must be exemplary, too, as hers is; she suffered in extreme form that most contemporary of maladies, disorder of self-assertion. And what writer would seem to know more about that than Mailer? Yet, though he tries, he does not transmute her story with understanding. Instead of mastering that disorder in his book, he succumbs to it. Self-knowledge, not more self-consciousness, is what the story might have given and what we need. The sadness would be if Mailer is a sort of anti-alchemist debasing the gold of Marilyn Monroe's story forever….
A thousand years from now, when scholars are trying to understand how we did it so wrong, they will need fables in order to hold us steadily in mind. Marilyn aspires to be such a one, but instead it trashes its material in such a way as to raise the suspicion that maybe this sort of fable can only be done wrong. But it's more likely that the right storyteller hasn't dared assert himself yet. This story must be told in such a way that a stranger can know the celebrities in it as persons and can appreciate how both they and the masses have been contaminated because they were joined by the wrong connections, the organs of publicity. Whoever the author is, the story deserves to be grand. We really are amazing….
In 1970, with the National Book Award and half a Pulitzer, Mailer was certified as the celebrity among American writers, the interpreter of this age….
Very well. Mailer, having been established as the wisest celebrity, set out in Marilyn to tell the inside story of the dreamiest celebrity: enough for a pseudo-event in itself. So, Book-of-the-Month Club, selections in journals varyingly connected with celebrity-making, a two-part review in the daily New York Times and the first three pages (Wow!) in the Sunday Times Book Review. But with the public accusation that a good deal of the book was plagiarized, its publication became a super-pseudo-event: a big spread in Time, news stories and lots of publicitous talk, and a Major Intellectual Problem. Can a superstar plagiarize? Are not trashy words taken by an intellectual superstar alchemized by his very appropriation into literature or at least into valuable insight? The laws that apply to ordinary writers should be suspended for Norman Mailer. Apparently, in the eyes of one dazzled by his own celebrity, and in the eyes of his dazzled admirers, superstardom puts a man above the law, whether writer or President.
George P. Elliott, in Harper's (copyright © 1973 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the October, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), October, 1973, pp. 106-11.
Even if its narrative were not so blatantly, and self-admittedly, cobbled together from facts already available in other biographies, the Mailer Marilyn would still be an amateur piece of work. Its considerable strength lies in that limitation. As far as talent goes, Marilyn Monroe was so minimally gifted as to be almost unemployable, and anyone who holds to the opinion that she was a great natural comic identifies himself immediately as a dunce. For purposes best known to his creative demon, Mailer planes forward on the myth of her enormous talent like a drunken surfer. Not for the first time, he gets further by going with the flow than he ever could have done by caviling. Thinking of her as a genius, he can call her drawbacks virtues, and so deal—unimpeded by skepticism—with the vital mystery of her presence.
Mailer's adoration is as amateurish as an autograph hunter's. But because of it we are once again, and this time ideally, reminded of his extraordinary receptivity. That the book should be an embarrassing and embarrassed rush-job is somehow suitable….
And yet Marilyn is one of Mailer's most interesting things. Easy to punish, it is hard to admire—like its subject. But admire it we must—like its subject. The childishness of the whole project succeeds in emitting a power that temporarily calls adulthood into question: The Big Book of the Mad Girl. Consuming it at a long gulp, the reader ponders over and over again Mailer's copiously fruitful aptitude for submission. Mailer is right to trust his own foolishness, wherever it leads; even if the resulting analysis of contemporary America impresses us as less diagnostic than symptomatic.
Not solely for the purpose of disarming criticism, Mailer calls his Marilyn a biography in novel form. The parent novel, we quickly guess, is Deer Park…. By claiming the right to launch vigorous imaginative patrols from a factual base, Mailer gives himself an easy out from the strictures of verisimilitude, especially when the facts are discovered to be contradictory. But Mailer's fantasizing goes beyond expediency. Maurice Zolotow, poor pained scrivener, can sue Mailer all he likes, but neither he nor the quiescent Fred Lawrence Guiles will ever get his Marilyn back. Mailer's Marilyn soars above the known data, an apocalyptic love-object no mundane pen-pusher could dream of reaching. Dante and Petrarch barely knew Beatrice and Laura. It didn't slow them down. Mailer never met Marilyn at all. It gives him the inside track.
Critical fashion would have it that since Deer Park reality has been busy turning itself into a novel. As Philip Roth said it must, the extremism of real events has ended up by leaving the creative imagination looking like an also-ran. A heroine in a 50's novel, Lulu was really a girl of the 40's—she had some measure of control over her life. Mailer now sees that the young Marilyn was the true 50's heroine—she had no control over her life whatsoever….
In tracing Marilyn's narcissism back to her fatherless childhood, our author is at his strongest. His propensity for scaling the mystical ramparts notwithstanding, Mailer in his Aquarius/Prisoner role is a lay psychologist of formidable prowess….
Marilyn is a latter-day Kennedy-era text, whose prose, acrid with the tang of free-floating charisma, could have been written a few weeks after Robert Kennedy's death rounded out the period of the family's power. Mailer's facility for confusing the intention with the deed fits that epoch's trust in façades to perfection. He is delicately tender when evoking the pathos of Marilyn's anxious quest for self-fulfillment, but never doubts that the treasure of buried ability was there to be uncovered, if only she could have found the way. The true pathos—that she was simply not fitted for the kind of art she had been led to admire—eludes him. Just as he gets over the problem of Marilyn's intellectual limitations by suggesting that a mind can be occupied with more interesting things than thoughts, so he gets over the problem of her circumscribed accomplishments by suggesting that true talent is founded not on ability but on a state of being….
Scattered throughout the book are hints that Mailer is aware that his loved one had limited abilities. But he doesn't let it matter, preferring to insist that her talent—a different thing—was boundless. Having overcome so much deprivation in order to see that certain kinds of achievement were desirable, she had an automatic entitlement to them. That, at any rate, seems to be his line of reasoning. A line of reasoning which is really an act of faith. The profundity of his belief in the significance of what went on during those secret sessions at the Actors' Studio is unplumbable. She possessed, he vows, the talent to play Cordelia. One examines this statement from front-on, from both sides, through a mirror, and with rubber gloves. Is there a hint of a put-on? There is not. Doesn't he really mean something like: she possessed enough nerve and critical awareness to see the point of trying to extend her range by playing a few fragments of a Shakespearean role out of the public eye? He does not. He means what he says, that Marilyn Monroe possessed the talent to play Cordelia….
The author does a noble, loyal, zealous job of tracing his heroine's career as an artist, but we end by suspecting that he is less interested in her professional achievement than in her fame. The story of Norma Jean becoming Somebody is the true spine of the book, and the book is Mailer's most concise statement to date of what he thinks being Somebody has come to mean in present-day America. On this theme, Marilyn goes beyond being merely wrong-headed and becomes quite frightening….
In many ways The Naked and the Dead was the last classic novel to be written in America. The separately-treated levels of the military hierarchy mirrored the American class structure, such as it was, and paralleled the class structure of the classic European novel, such as it had always been. With Deer Park the American classes were already in a state of flux, but the society of Hollywood maintained cohesion by being aware of what conditions dictated the mutability of its hierarchy: Sergius the warrior slept with Lulu the love queen, both of them qualifying, while fortune allowed, as members of the only class, below which was the ruck—the unlovely, the unknown, the out. Deer Park was Mailer's last attempt to embody American society in fictional form: An American Dream could find room only for its hero. Increasingly with the years, the broad sweep of Mailer's creativity has gone into the interpretation of reality as it stands, or rather flows, and he has by now become adept at raising fact to the level of fiction…. Mailer's tendency to enroll himself in even the most exalted action is based on the perception, not entirely crazed, that the relative positions in the star-cluster of status are his to define: reality is a novel that he is writing….
Mailer doesn't want famous people to mean as little as the skeptical tongue says they do. To some extent he is right. There is an excitement in someone like Marilyn Monroe coming out of nowhere to find herself conquering America, and there is a benediction in the happiness she could sometimes project from the middle of her anguish. Without Mailer's receptivity we would not have been given the full impact of these things; just as, if he had listened to the liberal line on the space program, we would not have been given those enthralling moments in Of a Fire on the Moon when the launch vehicle pulls free of its bolts, or when the mission passes from the grip of the earth into the embrace of its target—moments as absorbing as our first toys. Mailer's shamelessness says that there are people and events which mean more than we in our dignity are ready to allow. He has nearly always been right. But when he starts saying that in that case they might as well mean what he wants them to mean, the fictionalist has overstepped the mark, since the patterning that strengthens fiction weakens fact….
More than any of his essays so far, Marilyn tries to give the mummery of what happens the majestic gravity of a created world. And as he has so often done before, he makes even the most self-assured of us wonder if we have felt deeply enough, looked long enough, lived hard enough. He comes close to making us doubt our conviction that in a morass of pettiness no great issues are being decided. We benefit from the doubt. But the price he pays for being able to induce it is savage, and Nietzsche's admonition is beginning to apply. He has gazed too long into the abyss, and now the abyss is gazing into him. Bereft of judgment, detachment, or even a tinge of irony, Marilyn is a sumptuous but slavish expression of an empty consensus. The low roar of the poor millions is in every page.
Clive James, "Mailer's Marilyn" (reprinted by permission of Commentary and A. D. Peters and Company; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, October, 1973, pp. 44-9.
The product of [Mailer's] novelist's insight, his "transcendence" and his innocence of factual information result in the degrading of [Marilyn] Monroe: what one would expect from a man whose writing and the life he has lived in public strongly suggest that to him women are the enemy, the sink of iniquity, the pit of hell….
Always, to demonstrate his scrupulous objectivity, he couples her "angel" qualities with those that he ascribes to all women. And in this book our instant expert on politics, boxing, sex, international policy, the moon landing, becomes a Buddhist, a believer in Karma and reincarnation who says Monroe was a split personality when she was not merely stark mad (thanks to her inheritance), a creature with "two souls" at war with each other—when she is not simply a starlet at 20th Century Fox who visits the aged Joseph Schenck daily and is "capable of playing the totally ambitious girl who will never vomit over what she has to put in her mouth since she is in fact excited by the sexual pursuit of her ambition…."
Evidence? There isn't any. But there are rumors; there is gossip that "has to be graphic"; there is scandal, and Mailer stoops to pick up all the droppings, sniffs at and examines each in his most flatulent and "transcendent" prose—and sometimes even discards one, because "we are not going to know." But the rumor has done its job once it has been magnified by Mailer, who has now used a woman eleven years dead as a springboard for his latest advertisement for himself….
If Mailer's so-called psychohistorical methods were used to analyze his latest self-advertisement, it would be easy to degrade him as he has degraded Monroe. But in degrading Monroe he has already degraded himself, demonstrating with great candor his fear, hatred, frustration, rage and jealousy….
She was an artist who did not live long enough to give us more than a glimpse of a talent that never came to maturity. She was a victim of the attitude of an industry and a society based on the exploitation of some human beings by others. She is the living (and dead) proof that chauvinism kills, but her personality will survive this latest assault on her integrity by a man who cannot understand her—but who might understand Richard Nixon very well because both are Puritan, humorless, shrewd, arrogant, acquisitive, sadistic, egomaniacal, cold and filled with a hatred born of emotional insecurity.
Alvah Bessie, "Sweet Are the Uses of Publicity," in The Nation, October 15, 1973, pp. 376-78.
[In Armies of the Night] Mailer achieved aesthetic distance as it were willy-nilly, because of the bewildering pressures of a historical drama in progress around him. A modern-day Henry Adams, Mailer was alternately fascinated and comically bemused, involved and yet "in command of a detachment classic in severity." Both in and out of the game (in Whitman's classic phrase) he was able to anatomize American middle-class youth of the political New Left more brilliantly than any other writer of the period. Briefly, Mailer saw the confused kids of the 1960s as addicted to and at the same time resentful of modern technology, the schizoid victims of the new space-time continuum created by electronics. Their home remedy was LSD, orgy, tribal knowledge, and in 1967, the quixotic urge to march against the abstract "authority" entrenched in Washington. On their children's crusade, they advanced with no coordinated plan and with very little in the way of an informing ideology.
On the eve of battle, Mailer moved like a disengaged Henry V among these crusading innocents, himself a "Left Conservative" offended by the paranoid hawks and the disorganized doves. But his detachment slipped away as he joined the marchers toward the Pentagon…. And the writing grew more impassioned when, demoralized and battle-weary, he turned to commemorate a few hundred young idealists who endured the all-night brutality of armed guards outside the Pentagon…. To Mailer, the march and night vigil was a rite of passage for "the spoiled children of a dead de-animalized middle class." Touched by the moral courage of the few in "the land of warmakers," he composed a closing prayer that the acquiescent and hawkish at home, together with the young warriors in Vietnam, be not damned forever. "Deliver us from our curse," was his plea. The means of this deliverance Mailer himself did not envision in the aftermath of what was to be the climactic protest march of the era.
Kermit Vanderbilt, "Writers of the Troubled Sixties," in The Nation, December 17, 1973, pp. 661-65.
Let me begin as Mailer's defender. Not driven by Maurice Zolotow's understandable outrage (Mailer needles him [in Marilyn] almost every time he borrows from him), I find it ludicrous to call Mailer a plagiarist, as Zolotow has. After all, Mailer acknowledges his sources. Nor can I go along with the host of reviewers who want to dismiss Marilyn because it is based on secondary sources, primarily Zolotow's Marilyn Monroe and Fred Lawrence Guiles's Norma Jean. I may doubt Mailer's contention that "a great biography" might "some day" be built on Guiles's accumulation of fact, and I certainly would never let an adjective like "great" get near Marilyn. Still, it is a commonplace of publishing, and has been since long before Samuel Johnson wrote The Lives of the Poets, that popular biography is based on previously published material. It is hardly surprising, then, that Mailer, outgrowing the introduction he was commissioned to write for a picture book on Marilyn Monroe, should do what any respectable hack, asked to write a boys' life of Benjamin Franklin, would do: turn to material at hand and new shape it to his own needs. Sometimes (v. Samuel Johnson) the results are gratifying, and who would deny that Mailer is at least as talented as Lytton Strachey? If Marilyn is a bomb (and I think it is), it is because it is an unsuccessful book, not because there is something sinful about the genre….
In the abstract, one more journey through the Monroe gossip seems about as attractive as another book about Scott and Zelda, another magazine article on the Kennedys, another publicity release from the Mailer redoubt (speaking of factoids, has it occurred to everybody that the Zolotow-Mailer charges and countercharges have less to do with real or imagined injuries than with their sharing so aggressive an agent as Scott Meredith?). If a new biography of Marilyn Monroe is going to carry me from abstract distrust to concrete pleasure, it has to put new literary or intellectual gloss on old goods. That is what Mailer intends, of course, but his ruminations make his description of Lee Strasberg sound like a self-portrait: "He had an unpleasant gift for presenting his sharpest perceptions in a welter of banalities." Even the occasional perception is part of a self-defeating process because the book is finally done to death by Mailer's addiction to nuance, subtlety, paradox. In Cannibals and Christians, Mailer explains how he learned that "personality was more fluid, more dramatic and startling, more inexact than I thought." The personality of his Marilyn is inexact and fluid, God knows, but it is never dramatic…. Farce, melodrama, comedy, even tragedy—imposing any of these generic forms on Monroe's story would have falsified her probably, but it might have saved the biography. At this point in his career, however, Mailer is incapable of any direct and limiting form; he substitutes reflection for presentation.
Gerald Weales, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 769-71.