Norman Mailer

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James Toback (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: "Norman Mailer Today," in Commentary, Vol. 64, No. 4, 1967, pp. 68-76.

[In the following essay, Toback provides a survey of Mailer's writings and personal politics upon the publication of Why Are We in Vietnam?]

In the late 50's, Norman Mailer's reputation still stood on The Naked and the Dead (1948), neither of his subsequent efforts, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), having quite convinced Mailer or anyone else that he was the major novelist he insisted he could become. By his own later account, his head was leaden with seconal, benzedrene, and marijuana; a sense of what he himself has termed passivity, stupidity, and dissipation threatened to overcome him. Only gradually, after returning to New York from Paris and giving up drugs and cigarettes, did he begin to feel that he could write once again. Then, in 1957, Mailer produced "The White Negro," an essay which restored his faith in his literary future and presaged the forms and directions that it would take.

Mailer has always professed an umbilical attachment to the Left, but since "The White Negro" the drift has been unmistakably from political radicalism toward spiritual radicalism, from an obsession with Marx to an obsession with Reich, from economic revolution to apocalyptic orgasm, from the proletariat to heroes, demons, boxers, tycoons, bitches, murderers, suicides, pimps, and lovers. And correspondingly, concern with extreme psychic states has become more important to his work than concern with extreme political states (the center having always been a bore for Mailer in all its manifestations).

It was not that eschatology replaced politics, but rather that it came to constitute a new means of diagnosis, both of personal and social plague, and that it promised answers to the crisis in which both the individual and the nation were entrapped. The criteria by which the health of a particular man (the organ) were to be assessed—his complexity, his bravery, his daring, his capacity for love—were essentially the same as those which measured the salubrity of America (the organism). Similarly, the disease which threatened both individual and state (expressed at once literally and metaphorically as cancer) evinced identical symptoms: mediocrity, uniformity, repression, and security.

Assuming the voice of religious physician, the Mailer of the 60's reveals a vision of malady and possible restoration that is profoundly radical; at the same time the terminology and conceptual foundation of his homily are puritan to the core. God and the Devil, Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, History and Eternity are as inescapably real for Mailer as they were for Jonathan Edwards—and he has repeatedly asserted that such ultimate questions are proper and indeed necessary preoccupations for the contemporary novelist. Many would dissent, but even if we do look to the novelist for salvation, can we look to Mailer? There is, at least on the surface, an insistent buffoonery to his self-projected public image that can make it difficult to take him seriously, let alone to believe he can show us the way to redemption. Yet even a cursory examination of his work suggests that he is justified in claiming to be an intellectual adventurer of broad dimension. If he sometimes seems to be more familiar with Captain Blood than Middlemarch , he nevertheless possesses an uncanny ability to recall and make use of what he has read. If he is sometimes guileful, more often he strives for complete honesty with himself and the subject of his work. If his thinking is occasionally wild and unsound, he is also capable of rigorously logical intellection. And if his emphasis on scatology is at times...

(This entire section contains 7943 words.)

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repugnant, his undeniable charisma excites interest in practically everything he writes or says or does.

Consequently, when a new work by Mailer appears, we turn to it eagerly—expectant and hopeful—especially when, as in the case of his latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, the new work also represents a new literary departure. By itself perhaps the most ambitious and the most difficult effort of his career, Why Are We in Vietnam? is also a crystallization and an extension of Mailer's other major productions of the 60's. To do justice to its complexity, to make it more accessible, and to place it properly in the perspective of Mailer's development as a writer, one must first look back to The Presidential Papers, An American Dream, Cannibals and Christians, and the dramatic adaptation of The Deer Park.

With Advertisements for Myself (1959), Mailer showed that whatever stature he might or might not achieve as a novelist, he was certainly becoming a major essayist. This impression was confirmed by The Presidential Papers (1963), in which Mailer took it upon himself to indicate to John F. Kennedy the brave new paths he must follow in order to achieve greatness as a President, heroism as a man, and salvation for his country. In Mailer's view, the only kind of hero who can appear in contemporary American life is the "existential" hero, a man who lives—in his thoughts as in his actions—by daring the unknown. On one occasion, when discussing symptoms of the national disease, Mailer remarks that no one in America is capable of tolerating a question that cannot be answered in twenty seconds. And he finds deeds courageous (and hence potentially heroic) only if there is death, or at least danger, as a possible consequence.

Heroism is the victory over Dread, the sensation that haunts not only The Presidential Papers, but the whole of Mailer's work in the 60's. Although doubtless a natural threat to man from the earliest days of his consciousness, Dread has become rather fashionable (to talk about if not to feel) in recent years. It has perhaps been best described by Tennessee Williams. After indicating that war, the atom bomb, and terminal disease are not really to the point, Williams writes:

These things are parts of the visible, sensible phenomena of every man's experience or knowledge, but the true sense of dread is not a reaction to anything … strictly, materially knowable. But rather it's a kind of spiritual intuition of something almost too incredible and shocking to talk about, which underlies the whole so-called thing.

Either one knows what Williams is talking about or one doesn't, and Williams implies that only artists and madmen do. Mailer, however, sees no one safe from the possibility of confrontation with the abyss, and he seems to feel a moral obligation to awaken us all to the danger. All roads lead to it, and it is only through the unmanly deceptions of right-wing politics, logical positivism, linguistic analysis, popular journalism, and Freudian psychology that "the terror which lies beneath our sedition [is hidden from us]." The vigilantes of the right wing, like the Un-American Activities Committee, the F.B.I., and the Birch Society, seek to transform metaphysical Dread into Red dread, to give internal emptiness the tangible outer shape of Communism. And Freudians tell us that Dread is merely a recurrence of the fear we feel as helpless infants. But Mailer, like the latter-day hell-fire Puritan preacher he is, asserts that the horrible intimation of Dread is that "we are going to die badly and suffer some unendurable stricture of eternity." This is no metaphor; it is an expression of Mailer's belief in the literal existence of hell.

The Maileresque hero—suspecting that his Dread is a real premonition of the agony that awaits him after death, an agony that can be averted only by daring death to come sooner, to come right away—will always put up an ante that amounts to more than he can afford to lose. Here, for example, is Mailer on Hemingway's suicide:

How likely that he had a death of the most awful proportions within him. He was exactly the one to know that the cure for such disease is to risk dying many a time….

I wonder if, morning after morning, Hemingway did not go downstairs secretly in the dawn, set the base of his loaded shotgun on the floor, put the muzzle into his mouth, and press his thumb into the trigger…. He can move the trigger up to a point [of no man's land] and yet not fire the gun…. Perhaps he tried just such a reconnaissance one hundred times before, and felt the touch of health return…. If he did it well, he could come close to death without dying.

That Hemingway eventually died as a result of his gambling with life is not so important as that he grew by it. By challenging fate he was saving his soul; by refusing to give into his dread of death, he was making whatever life was left for him more noble; and he was fortifying his spirit so that he might transcend the eternity of hell.

If the individual can save himself from madness and the abyss only by ceasing to repress even his most hidden and dangerous impulses and by flirting with death, so, too, with the nation as a whole. Devoted to the illusion of safety and security, it is condemned to mass insanity and an ignoble end, unless it redeems itself by immediate embarkation on a course of "existential" politics. This would involve a complete remolding of national objectives, not only on the large issues involving danger and death, survival or extinction, but also on less apocalyptic matters like urban housing.

For if America is not already incurably insane, she is certainly in a state of plague. Mailer sees the symptoms every-where: in architecture, frozen food, television commercials, sleeping pills, sexual excess, sexual repression, the deterioration of the language. One has only to look at the kind of people who regulate and set the tone of the nation. Mailer lists them: politicians, medicos, policemen, professors, priests, rabbis, ministers, psychoanalysts, builders, and executives. It has not always been so:

[Once] America was the land where people still believed in heroes: George Washington, Billy the Kid; Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain, Jack London, Hemingway, Joe Louis, Dempsey, Gentleman Jim; America believed in athletes, rum-runners, aviators, even lovers. It was a country which had grown by the leap of one hero past another.

Now, more than ever before, America needed a hero. Was he Norman Mailer? Not yet. For the time being Mailer's faith was in Kennedy, the inspiration for the essay, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," in which Mailer had expressed his faith in Kennedy's capacity to lead the country in the "the recovery of its imagination, its pioneer lust for the unexpected and the incalculable." And yet no sooner had Kennedy won the election than Mailer was possessed by "a sense of awe," an intuition that he had betrayed himself, and, as a result, he began to follow Kennedy's career obsessively, as if he, Norman Mailer, personally "were responsible and guilty for all which was bad … and potentially totalitarian." There are suggestions in this abrupt reversal of sentiment of three forces at work in Mailer: serious concern for the fate of the spiritual and political ideals he cherishes; a histrionic penchant for breast-beating; and an almost petulant envy of Kennedy's power and possibility, an irrational and vast extension of the simple literary envy he occasionally felt for James Jones.

To be sure, the heroism of which Mailer speaks is a cure which both individual and nation might decide is too hazardous and too painful to undertake. The patient is apt to protest that he does not really feel so sick as Mailer tells him he is and that even if he were, he would rather fade gradually into death than risk the unknown under the untried knife of Dr. Norman's psychic surgery. If it is the "Establishment" that objects in these terms, Mailer regards it as plain cowardice, the cardinal sin, which should be avoided even if the strictures of eternity were not waiting as retribution. But with minority groups, the Negro in particular, his urgency is softened. He understands that it would be no small act of presumption on his part to demand that the Negro, who has lived with violence all his life, surrender the goals of security and stability.

The demand for courage may have been exorbitant. Now as the Negro was beginning to come into the white man's world, he wanted the logic of the white man's world: annuities, mental hygiene, sociological jargon, committee solutions for the ills of the breast. He was sick of a whore's logic and a pimp's logic.

And yet the paradox here is only too obvious to Mailer. Believing that he must turn his back on the values of the ghetto, the Negro seeks recovery through assimilation into the moribund world of white liberal America. In reality, he is abandoning a way of life which is founded on those extreme states of human feeling and action which for Mailer constitute the only true possibility for spiritual rehabilitation. Mailer regrets that

there is no one to tell [the Negro] it would be better to keep the psychology of the streets than to cultivate the contradictory desire to be … a great, healthy, mature, autonomous, related, integrated individual.

This problem is crystallized in the eleventh (and perhaps best) essay in The Presidential Papers, "Death," which focuses on the proceedings before, during, and immediately after the first Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston heavyweight championship fight. Most Negroes wanted Patterson to win, a fact which Mailer explains by identifying Patterson as the symbol of security. Patterson was polite, quiet, humble, diligent, and Catholic; he was, in short, "white." Liston, on the other hand, personified "the old torment," the darker, dangerous side of life that the Negro had known only too well. Liston was surly, unpredictable, mob affiliated, and an exconvict; he was "black."

Most Negroes, then, wanted to see Liston beaten by Patterson for much the same reason that they would not react warmly to proposals that they seek out violence, danger, and the unknown. But if Mailer cannot blame them, he is nevertheless distressed by the insidious assimilation of Negroes (and Jews as well) into Anglo-Saxon America. For a Negro or a Jew, to stifle the rich uniqueness of his potential contribution to American life is to betray himself and to withhold the transfusion that might save this bloodless land.

Mailer likes Patterson—his loneliness, his pride his persistent struggle against the odds. But just as the Fascist Craft had stolen Mailer's interest from the liberal Hearn in The Naked and the Dead, so Mailer's real fascination here is not with Patterson but with Liston, whose inexorable toughness makes him the kind of Negro other Negroes refer to (sometimes in fear, sometimes in praise, sometimes in disapproval, but always in awe) as "a bad cat." Liston takes on mythic proportions in Mailer's mind, a mind which by nature tends to intensify, to exaggerate, and to think in terms of extremes. He is "near to beautiful" and one can think of "very few men who have beauty." But that is in no way all.

Liston was voodoo, Liston was magic…. Liston was the secret hero of every man who had ever given mouth to a final curse against the dispositions of the Lord and made a pact with Black Magic. Liston was Faust.

He was the kind of Negro that any white man who imagined himself hip would have to come to terms with—either as model or as rival. Predictably, Mailer chooses the latter course, and does battle with Liston. Not physical battle, but psychic warfare that could have erupted into violence.

Liston's incredibly fast knockout of Patterson left Mailer in a state of feverish frustration, a condition aggravated by a conscience which taunted him for his own recent failures—for too much alcohol and too little discipline. It was out of this sense of despair and defeat that another of Mailer's obsessions was born.

I began … to see myself as some sort of center about which all that had been lost must now rally. It was not simple egomania nor simple drunkenness, it was not even simple insanity: it was a kind of metaphorical leap across a gap. To believe the impossible may be won creates a strength from which the impossible may be attacked.

The essence of Mailer's claim was that he was "the only man in the country" who could build the gate of a second Patterson-Liston fight into the proportions of an epic. The insistence with which he promoted his proposal the next day, the rude insults he hurled at Liston, and his petulant refusal to leave the dais (where he did not belong) all indicate that what Mailer wanted above everything was some kind of direct confrontation with Liston, some chance to prove to himself that he was still a possible hero, that he was larger than the myth into which his own mind had transformed the new heavyweight champion.

After the series of humiliations which gave reporters, detectives, bystanders, and Liston himself ample opportunity to laugh at him, Mailer finally got his chance. While obviously intoxicated, he approached Liston.

"You called me a bum," I said…. "Well, you are a bum," he said. "Everybody is a bum. I'm a bum too. It's just that I'm a bigger bum than you are." He stuck out his hand. "Shake, bum," he said…. Could it be, was I indeed a bum? I shook his hand…. But a devil came into my head…. "Listen," said I, leaning my head closer, speaking from the corner of my mouth as if I were whispering in a clinch, "I'm pulling this caper for a reason. I know a way to build the next fight from a $200,000 dog in Miami to a $2,000,000 gate in New York."… "Say," said Liston, "that last drink really set you up. Why don't you go and get me a drink, you bum."

"I'm not your flunky," I said. It was the first punch I'd sent home. He loved me for it. The hint of corny old darky laughter, cottonfield giggles, peeped out a moment from his throat. "Oh, sheet, man!," said the wit in his eyes. And for the crowd watching, he turned and announced at large, "I like this guy."

Three phrases in this most revealing passage are particularly significant. First, Mailer views the dialogue in the terms of a fight; he speaks to Liston as if they were "in a clinch." Secondly, Mailer's "first punch" ("I'm not your flunky") is delivered while he is behind on points and trapped in a corner. When he finally makes this move, he risks taking a (literal) punch in the mouth from Liston, who is not, one imagines, in the habit of being told off in public by inebriated reporters. Then, there is Liston's remarkable reaction ("I like this guy") to Mailer's thrust, a totally unexpected profession of feeling for the writer that amounts to admiration, and the even more remarkable response that Liston's concession generates in Mailer's mind. For Mailer, Liston's grunt becomes "a chuckle of corny old darky laughter, cottonfield giggles"; not only has Mailer taken final honors in his combat with the "Supreme Spade," but he has metaphorically reduced him to his (ancestrally) original condition of servitude. From king of the Northern urban jungle where the white man is afraid to meet him on the street at night, Liston has been deported to a Southern cotton plantation where he knows his place and recognizes his master. Liston is at once Mailer himself and Mailer's alter ego. When he is the latter, Mailer becomes Patterson: "The fighters spoke as well from the countered halves of my nature." Mailer even conjectures that perhaps Patterson is God and Liston the Devil, an idea which emanates from a conviction that every man is a potential agent for either of the two great warring cosmic powers, and that by one's actions one affects the outcome in their ultimate struggle for control of a Manichean universe. On that night in Chicago, Liston, in his demonic role, "had shown that the Lord was dramatically weak." Was it possible that Mailer's press-conference comeback had restored some of the Deity's strength? No negative answer could be given with full assurance.

In An American Dream (1964)—his first novel since The Deer Park—Mailer is again concerned with themes that inform the essays: danger, death, and heroism. The pattern of the novel, one might say, is designed on intercourse—with God, with the Devil, with voices form the inner recesses of the mind, with the vagina, and with the anus: intercourse leading to oceanic climax, coming variously in waves of love, lust, or pure aestheticism. The center of all this activity, the narrator and hero, is Stephen Richards Rojack, the embodiment of Mailer's unrealized fantasies and of his radical Puritanism as well. A Harvard graduate summa cum laude, he is also a war hero ("the one intellectual in America's history to win a distinguished service cross"), an ex-congressman, a television personality, a professor of existentialist psychology, an author, a boxer, and an unsurpassed stud. He lives in contemporary New York amid people who, in Mailer's view, personify the cancerous totalitarianism of our age.

The action is generated by Rojack's murder of his wife, Deborah, a great bitch, beautiful, extremely rich, and secretly involved in international intrigue as a spy. The love he once felt for her has withered into a sense of dependence so paralyzing that she has now become the very structure of his ego. Without her, he fears he "might topple like clay." In such a condition Rojack, who expresses Mailer's eschatological vision, knows he is unprepared to face eternity. The first step toward reconstruction of self is to exorcise the demon that possesses him—and to exorcise Deborah is to kill her. The act of strangulation is committed with sexual passion, which is true to Mailer's insistence that sex, love, and murder are inseparable and cathartic:

Some blackbiled lust, some desire to go ahead (and kill her) not unlike the instant one comes in a woman against her cry that she is without protection came bursting with rage from out of me and … crack I choked her harder … and crack I gave her payment.

With Deborah's death begins the arduous process of Rojack's rebirth; he realizes that if murder is sometimes necessary, it is never simple. The gods, like furies, haunt him; he is acutely conscious of everything he thinks or says or does, for now cowardice or weakness or smallness will bring swift retribution—Dread, insanity, and the abyss. To strengthen himself, and to find, once again, something he can honestly call love are the ends of Rojack's quest, but fulfillment of it and freedom from these new furies can be attained only through heroism, through seeking danger and daring death.

… I believed God was not love but courage. Love can come only as a reward…. A voice said in my mind: "That which you fear most is what you must do."

The very phrasing of the passage is related to the nature of the punishment that will accrue if the command goes unheeded. Rojack's mental life is split into a "voice" and a "mind," a separation dangerously close to the empty panic of schizophrenia.

But if madness looms as the penalty for prudence and cowardice (Mailer uses the two as almost indistinguishable), it is also possible that Dread will overwhelm even the bold Promethean. Rojack knows that "if man wished to steal the secrets of the gods … they would defend themselves and destroy whichever man came too close." With so narrow a chance of escape from insanity and an eternity in the abyss, suicide quite naturally presents itself as an alternative. What is to hold one back?

Despite all his frenetic activity, it is not merely a sensual lust for experience that keeps Rojack going. On the contrary, while his senses are irrepressibly active (especially his sense of smell), his mind persists relentlessly in observation, commentary, and criticism. Any physical sensation is immediately subject to conscious analysis. In Rojack, sex is the effort of the body to rape the mind, to pulsate in waves of ecstasy transcending consciousness. But even here he fails. Whether it is with the German maid, Ruta, or with the Southern chanteuse, Cherry, Rojack's concern is with power rather than with pleasure, with the psychic domination he achieves after her orgasm rather than with the physical rapture of his own. Like his creator, Rojack is far more a Puritan than a hedonist; life is struggle rather than joy.

So the question remains: why go on? It is true that Rojack puts his life on the line more than once. The murder of his wife, the competition with Mafia goons, the insults to a former boxing champion in an unfriendly bar, and, especially, the nocturnal walk on the parapet of a windy terrace thirty stories above the ground—all could easily have resulted in his death. But rather than misguided suicide attempts, these acts are a part of Rojack's supreme effort to prepare himself for death. The goal in life is finally religious—to make oneself as fit as possible to meet the unknown after life is done, to face the judgment of eternity; and Rojack is possessed by the faith of the gambler. Like a poker player who is convinced that his next hand is bound to be the lucky one, Rojack acts on the assumption that the longer he lives, the more heroic he may become.

And the assumption is not unfounded, for Rojack's heroism is boundless. He argues with demonic voices and then dispels them, he outwits and outfights his indomitable tycoon father-in-law, and, above all, he humiliates and beats up a sexually magnetic Negro hero, Shago Martin. Not only does Rojack cause Cherry to have her first sexual explosion, after Shago had failed with her for months, but through a combination of psychic intuition and physical power he changes a situation where Shago is standing over him with a knife to one in which he is standing over Shago, who is now a writhing pulp at the bottom of a staircase (and all in the space of ten minutes).

Practically everything Rojack says or does suggests parallels to his creator's personal life, and the episode with Shago Martin, recalling the Mailer-Liston confrontation, is perhaps the richest example. If Liston was a large part of Mailer, Shago's ode to himself is easily applicable to the dark sides of both Rojack and Mailer.

"I'm a lily-white devil…. I'm just the future, in love with myself, that's the future. I got twenty faces, I talk the tongues, I'm a devil…. I'm cut off from my own lines, I try to speak from my heart and it gets snatched."

If Mailer's encounter with Liston faintly suggested repressed homosexuality transformed into manly fortitude, Rojack's encounter with Shago positively smacks of it. Like Shago, he has Cherry, and his immediate concern after intercourse is in comparison. He can hardly hide his elation when she implies that he was better, a predictable response when one recalls his reaction the night before to Cherry's paean to Shago's sexual prowess. Her emphasis on the word "stud" had made Rojack uneasy.

The word went in like a blow to the soft part of my belly. There was something final in the verdict as if there were a sexual round robin where the big people played. All the big Negroes and the big whites.

Like Mailer, Rojack lives his life as if it were some dark experiment which has gradually but relentlessly gained the upper hand so that he is free to act only within its prescribed limits. Again like Mailer, Rojack is paying the price for a lifelong habit of thinking in metaphor; image (like God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell) has become reality, and that reality has become a master demanding undivided attention. It is a reality of dreams, and the dreams in An American Dream are endless: the sexual dreams of Don Juan, the Alger dream of the self-made man, the outsider's dream of the inside, the Mafia's dream of money and power, the square's dream of the life of the hipster, and the hipster's dream of death. None of these dreams has turned entirely into nightmare, but each has gone sour, like the soul of the nation which fabricated them. But the saddest dream of all is Stephen Rojack's (and perhaps Mailer's) dream of sanity.

I was caught. I wanted to escape from that intelligence which let me know of murders in one direction and conceive of [love] from the other, I wanted to be free of magic, the tongue of the devil, the dread of the Lord, I wanted to be some sort of rational man again…. But I could not move.

But what if, unlike Mailer and Rojack, one is not obsessed with psychopathic extremes? What if one's patience expires at exhibitions of braggadocio? What if one appreciates wit (of which there is some) but loves humor (of which there is none)? Probably one would call An American Dream a joke, and a bad joke at that. The infantile demand for immediate and complete attention; the insistence on being taken seriously, literally, and on his own terms at all times; the inability to treat his agony with even a suggestion of laughter or a trace of irony; the sloppy inconsistency of much of the dialogue; and, finally, the sheer loudness that informs the whole novel, a tone alternating between agitation and hysteria—all this works to tire, frustrate, and, at times, infuriate even the most sympathetic reader.

And yet somehow exasperation yields to the suspicion that Mailer's is a mind which understands as much about the quality of contemporary American life as any now active, a mind which could well represent the last intellectually significant and articulate thrust of an eschatological and religious fervor that may be sorely missed once it is gone. So one is willing to indulge Mailer further, even to thank him once again. And one is willing to accept Rojack's vision of himself as a fair description of Mailer:

I had leverage; I was one of the more active figures of the city—no one could be certain finally that nothing large would come to me.

In 1960 there was reason to hope for a dramatic rebirth of energy and heroism; even the darkest passages of The Presidential Papers were balanced by intimations that America was not yet doomed. A man could function in society and still find opportunity to grow. By 1966, dream had at last soured into nightmare. Cannibals and Christians, a collection of essays, "poems" (or, more accurately, epigrams and graffiti), and interviews (both real and imaginary), is a sermon whose vision of hell has become dire and inevitable. From Mailer's pulpit comes a most disconcerting premonition:

The sense of a long last night over civilization is back again; it has perhaps not been here so intensely in thirty years, not since the Nazis were prospering, but it is coming…. The world is entering a time of plague.

Totalitarianism has suffocated individuality; the Hilton in San Francisco is emulated before the Plaza in New York; housing projects look like nurseries and nurseries look like hospitals; appliances are plastic rather than metal; vile bully tactics in Vietnam have developed from simple occupation of Southeast Asia; the psychotic has taken over from the psychopath; pornography has gained another step on sexuality. In a word, Lyndon Johnson has replaced John Kennedy.

Johnson, Mailer tells us, is the archetypically alienated figure—a fact which can be observed in his prose (perhaps "the worst ever written by any political leader anywhere"), in his boorish manners, in his deceitfulness, in his voracious ego, and in his almost arrogant lack of style. If a President has a profound effect on the quality of life during his era—and Mailer is convinced that he does—then hope is indeed dim. And the consequences may be far worse than possible loss of prestige, power, or land; for there is the unknown to face after death, and the possibility that there is no absolution for cowardly sins.

But Mailer's exhortations against the insanities of the age of Johnson do not come from one whose own tensions—between radicalism and Puritanism, heroism and buffoonery, the playboy's life and the intellectual's vocation—are anywhere near control. And there is a further complication in Mailer's complex personality, an unmistakably reactionary streak, not unrelated in impulse to his intense religiosity, which challenges his natural and professed political radicalism. Apart from the kind of conservatism that is common property among many contemporary radicals—a quasi-isolationism that urges America to terminate involvement in practically all foreign countries and a profound distrust of the liberal establishment—Mailer holds positions on matters not directly political which fall neatly into line with the conservative spirit (he is, for example, strongly opposed to birth control and abortion, and he speaks of homosexuality as a "vice"). But two pieces of evidence (both from the essay on the 1964 Republican Convention) are particularly striking. First, Mailer confesses to a buried urge to see Barry Goldwater elected:

I knew Goldwater could win because something in me leaped out at the thought; a part of me, a devil, wished to take that choice.

Secondly, Mailer's ambivalence toward Negroes, manifested earlier only in the individual cases of Sonny Liston and Shago Martin, is now explicitly broadened. His reaction to James Baldwin's suggestion that there may be no remission for the white man's sins against the Negro is violent:

I had to throttle an impulse to … call Baldwin, and say, "You get this, baby. There's a shit storm coming like nothing you ever knew. So ask yourself if what you desire is for the white to kill every black so that there be total remission of guilt in your black soul."

If the relief of such tensions and conflicts and the consequent fortification of the self can come only from bold action, then Mailer's primary means of personal salvation lies in his work. It is in the very act of creating the artistic sermons which he claims will show us the way to redemption that Mailer redeems himself. His influence has given rise to several "cults." At one extreme there is a segment of the underground hipster community, closely involved with drugs, which worships him as the high priest of God and Sex. At the other end is that increasingly large group of liberal and radical intellectuals, centered in New York and comprised of such critics as Norman Podhoretz, Steven Marcus, and Richard Poirier who see in Mailer, as Marcus once put it, the embodiment of extraordinary literary talent, personal honesty and loyalty, and penetrating social criticism. And yet, in the last analysis, Mailer's influence is limited, for the Word has hardly reached, let alone changed, the heart of the land he is trying to transform.

From the first three sermons of the 1960's, the congregation is likely to walk away interested and, sometimes, excited, rather than transformed. Entertainment overshadows eschatology. And in Mailer's fourth effort of the 60's, The Deer Park, a stage adaptation of his novel of 1956, religion gives way completely to comedy (both intentional and unintentional).

This is not to imply that Mailer has abandoned his urgent message; practically all his obsessions of the 60's are here: sex, love, lust, heroism, cowardice, power, God, and the Devil. If Mailer has added anything new to his philosophy, it lies in the expansion of his idea of sexual freedom and it is expressed through the pimp Marion Faye, who "follows sex to the end, turns queer, bangs dogs, and sniffs toes." But in the figure of Herman Teppis (or "H.T."), a Hollywood mogul in the tradition of Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn, genuine humor replaces heavy rhetoric and caustic wit. In the desert of endless debates over who is—and who is not—a genius in bed, Teppis's pronouncements are oases.

You know what an artist is? He's a crook. They even got a Frenchman now, you know what, he picks people's pockets at society parties. They say he's the greatest writer in France. No wonder they need a dictator, those crazy French. I could never get along with the French.

But Mailer pays a price for his success in the comic mode. One laughs so hard at Teppis that one keeps right on laughing, even at the tortured, self-searching characters—spokesmen all for traditional Maileresque values—one is meant to take seriously. If there is a lesson to be learned from this play, it is that comedy may be suitable to many dramatic modes, including tragedy, but that it has no place at all in eschatological homily.

After a pop play perhaps one should have expected, or at least have been prepared for, a pop novel from Mailer's pen. Nevertheless, Why Are We in Vietnam? comes as a shock. Radical as the ideas contained in them may have been, Mailer's earlier novels were more or less conservative in form; except for Barbary Shore, they were all clearly in the mainstream of the realist-naturalist tradition. But in Why Are We in Vietnam? ordered syntax has yielded to the total liberation of the word; intricate plot structure has given way to hallucinatory fantasy; fully realized characters living in what we know as the real world have been replaced by the protean apparitions in Mailer's mind; the last trace of ratiocination has been obliterated by a relentless bombardment of sensual impressions and apocalyptic utterances. Dreiser and Farrell have disappeared in favor of Joyce, Faulkner, Burroughs, McLuhan, and Norman O. Brown.

At one point or another virtually every theory Mailer has ever had appears—but now with an important difference. Rather than preaching his messages baldly as in the past, Mailer drops them mockingly. And the mockery is directed both at himself and at those he would edify.

The world is going shazam, hahray harout, fart in my toot, air we breathe is the prez, present dent, and god has always wanted more from man than man has wished to give him. Zig a zig a zig. That is why we live in dread of god.

Even the seminal concept of Dread is translated into the pop language of rock-and-roll. A vast chasm of culture and sensibility separates the tone of Rojack's agonized monologues from the narrative voice of the present novel.

… Mr. Sender, who sends out that Awe and Dread is up on their back … because they alone, man, you dig? They all alone, it's a fright wig, man, that Upper silence alone is enough to bugger you, whooee.

Indeed, the very claim to a prophetic stance in Why Are We in Vietnam? is established in a similarly (and intentionally) ambiguous tone.

This is your own wandering troubadour brought right up to date, here to sell America its new handbook on how to live…. We're going to tell you what it's all about.

Although there is a bare minimum of dramatic tension or external conflict, Why Are We in Vietnam? has several "characters," each significant primarily on a symbolic plane. D.J. (Disc Jockey, Dr. Jekyll), the adolescent hero narrator of patrician Texas blood, is sometimes convinced that he is really a "Harlem Nigger," and since "there is no such thing as a totally false perception," perhaps he is. Not literally, of course, but rather in the same way that Mailer recognized Sonny Liston in himself and in the same way that the white hipster of "The White Negro" is, in his psychic makeup, black. If D.J. is the hipster, Rusty, his father, is the square, a corporation tycoon in Dallas—coarse, selfish, and, at heart, a coward. Tex (the Mr. Hyde to D.J.'s Dr. Jekyll) is part Indian, manly, bisexual, and the son of an undertaker.

The three go bear hunting in Alaska, but the most important action takes place in D.J.'s mind. At one point he has an urge to turn his gun on his father and "blast a shot, thump in his skull." Although he resists, he soon commits the act symbolically by contradicting his father's warning and courageously approaching a wounded bear, putting his life on the line, while his father lies hidden, waiting for the bear to become helpless before firing the fatal shot. Thus liberated from paternal authority, D.J. finds his instincts for love and battle shifted to Tex, from literal father to symbolic brother. In Tex, D.J. encounters nakedly for the first time his other self. And through a mutual awareness of their mutual desire for both intercourse and fratricide, D.J. and Tex finally achieve a sense of purification and personal integration.

… Tex Hyde … was finally afraid to prong D.J., because D.J. once become a bitch would kill him, and D.J. breathing that in by the wide-awake of the dark with Aurora Borealis jumping to the beat of his heart knew he could make a try to prong Tex, there was a chance to get in and steal the iron from Texas' ass and put it on his own … now it was there, murder between them under all friendship, for god was a beast, not a man, and god said, "Go out and kill—fulfill my will, go and kill," and they hung there each of them on the knife of the divide in all conflict of lust to own the other…. Killer brothers, owned by something, prince of darkness, lord of light, they did not know; they just knew that telepathy was on them, they had been touched forever by the North and each bit a drop of blood from his own finger and touched them across and met blood to blood….

In one eternal moment the Manichean polarities that have obsessed Mailer are at last synthesized—God and the Devil, heaven and hell, nature and man, Negro and white, Dallas and Harlem, phallus and anus.

But why are we in Vietnam? What relation does the title have to D.J., Tex, Rusty, bear-hunting, Harlem, Dallas, liberated syntax, or Maileresque eschatology? In the strictest sense, nothing at all. But in a broader, metaphysical sense, the title can be explained as another urgent warning to America. We are in Vietnam because we, as a nation, are going, or have already gone, insane. Mailer's development from politics to meta-politics is complete. The world—and especially America—is now viewed as an expression of Mailer's own most extreme longings and fantasies. Subject and object, chaos and order, internal imagination and external reality are united in a fusion of creator and creation. In an ultimate sense Mailer is claiming not only relation to America but identity with her. It is likely that he has himself in mind when he writes of Rusty:

His secret is that he sees himself as one of the pillars of the firmament, yeah, man—he reads the world's doom in his own fuckup. If he is less great than God intended him to be, then America is in Trouble.

One cannot help wondering whether Why Are We in Vietnam?, unruly and overwhelming, is not at least as much a symptom of our "Trouble" as a cure for it.

Throughout the past decade Mailer has made the world of the hipster the stuff of his sermons—novels, essays, and plays—as well as the style of his personal life. He calls it "a muted cool religious revival," and a better description (at least of his intentions) would be hard to find. He is Zarathustra coming down from the mountain with his vision of the hero; he is Dostoevsky reminding us that "God and the Devil are fighting, and the battleground is the heart of man!"; he is a Puritan minister informing us that pain may be good, for to suffer is to be given the opportunity to grow and prepare for the mystery of death and the perils of hell; he is a preacher frustrated by his congregation's blind faith in innocence at a time in history when innocence is not only a lie but a crime; he is a seer trying to jar complacent men into an awareness of the despair that lies beneath their conventions; he is Toynbee telling us that if a civilization stagnates, it will die, that if a nation is to survive, it must respond to the reality of challenge; and he is Jonathan Swift couching his eschatalogical message in the language and imagery of scatology.

It is true that Mailer's own faith in the validity of his message is not absolute. He has admitted that "the hipster gambles that he can be terribly, tragically wrong, and therefore be doomed to Hell." But Mailer is a gambler, and so he continues to preach, to reiterate the old verities with a new twist, opening himself to the charge of anachronism, refusing to accept the "modern," the valueless objectivity of the novels of Robbe-Grillet, the impersonal detachment of the music of Milton Babbitt, and the faceless hotels of Conrad Hilton. He will not give up like Hemingway's Lieutenant Henry, who trusts only in the names of bridges, cities, and battles; Mailer chooses instead still to believe in God, Love, Heroism, Courage, and Death. His life and work are a contradiction of the message contained in one of his own poems:

Nevercontemplatenothingsaidthe saint.

History is a nightmare from which Mailer is still trying to awaken; but he will not take the easy way out in his struggle.

And yet if he is singleminded in his determination to view life in terms of ultimate battle, his desire for victory is not without ambivalence. His involvement in the pop world has become more than peripheral with his play, his new underground movie (where he is cast as a Mafia gangster), his new novel, and his own life style (where he tries to enact simultaneously the roles of writer, fighter, celebrity, lover, and messiah); and like most of the major figures in this eclectic pop world, he is flirting with psychosis. To live on the edge of so many different scenes is to belong truly to none; and to act like so many different people is to endanger the self. The sign of surrender, the indication that the battle has been lost, is the sense of succumbing to Dread. It is not impossible that Mailer's Dread is essentially the fulfillment of his own unacknowledged desire for that Dread, the intuition that all those "psychotic" ideas and actions he lives by are simply the expression of a profound longing for madness and extinction.

Mailer holds himself together, however, by virtue of his work. Through creation he is able to come closer to the unattainable goal of total victory in the struggle which is the metaphor for his vision of life. Even if we do not believe in it ourselves, even if we are impatient with the intellectual naivete of a man who only a decade ago speculated that perhaps he was the first person to state that God was in danger of dying, and even if we are annoyed by the heavily flawed style of his prose, we can still learn from, and be moved by, this belligerent prophet. At the end of the stage version of The Deer Park, he speaks of debates about God and Time and Sex as constituting "part of the poor odd dialogues which give hope to us noble humans for more than one night." If Mailer has done this in his own work even a small part of the time, he is one Puritan our age can ill afford to lose.


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Norman Mailer 1923–

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, journalist, screenwriter, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Mailer's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 14, 28, 39, and 74.

An outspoken intellectual and celebrity, Norman Mailer is a controversial figure in contemporary American literature. Highly regarded for his prodigious ability as a novelist and social critic, Mailer's literary endeavors exhibit extensive experimentation with narrative forms and styles, notable for their synthesis of fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, and journalism. Increasingly colored by radical politics and existentialism in the 1960s, Mailer's writing attempts to engage and reenact the major crises of the modern world to affect greater understanding of self and society, and is mirrored in reality by his active participation in national events. Mailer achieved sudden fame with his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), still considered among his finest accomplishments along with the award-winning nonfiction novels The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner's Song (1979). An independent thinker who eschews identification with literary and political circles, Mailer has given forceful expression to the voice of alienation and disillusionment in postwar American society.

Biographical Information

Born Norman Kingsley Mailer in Long Branch, New Jersey, Mailer moved with his parents to Brooklyn, New York, at age four, where he grew up in a comfortable Jewish community. Mailer was a precocious, though modest, child who earned high marks in school and occupied himself with model building. At age sixteen he enrolled at Harvard to study aeronautical engineering but soon became interested in the contemporary fiction of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, who together became his early literary influences. Vowing to become a great novelist himself, Mailer wrote several short stories and won first prize in Story magazine's annual college contest. After graduating from Harvard with honors in 1943, Mailer joined the army and married his first wife shortly before setting off to serve in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. Upon his discharge in 1946, Mailer attended graduate courses at the Sorbonne in Paris. He recorded his military experiences in his first novel, TheNaked and the Dead, a popular and critical success that launched his literary career with its publication in 1948. Mailer followed with Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), both of which failed to live up to the promise of his debut novel. In 1952 Mailer divorced his first wife and two years later entered into the second of six subsequent marriages over three decades. In 1955 he co-founded the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper covering politics and the arts, to which he was a regular contributor. He published "The White Negro," his much anthologized essay, in Dissent magazine in 1957. The essay reappeared in Advertisements for Myself (1959) and became a staple of Beat literature. Mailer's unabashed drug and alcohol use also became a feature of his writing and personal life during this time. He was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric treatment in 1960 after stabbing his second wife during a night of heavy drinking. For this incident and other acts of defiance and exhibitionism during the 1960s, Mailer earned a reputation for self-aggrandizement and belligerence. His involvement in the turbulent politics of the 1960s became material for much of his writing, including the novel Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), the nonfiction narrative Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), and The Armies of the Night (1968), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and a National Book Award. Mailer was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song (1979), which he also adapted into a popular television movie. While retreating somewhat from the public eye in recent decades, Mailer continued to produce a diverse body of work including essays, screenplays, literary criticism, biographies, and several major novels—Ancient Evenings (1983), Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), Harlot's Ghost (1991), and The Gospel According to the Son (1997).

Major Works

Mailer's preoccupation with the struggle for individuality and free will in the face of natural forces and institutional authority is central to his work. The Naked and the Dead describes the combat experiences and interaction of fourteen American soldiers as they advance on a small Japanese-held island in the Philippines during the Second World War. Mailer presents the diverse members of the platoon as a microcosm of the American people, each with their own wide-ranging geographic, economic, and social backgrounds. As in most of his writing, Mailer examines the complex tensions that evolve as the main characters attempt to impose their will upon an essentially uncaring and inexorable universe. Mailer similarly portrays an assemblage of Cold War political extremists in Barbary Shore and a blacklisted Hollywood director in The Deer Park. In the late 1950s Mailer abandoned such naturalistic studies of the external world to probe the inner conflicts of consciousness and being in Advertisements for Myself, a miscellany of short stories, essays, poems, and personal statements. This collection, along with The Presidential Papers (1963), represents an important shift in Mailer's approach to ethical and metaphysical examinations in which, through unflinching introspection, he sought to expose the psyche of the American citizen at large. In "The White Negro" Mailer argues that the American "hipster" is a desirable adaptation of the uninhibited urban African-American, a "philosophical psychopath" whose enjoyment of desublimated desires is essential to subvert social control in the interest of a free existence. In subsequent works, Mailer increasingly drew upon existentialist philosophy to explain the primacy of the flesh over the spirit and to justify violence as an outpouring of repressed rage. In the novel An American Dream (1965), the protagonist, Stephen Rojack, murders his estranged wife and abandons all personal and professional self-identities to return to his subconscious self, a nonrational state of primitive sensualism and mystical revelation that informs conscious action. Mailer further explored this ideal interchange between personal experience and political advocacy in his experiments with the novel and nonfiction narrative. In Why Are We in Vietnam? Mailer describes the inhumane activities of a hunting party in Alaska as a parable for American military activity in Southeast Asia. In The Armies of the Night, significantly subtitled "History as a Novel, The Novel as History," Mailer recounts his involvement in a large antiwar protest at the Pentagon in 1967. By referring to himself in the third-person in this story, Mailer relates autobiographic experience in detached objectivity through a fictional incarnation of himself. Such forays into the genre of New Journalism, a fusion of fiction and reportage, is exemplified by The Executioner's Song. Here Mailer recounts the real-life story of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer put to death at his own insistence by the state of Utah in 1977. Supported by exhaustive research, Mailer reconstructs Gilmore's criminal life and the controversial judicial and moral circumstances surrounding his punishment. Mailer's highly recognizable authorial voice is conspicuously subdued in this novel in deference to a large cast of characters whose multiple perspectives provide the story. In more recent novels, Mailer turned away from current events to produce lengthy historical works: Ancient Evenings, an epic account of debauchery and authoritarianism in ancient Egypt; Harlot's Ghost, a fictional chronicle of the United States Central Intelligence Agency through the 1960s; and The Gospel According to the Son, a first-person narrative presented as the autobiography of Jesus Christ.

Critical Reception

While most critics acknowledge Mailer as possessing enormous talent and originality, critical evaluation of his writing is problematic due to his divided personae as an author, political dissenter, social critic, and notorious celebrity. Although he was once touted as the successor to Ernest Hemingway, Mailer's large and uneven body of work defies easy comparison or classification. Though The Naked and the Dead remains a highly regarded conventional war novel in the realistic style, Advertisements for Myself is a product of the Beat movement that more closely resembles the declarative egotism of Walt Whitman. Mailer's perceptive critiques of American society and politics during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly as found in The Presidential Papers and Why Are We in Vietnam?, earned him a reputation as a leading commentator on national affairs. His innovative ventures in nonfiction and journalism culminated in The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song, both of which are considered consummate examples of the nonfiction narrative, drawing comparison to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Criticism of Mailer's less effective work is often directed at his baroque excesses and overt political or philosophical exposition. Mailer has also sustained attacks from feminist critics who find his writing sexist, particularly as noted by Kate Millet in her Sexual Politics (1970). Mailer's response to such charges in The Prisoner of Sex (1971), a treatise on his sexual relationships, and Genius and Lust (1976), a laudatory critical study of Henry Miller, did little to assuage his detractors. Despite the distractions of his public antics and reckless bravado, Mailer's willingness to defy authority and to engage himself in controversial contemporary events is essential to his art. For his penetrating studies of American society, superior prose style, and influential experiments with various literary forms, Mailer is considered among the most important American writers of the twentieth century.

Robert Merrill (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: "Norman Mailer's Early Nonfiction: The Art of Self-Revelation," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 28, 1974, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Merrill offers critical examination of Mailer's nonfiction essays, including "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," "The White Negro," and "Ten Thousand Words a Minute."]

It has become a commonplace—unavoidable at cocktail parties, student bars, even the dinner table—that Norman Mailer's real achievement is to be found in his nonfiction. There, it is argued, we come upon Mailer "happily mired in reality, hobbled to the facts of time, place, self, as to an indispensable spouse of flesh and blood who continually saves him from his other self that yearns toward wasteful flirtations with Spiritus Mundi." If it seems a bit harsh to describe Mailer's novels as "wasteful flirtations with Spiritus Mundi," many of us would still agree with Richard Foster's basic point: Mailer's nonfiction is a pleasant subject if one has any sympathy for his pretensions as a major writer. This is why it is curious that Mailer's much-admired nonfiction should have generated so little critical commentary. From the attention it has received (or lack of it), one might think that Mailer's nonfiction was no more than artful journalism, as his enemies no doubt believe and his friends have failed to dispute.

Mailer has filled the breach himself, of course, arguing at every opportunity that his realistic nonfiction should not be confused with factual journalism. He has said recently that it is "the superb irony of his professional life" that he should receive the highest praise as a journalist, "for he knew he was not even a good journalist and possibly could not hold a top job if he had to turn in a story every day." For Mailer, journalism is a matter of getting up factual reports intended for the mass media. It is an affair of facts, a ceaseless inquiry into who did what to whom, at what place and at what time. If he is not unreliable as a journalist, Mailer is hardly in competition with the daily reporter. In fact, the whole thrust of his nonfiction is away from "factual" history. "For once let us try to think about a political convention without losing ourselves in housing projects of fact and issue." So Mailer begins his first important essay of the 1960's, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket." Mailer would replace housing projects of fact and issue with a sense for the mysteries of personality and the relations among such mysteries (interests obviously taken over from the house of fiction). He has written that "there is no history without nuance," and finally this defines his goal as a "journalist": to capture the nuances of our recent American experience and so define its true, as opposed to its statistical, meaning.

The concern for nuance and the rejection of "fact" have led of course to Mailer's "involved" journalism—have led to a literary form closer to the novel than to traditional reportage. This form is best embodied in The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both 1968), Mailer's first extended forays into the political history of our time. It is also to be seen in his more recent works: Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), The Prisoner of Sex (1971), St. George and the Godfather (1972), and Marilyn (1973). Contrary to a widely-held opinion, however, these books did not come to us as unanticipated and unique achievements. As early as 1959 Mailer began the nonfictional innovations which made his recent books possible. It is this early work that I want to consider here, both as the preparation for Mailer's writings after 1967 and as an independent achievement which deserves more attention than it has yet received. By tracing the gradual emergence of Mailer's "personal" approach to nonfiction, we should come to see what A. Alvarez meant when he said that Mailer's early essays now seemed "like so many training flights" for The Armies of the Night. But we should also come to see that as Mailer turned more and more to the techniques of fiction he was able to succeed in the essay form as never before. This achievement is no mean one; among his contemporaries only James Baldwin has surpassed Mailer as an essayist. At any rate, this is the claim I would like to test in considering Mailer's early nonfiction.

The story of Mailer's nonfiction does not begin happily, for his political and social essays have changed remarkably over the years. The pieces which go back to the 1950's hardly anticipate the essayist who broods over the psychic forces at work in a championship prize fight; whether their subject is David Riesman, homosexuality, Marx, or Sputnik, they all betray the radical intellectual who once dissected Western Defense for the readers of Dissent. Significantly, Mailer has all but repudiated his earliest essays: "… whenever I sat down to do an article, I seemed to thicken in the throat as I worked my sentences and my rhetoric felt shaped by the bad political prose of our years." Indeed, such essays as "The Meaning of Western Defense," "David Riesman Reconsidered," and "The Homosexual Villain" are unpleasant reading for anyone who admires Mailer's prose style. Since collected in Advertisements for Myself (1959), these articles suggest that Mailer has no real gift for the analytical essay which is closely reasoned and "objective." Mailer seems to have recognized this himself, for his nonfiction has become less and less analytical as the years have passed.

"The White Negro" (1957) is Mailer's one significant essay of this early period. In one sense an almost scholarly discussion of the Hipster, this piece succeeds where Mailer's other early essays do not because it goes beyond the analysis of a cultural or political situation to create what Mailer has called a sociological "fiction." Mailer's "fiction"—the Hipster as revolutionary elitist—is not, of course, a wholly imaginative creation. In this essay, Mailer tries to describe a real phenomenon with real historical roots. He traces the birth of the Hipster to the catastrophes of the twentieth century and sees this figure as a rebel against society, that "collective creation" revealed by World War II to be "murderous" and by the postwar era to suffer from "a collective failure of nerve." He is also careful to identify the source of the Hipster's life style—the Negro culture based on jazz, marijuana, and sexuality (hence his title). But starting with these observations on the Hipster's genesis, Mailer is quick to take up a partisan defense of the Hipster's intuitions. The real thrust of his "analysis" is not descriptive but prophetic: the Hipster is seen as "the dangerous frontrunner of a new kind of personality which could become the central expression of human nature before the twentieth century is over." The more inspired passages in "The White Negro" always reject the generally analytical tone of the essay for a more lyrical evocation of the new hero who has come among us. The following passage is representative:

It is this knowledge which provides the curious community of feeling in the world of the hipster, a muted cool religious revival to be sure, but the element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmarish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence for it sees every man and woman as moving individually through each moment of life forward into growth or backward into death.

The "knowledge" Mailer refers to is the Hipster's supposed awareness of what is good or bad for his own psyche. Mailer begins by remarking this "knowledge" and ends with nothing less than his claim that the Hipster has "a dialectical conception of existence." Jean Malaquais has called this claim "a gorgeous flower of Mailer's romantic idealism," and I doubt that many of us would disagree. So far as "The White Negro" is sociology as we tend to think of it, Mailer's achievement is surely limited by such excessive claims for his subject. But "The White Negro" is really a lyrical defense of Mailer's conversion to Hip, an "American existentialism" which differs from the French variety because it is based on "a mysticism of the flesh" rather than "the rationality of French existentialism." Mailer succeeds in "The White Negro" insofar as he persuades us that Hip has "a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence," not that it has literally derived from Black culture or that it is a major social force. Despite its sometimes ponderous tone, "The White Negro" should therefore be seen as not altogether different from Mailer's more recent essays. Like these essays, it is distinguished by the quality of Mailer's brooding and most partisan reflections on what he has observed.

If "The White Negro" was an advance, the real turning point for Mailer's nonfiction was Advertisements for Myself. After 1959 Mailer's essays are marked by the strong personal voice he developed in writing the "advertisements" to his first collection. At first the difference is only stylistic, as Mailer cultivates this personal voice and so avoids the "thickening" in the throat which came to him while writing those political essays influenced by "early, passionate, and injudicious reading of the worst sort of Max Lernerish liberal junk." But gradually Mailer did much more than this; he came to introduce into his "journalism" not only his personal voice but his personality as well. His writings from 1960 to 1968 represent a continuing effort to focus his explorations into recent American history by transforming this personal element into a functional persona.

Before he could do this, however, Mailer had to discover the value of fictional techniques for a work of nonfiction. He seems to have made this discovery in "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" (1960). Ostensibly a report on the 1960 Democratic Convention, this essay is really a glorification of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the convention's nominee. Impressed by Kennedy's charisma rather than his politics (which were traditionally liberal, if not a bit conservative), Mailer set out to dramatize the mysterious allure of Kennedy's personality. Toward this end he employed numerous literary devices, most of them novelistic: character sketches, shifts in chronology, the juxtaposition of contrasting characters and events, etc. But his first tool was sheer rhetoric. He remarks at the beginning of his essay that he will "dress" his argument in "a ribbon or two of metaphor," and the "argument" is indeed metaphorical. Kennedy is variously imaged as "a great box-office actor," "a hero central to his time," and "a prince in the unstated aristocracy of the American dream"; he is said to have "a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz." Kennedy is contrasted throughout with the sort of candidate desired by the bosses of the convention—the totally political, totally predictable candidate such as Richard Nixon or Richard Daley. Mailer laments that we are a country of mythical heroes, yet our faith in such heroes has dried up. We are in need of a Kennedy, an American prince who will rekindle our faith in the American dream. The nation will reveal itself by its selection of Kennedy or Nixon: "One would have an inkling at last if the desire of America was for drama or stability, for adventure or monotony." Will the American people be so courageous as to embrace their own lonely and romantic desires?

Needless to say, the "argument" here is some distance removed from "fact and issue." It is a novelist's argument, and throughout "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" Mailer performs the good novelist's task of heightening his protagonist by treating everything else in a manner which can only set off Kennedy's contrasting excellence. The scene at the convention is described so as to make Kennedy appear not only a matinee idol by contrast but a saviour come unto heathens. Los Angeles is "a kingdom of stucco, the playground for mass men"; the Biltmore hotel, convention headquarters, is "one of the ugliest hotels in the world." The people at the convention are either political hacks or party professionals like Lyndon Johnson ("when he smiled the corners of his mouth squeezed gloom; when he was pious, his eyes twinkled irony; when he spoke in a righteous tone, he looked corrupt." It is to this city, this hotel, and these people that Kennedy comes, the movie star come to the palace to claim the princess. Mailer also places in evidence Nixon's incredibly mawkish remarks upon receiving the Republican nomination: "'Yes, I want to say,' said Nixon, 'that whatever abilities I have, I got from my mother … and my father … and my school and my church.'" He dismisses with contempt the Republican Convention which followed and offers yet another judgment on that convention's nominee: "The apocalyptic hour of Uriah Heep." He presents in detail Adlai Stevenson's presence at the Democratic Convention, for Stevenson plays the passive anti-hero to Kennedy's hero. The "events" Mailer chose to describe in this essay were selected by a professional novelist, not a political journalist. That is, they serve the ends of the novelist as well as the propagandist. The very texture of his essay validates Mailer's attractive "creation" of John Kennedy—a creation soon to be adopted by the country at large.

"Superman Comes to the Supermarket" reveals the novelist's hand, then, but it does not include the device most characteristic of Mailer's recent nonfiction—the use of himself as participant as well as spectator. For this we must look to the later essays, beginning with Mailer's second convention piece, "In The Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964." As its subtitle suggests, "In The Red Light" is about the Republican Convention rather than its leading man. (Goldwater is its most important figure, but he is hardly the hero of the piece.) The essay is formally divided into three parts: a history of events prior to the convention, including Goldwater's rise to power in the Republican Party; a description of the convention up to Goldwater's nomination; and a spectator's views on Goldwater's acceptance speech. Only at the end does Mailer abandon the pose of reporter to reflect on Goldwater's ascendancy and the state of the union in this year of Johnson versus Goldwater. Yet his interpretive presence is felt throughout. It is this "presence" which distinguishes "In The Red Light" from other journalistic accounts of the convention.

Mailer's role in the essay begins to emerge in the political portraits of part two. Here Everett Dirksen is described as "an old organist who could play all the squeaks in all the stops, rustle over all the dead bones of all the dead mice in all the pipes," and we can hear Dirksen as Mailer describes him, "making a sound like the whir of the air conditioning in a two-mile tunnel." And once you have read Mailer's description of George Romney as "a handsome version of Boris Karloff, all honesty, big-jawed, soft-eyed, eighty days at sea on a cockeyed passion," you can never see Romney again without visions of Frankenstein. These examples will suggest that Mailer is not exactly a disinterested historian. This is especially clear in his "analysis" of the Goldwater crusade. Goldwater delegates are presented as "a Wasp Mafia where the grapes of wrath are stored"; "a frustrated posse, a convention of hangmen who subscribe to the principle that the executioner has his rights as well"; their representatives in the California delegation are said to resemble Robert Mitchum playing the mad reverend in Night of the Hunter. Mailer even sense this fanaticism in the bagpipers who play throughout the convention, for theirs is "the true music of the Wasps" in which one detects "the Faustian rage of a white civilization … the cry of a race which was born to dominate and might never learn to share." Mailer's metaphorical rendering of the convention may be charged with bias, but many of us will sympathize with the underlying assumption: what really happened at the convention can only be captured in language which speaks of human acts and betrays a human speaker. Even where Mailer is on shakiest ground as a reporter—his characterizations—most of us will probably find that his Goldwater, Scranton, or Eisenhower at least suggests the man we all observe rather than the faceless political "figure" we encounter in news reports. But the point is perhaps obvious. Dealing with the convention as he would in a novel, Mailer achieves the same imaginative authority in what is formally an essay.

Mailer's impressionism is justified because "In the Red Light" is about his response to the ascending Right Wing rather than the phenomenon itself. At one point Mailer writes, "I had been leading a life which was a trifle too pointless and a trifle too full of guilt and my gullet was close to nausea with the endless compromises of an empty liberal center. So I followed the convention with something more than simple apprehension." This passage goes far to explain Mailer's fascination with Goldwater, for Goldwater is an answer to the empty liberal center. But it also anticipates the strategy of Mailer's essay. Rather than "describe" the convention, Mailer dramatizes his ambivalent response to Goldwater and the Goldwaterites. He does this not only to bring the convention to life as an experienced event but also to offer an ominous clue to our condition as a people. For Mailer's undeclared assumption is that his reactions are representative. And if men like Mailer feel the attraction of a Goldwater, then Mailer's conclusion is probably true: "America has come to a point from which she will never return. The wars are coming and the deep revolutions of the soul." Mailer has rendered the convention so persuasively that such prophecies almost seem inevitable.

We can be grateful for Mailer's fascination with Goldwater—his account of the Republican Convention is much richer than it might otherwise have been. Elsewhere in his nonfiction, however, Mailer has used his personality not only to focus the coverage of an event or movement but as his fundamental subject. He has treated himself as a character in one of his novels might be treated and so brought the essay form to the borders of fiction. This strategy is to be seen in such early essays as "An Evening with Jackie Kennedy, or, The Wild West of the East" (1962), but it is used most successfully in "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" (1962), Mailer's account of the first Patterson-Liston fight. Here Mailer emphasizes his own role in a public event almost to the exclusion of the event itself. He may have arrived at this strategy through necessity rather than choice, for the fight itself was a one-round "fiasco." In any case, Mailer's title is a sly hint that he is here concerned with more than the coverage of a championship fight. Mailer has indeed written almost twenty thousand words about a two-minute fight—and what he takes to be its symbolic meaning, his relation to it that week in Chicago, and his reaction to its outcome. These latter concerns are what justify the length of "Ten Thousand Words a Minute," the longest and the best of Mailer's essays.

I don't mean to suggest that Mailer here neglects his duties as a reporter. In part one he gives an interesting account of the men surrounding the two fighters; in part two he offers a very professional report on the Patterson and Liston training camps; in part three he presents what must be the most vivid published account of the fight itself; and in part four he manages to cover all the post-fight activities, including Liston's press conference the next day. Impressive as Mailer's reportage can be, however, "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" is still about Norman Mailer's coverage of a prize fight rather than the fight itself. We sense this as early as part two, where Mailer dramatizes not only his observations of Patterson and Liston but also his conversations with such men as Cus D'Amato, Patterson's manager, and Jim Jacobs, Patterson's Public Relations Assistant. The humor here is at Mailer's expense; like the self-deprecating passages in "An Evening with Jackie Kennedy," it hints at the ironic self-characterization so crucial to The Armies of the Night and Mailer's more recent nonfiction. For that matter, the humor is important here. "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" offers Mailer's symbolic reading of the Patterson-Liston fight, where Liston is Faust and Patterson the archetypal Underdog; where Liston is Sex and Patterson is Love; where Liston is the Hustler and Patterson the Artist; where Liston is the Devil and Patterson is God. Such weighty identifications are presented in all metaphoric seriousness. Like The Armies of the Night, "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" can afford such extravagance because the man who speculates so largely is himself an object of dramatic irony. Mailer is revealed here in a familiar role: "Once more I had tried to become a hero, and had ended as an eccentric." Yet the speculations offered above are not to be dismissed as eccentric lunacies. As in his later works, Mailer wins a hearing for his insights as the best fruit of a writer who will reveal everything about himself, his most ridiculous "capers" but also his most dazzling intellectual connections.

The essay's final sections make it clear that Mailer's ultimate subject is himself. Once he has described the fight and offered his ideas on what it all "meant" (i.e., what the fighters represented), Mailer would seem to be done. Yet he goes on for another fifteen pages. The fight inspires a severe self-analysis in which Mailer takes upon himself part of the blame for Patterson's defeat. (Briefly, Mailer finds that he has backed Patterson in an "idle, detached fashion"; like Patterson's liberal supporters, he has failed to nourish the champion's spirit). Here Mailer considers the events of that week in Chicago, including his debate with William Buckley at Medinah Temple. He finds that the ledgers are heavily against him: he has supported Patterson too complacently, he has drunk much too much, he has sulked over such trivialities as the account of his debate in the New York Times. Mailer feels something like Patterson's humiliation because he has identified with the lonely artist in Patterson:

Patterson was the champion of every lonely adolescent and every man who had been forced to live alone, every protagonist who tried to remain unique in a world whose waters washed apathy and compromise into the pores. He was the hero of all those unsung romantics who walk the street at night seeing the vision of Napoleon while their feet trip over the curb, he was part of the fortitude which could sustain those who live for principle, those who had gone to war with themselves and ended with discipline.

Mailer has failed both Patterson and himself, for his week in Chicago has been ruled by the world's apathy, compromise, and lack of discipline.

His disruption of Liston's press conference, the essay's final episode, reveals Mailer as yet another "unsung romantic" who has the vision of Napoleon as he trips over the curb. The scene is saved from bathos because Mailer sees it for what it is ("Once more I had tried to become a hero, and had ended as an eccentric"). Yet it is also a fitting climax to his narrative, for here Mailer dramatizes his determination to be "some sort of center about which all that had been lost must now rally." The defeat of Patterson has become for Mailer the defeat of Love and Art and Discipline. His bravura at the press conference registers his decision to reaffirm what the week's events and the fight itself have called into question. Indeed, this reaffirmation is what the essay is ultimately "about." Mailer has made us see that Patterson and Liston do not merely represent forces such as Love and Sex; finally, they represent us, that heroic—or demonic—part of us with which we identify. Mailer comes to see this and to act on what he sees—however "comic" his action. We, his readers, can hardly see less.

Years later Mailer would involve himself in another struggle where the opposing sides would suggest the "countered halves" of his own nature. In his account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, Mailer would again dramatize his conversion to one side in the conflict. Both "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" and The Armies of the Night are narratives about the comical yet serious education of Norman Mailer. The essay anticipates the later work in technique as well as form, for "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" depends on fictional techniques to a degree unparalleled in Mailer until The Armies of the Night. Such devices are used selectively in "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," "In The Red Light," and "An Evening with Jackie Kennedy." And Mailer's use of himself as a persona can be seen emerging as long ago as Advertisements for Myself, where his controversial self-portrait is a major unifying device. But in "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" Mailer's fiction-like nonfiction is fully in evidence. Such figures as Patterson, Liston, D'Amato, Jacobs, and the cabbie who takes Mailer to Comiskey Park are treated in a manner Mailer formally reserved for his fiction. Mailer dramatizes almost every scene in the essay and makes particular use of the flashback, a device we normally associate with fiction. If he is to be seen here as "hobbled to the facts of time, place, self," Mailer is also to be seen deploying his "facts" in a literary structure which betrays both the novelist and the historian-to-be of The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

The most "novelistic" of his essays, "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" is also the piece in which Mailer's self-reference is most conspicuous. For this reason it is not surprising that the essay has received insufficient recognition as a minor masterpiece. Nor is it really curious that Mailer's nonfiction should have been examined so seldom. As Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, "There are always those to whom all self-revelation is contemptible, unless it ends with a noble thanks to the gods for the Unconquerable Soul." Mailer's detractors have been quick to find his self-revelations contemptible, failing to see that in registering its effects on himself Mailer has illuminated the history of our time. Mailer has offered his reactions to modern life as those of a representative American—unusually sensitive and intelligent, perhaps, but subject to the same contradictory emotions as the rest of us in confronting such phenomena as Goldwater, Floyd Patterson, the Peace Movement, Women's Liberation, the space program, and enigmas such as Richard Milhous Nixon. As Mailer says, there is no history without nuance. And what his method suggests is that the nuances of recent history can only be caught in the response of a troubled American to the events which are America. If he has shown this most convincingly in The Armies of the Night, Mailer has anticipated that achievement in the essays I have discussed here. More than brilliant miniatures, these essays are one of Mailer's enduring contributions to American writing.

Principal Works

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The Naked and the Dead (novel) 1948
Barbary Shore (novel) 1951
The Deer Park (novel) 1955
The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (short stories, essays, and verse) 1957
Advertisements for Myself (short stories, essays, and verse) 1959
Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (poetry) 1962
The Presidential Papers (essays) 1963
An American Dream (novel) 1965
The Deer Park (drama) 1967
The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (short stories) 1967
Why Are We in Vietnam? (novel) 1967
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History (nonfiction novel) 1968
Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 (nonfiction novel) 1968
Of a Fire on the Moon (nonfiction novel) 1970; also published as A Fire on the Moon, 1970
The Prisoner of Sex (nonfiction) 1971
Marilyn: A Biography (biography) 1973; revised edition, 1975
The Executioner's Song (nonfiction novel) 1979
Of Women and Their Elegance (fictional autobiography) 1980
The Executioner's Song (screenplay) 1982
Pieces and Pontifications (essays and interviews) 1982
Ancient Evenings (novel) 1983
Tough Guys Don't Dance (novel) 1984
Harlot's Ghost (novel) 1991
Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (novel) 1995
Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography (biography) 1995
The Gospel According to the Son (novel) 1997

Kenneth A. Seib (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: "Mailer's March: The Epic Structure of The Armies of the Night," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 1, 1974, pp. 89-95.

[In the following essay, Seib identifies elements of Homeric epic in The Armies of the Night, particularly Mailer's concern for the destiny of the United States, allusions to the supernatural, and warfare as its central theme.]

When speaking of Norman Mailer, it is common to discuss his various avatars as public persona and literary court jester. We see Mailer advertising for himself, sounding his yawp over the television airwaves, slugging it out mano a mano with such disparate opponents as Gore Vidal, Jose Torres, Germaine Greer, and Kate Millett. Prisoner of sex, pop astronaut, disk jockey to the world—Mailer has never been hit hard because his dazzling footwork keeps critics confused, and he changes style in each new round.

But literature's exhibitionists are quickly forgotten if there is little artistry behind their bluster. (Who today reads Vachel Lindsay?) Some who defend Mailer point to a rich prose style, as though he were a space-age Lord Macaulay. Richard Poirier, for instance, finds him "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." Poirier's statement conjures up the image of a literary King Kong swiping away helicopters while sitting atop the offices of the New York Review of Books. Others applaud his machismo in exploring difficult territory, but there is little analysis of what Mailer has actually written.

Along with The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night is generally considered Mailer's finest work. Richard Foster, for instance, finds it "unquestionably one of Mailer's best books—passionate, humorous, acutely intelligent, and as always, eloquent in its empathy with the drift of history." In addition to this sort of praise, Mailer won such Establishment symbols of approval as the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for having written Armies. Moreover, the book has become standard reading for those who believe in the "non-fiction novel," a recent genre that has yet to be defined to everyone's satisfaction. Shifty as ever, Mailer seems to require the invention of new genres before critical discussion of his works is possible.

But what has been largely missed about Mailer is that he works in very traditional and clear-cut forms. The Naked and the Dead has the bulk and leisurely pace of nineteenth-century fiction, while Barbary Shore and The Deer Park have the texture of 1930's realistic fiction and the content of the social novel. An American Dream is James Cain with existential trappings, while Why Are We in Vietnam? is spaced-out Joyce. Other books are superior reportage.

The Armies of the Night, in spite of its avant-grade subtitle ("History as a Novel, The Novel as History"), is no exception. And that is precisely its triumph, for Mailer is working within the framework of the most improbable and, for this century, most difficult of traditional forms—the classical epic. Barry H. Leeds has already pointed out that Armies is "thematically structured like the Iliad, proceeding simultaneously on an individual and national level." But Leeds does not pursue the comparison far enough, for the book is not just thematically structured along the lines of the epic. The Armies of the Night has the narrative structure and content of the epic as well.

The definition of the literary epic has been much discussed. Although scholars disagree about certain problems involving the epic, most are in agreement about its general characteristics and stylistic qualities. In the conventional epic, narrative plot is simple, generally involving one central incident of major importance. The incident itself, with its setting, has significance for a race or nation. Warfare is the dominant theme. Towering above all characters is the epic hero, who exemplifies certain cultural traits and is a figure of national importance. The style of the literary epic is objective, lofty, elaborate in imagery, elevated in tone. Often the supernatural plays an important part in the outcome of events; gods, angels, and demons are common.

In addition, the author of the traditional epic relies heavily on established epic details. The narrative, for instance, begins in medias res and fills in preceding events through flash-back. There is an invocation to the muse, a request for divine inspiration, in which the author posits an epic question. There are lengthy descriptions—for example, Homer's enumeration of the fighting forces at Troy—and the author employs elaborate similes, ornate comparisons involving ironic contrasts. Events are dramatized, rather than explained, and the drama has significance for both human and national destiny.

Analysis of The Armies of the Night reveals that Mailer—and it is hard to believe that it was unconsciously—has employed in one way or another all the features of the traditional epic. To begin with, the title of the book—as Barry Leeds has noted—suggests not only Matthew Arnold's ignorant armies clashing by night in "Dover Beach," but also the epic forces of Homer, Virgil, and others. The theme of the book is warfare. Yet Mailer, like all other epic writers of the past since Homer, adapts the epic form to the changed conditions of his own time. As C. M. Bowra has pointed out, all writers of epic have "tried to adapt the heroic ideal to unheroic times and to proclaim … a new conception of man's grandeur and nobility. Each had his own approach, his own solution, and his own doubts and reservations." Mailer's war is not only a literal one, a march on the Pentagon involving armies of anti-war demonstrators on one side and the forces of the American establishment on the other, but a war between the divided elements of the American psyche. Between the ideals of the American Revolution and the desperation of the Pentagon march, Mailer warns, there is a "beast slinking to the marketplace." That this disparity has national importance is clear: "The two halves of America were not coming together, and when they failed to touch, all of history might be lost in the divide."

Mailer, then, is presenting the Pentagon march as an historical event of the first magnitude, an event as significant to the destiny of the United States as the Trojan war was to Greece. In accordance with the rules of traditional epic, the narrative plot is simple. Mailer describes events leading up to the march, the march itself, and its aftermath. Everything focuses on the central incident of the Pentagon march. The book, therefore, contains the necessary scope, framework, and importance that have been traditionally attributed to the epic. But so do a lot of other books, most of them best-selling historical romances that are quickly forgotten—or, at least, not taken seriously by sophisticated readers. What elevates Armies above mere book-jacket accolades of "epic" is, in addition to its structural and stylistic details, its use of a genuine epic hero—Norman Mailer himself.

No papier-mâché epic hero like Anthony Adverse, Mailer is the real red-blooded thing. A man of national renown—perhaps infamy—Mailer stands both in and above the events he narrates. While willing to participate in the resistance movement, he by no means gives it total assent. He is scornful, for instance, of the New Left for being plugged in, at least obliquely, to the drug culture ("Mailer was not in approval of any drug, he was virtually conservative about it"); for its squandering of energy on such useless activities as a Pentagon march; for the bankrupt values of old liberals and radical chic professors ("if they were doomed to be revolutionaries, rebels, dissenters, anarchists, protesters, and general champions of one Left cause or another, they were also in private, grands conservateurs, and if the truth be told, poor damn émigré princes"). "While at home in large areas of life," E. M. W. Tillyard has written, "the epic writer must be centred in the normal, he must measure the crooked by the straight, he must exemplify that sanity which has been claimed for true genius." While moving through this fantastic corroboree of contemporary madness, Mailer presents himself as both a norm by which we can judge others' values and behavior, and as one who has the sanity of true genius. In fact, with typical candor—why hide it?—Mailer admits early in the book that he has always had "the illusion he was a genius."

If, like Achilles, Mailer is a man of wrath, he is also, like Odysseus, a bit of a fool. His street-fighter performance at Washington's Ambassador Theater, his earlier gropings in the dark of The Room, his eyeball-to-eyeball combat with the young Nazi—all are in the comic mode, yet not unheroic. Just as Achilles and Odysseus are heroes with whom we can identify, so Mailer contains our own fears, prejudices, and capacity for ludicrous behavior. Yet again like Achilles and Odysseus, he is greater than we—in his sensitivity to nuance, his ability for self-willed action, his largesse. Mailer does commit himself to a cause in which he only half believes, he does willingly get busted at the Pentagon, he does incorporate the multitudinous insanities of the march into objective judgment. Who among us can do the same? Mailer is "warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter"—he is one of us and, at the same time, more than most of us will ever be.

C. M. Bowra, speaking again of the epic hero, says this:

The single man, Achilles or Beowulf or Roland, surpasses others in strength and courage. His chief, almost his only, aim is to win honour and renown through his achievements and to be remembered for them after his death. He is ruthless to any who frustrate or deride him. In his more than human strength he seems to be cut off from the intercourse of common men and consorts with a few companions only less noble than himself. He lacks allegiance, except in a modified sense, to suzerain or cause. What matters is his prowess. Even morality hardly concerns him; for he lives in a world where what counts is not morality but honour.

Mailer fits Bowra's description perfectly. Mailer the character, the central figure of the drama that Mailer the author relates, has the same concern as his creator: his honor and renown as a writer and student of contemporary events. When mildly put down by Robert Lowell as "the best journalist in America," Mailer replies that he prefers to think of himself as "the best writer in America." Such chutzpah may be thought pure egotism but, as Mailer notes, when "History inhabits a crazy house, egotism may be the last tool left to History." One recalls Achilles dragging the body of Paris around the walls of Troy, Aeneas callously abandoning Dido, Odysseus eliminating his wife's suitors—they too display ego beyond the healthy norm, for their honor transcends the bounds of conventional behavior.

In short, Mailer presents himself as a single man, lacking allegiance "to suzerain or cause," whose honor as "the best writer in America" is the central issue at stake. If he cannot understand the insanities of history, he seems to ask implicitly, then who can? And he is ruthless to those "who frustrate or deride him." Paul Goodman looks like "the sort of old con who had first gotten into trouble in the YMCA, and hadn't spoken to anyone since"; Robert Lowell gives off "the unwilling haunted saintliness of a man who was repaying the moral debts of ten generations of ancestors"; Dwight Macdonald prides himself "on adopting the 'I am dumb' school of English interrogation." The comments are unflattering and are meant to be. Each litterateur is a presumptive heir apparent to Mailer's literary throne, and each is banished to a far corner of the literary realm. Trusting only the authority of his senses (as usual), Mailer dismisses others on a visceral level for not knowing, as he presumably does himself, "of dignity hard-achieved, and dignity lost through innocence, and dignity lost by sacrifice for a cause one cannot name." Such is the dignity of the true epic hero.

Yet, as the author of Armies is well aware, the character Mailer often fails to exhibit either dignity or heroism. He is "a ludicrous figure with mock-heroic associations … an egotist of the most startling misproportions, outrageously and often unhappily self-assertive." The book is essentially written in what Northrop Frye would call "the low mimetic mode," never achieving the heights of genuine epic tragedy. At times it is purely mock-heroic. Mailer maintains the epic distance and comic sense of Homer in his creation of Odysseus or of Dante who, as principal character of the Commedia, faints dead away at the sight of the capital of Hell. There is, once again, an awareness of irony in most epic writers, and something supremely human about all epic heroes.

There are other familiar characteristics that mark The Armies of the Night as epic. Mailer opens the book in medias res with the Time magazine account of his outrageous performance at Washington's Ambassador Theater during the opening round of the Pentagon assault. Through flashback we are filled in on the details of how Mailer, reluctant participant, is brought into the anti-war resistance by Mitchell Goodman. In fact, Goodman's telephone call is a comic version of inspiration from the Muse, a summons from beyond that calls the hero to epic activity. The epic question, generally posted at the beginning of the traditional epic, is asked by Mailer at the very end: America, heavy with child, "will probably give birth, and to what?" Although the question is never clearly answered, the implied answer is clear: "The death of America rides in on the smog." And the book ends on a note of divine supplication ("Deliver us from our curse") not atypical of the epic mode.

Furthermore, there are stylistic details taken from the conventional epic. Consider, for example, this Homeric catalogue of battle forces at the Pentagon, a description exactly right for a mod Iliad:

They came walking up in all sizes, a citizens' army not ranked yet by height, an army of both sexes in numbers almost equal, and of all ages, although most were young. Some were well-dressed, some were poor, many were conventional in appearance, as often were not. The hippies were there in great number, perambulating down the hill, many dressed like the legions of Sgt. Pepper's Band, some were gotten up like Arab sheiks, or in Park Avenue doormen's greatcoats, others like Rogers and Clark of the West, Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Daniel Boone in buckskin, some had grown mustaches to look like Have Gun, Will Travel—Paladin's surrogate was here!—and wild Indians with feathers, a hippie gotten up like Batman, another like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man—his face wrapped in a turban of bandages and he wore a black satin top hat. A host of these troops wore capes, beat-up khaki capes, slept on, used as blankets, towels, improvised duffel bags; or fine capes, orange linings, or luminous rose linings, the edges ragged, near a tatter, the threads ready to feather, but a musketeer's hat on their head. One hippie may have been dressed like Charles Chaplin; Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields could have come to the ball; there were Martians and Moon-men and a knight unhorsed who stalked about in the weight of real armor. There were to be seen a hundred soldiers in Confederate gray, and maybe there were to be seen a hundred hippies in officer's coats of Union dark-blue…. There were soldiers in Foreign Legion uniforms, and tropical bush jackets, San Quentin and Chino, California striped shirt and pants, British copies of Eisenhower jackets, hippies dressed like Turkish shepherds and Roman senators, gurus, and samurai in dirty smocks. They were close to being assembled from all the intersections between history and the comic books, between legend and television, the Biblical archetypes and the movies.

In addition, the book is filled with epic similes of Homeric proportion, all too numerous to mention. The comparison of America's national mentality to that of Grandma with Orange Hair, zinging half dollars into a Vegas slot machine in order to get her emotional kicks, is only one of many vivid examples.

Finally, there are two more details associated with the traditional epic: the supernatural and the journey into the underworld. The Armies of the Night offers numerous references to the supernatural. Lowell, a descendant of those who kissed "the sub cauda of the midnight cat," is presented as an inheritor of Maule's curse; Jerry Rubin is a "revolutionary mystic" whose "roots were in Bakunin"; Abbie Hoffman and the Fugs are theatrical mediums attempting to levitate the Pentagon in a holy ritual of exorcism. But such description is mainly allusive and ornamental. More functional to Mailer's theme is the author's obsessive concern with the struggle between God and Satan, the forces of life and the impulses toward destruction. Mailer's gothic vision is of an America, not unlike Salem in the seventeenth century, gone demonic, "living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled, schizophrenia which had been deepening with the years."

Mailer's trip into the underworld—into Hell—is less overt and more detailed. Busted for purposely crossing a Pentagon barrier, Mailer finds himself in prison, where a "subtle hell offered its perspective—if you were an intellectual and a bad one, no matter how, you might end in some eternity like this, with nothing but the sounds of conversations already held to entertain the ear, nothing but books like Saint John Bosco—Friend of Youth to exercise the brain." It is a bolgia reserved for Unrepentant Radicals, a place of stale sweat and rancid air, of indifferent marshals and unfulfilled legal expectations, of authority and thwarted instincts. Mailer's later account of the action at the plaza of the Pentagon steps is an even further descent into the inferno of contemporary schizophrenia. In short, the entire prison sequence involving Mailer and the other demonstrators is a clear equivalent of the epic journey to the underworld.

E. M. W. Tillyard writes about the "choric" element in epic, the expression of "the feelings of a large group of people living in or near his own time." As spokesman for all those like himself—Left Conservatives—Mailer has forged from the unwieldy chaos of contemporaneity something of a modern epic. Just as Milton attempted to justify the ways of God to man, Mailer has attempted to justify the ways of America to whatever gods that be. But unlike Milton, who was not present at the Fall, Mailer was the man: he suffered, he was there.

Donald Fishman (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "Norman Mailer," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 9, 1975, pp. 174-82.

[In the following essay, Fishman discusses Mailer's three-fold persona as public celebrity, social critic, and American writer in relation to his experiments with the New Journalism genre. As Fishman asserts, this "new form accentuates the strengths of each of the personae so that the whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of the parts."]

Why does he [Mailer] have to push himself forward all the time and make such a spectacle of himself … why can't he let his work speak for itself?

                             —Flannery O'Connor

Norman Mailer's public career presents an ever-changing face. His latest works fall conveniently into neither fiction, literary criticism, nor political commentary. His diversions into politics and political campaigning as well as film making have only added to the confusion of those critics who attempt to categorize and dissect his interests. Yet, the fact that his writings defy traditional classification is itself of some importance; the uneasiness may arise from the nature of the categories as much as the merits of the works. What appears to be new in Mailer's writings is not only his use of memoir-like accounts of politics and culture and his concentration on nonfiction, but this combination of these two elements into an imaginative genre of reporting.

The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the difficulty in understanding the variety of Mailer's recent writings is lessened when one examines how the three personae of Mailer are successfully combined in the New Journalism.

Mailer's career has traditionally been constructed around three personae. Mailer's most recognized persona has been that of the public celebrity. As the most publicized and colorful man of letters in America since Ernest Hemingway, Mailer is widely known for his stormy encounters with his former wives, his unsuccessful attempt to become mayor of New York in 1969, and his sparring matches with such popular boxers as Muhammad Ali and Jose Torres. Featured in headline stories, maligned by national columnists, and discussed on late-night talk shows, the "legend" of Mailer has become as imposing as the writings of the man. "The legend," says Mailer, "becomes your friend … a front man, a procurer of new situations. You live with a ghost that is more real to people than yourself." There is a large segment of the public that has never read a single sentence of Mailer yet knows him as a controversial and flamboyant exhibitionist.

It is not altogether clear how fully the "legend" affects the private life and writings of Mailer. The legend itself, however, has been subjected to a large measure of speculation. It has been argued that the role of the celebrity is at odds with the perspective of a serious writer. Celebrities tend to subordinate their ideas to their personalities. As a result, when a writer becomes a public personality, he tends, like an actor or movie star, to trade off his image and his eccentricities, which presumably are easier to sell than his ideas. His image represents a marketable product, often independent of his literary skill, that the audience recognizes. The side-effect of recognition is that the writer may adapt his public and private lives to conform to an artificially created image; frequently this means adhering to a role that he has previously presented and that the public expects him to play. For writers who thrive on new experiences and flexibility, the price of celebrity status can be damaging. Success corrupts not because it brings money and recognition but because it changes the writer's view of himself and his ability to react to changing events. Above all, the legend may obtrude on the works as well as on the man.

Although the writer-public celebrity pitfall may have some validity, the notion fails to account for Mailer's recent successes. Mailer's literary triumphs appear to occur because of—not despite—the clash between his public personality and literary ambitions. As a writer, he has emphatically destroyed the aesthetic distance between himself and his subject matter. Unhappy with self-abnegation, he has placed his ego alongside of his pen as a tool in writing. Whatever else his recent work suggests, he has demonstrated that personality, subjectivity, and empathy can be important ingredients in writing.

Mailer's second persona is that of a social critic. Agitated by changes in modern urban life, especially the rapidly expanding technology, Mailer, by his own account, has devoted himself to creating a "revolution in the consciousness of our times." Although his social criticism contains what critic Dwight MacDonald has called "Mailer's Messianic-cum-Superman nonsense," Mailer's ideas on politics, technology, and the organic society have generated interest and praise. Indeed, Irving Howe in his article on New York intellectuals flatteringly refers to Mailer as "our genius," while noting that Mailer's social criticism has been severely neglected because it challenges many time-honored beliefs among intellectuals:

My point is that the New York writers have failed to confront Mailer seriously as an intellectual spokesman, a cultural agent, and instead have found it easier to regard him as a hostage to the temper of our times. What has not been forthcoming is a recognition, surely a painful one, that in his major public roles he has come to represent values in deep opposition to liberal humaneness and rational discourse.

Despite Howe's warm appraisal of Mailer's importance, it would be misleading to urge critics to spend their energies analyzing Mailer's criticism as if it were a "school of thought." Admittedly, Mailer's writings do not lack interesting ideas. In this respect, he overshadows his followers and imitators. Yet Mailer's thinking is neither systematic nor consistent; his work reflects more the insightful observations of a journalist than the careful formulations of a philosopher or skillful polemicist. His shallow comments on technology and existential politics serve more as a "cover for his intellectual malfeasances" and a "banner for his crusades" than as statements from a deep-thinking critic.

More importantly, a large part of Mailer's appeal is derived from the tone and style of his commentary. As a critic, his voice adds a distinctive dimension to his observations. Other critics—Gore Vidal, Benjamin DeMott, Dwight MacDonald—primarily trade off their insights and ideas. Mailer's talents, a volatile amalgam of ideas, tone and style, allow him to resuscitate the commonplace and familiar with urgency and conviction.

Whereas past critics such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Lawrence often wrote with a mixture of argument and satire that was bitter in tone, Mailer's tone is frequently comical. In fact, one of the characteristics of his vision is a comic-apocalyptic view. His basic uncertainty that rules and consistency are important has guided him to a view encapsuled with irony:

It has been the continuing obsession of this writer that the world is entering a time of plague … the continuing metaphor for the obsession has been cancer … an ultimate disease against which all other diseases are designed to protect us.

Yet every year the girls are more beautiful and the athletes are better. So the dilemma remains. Is the curse on the world or on oneself?

Yet there is a prophetic quality to his voice. Mailer is constantly warning his audience about the impending doom with such phrases as "Apocalypse or debauch is upon us," "the ill of civilization is that it is removed from nature," and "New York is not a machine but a malignancy." The prophetic voices reinforce his tendency to reduce all life to ultimate alternatives: cannibals and Christians, God and the devil, outlaws and conformists, being and nothingness. Although these dichotomies promote simplification in his thought, they also generate a sense of urgency about his message.

While Mailer's tone has often taken the form of prophecy, reproach, insult, teasing, and mockery, his most successful stylistic device has been his use of metaphors. Without a doubt, Mailer's indisputable talent seems to be in creating metaphors to explain the modern environment; the key terms in this vocabulary—cancer, plague, disease, cannibalistic, and demon—make him unique, at least among left-leaning social critics. His own explanation for the prominence of metaphors in his writings indicates that he views them as part of a strategy of opposition:

The argument would demand that there be metaphors to fit the vaults of modern experience. That is, in fact, the unendurable demand of the middle of this century to restore the metaphor and displace the scientist from his center.

The value of metaphors for Mailer is that they serve as a lively vehicle for explaining changes in our society. Mailer's putative goal as a critic is to create understanding while science and technology blindly displace people from traditional sources of meaning. The metaphor aids in bridging the gap between our prior condition and our current malaise.

The striking fact, however, that emerges from focusing on Mailer's criticism is that his writing reveals a limited number of strengths: a stylistic inventiveness, a flair for articulating social questions in an amusing manner, and an ability to convey a sense of urgency about his message. Given the right literary vehicle, the cumulative force of these features probably would be powerful enough to overcome the obvious deficiencies in his critical works: unsustained analytical interpretation and loosely reasoned argument. In a standard political essay, however, Mailer's work would be glaringly weak.

The third persona of Mailer which can be clearly recognized is that of the American writer. Regarded by many as the greatest novelist of his generation, Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, achieved immediate acclaim. Mailer's subsequent two books, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, alternately received hostile reviews and lukewarm praise. Despite unfavorable reviews, Mailer was obsessed with becoming a major writer as he began to brood openly over his failure to recapture fame. Ironically, the more shrill his statements became about the importance of the novel and his own potential masterpiece, possibly three thousand pages in length, the more he experimented with writing in a semi-autobiographical vein. With the passage of time, he became more innovative in both substance and form, the latter calling more public attention to itself than the former. Beginning with "The Existential Hero: Superman Comes to the Supermarket," an article published in Esquire in 1960, Mailer started to unite the various facets of his skill into a coherent structure. The new form was more open, lacking the inhibitions of the novel and the formulas of conventional journalism. Of course, he still wrote novels and the "name power" of Mailer guaranteed that even a potboiler like Why Are We in Vietnam would receive a fair hearing. Still, the high-water mark of his writing came from the publication of The Armies of the Night, an exemplary piece of writing that not only won a Pulitzer Prize but earned the applause from many writers dissatisfied with conventional journalism.

The subjects of his books published after 1968 were usually contemporary and topical but the subject-matter had been long-standing concerns of his. The egotistical self-indulgence had been evident before and the writing had been foreshadowed in earlier works. As Richard Gilman pointed out in discussing The Armies of the Night:

A more advanced novelist than Mailer, one less interested in getting at social or political reality, would not have been able to bring it off; that Mailer is only imperfectly a novelist, that his passion for moving and shaking the actual has prevented him from fully inhabiting imaginary kingdoms is the underlying paradoxical strength of this book.

Yet, perhaps the most important reason for the success of this work and subsequent efforts is that they combine the three personae of Mailer—public celebrity, critic, and writer—in one all-consuming perspective. The new form accentuates the strengths of each of the personae so that the whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of the parts.

It is tempting to presume a connection between Norman Mailer and the New Journalism without defining the basis of the relationship. The surface features of personalized reporting, partisanship, and stylistic similarities seem to place Mailer's latest works into the New Journalism camp. Conversely, the difficulty of analyzing Mailer's works in traditional terms associated with literature and criticism and the apparent openness of the New Journalism make the connection between the two not only logically coherent but strategically expedient. In order to understand the nature of the relationship, however, it is first necessary to examine the conventions identified with the New Journalism.

By common testimony, the term "New Journalism" is a misnomer. Tom Wolfe, the leading theorist of the genre, has argued that the New Journalism is not new at all; it has a number of precursors that have not only inspired the movement but resemble the genre itself. What is new about the New Journalism, according to Wolfe, is the excitement the term generated after it began to circulate. Others have maintained that since the primary expression of the New Journalism has been located in books and magazines but not in newspapers, a more appropriate name for the movement is the new nonfiction. Still others have asserted that New Journalism is not journalism in any meaningful sense because the treatment of factual materials is secondary to the artistic imagination of the writer. In this view, it is the author's imagination that is the pivotal force: the events themselves are merely showcases for one's personality as if the author were an impressario—Tom Wolfe presents the Mau Maus, Norman Mailer introduces the moonshot, Gay Talese hosts the mafia. In a milder version, the argument recognizes the possibility that the impressario may adopt a low-keyed stance. Lillian Ross, for example, but the overall results are the same; fiction overshadows fact, personality governs events.

The conflict in the New Journalism between the artistic component of fiction and the factual component of journalism has taken precedence over the appropriateness of the label itself. Journalists indict the New Journalism for its slipshod reporting, creation of imaginary dialogue, and subjective assessments. Literati belittle it for its lack of imagination, suggesting that it presents evocative journalism anchored in facts and actual events without the resourceful creativity of serious fiction. "It is a bastard form, having it both ways," contended critic Dwight MacDonald, "exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction."

It is not surprising, however, that the most heated attacks on New Journalism have come from journalists. While literary critics can dismiss the movement as lacking the creativity of serious fiction, or, paradoxically, praise it for its uplifting effects on reporting, at issue for journalism is the paramount question of objectivity in investigating and writing. It is also little wonder that the critique on New Journalism resembles the objections many critics extend to Mailer's work. Both share many of the same strengths and excesses, and to a large extent the essential characteristics of New Journalism can be exemplified in Mailer's work.

There are three time-honored rules which old journalism believes the New Journalism violates. The first of these axioms is that every story has, at least, two points of view. The task of the journalist is to provide balanced space for opposing viewpoints, possibly even exactly equal space. Mailer, in his writings, rarely assumes that each side has a valid point. What Mailer assumes is that his point of view is the valid one. In Marilyn, a book published twelve years after the death of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer discussed a new theory concerning her suicide. He claimed that Marilyn Monroe killed herself after a telephone conversation with former Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. Almost everyone connected with the case attempted to refute this assertion and Mailer himself added little credibility to his argument when he admitted that he interviewed no one directly associated with the death before he published the book. Having conceded that the book was largely conjecture on his part, Mailer vigorously defended his argument in public as if conjecture were fact. Mailer labeled the facts of the case as "factoids," by which he means rumors which have no other existence except that they appear in print and then people begin to repeat them as if they were facts.

This case, admittedly not one of the showcase examples of the New Journalism, nevertheless reveals the underlying attitudes that separate the two strains of journalism. For conventional journalists, Mailer's chief pitfall was his sloppy investigating and his failure to step outside of his preconceived notions and examine the views of the participants in the event. For new journalists, viewpoint itself was not bad; partisanship, however, demands more rigorous standards of investigating. Mailer's error was that he accepted inadmissible evidence, heresay, and conjecture as fact.

The confusion of fact and factoid by Mailer raises doubts about the accuracy of his reporting. This confusion may account for the skepticism and lack of seriousness that often greets his writings. At the same time, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that Mailer abuses factual materials more than other new journalists. Although Tom Wolfe has censured him for his lack of investigating, Wolfe is silent on the question of accuracy. On the other hand, Dwight MacDonald and Robert Lowell testify openly about the accuracy of the account in The Armies of the Night. Mailer may very well be a writer who deals in factoids rather than facts. His partisanship is, however, clear; and the possible distortion in his works, created by a distinct viewpoint, does not seem beyond the boundaries of the other new journalists.

A second tradition that old journalists see being destroyed by New Journalism is the notion that reporting should be detached and objective. "Journalists are taught they must provide impartial disinterested accounts of what was seen and heard; validity was left to the reader to decide." It is evident from Mailer's writings that he does not believe in being impersonal about his subjects. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer not only participates in the action, but he also helps shape the events. In covering the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, Mailer did not merely report the fight itself, he attempted to learn all he could about the participants before, during, and after the fight. Sparring with the principals would not have been beyond his scope. In a sense, this coverage represents saturation reporting at its best. At the same time, "This brand of nonfiction is so intensely personal," note Dennis and Rivers in the book New Journalism in America, "that most of those who dislike Mailer automatically dislike his writing."

Yet the problem of separating the man from his work does not uniquely belong to Mailer. The statement by Dennis and River can reasonably be extended to other authors in the New Journalism. When the author is intimately involved in the events, the reader reacts to the situation through the eyes of the writer, and the reader-author relationship becomes more salient than in conventional journalism. Michael Arlen has commented that "involvedness" has allowed new journalists to see the events on their "own terms" and not on the merits of the situation. To be sure, this observation characterizes much of Norman Mailer's writings as well as the works of other practitioners of New Journalism. Involvement has often led to a "king-of-the-hill" approach to journalism, where the author bullies the events so that he is on top of the subject-matter rather than getting inside of the situation.

The alternative of detachment, however, offers an equally severe limitation. The conventions of objectivity—a good lead, impartial reporting, a headline—allow a clever manipulator to take advantage of events as well as journalists. "The rules of objectivity are such," notes veteran correspondent Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, "that a man can make political capital out of them by being clever in the way he presents a particular issue." Ultimately, the New Journalism can provide a complement to the allegedly objective accounts by adding analysis and interpretation to information. In Norman Mailer's case, however, the king-of-the hill approach may not be a tool of the trade as much as a personal predilection to grandstand.

Finally, conventional journalists contend that the emphasis on style among the new journalists subordinates information to entertainment. In this view, the preoccupation with style can be analyzed as an entertaining departure from straight nonfiction, at best a stimulant to more information and at worst a series of techniques "to confuse and mislead readers." While old journalists were taught to avoid value-laden adjectives, imaginary dialogue, composite profiles, and lengthy descriptive passages, new journalists concentrate on these techniques. There is little disagreement, moreover, that at the core of the New Journalism are four stylistic devices that distinguish the movement from conventional journalism and other forms of nonfiction: scene-by-scene construction, interior monologue, point of view, and status-life symbols. To what extent these devices mislead and confuse the reader is the more serious question underlying the arguments about style.

The claim that Mailer's writings reflect these stylistic devices can be made without deeply examining the stylistic devices themselves. His third-person protagonist, variously named Aquarius, Mailer, or the Novelist, attempts to rescue ideas from abstractions and daily events from triviality as the reader follows the author through a narrative story. At the outset, however, the reader is usually forewarned that the reporting is subjective. In The Armies of the Night, a story written by Time magazine is juxtaposed at the start of the book with subsequent subjective assessment of the events. In Marilyn, Mailer develops the notion of factoids to distinguish his account from more factual reports. In St. George and the Godfather, an examination of the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1972, Mailer immediately reminds the readers of the subjective nature of the report:

So Norman Mailer, who looked to rule himself by Voltaire's catch-all precept, 'once a philosopher, twice a pervert,' and preferred therefore never to repeat a technique, was still obliged to call himself Aquarius again for he had not been in Miami two days before he knew he would not write objectively about the convention of '72.

Whether one warning or many explicit admonitions are necessary to remind the reader of the personalized nature of the account remains an open question; but the responsibilities for confusing information with personalized reporting, or what some critics regard pejoratively as entertainment, rest with the readers as well as the writer. The absence of style, moreover, is not a bona fide guarantee of accuracy.

As a writer, Norman Mailer is probably the most graceful stylist among the new journalists. He is, of course, the only one to earn a Pulitzer prize and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. That his works are also entertaining should not be a blanket indictment to fault the informative nature of his accounts. There are a plurality of road signs to indicate the way to the truth and Mailer's reports, written in an entertaining style, appear to have as much information as old journalism. What differs is the focus of the writer and the nature of the topics considered; on the whole, the amount of information does not seem to be lacking or confusing.

Norman Mailer seems torn between his self-canonization as a novelist and his experiments with journalistic forms. At one point, he is amusingly annoyed at Robert Lowell when the noted poet refers to him as the greatest journalist currently writing. Elsewhere, he is less defensive about his forays into journalism:

Journalism never does a writer any harm until he starts repeating himself, and if you do that, then you start presiding over the dissolution of your own literary empire.

Grudgingly, Mailer seems to be accepting his success as a new journalist without acknowledging his difficulties as a writer of straight fiction. Mailer, however, may not be the best theoretician of his own work. As a multi-faceted talent, he is legendary as a public celebrity, shallow as a critic, and incomplete as a novelist. With the development of the nonfiction novel, the best features of his work are highlighted and his "literary empire," more mythical than real, seems enriched and revitalized.

Yet, Mailer's pull between fiction and journalism coincides with the tension in New Journalism itself. From a literary point of view, the New Journalism is a superior form of journalism but not fiction; from a journalistic perspective, it is the application of novelistic techniques to actual events but not journalism. Perhaps this ambivalence over time will resolve itself for both Mailer and the New Journalism. Even Dwight MacDonald, once reluctant to recognize New Journalism as anything but a flawed form, confessed in an after-thought written nine years following the publication of his well-known essay on "Parajournalism" that in "more talented hands, parajournalism is a legitimate form." In any event, it is unlikely that we have heard the last word on the controversy.

Further Reading

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Algeo, Ann M. "Mailer's The Executioner's Song." In her The Courtroom as Forum: Homicide Trials by Dreiser, Wright, Capote, and Mailer, pp. 105-40. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Examines the major themes and presentation of The Executioner's Song.

Barnes, Annette. "Norman Mailer: A Prisoner of Sex." Massachusetts Review 13 (1972): 269-74.

Provides critical analysis of Mailer's essay "The Prisoner of Sex."

Mellard, James M. "Origins, Language, and the Constitution of Reality: Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings." In Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel since the 1960s, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel, pp. 131-49. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

Examines the significance of Mailer's concern for origins and language in Ancient Evenings, especially in relation to postmodern literary criticism.

Merrill, Robert. "The Armies of the Night: The Education of Norman Mailer." Illinois Quarterly, 37, No. 1 (1974): 30-44.

Examines the major themes, presentation, and Mailer's narrative voice in The Armies of the Night.

Merrill, Robert. "Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance and the Detective Traditions." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, XXXIV, No. 4 (Summer 1993): 232-46.

Discusses the plot, major themes, and literary merit of Tough Guys Don't Dance in relation to Mailer's previous fiction.

Olster, Stacey. "Norman Mailer after Forty Years." Michigan Quarterly Review 28, No. 3 (Summer 1989): 400-16.

Provides an overview of Mailer's literary career, major works, and critical reception.

Stone, Robert. "The Loser's Loser." The New York Times Review of Books (22 June 1995): 7-10.

Generally favorable review of Oswald's Tale.

Robert Gorham Davis (review date 1983)

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SOURCE: "Excess without End," in The New Leader, May 16, 1983, pp. 14-16.

[In the following review, Davis offers a generally unfavorable assessment of Ancient Evenings. Though acknowledging the novel's "virtuosity and inventiveness," Davis finds shortcomings in Mailer's uninspired ideas and fascination with debauchery and violence.]

This is a work of staggering ambition, far exceeding in inventiveness and scope anything Mailer has attempted before. Several reviewers have supported—and then backed away from—the publisher's claim that it is one of the major novels of the 20th century. On that level the obvious comparison is with Thomas Mann's vast tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers. As efforts of the archaeological imagination trying to recreate the world of the Pharaohs they are strikingly similar; by standards of maturity of thought and humane social concern there is no comparison at all.

Thomas Mann's Joseph rose from the pit where his brothers cast him to become chief adviser to the Pharaoh. He did it all on his own, through beauty, prudence and skill as a diviner of dreams. Joseph used his great powers for the good of the people, in ways that showed how Mann was stimulated by Roosevelt's New Deal. (The novel was completed in this country in 1943.)

Mann's Pharaoh is the reformer Akhenaton, husband of the beauteous Nefertiti, who tried to impose monotheism on the Egypt of a thousand gods. His hymn to the sun turns up as the 104th Psalm in the Old Testament. (Moses and Monotheism, Freud's most heretical work, makes Moses an Egyptian disciple of Akhenaton and Judaism their joint product.)

Egypt's magnificence, so alien, so remote, and yet still there to be seen, has always attracted inventive minds. Herodotus attributed to the ancient Egyptians—probably falsely—the belief in incarnation that Mailer finds especially attractive. And if the Egyptians did not believe in some of Mailer's wackier physiological notions, this can be imagined.

Mailer deals briefly with Moses, but for monotheism he has no use. Ancient Evenings abounds in gods who experience outrageous combats, violent sex and painful animal transformations, difficult for humans to match. In a dusty, stinking pillaged tomb, Menenhetet I vividly describes the wilder antics of these gods to his great-grandson Menenhetet II, who has just consciously suffered his own embalming. "I was in the most peculiar situation," Menenhetet I says. He had died much earlier, after his fourth incarnation, and could keep his ka alive in the ruined tomb only by eating the embalmed organs of very early Pharaohs.

The principal part of Ancient Evenings, 400-500 pages, takes place while both Menenhetets are alive. At a select dinner party, on the Night of the Pig when everyone is supposed to tell the truth, no matter how scandalous or physically disgusting, Menenhetet I, in his fourth incarnation, describes in enormous detail his adventures during the first. Present are his granddaughter Hathfertiti; her husband, cosmetician to the Pharaoh, a man of no account whose "sly smell" entices her; the Pharaoh himself, the host, who is thinking of making Menenhetet Grand Vizier; and Menenhetet II, now a frighteningly precocious boy of six.

Menehetet had had sex with his granddaughter when she was a child, and her son is to have sex with her when he is a man. That incest was practiced openly among noble Egyptians is one of their appeals for Mailer. Nothing is Freudian in this novel, for nothing is repressed. During the dinner the Pharaoh and Hathfertiti retire to make love. In young Menenhetet's sleepy consciousness as he listens to his great-grandfather's tale are states of awareness that go beyond anything ever attempted in literature before. The boy's telepathic powers let him know what his father is thinking, what his great-grandfather is remembering but not telling, even the thoughts that come to his great-grandfather from other incarnations. He not only knows what his mother and the Pharaoh are doing, but senses it physically in a body already awakened by the ministrations of his nurse.

Mailer is an élitist, an admirer of strength. He has always been fascinated by publicity and power, by the bodies of prize fighters and celebrated beauties like Marilyn Monroe—the latter attracting men of power who can make love to each other through women. In Presidential Papers, Mailer set out to be a councilor, a diviner of dreams for John F. Kennedy as Joseph was for Akhenaton.

Mailer's Pharaoh is Ramses II, best known of the Pharaohs because he erected great self-glorifying statues and temples all over Egypt. The battle of Kadesh is the best known of ancient battles because Ramses covered temple walls with graphic and verbal accounts of it, exaggerating impossibly his exploits. He told how he took on the powers of two different gods and single-handedly drove to destruction 2,500 Hittite chariots. In Ancient Evenings, Menenhetet I is by his side.

Born of the basest peasant stock, Menenhetet rises by his skill as a charioteer to become chief companion, confidant and love object of Ramses II, who has a true taste for "the buttocks of brave men." Ancient Evenings is a hymn to anality. One of its obsessions is homosexual rape, so much a part of the nightmare life of prisons. Menenhetet still loves the Pharaoh, but feels unmanned by him. You can bugger (Menenhetet has done it a hundred times) but not be buggered. He dreams thereafter of revenge.

The battle of Kadesh, the centerpiece of the book, is sheer horror. On the battlefield carnage by day gives way to orgy at night among and even with the dead. But Menenhetet glories in it. A man is not quite a man until he has killed.

After Kadesh, alienated from the Pharaoh, Menenhetet is sent off to take charge of a Libyan gold mine where slaves are worked and whipped to death. There he meets a Hebrew who has learned from Moses an un-Biblical secret—basic to the novel—of how to reincarnate yourself by managing to die or be murdered at the moment of orgasm. As for the Exodus: some forced laborers kill their guards and flee the country under the leadership of Moses—no 10 plagues, no killing of the first-born, no parting of the Red Sea. Here Mailer distinguishes himself sharply from Thomas Mann, who drew so fully on the familiar patriarchal narratives, on the Christianity they foreshadowed, and on the 19th century thought from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche that they evoked.

Implausibly, Menenhetet is brought back to run the Pharaoh's harem and, more implausibly, is subsequently made custodian-companion first to Ramses' sister and Queen, Nefertiri, then to his second Queen, the Hittite princess, Rama-Nefru. All three responsibilities Menenhetet betrays. With a fat sorceress in the harem and with the two queens he reaches peaks of differentiated ecstasy it takes a Mailer to describe.

Menenhetet is both prisoner and warden of sex. Except for a little dabbling in magic, he has nothing else to think about or do, and so we are given, for pages and pages and pages, unrelieved, breathless descriptions of the polymorphous, inexhaustible sex that is now so repetitively obligatory in American novels. Menenhetet even has to attend the Pharaoh's love-making and hold his hand while it is going on.

It is in the cruel, macho homosexual passages, however, that Mailer aggressively carries to a defiant extreme the qualities that have troubled his admirers ever since American Dream and "The White Negro." When Menenhetet is on a secret mission to Tyre he sees two men in the woods, thieves probably, but no threat to him, for they do not notice him. He approaches them smiling and gratuitously, swiftly, kills one with his sword, "with a bliss he had never known even with his Pharaoh." The other he stuns with a rock, and beats until "he was soft like a steak that is pounded." Then Menenhetet sodomizes his half-dead victim repeatedly until he feels he has worked out of his own system the evil deposited in it by the Pharaoh.

Mailer's gloating over cruelty in Ancient Evenings is not new, nor are his regressively unscientific ideas about the body. We did not have to go to ancient Egypt for them. He has expounded in interviews his thoughts about bodily secretions and discharges and what happens psychically when they are traded back and forth among human and animal bodies.

In Ancient Evenings some of Mailer's worst notions get the fullest treatment. This is often done with great ingenuity, but sometimes it is in the spirit of the fat boy in Dickens who wanted to make our flesh creep—or our throats gag. The novel indulges in great play with severed nipples, severed hands, a severed toe. And of course with shit. Menenhetet is an eater of bat dung, for sound mystical reasons; one of the other characters has amassed a fortune collecting and marketing shit.

Despite its virtuosity and inventiveness and the sheer hard work behind it, Ancient Evenings is inferior in two respects to the major novels with which it might be compared. The first has to do with its ideas. Many of them simply do not bear thinking about; they are the stock in trade of fakirs and mass cultists, yet have some murky role in Mailer's creative unconscious, presumably a necessary one, for he is too intelligent to entertain them otherwise.

The second respect is formal and stylistic. In Why Are We in Vietnam, where he had many of the same obsessions, Mailer invented a style entirely appropriate to them. It was artificial, yet compounded of exactly the right American speech and allusion. How could the equivalent be found for two Egyptians of the 13th century B.C.E.? Mailer does not really try. In the whole book there is hardly a distinctive phrase or metaphor, an unexpected choice of words. Some of the sentences, apart from their content, could have come from a historical novel in the period of Lew Wallace or Bulwer-Lytton. Even on the Night of the Pig, Menenhetet should have been embarrassed to report that Queen Nefertiri could say to her peasant lover, "Oh how I adore how dreadful you are. Did you visit the Royal Stables? Did you rub the foam of a stallion on your little beauty?"

In the Paris Review Mailer once said that civilization is as bad as it is because we are "afraid of violence, cannibalism, loneliness, insanity, libidinousness, hell, perversion and mess … states which must in some way be passed through, digested, transcended, if one is to make one's way back to life." Mailer has passed through them again and again in his works with mounting intensity, but no sign of transcendence.

The word "transcendence" does appear, though, on the last page of Ancient Evenings. It has led Harold Bloom, in a kind of rescue operation in the New York Review of Books, citing Emerson, to place Mailer in an American Gnostic tradition.

Climbing the ladder in the afterworld, Menenhetet hears the scream of earth exploding but sees radiance at the center of a pain such as never was previously felt. He wonders if Osiris, who gives strength more credit than purity or goodness, may not still put him to serving "some useful purpose I cannot name."

These closing two pages are preceded by over 700 abandoned to betrayal, gloating cruelty, and the immediate gratification of every impulse at whatever cost to others. Is it more than an easy out, a rhetorical flourish, to flash a light and speak of transcendence when there has been heretofore not a hint of what a noble purpose might be or how it is achieved—especially when one obvious noble purpose is to try to prevent that very explosion of the earth?

Harold Bloom (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "Introduction," in Modern Critical Views: Norman Mailer, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 1-6.

[In the following essay, Bloom considers Mailer's unconventional literary production and problematic critical reputation as a remarkable author who "has written no indisputable book." However, according to Bloom, Mailer will likely endure "as the representative writer of his generation."]


Mailer is the most visible of contemporary novelists, just as Thomas Pynchon is surely the most invisible. As the inheritor of the not exactly unfulfilled journalistic renown of Hemingway, Mailer courts danger, disaster, even scandal. Thinking of Mailer, Pynchon, and Doctorow among others, Geoffrey Hartman remarks that:

The prose of our best novelists is as fast, embracing, and abrasive as John Donne's Sermons. It is polyphonic despite or within its monologue, its confessional stream of words….

Think of Mailer, who always puts himself on the line, sparring, taunting, as macho as Hemingway but deliberately renouncing taciturnity. Mailer places himself too near events, as science fiction or other forms of romance place themselves too far….

Elizabeth Hardwick, a touch less generous than the theoretical Hartman, turns Gertrude Stein against Mailer's oral polyphony:

We have here a "literature" of remarks, a fast-moving confounding of Gertrude Stein's confident assertion that "remarks are not literature." Sometimes remarks are called a novel, sometimes a biography, sometimes history.

Hardwick's Mailer is "a spectacular mound of images" or "anecdotal pile." He lacks only an achieved work, in her view, and therefore is a delight to biographers, who resent finished work as a "sharp intrusion," beyond their ken. Her observations have their justice, yet the phenomenon is older than Mailer, or even Hemingway. The truly spectacular mound of images and anecdotal pile was George Gordon, Lord Byron, but he wrote Don Juan, considered by Shelley to be the great poem of the age. Yet even Don Juan is curiously less than Byron was, or seemed, or still seems. Mailer hardly purports to be the Byron of our day (the Hemingway will do), but he might fall back upon Byron as an earlier instance of the literary use of celebrity, or of the mastery of polyphonic remarks.

Is Mailer a novelist? His best book almost certainly is The Executioner's Song, which Ms. Hardwick calls "the apotheosis of our flowering 'oral literature'—thusfar," a triumph of the tape recorder. My judgment of its strength may be much too fast, as Ms. Hardwick warns, and yet I would not call The Executioner's Song a novel. Ancient Evenings rather crazily is a novel, Mailer's Salammbô as it were, but clearly more engrossing as visionary speculation than as narrative or as the representation of moral character. Richard Poirier, Mailer's best critic, prefers An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?, neither of which I can reread with aesthetic pleasure. Clearly, Mailer is a problematical writer; he has written no indisputable book, nothing on the order of The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Crying of Lot 49, let alone As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! His formidable literary energies have not found their inevitable mode. When I think of him, Advertisements for Myself comes into my memory more readily than any other work, perhaps because truly he is his own supreme fiction. He is the author of "Norman Mailer," a lengthy, discontinuous, and perhaps canonical fiction.


Advertisements for Myself (1960) sums up Mailer's ambitions and accomplishments through the age of thirty-six. After a quarter-century, I have just reread it, with an inevitable mixture of pleasure and a little sadness. Unquestionably, Mailer has not fulfilled its many complex promises, and yet the book is much more than a miscellany. If not exactly a "Song of Myself," nevertheless Advertisements remains Mailer at his most Whitmanian, as when he celebrates his novel-in-progress:

If it is to have any effect, and I can hardly look forward to exhausting the next ten years without hope of a deep explosion of effect, the book will be fired to its fuse by the rumor that once I pointed to the farthest fence and said that within ten years I would try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters. For if I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoyevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might have come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way.

Hemingway in 1959 reached the age of sixty, but was neither old nor moldering. He was to kill himself on July 2, 1961, but Mailer could hardly have anticipated that tragic release. In a letter to George Plimpton (January 17, 1961) Hemingway characterized Advertisements for Myself as "the sort of ragtag assembly of his rewrites, second thoughts and ramblings shot through with occasional brilliance." As precursor, Hemingway would have recognized Mailer's vision of himself as Babe Ruth, hitting out farther than Stendhal, Tolstoi, et al., except that the agonistic trope in the master is more agile than in the disciple, because ironized:

Am a man without any ambition, except to be champion of the world, I wouldn't fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off. The Dr. had terrific wind and could go on forever and then some….

But these Brooklyn jerks are so ignorant that they start off fighting Mr. Tolstoi. And they announce they have beaten him before the fight starts.

That is from a letter to Charles Scribner (September 6-7, 1949), and "these Brooklyn jerks" indubitably refers to the highly singular author of The Naked and the Dead (1948), who had proclaimed his victory over Hemingway as a tune-up for the Tolstoi match. Hemingway's irony, directed as much towards himself as against Mailer, shrewdly indicates Mailer's prime aesthetic flaw: a virtually total absence of irony. Irony may or may not be what the late Paul de Man called it, "the condition of literary language itself," but Mailer certainly could use a healthy injection of it. If Thomas Mann is at one extreme—the modern too abounding in irony—then Mailer clearly hugs the opposite pole. The point against Mailer is made best by Max Apple in his splendid boxing tale, "Inside Norman Mailer" (The Oranging of America, 1976), where Mailer is handled with loving irony, and Hemingway's trope touches its ultimate limits as Apple challenges Mailer in the ring:

"Concentrate," says Mailer, "so the experience will not be wasted on you."

"It's hard," I say, "amid the color and distraction."

"I know," says my gentle master, "but think about one big thing."

I concentrate on the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It works. My mind is less a palimpsest, more a blank page.

"You may be too young to remember," he says, "James Jones and James T. Farrell and James Gould Cozzens and dozens like them. I took them all on, absorbed all they had and went on my way, just like Shakespeare ate up Tottel's Miscellany."

There are no such passages in Mailer himself. One cannot require a novelist to cultivate irony, but its absolute absence causes difficulties, particularly when the writer is a passionate and heterodox moralist. Mailer's speculations upon time, sex, death, cancer, digestion, courage, and God are all properly notorious, and probably will not earn him a place as one of the major sages. The strongest aesthetic defense of Mailer as speculator belongs to Richard Poirier, in his book of 1972:

Mailer insists on living at the divide, living on the divide, between the world of recorded reality and a world of omens, spirits, and powers, only that his presence there may blur the distinction. He seals and obliterates the gap he finds, like a sacrificial warrior or, as he would probably prefer, like a Christ who brings not peace but a sword, not forgiveness for past sins but an example of the pains necessary to secure a future.

This has force and some persuasiveness, but Poirier is too good a critic not to add the shadow side of Mailer's "willingness not to foreclose on his material in the interests of merely formal resolutions." Can there be any resolutions then for his books? Poirier goes on to say that: "There is no satisfactory form for his imagination when it is most alive. There are only exercises for it." But this appears to imply that Mailer cannot shape his fictions, since without a sacrifice of possibility upon the altar of form, narrative becomes incoherent, frequently through redundance (as in Ancient Evenings). Mailer's alternative has been to forsake Hemingway for Dreiser, as in the exhaustive narrative of The Executioner's Song. In either mode, finally, we are confronted by the paradox that Mailer's importance seems to transcend any of his individual works. The power of The Executioner's Song finally is that of "reality in America," to appropriate Lionel Trilling's phrase for Dreiser's appropriation of the material of An American Tragedy. Are we also justified in saying that An American Dream essentially is Mailer's comic-strip appropriation of what might be called "irreality in America"? Evidently there will never be a mature book by Mailer that is not problematical in its form. To Poirier, this is Mailer's strength. Poirier's generous overpraise of An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? perhaps can be justified by Mailer's peculiarly American aesthetic, which has its Emersonian affinities. Mailer's too is an aesthetic of use, a pragmatic application of the American difference from the European past. The Armies of the Night (1968), rightly praised by Poirier, may seem someday Mailer's best and most permanent book. It is certainly not only a very American book, but today is one of the handful of works that vividly represent an already lost and legendary time, the era of the so-called Counterculture that surged up in the later 1960's, largely in protest against our war in Vietnam. Mailer, more than any other figure, has broken down the distinction between fiction and journalism. This sometimes is praised in itself. I judge it an aesthetic misfortune, in everyone else, but on Mailer himself I tend to reserve judgment, since the mode now seems his own.


Mailer's validity as a cultural critic is always qualified by his own immersion in what he censures. Well known for being well known, he is himself inevitably part of what he deplores. As a representation, he at least rivals all of his fictive creations. Ancient Evenings, his most inventive and exuberant work, is essentially a self-portrait of the author as ancient Egyptian magician, courtier, lover and anachronistic speculator. Despite Poirier's eloquent insistences, the book leaves Mailer as he was judged to be by Poirier in 1972, "like Melville without Moby Dick, George Eliot without Middlemarch, Mark Twain without Huckleberry Finn." Indeed, the book is Mailer's Pierre, his Romola, his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. At sixty-two, Mailer remains the author of Advertisements for Myself, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song.

Is he then a superb accident of personality, wholly adequate to the spirit of the age? Though a rather bad critic of novelists, he is one of the better critics of Norman Mailer. His one critical blindness, in regard to himself, involves the destructive nature of Hemingway's influence upon him. Hemingway was a superb storyteller and an uncanny prose poet; Mailer is neither. Essentially, Mailer is a phantasmagoric visionary who was found by the wrong literary father, Hemingway, Hemingway's verbal economy is not possible for Mailer. There are profound affinities between Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, but none between Mailer and the best poetry of his age. This is the curious sadness with which the "First Advertisements for Myself" reverberates after twenty-five years:

So, mark you. Every American writer who takes himself to be both major and macho must sooner or later give a faena which borrows from the self-love of a Hemingway style …

For you see I have come to have a great sympathy for the Master's irrepressible tantrum that he is the champion writer of this time, and of all time, and that if anyone can pin Tolstoy, it is Ernest H.

By taking on Hemingway, Mailer condemned himself to a similar agon, which harmed Hemingway, except in The Sun Also Rises and in The First Forty-Nine Stories. It has more than harmed Mailer's work. The Deer Park defies rereading, and An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? have now lost the immediacy of their occasions, and are scarcely less unreadable. In what now is the Age of Pynchon, Mailer has been eclipsed as a writer of fictions, though hardly at all as a performing self. He may be remembered more as a prose prophet than as a novelist, more as Carlyle than as Hemingway. There are worse literary fates. Carlyle, long neglected, doubtless will return. Mailer, now celebrated, doubtless will vanish into neglect, and yet always will return, as a historian of the moral consciousness of his era, and as the representative writer of his generation.

Mark Edmundson (essay date Winter 1990)

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SOURCE: "Romantic Self-Creations: Mailer and Gilmore in The Executioner's Song," in Contemporary Literature. No. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 434-47.

[In the following essay, Edmundson discusses Mailer's portrayal of Gilmore in The Executioner's Song in light of Mailer's romantic narrative style and Emersonian literary aspirations.]

Romantic writers are, for better and worse, obsessed with originality. In practice this means that each one who aspires to matter has to initiate his life as an artist with a story about what originality is, and that story must itself strike readers as being a new one. To compound the difficulty, the romantic writer is compelled, even as he recounts his version of originality, to be exemplifying it. Emerson sets out to do this much in his most celebrated essay, "Self-Reliance." The formula for originality he puts forward there is a simple one: you become original by listening to yourself. Genius derives from trusting the inner voice, abiding by one's "spontaneous impression … then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side." Originality is not, as Wordsworth believed it to be, the product of a favored childhood, where one is "Fostered alike by beauty and by fear" (1850 Prelude, bk. 1, line 302). Nor is it mysteriously inborn, a celestial gift, as the German romantics tended to think. Moses and Plato and Milton became what they did—in Emerson's view—by observing the "gleam of light which flashes across [the] mind from within" and speaking "not what men but what they thought."

Yet the Emersonian philosophy of self-invention is also a philosophy of self-ruin. In time, every rhetorical pearl evolves back to sand; every hard-won identity tends to "solidify and hem in the life." Romantic "self-invention" frequently begins in a sort of potlatch, a ritual in which the subject is compelled to destroy his full accumulation and return to poverty, and to ignorance, that state on which, according to Thoreau, all growth depends. The American romantic faith is a faith in crisis: without ruin, no renovation. And no renovation, it's assumed, is final: always, as Emerson says, there must be abandonment.

Of all the major American writers at work now, Norman Mailer probably has come the closest to committing himself to Emerson's literary ethos of self-destroying self-invention. From early on in his career it has been Mailer's aim to baffle expectations about who he is and what he might be capable of doing. His ambition has been thoroughly Emersonian—"to dive and reappear in new places."

Mailer's style of diving and reappearing has earned him a certain notoriety, some applause, and also a good deal of vitriolic criticism, particularly about the a- or immorality of productions like "The White Negro," An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?, and the two books on Marilyn Monroe. The charges against Mailer tend to be akin to those leveled against romantic writers as far back at least as Byron: he's violent, self-obsessed, an opportunist, a destructive opponent of what's most nourishing in humanistic culture. Mailer's excesses are all the worse, to this way of thinking, in that they're amplified through the whole vulgar network of the mass media, reaching beyond the intellectuals who know how to put his clownings in context and giving the institution of Literature a bad name.

The reaction to Mailer's major book of the seventies, The Executioner's Song, has to be seen against the background of this kind of moralizing response to his work. For it appeared, at least from the initial reviews of the book, that Mailer had undergone a conversion. Critics noticed immediately, and usually with relief, that Mailer's commitment to a high romantic style had disappeared. "Style," says Robert Frost, "is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying." How does the writer take himself in The Executioner's Song? Not at all, said most of the book's reviewers: Mailer had succeeded in refining his prodigious ego out of the book. He had achieved something like an Eliotic annulment of self, an "extinction of personality," in which he suppressed his own voice to become the medium for a variety of others. And the reason for this surrender had to do, naturally, with the failure, or at least with the obsolescence, of his former romantic project. Mailer had given up his Emersonian illusions about originality and self-reinvention. He'd replaced attempts at auto-American-biography—the creation of works in which the words "I" and "America" can at some moments (and those not always the most attractive or admirable ones) be interchanged—with social documentary. Finally Mailer was one of us. Or such was the judgment of many of those critics of Mailer who tend to think of his "talent" as a natural resource and of themselves as its board of directors. Such a judgment, given Mailer's past record, is probably worth questioning.

The Executioner's Song deals with Gary Gilmore, a figure now famous enough to have his likeness on display in Madame Tussaud's. There one may see his wax effigy executed by an invisible firing squad every three minutes or so and read the story of how Gilmore was condemned to death by the state of Utah for the murder of two young men in the summer of 1976. Gilmore refused to seek a stay of execution and demanded that the state follow through on its promise and kill him, which it eventually did. Mailer tells Gilmore's story by way of indirect discourse, from the points of view of over a hundred of the persons involved. Almost everyone, including Gilmore, submitted to extensive interviewing. Thus the book came out of careful study and reworking of tapes and transcripts.

Part of Mailer's fascination with Gilmore surely owed to his resemblance to the figure of the psychopath described in "The White Negro" twenty years before. "The White Negro," Mailer's first text with romantic aspirations, is an attempt to incarnate an authentically American voice and temper to resist the prevailing atmosphere of "conformity and depression" in which a "stench of fear … come[s] out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve." Mailer's dilemma is Emersonian, akin to the one in which "Self-Reliance" begins. Yet his response, a mythical self-projection into a figure of rebellion whom he calls, alternately, the hipster, the White Negro, and the psychopath, owes more, I suspect, to Blake and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In his first major prophetic book, Blake transforms himself (with no little self-directed irony) into a satanic poet in order to assault the false pieties that the "Angels" who dominate the religious, political, and artistic life of late-eighteenth-century England enforce. Mailer is probably not being any more sensationalistic than Blake was when he identifies himself with the figure his orthodox contemporaries fear most. One of the many fine intuitions in "The White Negro" is that the psychopath had taken the place of Satan in contemporary morality. Mailer sees the ethic of psychoanalysis, with its endorsement of irony, stoicism, and detachment, as the repressive Anglicanism of his day, a state and corporate religion designed to quell nonconformity. The psychopath's hunger for immediacy in all things can't help but threaten a culture committed to deferred and displaced satisfactions.

Mailer's alternative is a romantic return to childhood, but a return far less tranquil and tranquilizing than the one envisioned by Wordsworth and Coleridge, or, needless to say, by the psychoanalyst. Mailer's psychopath replays the past event in the present so that he can gain back what was lost, score victories where he was, in childhood, forced to make concessions. The conception couldn't be more in the native romantic vein. When Mailer, in another context, declares that going "from gap to gain is very American," he both evokes this design and provides a good throwaway epigraph for Emerson's collected works. Where Freud believed that the best that one could hope for would be to transform compulsive repetition into an accepting memory of the traumatic event, Mailer demands a full redemption. If the hipster "has the courage to meet the parallel situation at the moment when he is ready," Mailer writes, "then he has a chance to act as he has never acted before…. In thus giving expression to the buried infant in himself, he can lessen the tension of those infantile desires and so free himself to remake a bit of his nervous system." Mailer's Gilmore comes close to exemplifying the type for whom "the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat, where he must gamble with his energies through all those small or large crises of courage and unforeseen situations which beset his day."

Gilmore doesn't make a cogent decision to act in this way, as Mailer's hipster does—Gilmore, at least up to a certain critical point in the book, seems incapable of making any cogent decisions. The amount of confusion he can create in a few hours' space is frequently astonishing. On one night we find him running stolen guns; fighting it out, physically, on the highway with his girlfriend, Nicole; trying (and failing) to steal a tape deck from the local shopping mall; banging into the car parked behind his when he tries to escape; eluding (cannily) a pursuing squad car; and arriving at last, in the middle of the night, at his cousin Brenda's house, where he wakes up everyone to demand fifty dollars so that he can run away to Canada.

But at other times Gilmore is more sympathetic. On the night that he gets his first paycheck, for example, he goes off to see a movie with Brenda and Johnny, her husband. The picture is Gilmore's choice, and he picks, as one might almost have predicted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It turns out that Gilmore served time in the penitentiary next to the mental hospital where Cuckoo's Nest was filmed and that in fact he'd been treated in the hospital itself. Gilmore is chaos throughout the film, cheering, shouting commentary, bashing on the chairs in front of him. Almost everyone gets up and moves away from him eventually, and by the end of the evening Brenda, who usually shows an exemplary patience with Gary, is completely exasperated. But Gilmore had a point to make at the film, though he made it crudely enough. He felt, one can surmise, that he had more in common with R. P. McMurphy, Kesey's pulp equivalent of Mailer's White Negro, than Jack Nicholson, who played the role, or anyone else present in the theater for that matter. So why shouldn't he be the object of attention? Exacerbating Gilmore's mood would be the fact that the crowd paying to worship McMurphy's nonconformity had rewarded Gilmore for his by keeping him in jail for nineteen out of his thirty-five years. One understands Gilmore's confusion. Mailer certainly understands it well, but he's unwilling to turn the book into an overt celebration of a latter-day hipster. There's no tendency to extend the tonal grandeur of "The White Negro" to Gary Gilmore.

But there is a point in the story where Gilmore's status changes. Up until this moment, Gilmore has been almost wholly destructive, acting on every whim as though it were divine inspiration. "He was grabbing at everything. It was as if the world was just out of reach of his fingers," says a young woman of Gilmore. He wants full possession of everything glowing that comes in range.

But from the point when Gilmore decides that he is willing to die, he takes on a certain dignity. There have been no capital punishments for some time in the state of Utah, and everyone expects that Gilmore will do what every other convicted killer has done and fight for a life in jail, but he will not. The climax of the book, at least in my judgment, comes when Gilmore, having been condemned and imprisoned for the two murders, chooses to force the state of Utah to carry out his sentence and execute him. Here is Gilmore addressing the Board of Pardons to demand his own death:

I simply accepted the sentence that was given to me. I have accepted sentences all my life. I didn't know I had a choice in the matter.

When I did accept it, everybody jumped in and wanted to argue with me. It seems that the people, especially the people of Utah, want the death penalty but they don't want executions and when it became a reality they might have to carry one out, well, they started backing off on it.

Well, I took them literal and serious when they sentenced me to death just as if they had sentenced me to ten years or thirty days in the county jail or something. I thought you were supposed to take them serious. I didn't know it was a joke.

One may detest Gilmore for living in the world as though it were an open question whether the other people there are as real as he is, and still acknowledge his triumph of wit here. Consider the context. Gilmore has spent the balance of his life under the control of institutions. He has been told when to get up in the morning, when to sleep, when to exercise, when to eat. Society has applied enormous resources to the task of normalizing him, rendering him into a coherent, stable citizen. And if the price of subduing his antisocial instincts involves doing away with whatever imaginative potential he might possess, so be it.

Gilmore's deep joke consists in capitulating and becoming just the kind of well-disciplined subject everyone always wanted him to be, but at the wrong moment. The most imaginative act of Gilmore's life, and the costliest to himself, is to pretend to possess no imagination whatever. The result is a sudden reversal. Gilmore, in an instant, stands in relation to the institutional powers of justice as they have, for nineteen years, stood to him. He's demanding that they follow procedure, get in line, stop being so inconsiderate and whimsical. The satisfaction Gilmore derived from the deadpan "I didn't know it was a joke" had to have been great. In any event, it was dearly gotten.

It's hard not to spare a little affection for someone who was motivated, at least in part, to die for the sake of a shrewd joke. Freud, no lover of criminals, uses as his first example in the paper on humor that of the condemned man who approaches the scaffold on a Monday morning saying, "Well, the week's beginning nicely." Wit entails looking down upon oneself from the position of the collective, or cultural, superego, says Freud, and seeing from that perspective how insignificant one's own life is. Gilmore's stroke modifies Freud a little: wit of his sort entails taking up the position of a superego above the cultural standard of the law, making of it a helpless child, temporarily.

Gilmore, it would seem, became capable of this sort of victory when he went to jail. As he says to his cellmate Gibbs (who turns out to be a police informer) shortly after arriving in confinement, "I am in my element now." In jail, Gilmore is a different kind of person. He draws and paints, writes some fine letters in a neo-Whitmanian mode, and develops a singular sense of humor, of which a couple of the better instances can serve as samples. Moody, one of Gilmore's lawyers, is interviewing him: "If on your passage you meet a new soul coming to take your place, what advice would you have for him?" Gilmore: "Nothing. I don't expect someone to take my place. Hi, I'm your replacement … where's the key to the locker … where do you keep the towels?" Then there's Gilmore's proposal for a new way to make money off his death: "Oh, hey, man, I got something that'll make a mint. Get aholda John Cameron Swazey right now, and get a Timex wristwatch here. And have John Cameron Swazey out there after I fall over, he can be wearing a stethoscope, he can put it on my heart and say, 'Well, that stopped,' and then he can put the stethoscope on the Timex and say, 'She's still running, folks.'"

What accounts for the change in Gilmore, from Mailer's point of view presumably, is that Gilmore has developed something of a romantic faith. Gilmore's effort, from about the time that he enters prison, is to conduct himself so that he can die what he would himself credit as a "good death." And that means living the time he has left with some charity, and above all with equanimity, without signs of desperation. Gilmore's weakness lies, perhaps, in his requiring a fixed date to direct himself. But his willingness to engage death is what sets him apart from most of the other people in the book. In saying this much, I am finding a strong bias in Mailer's supposedly neutral account. But if we look at the form of The Executioner's Song—with form being understood in Kenneth Burke's sense as the setting up of expectations in the reader—we will see that it is far less neutral a text than most of its reviewers wished it to be.

The basic unit of The Executioner's Song is the short paragraph written from the perspective of one or another participant in the story. The passages work as self-contained dramatic units, a fact Mailer emphasizes by surrounding each one with a generous aura of blank space. He composes the paragraphs in the third person but injects each of them with enough of the person's idiom to convey a sense of his character. Here, for example, is Gilmore's parole officer Mont Court reflecting (with mediation by Mailer) on whether to have Gary picked up for a parole violation or let him turn himself in. "Gilmore, coming back on his own, would be fortifying the positive side of himself. He would know Court had been right to trust him. That would give a base on which to work. The idea was to get a man into some kind of positive relationship with authority. Then he might begin to change." Mailer's conception of Mont Court is there to be heard in the style of these lines, and particularly in the phrase "positive relationship with authority." Here and throughout the book, Mailer works somewhat in the manner of the portrait painter who follows her subject around for a while before she begins to paint. She's waiting for him to strike a physical pose that reveals some crucial aspect of his character. Mailer combed through the relevant tapes and transcripts in search of similarly revealing moments of speech. One test of the book's integrity would be whether those represented would be willing to sign their names to their sections of the text. Most, I think, would, and in that sense the book is very much theirs.

But Mailer is alive in The Executioner's Song too, and not least in the rhythmical shapings that he gives to the paragraphs. The book starts, for example, with Brenda's memory of Gary catching her as she falls from the breaking branch of a forbidden apple tree. Gary then helps her drag away the branch so they won't be caught and punished. So from the beginning we're led to associate Gary with a fall, with transgression, and with—the parallels are too numerous to be discounted—the Fall. A sense that the incident might anticipate the future comes through in the passage's final line: "That was Brenda's earliest recollection of Gary." The mythical echoes and the soft but perceptible drop of the last line convey a certain inevitability. Gilmore is fated, despite finer impulses, to fail. His destiny is tragic, a fact brought home to the reader by the comparable shaping of many of the passages that focus on him. Here is the end of a paragraph in which Gilmore says good-bye to his brother Mikal: "He leaned over and kissed Mikal on the mouth. 'See you in the darkness,' he said." Here a priest, Father Meersman, talks to Gary about wearing a hood during the execution: "If Gary wanted to die with dignity, then he had to respect that very, very simple thing about the hood. It was there for practicality to allow the thing to run very dignified, and no movement. Gary listened in silence." In this passage, Gilmore receives communion from Meersman: "Gary took the wafer on his tongue in the old style, mouth open, way back, in the way, observed Father Meersman, he had received as a child, and then he drank from the chalice. Father Meersman stood beside him while Gary consumed the bottom of the cup." The kind of foreshadowing that occurs, with varying degrees of subtlety, in these passages pervades the book. One section after another about Gilmore ends with a tonal allusion to his death. The effect, over the course of a thousand or so pages, is to confer on Gary a considerable stature. Fate seems to have singled him out for sacrifice. From Mailer's point of view, it is fair to surmise, Gary earns his tragic status by saying yes to his own death.

Gilmore is not the only person in The Executioner's Song who is so treated. The passages devoted to his girlfriend, Nicole Baker, a figure easily as complex as Gary, finish with a dying fall at least as often as Gilmore's passages do, and perhaps more. And it is Nicole's disdain for life, evidenced by, among other things, a determined suicide attempt, combined with her vitality and resilience, that makes Mailer confer a tragic dignity on her as well. In fact, all of those figures in the book who live strongly in the knowledge of death receive some share of Mailer's elegiac tones. Mailer is moved by people like Brenda, her father Vern Damico, and Bessie Gilmore, Gary's mother, and offers them the one form of authorial tribute that the book's constraints allow.

Larry Schiller, who interviewed Gilmore extensively and who eventually collaborated with Mailer on the book, is largely denied this treatment, as is Barry Farrell, a journalist who seems to share some of Mailer's private apprehensions about the workings of the world. But this is something one might have predicted: Mailer has always claimed to care more for working-class Americans than for literati and Eastern sophisticates. What is surprising, particularly in light of the reviews the book received, is the kind of shaping that Mailer gives to the paragraphs focused on Gilmore's victims and their wives. In his review of The Executioner's Song, Walter Karp, a tough-minded and acute political writer, praised Mailer for giving up his long-time disdain for the American squares and treating Max and Colleen Jensen and Debbie and Ben Bushnell with compassion (25-26). Here are the first two passages on the Bushnells:

Debbie was feeling a little off one day and Ben kept wanting to take her to the doctor. She was pregnant, after all. But there were eleven kids over from the Busy Bee Day-Care Center, and Debbie didn't have the time. Ben finally raised his voice a little. At which point she told him he bugged her. That was the worst fight they ever had.

They were proud that was the worst fight. They saw marriage as a constant goal of making each other happy. It was the opposite of that song "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." They kind of promised each other. They weren't going to be like other marriages.

Debbie Bushnell might own to having said everything included in these passages. But to shape the material as Mailer has, to end the passages with trite lines like "That was the worst fight they ever had" and "They weren't going to be like other marriages" makes the Bushnells seem small. They don't rate the tragic tones that Gary and Nicole get. On the next page, Mailer ends a passage of only three sentences on Debbie with the line, "She was terrific with kids and would rather mop her kitchen floor than read." This may have been true of Mrs. Bushnell, but given what passage endings mean in this book, and given that the recipient of this information is at the moment a reader, holding a thousand-page volume, it's clear that the presentation is potently biased. I have picked out some of the more extreme examples of Mailer's treatment of the victims. He's kinder to the Jensens, for example, but not very much. Mrs. Jensen's last thought of her husband leaving for work on the day he is to be killed is ominous but also, at the last moment, reduced. "He would be moving along the Interstate at just such a speed [55 m.p.h.] until he went around a slow graded turn and disappeared from sight and left her mind free to think of one and then another of the small things she must do that day."

The passages on the lives that the Jensens and Bushnells led before the murders tend to begin in hope of some kind and end, also, on an upswing, an upswing that sounds hollow and naive in light of events. The couples are middle-class Americans, expectant, ambitious, unworldly, and perhaps a little smug. They live without a sense of the tragic possibilities in life, the sense that Nicole Baker seems to have from childhood and that Gilmore supposedly develops over time. The Executioner's Song, I would argue, is a violent polemic on behalf of the position that Gilmore (as Mailer represents him) eventually achieves. For Mailer, if I understand him correctly, attempts to write his book from a state akin to the one he attributes to Gilmore, one that acknowledges the awareness of death as the necessary condition for every just perception.

Recall that Mailer's Gilmore began to develop his sense of death as a principle of authority when he was immersed in the partial death that jail represents. Now Mailer himself has, from early in his career, been preoccupied with the experience of imprisonment. Entering prison has, in the past, meant cutting off romantic possibilities. If self-creation involves assertion and risk, then prison is the state of death-in-life because there you have to diminish yourself, draw in in order to survive. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer speaks of jail as a place where "a man who wished to keep his sanity must never anticipate, never expect, never hope with such high focus of hope that disappointment would be painful." (The lines could serve as a compressed renunciation of Wordsworth's romantic paean to hope in book 6 of The Prelude.) In "The White Negro," prison is the image that comes forth most readily to figure limitation or the failure of self-reliance. "The wrong kinds of defeats," Mailer says there, "attack the body and imprison one's energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people's habits." Prison has been to Mailer what acedia was to Coleridge, what "habitual self" was to Keats, and what poverty was to Emerson, the most emphatic possible conception of imaginative death.

Correspondingly, Mailer's high romantic style, the style of Armies and "The White Negro," might be said to represent the mental antithesis of imprisonment. The exhilaration those texts can produce in a reader derives in part from his sense that the writing possesses boundless resources and possibilities. One feels that Mailer will never run out of metaphors. His invention will never flag, his powers of observation and analysis will persist forever. The energizing illusion is akin to the one felt in the presence of a great athlete, who seems unlimited in her ability to extemporize fresh ways of standing out in a game.

One way to think of The Executioner's Song is as a book in which Mailer, willingly or under some compulsion, enters the prison of a restricted style. He surrenders the freedom of Emersonian abandonment and encloses himself in the rectangular walls of the book's isolated paragraphs. He adopts a voice that is cold, flat, and spectral and makes the acquiescence to death his central principle of value. The style is terminal. Mailer's early romantic style signified an energetic denial of death. The words were supposed to seem unstoppable, a stream of invention that would never find its placid level. The culture to which Mailer addressed himself then had imposed what he saw as living death by conformity on its citizens, and the task at hand was to revitalize them. But when a culture becomes falsely vitalistic, making the denial of death the principle on which its mystifications rest, it is time to try to undermine it by the Emersonian gesture of diving to reappear in a new place.

Part of what reinforces the interpretation I've been offering thus far—in which Gilmore is understood as developing into the kind of existentialist who's in accord more or less with Mailer's literary self-image—is the degree to which the book's first readers resisted seeing these designs. A reading always appears to be more authentic when it's been wrested at the expense of some other approach that can simultaneously be revealed as self-interested, anxious, or guilty. I wouldn't be surprised if Mailer, who's played off his critics as skillfully as anyone writing today, could have predicted the eventual surfacing of the kind of "subversive" interpretation that I've offered so far. In fact, he might find this reading satisfying to a troubling degree.

I mean that we ought to be suspicious at how readily The Executioner's Song yields to an analysis that calls forward so many of Mailer's key preoccupations and "finds" a shape in Gilmore's career that the author of "The White Negro" might have desired for his own. So it seems worth asking how we might have seen Gilmore without Mailer's subtle shaping of his story.

What's striking throughout the text—and Mailer plays on this—is the inability of all the institutional agencies and their functionaries, prison psychiatrists, social workers, wardens, and the rest, to come up with a description of Gilmore that isn't jargon-ridden and flat-minded. No one can describe to anyone else's satisfaction why Gilmore committed the murders. And this may be true not because they haven't got access to the resources of the Novelist, but because Gilmore doesn't provide enough fixity. Perhaps one can't fairly represent his character, as Mailer habitually represents his own, in terms of some internal dynamic or dialectic. Maybe Gilmore's life doesn't lend itself to a "form"; and maybe he doesn't attempt to fashion his experience in a manner analogous to the fashioning of a literary career. From this point of view, Gilmore's only "motive" is a hunger for passionate disruption, an urge to fracture any set of social forms in which he finds himself. His profession that he wants to die made in front of the Board of Pardons may be the inception of an existential project. It may also be an act of simple, spontaneous anarchism, aiming a joke at a venerable institution, then living out the joke for the possibilities of future disruption that arise from it.

I am suggesting that a great deal of Gilmore's behavior might be best understood as parodic, as when, in prison, he begins impersonating a celebrity: signing autographs, sending T-shirts to his fans, spending hours over his mail and his clippings, using his status to try to consort on equal terms with a few others among the rich and famous. His interviews with Schiller, and with his lawyers Moody and Stanger, when read from a certain angle, offer amusing send-ups of journalistic encounters with politicians and other professional evaders. Gilmore's gross manipulations—especially of Nicole, whom he induces to attempt suicide—are the gestures of a crazed real-life film director, experimenting with a sudden unexpected power on other people's lives. Perhaps Gilmore is devoted to nothing more than a certain brutal form of "play," manifest in bitter jokes and stratagems, parody, and the creation of temporary roles, a form of play that recognizes no purpose and no standard of value other than the venting of his energies in disruptive action and passionate speech.

I'm offering the possibility, then, that the subtleties of form in The Executioner's Song may be employed to contain an energy inimical to cultural forms, including literary forms, even of the radical Emersonian variety. Why should Mailer exert himself in the interest of this sort of confinement? Gilmore's minority or oppositional energies are the ones that Mailer wants to identify with his own, and yet these "minority" powers, if they're going to have any real value, have to possess the potential and the inclination to enter into conflict with the triad of opposing forces that Mailer sees as threatening: chaos, evil, and waste. Gilmore's brutal "play," without end or allegiance, undermines the dialectical conception of life, life conceived of as a series of significant encounters in which one can be potentially transformed for the better, which represents Mailer's main hope for salutary development.

The vision of Gilmore against which Mailer is defending himself (and his readers) is perhaps one in tune with a contemporary tendency to give up on coherent narratives; on truth, even of the pragmatic variety; on transcendence in any form; on any unironic investment in persons, objects, or interpretations. This tendency, some have argued, is encouraged by the "postmodern" experience of life as a simulacrum, as an unguided peregrination through images and codes that bear—and admit implicitly and rather cheerfully that they bear—no relations to any possible referent. Gilmore may be a creature of this world at its worst, a product and promulgate of its values. If this is in fact the case, then Gilmore has earned the not inconsiderable distinction of being the figure who compelled America's foremost literary radical to fight culture's conserving battles for it.

Robert Merrill (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: "Mailer's Sad Comedy: The Executioner's Song," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 129-48.

[In the following essay, Merrill reconsiders the critical reception of The Executioner's Song through analysis of Mailer's presentation and major themes in the novel. According to Merrill, Mailer's treatment of social injustice and tragedy evokes compassion for all characters involved.]

This is an absolutely astonishing book.

                                    —Joan Didion

The time is right, I think, to reconsider The Executioner's Song (1979), Norman Mailer's famous "true life novel" (the book's oxymoronic subtitle). Though the work received an extremely favorable reception from reviewers (more favorable than any of Mailer's books save The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, and, curiously enough, Existential Errands), The Executioner's Song remains an enigma in the history of Mailer's critical reputation. Since 1979 most essays on the book have been friendly, but they have all dealt with limited topics—Mailer's presence or nonpresence within the text, Gary Gilmore's "character," the validity of Mailer's claim to have written a true life novel. It almost seems as if the book's sheer size has discouraged even its advocates from addressing such basic issues as the work's overall structure and informing themes. The questions that remain are fundamental. How should we assess the relationship between books 1 and 2, almost equally long but often thought to be of radically unequal narrative interest (the first book surpassing the second)? What are we to make of the final five hundred pages in which Mailer focuses on the intense legal and media activity that marked Gilmore's last three months? Perhaps most crucial, what are we to think of Gilmore? Is he a Maileresque hero, "fighting the whole liberal establishment for the right to choose his own death and expiation," as Robert Begiebing argues? Or is he no more than a violent "punk," as many readers no doubt suppose? Finally, what are we to make of Mailer's claim that his subject is "American Virtue," as he once considered titling the book? This claim should lead us to reconsider Mailer's thematic intentions in general, intentions all too often down-played because Mailer is so conspicuously "absent" from this huge book. Such a review should allow us to see that The Executioner's Song is Mailer's most ambitious attempt to "explain" America, a fundamental purpose in all his books but especially the works of nonfiction that he published in the 1970s.

I shall assume that the generic question is less crucial here than in many of Mailer's earlier works, for I think Mailer has written precisely the kind of book he set out to write: a "novel" in which everything happens to be "true" (i.e., exactly as reported by the one hundred witnesses from whose point of view the story is told). The principal critical questions should be how this massive set of experiences is organized and what the resulting aesthetic structure communicates to a sympathetic reader. Ultimately, the question is whether this book is the "astonishing" achievement Joan Didion took it to be in her early review.


It's as if he has set a camera down in the middle of the event, in the tradition of Warhol and cinéma vérité, and simply recorded all that passed the camera's eye.

                              —Chris Anderson

When Chris Anderson says that The Executioner's Song resembles Warhol's more extravagant experiments he is referring to his impression upon first reading Mailer's book; according to Anderson, a second reading reveals the author's shaping hand in ways that recall Truman Capote's in In Cold Blood. Anderson's comment is all too representative, for it does take some time to appreciate that there is a "shaping consciousness" at work. For example, a number of critics have pointed to Mailer's habit of concluding narrative sections with telling comments phrased in his own voice, as when he compares Gilmore's trip home after being released from prison to the westward journey of Brenda Nicol's great-grandfather many years earlier. The passage in question connects a dedicated Mormon pioneer and the all-too-aimless Gilmore, a fine irony made available by the author and not one of his characters. And there are many other such moments, often, as noted, at the end of sections. But it is easy to exaggerate Mailer's "presence" in the book as a whole—a few summarizing remarks do not go far in a book of over one thousand pages. Thus Anderson's allusion to Warhol. Thus Richard Stern's amusing comment: "Mailer's absence is so pronounced that it dominates the book like an empty chair at a family dinner." To locate Mailer, I think we need to look not at explicit formulations but the narrative structure itself.

Book 1 of The Executioner's Song is called "Western Voices," and we do overhear many different western voices during the five hundred pages devoted to Gary Gilmore's three and a half months of freedom in Provo, Utah (a period preceded by Gilmore's eighteen years in prison and brought to a stunning conclusion by the two apparently senseless murders he commits). These many western figures primarily observe and comment on Gilmore, however, who remains the unmistakable focal point of book 1. By presenting Gilmore from so many points of view, Mailer provides what seems as broad and objective a portrait as possible. Nonetheless, the details selected highlight certain features of Gilmore's character, as a brief review of part 1, "Gary," should confirm.

The first fifteen pages offer a number of quite sympathetic moments, or details concerning Gilmore's past. In these first pages, his cousin, Brenda Nicol, remembers a seven-year-old Gary helping her during "a good family get-together"; the unattractive details of Gary's reform-school days in Portland are left out of the narrative; Brenda's sister, Toni, testifies to the impact of Gary's drawings, especially those that depict "children with great sad eyes"; one of Gilmore's letters is quoted in which he says of prison, "It's like another planet," a haunting simile reinforced a bit later when he remarks that he seldom saw stars in prison; the pathetic austerity of Gilmore's one tote bag, his inability to stop "gawking" at beautiful girls, and his ignorance of the fact one can try on clothes before buying them all point up his abysmal past; and Gilmore's sensitive interplay with the small children of friends is noted twice. Later in part 1, when Gilmore meets Nicole Baker, those who know him are amazed at his positive transformation. These early pages consistently present Gilmore as a kind of waif, good at heart but deprived of the normal opportunities to express his goodness. Almost immediately, however, evidence from several sources begins to define Gilmore as what Mailer calls a "habit-ridden petty monster," "trapped" within his apparently unshakable selfishness. During his first date in Provo, Gilmore demands sex, refuses to listen when told he must earn things, and raises his fist against a woman who has done nothing to him; only a few weeks later he repeats this performance with a second date, finally busting the windshield of her car when she refuses to sleep with him. In the midst of many conversations, Gilmore launches into grim prison stories about beating a convict with a hammer, photographing a convict performing fellatio on himself, killing "this black dude … a bad nigger," and tattooing a friend with little phalluses; indeed, this ominous repertoire of prison tales is trotted out whenever Gilmore makes a new acquaintance in book 1. Soon we observe Gilmore lying to his sympathetic parole officer and shouting obscenities at a movie screen. Thus Mailer establishes at once the extraordinary difficulty of defining Gilmore's essence or even how one should respond to him.

This complex portrait is embellished throughout the remaining six parts of book 1. As developed in part 2 ("Nicole") and part 3 ("Gary and Nicole"), Gilmore's affair with Nicole deepens our sense of both his pathos and his viciousness. Mailer's treatment of their first days together is very sympathetic. He takes seriously their belief in reincarnation and presents without irony their separate assertions that they knew each other "from other time." He shows Gilmore playing the engaging youthful lover despite the fact that he is thirty-five and Nicole nineteen: Gilmore labels Nicole his "elf," carves their names on an apple tree, and tells her "that he hoped no unnecessary tragedies would ever befall them." With Nicole he seems much more in control of himself, as when he tells her that the whole point of living is "facing yourself." Yet Gilmore still seems compulsively violent: he forces Nicole into all-night sexual engagements to combat his impotence, clips off the speakers in a drive-in, hits Nicole at least twice, throws a tape deck at a security guard, and gets drunk soon after promising to give up drinking. His frequent reflections on reincarnation betray his basic childishness, for at this point his faith is little more than a pleasant fantasy: "After death, he said, he was going to start all over again. Have the kind of life he always wished he had." So it is no surprise when Gilmore cannot sustain his relationship with Nicole, who leaves him toward the end of part 3. Indeed, the depressing histories presented in part 2 offer almost no hope that Gilmore and Nicole can reverse the pattern of failure that informs both lives.

The first three parts of book 1 create sympathy for Gilmore even as they document his "monstrous" character. This opening movement is crucial to the work's overall effect, for beginning with part 4, "The Gas Station and the Motel," Mailer is obliged to record Gilmore's ghastly performance in murdering for $100 one night and $125 the next. The almost shockingly flat account of the Jensen and Bushnell murders is followed by Gilmore's pathetic effort to make love to Nicole's fifteen-year-old sister, April; his absurdly amateurish lies to the police; his repulsive boasting about the seventy to one hundred "successful" robberies he committed as a kid and the murder of Bushnell; and his extremely evasive stance at the subsequent trial, where he claims that he had no control over himself when he committed the murders, that it was fated for him to kill Bushnell. In part 5 ("The Shadows of the Dream"), part 6 ("The Trial of Gary M. Gilmore"), and part 7 ("Death Row"), we see Gilmore at a much greater distance, back in jail and no longer the somewhat sympathetic figure of the early sections. During Mailer's clinical account of the murders and Gilmore's subsequent arrest, trial, and sentencing, our "hero" often seems little more than the "recidivist" that John Hersey takes him to be. There is precious little to corroborate the initial hints that Gilmore is in part the victim of a system that imprisons a man for almost his entire adult life for relatively petty crimes. By the end of book 1, however, a strangely positive side to Gilmore does emerge, one that will become a major subject in book 2.

I refer in part to Gilmore's relative stability when he becomes once again a convict. Early in his jail stint in Provo, Gilmore tells a fellow convict, "I am in my element now," and the final sections of book 1 tend to confirm this claim rather than to undercut it as another instance of Gilmore's cheap self-inflation. But I also refer to the odd capacity Gilmore seems to develop to judge his life with apparent objectivity. Soon after his arrest, he tells an officer, "I can't keep up with life," as accurate a comment on his frenetic three and a half months in Provo as anyone is able to offer. A bit later Gilmore writes a long letter to Nicole in which he says that he cannot be the devil because he loves Nicole and the devil cannot love. "But I might be further from God than I am from the devil," he adds. "It seems that I know evil more intimately than I know goodness." This remarkable letter is followed by others equally fascinating, letters in which he praises Nicole's fearlessness, speaks of the unendurable pain he felt when he thought he had lost Nicole, celebrates their two months together while referring again to the thousands of years they may have known each other, and affirms courage as the ultimate virtue. Perhaps the most important letter is the one in which he tells Nicole, "I believe we always have a choice."

Gilmore's choice now is to die rather than to allow his soul to deteriorate further in this life. This logic leads him to reject any appeal of the death penalty, a decision that soon makes him nationally famous and confirms Mailer's portrait of Gilmore as profoundly ambiguous. This man who acts like a barbarian at one moment and quotes Emerson at another is a "mystery," Mailer has said, "malignant at his worst and heroic at his best." Book 1 does not verify Gilmore's heroism, but it does project a man whose complications are as vivid as his unforgettable malignancy. Gilmore as habit-ridden monster is the key to book 1, but we are made to ask whether this is all there is to say about the man. In book 2, of course, Mailer will offer many more words, as he pursues the mystery of Gary Gilmore through another five hundred pages.

Before turning to the lawyers and media figures who dominate book 2, we should note the role of the many relatives, friends, acquaintances, and victims who share the stage with Gilmore in book 1. These people are observers who contribute to the composite picture of Gary Gilmore, but they also help Mailer achieve the broad social panorama he admires in writers as different as Tolstoy and Dreiser. Indeed, Mailer has chided himself for doing so little with the secondary characters in his previous novels, a "flaw" he hoped to correct in The Executioner's Song. Here Mailer develops virtually every "minor" character and permits each to speak in something like his or her own voice, however much the several idioms blend into the flat, colloquial style for which the book is famous. Mailer's defense of his unadorned prose might apply to the minor characters themselves: "one's style is only a tool to use on a dig." Like the style by which we know them, the secondary characters are supposed to contribute to the book's larger formal ends.

One such end is to "examine" the American reality exposed by the strange saga of Gary Gilmore. Joan Didion sees Mailer as capturing two crucial features of western America. The first is "that emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor." The second is an inability to direct our own lives, a failing so pervasive that all the characters seem to share in "a fatalistic drift, a tension, an overwhelming and passive rush toward the inevitable events that will end in Gary Gilmore's death." I believe that Didion's insights are exaggerated, but they do point up suggestive connections between Gilmore and the people who surround him. Bessie Gilmore, Brenda Nicol, Vern Damico, Kathryne Baker and her daughters Nicole and April—all are "trapped" in their futile efforts to find a life worth living. Indeed, almost every woman in the book first marries at fifteen or sixteen and eventually marries at least three or four times, and the men seem equally caught up in the fatalistic drift Didion notices. Didion does not do justice to the admirable stability of people like Brenda Nicol and Vern Damico, but the wasted lives of those around Gilmore suggest that his own fate is only an exaggerated instance of that moral emptiness Didion hears in the book's western voices.

In this respect as in others, Nicole Baker is the second most important character. Mailer has called her "a bona fide American heroine," but most readers will think she is rather the quintessential American victim. Promiscuous at eleven, institutionalized at thirteen, married at fourteen and again at fifteen, Nicole suffers three broken marriages before she is twenty. "Sex had never been new to Nicole," we are told, and it is more than plausible when she runs off with an older man because "she didn't care where she was going." Yet Nicole has virtues to match her troubling irresponsibility. As Gilmore sees, she is fearless and fiercely loyal. These are the very qualities that Gilmore counts on when he manipulates her toward a suicide pact. In his many letters from jail, he pleads with Nicole not to make love with other men, to give up sex altogether, and to join him on the other side in death. At the end of book 1, he leads her toward a double suicide attempt that epitomizes both his romanticism and his selfishness, even as it climaxes Mailer's portrait of Nicole as an endearing victim. Later Nicole will be denied the "clean" resolution of death, will emerge from yet another institution to tell Larry Schiller (and Mailer) the story of her love for Gary Gilmore, and will finally drift off to Oregon to new lovers if not a new life. Nicole's story is a familiar one among her family and friends; years of acute aimlessness followed by an utterly hopeless commitment. Surely it is no accident that Nicole comes to love Gilmore most fiercely when he is cut off from her forever. For the Nicoles of the world (and perhaps this means for all of us), there is no consummation except in an imagined future.

The stories of Nicole and the other witnesses point to one of Mailer's most crucial decisions in structuring book 1. Rather than trace Gilmore's grim history from reform school through his term in Marion, Illinois, Mailer chooses to focus on Gilmore's last months in Provo in 1976. The reasons for this no doubt include Mailer's desire to achieve greater dramatic unity and to emphasize Gilmore's "mystery" instead of the familiar stages of American crime and punishment. But another important reason is to allow Mailer to flesh out the human context in which Gilmore plays his final role or sings his final song, as the title would have it. This context is dominated by the same hateful "habits" that take more spectacular forms in Gilmore. Yet the human resources displayed in book 1 should not be dismissed quite so easily as Didion's formulation would suggest. Here we get example after example of human folly, western style, but also many instances of what Mailer calls "American virtue," the American's dogged determination to do his or her best in the worst of circumstances. The range of such portraits is really quite extraordinary, from Gilmore's mother, Bessie, to Brenda Nicol, to the Damicos, to the irrepressible Nicole. One of the earliest reviewers called The Executioner's Song "a remarkably compassionate work," and the truth in this judgment should remind us that, like Mailer's portrait of Gilmore, book 1 is structured to highlight the human frailties as well as the abominations of American life.

It might seem that book 2 offers a less sympathetic, more satirical history of Gilmore's last months. The very title of part 1, "In the Reign of Good King Boaz," signals a new kind of irony. Here lawyers and the press are omnipresent and one eighty-two-page section, "Exclusive Rights," is devoted to virtually nothing but Larry Schiller's and David Susskind's efforts to corner the Gilmore market, so to speak, by securing exclusive rights to his story. Packs of reporters are everywhere, confirming Mailer's worst fears about the press. The many lawyers introduced are often distinguished by one bizarre detail or another, as when Earl Dorius, Utah's assistant attorney general, is excited at the prospect of an execution and proceeds to work himself into a near breakdown to ensure that the state of Utah gets its execution on 17 January 1977, or when Dennis Boaz, Gilmore's second lawyer, supports his client's desire to be executed until it occurs to him that Gary would prefer to live if he could have connubial visits from Nicole, perhaps in Mexico! Gilmore's final lawyers Bob Moody and Ron Stanger, are a good deal less eccentric, but they too partake in the grim legal struggle in which the state of Utah pursues its pound of flesh, and the ACLU and other liberal groups fight stubbornly to save a man who does not want to be saved. The ironies here are obvious and may even seem undramatic. In the film version of The Executioner's Song, scenarist Mailer and director Schiller chose to leave out most of the materials of book 2, as if they were less relevant than the more "immediate" events of book 1.

My own view is that book 2 is at least as interesting as book 1, a remarkable feat when one considers that the protagonist is all but unavailable and the heroine is locked up throughout. Once again Mailer gets great mileage from his so-called minor figures, a few of whom (e.g., Boaz, Schiller, Barry Farrell) are among his most memorable characters. Of real interest for their own sake, they also provide perspective on Gilmore. For example, Gary's brother Mikal is at first reluctant to allow his brother to die and participates in legal actions to prevent it. When he finally talks with Gary, however, Mikal is won over by his brother's seriousness and depth of feeling. As they part, Gary first kisses Mikal, then utters perhaps the most haunting words in this very long book: "See you in the darkness." A cellmate of Gilmore's named Gibbs also effectively testifies on Gary's behalf. A police informer, Gibbs refers to Gilmore as the most courageous convict he has even seen. And Gilmore's relatives, especially Vern Damico and Toni Gurney, find themselves moving ever closer to Gilmore as he approaches death. Toni's relationship with Gilmore is especially moving. She first visits him the day before he is to be executed and is overwhelmed by his gentle affection. Later that day, after her own birthday party, she returns to the party Gilmore has been permitted at the prison and again experiences Gary's new warmth. Toni is sufficiently moved to try to attend Gary's execution. This sequence blends with many other small but affecting moments to verify the change in Gilmore that is sensed by many people during his final weeks.

Mailer uses Barry Farrell and Larry Schiller to temper the more sentimental implications of book 2, but ultimately these veteran journalists also testify to Gilmore's surprising depth. The title of book 2, "Eastern Voices," seems to refer to all those safely established in the social system, whether in the East or the West: lawyers, reporters, producers, assistant attorney generals, and so on. Farrell and Schiller are such voices. Each brings a heavy load of urban skepticism to the Gilmore assignment, hating Salt Lake City, as Farrell does, and believing there is no "center" to this story, nothing of real human resonance. When both men come to see Gilmore in a very different light, Mailer is able to bring his book to a genuine climax.

Farrell is at first confident that nothing sets Gilmore apart but his willingness to die. If Gilmore is not executed, Farrell suggests, he will become indistinguishable from the hundreds of others condemned to die but never executed. As he works with Gilmore's responses to hundreds of questions, however, Farrell notices that Gilmore "was now setting out to present the particular view of himself he wanted people to keep." Later Farrell responds profoundly to Gilmore's tapes: "Barry was crying and laughing and felt half triumphant that the man could talk with such clarity." Farrell still believes that Gilmore "had a total contempt for life," but this makes it all the more impressive when Gilmore responds so "humanely" to the massive attention of his last months. Farrell is stunned at Gilmore's apparent complexity. In the transcripts Farrell spots "twenty-seven poses," twenty-seven different Gilmores ("racist Gary and Country-and-Western Gary, artist manqué Gary, macho Gary"). Farrell begins to pursue the single Gary who presumably stands behind these multiple poses, but he is "seized with depression at how few were the answers" to his inquiry. There is an "evil genius" in Gilmore's planning Nicole's suicide, but much else in Gilmore's life suggests sheer ignorance; Gilmore's relations with Bessie, his mother, seem a potential key, but the answers to many related questions provide no "hope of a break-through." Continuing to ponder Gilmore's transcripts just before the execution, Farrell turns to yet another possible solution to the Gilmore mystery: Gilmore's fascination with small children. But this "answer" is also unsatisfactory: "It was too insubstantial. In fact, it was sheer speculation … beware of understanding the man too quickly!" Beware indeed. Farrell's final comment on Gilmore takes us back to the passage from André Gide ("Please do not understand me too quickly") that Mailer first used as his epigraph to The Deer Park (1955). Farrell's conclusion should caution us against reductive readings, psychological efforts to pluck out Gilmore's mystery. Indeed, Gilmore's complexity should impress us as much as it does Farrell, whose prolonged efforts to understand Gilmore are akin to Mailer's.

Larry Schiller's role is in part like Farrell's. Schiller also looks for the human side to Gilmore, the "sympathetic character" buried inside the cold-blooded killer, for Schiller cannot imagine making a successful book or film unless he first makes this discovery. Like Farrell, Schiller begins with many doubts and ends up convinced of Gilmore's essential seriousness, especially on such matters as life after death. Schiller shares with Farrell the scenarist's desire to grasp his subject, to "reduce Gary's mystery, attach him to conditions, locate him in history." Together Farrell and Schiller prove that it is impossible to achieve this "reduction" no matter how many materials are carefully scrutinized. Schiller's role is larger than Farrell's, however, for it also includes Schiller's personal drama. Both Farrell and Schiller make interesting discoveries about Gary Gilmore, but Schiller makes such discoveries about himself as well.

In book 2 Schiller's importance surpasses Nicole's and rivals Gilmore's. Much of book 2 is organized around Schiller's efforts to sign up the principals in the Gilmore story and to get information from Gilmore before the execution. This intricate, frustrating process educates Schiller about Gilmore, but it also constitutes a belated rite de passage for Schiller, who becomes "part of the story," as he himself notes. Before coming to Utah, Schiller has achieved "a terrible reputation" as a journalist. The last man to interview Jack Ruby, the author of "a quick and rotten book" about Susan Atkins, Schiller describes himself as a "communicator" but is laughed at by people who take him to be a hustler or, worse, "a carrion bird." Even his fiancée labels him a "manipulator." With the Gilmore story, Schiller struggles to be a good businessman as well as a good journalist, but he often seems to lose this fight as he worries whether there are any "sympathetic characters" in the plot he has purchased, works out alternate scenarios depending on whether Gilmore is executed, and schemes to get at Nicole, the love interest in this "democratic Romeo and Juliet," as Boaz describes the Gilmore tale.

Yet Schiller turns out to be much more than a carrion bird. He deals more honestly with everyone involved than most of us would have done; he suffers acute physical and emotional stress in deciding how far to go in exploiting his material; and he ends up committing himself to doing the best he can for the story rather than his bank account, even rejecting an offer of $250,000 from the New York Post. In his afterword Mailer says that Schiller "stood for his portrait, and drew maps to his faults" during their interviews. As Mailer remarks elsewhere, Schiller "wanted the best book that could be gotten out of what had become the biggest event in his own life, and so he did not spare himself, he offered himself." As a result, Schiller's faults and his final integrity in confronting them are deeply embedded in Mailer's text.

Schiller's role in The Executioner's Song is a bit like Mailer's in The Armies of the Night (1968). I have referred to Schiller's experience as a rite of passage, and of course that is the nature of Mailer's experience at the March on the Pentagon. In each case a man of mixed motives, even a mild cynicism, comes to believe in what he is doing and to act more honorably than we would have thought possible when introduced to him. Schiller is only one of many important characters in this large book, so he is not as central as Mailer is in Armies. As we shall see, however, his story very much resembles Mailer's in pointing up his book's more positive implications. The point to be made here is that Schiller's late-blooming integrity confirms Mailer's portrait of Gilmore as a man of unsuspected depth. The more we come to believe in Larry Schiller, the more we believe in his conception of Gary Gilmore.

This is not to say that Mailer's Gilmore is saintly. In fact, Mailer has noted his distaste for Gilmore: "When I started The Executioner's Song, I thought I would like him more than I did." In book 2 as much as in book 1, Mailer does ample justice to what is unattractive, even hateful in Gilmore. Gilmore's intense racism is evident throughout book 2; he never expresses any real contrition for his crimes; he is a man with "surprising veins of compassion or real feeling," but also "large areas that were absolutely unfeeling"; his diatribes against "publicity-hunting lawyers" are amusing but foul, exhibiting the "little mean streak" Gilmore is still exposing just before his death; to the nurses who treat him after his first suicide attempt, he is simply "spiteful, revengeful, obscene." Joseph Wenke points out that after his arrest Gilmore becomes "more and more demonically manipulative as his futile, despairing, and incredibly selfish desire to possess Nicole assumes control of his being." Indeed, Gilmore is still demanding celibacy of Nicole in his last letter, just as he is still asking his lawyers to help him to escape after supposedly resigning himself to a death that is best for his soul.

Yet Mailer's Gilmore is a man with "a capacity to grow," for Mailer the most crucial heroic quality. Mailer agrees with Boaz, Farrell, and Schiller that Gilmore is "serious about dying with dignity." For Gilmore, this means recognizing that we can choose death as well as life. In an interview Gilmore says, "In death you can choose in a way that you can't choose in life," an assertion that reveals Gilmore's great difficulty in making choices in life but also the seriousness of his belief in karma. Gilmore's earlier remarks on karma and reincarnation may seem juvenile, but his later statements impress Mailer (as well as such witnesses as Farrell and Schiller) that Gilmore achieves a genuine philosophical conviction. Thus Gilmore is able to say, when asked if there is anything worse than taking someone's life, "Well, you could alter somebody's life so that the quality of it wouldn't be what it could've been…. I think to make somebody go on living in a lessened state of existence, I think that could be worse than killing 'em." Mailer obviously sympathizes with this view, just as he shares Gilmore's belief that "the meaning of the events in any given life can't be comprehended entirely by what one's done in one life" (Mailer's definition of karma). Gilmore's desire to die rather than to deteriorate further appeals to Mailer as an act of self-definition but also as morally valid; as Mailer says, "We have profound choices to make in life, and one of them may be the deep and terrible choice most of us avoid between dying now and 'saving one's soul' … in order, conceivably, to be reincarnated." Thus Mailer describes Gilmore's belief in karma as "profound" and highlights Gilmore's growing ability to analyze his own moral condition, as when Gilmore says, "I was always capable of murder…. There's a side of me that I don't like. I can become totally devoid of feelings for others, unemotional. I know I'm doing something grossly fucking wrong. I can still go ahead and do it." No one in The Executioner's Song offers a more persuasive psychological profile of Gilmore than Gilmore himself.

Gilmore's capacity to "grow" is impressive, but it does not lead Mailer to forget Gilmore's viciousness. Instead, it leads Mailer to conclude that it is hard to draw conclusions. Mailer says that as he learned more and more about Gilmore he "knew less and less." His efforts to define Gilmore are no more successful than Farrell's or Schiller's, unless it is a success to realize that Gilmore is finally "too complex" to label. Mailer's Gilmore challenges society's "firm premise that we have one life and one life only and that if we waste this one life there is nothing worse we can do," but his sordid acts and unalterable meanness call into question the coherence of his personality. For Mailer, this makes Gilmore "another major American protagonist," someone who "comprehends a deep contradiction in this country and lives his life in the crack of that contradiction." But this means Gilmore is only in part "a modern man in search of his soul, wondering whether he might be closer to God or Devil, wanting to make himself whole, willing to pay his debts until he is right and clean and able to 'stand in the sight of God,'" as Begiebing would have it. Gilmore is also a habit-ridden monster whose essence is contradictory, if indeed he has a definable essence.

This balanced assessment of Gilmore is the key to the work's structure. Book 1 tends to highlight Gilmore's violence and book 2 his capacity to "grow," but each presents Gilmore's strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of many witnesses who try to understand this profoundly enigmatic figure. The very mode of representation stresses the many different perspectives on Gilmore, who is the one significant character never seen from "within." In addition, the book's sheer size underlines the many facts any theory about Gilmore must finally encompass. Whether witnessing Gilmore's grimmest acts (as in book 1) or pondering his most intelligent self-assessments (as in book 2), we are all but overwhelmed by the difficulty of reducing the material or the man to manageable dimensions. Some have felt that Mailer aggrandizes Gilmore by presenting his affair with Nicole in "tragic tones" denied to Gilmore's victims, but Mailer's handling of Gilmore's last hours illustrates the more complicated effect of his narrative method.

Toward the end Mailer continues to present Gilmore as he is seen by others in relatively detailed accounts of Gilmore's last-night party, the execution, the autopsy, the memorial service held on Gilmore's behalf, and the dispersal of Gilmore's ashes after cremation. In these final sections, however, the views of the several witnesses blend into a common awe of Gilmore's cool acceptance of his fate. This effect is most pronounced during the execution scene, in which Mailer shifts the point of view twenty times among seven characters yet seems to present an event perceived in much the same way by everyone present. The effect is awesome—indeed, the scene is perhaps the most powerful in all of Mailer's writing—but not in such a way as to exonerate or glorify Gilmore. Gilmore's courage is acknowledged here much as his monstrousness is acknowledged in the depiction of the Jensen and Bushnell murders. Mailer's comment on the autopsy scene also points to the nature of his narrative interests: "That's why I took the execution right through the autopsy—because that was something that I wanted the reader to feel. That's what it means when we kill a man. That even this man who wanted to die and succeeded in getting society to execute him, that even when he was killed, we still feel this horrible shock and loss." We feel shock and loss despite what we know of Gilmore's selfishness and despite our now intimate knowledge of what he has done. In part we respond because of what we have come to know of Gilmore as lover, Gilmore as poet, Gilmore as philosopher, and especially Gilmore as self-critic. In part we respond because, all his faults fully acknowledged, Gilmore remains complexly human. Like the book itself, our response is a complicated one that we can only try to dissect, as I have just done. To try to get at the meaning of such responses, as I am about to do, is an effort that Mailer makes a part of his very subject in this massive, painful, but fully articulated masterpiece.


[Gilmore] appealed to me because he embodied many of the themes I've been living with all my life long.

                                  —Norman Mailer

I used to hate America for what it was doing to all of us. Now I hate all of us for what we're doing to America.

                                 —Norman Mailer

There are of course many meanings in The Executioner's Song, but the one to which I refer at the end of the last section has been very popular among Mailer's more recent critics. Noting Mailer's challenge to traditional generic definitions and his insistence on Gilmore's ultimately impenetrable "mystery," these critics argue that Mailer's theme is "the necessity of fiction for the apprehension of complex reality," or "the fictionality of all narrative," or the view that "all history is in the end fiction." Mailer's sympathy with such views is both real and longstanding. As long ago as his 1954 essay on David Riesman, Mailer referred to the need for a sociological "fiction" to make sense of American life; at the end of The Armies of the Night, Mailer makes fun of journalistic pretenses to complete accuracy; and in his afterword to The Executioner's Song, Mailer acknowledges the editorial contributions (however minor) that went into the making of his book. I suspect that Mailer would agree with Phyllis McCord that The Executioner's Song demonstrates the subjective nature of all truth. But it is harder to accept the notion that this is Mailer's principal theme, central to everything he does in this huge book. To accept such an idea is to place Mailer among the metafictionists—something I cannot imagine doing without major qualifications.

Mailer's social interests in this book are simply too obvious to push aside as illustrating the fictionality of all narrative. Though Mailer dramatizes the difficulty of achieving even an unsure grasp of his material, his task is nonetheless to examine the American reality embedded in this material. Mailer once said that his material was "gold" if he "had enough sense not to gild it," and I think we should indeed ask what gemlike themes inform The Executioner's Song.

The possible answers to this question begin with Mailer's characterization of Gilmore. For many readers Gilmore is a reconceived, more artistic version of the hipster first glorified in Mailer's "The White Negro" (1957). For one such critic, Gilmore is "the figure of the artist of the self, defining and redefining his personality, controlling events and other characters, projecting a world." For another, Gilmore walks in shackles between guards but "looks freer than they, and people visiting him suspect they are the ones in prison." I have already suggested that these are very selective views of Gilmore, half-truths at best. Gilmore is no more adequately described as a hipster than is Marion Faye in The Deer Park. Neither the fictional Marion nor the real Gilmore commits himself to "that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self" by which Mailer identifies the hipster. This is especially true if we recall that the hipster's "journey" is a sensual one, quite literally an adventure of the senses. As I argue elsewhere, Marion's "black heroic safari" is a matter of will and intellect, and Gilmore's actions prior to his final arrest are so aimless they can hardly be called a quest for anything. Even Gilmore's efforts to die with dignity derive from his will and spirit, not his senses. To think of Gilmore as a sexual rebel is to see at once how little he resembles Mailer's late-1950s ideal.

I suggest we might better see Gilmore as Mailer sees him: a man who lives his life in the crack of a deep American contradiction. To one side of this crack is the nihilistic emptiness Didion emphasizes, the "estrangement" Wenke rightly sees in most of the younger people in book 1 (though I would add older women such as Brenda Nicol and Kathryne Baker, each of whom marries four times). Gilmore's mistreatment of several women permits Mailer to present a seemingly endless chain of victimized women, young and old. What Didion hears in their voices is resignation, the belief that they cannot influence events. Perhaps the most memorable voice is that of Kathy Maynard, the young woman who discovers Nicole after her suicide attempt. In an interview Kathy describes her own life in the flattest tone imaginable: married at sixteen for no particular reason; witness to her seventeen-year-old husband's suicide with a hunting knife; married again two weeks later to a man she met at her husband's funeral; stranded at seventeen with two small children, no husband, and no particular sense of what she will do next week. Mailer has said that this interview is the one transcript he did not even abridge, for it was "a found object" he could not improve upon. One might describe Kathy as stoical, Didion's term for all the book's women, but stoicism implies recognition of the horrors one is resigned to and Kathy seems merely oblivious. Her brief tale should remind us of the real desert that surrounds these small Utah towns and the metaphorical desert to which Didion alludes.

Kathy Maynard's story is one side of The Executioner's Song in miniature, but there are many other memorable examples. My own favorite involves Nicole's mother, Kathryne Baker. When Gilmore retrieves a gun just before he kills Jensen, Kathryne realizes she does not even know his last name. This after Gilmore has lived with Nicole for two months! At such moments the book's westerners appear to be what Wenke calls them, "the beat legatees of the spiritually and politically exhausted hipsters, hippies, and left radicals whom Mailer derides at the conclusion of Of a Fire on the Moon." But they are in fact a much broader cross-section of the American social order, including the conventional Mormons who become Gilmore's "new jailers" (and his victims, for both Jensen and Bushnell are Mormon), the Utah lawyers who prosecute and defend Gilmore, and the many lower-middle-class and lower-class figures whose lives resemble Nicole's but who could not define a "left radical." What they share is a less extreme version of Kathy Maynard's tolerance for the intolerable.

Gilmore is the figure in the book who seems to rebel against this aimless society, just as he is the one who scorns the liberal establishment that takes him up as a "cause" in book 2: thus the common view of Gilmore as a Maileresque hero. The partial truth to this view is suggested by Mailer's statement that Gilmore embodied themes that Mailer has lived with all his life. Among these themes is the heroic individual's passionate (and often destructive) attempt to reject the deadly social environment endured so stoically by the book's western women. This attempt can also be seen in Gilmore's rejection of life in prison, his "dignified" preference for whatever succeeds this life. Indeed, Gilmore's concern for the hereafter is another of the themes to which Mailer no doubt refers, for the religious dimensions of Gilmore's thought correspond to Mailer's oft-expressed convictions or intuitions. Yet Gilmore is no less estranged than the people who surround him in prison or Provo, no less self-destructive, no less frozen in those "habits" to which Mailer relentlessly draws our attention. In his last days, Gilmore may achieve some perspective on his own compulsions and aspire to something more dignified, but he is also the book's primary example of someone who cannot endure life as it is experienced by all the other characters from Kathy Maynard to Larry Schiller. Gilmore is a mystery and not a model, a man who embodies Mailer's themes but not his solutions.

Mailer does not offer answers to the overwhelming problems his characters face, but The Executioner's Song is much less pessimistic than many of its admirers suggest. Mailer says that one of the lessons he learned is that the system is "fairer" than he had supposed: "The way things work in America is not necessarily as sinister as I always assumed. There may not be this grand paranoid network after all." This discovery lies behind Mailer's remark that he used to hate America for what it was doing to all of us but now hates us for what we are doing to America. Behind Mailer's hatred for America lay the paranoid's assumption that "they" were in conspiracy against an innocent citizenry; behind his hatred for us lies the romantic's faith that we know not what we do. Mailer's beliefs might be compared with the Transcendental notion that we always pursue the good but do not know what the good is (see Emerson's "The American Scholar" and Thoreau's Walden as primary texts). Thus our aimlessness or compulsive materialism, our mindless conformity or violent resistance. Thus the world represented in extremis by Gary Gilmore.

As Mailer says, however, this world seems to be fairer and less sinister than he always supposed. Indeed, the unifying subject in Mailer's story is what he calls "American virtue." In Mailer's view, everyone involved here wished to do "the right thing" and went to some trouble to act accordingly. This dedication to principle is the other side of the American contradiction embodied in Gilmore. Rocklike conservatives seeking the death penalty, dedicated liberals seeking to avoid a state execution, lawyers on all sides, friends of Gilmore, friends of his victims, men such as Barry Farrell and Larry Schiller—all did their best as they understood the best. Schiller is perhaps the most notable example, but only because his "best" involves personal growth—virtue in its most positive form. Many other examples of American virtue are grim reminders of why Mailer "hates" us for what we are doing to America. As he does with Gilmore, however, Mailer captures these other Americans in the richly detailed (if depressing) context of their dull habits and assumptions, a context elaborately built up page by page as Mailer offers the most compelling "social drama" of his long career.

If we read this book as Mailer conceived it, we must feel compassion for nearly everyone—for Kathy Maynard as well as Larry Schiller, for Earl Dorius as well as Kathryne Baker, for the youthful April Baker as well as the elderly Bessie Gilmore. Finally, there must also be compassion for Gary Gilmore, just as there must be "hate" for what Gilmore and the rest of us are doing to each other. The least judgmental of Mailer's works, The Executioner's Song is also the book in which Mailer's love for America is most impressively in evidence. Mailer has said that he learned from the Gilmore saga that society might not be evil but rather "a sad comedy." This phrase also applies to the "astonishing" book he wrote in the wake of his discovery.

William H. Pritchard (review date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: "Mailer's Main Event," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 149-57.

[In the following review, Pritchard offers favorable assessment of Harlot's Ghost, praising the admirable ambition of the work despite Mailer's characteristic narrative style that ranges from "the sublime to the ridiculous."]

Six weeks ago one of the larger pieces of mail ever received turned up at my front door in the form of a dauntingly wrapped copy of Harlot's Ghost, all four pounds of it. It was mid-semester break, my sinuses were full of misery, and I settled in, if somewhat warily, to ingest Mailer's longest book. Somewhat warily since a trusted friend, having read it in proof, termed it a disaster; and since Newsweek's Peter Prescott, a pretty good reviewer of fiction, had just called it "a dry and dusty thing … for nearly all of its incredibly long way." Would Harlot pass Wyndham Lewis' "Taxi-Cab Driver Test for 'Fiction'"? The test may be administered, with or without a cab driver, by opening any novel at its first page and seeing whether it looks like "fiction"—with all that word connotes about the diverting, the agreeably "made-up," the "interesting" story line—or something rather different, namely art. Here is a little more than the first page of Harlot's Ghost:

On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.

In the spring, after the planting of corn, the younger braves and squaws would leave the aged to watch over the crops and the children, and would take their birchbark canoes south for the summer. Down the Penobscot River they would travel to Blue Hill Bay on the western side of Mount Desert where my family's house, built in part by my great-great-grandfather, Doane Hadlock Hubbard, still stands. It is called the Keep, and I do not know of all else it keeps, but some Indians came ashore to build lean-tos each summer, and a few of their graves are among us, although I do not believe they came to our island to die. Lazing in the rare joys of northern warmth, they must have shucked clams on the flats at low tide and fought and fornicated among the spruce and hemlock when the water was up. What they got drunk on I do not know, unless it was the musk of each other, but many a rocky beach in the first hollow behind the shore sports mounds of ancient clamshells, ground to powder by the centuries, a beach behind the beach to speak of ancient summer frolics. The ghosts of these Indians may no longer pass through our woods, but something of their old sorrows and pleasures joins the air. Mount Desert is more luminous than the rest of Maine.

Given the present state of things American, I suppose one may give a momentary thought to George Walker Bush and his trailing clouds of ancestral glory. But the ghosts of more formidable American predecessors haunt the passage (I hear Thoreau, Melville, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in it) and hold out for the reader a promise that is the promise of art—one not to be easily satisfied by any mere novel.

In one sense, as reviewers have pointed out, the promise is unfulfilled insofar as the novel's art fails to resolve certain issues raised early on. Harlot's Ghost consists of two disproportionately related sections. The first, titled "Omega" (the last shall be first, evidently), is just over a hundred pages and located on a day in 1983 when the novel's protagonist Herrick Hubbard (mostly though not always called Harry) is driving back from a liaison in Bath with his mistress, Chloe, to his wife, Kittredge, and their island keep off Mt. Desert. The second section, titled "Alpha," consumes the book's remaining 1200 pages and is an account of Harry's life and times, from private school days and a Yale degree up through his enlistment, training and service in the CIA between 1955 and 1965. Both sections, we are to understand, are manuscripts written by Harry, the second of which ends almost twenty years short of where the first begins. In an italicized concluding note to the reader dated "Moscow, 1984" (Harry has gone there to look for his godfather, Hugh Tremont Montague—the "Harlot" of the title—who may either be dead or have defected to the Soviets), Harry admits that he might never finish "the book of Harry Hubbard and his years in Saigon, nor the stretch of service in the White House when one lived through Watergate, no, nor the commencement of my love affair with Kittredge." (Kittredge was married to Hugh Montague but left him for Harry after her and Hugh's son was killed in a rock-climbing accident from which the father survived, but in a wheelchair.) So there are lots of loose ends, and the book concludes with the tease, "To be continued."

Behind and not very far behind Harry is of course Norman Mailer who weighs in on page 1284 with an Author's Note in which he tells us that the book was written "with the part of my mind that has lived in the CIA for forty years." He calls his novel "the product of a veteran imagination that has pondered the ambiguous and fascinating moral presence of the Agency in our national life for the last four decades." This mention of four decades takes us back to the beginning of veteran Mailer's literary career, to the publication in 1948 of The Naked and the Dead, and to the ensuing books that make up so unusual and controversial a road taken.

In considering the sheer bulk of Harlot's Ghost, we remind ourselves that gigantism has always been the keynote of Mailer's imaginative plans for himself. In a preface to his first (unpublished until a 1977 facsimile edition of it) novel, A Transit to Narcissus, he notes that even before The Naked and the Dead he must have written a million or so words in stories and various drafts of Transit. In Advertisements for Myself (1959), itself an outrageous and mainly fascinating display of a novelistic ego's demands, his "advertisement" for "The Man Who Studied Yoga" divulged plans for the eight-part novel to which "Yoga" was prologue. The prologue's hero, Sam Slovoda, would dream eight stages in the travels of a mythical hero, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, "through many worlds, through pleasure, business, communism, church, working class, crime, homosexuality and mysticism." "Not a modest novel," he went on to admit—and not one that was going to get written. After finishing a draft of The Deer Park Mailer tells us that he abandoned the scheme; but in the very next paragraph he directs us to fragments later in Advertisements which are said to be "from that long novel which has come into my mind again, a descendant of Moby Dick" (what else?). One of the fragments referred to is "The Time of Her Time" in which Sergius, settled in his Village loft, gives instruction in bullfighting and—in his avocation as self-styled sex saint—initiates Denise Gondelman into the mysteries of the orgasm. The big book of which "Time" was to be a part, confided Mailer, would take at least ten years and be, by the standards of 1959, probably unpublishable.

In all their superficial contradictions and inconsistencies, these early extravagant claims are worth noting for the way they bring out a deeper consistency in Mailer's vision of himself and his projection of that self onto a reader. In other words, it was not just in the recent Ancient Evenings or in The Executioner's Song that Mailer went too far: excess, from the beginning, was of the essence of the scene. But what marks "The Man Who Studied Yoga," and even more "The Time of Her Time" as important expansive moments in Mailer's literary career, is that each of them in its different way is entertaining. To apply one of Frost's formulations about his own poetry, it feels as though the writer were entertaining ideas (or scenarios or characters) to see if they entertained him. This was a feeling one did not get from Mailer's writing in The Naked and the Dead or Barbary Shore. For one thing there is more comedy in the shorter pieces: like the story (from "Yoga") about how Cassius O'Shaugnessy unscrewed his navel and the disastrous event it led to (his ass fell off); or like New York City's garbage wars as observed by Sergius (in "Time") when he heads into the Lower East Side to look for help in cleaning up his apartment and encounters a gang of kids at play:

They were charming, these six-year-olds, as I told my uptown friends, and they used to topple the overloaded garbage cans, strew them through the street, have summer snowball fights with orange peel, coffee grounds, soup bones, slop, they threw the discus by sailing the raw tin rounds from the tops of cans, their pillow fights were with loaded socks of scum, and a debauch was for two of them to scrub a third around the inside of a twenty-gallon pail still warm with the heat of its emptied treasures.

There is an ease and confidence about these supple observings which would animate some of the best writing—fictional or non—Mailer produced in his great decade, the 1960s.

When fiction pays attention to what people eat or what happens to their garbage, human relationships are anchored in homely rather than ethereal circumstances. So food plays a lively role in Harlot's Ghost as a handy indicator of character and social milieu. Over the course of the book Harry has a number of good meals at the likes of Harvey's Restaurant and Sans Souci, but occasionally partakes of more humble fare. During his weeks of testing at the CIA's I-J-K-L complex in Washington (prior to the agency's move to Langley, Virginia in 1961), he takes a course in World Communism from a Commie hater named Raymond James ("Ray Jim") Burns:

On our last night, Bullseye Burns threw a party for our class in his small apartment in a newly built four-story complex of middle-cost housing in the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia. He had three kids, all boys, all towheads, and I learned on this night that he and his wife were high school sweethearts from Indiana. Mrs. Burns, plain-faced, slab-shaped, served us the casserole dish of cheese and tuna and hot dog relish that had been her party fare for twenty years. (Or, as she called it, her "main-eventer.") It was obvious that she and Ray Jim barely bothered to speak to each other anymore…. I concluded that people like Jim Ray did not quit their marriages until they were feeling inclined to take an ax to their mate.

That casserole has the right slab-like ingredients and harmonizes nicely with the narrator's genial reversing of Ray Jim into Jim Ray. A second passage of cookery is rather more spicy: Harry, now posted to his first assignment in Berlin under the novel's most colorful character (and a historical personage to boot), William King ("King Bill") Harvey, prepares to leave a nightclub called Die Hintertür with his German mistress-to-be Ingrid:

Ingrid was also eating an enormous "Grilled American" of Westphalian ham, tomatoes, and Muenster cheese. I sat down beside her in twitchy detumescence while she slogged down a vast mug of beer, thereby communicating to me in twenty minutes how profoundly one might, over twenty years, come to dislike the eating habits of a mate. Poor Ingrid. The Back Door, as she put it to me with a toothsome grin, never allowed their help enough of food and drink to produce more than a goat turd for the other back door. On this night, therefore, in which my own sphincter had almost played a prominent role, insight came over me at last: I was in the presence of German Humor. Die Hintertür. I got it. A nightclub for assholes.

I quote these passages not because they contain anything of special significance to the story and its thematic preoccupations—although Harry's allusion to his sphincter in the second exhibit refers to a proposition rejected earlier that evening from his unscrupulous rogue colleague (and another of the book's best-drawn characters) Dix Butler. They illustrate rather a level of writing, frequent in the book, that in its breezily informal conduct appears to be unashamedly enjoying itself. One thinks again (I do) of Frost asking rhetorically in an interview, "What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it?" Mailer often seems to be having a good time constructing the sentences and paragraphs in Harlot's Ghost, and this spirit can be infectious. Despite all the fuss generated by his harping on the largeness of his ambitions—to get into the ring with Tolstoy, write the longest novel or the successor to Moby Dick—much of his page-to-page invention takes place with an idiom and material no more elevated than the ones just quoted. Quite simply, they are where most of the action is.

At least two prominent reviews of Harlot's Ghost would have us believe that action to be of little consequence. John Simon (NY Times Book Review, Sept. 29) rehearsed, step by step, the plot (an old gambit of his) under the assumption that readers would perceive the inherent ludicrousness of Mailer's enterprise. (Plots can be made to look pretty silly when extracted from the novel's prose and displayed to readers who have not yet read the novel.) And Louis Menand, always a sharp-minded critic, behaved in The New Yorker (November 4) as if the whole thing were totally misconceived. In Menand's view, Mailer was trying to do ten things at once and had succeeded in finishing none of them. Compared with 1960s Mailer—the writer whom people of Menand's generation read (said he) for an "aggressive and great-souled refusal to cater to sanctimony, whether it was the establishment or the establishment's enemies"—Harlot's Ghost was much too easy on the CIA and American foreign policy over the past decades. Mailer's unwillingness to challenge and provoke thus produced a flaccid novel. Menand also complains about the large amount of "Alpha" devoted to letters between Harry—from his various outposts in Berlin, Uruguay (where he works under E. Howard Hunt) and Florida (Bay of Pigs time)—and Kittredge, who herself works for the agency, in exactly what capacity it is not fully clear. "The most disembodied fictional love affair outside Clarissa," Menand calls it.

Nobody ever wished Clarissa longer, but one does keep turning its pages as the warfares and stratagems between men and men, men and women, women and women, unfold. If Mailer can be compared to [Samuel] Richardson, it could just possibly be as a master of narrative, and so much the better for Mailer. (It is also true that, as with Clarissa, not all the letters in Harlot's Ghost are of equal interest and vitality.) As for Mailer's unwillingness to challenge and provoke, it may have to do with the fact that as he moves toward seventy he finds it harder to take on the loudly aggressive calling-to-court of America's politicians which excited Louis Menand (and others of us) three decades ago. Recall the end of his contribution to a Partisan Review statement about Vietnam in which, shockingly, he put forth the possibility that Vietnam was a "happening" staged by Lyndon Johnson because he could not control things at home:

Cause if it is, Daddy Warbucks, couldn't we have the happening just with the Marines and skip all that indiscriminate roast tit and naked lunch, all those bombed-out ovaries, Mr. J., Mr. L.B.J., Boss Man of Show Biz—I salute you in your White House Oval; I mean America will shoot all over the shithouse wall if this jazz goes on, Jim.

"Jim" indeed! In Harlot's Ghost this vivid idiom, put in the service of a rather different politics, characterizes King Bill Harvey: "That's why we go into every skirmish with the KGB under a handicap. That's why we even have to classify the toilet paper in the crap house. We must keep reminding ourselves to enclave the poop." The other figure who talks this way and makes a single, memorable appearance in the book is Lenny Bruce, who addresses a nightclub audience of which harlot, Kittredge and Harry are part: "That first show was terrific, in fact, if I say so myself, it was so good that I came…. Yes I came, and now I feel out of it. Ah, fellows, I have to get it up for the second time." Kittredge and her husband are appalled; Harry tells us that he has never heard such laughter in a nightclub before: "Laughs slithered out of people like snakes, tore out of them, barked forth, wheezed forth, screamed out."

We presume Harry is not laughing that way, since typically he is detached and contemplative in his response to excessiveness. His own language and idiom are un-hipsterish, an exception being some hopped-up language in "Omega" where he describes lovemaking with his mistress in Time-of-her-time Maileresque: "With Chloe it was get ready for rush, get ready for the sale, whoo-e, gushers, we'd hit oil together. Recuperating he felt low-down and slimy and rich as the earth. You could grow flowers out of your ass." Throughout "Alpha," by contrast, he is the nice (though Wasp) Jewish boy that has always been one of the parts of Mailer's identity. There is a strategy here: Harry needs to be relatively sane, fearful, prudent, sometimes uncertain, in order to set off in all its weird craziness CIA doings in Berlin, Uruguay (a particularly pointless, far-out bunch of "doings") and Cuba. Louis Menand points out rightly that the agency is Mailer's Circumlocution Office, and surely Dickens may be invoked in connection with this too-long book. After all, how lumbering, badly plotted and sometimes inertly written is Little Dorrit in its modest 968 pages. How John Simon might have wished about Dorrit that Dickens, like Thomas Wolfe, had had a great editor; how awkwardly Menand would find its different sections to stand in their relationship to one another.

In Carl Rollyson's new and nicely discriminating biography of Mailer, he makes the claim about him that no American writer, not even Hemingway, has "so fused the invention of a literary style with the creation of a writer's identity." The claim is made during a discussion of Advertisements, especially "The White Negro" and "The Time of Her Time," and it makes sense with respect to those aggressively challenging, sexually and racially combative, efforts. But with Harlot's Ghost it is impossible to identify a literary style discernible on every page and ascribable to the novel as a whole; or rather let us say that the very inclusiveness of Mailer's narrative voice is such as to accommodate perceptions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. To make things further complicated, that voice refuses to provide guidance on how to tell one level from the other. Early in "Omega," Harry's car, on its way back to Mt. Desert, goes into a severe skid just at the moment when its driver remembers how he and Kittredge pledged there would be honesty between them. Fortunately for Harry, it is a three-hundred-sixty degree skid that leaves him still headed for home and "beyond fear":

I felt as if I had fallen out of a ten-story window, landed in a fireman's net, and was now strolling around in a glow and a daze. "Millions of creatures," I said aloud to the empty car—actually said it aloud!—"walk the earth unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep," after which, trundling along at thirty miles an hour, too weak and exhilarated to stop, I added in salute to the lines just recited, "Milton, Paradise Lost," and thought of how Chloe and I had gotten up from bed in her trailer on the outskirts of Bath a couple of hours ago and had gone for a farewell drink to a cocktail lounge with holes in the stuffing of the red leatherette booths.

From unfallen Adam's voice in Book IV of Milton's poem to the holes in those red leatherette booths is only as far as from the beginning of a sentence to its end, a distance negotiated with no particular fuss by the narrative voice. Unlike the tense polemical thrusts of early Mailer (the writer as bullfighter or boxer or cocksman), this relaxed, expansive voice (all too expansive, detractors would say) can entertain widely different perspectives and not be overwhelmed by them. Like the style of early Mailer, this one is explorative, but in a less threatened and threatening way. You might almost call it mellow. The inclusiveness of range in latest Mailer means that while Harry can rise to heights of spiritual self-definition—as when, a newly-recruited CIA man, he thinks that "Happiness was the resonance one knows in the heart when the ends of oneself come to concordance in the morning air"—he stays enough in touch with earthly things to produce, when the occasion demands it, a good joke:

"Why won't Baptists," I asked her, "make love standing up?"

"Why won't they?"

"Because people might think they were dancing."

In perhaps the most perceptive review the book has received, Thomas R. Edwards (New Republic, Nov. 25) shrewdly suggests that Harlot's Ghost invites itself to be thought of as something like religious epic, "Mailer's Paradise Lost, as it were, in which the cold war could figure as the War in Heaven, the Creation, and the Fall." He goes on to note the fusion of sacred and secular levels in various characters from the novel. It should be clear from my own focus that what seems to me the book's major mode of performance is religious epic gone askew, the way CIA operations do; in other words—and since, as Kenneth Burke reminds us, comedy is the literary form which sees human beings as necessarily mistaken—this religious epic is a comic one. Edwards concludes his review by quoting Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost in a passage I wish I had found myself but will shamelessly appropriate nonetheless:

To paint things as they are requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton's delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his fancies out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings, to trace the councils of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven.

Edwards notes that these terms have something to do with spying; they also bring out the overweeningness of Milton's and of Mailer's imagination. For both imaginations, reality is a scene too narrow. It is even possible that having Harry remember the Milton line with the word "spiritual" left out (Adam tells Eve in the poem that "Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth / Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep") is Mailer's way of de-spiritualizing his religious epic and playing up the comic-grotesque possibilities of spying gone over the edge. In Milton's line, the spiritual creatures behold God's work "with ceaseless praise" both day and night; Mailer's creatures are more equivocal, even just plain strange, and perhaps of the devil's party without knowing it.

Maybe, after all, any modern epic has to be comic and satiric, less like Paradise Lost than like Byron's "Vision of Judgment":

     The angels all were singing out of tune
      And hoarse with having little else to do,
     Excepting to wind up the sun and moon
      Or curb a runaway young star or two …

     The guardian seraphs had retired on high,
      Finding their charges past all care below.

At the end of Harlot's Ghost Harry acknowledges that he has not, like Milton, quite risen to the height of his great argument: "Unlike God I have not been able to present all of my creation." For too many years we have observed the critics lamenting Mailer's failure to live up to this or that, his immense talent wasted on various misconceived enterprises, his preoccupation with X when clearly he should have been occupied with Y. My own attitude is closer to Dryden's on Chaucer: if Mailer the novelist fails to live up to God, he still has given us God's plenty.

Robert Merrill (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Naked and the Dead: The Beast and the Seer in Man," in Norman Mailer Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 11-29.

[In the following essay, Merrill explores elements of documentary, social critique, and dramatic action in The Naked and the Dead. Upon reevaluation, Merrill concludes that the novel "remains one of Mailer's most impressive achievements."]

It is often a shock to reread the early work of a writer we have come to admire. The second time around this work usually seems rather thin; we find we have remembered effects that do not exist, values that were never there. Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), is a special example of this phenomenon. To reread Mailer's book is indeed to revise our first impression, but in this case the "revision" is all to Mailer's benefit. What we encounter is a work of enduring power, a power simply incommensurate with the novel's reputation. We find that we have tended to value Mailer's first novel for the wrong reasons: as a guide to combat during World War II, as a work of social criticism, as the best of our recent war novels. The Naked and the Dead is all these things, but it is also something quite different and more important. At age 25 Mailer was able to use his military experience as the backbone of a long and complex narrative that transcends the generic boundaries of a "war novel." Forty years later the nature of this achievement is still not generally understood.

Certainly The Naked and the Dead is more than the "report" of a sensitive young man who survived active service and returned to tell the tale. Mailer began to plan the novel long before his combat experience at Leytc and Luzon. He has traced its origins to the first days of our participation in World War II: "I may as well confess that by December 8th or 9th of 1941, in the forty-eight hours after Pearl Harbor, while worthy young men were wondering where they could be of aid to the war effort, and practical young men were deciding which branch of service was the surest for landing a safe commission, I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific." Much as his General Cummings plans the campaign of Anopopei, the 19-year-old Mailer was already formulating his strategy for a major novel. He had gone a long way toward fulfilling this ambition before serving a day in the army. While still a student at Harvard Mailer wrote a short novel that can only be considered a trial run for The Naked and the Dead. From books published during the war, especially John Hersey's Into the Valley and Harry Brown's A Walk in the Sun, he got the idea of writing his novel about a long patrol. Indeed, it was this decision that led Mailer to volunteer for service in a reconnaissance outfit. These facts suggest that Mailer went to war in search of combat experience that would enable him to complete a novel he had already conceived. It would be foolish to deny the impact of World War II on the book Mailer finally published, but The Naked and the Dead is hardly a transcription of the experiences that came Mailer's way during the war. He seems to have decided rather early that the war could furnish an invaluable background for a major novel. His preparation for this work covered a full six years.

Discharged in 1946, Mailer began his book in earnest and saw it published in 1948. From the first it was an enormous popular and critical success. Much as his book was liked, however, Mailer was not given sufficient credit for his novelistic abilities. Reviewers tended to assess the book as either a disguised documentary or a work of social criticism. To read the novel in these terms is to minimize Mailer's achievement. It is to overlook what differentiates The Naked and the Dead from other major novels of World War II, novels so different as The Gallery, The Thin Red Line, and Catch-22. Unlike these works, The Naked and the Dead is unified by a full-scale dramatic action. Features of Mailer's book suggest the documentary or the work of social criticism, but they are integrated with the novel's dramatic structure and are not its raison d'être. To establish this point should help clarify the real achievement of Mailer's "war novel."

The Novel as Documentary

It may seem naive to read The Naked and the Dead as a documentary, but there is a persistent tradition of doing just that. Indeed, many early critics assumed that Mailer's intention was to transcribe the crucial events of his army career—thus, Marvin Mudrick's description of the novel as "a manual of soldiering in the tropics" and Ira Wolfert's opinion that in The Naked and the Dead "the most powerful talents developed … are those of the journalist. The story is reported. It is not so much a reading of life as a description in depth of an event in life."

Such views may appear reductive, but who would deny that Mailer's concern for verisimilitude often seems obsessive? The intricacies of davit machinery; the mechanics of tent building; the aspect of a rotting corpse; the effects of a long, sustained march through jungle—virtually everything in the novel is rendered in elaborate, professional detail, as Mailer follows an army platoon through the several stages of a Pacific campaign. Nor is this practice merely a matter of itemizing the paraphernalia of army life. Repeatedly, Mailer employs his "phenomenal talent for recording the precise look and feel of things" to illumine the conditions his characters must suffer. Nor is he less convincing when dealing with his fictional campaign as a whole. When looking over the shoulder of General Cummings and analyzing the progress of the campaign, Mailer achieves the authority of a retired army officer dictating his memoirs.

But of course Mailer is not dictating memoirs, his own or his characters'. Though many of the novel's episodes derive from his personal experiences, Mailer insists that we should not read the book in this fashion: "In the author's eyes, The Naked and the Dead is not a realistic documentary; it is, rather, a symbolic book, of which the theme is the conflict between the beast and the seer in man. The number of events experienced by the one platoon couldn't possibly have happened to any one army platoon in the war, but represent a composite view of the Pacific war" (Current Biography). Mailer does not deny that "the book will stand or fall as a realistic novel." What he rejects is a simplistic connection between the novel's techniques and its formal ends. Mailer adopts the realistic conventions of most twentieth-century American fiction, but realistic techniques do not point unerringly to the formal aims of a "realistic documentary." Besides referring to The Naked and the Dead as a "symbolic" book, Mailer insists that he is neither a realist nor a naturalist: "That terrible word 'naturalism.' It was my literary heritage—the things I learned from [John] Dos Passos and Farrell. I took naturally to it, that's the way one wrote a book. But I really was off on a mystic kick. Actually—a funny thing—the biggest influence on Naked was Moby Dick." A book whose aspirations suggest those of Moby-Dick should not be discussed as a documentary, "realistic" or otherwise.

The novel's symbolism is one feature that transcends the limits of a documentary, but more important still is the story told. Some of the enormous detail in this book may be attributed to Mailer's indulgence of his special knowledge of war; certain episodes and characters contribute little except as they add to Mailer's "description in depth of an event in life." But Mailer usually manages to relate whatever he describes to the novel's elaborate dramatic action. The conditions on Anopopei, Mailer's mythical Pacific island; the routine of army life; the many actions forced on the men—these things are always seen in relation to the characters and their developing conflicts. Contrast the resulting effect with that of James Jones's The Thin Red Line (1962), a work that might truly be called a realistic documentary.

The Thin Red Line resembles Mailer's novel in many obvious ways. It too describes the campaign for a single Pacific island (in this case, Guadalcanal). Like Mailer, Jones observes every facet of the campaign, from the initial landing to the mopping up. Like Mailer, Jones employs the literary device of the microcosm as he follows a representative group of men (C-for-Charley-Company) throughout the campaign. Yet the two books are not really similar, as Mailer himself suggests when he aptly describes The Thin Red Line as "so broad and true a portrait of combat that it could be used as a textbook at the Infantry School if the Army is any less chicken than it used to be." He goes to the heart of Jones's intentions: "Jones' aim, after all, is not to create character but the feel of combat, the psychology of men." For Mailer, "The Naked and the Dead is concerned more with characters than military action"—and so he cannot see that his book is truly comparable to The Thin Red Line.

Mailer's comments are very much to the point. His novel differs from Jones's in that its central concern is to develop its many characters. Jones's characters might as well go unnamed, so little difference does it make who they are or what they do except at the moment Jones happens to use them to illustrate an aspect of combat. Nothing in The Thin Red Line is comparable to Mailer's gradual development of the conflicts among his major characters. No effort is made to prepare for shifts in the action. In fact, there is no dramatic action in The Thin Red Line. As Mailer suggests, Jones is not interested in such an action; his intentions correspond to those Mudrick and Wolfert attribute to Mailer. By contrast, The Naked and the Dead is rooted in the traditional development of character through a structured series of episodes. We must judge its documentary features as they do or do not serve in this development.

The Novel as Social Critique

Much the same argument applies to elements of social criticism in The Naked and the Dead. The existence of such elements is obvious: the criticism of the army as an institution that informs every incident in the novel; the attack on totalitarianism that emerges from the discussions between General Cummings and his aide, Lieutenant Hearn; the grim portrait of American society developed through the I and R platoon, especially in the "Time Machine" biographies of eight enlisted men and two officers (Cummings and Hearn). Yet we must still ask how these features function in the novel as a whole.

Before we assess their function, however, we should first understand the nature of Mailer's social criticism. Far too often The Naked and the Dead is treated as the work of a "young liberal" whose critique of American society is substantially the same as that of Dos Passos, [James T.] Farrell, and [John] Steinbeck. Prior to World War II Mailer was, in his own words, a "progressive-liberal." And in 1948, after finishing The Naked and the Dead and traveling through Europe, Mailer did join the campaign for Henry Wallace. Nonetheless, The Naked and the Dead is not the work of a political liberal. In Advertisements for Myself Mailer suggests that his early short novel, "A Calculus at Heaven," makes "an interesting contrast to The Naked and the Dead, for it is an attempt of the imagination (aided and warped by books, movies, war correspondents, and the liberal mentality) to guess what war might really be like." That the novella was determined in part by "the liberal mentality" certainly makes it an interesting contrast to The Naked and the Dead, for we have his own word for it that when he wrote his first published novel Mailer was an anarchist, not a liberal.

This difference helps to explain some common misreadings of the later work. Standard critical procedure goes something like this: first, the critic assumes that The Naked and the Dead is a thesis novel and that its thesis resembles those expounded by writers such as Dos Passos, for Mailer's "sympathies" are also progressive; then the critic finds that the novel's action does not consistently support the presumed liberal thesis and so either points out Mailer's failures of execution or begins to talk about trusting the tale and not the teller. This procedure involves at least two fallacies: (a) that The Naked and the Dead is a thesis novel and (b) that Mailer uses the book to advance liberal values and a liberal social critique. I will return to these problems after considering the novel's action, where I hope to show that what seems inconsistent or weak to the reader who takes Mailer's liberalism for granted is nothing of the sort if we approach the novel without this presupposition. Here I would simply stress that Mailer did not write his novel to do the work of a sociologist.

Mailer's social vision does emerge during the novel, especially in those sections which trace the men's backgrounds, but his characters are not "examples" in a sociological tract. Consider the "Time Machine" sections. If The Naked and the Dead were really a thesis novel, these biographies would function as evidence in Mailer's "argument" concerning the American social scene; however, I think Barry Leeds suggests the real relation between the biographies and the rest of the novel:

Thus, while The Time Machine is used to portray the home of a Midwestern businessman, the slums of Boston, or Harvard Yard, it is the presence on Anopopei of men who have experienced these places, which justifies Mailer's detailed treatment of them, and obviates the possibility of their introduction seeming stilted. Every element of American society dealt with becomes integral to the novel as a whole, not merely because it seems to fit into a re-creation of that society, but because it is drawn from the life of a character in whom the reader has come to believe.

The "Time Machine" may be a laborious device to enrich our experience with the men on Anopopei, but that is its function. Although Leeds cites Martinez, he might have mentioned any number of other characters. When Gallagher learns of his wife's death, for example, he becomes an important figure in the novel for the first time. At this point Mailer introduces a "Time Machine" section on Gallagher's Boston-Irish background, his training in frustrated prejudice. Just as we first see Gallagher as fully human, stunned by the loss of his wife, Mailer highlights his ignorance and bigotry. Paradoxically, we are all the more impressed by Gallagher's intense feeling for his wife. He becomes a more complex and interesting character than would have been possible had his biography or his mourning been presented alone. Thus, Mailer uses the "Time Machine" to illuminate character, introducing the device at just that moment in the narrative when it best supplements the novel's action.

The "Time Machine" differs, then, from similar devices in the works of John Dos Passos. The "Camera Eye," "Newsreel," and biography sections in U.S.A., for example, are clearly intended to complement the narrative in the manner of a thesis novel. These sections are not directly related to the narrative; they do not even concern its characters. Instead, they are determined by and substantiate Dos Passos's attack on the American social system. Mailer's use of a similar device is for a quite different end. The "Time Machine" sections are intended to comment on each character's role in the action. When this does not happen—as in the belated "Time Machine" passage devoted to Polack, a figure of no real significance—the reader is likely to find the material digressive, even intrusive. Mailer's novel differs from Dos Passos's trilogy in its use of social elements to clarify a dramatic action, not a social argument.

The Novel as Dramatic Action

I am suggesting that The Naked and the Dead is a rather traditional novel. This is not meant as criticism of the book. If it lacks the stylistic and formal innovations of Mailer's more recent novels, especially An American Dream (1965), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), and Ancient Evenings (1983), The Naked and the Dead is nonetheless a more successful work. It is successful in its adaptation of a novelistic form we can trace from Richardson and Fielding down to Mailer's immediate precursors, Hemingway and Faulkner. This form emphasizes character and action—staples of fiction as central to The Naked and the Dead as they are to the novels of Austen and Dickens. Interpretation should begin with precisely these features.

It may seem rather harmless to argue that The Naked and the Dead is essentially "a novel of character," as John Aldridge first suggested and Mailer once confirmed. In fact, however, there are fairly important consequences if we accept this idea. Indeed, we will probably have to reject the more popular interpretations of Mailer's novel. Consider Randall Waldron's "case" against Mailer's conclusion:

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, hardnosed 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…. [T]he conclusion of The Naked and the Dead and its total meaning are unclear.

Like Norman Podhoretz and John Aldridge, Waldron dislikes Mailer's ending because it fails to generate the radical "protest" presumably intended. Waldron obviously expects the book to end as this kind of thesis novel is supposed to end—with a clear demarcation between victim and victimizer. Again like Podhoretz and Aldridge, he assumes that Mailer conceived the book as a warning against totalitarian tendencies in America and cannot see that Mailer achieves this purpose by treating his villains in the same manner as his heroes.

But why assume that Mailer intended to write a protest novel? If we make this assumption, the novel's ending—indeed, the coherence of the whole work—is called into question. We would at least expect Mailer to distinguish among his characters sufficiently to clarify his own moral position and to articulate his "warning." As Waldron remarks, Mailer "fails" to do this. My own view is that he never intended to do so. If we stop treating Cummings, Croft, Hearn, and Valsen as representative figures in a political allegory, we should come to see that Mailer prepares all along for the ending Waldron and others find so disappointing. In examining The Naked and the Dead as a dramatic action we should not only make sense of what others find "unclear" but also get at the true sources of the novel's power.

Mailer's published remarks on the composition of his novel tend to confirm that he did not organize it around a political or social "thesis." Mailer says that from the first he wanted to structure his book around a long patrol involving a single army platoon. It seems likely that he first intended to write a collective novel in the manner of Dos Passos, using the patrol to examine under stress a group of men broadly representative of American society. While he does something like this in the published novel, Mailer reveals that his book changed as he completed the second draft. It changed because he chose to develop two characters outside the platoon, General Cummings and Lieutenant Hearn: "The part about the platoon went well from the beginning, but the Lieutenant and the General in the first draft were stock characters. If it had been published at that point the book would have been considered an interesting war novel with some good scenes, no more. The second draft was the bonus. Cummings and Hearn were done in the second draft." As Mailer suggests, the fleshing out of Cummings and Hearn "made" his novel as a work of art. Mailer patterned their relationship after the conflict between Croft and Valsen, the leading members of the platoon and presumably the main characters in the initial draft. The Naked and the Dead came more and more to deal with these four major figures; it began to take on the full dimensions of a novel of character.

Mailer's two plot lines are sufficiently similar they might almost be considered a double plot. In each case a character of liberal sympathies fights for his integrity against a fascistic superior; in each the "good" character is defeated while the "bad" character fails in his most ambitious undertaking. Whereas Croft's tactics against Valsen are openly sadistic, Cummings exercises an intellectual tyranny over Hearn. Finally, however, this is a minor distinction, for the results are indistinguishable. These conflicts are reminiscent of much "protest" literature with which The Naked and the Dead is often compared. Cummings and Croft seem prototype fascists, the villains of scores of proletarian novels; Hearn and Valsen seem the archetypal victims of such novels. If we take a closer look, however, we should discover subtleties appropriate to Mailer's overall design.

Initially, the feud between Croft and Valsen seems a simple matter of irreconcilable personalities. Certainly this is our impression in part 1, where Croft and Valsen nearly come to blows in a scene that is repeated with variations throughout the novel, until their quarrel is resolved on Mount Anaka. Their "roles" are fixed this early: Croft as the aggressive platoon leader; Red as the recalcitrant private who resists authority and authoritarians. Red is presented from the outset as a proud but rather ineffectual man who is capable of feeling "a sad compassion in which one seems to understand everything, all that men want and fail to get," but who has no hope of translating his feelings into action: "Everything is crapped up, everything is phony, everything curdles when you touch it." Both his compassion for others and his personal cynicism define Red as Croft's opposite. Croft is an obvious, even a spectacular sadist. As a National Guardsman he kills a striker for no other reason than the pleasure it gives him. On Anopopei he tantalizes a Japanese prisoner with kindness before shooting him in the head, crushes a small bird in his bare hand, and coldly arranges the death of Hearn. Croft loves combat, for only in combat does he find release from his hatred of the world (his "Time Machine" section concludes, "I HATE EVERYTHING WHICH IS NOT IN MYSELF." Croft must master everything that is not in himself. He is confident that he can do so, for "he had a deep unspoken belief that whatever made things happen was on his side."

Yet Croft and Valsen are not mere foils, as Mailer reveals in the first half of part 2. This section of the novel moves toward two separate "moments of truth," one experienced by Croft and the other by Valsen. The first such moment climaxes Mailer's account of the Japanese counterattack, a performance as fine as anything in the book. Here we see Croft in his natural element, the violence of war. He controls his men so fiercely that he revives Valsen's hatred. Indeed, he treats the weaknesses of others as if they were personal enemies. Yet the climax of this episode is Croft's moment of fear—more precisely, his awareness that he too can be made afraid. This recognition sends "a terrible rage working through his weary body," and its effects are felt through the rest of the novel, until Croft's rage is expended against Mount Anaka.

The second climactic moment occurs when the men go to search Japanese bodies for souvenirs. This hunt is a nightmare, revealing, in Chester Eisinger's words, "the deepest urge toward violence and debasement in human beings." Red finds it oppressive because he must pass through piles of rotting bodies. The stench is overpowering, the corpses horribly distorted and maggot-ridden. Suddenly Red is "sober and very weary." Unlike the others, Red understands that he is surrounded by the bodies of men. Standing over one such body, he experiences a kind of epiphany: "Very deep inside himself he was thinking that this was a man who had once wanted things, and the thought of his own death was always a little unbelievable to him. The man had had a childhood, a youth and a young manhood, and there had been dreams and memories, Red was realizing with surprise and shock, as if he were looking at a corpse for the first time, that a man was really a very fragile thing." Different as Croft and Valsen are, their climactic insights in part 2 are quite similar. Each discovers that "a man was really a very fragile thing." They differ, of course, in how they respond to this discovery: Croft tries to exorcise it through violence, while Red accepts it with a "wise" melancholy. This section of the book is structured to reveal the common anxieties underlying their radically different approaches to life.

In the second half of part 2 Mailer develops an even more complex antagonism. Prior to the represented action Cummings more or less adopts Hearn as his protégé. He sees in Hearn an intellectual equal and a sympathetic ear for his theories about the nature of power. When Hearn responds to the general's attentions with something less than gratitude, his fate is to illustrate Cummings's first principle: "There's one thing about power. It can flow only from the top down. When there are little surges of resistance at the middle levels, it merely calls for more power to be directed downward, to burn it out." Throughout the book we see Cummings trying to "burn out" Hearn's resistance. The conflict here seems quite straightforward. Indeed, critics often refer to Hearn as Mailer's liberal spokesman. Hearn's resistance to Cummings is supposed to represent Mailer's own political feelings and to justify Hearn's role as the novel's "hero."

The problem is that Hearn represents not so much liberalism as the desire to be liberal. Surely he is an odd humanitarian: he likes few people, he is a self-confessed snob, and he feels distaste for Jews and a "trace of contempt" for the enlisted man. Temperamentally, Hearn is an aristocrat. It is not surprising that he defends his liberal notions with faint conviction, for his real commitment is to himself: "The only thing that had been important was to let no one in any ultimate issue ever violate your integrity." Hearn would protect his "inviolate freedom" and so avoid "all the wants and sores that caught up everybody about him." His motto is appropriately sterile: "The only thing to do is to get by on style." Defined by his detachment, his distance from real human concerns, Hearn is best known by his failures to act.

Because he feels no real commitment to his humanitarian interests, Hearn is vulnerable to the same urges that move Cummings and Croft. Hearn is fascinated by Cummings, who has the ability "to extend his thoughts into immediate and effective action," because Hearn is drawn to power himself: "Always there was the power that leaped at you, invited you." Resentment of his position vis-à-vis Cummings mingles with his desire to be like Cummings: "he had acquiesced in the dog-role, had even had the dog's dream, carefully submerged, of someday equaling the master." Hearn comes to believe that "divorced of all the environmental trappings, all the confused and misleading attitudes he had absorbed, he was basically like Cummings." He even comes to fear that "when he searched himself he was just another Croft."

What Hearn fears is that he is no less a fascist than Cummings or Croft. But even Cummings is more complex than this might suggest. A self-styled "reactionary," Cummings prefers fascism to communism because "it's grounded firmly in men's actual natures." To say the least, Cummings has no high opinion of man's nature. He thinks Hitler "the interpreter of twentieth-centuryman" and believes "there's never a man who can swear to his own innocence. We're all guilty, that's the truth." But, of course, Cummings does not see himself as he sees others. Indeed, he has a mystical sense of his own destiny: "The fact that you're holding the gun and the other man is not is no accident. It's a product of everything you've achieved, it assumes that you're … you're aware enough, you have the gun when you need it." Cummings views himself as the man with the gun. He is speaking of himself, not "man," when he says that "man is in transit between brute and God."

Cummings's vanity is immense, his ambitions worthy of Ahab. We learn early that his intention on Anopopei is to "mold" his troops, the terrain, and even "the circuits of chance" to the contours of his will. Confident that he can dispose of any obstacle, natural or human, Cummings believes that life is like a game of chess. But his rationality is a disguise, as Mailer makes clear by exposing the real forces at work on Cummings; self-pity amounting to paranoia, and homosexuality. As the novel unfolds we learn that Cummings is no closer to harmonizing "Plant and Phantom," body and spirit, than are the men of Croft's platoon, or Hearn.

During part 2, then, we come to see the novel's central conflicts as rather more ambiguous than they appeared at first; in each case the antagonists have more in common than we might have supposed. This is made especially clear in part 3, in which the four major figures all suffer a remarkably similar fate. As noted earlier, each "good" character is defeated by his totalitarian opponent. Hearn is the victim of both Cummings and Croft, for Cummings transfers Hearn into a platoon already selected for a dangerous mission and Croft deliberately plots Hearn's death. Red's defeat is not fatal, but it is no less decisive. A man committed to nothing except his own personal integrity, Red is so beaten down he feels relief after he confronts Croft and is defeated: "At the base of his shame was an added guilt. He was glad it was over, glad the long contest with Croft was finished, and he could obey orders with submission, without feeling that he must resist."

Yet if they triumph over Hearn and Valsen, Cummings and Croft are hardly the novel's "victors." Throughout part 3 Croft's efforts are directed toward conquering Mount Anaka, the great mountain that towers over Anopopei, "taunting" Croft with its "purity" and "austerity." The mountain becomes for Croft what his troops are for Cummings: the "other" that resists his control and must be molded to serve his will. Like Cummings, however, Croft is unable to control the circuits of chance. When he stumbles over a hornets' nest, the men flee down the mountain and the march abruptly ends. Croft is left puzzled and spent; "Croft kept looking at the mountain. He had lost it, had missed some tantalizing revelation of himself. Of himself and much more. Of life. Everything." This passage recalls the single section devoted to Cummings in part 3. Faced with "mass inertia or the inertia of the masses," the men's resistance to his more grandiose ambitions, Cummings is unable to find a meaningful pattern among the forces at work in the campaign: "There was order but he could not reduce it to the form of a single curve. Things eluded him." Like Croft, Cummings must finally give the circuits of chance their due. He attempts with his final attack what Croft attempts on Mount Anaka, but the campaign ends in manner he could never anticipate (the inept Major Dalleson, not Cummings, engineers the final assault). Cummings must admit that "he had had very little or perhaps nothing at all to do with this victory, or indeed any victory." For Cummings too there comes the knowledge of personal limitation.

As noted previously, Mailer is often criticized for refusing to create ideologically satisfying characters. The assumption here is that Mailer wrote his book to "defend liberalism," to warn against the antiliberal forces within the American system. But Mailer has made it clear that he "intended" something quite different—something that might even require the treatment of character we find in The Naked and the Dead. Mailer says that he conceived the book as "a parable about the movement of man through history"; he defines its basic theme as "the conflict between the beast and the seer in man" (Current Biography). It would seem that for Mailer the movement of man through history is an ongoing struggle between the bestial and the visionary forces in man himself. This idea is not terribly original, of course, but the power of The Naked and the Dead depends not on the originality of its ideas but on how well they are embodied in the novel's characters and events.

Moreover, Mailer's ideas are not as schematic as I may have suggested. Unlike the typical proletarian or social novel, The Naked and the Dead does not present its beasts and seers in obvious counterpoint. If Croft is set against Valsen in the book, who is the beast and who is the seer? The epigraph to part 3 is relevant here: "Even the wisest among you is only a disharmony and hybrid of plant and phantom. But do I bid you become phantoms and plants?" This rhetorical question implies that man should be neither "plant" nor "phantom" exclusively; neither all body nor all soul; neither beast nor seer. Man should seek harmony between the physical and the spiritual, though, as Nietzsche observes, even the wisest among us is a "disharmony and hybrid." This is certainly true of the major figures in The Naked and the Dead, each of whom carries within himself Nietzsche's bestial and visionary forces. The ultimate effect of Mailer's parallel plots is to emphasize this "disharmony" in each character. When Cummings and Croft suffer defeats comparable to those of Hearn and Valsen, we should realize that Mailer rejects a crude contrast between good and evil. In dramatizing the conflict between the beast and the seer in man, Mailer shows that all his characters are subject to the same conflict.

Surely Mailer establishes this kinship between Cummings and Croft. Both are power moralists who rely on fear and hatred in their command of others; both are inordinately ambitious; both function as Hearn's enemy and plan to have him killed. Each is "coldly efficient," latently homosexual, and obsessed with his wife's infidelity. They share an extreme individualism that is coupled with a strong sense of personal destiny. For Cummings, "the fact that you're holding the gun and the other man is not is no accident"; for Croft, "if a man gets wounded, it's his own goddam fault"—if Cummings sees himself as the man with the gun, Croft sees himself as the man who will never be wounded. Cummings and Croft are most alike in their common rejection of accident or chance as a determining force in life. Cummings's ambition is nothing less than to mold the circuits of chance, while Croft has "a deep unspoken belief that whatever made things happen was on his side." Each possesses a naive faith that he can work his will on the world.

In their rejection of determinism Cummings and Croft almost justify Podhoretz's suggestion that they are the novel's "natural heroes." While Hearn and Valsen suggest vacillation and futility, Cummings and Croft are all energy and commitment. "Natural heroes" is a bit much, however. We should not see Cummings and Croft as mere villains, but neither should we equate Mailer's admiration for certain qualities in Croft with, say, admiration for the character as a whole. In response to the question "Whom do you hate?" Mailer once answered, "People who have power and no compassion, that is, no simple human understanding." Can we fail to apply this statement to Cummings and Croft?

What prevents these characters from being purely hateful is what Mailer calls their "vision." Croft is moved by a "crude unformed vision," and Cummings is driven by "one great vision," momentarily embodied when he observes his first battlefield and experiences "the largest vision that has ever entered his soul": "There were all those men, and there had been someone above them, ordering them, changing perhaps forever the fiber of their lives…. There were things one could do." As he surveys the battlefield Cummings is "choked with the intensity of his emotion, the rage, the undefined and mighty hunger." This hunger is Croft's crude unformed vision; this rage is Croft's "rage" at the frustrations of the final patrol. Moreover, the vision these men share is no mean one. As we have seen, Cummings's greatest urge is to be omnipotent; Croft too is tantalized by "vistas of such omnipotence he must wonder at his own audacity." The common spirit that links Cummings and Croft is unmistakable. In one sense they are the novel's "seers": confident of the world's tractability, they are determined to achieve destinies commensurate with their mighty hungers.

Unfortunately, Cummings and Croft are also the novel's principal "beasts." There is nothing so despicable in The Naked and the Dead as Croft's calculated destruction of the lame bird discovered by one of the men, and Cummings is subject to the same impulses, as we learn when he comes upon a cigarette Hearn has put out on his floor: "If he had been holding an animal in his hands at that instant he would have strangled it." Hearn discovers early in the book that Cummings is capable of atrocities as great as any Croft will later commit. Behind the general's "facade" is that naked animal closeted with its bone. The naked animal in Cummings finds expression in his power morality, his persecution and finally his execution of Hearn. The conflict between the beast and the seer in man is precisely conflict within both Cummings and Hearn. The urges that move them are both bestial and visionary.

In his portraits of Hearn and Valsen, Mailer further undermines the "structure of protest" readers have expected of him. To achieve such protest, Mailer needed to depict Hearn and Valsen as more or less admirable figures victimized by the representatives of an unjust society. But of course he presents them in a very different light. Whereas Cummings believes that "in the Army the idea of individual personality is just a hindrance," Hearn and Valsen have no commitment except to their individual personalities. Both place the highest value on what Hearn calls "inviolate freedom." They ask nothing more specific from life, because they also share contempt for what life offers: Red's "particular blend of pessimism and fatalism" is everywhere evident, while Hearn believes that "if you searched something long enough, it always turned to dirt." Because they have found so little to value in life, Hearn and Valsen have lived as drifters. Unlike Red, Hearn has not literally been a hobo, but his lifestyle might easily be mistaken for Valsen's: "Get potted, get screwed, and get up in the morning, somehow." Hearn and Valsen are confirmed in their pessimism by what happens to them on Anopopei. Each is made to struggle for his inviolate freedom; each concludes that "there were no answers" in this struggle. The repetition of this exact phrase emphasizes that neither Hearn nor Valsen discovers a sustaining belief. In both men the qualities of the seer are blunted.

We tend to think of Hearn and Valsen in relation to their enemies, but this contrast can be misleading. Hearn discovers in himself many of the qualities that unite Cummings and Croft. Both Hearn and Cummings are "born in the aristocracy of the wealthy midwestern family"; both have domineering fathers who force them into "masculine" activities (boys' camps and athletics for Hearn; military school for Cummings); both become "cold rather than shy" and suffer a displaced sex life (like Cummings, Hearn "fights out battles with himself" on the bodies of his women). During a football game Hearn experiences "an instant of complete startling gratification when he knew the ball carrier was helpless, waiting to be hit"—a clear enough parallel to Croft's sadism. The connection between Hearn and Croft is most obvious during the patrol, where each man tries to redeem his failure early in the campaign and Hearn comes to think of himself as "another Croft."

Although Red does not so clearly resemble Cummings, interesting similarities exist. When the campaign begins to go badly, Cummings undergoes "the amazement and terror of a driver who finds his machine directing itself, starting and halting when it desires." This event echoes Red's discovery of "a pattern where there shouldn't be one" after the death of a young soldier. Red's kinship with Croft has already been suggested. Once he is defeated by Croft, Red finds that he is happy to obey orders without feeling he must resist. When the march up Mount Anaka ends, Croft experiences much the same emotion: "Deep inside himself, Croft was relieved that he had not been able to climb the mountain…. Croft was rested by the unadmitted knowledge that he had found a limit to his hunger." Once their ambitions are thwarted, Cummings and Croft do not seem altogether different from even Red Valsen.

Does the resemblance among these characters "humanize" Cummings and Croft or "expose" Hearn and Valsen? The answer must of course be both. Cummings and Croft are not entirely reprehensible; Hearn and Valsen are not quite admirable. The whole action is directed toward these ironic judgments. "Only connect," Forster advised, but none of the major characters is able to balance the beast and the seer within himself. What Red lacks in energy and purpose Croft lacks in compassion and the ability to expand his unformed vision beyond the need for power. It is much the same with Hearn and Cummings. Hearn would seem to be the one most likely to connect the warring forces in himself, but Hearn is perhaps the most incomplete of the major figures. Neither Hearn's sympathies nor his desire for power are ultimately authentic. It is one of the novel's many ironies that Hearn is nonetheless the one character who achieves even a limited dignity. In The Naked and the Dead there is no correlation at all between goodness and the fruits thereof.

Even as he dramatizes their conflicts Mailer hints that his characters are basically alike. This does not evidence moral or aesthetic confusion; instead, it makes possible Mailer's rather terrible commentary on his creations. At the end he collapses their several fates into a single fate—disillusionment—and confirms what has been implicit throughout: man is a "disharmony," "corrupted, confused to the point of helplessness," and the world he inherits has no sympathy for his weakness. Croft and Valsen may seem polar opposites, but whether they seek power or personal freedom they are doomed to a common failure. Their apparently different desires represent what Mailer once insisted we see in all his characters: "yearnings for a better world." Mailer does not mock these desires; indeed, nothing else redeems Cummings and Croft even slightly. What he does is show how nearly impossible it is to realize such "yearnings."

Mailer does this in a work that engages our feelings in the manner of all great novels. His primary purpose is not to document the experience of combat or the failure of our political system but to create a dramatic action that embodies more universal concerns. The result is a dark but moving image of the human condition. This image is one Mailer will never again present so starkly in his fiction; indeed, all his subsequent works can be seen as attempts to qualify or even to disavow the bleak implications of his first novel. The "truth" of this image is not really in question, however. What matters is Mailer's success in fleshing out the elaborate dramatic action that unifies his book. A novel of character in the best sense of that phrase, The Naked and the Dead remains one of Mailer's most impressive achievements.

Michael Kimmelman (review date 15 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "Tough Guys Don't Paint," in The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1995, p. 16.

[In the following review, Kimmelman provides a generally unfavorable assessment of Portrait of Picasso, citing incidents of unsubstantiated speculation and Mailer's failure to break new ground on the subject of the celebrated artist.]

He has "a greedy desire for recognition," and "the vanity and the need for group applause of someone like Muhammad Ali." When young, he pushed "his explorations into sex, drugs," and had a lengthy affair that was one of "those delicate, lovely and exploratory romances that flourished like sensuous flowers on slender stems, those marijuana romances of the 50's and 60's in America where lovers found ultimates in a one-night stand, and on occasion stayed together." "Short in stature," "possessed of the ambition to mine universes of the mind no one had yet explored," he was "not macho so much as an acolyte of machismo." He "could not box."

Norman Mailer on Norman Mailer? Not this time, though it's obvious why Mr. Mailer, whose prime subject has always been himself, might have spent more than three decades contemplating a biography of Pablo Picasso. On the other hand, it's not so easy to comprehend why, after all that time, he has come up with such a clumsy and disappointing book, culled, at starting lengths, from already existing biographies. With so many out there, most notably Volume 1 of John Richardson's monumental "Life of Picasso," which covers nearly the same early years, one wonders what Mr. Mailer could have been thinking.

The book, his 29th, is a copiously illustrated account of the span from the artist's birth in 1881 to the start of World War I. Picasso emerges in a familiar guise, as a selfish, superstitious, sometimes cowardly and combative prodigy who moved chameleonlike from one style to another, through one relationship after the next. Mr. Mailer has called his work "an interpretive biography," to distinguish it from a work of original scholarship. This is fair enough, but most of the interpretations are not original.

For instance, Mr. Mailer is not the first to suggest, on the basis of no compelling evidence, that Picasso might have had a homosexual encounter or two as a young man. That dubious honor goes to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington in her reckless "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer." Who cares one way or another, you might well ask, whether he had such an encounter? But like a dog with a bone, Mr. Mailer takes hold and won't let go. What is noteworthy about his book may be the vigor with which he pursues sensationalistic subjects like this one even while affecting a dispassion toward them. About a self-portrait drawing from 1902–3, for instance, in which Picasso stands with one hand raised, the other over his heart, Mr. Mailer writes: "One can make too large a case of the nude he did of himself in this period—modest, unadorned, a little seedy, certainly depressed, and taking the vow of allegiance to … to what? To his continuing heterosexuality? It is tempting to read too much into this drawing."


What Mr. Mailer ignores is that Picasso at the time was hoping to establish his reputation with large-scale, multifigure allegorical compositions, many of which were never undertaken. This self-portrait could be a preparatory drawing for an unrealized work, or possibly one for "La Vie" (1903). "La Vie," as Mr. Mailer knows, derives from studies Picasso drew of himself making various ambiguous gestures. The gestures, as Mr. Richardson has pointed out, relate to images on tarot cards, which fascinated Picasso. It may be that the self-portrait Mr. Mailer refers to is better explained in terms of Picasso's other works than by random speculation about his sex life.

Mr. Mailer also becomes fixated on the androgyny of the hulking proto-Cubist figures Picasso painted in 1906, connecting them to Gertrude Stein, whose portrait the artist was then painting. Mr. Mailer's remarks on the subject are worth quoting at length, to give a feel for his prose: "It is safe to assume that Gertrude Stein was the most monumental crossover in gender that he had ever encountered. He had to be knowing about this. With Fernande [Olivier, Picasso's mistress], he had entered the essential ambiguity of deep sex, where one's masculinity or femininity is forever turning into its opposite, so that a phallus, once emplaced within a vagina, can become more aware of the vagina than its own phallitude—that is to say, one is, at the moment, a vagina as much as a phallus, or for a woman vice versa, a phallus just so much as a vagina: at such moments, no matter one's physical appearance, one has, in the depths of sex, crossed over into androgyny. Picasso was obsessed with the subject."

Leave aside for the moment the paradox of Mr. Mailer's twisted syntax in a book that takes art historians and critics to task for their writing. The basic fact is that Mr. Mailer says Stein influenced Picasso's art. So she did, and Picasso even incorporated an image of a man into her portrait. But scholars have pointed all this out already: Mr. Mailer is appropriating their ideas just to indulge in the sort of grandiose flourishes that are a trademark of his style. In any case, it becomes hard to weigh Stein's significance because other obvious influences on Picasso—like the large women in the works of Renoir and Maillol—are glossed over or missed. Mr. Mailer is so enraptured by the affairs of the artist's life that he regularly plays down the connections between Picasso's works and those of other artists. To be sure, he isn't alone in this. Picasso has largely been written about in terms of his biography. The exception is his Cubist period, and Mr. Mailer is right in this case to lament the "near impenetrability" of so much of the critical jargon attending it. "Cubism is not a form of lovemaking with the lights out: Cubism is compelling because it is eerie, resonant and full of the uneasy recognition that time itself is being called into question," he writes. "Some of the paintings, if we dare to entertain the vision, have the appearance of corpses, their flesh in strips and tatters, organs open."

Again, Mr. Mailer isn't the first to speculate about the emotional impact of Cubism's fractured imagery, but this is a provocative and minority viewpoint, and unfortunately he does not take it further. The collaboration of Picasso and Braque on the creation of Cubism is almost unparalleled in art history, and it would seem to have afforded Mr. Mailer a vast psychological field in which to let his imagination play. What is one to think of a man like Picasso, he might have asked, who on the verge of success suddenly chose to make difficult pictures virtually indistinguishable from someone else's? But Mr. Mailer ignores this question to hop on an old hobbyhorse: in life, he writes, "Braque had legitimate machismo," but in art he "cannot often come off like Picasso. Machismo, obviously, has its mansions and no one was going to be more macho than Picasso when it came to painting." So much for their profound and complex association.

Mr. Mailer's principal sources are Fernande Olivier's colorful memoirs, Picasso and His Friends (1933) and Souvenirs Intimes (written in 1955 and published posthumously in 1988). Olivier lived with Picasso from 1905 until 1912. She has said that she kept diaries at the time and that her memoirs derived from them. Still, these are books written as much as 43 years after the fact, and by a former lover, which brings to mind the French saying about trying to pull the sheets to one's own side of the bed.

Mr. Mailer acknowledges the problem, fretting over it himself, but relies on her stories anyway. They provide some of the book's freshest material, to be sure, since "Souvenirs Intimes" has not yet been published in English. But one should expect more of a work like this than that it translates someone else's memoirs.

And with this subject in particular, one expects more of Mr. Mailer. There is a tremendous sense of opportunity missed. He of all people would seem equipped to write a vivid and original book about Picasso, since he shares with the artist, if not the same degree of talent, then the characteristics of a long public career, prolific output, Rolodex of styles, sexual fixation, narcissism, will to power and compunction to parlay his own life into art.

Mr. Mailer's career, for better and worse, has been a project of self-mythology—assuming greatness by proxy. And his willingness to rationalize away Picasso's disregard for, even violence toward lovers and friends will ring a bell with readers of such Mailer classics as The Naked and the Dead and "The White Negro." But the links between him and Picasso must be gleaned with some effort from the book. If anything, Mr. Mailer doesn't put enough of himself into it, relying on the idiosyncrasy of his prose to carry readers along. Picasso, who had no patience for art criticism, once praised Jean Genet's writing on Giacometti, which was personal and self-exploratory. It is the type of writing one hopes for from Mr. Mailer—more like The Armies of the Night, with its blend of intense self-scrutiny and reportage, and less like his cut-and-paste Marilyn. Mr. Mailer might have written a more distinctive book about Picasso if he had observed his own maxim: "It's impossible to truly comprehend others until one's plumbed the bottom of certain obsessions about oneself."

Joan Didion (essay date 6 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Let's Do It," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1996, p. 94.

[In the following review, Didion offers high praise for The Executioner's Song, which she describes as "an absolutely astonishing book."]

It is one of those testimonies to the tenacity of self-regard in the literary life that large numbers of people remain persuaded that Norman Mailer is no better than their reading of him. They condescend to him, they dismiss his most original work in favor of the more literal and predictable rhythms of The Armies of the Night; they regard The Naked and the Dead as a promise later broken and every book since as a quick turn for his creditors, a stalling action, a spangled substitute, tarted up to deceive, for the "big book" he cannot write. In fact he has written this "big book" at least three times now. He wrote it the first time in 1955 with The Deer Park and he wrote it a second time in 1965 with An American Dream and he wrote it a third time in 1967 with Why Are We in Vietnam? and now, with The Executioner's Song, he has probably written it a fourth.

The Executioner's Song did not suggest, in its inception, the book it became. It began as a project put together by Lawrence Schiller, the photographer and producer who several years before had contracted with Mailer to write Marilyn, and it was widely referred to as "the Gary Gilmore book." This "Gary Gilmore book" of Mailer's was understood in a general way to be an account of or a contemplation on the death or the life or the last nine months in the life of Gary Mark Gilmore, those nine months representing the period between the day in April of 1976 when he was released from the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, and the morning in January of 1977 on which he was executed by having four shots fired into his heart at the Utah State Prison at Point of the Mountain, Utah.

It seemed one of those lives in which the narrative would yield no further meaning. Gary Gilmore had been in and out of prison, mostly in, for 22 of his 36 years. Gary Gilmore had a highly developed kind of con style that caught the national imagination. "Unless it's a joke or something, I want to go ahead and do it," Gary Gilmore said when he refused legal efforts to reverse the jury's verdict of death on felony murder. "Let's do it," Gary Gilmore said in the moments before the hood was lowered and the muzzles of the rifles emerged from the executioner's blind.

What Mailer could make of this apparently intractable material was unclear. It might well have been only another test hole in a field he had drilled before, a few further reflections on murder as an existential act, an appropriation for himself of the book he invented for An American Dream, Stephen Rojack's "The psychology of the Hangman." Instead Mailer wrote a novel, a thousand-page novel in a meticulously limited vocabulary and a voice as flat as the horizon, a novel which takes for its incident and characters real events in the lives of real people.

I think no one but Mailer could have dared this book. The authentic Western voice, the voice heard in The Executioner's Song, is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down. The very subject of The Executioner's Song is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.

In a world in which every road runs into the desert or the Interstate or the Rocky Mountains, people develop a pretty precarious sense of their place in the larger scheme. People get sick for love, think they want to die for love, shoot up the town for love, and then they move away, move on, forget the face. People commit their daughters, and move to Midway Island. People get in their cars at night and drive across two states to get a beer, see about a loan on a pickup, keep from going crazy because crazy people get committed again, and can no longer get in their cars and drive across two states to get a beer.

The Executioner's Song is structured in two long symphonic movements: "Western Voices," or Book One, voices which are most strongly voices of women, and "Eastern Voices," Book Two, voices which are not literally those of Easterners but are largely those of men—the voices of the lawyers, the prosecutors, the reporters, the people who move in the larger world and believe that they can influence events. The "Western" book is a fatalistic drift, a tension, and overwhelming and passive rush toward the inevitable events that will end in Gary Gilmore's death. The "Eastern" book is the release of that tension, the resolution, the playing out of the execution, the active sequence that effectively ends on the January morning when Lawrence Schiller goes up in a six-seat plane and watches as Gary Gilmore's ashes are let loose from a plastic bag to blow over Provo. The bag surprises Schiller. The bag is a bread bag, "with the printing from the bread company clearly on it … a 59-cent loaf of bread."

The women in the "Western" book are surprised by very little. They do not on the whole believe that events can be influenced. A kind of desolate wind seems to blow through the lives of these women in The Executioner's Song, all these women who have dealings with Gary Gilmore from the April night when he lands in town with his black plastic penitentiary shoes until the day in January when he is just ash blowing over Provo. The wind seems to blow away memory, balance. The sensation of falling is constant. Nicole Baker, still trying at 19 to "digest her life, her three marriages, her two kids, and more guys than you wanted to count," plus Gary Gilmore, plus Gary Gilmore's insistence that she meet him beyond the grave, reads a letter from Gary in prison and the words go "in and out of her head like a wind blowing off the top of the world."

These women move in and out of paying attention to events, of noticing their own fate. They seem distracted by bad dreams, by some dim apprehension of this well of dread, this "unhappiness at the bottom of things." Inside Bessie Gilmore's trailer south of the Portland city line, down a fourlane avenue of bars and eateries and discount stores and a gas station with a World War II surplus Boeing bomber fixed above the pumps, there is a sense that Bessie can describe only as "a suction-type feeling." She fears disintegration. She wonders where the houses in which she once lived have gone, she wonders about her husband being gone, her children gone, the 78 cousins she knew in Provo scattered and gone and maybe in the ground. She wonders if, when Gary goes, they would "all descend another step into that pit where they gave up searching for one another." She has no sense of "how much was her fault; and how much was the fault of the ongoing world that ground along like iron-banded wagon wheels in the prairie grass." When I read this, I remembered that the tracks made by the wagon wheels are still visible from the air over Utah, like the footprints made on the moon. This is an absolutely astonishing book.

Frank Kermode (review date 15 May 1997)

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SOURCE: "Advertisements for Himself," in The New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1997, pp. 4, 6-8.

[In the following review, Kermode offers a favorable assessment of The Gospel According to the Son, which he concludes is "a book of considerable intellectual force."]

To read the surviving ancient examples of apocryphal gospels is to see how impressive the canonical ones usually are. The apocrypha, sometimes clever, sometimes silly, try to elaborate or continue those originals, thus following, with varying degrees of irresponsibility, the example of the Evangelists themselves. All manner of strange things are said to have happened to Judas; for instance, that the silver he gained by treachery he lost by gambling. Pilate, converted to Christianity, may seek to persuade the emperor Tiberius of the divinity of Christ, and even be accepted as a saint. Such things occur in apocryphal gospels. Norman Mailer has added to the genre a modern example that is clever but not silly. And in one respect it breaks new ground: it is the first, so far as I know, to be attributed to Jesus himself, a gospel-autobiography, no less, of the Son of God.

Each of the four canonical Gospels has a Passion narrative offering an orderly historical account of the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem. These narratives are by no means identical, but they resemble one another closely enough to suggest that they all base their variations on the same lost predecessor, an earlier written report of those last days. Discrepancies between them have to be explained by the doctrinal preferences of the communities for whom the Evangelists were writing, and by the predispositions of the writers themselves.

Events in the life of Jesus prior to the last visit to Jerusalem are much less coherently described and can hardly be said to constitute a narrative at all. The reports are presumably based on oral collections of sayings, miracles, and parables, with a few, mostly perfunctory, indications suggesting where Jesus was from time to time—in Capernaum, revisiting Nazareth, going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, and finally moving into Jerusalem for the climax. Here John, lacking their common adherence to Mark, is widely different from Matthew and Luke, and not only because of discourses he attributes to Jesus that they know nothing about. For example, he describes several visits to Jerusalem before the final one they all describe.

This is more plausible than the single visit allowed by the other three, since it explains why Jesus and the disciples, normally working in Galilee, had friends in and around the city. But John, who on the whole offers the most connected account of Jesus' career, can no more than the others provide a straightforward narrative of the pre-Passion ministry. Like Mark, he has nothing whatever to say about the birth, childhood, and youth of his hero, whereas Luke and Matthew provide rather elaborate but disparate accounts of the Annunciation and the Nativity. Luke takes most care to provide some sort of historical context to the early part of the life, for instance explaining the winter journey to Bethlehem as made necessary by a new Roman taxation policy. He also provides John the Baptist, said to be a cousin of Jesus, with his parallel nativity story, and alone sends the boy Jesus to lecture in the Temple.

Final agreement about the interrelations of the different versions is unlikely ever to be achieved, but most scholars still seem to accept that of the first three Gospels (called "Synoptic") the shortest, Mark, came first; that Matthew and Luke used him as a basis, augmenting his account (though this theory is much contested) with material from another source (the hypothetical collection of sayings known as Q). Each of them must also have had access to some material peculiar to himself.

These conjectures are offered in explanation of the palpable similarities between the three Gospels and also of their deviations and disagreements. Indeed the learned have been at work for centuries either demonstrating the "harmony" of the three versions or explaining how they came to be dissonant. The unlearned have been content with an uncritical mishmash, sometimes preferring Luke (in whose version the Annunciation is made, as tradition assumes it was, to Mary, although in Matthew the angel addresses Joseph) but sometimes mingling both (Matthew's wise men and Luke's shepherds). The narrative of the interim between the Nativity and the Passion is likewise marked by concords and discords, stringing together in different ways traditions about journeys and parables and teachings, but in no case suggesting a definite progression. What is certain is that a later biographer of Jesus has more usable source material in the Passion story than in what comes before it.

So Norman Mailer, conscious of the source problem and conscious also of the chutzpah involved in his manner of solving it, decided to retell the whole story as a posthumous autobiography of Jesus, who could of course be represented as an authority on the facts of his early life. His Jesus starts off by being highly critical of the Gospels, accusing them of exaggeration and even of mendacity; he complains that they attribute to him words he never said; and play down his anger, which he thinks important. "Their words were written many years after I was gone and only repeat what old men told them. Very old men. Such tales are to be leaned on no more than a bush that tears free from its roots and blows about in the wind." The Evangelists, he considers, were more concerned with enlarging or strengthening their own congregations than with the truth, which he will now provide. This attitude may seem a shade ungrateful when you reflect that those despised Gospels are virtually his only source, but Mailer's Jesus is capable of being angry and unreasonable, and of course knows what later scholarship has to say about the situations and motives of the Gospel writers. With his author's help he can correct those flawed reports and make clear what he really did, thought, and said.

"What you get," says Mailer of the Gospels in an interesting interview in his publisher's house magazine, "is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story. So I thought this account, this wonderful narrative, ought to be properly told." And unlike his apostolic predecessors he can claim to be a much practiced and experienced storyteller, a lifelong student of the possibilities of novelistic narrative, more sensitive to the interaction of plot and character than they could possibly be.

Inevitably he has much the same trouble as they had in giving Jesus a plausible itinerary during the Galilean years, but the authority vested in his narrator is such that he can adapt, explain, qualify, or reject their versions at will. In doing so he can hardly avoid, and indeed makes little attempt to avoid, infusing Jesus with a strong dose of Mailer, so the book is in some measure another self-advertisement. In that same interview he suggests that one reason for accepting this "dare" was that he himself has "a slight understanding of what it's like to be half a man and half something else, something larger." He means that the celebrity of The Naked and the Dead caused him, from twenty-five on, to lead a double life, as a famous person and as his "simple self," the former role giving him a power he hasn't always known how to use well; which was a problem also, he suggests, for Jesus, who was likewise half one thing and half another.

There is something attractive about this blend of self-analysis and self-confidence. "If I can write about Isis and Osiris and Ra," he argues, "then certainly the New Testament is not going to be that difficult to do." And having worked on Oswald and Picasso and Marilyn Monroe must have been a help, too. Of course he had on this unusual occasion to make experiments in quest of an appropriate style, avoiding the archaism of the King James translation but equally declining any uninhibited exhibition of that wonderfully agile, muscular, personal prose that made The Armies of the Night in particular incomparable in its kind. After a lot of work on this problem of decorum he invented his own serviceable version of what Eric Auerbach called sermo humilis, a lowly style, the very style the Evangelists wrote their Greek in; a simple, everyday manner that is faintly, appropriately, archaic as well. Thus equipped, he was able to apply his novelistic skills to a superior rendering of the story.

In addition to the advantage conferred by these skills Mailer could claim another of comparable importance. He seems to have had, until quite recently, very little interest in the New Testament, but was turned on to it by some remarks of the present Pope about "a fourth world which included all the underprivileged who lived among the two superpowers, particularly in America with our homeless." Reading the New Testament, he found it "curious in the extreme." And once he began the examination of the gospel story, this powerful "myth," as he calls it, he also felt it an advantage to be a Jew, and so in sympathy with a Jesus who was no longer, as he had been to earlier generations of American Jews, an enemy or renegade, but a good man. "Whatever else Jesus was, he was that … I became very fond of him." And to portray a good man may well be the greatest challenge a novelist can face.

Although he offers rational explanations for some of the miracles, Mailer obviously saw no need to explain away all these and other supernatural occurrences, such as faith healings and "mighty works" generally, since by nominating Jesus as the author of the book he was accepting as a donnée the greatest miracle of all. So he takes miracles as they come—warning that they are less important than the teachings, sometimes scolding the Evangelists for exaggeration, but usually leaving the substance of the stories intact or even embellishing them. He explains the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand by saying that Jesus broke the loaves and fishes into very small pieces and dished out the crumbs one by one, with a sort of sacramental effect. (Like Mark, he includes two feedings, one a close copy of the other—a redundancy noticed and corrected by Matthew.)

Naturally he comments as he chooses on the miracles. After the little daughter of Jairus has been raised from the dead, or from a coma, he speculates that the child cannot have been happy to be reinserted in a house torn by marital discord. There is nothing to that effect in the Gospels, so perhaps here as elsewhere the author is expressing personal discomfort at the idea of bodily resurrection—and a sense that nobody concerned is likely to be overjoyed about it. When the blind man on the road to Bethsaida has his sight restored he exclaims that he sees "men like trees walking"—a fine instance of Marcan idiosyncrasy, but Mailer, like many a commentator before him, feels the need of an allegory when confronted by an oddity: "That is because men, like trees, bear a fruit of good and evil."

The youthful Jesus is portrayed working as an apprentice to his father the carpenter (plenty of verisimilar technical information on wood and tools), reading the scrolls of Ezekiel and Isaiah, which he will later freely quote, and experiencing for the first time on record a serious childhood illness (some of its effects seem to linger on in the later career). Also for the first time, he is seen to brood sadly over Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents, a massacre attributable to his birth, and perhaps an instance of that tragic mismanagement of which Mailer's God is guilty on other occasions. This is midrash, and Mailer has a talent for midrash, explanatory extension or updating of existing stories (a talent novelists need); for example, he retells the story of the pregnant Elizabeth, whose babe leaps in the womb when the Virgin arrives on a visit. Luke does not say that the fetus had been without life until that moment, but Mailer does; it is a good touch, one more small miracle and in these exceptional circumstances nothing out of the way.

The Temptation in the Wilderness is a critical event in the Synoptics; John knows nothing about it, and in his plot the miracle at Cana has to serve as an equivalent threshold experience. Mailer puts both in. The Temptation, described in one charged verse by Mark, but at greater length by the others, especially Luke, is further expanded by Mailer. He makes the devil seem rather like Adolphe Menjou or perhaps George Sanders in some old movie, a blend of delicately perfumed politeness and sinister fecal underscent. Jesus of course withstands his temptations, but doesn't emerge entirely clean; he loses something by this diabolical contact, retaining a certain "fealty" to Satan, a certain slight complicity with evil. When Luke said Jesus underwent "all the temptations," commentators thought he meant all possible temptations, an interpretation that gave comfort when supported by a text from the Epistle to the Hebrews: "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin."

But Mailer's Satan ensures that Jesus is not without sin; he experiences lust, which by his own ruling is adultery in the heart, and also vengeful anger. He is rarely quite sure what it means to be both a man and the son of God, and occasionally needs and receives divine warnings. "When you are without Me, the Devil is your companion." He wonders why he was chosen, and why he was tempted, just as he wonders why he has to die. During the Crucifixion he asks whether God is all powerful. "Even as I asked … I heard my own answer: God, my father, was one god. But there were others. If I had failed Him, so had He failed me. Such was now my knowledge of good and evil. Was it for that reason that I was on the cross?" And later: "My Father was only doing what He could do. Even as I had done what I could do…. Had His efforts for me been so great that now He was exhausted?"

The subtlest notion here is that God-given power in a man can be wasted or exhausted, as it was wasted in that trivial first miracle at Cana, and exhausted when the hemorrhaging woman surreptitiously touched Jesus' robe. Such failures of power become a major theme of the novel. Even God's power is not adequate to his good intentions; he can be defeated, as in Herod's massacre, and in the Holocaust. The point is ultimately theological; it is impossible to recount this myth without implying a theology and a fore-understanding, as Mailer knew when he took it on. So for him "human" implies "fallible," and a human son of God may suffer from God's weakness as well as his own.

He tries hard to do justice to other doctrines—his Pharisees are good in religious debate, sometimes too good for Jesus. But they are, finally, disagreeable figures with their hypocritical made-up minds and their extravagant cult of cleanliness. So there is a natural bias toward the views of Jesus, who actually seems much more human in preferring the unclean company of sinners and drinkers. Mailer even suggests that Jesus had a fondness for the gay men he came across in Capernaum, seemingly taking the merest hint from Matthew (11:23-24) that such people existed there: "And thou, Capernaum … shall be brought down to hell…. It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, in the day of judgment, than for thee." Thus an anathema, in itself a shade pharisaical, is converted into an expression of unpharisaical liberality.

In spite of the condemnation of the Evangelists as inaccurate and self-serving, quite large tracts of their writing are left more or less undisturbed, for instance Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. The best place to look for novelistic invention is in the treatment of characters. Jesus' mother, for instance, is characterized as both modest and vain, proud of her son and his origin but thinking him unready to go out into the world; having brought him up in an ascetic Essene community, she would prefer him just to go on being a good God-fearing and woman fearing Essene boy and perhaps eventually join the Qumran community. So there is tension between mother and son. Mark had emphasized the difficulty Jesus experienced when returning to his home town (he could not do any "mighty works" there, though Matthew considerately altered this to "many mighty works"), and Mailer takes this up, suggesting that Jesus' hurtful rhetorical question "Who is my mother?" had left him with a bad conscience about her.

Lazarus, though unknown to the Synoptics, plays an important part in John's story, and it is interesting to compare what the two writers make of him. His return to life from the tomb is here announced by the odor of rotting corpse; the Pharisees would be repelled by this new uncleanness. Lazarus himself is not unequivocally pleased to be restored to life. The smell of the corpse is in John's version, and so is the alarm of the authorities—the High Priest fears that this especially mighty work may win popular support for the Galilean, with consequent disturbances, all too likely to be severely repressed by the Romans.

But the sadness of Lazarus is new, and so are Jesus's doubts about whether this was a good thing to have done. John's Jesus had a double response to his friend's sickness and death; he claims divinity in his encounter with Lazarus's sister Martha (through this illness "God's glory is to be revealed and the Son of God glorified"); but after Lazarus dies, he weeps, humanly, at his meeting with his other sister, Mary. The human yields to the divine: the raising of Lazarus, a solemn parody of birth or rebirth, justifies the claim "I am the resurrection and the life." In this episode, and in the anointing of Jesus by Mary, John is completely out of touch with the Synoptics; he is on his own and manifestly a very powerful writer. Mailer reduces the complexity of the episode by preferring to use the story of the anointing in a quite different context, as the Synoptics do. What he chooses to tell of Lazarus he tells impressively; but in this head-to-head storytelling contest John seems to be the victor.

In his treatment of Pilate (he releases Barabbas for a bribe, is deeply cynical in the philosophical debate with Jesus) Mailer is again adapting John, as other apocryphal gospels had done before him, and here with more success. He has an understandable preference for John as the best of the tellers, but again deserts him, making the Last Supper a Passover meal. John had wanted to place it the night before, so that the Crucifixion would coincide with the killing of the Passover lambs. On such occasions the redactor has to choose, and either choice has its points; any redaction of the story is going to involve loss as well as the hoped-for gain. For example, Mailer rejects Mark's thrillingly unexpected "I am" (his Jesus' first proclamation of divinity, made at the moment when Peter was denying him) in reply to the High Priest's demand to know whether he is the son of God. Mailer chooses the tamer response recorded by Matthew and Luke ("I am what you say"; or "So you say"). It is a loss.

Apart from the central figure the novelist devotes most of his inventive power to Judas. Like others before him, he is unwilling to dismiss Judas as a petty thief and traitor. His Judas is a fiery, intelligent, rather worldly disciple, who knows about corrupt dealings between the Jewish priesthood and the Roman occupiers, and is always skeptical about some of the dominical claims. Mailer invents for him an important conversation with Jesus, who senses that he is dangerous but continues to love him. This Judas is above all devoted to the poor, and is shocked when his protest against the waste of money on ointment prompts the reply "The poor you have always with you." It is because of this betrayal of what for him is the true cause that Judas turns against his master. Jesus himself feels guilty at having put his honor and ease above the needs of the poor; and he will not condemn Judas for condemning him. These are new and novelistically plausible interpretations.

Other personalities (Peter and Thomas, for instance) are virtually unchanged from the Gospel accounts, but Mailer has a special interest in Levi the publican (a tax collector in Roman employ and usually known as Matthew), supposing him to have been called to discipleship despite his odious occupation because he looked cheerful, perhaps because he was streetwise, liked his drink, and was acquainted with vice. Such men are the readier to repent and least like the Pharisees. Nearly all of this is pure invention.

The colt on which Jesus rides into Jerusalem is, in this new version, unbroken, restive, requiring to be subdued. Since Luke records that this was an animal "whereon yet never man sat," this is a legitimate addition to the original, but it conflicts with the image of a Messiah entering not in glory but mounted on a humble farm animal, an ass's colt; so the interpretation gains a small and persuasive detail but loses a big idea. One amusement offered by this novel is this: deciding whether a particular midrashic extension is reasonable and does as much good as harm. Mailer's are usually explicable, but one left me baffled: John's unnamed Beloved Disciple, whom Jesus addressed from the Cross, is here, without explanation or apparent reason, called Timothy, not the name of any of the Twelve as they are listed by the Synoptics (e.g., Mark 14:13) but of a younger man years later, a Greek-Jewish companion and helper of Paul's. Other identifications have, of course, been proposed—John himself, for instance, and Lazarus; even the latter seems more plausible than Mailer's choice.

In the process of augmentation Jesus is given several uncanonical sayings which sound more like Mailer than Jesus: "It is natural to mourn for oneself"; "No heart is so hard as the timid heart"; "The destruction of each man is to be found in the pity he saves for himself"; "A man of small mind develops a hard shell so that he can protect his small thoughts." Whether these sayings can be called plausible depends largely on how convincing this Jesus is as a Mailerian character. "I am the Son of God yet also a man," he says, and as a man he has many faults: he makes too many promises, is sometimes confused, sometimes reacts too quickly, is sometimes too clever by half, is sometimes caught in two minds. He experiences fear, desires vengeance, has lascivious reveries, is attracted by sinners, and has fits of rage. The doctrine of the incarnation requires that he be a man in all ways, yet also without sin, like Adam before the Fall—a god willingly but sinlessly sustaining the whole burden of humanity. Mailer makes Jesus too human for that, seizing on every moment of wrath and belligerence recorded by the Evangelists and adding more. This Jesus is not perfect. An angel in a dream quotes to him John's line: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son …" and his response is "How I hoped that the angel spoke truth!" He is the son of God, though never quite sure of it.

His mission is a failure, in part because Satan was right about the way all men (and the Church) would turn to the worship of Mammon, partly because, contrary to report, his Father in heaven, who sent him, isn't perfect, either. Mailer sees God as doing his best, but still suffering some crushing defeats. This view is, approximately, Manichean, dualist; Satan is still powerful in the world. This is one reason why the poor we have always with us. There is no overt theological discussion: Mailer is not interested in lucubrations on such problems, and his very partial theodicy amounts only to saying that God is doing his not wholly adequate best. The writer's powerful mind works in a specialized way, not by theological argumentation but by telling or retelling a story. The result is (for once) a short book, a book of considerable intellectual force. Having accepted the "dare," Mailer can make a fair claim to have come honorably close to winning it.


Mailer, Norman (Vol. 11)


Mailer, Norman (Vol. 14)