Norman Mailer was a literary icon whose influence as a writer spanned more than five decades following WWII. The decades where his writing wielded the most influence were arguably the 1960s, 1970s, and even into the 1980s.
Harvard educated, Mailer wrote fiction, nonfiction, essays, and even plays. He was one of the founding members of the The Village Voice. At times, especially early in his life, he was known as much for his machismo as he was for his politics and Pulitzers.
The 30-year period that was his most influential was at the tail-end of an era when a writer and the words he/she wrote and uttered, carried a great deal of weight, and could also easily plunge them into the center of controversy. Today, a writer is more apt to be ignored, and those few writers remaining with names that are recognized by most, still live on the margins and fringes of a popular culture more enamored with vapid reality stars and karaoke wannabes.
During Mailer’s heyday, this wasn’t the case. Writers and even poets, were lauded, and given prime billing as people with opinions that were sought on the issues of the day. Mailer was a lightning rod, and he seemed to relish his status as such. He was at home enraging readers with his provocative and often strident views on US political life, opposing wars waged by the American empire, and debating noted conservatives of his era, like William F. Buckley, and fellow writers like Gore Vidal. He even ran for mayor of New York City. He lost.
Nowhere was this more evident than the war in Vietnam and his groundbreaking book at the time, Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel As History. I’m reading it now and while some might say it reads as a dated artifact, for me, it provides an important look back at history, because I stand by the belief that history serves as a guide and teacher for us in the present.
Mailer’s book, which followed other such groundbreaking books, like Truman Copote’s In Cold Blood, Thomas Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as works by Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, staked out new literary turf, what was then being hailed as “New Journalism,” a new intersection where nonfiction and reporting began utilizing literary conventions and techniques considered unconventional at the time. It was also about the time when nonfiction began receiving recognition as a serious art form by critics.
Like so much that was cutting-edge at the time, the 1960s ushered in an idea among some writers that cut their teeth as journalists, like Wolfe that “…it just might be possible to write journalism that would read like a novel.” Again, keep in mind that novelists were the kings of the writing world, and none of these pioneers doubted that things would ever be any different. And yet, the ground shifted, and writers like Mailer led a charge forward and journalism was changed, too. Sadly, there’s very little journalism flourishing now, like it was during Mailer’s heyday. Part of this is due to print’s demise, but I think just as much of it is related to a shift in our culture, as we seem to have lost our nerve, and sold our soul, chasing mammon and turning away from our values. Journalists by and large are all timid and journalism is too closely intertwined with corporate funding, in all but a few places.
Mailer and his ilk were many things, but they were not timid as writers, or journalists, when taking that path. They also were a product of a very different America.
On October 21, 1967, seventy-five thousand protesters assembled at the Lincoln Memorial, including a sizable number of hippie types dressed in colorful costumes. A motley army of witches, warlocks, sorcerers, and long-hairs, who had come just as much to celebrate as protest, were there to experience an event. Norman Mailer was one in the crowd, along with Noam Chomsky, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, film critic Dwight Macdonald, who wrote about mass media and offered a unique critique of the culture, while also framing a middle-brow America that still read and fueled interest in writers like Mailer and the other new journalists. It was a truly unique and different period. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I was alive, albeit quite young, given what’s happened to mass culture and our country since. And yet, the architecture, and the very same machinations of power and corporatism evident all through Mailer’s narrative are just as much in charge today, if not more so.
For me, the book serves as a guide; first to what great writers all possess, which is courage and the willingness to tread a new path if necessary, and follow their intuition. Second, it walks me back through history, and again, I believe history offers a key to the future from looking back that often is missed by those fixated on the future and the myth of its never-ending progress.
I’m not going to review the book other than to say several sections had an effect on me as a reader. The first part was intriguing given that Mailer wrote it as a work of fiction, yet he firmly planted himself squarely in the center of his narrative. Part II, which is nonfiction, while altered, is still a work where Norman Mailer is central to the text and the events unfolding. I’ll let you do the work and read it, if you’re a writer, or you are interested in looking back to look ahead. It’s a fascinating look back at this unique period of time in America.
So why Mailer, and why now?
Norman Mailer died in 2007, on November 10. I probably didn’t even notice it at the time, unless I happened to catch something on the news. I don’t recall that I did.
I wrote about our visit to the Outer Cape a few weeks back. We traveled out to the tip of the Cape and Provincetown. It was a fun mini-vacation with Miss Mary. I spent about an hour at the wonderful public library, while Mary visited the shops along Commercial Street.
I happened upon a memoir written by a local writer, Dwayne Raymond, called Mornings With Mailer: A Recollection of Friendship. Mailer had considered Provincetown his permanent home since 1990. Even before that he found the community out at the narrow tip of Cape Cod perfect for writing, and had first settled nearby to write on May 2, 1946, when he was discharged from the army. From a deserted bungalow on an expanse of beach just outside Provincetown, he began work on what became his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. He was only 25 and the book earned his first Pulitzer. He’d end up receiving another one for The Executioner’s Song, in 1979.
For the next six decades Mailer would regularly return to Provincetown to write. He wrote some of all of 30 books there, and became a part of the town’s cultural heritage. Provincetown became for him what Key West and Cuba had been for Hemingway.
This made an impression on me, reading parts of Raymond’s book, which tells the tale of his chance meeting with Mailer, while waiting tables at a restaurant frequented by Norman and his wife, Norris. Interestingly, the night the Mailers came in for dinner, it was late and the other staff didn’t want to take their table. Fortunately, Raymond acquiesced and made this fateful connection with a living legend. Another meeting later, in the supermarket would change Raymond’s direction in life.
Raymond, a transplant to the Outer Cape, was biding his time, trying to figure out his next step in carving out a career. He was frustrated as a writer, and having personal difficulties, which had grounded his writing. Mailer took a liking to him and he became the noted writer’s personal assistant for the last several years of his life.
Mailer’s health was failing, but the core of the man; complex, cantankerous, and even difficult, while also clearly possessed with genius, framed what was a very enjoyable read for me. Raymond also dispelled other elements that often were directed at Mailer; that he was homophobic, misogynistic, and a reactionary. This was at least how much of the media portrayed him for most of the last 50 years of his life.
There’s a danger in 2013 in subjecting every earlier figure through our hyper-sensitive and overly critical filters and lenses. Humans are complex, flawed, and we sometimes make mistakes, act inappropriately, and even inflict harm on others. But people can learn, grow, and Raymond’s book showed that Mailer had done all of the latter things and was also a writer deserving of respect and consideration for his output and the cultural swath he cut through American life.
After finishing Raymond’s work, I wanted to read some of Mailer’s own writing.
I recall seeing him on Book TV a few years ago, most likely 2006, or 2007, when he was featured along with his son, John Buffalo Mailer, in what must have been a discussion about the book that they had collaborated on (and Raymond had a hand in collecting material for), The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America.
I loved this book’s concept and really enjoyed seeing this back and forth between Mailer, who was 55 when John, his youngest son, was born. I read the book last weekend and thoroughly appreciated this multi-generational back and forth between a father who obviously had a strong relationship with his son. While John Buffalo didn’t agree with his father and often had some political differences, he also clearly respected his father for who he was and as a thinker and a writer who had been in the vanguard as a writer and shaper of public opinion for a good portion of his life.
Reading through their transcribed conversations reminds me of the special discussions and conversations I’ve been able to share with my own son, Mark. While I’m no Norman Mailer, I’ve treasured the ongoing opportunities I’ve had to experience similar give and takes on things like the environment, politics, work, and sports with Mark. I value his views and opinions and often, he offers advice that I’ve heeded and it’s been exactly what I needed at the time.
Mailer, the writer speaking broadly and in the context of his time is rare during our 21st century epoch. A writer, speaking broadly, with an eye toward criticizing power, especially a writer on the left as critical of the protest tactics and cast of characters as he was of the craven technological power and corruption centered in the Pentagon (where they were marching to) and of US military policy in Vietnam, is unheard of today. I can’t think of a single writer in 2013 that occupies a position in close proximity to Mailer’s.
The Armies of the Night was an ambitious work in 1967. Most reading it today would be lost and not understanding the context (unless you care about the history of the Vietnam era), they would probably become fixated on Mailer’s literary tricks and the frequent use of the third person, which would be a mistake, in my opinion. Even when the book came out, there were critics who said it was “overwrought” and “over-ambitious,” which I consider a good thing. The book was awarded the National Book Award for 1968.
Too much of our writing today is comfortable and is akin to feeding pap to a baby. That was never the issue for Norman Mailer.