WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- The Naked and the Dead (New York: Rinehart, 1948; London: Wingate, 1949).
- Barbary Shore (New York: Rinehart, 1951; London: Cape, 1952).
- The Deer Park (New York: Putnam, 1955; London: Wingate, 1957).
- The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1957).
- Advertisements for Myself (New York: Putnam, 1959; London: Deutsch, 1961).
- Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (New York: Putnam, 1962; London: Deutsch, 1962).
- The Presidential Papers (New York: Putnam, 1963; London: Deutsch, 1964).
- An American Dream (New York: Dial, 1965; London: Deutsch, 1965).
- Cannibals and Christians (New York: Dial, 1966; London: Deutsch, 1967).
- The Bullfight: A Photographic Narrative with Text by Norman Mailer (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
- The Deer Park: A Play (New York: Dial, 1967; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970).
- Why Are We in Vietnam? (New York: Putnam, 1967; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969).
- The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (New York: Dell, 1967); republished in The Essential Mailer (Sevenoaks, Kent, U.K.: New English Library, 1982).
- The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations (New York: Dell, 1968).
- The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (New York: New American Library, 1968; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968).
- Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the American Political Conventions of 1968 (New York: New American Library, 1968; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968).
- Of a Fire on the Moon (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971 [i.e. 1970]); republished as A Fire on the Moon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971 [i.e. 1970]).
- Maidstone: A Mystery (New York: New American Library, 1971).
- King of the Hill: On the Fight of the Century (New York: New American Library, 1971).
- The Prisoner of Sex (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971).
- The Long Patrol: 25 Years of Writing from the Work of Norman Mailer, edited by Robert F. Lucid (New York: World, 1971).
- Existential Errands (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972); republished in The Essential Mailer.
- St. George and the Godfather (New York: New American Library, 1972).
- Marilyn (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973).
- The Faith of Graffiti (New York: Praeger, 1974); republished as Watching My Name Go By (London: Matthews, Miller, Dunbar, 1974).
- The Fight (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975; London: Hart-Davis, 1976).
- Genius and Lust: A Journey through the Major Writings of Henry Miller (New York: Grove, 1976).
- Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions, 1960-1972 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976).
- A Transit to Narcissus (New York: Fertig, 1978).
- The Executioner's Song (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979; London: Hutchinson, 1979).
- Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots (Northridge, Cal.: Lord John Press, 1980).
- Of Women and Their Elegance (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980; Sevenoaks, Kent, U.K.: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).
- Pieces and Pontifications (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982; Sevenoaks, Kent, U.K.: New English Library, 1983).
- Ancient Evenings (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983; London: Macmillan, 1983).
- Tough Guys Don't Dance (New York: Random House, 1984; London: M. Joseph, 1984).
- Harlot's Ghost (New York: Random House, 1991; London: M. Joseph, 1991).
- Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (New York: Random House, 1995; London: Little, Brown, 1995).
- Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995; London: Little, Brown, 1995).
- The Gospel According to the Son (New York: Random House, 1997).
- The Time of Our Time (New York: Random House, 1998).
- Wild 90, Supreme Mix, 1968.
- Beyond the Law, Supreme Mix/Evergreen Films, 1968.
- Maidstone, Supreme Mix, 1971.
- Tough Guys Don't Dance, Cannon Films, 1987.
- King Lear, adapted by Mailer and Jean-Luc Godard, Cannon Films, 1987.
- The Executioner's Song, Film Communications Inc. Productions, 1982.
Selected Periodical Publications--Uncollected
- "All the Pirates and People: Norman Mailer Discovers the Man Who Is Clint Eastwood," Parade, 23 October 1983, pp. 4-5, 7.
- "Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100," New York Times Book Review, 9 December 1984, pp. 1, 36-37.
- "The Hazards and Sources of Writing," Michigan Quarterly Review, 24 (Summer 1985): 391-402.
- "Strawhead: An Extract from Act One," Vanity Fair, 49 (April 1986): 62-67.
- "How the Wimp Won the War," Vanity Fair, 54 (May 1991): 138-143, 184-185.
- "The Warren Report," Vanity Fair, 54 (November 1991): 174-180, 224, 226, 228, 230, 232-233.
- "Footfalls in the Crypt," Vanity Fair, 55 (February 1992): 124-129, 171.
- "By Heaven Inspired," New Republic, 207 (12 October 1992): 22, 24, 26-27, 30-35.
- "Like a Lady," Esquire, 122 (August 1994): 41-56.
- "Black and White Justice," New York, 28 (16 October 1995): 28-32.
- "Searching for Deliverance," Esquire, 126 (August 1996): 54-61, 118, 120-127.
- "War of the Oxymorons," George (November 1996): 128-139, 164, 166, 168-173.
- "How the Pharoah Beat Bogey," George (January 1997): 54-61, 82-86.
[This entry was updated by J. Michael Lennon (Wilkes University) from his update in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, volume 6, pp. 162-183, of the entries by Philip H. Bufithis (Shepherd College) in DLB 2: American Novelists Since World War II and DLB Yearbook 1983; Joseph Wenke (University of Connecticut) in DLB 16: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America; and Alden Whitman in DLB Yearbook 1980.]
Norman Mailer's achievement lies primarily in his treatment of the conflict between man's search for self-actualization and the strictures society places upon him. Mailer has rendered this theme with an energy of style, an ideational power, and a vivid drama that has earned him an international reputation. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. They stir foreign audiences because, notes Anthony Burgess, they are "political, which is a great recommendation to all Europeans, and British fiction is just about unexportable manners. I mean 'political,' of course, in the widest sense--the sense of protest or counterprotest."
Mailer presents a special problem to anyone trying to arrive at a clear understanding of his work, for he has gained notoriety as a public figure as well as a writer. His extraliterary activities--acts of civil disobedience, running for mayor of New York, tempestuous marriages, contentious remarks on television talk shows, belligerent behavior at parties--have caused him in many quarters to be more read about than read. It might appear that his public role has been a self-aggrandizing one, that since the publication of Advertisements for Myself (1959), he has been huckstering himself into fame; but this view is predicated on the false assumption that his public performances are strategies designed to promote his books. Actually, Mailer's escapades are crucial to the creation of his work, not to its promotion. He behaves as he does the better to write. He tries to realize in his life the beliefs, hopes, and imaginings that he expresses in his work. "Till people see where their ideas lead, they know nothing," he has said. As one would expect, the process becomes cyclical, for what Mailer discovers by testing his fictional ideas in the world is the need to modify or enlarge upon those ideas by writing more books. The important point is this: there exists in the case of Norman Mailer a symbiotic relationship between life and art. To do in one's life what one has said in one's art is an assertion of creative individuality.
By involving himself in the major crises of our time, Mailer has endeavored to reanimate for modern man a belief in the struggle between God and the Devil. Man's courage--or lack of it--against the encroachment of technology, authoritarianism, and mass values will contribute, Mailer believes, to the outcome of that struggle. His engagements in national events represent his attempts to oppose such encroachments. In 1948, at the age of twenty-five, he campaigned for Henry Wallace, the Progressive party candidate for president. He gave more than twenty-five speeches as a member of the Progressive Citizens of America, wrote articles for the New York Post, and spoke on the subject of academic freedom at the convention for the National Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions. But he soon became disillusioned with progressivism's alliances with communism and announced at the Waldorf Peace Conference in New York that the Russian and American governments were equally imperialistic, equally bent on securing new markets for themselves by dominating backward countries. In 1962, to demonstrate against the desperate logic of nuclear bomb shelters, he stood in City Hall Park in New York and refused to take shelter during a civil defense drill. In 1967, while participating in the antiwar march in Washington, he crossed the United States Marshals' line and headed alone for the Pentagon. Mailer was arrested. In 1969 he announced his candidacy for mayor of New York. Running on a secessionist platform, he advocated that New York City be made into the fifty-first state and that its neighborhoods effect self-governance. He came in a distant fourth in a field of five. In 1974 he founded the Fifth Estate, a citizen's organization established to investigate the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These actions by Mailer may be put under one ideological rubric or another, but they all go beyond politics to the individual's ambition to do battle with whatever fate society has designed for him and thereby gain for himself a larger life.
The pattern of Norman Mailer's early life, however, does not prefigure with any certainty the defiant eccentricities that come later. The first child and only son (he has a sister, Barbara) of Isaac Barnett Mailer and Fanny Schneider Mailer, he was born on 31 January 1923 in Long Branch, a resort town on New Jersey's north shore, where his mother's family was in the hotel business. Isaac Mailer, of Russian-Jewish extraction, served in the British army as a supply officer and emigrated to America from South Africa via London shortly after World War I. When his son was four years old, he moved his family to the Eastern Parkway section of Brooklyn, "the most secure Jewish environment in America," Mailer recalls. Isaac (Barney) worked as an accountant in Brooklyn until his death in 1972. Fanny Mailer, who ran a nursing and housekeeping service in Brooklyn, died in 1985. Barbara has worked from time to time as her brother's secretary.
Mailer and his sister both graduated with honors--he from Harvard and she from Radcliffe. Norman "always had the highest marks," his mother recalls. He was a confident youngster who played the clarinet and spent untold hours building model airplanes. Aeronautics was his first love, but it is noteworthy that as early as the age of nine he expressed this love in a literary way. He filled 250 notebook pages with a fantastical story called "An Invasion from Mars." At Boys' High School in Brooklyn, Mailer published his first work, an article on how to build model airplanes. Upon graduation he set his sights on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the study of aeronautical engineering. Because he was only sixteen, M.I.T. wanted him to go to prep school for an additional year, so he chose Harvard instead.
In his first semester at Harvard, Mailer discovered the modern American novel-- Studs Lonigan (1935), the U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) were particularly influential. He devoted himself to writing, read ThomasWolfe, Ernest Hemingway , and William Faulkner , and vowed that he would become a major American novelist. His first short story, "The Greatest Thing in the World," was published in the Harvard Advocate. Derivative in conception, it was clearly written under the influence of his first masters: James T. Farrell , John Dos Passos , and John Steinbeck . Encouraged by his writing professor, Robert Gorham Davis, he submitted the story to Story magazine's annual college contest and won first prize. Like all literary prizes, though, this one brought its weight of worry. Eighteen-year-old Truman Capote was already creating stories of consummate artistic beauty while Mailer feared that he was merely writing prose that, as he put it, "reads like the early work of a young man who is going to make a fortune writing first rate action, western, gangster, and suspense pictures."
After graduating from Harvard in 1943, Mailer set out to allay his natural feelings of callowness and garner some experiences on his own. He was inducted into the army in March 1944. That same month he married Beatrice Silverman of Chelsea, Massachusetts, who became a lieutenant in the WAVES. Sent to the Pacific, Private Mailer became by his own admission "the third lousiest GI in a platoon of twelve." Actually he was not much interested in becoming a good soldier. Rather, he was obsessed with satisfying what he called that "cold maniacal thing in my heart, sharp as a shiv"-- the desire to write the definitive American novel of World War II. He went ashore with the United States infantry forces in the invasion of Luzon. Then, with his appointment to a desk job as a clerk-typist, the excitement came to a stop. Eager to get the experience necessary to write his novel, he volunteered as a rifleman with a reconnaissance platoon fighting in the Philippine mountains. After his discharge in April 1946, he settled down to fifteen months of writing. The Naked and the Dead achieved a remarkable critical and popular success. By 1948, the year of its publication, Mailer found himself the most celebrated young writer in America.
The Naked and the Dead tells the story of a fourteen-man infantry platoon that lands on the barren beach of a small Japanese-held island in the South Pacific. The platoon is part of a 6,000-man force charged with the task of seizing control of the island in order to clear the way for a larger American advance into the Philippines. Mailer carefully delineates the differences--emotional, geographic, social, economic--of each man in the platoon, for he intends it to represent a microcosm of the American populace. The platoon includes a God-fearing Mississippi dirt farmer; a sensitive Jew from Brooklyn; a socially oppressed Mexican-American; an embittered, itinerant laborer from the coal mines of Montana; a reactionary Irishman from South Boston's working class; a dull, middle-class Kansas salesman; a cynical Chicago hoodlum; and a dissipated hedonist from Georgia.
Over the perspective of both officers and enlisted men prevails the narrative voice of Mailer, who remains a detached, omniscient observer. He conveys the tribulations of war objectively. Though his prose recalls the clarity and precision of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the stance he takes toward his characters resembles that of Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy. Mailer refuses to allow the reader to get involved with a character or to imagine that any man has control over the historical moment in which he finds himself. Mailer discourages sympathy for his characters by shifting the narrative to another character or scene. In the case of Lieutenant Hearn, for example, the reader draws near only to be cut off from him with a sudden notice of his death: "A half hour later, Hearn was killed by a machine-gun bullet which passed through his chest." It seems that only the grimmest of interpretations can be drawn. In a dumb, wanton universe man labors to die. He does not really fit into the universe; he is an outlaw on an earth not designed for him. In a profoundly anti-Christian vein, Mailer concludes that God does not take any interest in man.
The compelling dramatic tension of this novel derives from Mailer's fascination with the lives of three men--General Cummings, Sergeant Croft, and Lieutenant Hearn--who press their will upon necessity. Their efforts to define themselves in opposition to a deterministic universe present all that Mailer held to be of moral value at this stage in his career. These three men, without losing their individuality, are modern incarnations of the great mythic figures of western civilization. Cummings, in his overweening urge to shape reality to his own needs and make the world answerable to them, represents Faustian man. Hearn, in his dispassionate rejection of everything that would impose conditions on the autonomy of his thought, is Socratic man. And Croft, in his irrepressible desire to climb Mount Anaka (the mountain in the center of the island), resembles the Satanic hero. The mythic heroism of these three men and the naturalistic universe they oppose constitutes the primary conflict in The Naked and the Dead. In thematic terms, the conflict is between romance and idealism. The interplay between these two elements gives this novel its identifying form as a work of art.
The action of the novel is both foreshadowed by and centered on Mount Anaka. When Croft undertakes to lead the reconnaissance platoon over the mountain, his rebellion attains archetypal proportions. For in climbing Mount Anaka, Croft intends to confirm that he is not what the mountain, in its aloof splendor, seems to say he is: mere flesh, a weak, transitory creature. The mountain symbolizes to Croft the deific qualities which mock man's mortality. To scale Mount Anaka would mean to him that man is more than mere flesh, that he possesses the mystical strength of the mountain. But when Croft fails to reach the summit, he despairs in the knowledge that he was wrong. Man may be in nature--for Mailer he is entrapped in it, embroiled in it--but he is not of it. No intimate kinship exists between man and nature.
Mailer chose war as the subject of his first novel because he was convinced that only in a crisis could man's real nature be revealed. In The Naked and the Dead Mailer dealt with two age-old human tensions--the struggle between animal desire and spiritual aspiration and the struggle between individualism and authority--in their essential pattern, with power, gravity, and veracity. A hammering scrutiny of life's damage leaves an earnest respect for the people who must sustain it.
The success of The Naked and the Dead allowed Mailer to cut loose from his old identity of nice-Jewish-boy-from-Brooklyn and to seek a new one. Always sympathetic to socialism, he entered first the realm of politics, but his espousal of Henry Wallace's bid for the presidency had made him realize that the end result of all governmental systems is oligarchic dominance. He traveled next to Hollywood, where he wrote an original screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; but it was rejected, and Mailer, concluding that fiction was his proper medium after all, left Hollywood. He returned East, where he wrote the greater part of his second novel, Barbary Shore .
Deeply influenced by Jean Malaquais--the left-wing French intellectual who became Mailer's friend and guided him through the tortuous roadways of Marxist philosophy-- Barbary Shore (1951) is an odd, febrile story of five desiccated lives caught between American and Soviet authoritarianism. Mailer wrote the book at an anguished pitch and came up with some starkly illuminating insights into the psyche of the fascist, the Trotskyite, the secret agent, the psychotic, the existentialist, and mass man. The critics were not impressed. Those intent on upholding the puritanism of Eisenhower-era America called the book sordid; others called it ponderous.
A divorce from Beatrice Silverman (with whom he has a daughter, Susan) followed the publication of Barbary Shore. For some time Mailer had been wanting to free himself and move to Greenwich Village, where he imagined he could live a life of adventurous pleasure. When a friend introduced him to the beautiful Adele Morales, a Spanish-Peruvian painter, he found the world of lavish excitement he had been missing. They were married in 1954 and have two daughters, Danielle and Elizabeth Anne. In 1955 Mailer founded, with Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher, the Village Voice, a pioneering weekly newspaper on politics and the arts. His use of more and more potent stimulants--liquor, marijuana, Benzedrine, Seconal--took its physical toll: appendicitis and a damaged liver. But it seemed as though Mailer was willing to rush death rather than return to normalcy, for he was convinced that experimentation with drugs had brought him Dionysian knowledge.
In the midst of his delusion, his recklessness, and what he thought of as his sloth, Mailer set out to write a novel that he hoped would regain for him the distinction he lost with the publication of Barbary Shore. He committed himself fully to the writing of The Deer Park (1955), a novel about the symbolic hell of a Hollywood resort and the venal people in it. The raisonneur of the novel is a movie director, Charles Eitel. Eitel directed brilliant films of honest social consciousness in the 1930s; but after World War II, when a congressional investigative committee accuses him of Communist involvements, he refuses to become a "friendly witness" and thereby sacrifices a successful career as one of Hollywood's top box office directors. Blacklisted by every studio, Eitel tries to revive his dormant creative powers and write a screenplay that will atone for all the slick, gaudy movies he has made since his fine early work. His inability to do so constitutes the central drama of the novel.
Despite personal defeat, Eitel harbors an inviolate vision of what it is to grow--a vision that is the guiding light of the novel. He realizes his sterile condition and reflects that "there was a law of life so cruel and so just which demanded that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same." He imparts the lessons of his self-judgments to Sergius O'Shaugnessy, the novel's narrator. The Eitel-Sergius relationship is a tutor-tyro one. Eitel frankly assesses Sergius and encourages "self-analysis." What Eitel means by self-analysis is the creation of an "art work." For he believes that only in an art work can man discover his inner self and give form to his strivings. For all the book's concentration on the mores of stars, starlets, producers, sensualists, and panderers, its ethical imperative is rather outdated: only sacrifice and hard work will transcend "the mummery of what happens, passes, and is gone." The reader is led to believe that in a conformist society the creation of art is the only strategy against anonymity. An art work, Sergius eventually realizes through Eitel's sad example, will give him "dignity" and enable him to "keep in some permanent form those parts of myself which are better than me." Art teaches Sergius that only through identification with impersonal beauty can human suffering and human limitation be transcended. In Sergius's terms, the world embodied in an art work is the "real world" because it is the honest and permanent distillate of one's selfhood. Desert D'Or (the Hollywood resort of the story) is the "imaginary world" because it is devoted to that which is corporeal and therefore wholly perishable--physical beauty and material success.
Yet the problem with The Deer Park is that Sergius, for all his talk, is really an underdeveloped character. One does not have a sense of involvement with him because he is undersensitive and nearly devoid of tenderness; at least that is how he presents himself. Things happen to him without things happening inside him. What more than compensates for the flaws in the characterization of Sergius is the delineation of the affair between Eitel and the woman he loves--Elena Esposito, sometime actress and castoff of other men. With scrupulous honesty Mailer renders the relationship with its dynamic of sensual rapture and love, its attendant disillusionment, its deterioration, and its final stale disablement. Mailer's two characterizations are charged with life: Eitel, the suave but tortured gentleman whose perverse will compels him, despite his intelligence, to debase his artistic talents; Elena, the desperate, graceless beauty, humiliated by men and simple in her understanding of life, but valiantly in possession of self-dignity. Sergius talks about himself with a phony tartness, but he narrates the Eitel-Elena affair with dispassionate wisdom.
The setting for the novel, Desert D'Or, reinforces the doomed, airless quality of the love affair. It is the center of the book which gives form to the "prisons of pain, the wading pools of pleasure, and the public and professional voices of our sentimental land." This for Mailer constitutes American culture at large. Desert D'Or is an infernal arena of "middle aged desperados of corporation land and the suburb" locked into a perpetual round of greed and lust. The desert that surrounds the resort symbolizes the spiritual wasteland within. Windowless facades and walled-in patios give sanctuary to people who have relinquished their souls to Mammon and Eros. The town possesses no tradition or heritage or recognizable past. It is a "no-man's land of the perpetual present." Sergius remarks on the "air cooled midnight" of the town bars: "Drinking in that atmosphere, I never knew whether it was night or day. afternoon was always passing into night, and drunken nights into the dawn of a desert morning. One seemed to leave the theatrical darkness of afternoon for the illumination of night, and the sun of Desert D'Or became like the stranger who the drunk imagines to be following him." Man has been divorced from the diurnal cycle. Symbolically, his connection with organic life has been severed. Mailer's purgatorial vision of Desert D'Or intensifies the theme enunciated by Eitel: "'One cannot look for a good time, Sergius, for pleasure must end as love or cruelty'--and almost as an afterthought, he added --'or obligation.'" The Deer Park is an ironic prose elegy about people seeking pleasure as though it were happiness.
When The Deer Park appeared, it met with mixed reviews. It was only a partial success, which, on Mailer's competitive scale of all or nothing, meant a failure. Because the world had not, he believed, tried to understand him, he resolved that he would no longer try to understand the world. Rather, he would turn inward to explore his own psyche in such a way that one would come to believe it was America's psyche itself that was being explored. He succeeded. Advertisements for Myself established Mailer as a writer of searing candor and oracular brilliance. He became philosophe maudit to the nation.
Advertisements for Myself (1959) is a compendium of Mailer's writings, almost all previously published, from the first eighteen years of his career. It is a multigeneric display of short stories, poems, plays, essays, articles, interviews, letters, excerpts from novels, and columns from the Village Voice. This assemblage is interlinked with commentary, what Mailer calls "Advertisements," in which he chronicles his fervent efforts--through honor and dishonor, security and paranoia, aspiration and disillusion, recklessness and remorse--to realize the best in himself through art. In writing openly and movingly about these struggles, Mailer came out from behind his fiction and established himself as a national personality, an undeniable literary presence whose admissions recalled the self-promoting strategies of Walt Whitman . An undertone of vehemence, however, balances the narcissism in the book: "I have not gotten nicer as I have grown older, and I suspect that what has been true for me may be true for a good many of you."
Mailer may rather enjoy being embittered; he certainly must have gotten satisfaction from his "Advertisements" because they are written with a color, a freedom, and a brio never before found in his work:
The shits are killing us, even as they kill themselves--each day a few more lies eat into the seed with which we are born, little institutional lies from the print of newspapers, the shock waves of television, and the sentimental cheats of the movie screen. Little lies, but they pipe us toward insanity as they starve our sense of the real. We have grown up in a world more in decay than the worst of the Roman Empire, a cowardly world chasing after a good time (of which last one can approve) but chasing it without the courage to pay the price of full consciousness, and so losing pleasure in pips and squeaks of anxiety.
"The White Negro" lies at the heart of Advertisements for Myself. Published originally in Dissent, a literary-intellectual journal of the New Left, it has gained enormous popularity and is frequently anthologized. It represents a shift in Mailer's focus, because here for the first time he concentrates on psychic rather than social reality. He takes as his province the instinctual consciousness of the urban American Negro, who operates in accordance with subliminal needs. By replacing the imperatives of society with the imperatives of the self, the urban black makes it impossible for institutions of social control to account for him in their own terms. This demonic rebel is for Mailer the essence of "hip" and the model for "a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro."
The hipster's response to experience is intuitive, sensuous, and violent. Mailer's radical assumption is that each act of individual violence, no matter how heinous it may be, subtracts from the collective violence of the state (such as the liquidation of European Jews or the nuclear bombings of Japan). He was later to suggest, in his writings of the late 1960s for example, that the war in Vietnam was partly the result of our inhibitive lives. Mass private constraint, a population "starved into the attrition of conformity," can precipitate mass catastrophe. Unlike individual violence, no one supposedly is responsible for war; so, says Mailer, war becomes a socially acceptable means of expressing violence. It is in defiance of the "collective murders of the State" that the hipster develops into a psychopath. "The strength of the psychopath is that he knows (where most of us can only guess) what is good for him and what is bad for him at exactly those instants when the potentiality exists to change [or] replace a negative and empty fear with an outward action." Mailer is saying that if violence alone will overcome fear, let violence be. Man is better off close to death than hag-ridden by the dictates of a conformist society or emasculated by an anesthetic modular world.
This hipster psychopath is an authentic existentialist because his philosophy is felt, not conceptualized. Informed by the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre , Mailer contends that the only value is that value which answers one's own psychological needs. " there are no truths other than the isolated truths of what each observer feels at each instance of his existence." To judge or view man "from a set of standards conceived a priori to experience, standards from the past," is to preclude his right to grow according to whatever measure he sets for himself. The energy with which the hipster psychopath spurs himself on to growth is derived from a continual search for "an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy--he knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him." Mailer reverses the spirit/flesh dichotomy. It is the flesh that gives sanction and value to the spirit, not vice versa. In the orgasmic moment the hipster believes he can become identical with God, Who is "located in the senses of the body."
Ultimately, "The White Negro" goes beyond social psychology and sexology and turns out to be Mailer's portrait of his own psyche and of his own creative processes. Each of Mailer's subsequent protagonists in his novels is emotionally (though not factually) autobiographical and modeled on the hipster delineated in this essay. The vitalizing madness and compulsive energy that underlie The Naked and the Dead and Barbary Shore surface here.
The turbulence which expressed itself exuberantly in Advertisements for Myself fearsomely rocked Mailer's personal life. In 1960, after an all-night party at their new Manhattan apartment, he stabbed his wife Adele with a penknife, seriously wounding her, and entered Bellevue hospital for seventeen days of psychiatric observation. His wife did not press charges; she recovered and they were soon reconciled. But in 1962 he and Adele were divorced. That same year he married Lady Jeanne Campbell, daughter of the Duke of Argyll and granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook. His marriage with Lady Jeanne was calamitous and short. After a year, in which a daughter, Kate, was born, they were divorced, and Mailer promptly married actress Beverly Bentley. What an astonishing departure all this is from the soft-voiced man who said in 1948, "Actually, I've got all the average middle-class fears." Now Mailer had become the terrible ruffian of American letters.
For sensation-seeking journalists Mailer became little more than material for racy copy. He was arrested in Provincetown for taunting and fighting with police officers; in a televised interview with Mike Wallace, he suggested that juvenile delinquency in New York could be decreased by holding once a year medieval jousting tournaments in Central Park between members of rival gangs; he was arrested at Birdland, a New York nightclub, in a bellicose argument over his liquor bill; at a poetry reading he had the curtain brought down on him for alleged obscenity; after Sonny Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson, he confronted the bearish Liston and told him to wise up and let him promote his next fight; he financed Jose Torres's bid for the world light-heavyweight championship and later donned a pair of boxing gloves himself to go four rounds with Torres on Dick Cavett's television show. These acts may seem exhibitionistic or absurd, but by Mailer's logic they help him to write well and therefore are not foolish.
Just how objectionable Mailer's behavior is depends then, in large part, on one's estimation of his writing, which has become more compelling since his emergence as a public personality. With the miscellanies--The Presidential Papers (1963) and Cannibals and Christians (1966)--he developed a reputation as an astute critic of politics and society in America. With The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, he gained an international reputation for a dramatic rendering of the same subjects. His novels An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? project the daydreams and subliminal compulsions of the American character with tonal colorations never before seen in American fiction.
An American Dream , which first appeared in installments in Esquire in 1964, was published separately in revised form the following year. In the novel the protagonist, Stephen Richards Rojack, affirms many of the ideas contained in Mailer's philosophy of Hip. Like the hipster, Rojack believes that death is "a creation more dangerous than life." Rojack came to this conviction during combat in World War II while staring into the eyes of a German soldier whom he had mortally wounded. The experience also led Rojack to the conclusion that "magic, dread, and the perception of death" are "the roots of motivation." By "magic," Rojack means the involvement of the supernatural--that is to say, God and the Devil--in human affairs. By "dread" he refers generally to an abject fear of the consequences of taking risks. Specifically, Rojack fears for the extinction of his soul as the result of a life in which he has wasted his talent and betrayed his ideals for the opportunities to acquire money, prestige, and social power. Over the years Stephen Rojack, Phi Beta Kappa, winner of the Distinguished Service Cross, and congressman, has successively become Stephen Rojack, author, professor, TV talk-show host, and husband of Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly, who is the daughter of Barney Kelly, a man who personifies demonic social, economic, and political power. The roles change, but the problem remains the same. Whoever Rojack may really be beneath the accretion of social roles, that person has never been given a chance to live. Thus, the Stephen Rojack that one sees at the beginning of the novel is a self-proclaimed failure, believing in suicide as the last chance for his soul's survival and fearing that he feels the first stirrings in himself of cancer, the disease that both Mailer and Rojack believe is a cultural symptom of spiritual extinction--the body's judgment on itself in the insane multiplication of cancerous cells.
More than anything else it has been marriage with Deborah that has brought Rojack to such a wretched defeat. He originally thought that marriage to her might somehow lead to the presidency. Unfortunately, the relationship has become nothing more or less than the "war" of his life, and, as he admits, it has been "a losing war." In fact, marriage with Deborah has caught Rojack in a polarity of destructive emotions. Living with her, Rojack is murderous; trying to separate from her, he is suicidal. He can extricate himself from this trap only by fully engaging in the war with Deborah and winning it. In order to save himself, he decides that he must kill Deborah. In choosing to do so, he severs his most significant relations with the society that has seduced his soul. He renounces all of the compromising roles that for so many years have been counterfeiting his real identity, and he gives himself the chance to find out what that real identity is. Thus, like the hipster, Rojack is willing to commit an act of individual violence in order to liberate himself from the collective violence of society. Yet in committing such an act, Rojack is taking only the first step in extricating himself from spiritually debilitating social relationships. Indeed, killing Deborah is merely a symbolic renunciation of compromise. Complete renunciation will require that Rojack do battle with society on every level of his relationship with it and emerge victorious.
Thus, after killing Deborah, Rojack goes through a series of confrontations with the police, the Mob, and Barney Kelly, meeting also in the course of his existential adventures Cherry, the blonde nightclub singer, who represents Rojack's chance for physical and spiritual fulfillment. Rojack's courage throughout most of these confrontations gives him a personal victory over the collective powers of society. Nevertheless, that victory is undercut by Cherry's death. She is murdered by a friend of her former lover, Shago Martin, who mistakenly believes that she was involved in Martin's murder earlier that evening. But the novel insists, as one of a series of irrational implications, that Cherry might have been removed from danger if only Rojack had had the courage to risk spending the night in Harlem rather than confronting Barney Kelly. Rojack's personal victory over society is also undercut by the fact that while the society that he has extricated himself from remains substantially the same, the new life that he has won is necessarily a life of isolation, for he has lost everything but his knowledge of the truth of his "private vision." Thus in this novel one is left with a sense of both the moral complexity of existential risk and the demonic resilience of the conspiratorial powers of modern American society.
In his fifth novel, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a hunting party of Dallas corporate executives goes to Alaska to kill grizzly bear. They hire a helicopter to flush out of the wilderness not only grizzlies but wolf, Dall ram, and caribou. Laden with guns powerful enough to drop an elephant, the huntsmen engage in a grotesque sporting holiday of blood. The parable is clear. The hunting party is the American military in miniature, replete with commanders and their GI subordinates. The crazed animals being annihilated by aerial machines are the people of Vietnam napalmed by the air force, but such pat equations do little to help one understand the art of this book.
It is the character of young D.J.'s voice that carries all of the thematic, symbolic, and structural weight of the novel. "Grassed out" on marijuana at his parents' Dallas mansion and enjoying his farewell party--he will be inducted into the army the next day--D.J. narrates the events of this Alaskan odyssey in a punning prose that is a dazzling collage of speech from almost every arena of American life. In rapid-fire shifts, he speaks the language of an urban black, a pedantic psychoanalyst, a corporate bureaucrat, a Southern redneck, a revivalist preacher, an academic philosopher, a physicist, a McLuhanite media critic. The impression is of a jammed radio receiver picking up from multiple wavelengths all the ideologies, buried fantasies, fears, and desires of the collective American psyche and transmitting them across the land. D.J. calls himself "Disc jockey to the world." He is telepathically tuned in to the rumblings, the groanings, the screams, and the palpitations of our subterranean selves; and his voice, he imagines, is a "tape being made for the private ear of the Lord, Who will register it in His Univac-like celestial archives." D.J. is the recording secretary of repressed compulsions--dreams of power, ecstatic sexual hopes, hatreds, and bigotries.
D.J.'s consciousness is in the throes of trying to rid itself of that which has glutted it--namely "mixed shit," Mailer's collective symbol for all the slogans, categories, and presumptions of popular American culture. The novel is not intended to be a study of character, because it assumes that individual character cannot survive in a world where the mind control techniques of the mass media have homogenized human thought and where the value of human productivity is measured by impersonal forces such as government, business, and industry. D.J.'s consciousness has been made manic by excessive input. What particularly engorges his mind are thoughts of the violence that historically has been so large and pervasive a part of our national character that it was eventually exported to Southeast Asia. The energetic onrush of the tale D.J. tells may be interpreted as his attempt to purge himself of his psychic overload. But even after fleeing from the hunting party and immersing himself in the pure, raw wilderness, D.J. eagerly declares at the end of the novel: "Vietnam, hot damn."
What is to be made of such grotesquerie? It is Mailer's means of exploding the whole Adamic tradition of American literature. Why Are We in Vietnam? is a deliberate rebuttal of the revered notion that if man removes himself from the corruptness of civilization and enters the realm of unspoiled nature, he can revive within himself something of the purity of heart and nobility of spirit that Adam must have felt in that first world that God set specially before him. While Mailer believes that man does indeed divorce himself from the mystical harmonies of nature, greedily ravages it, builds war machines, and decimates his own kind, he clearly suggests, by way of D.J.'s Arctic experience, that the origin of man's barbarity is nature itself. Evil was in nature before it was in man. Such is Mailer's premise, and he shares it with William S. Burroughs , whose novel The Naked Lunch (1959) inspired this one. "America," Burroughs writes, "is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting." Traditional notions of a serene pastoralism, of a virgin land, are for Mailer--tough-minded urbanite that he is-- nostalgic inventions of a primitive past that never was. I will be savage, D.J. seems to be saying, because I recognize that civilization is but another of savagery's masks, not an enlightened journey out of darkness.
The cultural conflicts of Why Are We in Vietnam?--the individual versus the corporation, independent thought versus the electronic media--are left unresolved because Mailer is inspired in this book by the impulse to escape from culture itself into a realm where nature is terrible, yet beautiful. Finally, however, the real achievement of this novel has more to do with the re-creation of cultural contradictions than with escape from them; D.J.'s narrative presents the dire divisions within American society. How he renders such divisions can be seen in a passage early in the novel when, speaking in urban black vernacular, he describes the menacing interrogation of a country Negro: "Whitey the Green Eye" has a nose "red as lobster a-hovering and a-plunging like a Claw, man." The narrative then modulates to the patter of a white, drug-ridden hipster: "ex-acid is my head, Love Is Death it's square to be frantic." Then it shifts to the voice of an ingratiating "true-blue Wasp-ass" Texan extending a down-home Southern hospitality invitation to Jesus to "come visit." Here is capitalism trying to make its peace with Christianity. Interwoven in the passage are two threads. One is a brief excerpt from "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," a popular song about the idyllic amicability of provincial American life. Another is a pun, "sick with the tick," which refers to time and the parasitic insect, both destroyers of life--thus D.J.'s query, "oh blood how rot is thy sting?" Encapsulated here on half a page are the hatreds and fears, delusions and dreams, weltering within American society. This novel is an oratorio for many voices, each one of which infuriates, stupefies, or calls up dark laughter. By re-creating the duplicities and tensions that infect the American character, Mailer explains why we were in Vietnam.
Furthermore, just as the value of the book is that it enlarges perceptions rather than offers solutions, so the moral of the book is artistic, not ideological. Style, the very act of writing itself--of release in the form of expressive invention--is the one strategy Mailer invokes against the numbing effects of the mass media and the "communication engineers" of a programmed society. By mimicking the languages of the land, he sees through them and their beguilements and coercions. Verbal play is restorative, a spiritual tonic. Mailer suggests it is the last psychical liberty. The style of the book is complex. "I say create complexities," says Mailer in The Presidential Papers, "let art deepen sophistication, let complexities be demonstrated to our leaders, let us try to make them more complex. That is a manly activity." It is an activity which can, he asserts, diminish the totalitarian forces of government, business, and mass communication that simplify life and brutalize man's mind by expunging ambiguity and diversity. A style crackling with disparate images--a style like D.J.'s--may be, Mailer hopes, the force to fight the progressive collectivism of human life. Why Are We in Vietnam? is a book that will not be categorized, for its intention is to subvert all category.
In its inventive prose style and in its indictment of big business and the electronic media, Why Are We in Vietnam? is a novelist's novel. But the general reader did not know what to make of it. To some people it was obscure, to others it was obscene, to most it was both. The Armies of the Night (1968), however, reestablished Mailer with a wide audience and won him high critical acclaim as well. It received the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Subtitled History as a Novel, the Novel as History, the book is an on-the-spot account of the antiwar march on the Pentagon in October 1967. It is novelistic because it sensitively describes the effects of the march on a participant-protagonist, Mailer himself, and historical because it scrupulously describes the facts of the march.
The unity of time in the book and its strict enclosure within the limits of a particular time and place give it a classical sharpness of design. Mailer was compelled to record reality rather than invent it. His previous novels shaped events; now events shape the book--events, moreover, that people know about and can therefore relate to. Tom Wolfe comments on the winning qualities of this "new journalism": it "consumes devices that happen to have originated with the novel and mixes them with every other device known to prose. And all the while, quite beyond matters of technique, it enjoys an advantage so obvious, so built-in, one almost forgets what power it has: the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened. The disclaimers have been erased. The screen is gone. The writer is one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader that Henry James and James Joyce dreamed of and never achieved."
What makes The Armies of the Night so extraordinarily engaging is the characterization of the protagonist, Norman Mailer . Usually he refers to himself simply as "Mailer" or "he," but his occasional use of other names as well--the Ruminant, the Beast, the Existentialist, the Historian, the Participant, the Novelist, the General, the Protagonist, Norman--attests to the diversity of his behavior, to the fact that all along he is at will improvising identities the better to accommodate himself to the multifariousness of American society. An assumption guides him: in an extremely pluralistic nation, the self, to operate effectively, must also be pluralistic. Generally, though, Mailer is a self-preserving rogue in this book, a character of exorbitant disproportions, for always offsetting every sacrificial act of civil disobedience is some ludicrous vanity. He daringly instigates his arrest at the hands of a federal marshal, but he has engaged a filmmaker to follow him closely and take movies of his arrest. Herded into an army truck with the other prisoners, he finds it a "touch awkward" climbing over the tailgate, "for he did not wish to dirty his dark blue pinstripe suit." When he is finally put behind bars, a single thought keeps recurring to him: Can he be released in time to attend a Saturday-night party in New York "which has every promise of being wicked, tasty, and rich?" Mailer may not be convincing as an earnest radical or a "Left Conservative" (his own term for himself) hero--but as a comic hero he is a marvel.
His self-satire is due largely to his "command of a detachment, classic in severity (for he was a novelist and so in need of studying every last lineament of the fine, the noble, the frantic, and the foolish in others and in himself)." And therein lies the power of The Armies of the Night --in its novelistic attributes, its evocations of character and milieu and situation. When Mailer departs from his novelistic rendering of material, the book loses its thrust. The narrative-descriptive style, in which explicit details cohere with implicit moral moments, gives way to the oracular-ruminative style which dotes on abstractions and cultural-cum-philosophical questions. The last paragraph of the book is a case in point. Mailer imagines "America, once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled," now horribly diseased because of her involvement in the Southeast Asia war. "She will probably give birth, and to what?-- the most fearsome totalitarianism the world has ever known? Or can she, poor giant, tormented lovely girl, deliver a babe of a new world brave and tender, artful and wild? Rush to the locks. Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep." Such writing borders on cant and obscurity. How unduly apocalyptic this passage seems now that American society has settled back into relative normality. One may find Mailer, the self-styled Jeremiah, rather tiresome, but when he goes about the business of "studying" every "lineament" and exploring human behavior--his own, the demonstrators', the soldiers'--with the old-fashioned tools of the novelist, his writing incandesces.
Like The Armies of the Night, Mailer's next book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the American Political Conventions of 1968 (1968) was written at the request of Willie Morris, editor of Harper's; it also received a nomination for a National Book Award (NBA). Perhaps because Mailer is not the impresario of events to the extent he was in The Armies of the Night, perhaps because his description of himself in the third person is not a narrative breakthrough but a reprise, perhaps because he was tired from a breathless schedule, Miami and the Siege of Chicago is a lesser achievement and did not win the NBA. Yet this account of the Democratic and Republican conventions of 1968 is among the best political reportage that Mailer has written and arguably the most incisive account of American party conventions ever published. The reviews were uniformly positive. Still believing in the fundamental congruence between the trajectory of his own life and that of the country, Mailer managed to position himself to observe both the leaders and rank-and-file of the two parties during the tumultuous summer of 1968. His description of the Chicago "police riot" (so termed by the federal Walker Commission) is brilliantly achieved. Yet Mailer did not challenge the event with his imagination as forcefully as he did in The Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), the narratives that precede and follow Miami and the Siege of Chicago. His more passive stance can be seen in the fact that he refers to himself throughout as "the reporter."
In Of a Fire on the Moon Mailer took on his nom de plume for the decade, "Aquarius," and moved into the middle of the most prolific period of his career. Between 1967 and 1976 he published eighteen books. A comprehensive anthology of his work, The Long Patrol, edited by one of his most astute critics, Robert F. Lucid, also appeared during this period, in 1971. It includes excerpts from thirteen of his books, from 1948 to 1971, along with a useful historical introduction.
Living and reporting the historic stresses of the 1960s, Mailer began to suspect that our national reality had become more fantastical than any fiction. His suspicion was confirmed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's announcement that it was ready to rocket man to the moon. Commissioned by Life magazine, he flew to Houston and Cape Kennedy to cover the flight of Apollo 11. As spectacular as Mailer believes the moon shot is in Of a Fire on the Moon, he holds that the cosmic forces of existence are present just as provocatively, just as sublimely, in the relationship between man and woman as in the infinite reaches of space. Mailer contends that the interplay between the sexes is a process that God has ordained to bring symmetry and balance to creation. The heterosexual relationship "is one of the prime symbols of the connection between all things."
The chief experiences of Mailer's life have always concerned women. In 1970 he separated from Beverly Bentley and their two sons--Michael Burks and Stephen McLeod. That same year, leading exponents of the new feminists denounced him as the principal voice of male chauvinism on the American literary scene. He counterattacked with The Prisoner of Sex (1971). In this comically trenchant treatise he reexplores his relationship with women by examining the nature of his love for them and sets forth his own ideas on the sex game and his own sexuality. The further Mailer ponders the new feminism the more he comes to realize that it is a subject rich in possibilities. After all, he says, "the themes of his life had gathered here. Revolution, tradition, sex and the homosexual, the orgasm, the family, the child and the political shape of the future, technology and human conception, waste and abortion, the ethics of the critic and the male mystique, black rights and new thoughts on women's rights."
He first argues his position against Kate Millett . The freedom that she envisions for women once technology delivers them from the bondage of the womb, Mailer can only perceive as a deeper bondage for the whole human race. Semen banks, genetic engineering, artificial wombs, human birth by parthenogenesis--all such schemes for a scientifically immaculate conception he regards as totalitarian stratagems leading to worldwide homogeneity. On the question of the sex act itself, he scorns those feminists who applaud Masters and Johnson, the experimental sexologists who rescued their patients from frigidity and impotence by encouraging them, in comfortable laboratory conditions, to use those stimulative techniques most conducive to orgasm. All this, complains Mailer, is so clinical, so vapid, so very much beside the point. Sexuality is not genitality. Rather, he insists that it has to do--and he quotes William Blake --with "comminglings from the Head to the Feet." He implies that only a man of imagination, a novelist, can decipher the message of human orgasm.
At this juncture Mailer argues in support of two brother artists, Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence . For Millett, Miller is America's vile pasha of depersonalized sex. She cites passages from his early novels, Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), in which, she contends, men use women as mere carnal fodder. But Mailer accuses Millett of hypocrisy and is at his comic and mischievous best defending Miller and lampooning Millett for her dogged, tractarian approach, her insensitivity to Miller's humor and metaphoric power. As for Lawrence, Mailer refutes Millett's charge that the sexual act in Lawrence's work is a matter of male will and female submission. Both sexes must deliver themselves, in Lawrence's words, "over to the unknown," a mystical power far greater than themselves.
Mailer goes on to poeticize the womb as woman's alliance with eternity, her inner cosmos into which man, the striver, must make his way. Sexual intercourse becomes an apocalyptically grave engagement in which the sperm, a writhing "limb of the soul seeking to be born," takes a leap toward "every call of the woman for what was magnificent or large as her idea of future life." Mailer ecstatically visualizes the ovum as an expectant priestess choosing to receive only the most valiant of wriggling voyagers that enter through her door. The more poetically he treats sexuality the more meaning he attaches to it, until he becomes "The Prisoner." "No thought was so painful as the idea that sex had meaning: for give meaning to sex and one was the prisoner of sex--the more meaning one gave it, the more it assumed, until every failure and misery, every evil of your life, spoke their lines in its light, and every fear of mediocre death."
Mailer completed his coverage of four consecutive sets of political conventions (1960-1972) with St. George and the Godfather (1972), which appeared just before the presidential elections and was widely praised. Appearing again as Aquarius, Mailer endorsed George McGovern and lambasted Richard Nixon, but it was clearly the latter who excited his novelistic imagination. He says of Nixon: "It was possible that no politician in the history of America employed so dependably mediocre a language in his speeches." Nevertheless, as a political tactician, "Nixon would reveal himself not only as a genius, but an artist." Besides Nixon's, his portraits of George Wallace, Henry Kissinger, Spiro Agnew, Hubert Humphrey, and Eugene McCarthy are memorable. But the narrative lacks the dramatic structure of its predecessors, especially The Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon. It is clear that Mailer was tired of describing himself in the third person and frustrated with American politics. His research for Ancient Evenings (1983), set in Egypt 2,300 years ago, was underway even as he skewered Nixon.
Shortly after St. George and the Godfather appeared Mailer again braced himself to take the plunge into the female psyche. He was offered a large sum of money to write a preface to a photographic retrospect of Marilyn Monroe. Long fascinated with persons who, like himself, have been intimate with the prizes and perils of playing to a national audience, he could not resist expanding his 25,000-word preface to a "novel biography" almost four times that length. He felt this was a chance to explore a spiritual twin. His basic contention is that if the real Monroe is to be discovered, a novelist must do it. To conceive of her novelistically, his premise goes, is to come closer than any pure biographical reportage can to the truth of what her "unspoken impulses" were. "Exceptional people have a way of living with opposites in themselves" that puts them beyond the pale of logical inquiry and renders traditional "biographical tools" insufficient. Yet his writing suffers when it moves from concrete description to abstraction. For example, what sense can be made of his explanation of how Ingmar Bergman puts his personal imprint on film? " all the hoarded haunted sorrows of Scandinavia drift in to imbibe the vampires of his psyche--he is like a spirit vapor risen out of the sinister character of film itself." Such writing generates more heat than light. Another example: Monroe proves herself a "great comedian" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, "which is to say she bears an exquisitely light relation to the dramatic thunders of triumph, woe, greed, and calculation." Hardly a clarifying definition of a great comedian. Long priding himself on being one of the fastest writers alive--he has entitled one piece in The Presidential Papers "Ten Thousand Words a Minute"--Mailer wrote Marilyn in two months in order to get it published for the summer-fall book season. It seems that the power and precision of his language have been sacrificed to the requirements of time.
And it is a pity, for the thesis of Marilyn is profound. Monroe's selfhood, the identity she desperately groped for all her life, was a mirage. Not able to find it by her own efforts, she sought out other people--her husbands, agents, directors--to help her find it. Unsatisfied with the results of the impossible task she set them, she sought solace in pills. Her search for an identity beneath or beyond her multiple roles was necessarily futile because, Mailer believes, identity exists within roles. The mask is the face. Here, then, is a clue to Mailer's own behavior. His identity is self-created and deliberately prismatic. In The Armies of the Night, for instance, he is master of ceremonies, actor, director, ambassador, general, banker, historian, and novelist. Since Advertisements for Myself the assumption of his books has been that if identity is diversified, it is more difficult for internal and external suppressors--the superego, the corporation, the state--to retard individual growth. Marilyn Monroe's problem was that, like Charles Eitel, she was caught in the corporate web, in this case Hollywood, and compelled to play the role it forced upon her, that of vibrant sex goddess. In the process--to recall an image from The Deer Park --the life of the "cave," of the creative mind, atrophied.
If the 1960s were Mailer's autobiographical decade, the 1970s were his biographical period. His next book after Marilyn was The Faith of Graffiti (1974), a celebration of New York ghetto artists. But he followed this work with examinations of two of the greatest American egotists of the twentieth century: Muhammad Ali and Henry Miller . In The Fight (1975) Mailer almost disappears as a character ("He was no longer pleased with his presence. His daily reactions bored him"), but in compensation he provides a sharply etched portrait of Ali, "the embodiment of loquacious defiance," as Philip M. Bufithis describes him in his study of Mailer's work. The narrative is ostensibly an account of the Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, but it is really structured around Ali, who, Bufithis notes, "seems a version of Mailer himself."
Henry Miller , it could also be argued, is a version of Mailer, or perhaps a prototype. Mailer has acknowledged Miller's influence and paid tribute to him in Genius and Lust: A Journey through the Major Writings of Henry Miller (1976). The edition includes selections from ten of Miller's books and eighty pages of commentary--some of Mailer's finest literary criticism--on Miller as well as Hemingway and Lawrence.
Mailer's most important work of the 1970s, however, was The Executioner's Song (1979), for which he received the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This 1,056-page "true life novel," as Mailer chose to call it, about killer Gary Gilmore was widely reviewed, receiving an eight-to-one majority of favorable notices. Many of the negative critics questioned the morality of devoting so much dispassionate attention to a murderer with no apparent redeeming social merits. Positive critics, on the other hand, argued that Mailer's nonjudgmental treatment of a probable psychopath gained force from its reportorial accuracy. All the reviews agreed that The Executioner's Song was a substantial book produced by a literary master. The more laudatory notices accented what they called Mailer's artistry.
Virtually every review, including that in the Times Literary Supplement, noted that Mailer had been hired to write the book by Lawrence Schiller, a freelance journalist who had purchased the rights to the stories of the principal figures in the book for a large sum, and disclosed that Schiller paid Mailer $250,000. In interviews and in the book Mailer acknowledged Schiller's paramount role in the genesis of the book.
The unusual arrangement between Schiller and Mailer raised questions in the literary community. Schiller's purchase of exclusive rights to the principals' stories was generally criticized as "checkbook journalism," and his hiring of Mailer was scored as further evidence of his eagerness to exploit the principals'"sordid" stories for private gain. Mailer's willingness to write for Schiller also stirred some controversy, but this reaction died down when he explained that he had complete freedom to handle Schiller's material in any fashion he chose.
"This book does its best to be a factual account of the activities of Gary Gilmore and the men and women associated with him from April 9, 1976, when he was released from the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, until his execution a little more than nine months later in the Utah State Prison," Mailer writes in the afterword of the book. After stating that his book is based on interviews, documents, court records, and other original material, Mailer adds:
Out of such revelations was this book built and the story is as accurate as one can make it. This does not mean it has come a great deal closer to the truth than the recollections of the witnesses. While important events were corroborated by other accounts wherever possible, that could not, given the nature of the story, always be done, and, of course, two accounts of the same episode would sometimes diverge. In such conflict of evidence, the author chose the version that seemed most likely. It would be vanity to assume that he was always right.
Recited by a masterly reporter and an enthralling storyteller whose own point of view is notably absent, The Executioner's Song is a stark and socially realistic chronicle of the last nine months in the life of Gilmore, one of the outcasts of American society, who spent eighteen of his thirty-five years in various prisons for a variety of crimes. Many involved ill-conceived thefts. Asocial and strongly given to fantasy, he was released on parole to his Mormon cousins in Provo, Utah, in April 1976. Motivated by good-heartedness, the cousins accepted Gilmore into their home and introduced him to their circle of friends. They found him work, and they probed gently for ways to fit him into the routines of their lives.
But Gilmore's basic violence often broke through. To the dismay of his relatives and their friends, he engaged in fights and contests of physical strength with violent overtones. He also stole six-packs of beer and once proposed stealing a two-ton truck and repainting it for sale. In Mailer's telling, Gilmore seems pathetic as he alternated between conforming to community values and flouting them; at times he expressed repentance for his behavior and pledged not to repeat it. He won a certain sympathy for himself as "a guy [who] has been locked up a long time [and] takes a while to get used to being out."
At the same time, he caused uneasiness by cadging loans, overindulging in beer, and buying a secondhand car with only flimsy means. The car, a Mustang, made him feel like somebody as he raced it around the countryside.
His attitude toward the law also disturbed his acquaintances. Irked by the complications of getting a driver's license, he nonetheless declined to sign up for a required training course. "I'm a grown man and it's beneath me," he said. A friend attempted to reason with him. "The law is for everybody. They're not singling you out," the friend argued. "Do you think you're better than I am?" "Excuse me," Gary said at last.... As he walked off, he said, "Real good advice." He was quick to get away, adds Mailer.
The contradictions of Gilmore's life amount to a social statement in the Theodore Dreiser or Frank Norris mode. A sense of inevitable tragedy hovers over Gilmore; events portray him as a loser, one who has been buffeted and whose perhaps creative nature has been stunted from childhood. Although it is possible to perceive Gilmore as a hardened criminal, psychotic, misshapen by his parents and thus meriting little compassion, it can also be argued that he is largely the product of uncaring prison regimes--that his antisocial tendencies and easy acceptance of violence were reinforced in jail. There is no evidence that Gilmore benefited from rehabilitation, if indeed he was significantly exposed to it.
The first section of the book, "Western Voices," carries Gilmore from his parole and introduction to Provo through a crude sexual liaison with Nicole to two cold-blooded killings. The first was of a gas-station attendant and the second, the following night, was of a motel clerk. Both were exhibitions of Gilmore's rage.
Almost immediately captured, he was back in prison after three and a half months of freedom. What stands out in this period is Gilmore's striving for quick and easy gratification of animalistic desires: food, drink, and sex. His tempestuous affair with Nicole was made possible in large measure because both partners were sexually voracious. Both also liked the excitement of violent actions.
"Western Voices" is written with great tautness and suspense. Paragraphs are seldom more than one sentence long, as if Mailer were a busy newspaper rewrite man working against a deadline and turning out copy one "take" at a time. The literary artistry in sustaining this style without making the narrative seem jerky is of a high level. The power and the realism of the prose are remarkable.
By deft description and telling use of quotation, Mailer evokes both the goodwill and the banality inherent in lower-middle-class life in Provo. The American scene is painted without enhancement; its dependence on television for stimulation and diversion is starkly reported, as is the vacuity of its conversations, which are limited to concepts gleaned from television or the movies. Equally, though, Mailer is at pains to represent Provo's (and America's) human kindness. Although members of Gilmore's circle repeatedly suffer from him, they are reluctant to send him back to jail; they are baffled and hurt by his erratic conduct. Even Nicole, slapped and knocked about, "could feel a lot of ugliness beginning to collect in her" only after repeated instances of abuse.
The second portion of The Executioner's Song, called "Eastern Voices," deals with the events from November 1976, after Gilmore's conviction, to his execution by a firing squad on 17 January 1977. There is a marked shift in tone as Mailer takes the reader into the criminal justice bureaucracy and into the world of the news media. Once Gilmore enters the Utah criminal justice system and once he declares his determination to die for his killings, he becomes the focus of a "story" for the electronic and the pencil press, both of which symbolize the East. The East is also the headquarters of those groups and organizations that oppose capital punishment and intervene in vain to save Gilmore.
By quoting extensively from police and court documents, Mailer demonstrates the impersonality of the criminal justice system; the drama of the otherwise bleak legal proceedings is transformed by the media. "The Gilmore case" is brought into being, particularly as Gilmore's final days tick off. In depicting members of the press as hawks and vultures, seekers after sensation, Mailer includes Schiller among them. Once initiated, "the Gilmore case" creates its own momentum; it accumulates a bureaucracy, assessments from the psychiatric profession, a legal corps, and recorders of the phenomenon from the national and world press. Indeed, as the guns of the firing squad bark, reporters are within a few feet of the action.
Mailer's detachment, his role as a panoptic observer after the case was closed, was confirmed in a personal interview. Noting that the book relied heavily on research materials supplied by others, he said the novel was "probably the least personal of my books." He continued:
There is an irony in this, and it is that The Executioner's Song is my most intense work since The Naked and the Dead. And there is a further irony: All my personal books--and they were terribly personal--repelled as many critics as they attracted. With this book, however, the criticism has been that it is impersonal. I think this demonstrates that critics cut their cloth to fit their biases. When I sat down to write this book, I decided to skip experimentation and to follow well-charted paths. In this sense the book displays my skills, but not necessarily my talents as a writer. Since the Gary Gilmore story was not my own experience, I could not feel as near to it as if it had been something that had arisen out of my life.
There is an argument to be made that the impressive strength of the book derives from the absence of a clear authorial voice. By letting the Gilmore story speak for itself, the unappealing and seedy side of American life is presented without palliatives. Mailer leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Gilmore is representational of criminal conduct, or whether his conduct reflects the failure of our prison system, or whether the criminal justice system functions with compassion, or whether the press distorts and sensationalizes such cases as his. Descriptive, but not prescriptive, The Executioner's Song raises a host of social questions. In doing so, it adds luster to Mailer's standing as one of our foremost writers.
Mailer followed The Executioner's Song with Of Women and Their Elegance (1980), a fictional autobiography of Marilyn Monroe that in 1986 he adapted into a play, "Strawhead." Several versions of this dramatic adaptation have been staged at the Actor's Studio in New York with Mailer's daughter Kate in the title role. In November 1980, fourteen months after his divorce from Beverly Bentley became final, Mailer married Carol Stevens to legitimize their daughter, Maggie, divorced her a few days later, and married Barbara Norris Church. He and Church have a son, John Buffalo, and Mailer adopted Church's son from a previous marriage.
Every three or four years beginning in 1959 Mailer has collected the bulk of his accumulated periodical writings into miscellanies. His fifth such collection, Pieces and Pontifications, appeared in 1982. The first part of the collection includes a dozen of his best essays from the 1970s, and the second, edited by J. Michael Lennon, includes twenty interviews from 1958 to 1981. In several of these interviews Mailer discusses his huge work in progress, generally referred to before publication as "the Egyptian novel." Begun in 1971 and worked on in between the several other works he wrote in the 1970s, Ancient Evenings was published with much fanfare in 1983.
Set in Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties (1290-1100 B.C.), the novel traces, in 709 large pages, the complex fate of one man, Menenhetet, who has been reincarnated three times. Murdered in his first life while copulating with a queen of Ramses II, Menenhetet reincarnates himself in her womb. He effects his next two reincarnations by self-inducing his death while copulating.
Menenhetet narrates the story of his four lives at a dinner party in the palace of Ramses IX. The occasion is the Night of the Pig, a time of lambent wildness when irregularities and iconoclastic talk are permitted. As thousands of caged fireflies illuminate the pharoah's pillared patio against the surrounding dark, Menenhetet imparts his autobiography to four listeners--Ramses IX, the pharoah's Overseer of the Cosmetic Box, the Overseer's beautiful wife, and their six-year-old son, who is Menenhetet Two, the great-grandson of Menenhetet. Intensified by the social drama that frames it, Menenhetet's story extends to the threshold of the dawn, and so nearly to the end of the novel.
Menenhetet's four lives form an arc. In his first life he ascends from peasant beginnings to his apex as First Charioteer to His Majest, Ramses II. Later he becomes overseer of Ramses II's harem of queens. In his second life he is a formidable high priest whose occult practices, people say, risk profanity. In his third life he is a shrewd brothel keeper who becomes a vastly rich papyrus manufacturer. In his fourth life he is a respected nobleman--astute, corrupt, and thwarted in his ambition to be vizier to Ramses IX and eventually pharoah himself. He dies a grave robber.
The other major narrative voice is that of the departed soul--the Ka or ghost--of Menenhetet Two, who was murdered at the age of twenty-one and now describes the dinner party from his memory of it. The desolate Ka of Menenhetet Two opens the novel with its most fascinating section, the thirty-eight-page "Book of One Man Dead." The Ka vividly describes its agonizing struggle to wrest itself free from entombment in the Great Pyramid of Khufu; quaking with fear, it recollects how two embalmers, step by horrific step, prepared its body for mummification. There is a consciousness here not met with in any other fiction. The reader is pulled into the Ka's strange cares and yearnings as it painfully orients itself to the shock of its nonmortal existence and meets the grim, awesome Ka of Menenhetet. The evocation of the Great Pyramid--its enclosed spaces and furnishings, the view from it of the immense starry night over the land--imparts a felt sense of mystery, wonder, and dread. The last scene of the novel is also striking. After six hundred pages, Mailer's prose soars as the Ka of Menenhetet Two resumes its narration in the Great Pyramid and continues its talk with the Ka of Menenhetet, who guides the young Ka through the Land of the Dead. Ancient Evenings constitutes, then, two mountains between which lies the vast plain of Menenhetet's dinner-party narrative.
No novel resembles it. One may well ask, then, just what Mailer has done. The answer, no less true for its simplicity, is that he has written a novel about magic. Mailer is telling readers--there is always that rabbinical teaching streak in him--that a life lived according to a belief in magic can be deeply vitalizing and creative, for when the gods dwell in the things of this world, energy and powerfully sustaining meaning can be found everywhere. Mailer wants readers to believe that magic can make as much sense out of the world as science and its handmaiden, technology. The title of the novel is meant to suggest that an evening spent in Egypt three thousand years ago could well have been as fully interesting--though not the same--as an evening spent anywhere in the world today.
In an interview for the Washington Post (20 April 1983) Mailer informatively discussed some of the thinking that went into Ancient Evenings:
"This is one of the few books I know," Mailer says, "that treats magic with respect. See, magic bears the same relation to the Egyptians that technology does to us. One of the things I wanted to shock and startle the reader with is: Look what a comprehensive world view magic gives you. When it works, it's marvelous and it fortifies their view of the universe. When it doesn't work, it's that something went wrong with the process. It's never the fundamental belief that's shaken." Similarly, "our belief in science is, if not tragically misplaced, certainly megalomaniacal." In fact, "it could be said by future generations, if there are any, that we're much sillier than the Egyptians," because we use technology "to slowly but systematically deaden and debase our way of life. Each year there's more real poverty in the synapses than there was the year before." The chief (and predictable) offender: television.
"I feel as if we've all gone completely in the wrong direction. When God first conceived the world, I don't think it was His or Her notion--that much effect the women's movement has had on me!--that we would have television. I don't think all those worlds came out of the cosmos in order to have people sitting around like sheep looking at a livid luminescent screen."
But this animism he finds so appealing in the Egyptians--has he experienced it himself? "Well, let's say I find it philosophically congenial. For instance, listen to this--are you ready?" And he rips a piece out of the sandwich bag with a noisy flourish. "Now the Egyptians would doubtless have said that sound is what the god of this bag uttered when wounded. And that makes absolutely as much sense to me as some incredibly difficult and incomprehensible discussion on the collision of sine waves. I believe there are all sorts of forces in the universe, some more tangible than others, nearly all of them invisible, that sort of aid us or f--- us up. One of the ways you can spot that is that you can be engaged in something that you're dead serious about. It can turn out badly or well, but you feel considerably more or less elation or despondency than you should. One knows instinctively that there were bad spirits or good ones around affecting the result."
Far better that one seek help from magic than from science, for magic, Mailer believes, speaks to the soul--to the transcendent--in man. The fundamental theme of the novel forcefully addresses Western postindustrial life: man has insulated himself within rationality, shrunken himself into it, yet it can never explain what or who he is or where he has come from or where he is going.
Mailer's religious vitalism resembles that of the American transcendentalists; though, of course, he does not share their characteristic quietism. Over the past fifty years Mailer's combined works have constituted an epic satire based on his observations of what the transcendentalists were always noting--the spiritual puniness to which man has reduced himself. "Man is the dwarf of himself," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson . And so, Mailer would add, he has come to allow lifelessness--television and plastic--to surround him and stultify his nerve endings. Absorbed in television, he lives vicariously. And every time he uses a plastic object instead of a natural one, he chooses a bit of death over a bit of life. Plastic does not resonate. It is separate from nature. It is the waste material of oil--the excrement of oil. Mailer sounds like Menenhetet.
Mailer's outsized intention in Ancient Evenings is to rejuvenate the human species by showing it how life can be lived on the edge of dread and thereby intensified. Menenhetet propels himself toward physically and morally brave acts in war and in love and so builds new synapses, counteracting the perpetual forces of atrophy. He continually exchanges comfort for life and more life. When he stops doing so, he slides into convention and begins to die. There is no such thing, Mailer wants readers to know, as stasis. One is either in a state of growth or death, and the gods have a stake in which it will be.
The gods in Ancient Evenings are most unchurchly, for they are not benign or omniscient or omnipotent. Like man himself, they are struggling for completion in the existential sense of making themselves. And man, far from having a bit part in the cosmic drama, is the embodiment or instrument of their endeavor to grow. They enlist man to help them and thereby impel him beyond his natural limits. Mailer refutes, then, the modern literary image of man as a sadly laughable creature caught up in a network of circumstances beyond his power to know or control. Menenhetet trembles. He falters. But he never believes that his being alive is mere happenstance. He has been launched into the cosmos by powers greater than himself, and it is his purpose to actualize those powers through the exertions of his own creative will.
Missing the metaphysics and focusing on the literal plot of Ancient Evenings, some reviewers have labored under two serious misapprehensions: the novel takes as its subject human decadence; it is historically inauthentic. When Ramses II buggers Menenhetet, who recalls at the dinner party that the pharoah's semen flowed forth as prodigiously as the waters of the Nile, the act is not decadent. Nor is the imagery ridiculous or sensational. On the contrary, it accurately expressed how such an act was viewed by a pagan. The point is that Ramses II strengthens himself by the act. Egypt and he prosper by it. When Menenhetet eats the flesh of dead Hittite soldiers, the act is not vile. Nor are the frequent scenes of incest. The reviewers' imputations of decadence reveal their own dispositions, not those of the world of Ancient Evenings. Actually, Mailer is daring the reviewers into such a reaction to prove his point of how provincial and presumptuous the American mind can be--how immured in its own finite time. The novel portrays a pre-Judeo-Christian world. The two narrators are pre-Judeo-Christian. Their morality is not ours. Ancient Evenings is an invitation to the reader to get out of himself.
The so-called noxiousness of the novel is not only Mailer's way of inveighing against American parochialism. It is his way of assailing Americans' ongoing obsession with sanitizing nature out of more and more areas of life. Thus Ancient Evenings could be the most olfactory novel ever written, profusely evoking the odors of excrement, sweat, human and animal breath, putrefying plants and animals. Mailer is not driving readers through ancient Egypt on a sightseeing bus--he is rubbing their noses in it.
The second erroneous assumption about the novel is that it inauthentically portrays the ancient Egypt of history. Real Egyptians, the argument goes, did not believe in mental telepathy or physical reincarnation, and Ancient Evenings includes a considerable measure of both. If Mailer had wanted to write a factual, entirely accurate historical novel about ancient Egypt he would have or would have tried to. He has done neither because neither was his intention. He has tried, however, to evoke the spirit, the atmosphere, the feel of ancient Egypt. David B. O'Connor, curator of the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, has said in the Pennsylvania Gazette (May 1983) that though he found minor errors in Ancient Evenings, Mailer had grasped well the cultural and historical thrust of ancient Egypt.
Mailer returned to the shores of America with his next novel, which he wrote in two months, a thriller titled Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984). It was his first book with Random House, with whom he signed a multi-book contract after fourteen years with Little, Brown. Set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Mailer has summered for more than forty years, and other parts of Cape Cod, the novel is a reassertion of old prerogatives in its exploration of courage and dread, and an advance in its rich delineation of a father-son relationship, one much different than those in earlier novels such as Why Are We in Vietnam?. Like almost all of Mailer's books, Tough Guys Don't Dance received mixed reviews (the most notable exceptions are The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, and The Executioner's Song, which received reviews almost entirely favorable, and Barbary Shore, the opposite). The plot of Tough Guys Don't Dance, including seven deaths and a daisy chain of sexual relations, is overly complicated and difficult to follow. As Barry Leeds has written in the New Hampshire College Journal (Spring 1993), Tough Guys Don't Dance parallels An American Dream in several ways. Both were written rapidly and are concerned with the murder of an estranged wife. The narrator-protagonist is the chief suspect in both novels and is pursued by a hostile policeman. Cancer, dread, the supernatural, and an existential attempt to conquer a fear of falling from heights are present in both novels, as are a variety of lowlife thugs. Finally, both novels are structured around the protagonist's ascent from "imminent alcoholism, damnation and madness to salvation and sanity." Tough Guys Don't Dance, Leeds says, is somewhat like an Elizabethan revenge tragedy in which there is no real resolution, only a "lengthy series of elaborate, often forced explanations of how the nine culprits ... did away with the seven victims."
Besides continuing to work on "Strawhead" in the period after Tough Guys Don't Dance, Mailer traveled to Russia and wrote an essay on his visit for Parade (19 August 1984) which, considering subsequent events there, confirmed his reputation for political prescience. He also wrote a long essay on Huckleberry Finn (New York Times Book Review, 9 December 1984) and then began work on several screenplays, including one for Tough Guys Don't Dance. The movie, directed by Mailer and produced by Cannon Films, was released in 1987. Like the book, it was highly praised and roundly criticized. It is currently undergoing a revival on videocassette.
By early 1987, Mailer had already conceived the topic of his next work and researched it for most of the year. Known initially as "the CIA novel," the book had its title by 1988--Harlot's Ghost --and excerpts appeared in Esquire and Playboy. The novel itself, preceded by additional excerpts in Rolling Stone, New York Review of Books, New York, and Paris Review, was finally published in October 1991. If Conversations with Norman Mailer (1988), edited by J. Michael Lennon, is not counted, the seven years of silence between Tough Guys Don't Dance and Harlot's Ghost is the longest gap in Mailer's career. But then, Harlot's Ghost, at 1,310 pages, is the longest book of his career. Indeed, he needed more pages. The novel ends with the words "To be continued," but readers will have to wait several years to learn the fate of ace spy Hugh Montague (code name "Harlot").
The novel is divided into two unequal parts. The first, "Omega," is set in 1983 in Maine at the home of Kittredge (Harlot's former wife) and Herrick "Harry" Hubbard, her current husband. All three are CIA agents, as is Harry's father, Cal. In this hundred-page opening section readers learn that Harlot is missing; a body that could be his has washed up on a shore in the Chesapeake Bay, and the CIA is mightily disturbed. Harlot has access to the "Holy of Holies," the darkest, most terrible secrets of the agency. In an atmosphere of high intrigue, a variety of agents converge on Kittredge and Harry's home, "The Keep," which is located on an island near Bar Harbor. Is Harlot dead or alive? Is he hiding in Russia or somewhere in the United States? Is he a super-patriot or the mole that the agency has tried to ferret out since the 1950s? "Omega" breaks off here, and "Alpha," the first-person account of young Hubbard's life in the CIA from the 1940s to 1965, takes over. As in Ancient Evenings, Mailer begins his novel in medias res, and then goes back in time--in this case, nearly forty years. Mailer revealed in a 19 September 1991 Chicago Tribune interview that the sequel to Harlot's Ghost will take the story from 1965 to 1983, concluding in Maine on the evening that Harlot's disappearance is announced. The "Alpha" section is Hubbard's autobiographical attempt to understand the agency and his own past, and to provide a foundation for the effort to understand the mystery of Harlot's disappearance and identity. His ghost haunts readers as they enter the byzantine world of human treachery that is the history of the CIA. In his Chicago Tribune review (19 September 1991), John Aldridge calls the novel "a gigantically discursive, remarkably benign meditation of the subterfuges and perversions, the deceits and betrayals, the compromises and, yes, the honest victories that constitute the dark politics of covert power. No smaller novel could begin to do justice to such a mighty subject."
While Harlot's Ghost is not a sweeping social novel, it does provide a privileged perspective on some of the most cataclysmic events and fabled figures of American life after World War II. Like a long freight train, Mailer's story of CIA agents at the heart of intrigues at home and abroad (Berlin, Uruguay, Russia, and Cuba) picks up speed as it snakes through postwar American life, accelerating tremendously as it moves through the failed CIA invasion of Cuba, the attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, the Cuban missile crisis, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Some of Kennedy's love affairs comprise another strand of the complex plot of deception, betrayal, and heroism.
Because Mailer again employs a first-person narrator in "Alpha," he has some difficulty in keeping the reader aware of how Kittredge's life is unfolding while Hubbard, her future husband, is posted to Europe and South America. Mailer resorts to an epistolary solution: approximately twenty-five percent of Harlot's Ghost consists of letters between Kittredge and Hubbard, and a good portion of these are given to discussions of her dual personality theory, which she calls Alpha and Omega. The letters slow the novel down, but they also provide a break from the unrelenting perspective of Hubbard.
The novel freely and brilliantly mixes historical and fictional characters: the Kennedy brothers, J. Edgar Hoover, Allen Dulles, E. Howard Hunt, Castro, and several members of the Mob interact freely with a huge cast of imagined agents and flunkies, bureaucrats, prostitutes, and soldiers. Hunt has an especially large role, serving as Hubbard's station chief in Uruguay. It seems likely that he will appear in the sequel, which will follow the CIA through Vietnam and Watergate and trace the course of Kittredge's marriage to Hubbard. Reviews of the novel varied widely. Some, like Aldridge, praised it highly for its realism and use of historical characters. Others, lacking Mailer's knowledge of the CIA and the postwar period, faulted him for being either too soft or too hard on the CIA. The length of the novel and the Hubbard-Kittredge letters received a great deal of comment, both pro and con. Several critics wondered if the novel would not have been better served up in stages, like Victorian three-deckers. Little commentary has been offered thus far on Kittredge's theory of personality and how it might serve as a gloss for the double-faced actions of practically every character.
Mailer understands that his novel has many digressions, slow patches that do not make for a fast read. But he wanted it that way. After all, his idea of what a great novel should be is represented by Leo Tolstoy 's Anna Karenina (1873-1876), Theodore Dreiser 's An American Tragedy (1925), Herman Melville 's Moby-Dick (1851), and most importantly, John Dos Passos 's U.S.A. trilogy. In these novels and Harlot's Ghost, dramatic peaks of intense and vividly imagined action alternate with calmer passages of exposition, historical background, technical explanation, and sometimes philosophical reflection. Novels that are just page-turners, in Mailer's view, are novels for a season, not for the ages. Harlot's Ghost cannot be fully judged apart from its sequel, which will not appear until the late 1990s at the earliest.
Instead of turning immediately to the sequel, Mailer did what he had done several times before: he moved in a completely different direction and took on a small project that ultimately became a large one. For more than thirty years, he had been interested in the art and life of Pablo Picasso, but had never written much more than an essay about him (collected in Advertisements for Myself as "An Eye on Picasso"). Now he decided to write a biography of the artist from his birth in 1881 to the end of his early manhood at the beginning of World War I. The main theme of Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography (1995) is that Picasso was a self-created artist who "gambled on his ability to reach into mysteries of existence that no one else had even perceived." Without referring to himself, Mailer uses his own fifty years of artistic success, failure and experimentation to measure the first third of Picasso's life. Mailer also provides one hundred and fifty reproductions of Picasso's work, early and late, and fifty more by other artists of the period, including George Braque, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, and Paul Cézanne. Forty-eight of the plates, mainly of Picasso's work, are in color, and focus on the Cubist period, 1908-1913. These years were also the time of the most severe testing in Picasso's life. Still difficult to define, Cubism was initially the attempt of Picasso and Braque to depict simultaneously all sides of an object, to combine in a vertiginous way the look of a guitar, a bottle, or a nude from every perspective including from the inside out. It is Mailer's hypothesis that visions of decomposition and death weighed heavily on Picasso when he created his Cubist masterpieces. Later, influenced perhaps by theories of relativity, Picasso introduced even more complexities to his skewed versions of reality, and thus Mailer's biography becomes a kind of aesthetic detective story. In 1908 Picasso was a joke in the Paris art world; a year or two later he had become for some, as Mailer reports, a mutilator of aesthetics, and for others, "the artist-as-hero."
Mailer undertook no original research for his biography. Genealogy is not his interest, nor is the traditional biographical chronicle of travel, meals, awards, and advancements. The merit of Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man (which, after many problems obtaining permissions, appeared in October 1995) does not reside in its compilation and interpretation of conventional biographical data, but in Mailer's attempt to examine Picasso's developing artistic psyche in different perils, as well as in periods of peace. Mailer is especially adept in delineating the state of dread Picasso painted in and about. Like Mailer, Picasso had both great ambition and great insecurity. Mailer also borrows freely and heavily from a score of biographers, memoirists, and art critics, including Picasso's first great love, Fernande Olivier--a tall, redheaded artist's model who lived with him from 1905 to 1912, the central years of Mailer's book. Her memoir of her life with Picasso, translated by Mailer, is his chief reference. Her memories, written many years later, are fascinating and detailed. She recalls vividly their love affair and Picasso's all-night attacks on the canvas. She also describes Gertrude Stein , Alice B. Toklas , and Henri Matisse; hashish experiments with poets and mathematicians; and life in the artists' quarter on the Left Bank. Her narrative gives Mailer the string from which to hang his own insights. The dramatic highlight of the biography is the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, a theft in which Picasso was implicated, barely escaping prosecution.
Response to the book was divided. Professional art critics and museum curators, for the most part, criticized the book for its lack of original research and for Mailer's temerity in publishing his "interpretive biography" at the same time that John Richardson published volume two of the authorized biography of Picasso. But reviewers outside the art world praised Mailer's unorthodox approach and saw the book as a breath of fresh air, a biography with the feel of a novel.
Mailer's roller-coaster career, while certainly different than Picasso's, parallels the painter's in several ways. Both artists became celebrated in their twenties; suffered various personal and artistic reverses; had many wives and lovers; and became internationally famous before reaching middle age. Picasso was "doomed," Mailer says, "to relive his obsessions through all ninety-one years of life," to continue to paint until the end "as if work itself could hold death off." Mailer at seventy-five is still writing furiously. His comradely biography is a brilliant investigation of Picasso's life and art and gives a richer sense of the mystery of artistic creation than more exhaustive biographies.
During the extended period when negotiations over permissions to reprint excerpts from the work of Fernande Olivier and others took place, Mailer learned from his former collaborator (on Marilyn and The Executioner's Song), Lawrence Schiller, that new information on Lee Harvey Oswald was now available from the KGB, the Soviet equivalent of the CIA. With the Soviet system in near-collapse, the Russians were selling off state secrets to all buyers. Mailer and Schiller traveled to Minsk (now the capital of the independent country, Belarus) and Moscow for a total of six months in 1992-1993 to interview high-ranking KGB officials about Oswald and to purchase transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina. Oswald had lived in Minsk for two-and-a-half years, 1959 to 1962, before returning to the United States and his fateful encounter in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963. Mailer and Schiller were also able to interview Marina, then residing in Texas, and several of Oswald's Russian friends and acquaintances. Mailer is saturated in the literature of the Kennedy assassination, and besides the KGB files, he read scores of books on the event, including the twenty-six volumes of the Warren Commission investigation, the huge bulk of which he described as "a dead whale decomposing on the beach."
The fruit of all this research, digested and meditated on, is the most exhaustive account of Oswald's Russian years yet published. Titled Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery , the book appeared in May 1995, five months before Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man was published, although the artist's biography was written two years earlier. Oswald's Tale, Mailer's first nonfiction narrative since The Executioner's Song appeared in 1979, can be compared to the latter book in several ways. First, it is an attempt to humanize a lone wolf murderer, to find "a kernel of human truth," as Mailer put it, in a figure universally despised and dismissed. Oswald can never be a hero, and Mailer carefully walks the line between empathy and criticism, never crossing over to anything resembling admiration. Second, it relies, as did The Executioner's Song, on the interpretation of a huge mass of documentary evidence, much of it ambiguous if not contradictory. To write Oswald's Tale Mailer had to synthesize a veritable library of information. Third, both books deal with the temptations of fame and the horrors of infamy, the complex relationship of will and identity, and the subtle and unsubtle ways the media distort historical reality. But Mailer's fundamental purpose was to illuminate one of the central mysteries of our time, the murder of Kennedy. He says that "the sudden death of a man as large in his possibilities as John Fitzgerald Kennedy is more tolerable if we can perceive his killer as tragic rather than absurd." So Mailer, marshaling all his documentary resources, set out to demonstrate that Lee Harvey Oswald was not merely a loner and loser who drifted into assassination, but a half-pathetic, half-tragic figure who wanted desperately to be famous. In a May 1995 Book-of-the-Month Club News interview, Mailer says that Oswald "believed in himself the way people like Lenin, Hitler and Marx believed in themselves."
Mailer had still another motive: he sought to use the inner reality of Oswald as a way to examine the Cold War subcultures that molded him. Mailer has argued for decades that the United States and Russia were more alike than not, and that failure to recognize this commonality had led to an unnecessary prolongation of the Cold War, an extension that hurt both countries economically and psychically. This argument is borne out by his portrait of the ordinary people of Minsk from 1959 to 1962, which in no way conveys the notion of an "evil empire," as President Ronald Reagan called it. Mailer's portrait of the people of this provincial city is one of the most notable achievements of the book.
The narrative begins in Russia in the 1930s and follows, at some length, the difficult lives of Marina's relatives during World War II, continuing the narrative through Marina's youth in postwar Russia and her meeting with the odd but attractive American who later became her husband. When Oswald returns to the United States with Marina and his infant daughter, Mailer shifts time schemes and reconstructs Oswald's early life in New Orleans and the South. Mailer then takes readers in a detailed way to and through the assassination with many pauses to analyze Oswald's family, his marriage, his political associations, and his reading. Oswald's mother, Marguerite, emerges as one of the great character portraits in Mailer's work. She is quoted extensively.
Mailer's conclusion is that Oswald acted alone, although he does not entirely close the door to conspiracy. He has brooded about Kennedy's assassination for years. It is the centripetal historic event of Mailer's imaginative career, an obsession he has returned to again and again. Given the paranoia the assassination engendered in the spy and security agencies of several countries in the 1960s and 1970s, it will be incumbent on Mailer to consider its aftermath in the sequel to Harlot's Ghost.
Critical and popular response to Oswald's Tale was mixed. Criticism of the length of the book (791 pages, plus appendices) and of its attempt to humanize Oswald was as common as praise for the same things. Several reviewers found merit in Mailer's carefully qualified and researched conclusion that Oswald acted alone. The early portion of the narrative including his evocation of the Russia of Marina and her family was widely admired. The closing chapters of the book, which focus on the two widows, Marina and Jacqueline Kennedy, were similarly praised.
Mailer did not begin work on the sequel to Harlot's Ghost in earnest until early 1998, after he had completed work on two more books. The first of these surprised even his most loyal readers. It was a first-person account of the life of Jesus Christ, culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. There have been many accounts of the life of Christ, but The Gospel According to the Son (1997) may be the first which is told by Christ himself from a point after 70 or 80 A.D. when the last of the four gospels, John's, was written. In an interview given in December 1996 for the Random House magazine, At Random (Spring/Summer 1997), Mailer says that he made his book an autobiography because he wanted "to tell the story freshly. Otherwise I have an ersatz gospel. I would go so far as to say that, paradoxically, the presence of the author, Norman Mailer , would be intrusive in the third person. In the first person, there might be a vibrancy to it. Jesus would come alive as a character." Mailer's choice left him open to the comment, made by several reviewers, that he was equating himself with Christ, a criticism he countered squarely (in the same interview) by pointing out that "I have a slight understanding of what it's like to be half man and half something larger." That something larger he refers to is himself after the enormous success of The Naked and the Dead catapulted him to international fame at the age of twenty-five. "Success," he says in Advertisements for Myself, "was a lobotomy to my past."
Mailer's divided nature can be seen in the psychological portrait of Christ that emerges from his retelling and, in a sense, reliving his life. Uncertain of his own nature and of the divine mandate he is to carry out, Mailer's Christ is riven with doubts and open to passing moods of anger and whimsy. But this autobiography follows closely the traditional gospel story, sometimes adopting Mark, sometimes Matthew and Luke and, often, John, whose gospel Mailer studied after reading interviews with Pope John Paul II, who referred to John with regularity. But Mailer's Christ also corrects and/or expands on the reports of the four evangelists so that The Gospel According to the Son is a corrective interlinear, repeating the original, but improving it, so to speak.
As Christ says at the outset, the evangelists "gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage. Their words were written many years after I was gone and only repeated what old men told them. Very old men. Such tales are to be leaned upon no more than a bush that tears free from its roots and blows about in the wind. So I will give my own account."
Mailer's Jewishness, he feels, gave him an advantage, enabling him to empathize with Christ as an outsider and rebel who also grew up hearing the words of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Also reflected in Christ's utterances is the "conviction at the very center of Jewish belief," as Mailer said in the At Random interview, "that you never get something for nothing." Mailer's Christ seems slightly less assured, more anxious, than the Christian Christ. This impression, however, is largely due to the impact of direct access to Christ's private consciousness, something missing from the four gospels. Mailer noted in the same interview that "the gospels do contain incredible sentences ... sentences that stir the heart, but whenever you don't have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose, and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story." Mailer the novelist, equipped with the modern resource of psychological penetration, if not stream-of-consciousness, uses Christ's inner dialogue with himself as the narrative third rail energizing the story. As several reviewers noted, Mailer prepared himself for The Gospel According to the Son with his immersion into the pharaonic Egypt of 2,500 years ago. As he said in the same interview, "If I can write about Isis and Osiris and Ra, then certainly the New Testament is not going to be that difficult to do.... Novelists are supposed to look in the eye of the tiger."
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book, apart from the narrative voice of Christ (which John Updike describes in his 12 May 1997 review for The New Yorker as "a direct, rather relaxed English that has an eerie, neo-Biblical dignity"), is the gallery of characters Mailer presents. Judas and Satan stand out as the most memorable. The former is a proto-revolutionary who is desperately concerned about the hot struggles of the poor; Satan is oily and arch, full of fine praise mixed with encouragement to sedition. Christ's encounter with him on the mountain may surpass Mailer's account of the crucifixion in narrative power. John the Baptist, with matted hair and the wing and leg of a locust caught in his beard, is another deftly drawn figure. "I wondered," Christ says, "how this man who bathed and washed himself many times a day could still show such leavings [from his meal of honey and locusts]. Yet it was not unfitting. His face was like a ravine and small creatures would live within."
The theology that Christ evinces is orthodox, although it leans toward the Manichaean heresy of a limited God at war with an equally powerful Satan, something Mailer has believed in for more than forty years. Mailer does not press his case, however, and Christ's divided nature encourages the delivery of ideas and sentiments that do not clash with the central dogmas of most mainline Christian sects. Mailer's Christ, in short, is a Christian everyman, while remaining a sharp, recognizable, and cohesive personality whose divine and human sides both cooperate and co-exist exactly as Mailer's Alpha-Omega psychological theory from Harlot's Ghost suggests they should.
Mailer won high praise from several major critics for The Gospel According to the Son, including Frank Kermode , who called it "a book of considerable intellectual force" in the New York Review of Books (15 May 1997). Some reviewers felt the book to be another self-advertisement; several more felt Mailer had not been bold enough and should have invented more freely. Overall, however, the book was both a critical and a commercial success, selling more than 100,000 copies and making it to the top ten on The New York Times bestseller list in the summer of 1997.
To celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday and the fiftieth anniversary of The Naked and the Dead, Random House plans to publish a retrospective anthology of Mailer's work on 6 May 1998, which is not only the anniversary of Mailer's first book but also the thirtieth anniversary of The Armies of the Night. Mailer spent the latter half of 1997 making the selections for the volume, which will be called The Time of Our Time . While the specific selections are not yet known, Mailer's publisher has announced that it will be more than 1,200 pages in length and will include selections from Mailer's fiction, nonfiction narratives, essays, and sports and political reportage. Some previously uncollected pieces will be included. The organizational principle of the volume will be historical; that is, individual selections will be placed according to the dates of the events they refer to, rather than the dates they were written.
Having completed three volumes since Harlot's Ghost came out in the fall of 1991, Mailer is presently gathering materials, reading, and storing energy for the effort of producing the sequel. This culminating novel, covering the tumultuous events of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, may not appear until the next millennium.
By aspiration, achievement, and accolade, Mailer's deepest identity is novelist. And as a novelist, his strongest motivation has been to explore American identity and American society, the twin obsessions of his writer's life. The sequel to Harlot's Ghost, covering as it will the Vietnam War, Watergate, the opening of China, Nixon's fall, and the end of the Cold War, has every chance to be Mailer's greatest work and perhaps his final chance to capture the white whale of our literature, the Great American Novel. It appears that Mailer will try for it. He will be eighty in the year 2003.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Charles Ruas, "Norman Mailer," in his Conversations with American Writers (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 18-36.
- J. Michael Lennon, ed., Conversations with Norman Mailer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988).
- Scott Spencer, "The Old Man and the Novel," New York Times Magazine, 22 September 1991, pp. 28-31, 40, 42, 47.
- Sean Abbott, "America's Obsessions: Norman Mailer Talks about Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK, the KGB, O. J. Simpson, and the Nasty Nineties," At Random, no. 11 (Summer 1995): 12-19.
- Barbara Probst Solomon, "Callow Young Genius," New York, 11 September 1995, pp. 81-84.
- Abbott, "Mailer Goes to the Mountain," At Random, no. 17 (Spring/Summer 1997): 48-55.
- Laura Adams, Norman Mailer: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1974).
- J. Michael Lennon, "Norman Mailer," Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Volume 1: American Novelists, edited by James J. Martine (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark/Gale Research, 1986), pp. 219-260.
- Lennon, "Norman Mailer," Facts on File Bibliography of American Fiction: 1919-1988, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (New York: Manly Inc./Facts on File, 1991), pp. 306-310.
- Joe Flaherty, Managing Mailer (New York: Coward-McCann, 1970).
- Hilary Mills, Mailer: A Biography (New York: Empire Books, 1982).
- Peter Manso, Mailer: His Life and Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985).
- Laura Adams, Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976).
- Adams, ed., Will the Real Normal Mailer Please Stand Up? (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1974).
- Chris Anderson, "Norman Mailer: The Record of a War," in his Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), pp. 82-132.
- Robert J. Begiebing, Acts of Regeneration: Allegory and Archetype in the Works of Norman Mailer (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980).
- Begiebing, "Norman Mailer: The Magician as Tragic Hero," in his Toward a New Synthesis: John Fowles, John Gardner, Norman Mailer (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989), pp. 87-134.
- Harold Bloom, ed., Norman Mailer: Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House, 1988).
- Leo Braudy, ed., Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).
- Philip M. Bufithis, Norman Mailer (New York: Ungar, 1978).
- Richard Foster, Norman Mailer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968).
- Michael K. Glenday, Norman Mailer (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).
- Andrew Gordon, An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1980).
- Stanley T. Gutman, Mankind in Barbary: The Individual and Society in the Novels of Norman Mailer (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1975).
- Bernard Horn, "Ahab and Ishmael at War: The Presence of Moby-Dick in The Naked and the Dead," American Quarterly, 34 (Fall 1982): 379-395.
- Alvin B. Kernan, "The Taking of the Moon: The Struggle of the Poetic and Scientific Myths in Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon," in his The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).
- Barry Leeds, The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer (New York: New York University Press, 1969).
- Nigel Leigh, Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990).
- J. Michael Lennon, ed., Critical Essays on Norman Mailer (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986).
- Barbara Lounsberry, "Norman Mailer's Ages of Man," in her The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 139-189.
- Robert F. Lucid, ed., Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).
- Robert Merrill, Norman Mailer Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1992).
- Modern Fiction Studies, special Mailer issue, 17 (Autumn 1971): 347-463.
- Donald Pizer, "Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead," in his Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), pp. 90-114.
- Richard Poirier, Norman Mailer (New York: Viking, 1972).
- Jean Radford, Norman Mailer: A Critical Study (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).
- T. V. Reed, "Disrupting the Theater of War: Armies of the Night and the New Left Siege of the Pentagon," in his Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers: Literary Politics and the Poetics of American Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 87-119.
- Robert Solotaroff, Down Mailer's Way (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974).
- Tony Tanner, "On the Parapet (Norman Mailer)," in his City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 344-371.
- Joseph Wenke, Mailer's America (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1987).