It Takes a Thief to Know a Thief: Four Biographies of Norman Mailer

Article excerpt

BIOGRAPHY, AS A GENRE, HAS BEEN CALLED GOSSIP, cannibalism, history, blood sport, a voyeur's dream. When I proposed to review the four central biographies of Norman Mailer to date, I got this response: "Well, it takes a thief." I am that thief, a biographer who slides in, snatches every bit of fact, innuendo, and proof. Biographers voraciously read the subjects' letters, calendars, journals, marginalia, books and articles, spending hours in dark archives, riffling through pages and pages, seeking treasure. She also talks to any who will talk to her, adjusting claims, negotiating hundreds of voices claiming the truth. And then, of course, a biographer thinks and dreams, inhabiting that biographical subject's spirit in order to write. But biographer as thief? I like to think a good biographer is a soul-catcher, moving to a person after death, inhabiting his mind, entering his body, becoming a "keeper of the breath." Thus, the biographer brings a subject to life on pages of their own so readers can better know the subject, and in doing so, can better know themselves. This soul-catcher does not work to empty a life of meaning, as Janet Malcolm contends, or to "burgle" a life for personal gain--but to assist readers in understanding the humanity, the talents, the devastating fears and failure--and as important--the worth of the life lived. The thrill for a biographer is finding and knowing the human at the center of the writing: his secrets, his passions, and his interests. In writing biography, she brings to life someone who perhaps has more life, more intensity, than the writer or the readers of biography.

Norman Kingsley Mailer certainly warrants biographical attention. Fiery intelligence blazed in his blue eyes, and the American public watched as his slight frame became thick and muscular; only in recent years did his canes foreshadow a frailty strong enough to bring death. The full force of his mind shows in the numbers of over forty books, including eleven novels. Before he died on November 10, 2007, he had written myriad essays, nonfiction narratives, miscellanies, hundreds of articles and interviews, and thousands of letters. The Norman Mailer Collection at the Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities is the largest there of any single author. Mailer is compared either lovingly or with hostility to Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; clearly Mailer reigns as one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century. His years of writing, experimenting, philosophizing, brawling, interviewing, and womanizing in both private and public arenas fascinate. He certainly hasn't escaped biographers' attention. Four thick, fact laden and rumor intensive biographies have explored the man and the myth of Mailer. He warranted America's attention and he got it. Through biography a man or woman lives, bestowing greatness or acclaim or ignominy on the biographical subject. In Norman Mailer's case, biography does all of these and more.

Biographers have differing motivations for building a life in biographical text: market considerations; respect for a person's work; the chance to live in the reflected glory of the biographical subject, to interview the famous, to gathering some of the acclaim. Respect for Mailer's writing certainly drove Mailer scholar Robert Lucid's attempt to write the "authorized" biography of Mailer, but Lucid's illness and life circumstance stopped his work and he did not get beyond Mailer at twenty-eight. I do not know what drove Peter Manso, Hilary Mills, Carl Rollyson and Mary Dearborn to spend years researching and finally writing thick biographies of Norman Mailer. I hope that each biographer tried to penetrate the mystery of Mailer--a man so open, so verbal, so ready to engage the public. But that hope diminishes in light of the biographies themselves. Mailer said biographers "present me as if I have no inner life" and thus far, he was right (Lennon). This isn't to say that the four published biographies do not bring something of value to Mailer scholarship. …