Thomas Wolfe and Norman Mailer: Kinsmen of the Land

Article excerpt

Norman Mailer, the legendary American novelist who died in November 2007, was part of that generation of ambitious writers who came of age in the postwar era, a time when the literary culture was heavily influenced by the towering legacy of Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe, along with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, James T. Farrell, and John Steinbeck, made a huge impact on the young Mailer. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), had Wolfean overtones in both the title (think of "The Quick and the Dead" chapter in The Hills Beyond (1)) and the work itself. In fact, Mailer long noted that two books--Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Wolfe's Of Time and the River--were on his desk whenever he needed inspiration during the writing of that hugely successful novel. (2)

Over the years, Mailer's sentiments changed. But only slightly. In a 1966 essay he singled out Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser as the two novelists most capable of capturing the enormity of American life, which itself had become a phenomenon "never before visible in the record of history." Mailer praised Wolfe for laboring at the great task "like a titan," but still falling short. Wolfe described American society "like the greatest fifteen-year old alive," and this effort, whatever its shortcomings, was an "invaluable achievement." (3) Condescending language aside, Mailer admired Wolfe's innocence and enthusiasm. Wolfe was not as large an influence on Mailer's writing or public persona as was Hemingway, but Wolfe lingered long on Mailer's mind. In 1999 Mailer listed Look Homeward, Angel as not only one of his six favorite books, but as one of his top ten American novels, along with, among others, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and Studs Lonigan. (4)

Comparing the lives and works of the two authors, one sees that Mailer, in his fiction, did not write much in the autobiographical vein that Wolfe regularly employed. Many of his most notable nonfiction books, including The Armies of the Night (1968), do, however, have as a major character, one "Norman Mailer," who also appears in other volumes in various guises: "Aquarius," "The Prizewinner," and "Aesthetic Investigator." Wolfe was an accomplished short story writer, while Mailer, owing to financial pressures, gave less and less time to that genre. Mailer grew up in working-class Brooklyn, Wolfe in small-town Asheville. While Wolfe was living in Brooklyn and writing Of Time and the River, the young Mailer, living a few miles north in Crown Heights, was honing his roller hockey skills and constructing elaborate model airplanes. Both attended Harvard, and both used their time at that famous institution to the fullest. Wolfe in the 1920s, and Mailer in the late '30s and early '40s, read stacks of great literature while pursuing their degrees. Both were prolific authors at Harvard: Wolfe with his full-length plays, and Mailer with two sprawling novels, a novella, and scores of short stories, some of which were eventually brought into print.

Neither writer lacked self-confidence. At Harvard, Wolfe announced in a letter to his mother that his greatness was "inevitable." (5) After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mailer committed himself to writing the great novel of World War II. Both, too, placed an emphasis on a colorful, distinct rhetoric: Wolfe's talent for description and narrative, and Mailer's ability to turn arresting metaphors. Both pined to tell the story of America in their collected works. Both also jumped headfirst into the chase to write the Great American Novel. When Mailer died, Charles McGrath noted that he "belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match"--a description that could fairly be applied to Thomas Wolfe. …