Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Norman Mailer as Occasional Commentator in a Self-Interview and Memoir

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Norman Mailer as Occasional Commentator in a Self-Interview and Memoir

Article excerpt

I decided Mailer didn't have a style. He had a huge brain, which I couldn't imitate. In those early days I didn't have a brain, only a hunger. I was reading Mailer and Dos Passos as if they were contemporaries of each other until I discovered Mailer owed a debt to Dos Passos, as did I, and that it was visible in The Naked and the Dead through his use of the Time Machine, and the Chorus, which seemed inspired by the Camera Eye and the Profiles in USA.

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I STARTED WRITING FICTION IN COLLEGE and When I Was drafted during the Korean War I had a post-graduate education through my army buddies who were a literate gang. We were all running a weekly army newspaper in Germany and after the workday at the Enlisted Men's club in Frankfurt we guzzled heilbock and dunkelbock and talked about writers-Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Algren, Katherine Ann Porter, Flannery O'Connor, James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Thomas Wolfe. And Norman Mailer. Once in a while somebody mentioned Chekhov. I read everything I could find by all of them, and realized that the writing I'd done since college was all blithering drivel and that I was into something truly new by matching myself against these maestros. When I left the army I got a job as a newspaperman. I wrote short stories on my days off and found I could turn out dialogue that sounded very like Hemingway, I could keep a sentence running around the block like Faulkner, I could describe the contents of a kitchen refrigerator just like Thomas Wolfe, I could use intelligent and not-so-intelligent obscenity with the panache of Norman Mailer. None of this had much to do with Kennedy.

Kennedy did emerge, but only after shucking off all those maestros, who were smothering him. Of course you don't really shuck them. They form your voice, your syntax, your wit or solemnity, your political inclinations, your defiance, your creative mysteries. Where does that insight come from? What a great style--how do I get a style? I remember deciding Graham Greene didn't have a style; he was merely intelligent. I decided Mailer didn't have a style either. He had a huge brain, which I couldn't imitate. In those early days I didn't have a brain, only a hunger. I was reading Mailer and Dos Passos as if they were contemporaries of each other until I discovered Mailer owed a debt to Dos Passos, as did I, and that it was visible in The Naked and the Dead through his use of the Time Machine, and the Chorus, which seemed inspired by the Camera Eye and the Profiles in U.S.A.

Dos Passos had made a major impression on many writers. Steinbeck emulated him in segments of The Grapes of Wrath, inserting segments he called 'generals' to parallel his story. Jean Paul Sartre wrote in 1936 that he considered Dos Passos "the greatest writer of our time." I remember the Dos Passos sketches were like Mount Rushmore carvings of seminal figures of the age--Woodrow Wilson, J. P Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, Jack Reed, the Unknown Soldier, whereas Mailer's Time Machine segments were humanizing profiles of major characters from his narrative. I liked the intrusions of both writers so much I put multiple variations of them into my second novel, Legs, about the celebrity Jazz Age gangster Jack (Legs) Diamond. I used excerpts from newspaper movie listings, from gossip columns and prayer books, murder and speakeasy statistics from Prohibition, monologues about Jack Diamond by Trotsky, Carl Jung, and Einstein; an infrastructure that paralleled reincarnation in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and recurring interludes of a movie cameraman filming Diamond's life as a newsreel I was inventing. A few of these things are still in the novel, but I cut away most of them in the eighth draft of the book after I admitted that my intrusions had become intrusive. Yet creative enhancement of a similar order continued in my later novels, all arising from my desire to write beyond the bounds of conventional narrative, beyond naturalism, beyond realism, a nod to the element of dream, fantasy, or my unconscious intentions, whatever they might be. …

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