Academic journal article The Mailer Review

How Mailer Became "Mailer": The Writer as Private and Public Character

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

How Mailer Became "Mailer": The Writer as Private and Public Character

Article excerpt

Mailer has been our most protean writer, remarkably consistent in his themes yet always surprising in the ways he finds to pursue them, beginning with his own inimitable style. In choosing his subjects he was like a riverboat gambler restless for risk; each new venture depended on bold strokes that could as soon fail as succeed. Strategies that worked well would never be exactly repeated. Invariably he was engaging the moment, never writing for the uniform edition.

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IT'S A PRIVILEGE, THOUGH DAUNTING, for me to take part in a conference that celebrates the opening of what is sure to become one of the indispensable archives in modern American letters, especially with the subject himself in attendance. At the same time this event leaves me uneasy. Norman Mailer has always prided himself on being unpredictable, unsettling. This is after all a living, unruly body of work, virtually unclassifiable in its range and variety. For close to sixty years, Mailer has been our most protean writer, remarkably consistent in his themes yet always surprising in the ways he finds to pursue them, beginning with his own inimitable style. As his early novels were quick to demonstrate, no two of Mailer's books would ever be quite alike. In choosing his subjects he was like a riverboat gambler restless for risk; each new venture depended on bold strokes that could as soon fail as succeed. Strategies that worked well would never be exactly repeated. Invariably he was engaging the moment, never writing for the uniform edition.

It was wise to focus this symposium and the accompanying exhibition not so much on Mailer himself as on his ever-shifting dialogue with his tumultuous times, especially during the first decades after World War II. With the rich mother lode of this archive and his many published works, one could no doubt write the history of the age through Mailer's idiosyncratic involvement in it. We are now distant enough from the fifties and sixties to begin to understand them. For that we need firsthand informants who were also actors on the cultural stage. More than any other writer of his generation, Mailer not only reacted strongly to the public world of his times, often in obscure private ways, but also tried to influence it by descending-sometimes physically, more often textually--into the thick of battle. In doing so he blurred the lines between journalism and literature, fiction and autobiography, writing and acting.

Mailer began with an overweening ambition typical of his generation: no less than to write the Great American Novel. For an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1940s, the royal road seemed to be a war novel, since the war then carried the whole weight of the national destiny. Mailer's first novel made him famous at 25, but his sudden fame cut him off from the ordinary life of his times. As time went on his talent and ambition led him to riskier kinds of fiction that pleased fewer readers, but also to personal reportage fired by the kind of inwardness and depth that could make fiction so powerful. He would move far afield from where he began.

Mailer's burst onto the literary scene in 1948 with a big novel that was in many ways a realistic treatment of war, telescoped into a single long patrol to capture a key position on a Pacific island. But with its huge cast of characters, their ethnic and geographical diversity, their backstory in the Depression years, and the book's political foreshadowing of the postwar period, The Naked and the Dead sketched out a vast canvas of American life in the 1930s and 40s. Mailer later came to believe that book had no style, that it lived on techniques borrowed from the social novelists of the Depression decade, especially Dos Passos, Farrell, and Steinbeck. (This would not distinguish it from most first novels, except in the scale of its ambition.) Though he would always salute the power of these writers whose work had first inspired him, Mailer soon came to believe that he could not write another realist novel, since, as one of his characters (in "The Man Who Studied Yoga") would later complain, the world itself was no longer realistic; it had turned bizarre, improbable, and a new form needed to be found. …

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