Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Five Notes toward a Reassessment of Norman Mailer

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Five Notes toward a Reassessment of Norman Mailer

Article excerpt

A reconsideration of Norman Mailer and his work against the backdrop of Middlebrook's book, Mailer and the Times of His Time. San Francisco: Bay Books, 1976.


I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit-Emerson

Note #1-Reassessment--my assignment had a hook in it, which a smarter fish would have seen at first flyover. Reassessment suggests either apostasy or conversion, and neither condition is mine. Over the last fifty years or so my appreciation for Mailer has developed, from adolescent belief (The Naked and the Dead was soldiering) and puzzlement (why so little shooting, so much mountain-climbing & what I then called girlishness & no nakedness?)--my appreciation developed from that naivete to a more advanced one, a tenure-able understanding that Shelley's Mt. Blanc was avatar of N&D's Mt. Anaka, and then appreciation became my current, somewhat uneasy sense that Norman Mailer is one of Emerson's two literary desiderata: "Time and nature yield us many gifts, but not yet the timely man, the new religion, the reconciler whom all things await" ("The Poet"). NM as descendant of Walt Whitman, and Emerson is their prophet.

--& I may have missed him--see Note #5.

Note # 2-Norman Mailer--He has almost become only a name, but not yet. As of April 2007, he remains on our side, a working writer, and for many people a kind acquaintance, for some a poker-playing friend, and for some others, still a doughty enemy. But he's 84; and soon entry to the book of Shook-His-Hand will be closed, and the strike-throughs on the roll (for example, [begin strikethrough]Robert Lucid[end strikethrough]) will not be replaced by new, glad hands.--That fact suggests one reason for The Mailer Review, which will become a record of the trying out (I trust NM will like the Melville-inflected whaling term) of his work, by those for whom he can only be a name, a body of work, rather than a resilient old guy with bad knees and the gift of mordant political humor: Rove has figured out that maybe 49% of the American public is too dumb to know what they're voting for, "So we've got to work on that number, get it up to 53-55%, then we'll be in power forever."

Note #3-Comparisons--they can be Dogberry-ish because they are the surprise party to which a reader invites a Notable. The guest list is idiosyncratic-perhaps crazed-and it changes in the flickering nano-seconds of a reader's consciousness. The poor Notable has no say in making the list (though he can suggest additions to it). Much less does the Notable have any control over that reader's decision to invest hours in creating a critical moment, the purpose of which is engendering the stuff of legacy, argument, conferences, inner & outer circles, iconoclasts & acolytes, anxiety-producing influence-all the, call it paraphernalia of literary worth and endurance. Here's my guest list in alphabetical order. It suggests that for this moment I read from Mailer the distinctly Victorian project of envisioning middle class salvation (that is, my own):

1. Matthew Arnold--"The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry ... our race will find an ever surer and surer stay.... " Highly Victorian, of course (that race is more than irritating), but for the reading class of people, he was right, if one takes poetry to mean literature (or the decision to read literarily). Creative writing programs and Humanities requirements are Arnold's dark institutional shadows. We demand of our serious writers, poor people! that they give us entertaining truth. "Mr. Mailer, almost 40 years ago you wondered whether God had withdrawn his blessing from America. Do you still wonder?"

2. Thomas Carlyle--or perhaps it's Dickens--Mailer escapes the true foolishness of levitating the Pentagon ... into the false security of fortunately negotiated arrest. Whatever would Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. …

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