Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Time of His Time

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Time of His Time

Article excerpt

Last year I opened a book and out dropped an aging yellow envelope with an unfamiliar address. It had a 4-cent stamp, which told me how old it was, and inside was a gracious note from Norman Mailer, dated March 1961, citing the pressure of work to explain why he could not come to speak at Columbia. The circumstances came back to me: A bunch of us connected to the undergraduate newspaper had decided to invite our culture heroes to lecture. Well, only one of them came, but Norman Mailer was kind enough to reply, to tell us how busy he was, and tactful enough to make me feel that his not coming would make a vital contribution to his work in progress.

We had invited Mailer not because he was the best-selling author of The Naked and the Dead--the second world war already seemed as distant to us as the American Revolution--but because a year or two earlier he had put together a book called Advertisements for Myself out of the bits and pieces of his unhappy writing life in the 1950s. The pieces were decidedly uneven, but Mailer had surrounded them with an impassioned autobiographical narrative as vast in its claims as it was mesmerizing in its rhetoric. Sentence by baroque sentence, the safe compromises and circumscribed ironies of the fifties were exploded as Mailer cast himself as an intrepid adventurer plunging recklessly into untried regions of consciousness. Before our very eyes, in his sexual theories, in his hatred of the tame, the tepid, and the conventional, in his vaulting ambition and self-reference, but above all in the unfamiliar rhythms of his prose, the 1960s were born on the page. After three more or less impersonal novels, Mailer had invented his greatest character, himself, as a vehicle for recouping past failures and exploring new dimensions of experience. The voice he discovered there would resonate throughout the next two decades.

Mailer has always been an inspired anthologist of his own work. Now, fifty years after his first success, he has put together an ingenious collection covering his whole career, from his student years at Harvard and his war fiction, through his years of sixties celebrity, up to his 1990s articles on the Gulf War, Madonna, and American Psycho. Instead of drawing our attention to his protean self, he reshapes his career to show his continuous involvement with the life of his times, so that the book is as much a collage of American history as it is of one writer's astonishing progress through it. …

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