Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Faith of Romanticism: Dialectical Synthesis and Norman Mailer's English Romantic Vision

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Faith of Romanticism: Dialectical Synthesis and Norman Mailer's English Romantic Vision

Article excerpt

In the winter of 2002, I had the fortune of meeting Norman Mailer and being able to spend some time talking with him. At the time I was an undergraduate majoring in English at Suffolk University in Boston. I was begging to formulate my own path as a writer and scholar and my main preoccupations were with two particular writers: Lord Byron and Norman Mailer. For me, there was something about these two--separated as they were by several generations--that inspired me, thrilled me, and made me want to write and read in the same fashion they did. When I first met Mailer, he asked me what I was working on and what was interesting me. I answered him honestly and said, "Well, you and Lord Byron." Mailer smiled brightly at this, leaned in close and told me he had just finished re-reading Byron's Don Juan which he had found "much in." I wasn't sure what to say. Mailer and Byron had for long been aligned in my imagination and here, in a barroom in downtown Boston, they were coming together. I mentioned to Mailer that I had long thought of him as something of a "Byronesque, if not downright Byronic figure." This statement earned another smile from Mailer, and a wink and punch in the ribs to boot. "That's an honor," he said. "But I'm not sure." Still, the twinkle in Mailer's eyes suggested to me that I was on to something. "In fact," I said-and this was after a swallow of beer "I've thought of you as a Romantic figure, maybe even a Romantic thinker." He said, "How so?" "Negative capability," I said. Mailer looked at me and smiled again. "Keats's notion that great minds can accept that not everything can be resolved, that some concepts are above such. I suppose in that respect you're more like Keats than Byron." Mailer said the idea was interesting and winked at me. He then said, "I'm not sure about that, though, not all of it. Especially the 'above such' stuff." I intended to say more to Mailer on the topic but the afternoon was long and before I knew it we were embracing and saying our goodbyes. He told me to come visit him sometime so we could "talk more." I thanked him and he said, "Keep thinking, keep writing." I spent the next several years pondering the implications of all of this. All the while I had Mailer's phone number stuck in my wallet with the knowledge that I could visit him to "talk more." Yet I never took him up on the offer. Honestly, I wasn't sure of what to ask him. I didn't know if he would reject my ideas and laugh me out of his house. This was something I need to figure out for myself, I felt.

In November of 2007, I began writing Mailer a long letter. We had traded a few letters over the years, usually about plans to get together that never came to fruition. I opened my letter with an apology and explanation of what I was working on. I told him how I was aware of Harold Bloom's notion of the anxiety of influence and felt, to some measure, that I had developed a case of it myself in regard to him. I then asked him a number of questions about his sense of the Romantics and the concept of negative capability. I closed by saying, "I gotta know, are you a Romantic?" I finished the letter on the ninth of November. The next morning my wife woke me up by saying she had some bad news and pointed at my computer. I logged on and there, on the first page I opened, was the announcement of Mailer's death.

The challenge I faced then was to bring this all together. With Mailer gone I know that I will never be able to ask him those questions myself. As his critical legacy continues to be built, and his position in literary history negotiated, I felt I had a duty-one born from respect, admiration, and something akin to friendship--to figure out where Mailer stands in respect to one of the most forceful and influential movements in the history of literature: the English Romantic movement.

For this essay--which represents just one of many different pieces I have been crafting on Mailer's Romanticism--focus is on Mailer's employment of a more contemporary and advanced conception of negative capability: dialectical synthesis. …

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