Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer and Updike: Probing American Culture as Writers and Celebrities

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer and Updike: Probing American Culture as Writers and Celebrities

Article excerpt

"What great artists do is so profound, you don't debate with it."

--Norman Mailer (Spooky Art 260)

"[W]hat a writer wants, as every aspiring writer can tell you, is to get into print. To transform the changing shadows of one's dimly and fitfully lived life into print ... into a time theoretically eternal: that is the siren song that holds us to our desks, our dismal revisions, our insomnia panics, our dictionaries and encyclopedias, our lonely and, the odds long are, superfluous labor."

--John Updike (Picked-Up Pieces 52)

Like opposite points on the surface of a sphere, Norman Mailer and John Updike seemed to occupy positions 180 degrees apart over their long careers. As a matter of fact, their differences seemed so distinct that one could argue that they might not even belong in the same circle at all. These two literary giants differed in many ways, ranging from physical appearance (the compact, pugnacious Mailer versus the lanky, angular Updike) to public persona (Mailer scrappy and flashy, yet brilliant; Updike modest and erudite).

Despite wide-ranging differences that commonly position Mailer and Updike as diametrically opposed, there is a counterbalance to this argument. Drawing a line from one antipodal point to its opposite results in a connection passing through the center of the circle, thus forming a perfect diameter. In this light, the contrasting figures are drawn together, forming opposing poles, but intrinsically connected.

Although they presented themselves differently, Mailer and Updike were at their cores writers with profound gifts. Since their careers overlapped, with Mailer already assuming a kind of godfather of literature role by the time Updike burst onto the scene, it is no wonder that they kept an eye on each other's work. Their remarks and comments over the decades ranged from sometimes questioning to highly critical, but gradually lapsing into an admiring mode. This kind of progression from foe to friendly rival to friend takes place in many areas, most notably sports, when one-time, bitter enemies gradually develop into comrades in arms, from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Sometimes it takes age and wisdom for these tandems to come together. This evolution is mirrored in the relationship between Updike and Mailer.

As a matter of fact, taken together, the two writers played a critical role in redefining what it meant to be an author/celebrity in their lifetimes simply by not rolling the train off the tracks like their predecessors, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, another set of friendly rivals; one who sprinted toward self-destruction and the other who faded slower as his writing powers slipped. Instead, Updike and Mailer kept the focus on writing, not allowing fame, celebrity, or wealth to distract them from their craft.

This essay is an exploration of Mailer and Updike, who on first glance seemed to represent the yin and yang of modern American letters. Looking deeper, however, I demonstrate that they bore (often-overlooked) similarities, which centered on their shared commitment to the writer's role in contemporary culture. In these literary lions, we have a dual case study that enables deeper investigation into near-literary history. Mailer and Updike took divergent paths to literary greatness, but like those diametrically opposed points on the circle, the line that connected them cut through the very heart of what it meant to be a writer--a straight shot from one to the other. That line is represented by their dedication to their art.

What we have, then, by studying these diametrically opposed, yet representative figures, is greater context in examining the literary world of twentieth and early twenty-first century America. My goal is to consider them as writers--their primary roles--and as celebrities within the broader culture, which is how they traversed the culture of their shared era. …

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