Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Through the Lens of the Beatniks: Norman Mailer and Modern American Man's Quest for Self-Realization

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Through the Lens of the Beatniks: Norman Mailer and Modern American Man's Quest for Self-Realization

Article excerpt

FEW MID-CENTURY WRITERS WERE FRIENDLY WITH THE BEAT GENERATION. Most, including Norman Mailer, cited their criminal and licentious impulses as an undermining tangling of ethically strong American sensibilities. I have noted Mailer's criticism found in "The White Negro," where Mailer sketched the unkempt and ghettoized portrait of white rebels such as Neal Cassady. Whether it is Mailer, Arthur Miller, or left poet-rockers such as Bob Dylan, or even fiction writers such as Truman Capote, the recurring message of a degenerated gang of would-be hoodlums abandoning mainstream lifestyles remained a cynical counter-step to the endless innovations and cultural adventurism that was unheard of for most Americans in the 1950s.

I realized that I had visited the literary spectacle of Norman Mailer but a few times: once, as a child, when The Executioner's Song aired on ABC in 1980, and then, in 2007 when Mailer died at the age of 84. While a graduate student, I thought that he was compared unfavorably to Capote, with Mailer a kind of "copier," an imitator of Capote's much more virtuous meditation on crime and human psychology. The essays were very much in Capote's favor. While reading The Naked and the Dead, I began to understand something wholly detached from the occult glory, fame, and entertainer-superstar-politician thread that Mailer is famous for colonizing: Mailer was definitely interested in narrating the cerebration of modern man's social and civic problems, and perhaps the direct challenge to American humankind's democratic spirit when faced with the powerful and nature-deciding apparatus of institutions and authoritarianism. He writes the following of "The League of Omnipotent Men":

You could kill the dozen men, and there would be another dozen to replace them, and another and another. Out of all the vast pressures and crosscurrents of history was evolving the archetype of twentieth-century man. The particular man who would direct it, make certain that "the natural role ... was anxiety." The techniques had outraced the psyche. "The majority of men must be subservient to the machine and it's not a business they instinctively enjoy" And in the marginal area, the gap, were the peculiar tensions that birthed the dream. (The Naked and the Dead 391)

As a whole, The Naked and the Dead snapshots very familiar wartime ground--the ethnic and racial jokes, the longing for sexuality and the thrust of jealousy, the protected incomprehension of foreign cultures that impaled American democracy with the very real contention that American mankind was simply not humanly prepared to lead the world at all. There is much more: first, this novel captures American manhood's very real and gnawing psychic doubts and missteps, while dreamily transposing the economic and tactile miracle of long-standing American prosperity. Second, tactility is established in the above passage akin to the sentiments of Jack Kerouac--that in a modern world, we should lose our animate confidence, pride, and basically our intellectual ability to manage the fruit of both changing times and world responsibility. What I intend to depict in this essay, then, is Mailer's increasing, if guarded, approval for some of the character and ethnographic foci of Beat writers. The letters and testimonies gathered from Harry Ransom Center overstate the anxiety, terror, and illuminating potential of the far-reaching hand of the new generation of literary bohemians, and therefore Mailer's recognition that both democracy and culture would be in some way transformed by this shaded lens of cultural hereticism.

A remarkable exchange of letters between Mailer and Beat poet Michael McClure renders the flat authoritarianism of "The White Negro" as questionable, dialectic, and even chronologically false: Mailer's letters to McClure certainly weigh in an approval of the occult ethnographies and mythologi cal wizardry of the Beat writers. Much of McClure's correspondence date to 1964, and show an anxious McClure trying to publish a novel and some short manuscripts including "Untitled Novel," "Ghost Tantras," and "Mad Cub. …

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