Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Brooklyn Accents and the Paradox of Ambition in Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Brooklyn Accents and the Paradox of Ambition in Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller

Article excerpt

[The] warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hardworking author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives [ultimatelyhe married sixtimes and had eight children], amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter ... had ... a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable--the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.

Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night (153)

In this excerpt from the armies of the night, Mailer's 1968 novel, the author indicates the significance of his Brooklyn background, as well as its seeming dead weight. To residents and writers, the borough has long been an evocative setting both in a real and fictional sense. It is a place of beauty with a majestic view from the Heights of nearby Manhattan Island. It is America's first suburb--a place to live, build a family, and participate in a meaningful community. Up until the 1950s, it was a place to find solid middle-class work in a factory, a department store, at the wheel of a trolley car, or along Brooklyn's extensive waterfront on the docks or in industrial warehouses. In a symbolic sense, it is a place of both dreams and nightmares. It is the safe harbor described in Henry Ward Beecher's sermons that comforted flocks of pilgrims each Sunday at the end of the nineteenth century. It represents the ground that nourished the ailanthus tree feeding Francie Nolan's aspirations of middle-class respectability in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as well as the Williamsburg of Henry Miller's boyhood, described as "the only tooth left in a rotten jaw" (25). At the same time, the borough has also constituted the dark harbor of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, and Jennifer Egan's Welcome to the Goon Squad. As is evident from these and other texts, some authors have celebrated the borough, while others have repudiated it.

The tension between these two perspectives manifests itself particularly vividly, as this essay will attempt to show, in the repression and return of Brooklyn accents in the lives and early work of Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer. In Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer, looking back on his Brooklyn origins, writes how he "was sentimental about the town." In Chicago to report on the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Harper's Magazine, he writes how

   the urbanites here were like the good people of Brooklyn--they were
   simple, strong, warm-spirited, sly, rough, compassionate, jostling,
   tricky and extraordinarily good-natured because they had sex in
   their pockets, muscles on their back, hot eats around the corner,
   neighborhoods which dripped with the sauce of local legend, and
   real city architecture, brownstones with different windows on every
   floor, vistas for miles of red-brick and two-family wood frame
   houses with balconies and porches, runty stunted trees rich as
   farmland in their promise of tenderness the first city evenings of
   spring, streets where kids played stick-ball and roller-hockey,
   lots of nineteenth century, the very hope of greed, was in these
   streets. (72-73)

He then finishes this wistful homage with a revealing claim: "Brooklyn, however, beautiful Brooklyn, grew beneath the skyscrapers of Manhattan, so it never became a great city, merely an asphalt herbarium for talent destined to cross the river" (72-73). According to Mailer, greatness may be honed in Brooklyn, but to achieve one's true potential, one must leave the borough behind. Both Mailer and Miller seemed to share this view and, in their quest for fame, consciously fought to shake off their origins. In the end, however, Brooklyn always remained central to their work and senses of themselves as well as the place from which they wrote many of their finest plays and novels. …

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