Academic journal article The Mailer Review

A Conversation with Norman Mailer

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

A Conversation with Norman Mailer

Article excerpt

Jonathan Middlebrook published Mailer and the Time of His Time in 1976 (Bay Books). This selection is the first chapter of the volume. Permission to reprint has been graciously given by the author. 

SUPPOSE, NEVER HAVING MET HIM, YOU INVITED NORMAN MAILER over for drinks and he accepted. For whom would you be waiting?

My own media-stoked imagination suggested some lurid elaborations on Wife-Stabber and Sudden Violence: a fistfight and a fanciful headline:

MAILERDROPPED BY UNKNOWNCHALLENGER! "MET MYCRITIC" SAYS CHAMPION

Mailer is a word in the dictionary of popular culture, and it means pugnacity, obscenity, bad manners to nice old ladies like Janet Flanner and gentlemen like Gore Vidal, a glorious or perverse talent for fouling the house of fame. Mailer is the man who found that true liberty consists of the right to say the word shit in The New Yorker, and nearly everyone discovers that he has some score to settle with him, "Norman Mailer? He's an evil man," asserts my Aunt Jane. "I never read a word he writes." Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote: "I think Mr. Mailer's statement [about black and white sex, not about true liberty] is horrible and unnecessary." One of the most thoughtful men I know says he reads Mailer with pain, "probably because he has a higher threshold of embarrassment than I. He's too close to things I almost don't want said." Yet when Mailer came over for drinks he was generous to me, forthright, and this essay at conversation with him is an attempt to suggest who he is by describing the tones in which he speaks his more-or-less familiar words, by giving their provocation and context a year ago.

Mailer moved, now several years ago, from Provincetown to Stockbridge, Berkshire County, Massachusetts. He bought himself and Carol Stevens a large house on Yale Hill, thus placing himself squarely in literary country. Their house is within eight miles of Arrowhead, the comfortable farmhouse where Melville wrote Moby Dick, and within four of the replica of the house where Hawthorne wrote The House of the Seven Gables and Tanglewood Tales. Mailer's house is within sight on a clear day of Monument Mountain, where Melville, Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and several ladies and publishers all took shelter from a rain squall one afternoon and drank Heidsieck champagne from a silver mug. "They talked prose," a Sedgewick reminisced, "apparently as unconsciously as M. Jourdain himself." Printed texts now disagree about whether Hawthorne "wildly" or "mildly" looked for the Great Carbuncle, but it is all suggestive enough to make one wonder whether Mailer moved to the Berkshires seeking inspiration from hallowed ground or for his Great American Novel.

Yet Mailer's own house does not suggest the sort of spare actuality from which Hawthorne escaped into the psychology of sin, nor does it suggest, like Melville's Arrowhead, the world of farming actuality given up for the epic quest and destruction. Mailer's house is a lesser one of those 1890's "cottages" of the sort favored by Stokeses, Sloans, Morrises, by Edith Wharton rather than Henry James. (The "real" Ethan Frome rammed a lamppost which still stands not far from Mailer's house.) Which means that Mailer's house is a thoroughly gracious affair, set back from the road, staffed, imposing. Yet these cottages were never indigenous to the place. My father was in Mailer's house once about 30 years ago and remembers only that it is owned by a dull Canadian. They were built as a nouveau riche response to exclusion from the older snobberies of Newport, and by now they have variously burned or become schools, summer camps, museums, resorts. The huge cottages are tax-free or commercial property, which suggest to me outrageous wealth and uncertain tradition, no bad emblem for Mailer's own work so far. Actualities--tax and fashion--drove cottagers from the Berkshires; Mailer, who believes in unseen forces, may find himself driven from this place by its traditional associations. …

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