Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Writing of a Woman's Soul: Gender Pilgrimage in Lawrence and Mailer

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Writing of a Woman's Soul: Gender Pilgrimage in Lawrence and Mailer

Article excerpt

THERE IS A DEEP LITERARY RELATIONSHIP between D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Norman Mailer (1923-2007)--particularly in their writing on sexuality. The relationship began early, while Mailer was at Harvard. Starting here, i ask three questions. First, can a male author write convincingly of a "woman's soul?" Second, did Lawrence and Mailer create women characters that we find credible? Third, are we persuaded that they understood women?

My answers are a qualified yes. If we believe in the power of literature, we may acknowledge that a man can write convincingly of a woman. If we empathize with Lawrence and Mailer, we may find their women characters to be credible. if we understand something of their own gender and sexuality struggles, we may be persuaded of their understanding of women. It is true that my answers are three conditionals, each with a modal in the result clause: my qualifications are obvious.

But such qualifications are necessary: intersections of gender, sexuality, and identity are mysterious. The liminal regions between male and female, and between gender and sexuality, are controversial. This year of 2016, we have witnessed an ugly presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It is not exactly "a battle between the sexes," but gender is undoubtedly a major factor in this election. (1) For many reasons, the gender visions of Lawrence and Mailer are still relevant. (2)


It is clear that Lawrence was a formative influence on Mailer. Their lives barely overlapped: Lawrence died in 1930 aged forty-four, when Mailer was about seven. Lawrence was six years older than Mailer's parents, Barney and Fan. (3) There are two decades between Lawrence's final novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), and Mailer's first, The Naked and the Dead (1948). Mailer died eight decades after Lawrence, in 2007.

Mailer is more often linked (4) with Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). Both are supremely American icons, breaking barriers literary and personal. What Hemingway wrote of Harry, the dying writer, would not be inappropriate applied to Mailer:

There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the
events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people,
but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people
were at different times. ("The Snows of Kilimanjaro" 17)

Yet, in Michael Lennon's words, "it is clear that [Mailer] identifies with Lawrence as much as Hemingway, and owes him a deeper debt" (438). I think that is true, and their literary relationship--in particular, their writing on women--is my starting point. Hemingway remained a major influence on Mailer, but perhaps more in a negative way--what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" (10). But it is Lawrence--older than Hemingway by fourteen years--with whom I deal.

Lawrence's influence began in 1941, when in the Treasure Room of the Widener Library at Harvard Mailer encounters the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover (Lennon 32-33). Mailer took on the Englishman's battles, particularly in the area of sexuality. (5) Their time-lines are different. Yet their writing careers, either side of the Great Depression, encapsulate the twentieth century. (6) In a significant 2015 article in The Mailer Review, Peter Balbert examines the relationship,

Indeed, Mailer's intensely manichean novels--through their familiar
litany of concern with love, sex, inhibitive society, and modern
mechanization--appear like a karmic reformulation of Lawrence's own
most prominent preoccupations. But as Mailer acknowledges in The
Prisoner of Sex, it is a frighteningly transformed world since
1930--"technologized and technologized twice again... since
[Lawrence's] death" [1]--and such a radical transformation of society
is reflected in the different tapestries of art in Mailer and Lawrence.
(From Lady Chatterley's Lover" 250)

If the Laurentian influence began in 1941, it certainly came of age three decades later, in The Prisoner of Sex (1971). …

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