Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Ahab and Ishmael at War: The Presence of Moby-Dick in the Naked and the Dead

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Ahab and Ishmael at War: The Presence of Moby-Dick in the Naked and the Dead

Article excerpt

This essay originally appeared in American Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Autumn 1982), pp. 379-395. Permission to reprint has been given by the author. 

IN 1963, FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER THE PUBLICATION of The Naked and the Dead (1948), Norman Mailer discussed Barbary Shore and E. M. Forster in his Paris Review interview with Steven Marcus. "Forster," said the forty-year-old Mailer, "after all, had a developed view of the world; I did not. I think I must have felt at the time as if I would never be able to write in the third person until I developed a coherent view of life." (1) This of course suggests that the twenty-five-year-old author who wrote The Naked and the Dead in the third person had such a view. Mailer's remarks in another interview, twelve years earlier, imply that the literary influence that most contributed to his confidence in presenting his own "coherent view of life" in his first novel was Moby-Dick:

I don't think of myself as a realist. That terrible word naturalism. It was my literary heritage--the things I learned from Dos Passos and Farrell. I took naturally to it, that's the way one wrote a book. But I really was off on a mystic kick. Actually--a funny thing--the biggest influence on Naked was Moby-Dick... I was sure everyone would know. I had Ahab in it, and I suppose the mountain was Moby Dick. (2) 

The whole question of influence is, of course, particularly lively when it comes to a writer like Mailer. Whether seriously evaluating contemporaries and precursors, (3) or playing with the presence of precursors in his own work, (4) no contemporary writer is so explicitly competitive and so painfully self-conscious of "the burden of the past" as Norman Mailer. It is no accident that he is one of the very few novelists singled out in The Anxiety of Influence. "Any reader of Advertisements for Myself," writes Harold Bloom, "may enjoy the frantic dances of Norman Mailer as he strives to evade his own anxiety that it is, after all, Hemingway all the way." (5) The central implication of my argument is that, in a more liberating sense than Bloom's, it is Melville, not Hemingway, all the way: that Hemingway, like Mailer's other immediate predecessors, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Farrell, and Dos Passos, is no more than a simulacrum of the real giant for all ambitious American novelists--Melville, Unlimited.

For Mailer, Melville acts as what W. Jackson Bate calls an "ancestral" influence, (6) providing him a natural resource which he exploits in order to exceed Hemingway's limitations in terms of both style and metaphysics. (7) It is Hemingway's life more than his work that looms large for Mailer, (8) as does Mailer himself for other writers. (9) Indeed, if we are to believe Frederick Exley, Mailer has acted as one of Bloom's Covering Cherubs (10) by merely talking a good game:

Fifteen years before in Advertisements for Myself Mailer had told us that, like Bernard Shaw and Capote, he was embarked on a journey of self aggrandizement and, if necessary, was going to pound the fact of his imagined superiority into our feeble domes. But he had also revealed--a bluff one had believed--that he was into a ten year project out of which he'd come bearing an orange crate of manuscript containing something like a Proustian evocation of the entire sexual spectrum. He hadn't of course delivered, and despite the occasional flashes of brilliance in his "new journalism," which was neither new nor journalism, I was with my upcountry, whadda-yuh-mean-by-that? mentality perfectly prepared to demand of him what had happened, readily poised to point out that he hadn't made good on a promise he'd made me and a million other acolytes who, if not actually writing, were even then nursing our drinks, thinking of putting down words, and being dreadfully intimidated by the grandioseness of Mailer's stated designs, an intimidation I can understand now was utterly calculated for just such a purpose. (11) 

If we put aside the gap between design and execution, Exley here acts Goethe to Mailer's Shakespeare. …

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