Mailer's Modern Myth: Reexamining Violence and Masculinity in an American Dream

By McKinley, Maggie | The Mailer Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Mailer's Modern Myth: Reexamining Violence and Masculinity in an American Dream


McKinley, Maggie, The Mailer Review


"Being a man is the continuing battle of one's life, and one loses a bit of manhood with every stale compromise to the authority of any power which one does not believe."

--Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself

"One has to look in the eye of violence to see its meaning."

--Norman Mailer, 1967 Interview for Newsday

In the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper, Miles Monroe (played by Allen) wakes up 200 years in the future to discover he has been cryogenically frozen. When asked to identify a number of photographs that have been stored in a time capsule with him, Monroe examines one image and says, "That's a photograph of Norman Mailer. He was a very great writer. He donated his ego to the Harvard Medical School for study." Allen's humorous assessment of Mailer is perhaps a prime example of the way in which Mailer's work has so frequently been discussed in the same breath as his public persona. In fact, though Mailer was still writing and publishing up to his death in 2007, to many readers he remains frozen in time as that controversial public figure of the 1960s and 1970s, remembered for the publicized drama surrounding his personal life and the battles he waged with his contemporaries, the most notorious of which often involved his engagement with Second Wave Feminism. Indeed, an impulse similar to that which led Judith Fetterley, Kate Millett, and others to criticize Mailer's gender politics over forty years ago still drives some current readers to excoriate both the man and his work together and to look back on his legacy as violently misogynistic. In 2007, for example, almost immediately after Mailer's death, Joan Smith noted in The Guardian that "Mailer hated authority, homosexuality, women and almost certainly himself, producing fiction and essays that would be comically bad if they did not display addictions to violence and abusive sex." In a 2009 article in Commentary, Algis Valiunas argued that "Mailer could not shut up about the psychic benefits of wife-killing" (72) and that "even his best works were shot through with adolescent fatuities, while the worst of his words and deeds were stupid and vicious without bottom" (75).

Assessments such as these cling to both Mailer and his writing, and often serve to mistakenly suggest that his work does not merit serious attention, specifically within the field of Gender Studies. I have been asked on numerous occasions why I, a woman, am so interested in studying Mailer and his gender politics. My answer to this question is that Mailer's fiction and nonfiction--particularly that published between the mid fifties and early seventies--reveals some of the most frustrating but also the most fascinating representations of gender in contemporary American fiction. This assessment is especially true of Mailer's rendering of masculine identity, which is more often than not accompanied by episodes of violence. Though the idea of a violent masculine ethic as presented in Mailer's work is controversial, the embedded ambivalences and complexities surrounding the relationship between violence and gender in Mailer's fiction often go unrecognized. (1) What I aim to illuminate here are that the ways in which Mailer himself interrogates violence in his own work, exploring its nuances and consequences nearly as often as he extols it as an essential aspect of masculinity. (2)

Mailer engages with themes of masculinity and violence in a number of his works, but An American Dream, Mailer's self proclaimed "modern myth" demonstrates perhaps most explicitly the connections between his oft-misunderstood philosophies of violence and masculinity, and thus serves as an ideal place in which to locate a discussion of these themes ("Mailer on AAD" 102). (3) The nuanced distinction between destructive and creative violence comprise a central theme of the novel and as a result, from the time of the novel's publication, many readers and critics have found it difficult to come to grips with the unsettling events of the novel and its morally ambiguous anti-hero, consequently overlooking the novel's complexities in favor of a denunciation of its violence. …

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