Norman Kingsley MailerThere is no greater importance in all the world like knowing you are right and that the wave of the world is wrong, yet the wave crashes upon you.
Norman Mailer, Armies Of The Night
Remembering the pint-size Jewish fireplug
Autocrat of the Remainder Table
Why I Am Protesting the Presidency
Jack Abbott: In the Belly of the Beast
The White Negro," and new conceptions of the self
Timeline of Norman Mailer's Relationships
A letter to Salman Rushdie
Jews Still "Acting Black" in 2007
Born January 31, 1923, Long Branch, New Jersey
Died November 10, 2007 (aged 84) New York City, New York
Occupation Novelist, Essayist, Journalist, Columnist
Genres Fiction, Non-Fiction
Norman Kingsley Mailer was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter and film director.
Along with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, John McPhee, and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of narrative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, but which covers the essay to the nonfiction novel. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once. In 1955, Mailer, together with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, first published The Village Voice, which began as an arts- and politics-oriented weekly newspaper initially distributed in Greenwich Village. In 2005, he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from The National Book Foundation.
Norman Mailer (born Norman Kingsley Mailer) was born to a well-known Jewish family in Long Branch, New Jersey. His father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was a South African-born accountant, and his mother, Fanny Schneider, ran a housekeeping and nursing agency. Mailer's sister, Barbara, was born in 1927.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he graduated from Boys' High School and entered Harvard University in 1939, where he studied aeronautical engineering. At Harvard, he became interested in writing and published his first story at the age of 18, winning Story Magazine's college contest in 1941. As an undergraduate, he was a member of The Signet Society. After graduating in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. In World War II, he served in the Philippines with 112th Cavalry. He was not involved in much combat and completed his service as a cook, but the experience provided enough material for The Naked and the Dead.
In 1948, while continuing his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, based on his military service in World War II. A New York Times best seller for 62 weeks, it was hailed by many as one of the best American wartime novels and named one of the "one hundred best novels in English language" by the Modern Library.
Barbary Shore (1951) was a surreal parable of Cold War left politics set in a Brooklyn rooming-house. His 1955 novel The Deer Park drew on his experiences working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1949-50. It was initially rejected by seven publishers due to its purportedly sexual content before being published by Putnam's.
In the tradition of Dickens and Dostoevsky, Mailer wrote his fourth novel, An American Dream, as a serial in Esquire magazine over eight months (January to August 1964), publishing the first chapter only two months after he wrote it. In March 1965, Dial Press published a revised version. His editor was E. L. Doctorow. The novel, which contains perhaps Mailer's most evocative and lyrical prose, received mixed reviews, but was a best seller. Joan Didion praised it in a review in National Review (April 20, 1965) and John W. Aldridge did the same in Life (March 19, 1965), while Elizabeth Hardwick panned it in Partisan Review (spring 1965). Except for a brief period, the novel has never gone out of print and is admired greatly by Mailer partisans.
In 1980, The Executioner's Song, Mailer's novelization of the life of murderer Gary Gilmore, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Mailer spent a longer time writing Ancient Evenings, his novel of Egypt in the XX dynasty (about 1100 B.C.E.) than any of his other books, working on it off and on from 1972 until 1983. It was also a bestseller, although reviews were generally negative.
Harlot's Ghost, Mailer's longest novel (1310 pages), appeared in 1991. It is an exploration of the unspoken dramas of the CIA from the end of WWII to 1965. He performed a huge amount of research for the novel, which is still on CIA reading lists. He ended the novel with the words "To be continued," and planned to write a sequel, titled Harlot's Grave. But other projects intervened and he never wrote it. Harlot's Ghost sold well.
His final novel, The Castle in the Forest, which focused on Hitler's childhood, reached number five on the Times best seller list after publication in January 2007, and received stronger reviews than any of his books since The Executioner's Song. Castle was intended to be the first volume of a trilogy, but Mailer died several months after it was completed. The Castle in the Forest was awarded a Bad Sex in Fiction Award by the Literary Review]] magazine.
Mailer wrote over 40 books. He published 11 novels over a 59-year stretch.
From the mid-1950s, Mailer became known for his counter-culture essays. In 1955, he was one of the founders of The Village Voice and wrote a column, "Quickly," from January to April 1956. In Advertisements for Myself (1959),
Mailer's essay "The White Negro" (1957) examined violence, hysteria, sex, crime and confusion in American society.
It is one of the most anthologized essays of the postwar period. He wrote numerous book reviews and essays for Esquire, The New York Review of Books and Dissent Magazine.
Other works include:
The Presidential Papers (1963)
An American Dream (1965)
Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967)
Armies of the Night (1968 -- awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award)
Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968)
Of a Fire on the Moon (1971)
The Prisoner of Sex (1971)
The Fight (1975)
The Executioner's Song (1979 -- awarded a Pulitzer Prize)
Ancient Evenings (1983)
Harlot's Ghost (1991)
Oswald's Tale (1995)
The Gospel According to the Son (1997)
Why Are We At War? (2003-- on the Iraq War)
The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (2003)
The Castle in the Forest (2007)
On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007)
In 1968, he received a George Polk Award for his reporting in Harper's magazine.
In addition to his experimental fiction and nonfiction novels, Mailer produced a play version of The Deer Park (staged at the Theatre De Lys in Greenwich Village in 1967), and in the late 1960s directed a number of improvisational avant-garde films in a Warhol style, including Maidstone (1970), which includes a spontaneous and brutal brawl between Norman T. Kingsley, played by himself, and Rip Torn. In 1987, he adapted and directed a film version of his novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, starring Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini, which has become a minor camp classic.
A number of Mailer's nonfiction works, such as The Armies of the Night and The Presidential Papers, are political. He covered the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1992, and 1996, although his account of the 1996 Democratic convention has never been published. In October 1967, he was arrested for his involvement in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the Pentagon. Mailer once said of the Vietnam War: "It is self-evident that the Reader's Digest and Lawrence Welk and Hilton Hotels are organically connected with the Special Forces napalming villages.
Two years later, he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic Party primary for Mayor of New York City, allied with columnist Jimmy Breslin (who ran for City Council President), proposing New York City secession and creating a 51st state. Their slogan was "throw the rascals in". He came in fourth in a field of five. From 1980 until his death in 2007, he contributed to Democratic Party candidacies for political office.
In 1980, Mailer spearheaded convicted killer Jack Abbott's successful bid for parole. In 1977, Abbott had read about Mailer's work on The Executioner's Song and wrote to Mailer, offering to enlighten the author about Abbott's time behind bars and the conditions he was experiencing. Mailer, impressed, helped to publish In the Belly of the Beast, a book on life in the prison system consisting of Abbott's letters to Mailer. Once paroled, Abbott committed a murder in New York City six weeks after his release, stabbing to death 22-year-old Richard Adan. Consequently, Mailer was subject to criticism for his role. In a 1992 interview with the Buffalo News, he conceded that his involvement was "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in.".
In 1989, Mailer joined with a number of other prominent authors in publicly expressing support for colleague Salman Rushdie in the wake of the fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination issued by Iran's Islamic government for his having authored The Satanic Verses.
In 2003, in a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, just before the invasion of Iraq, Mailer said: "Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it."
His biographical subjects included Pablo Picasso, Muhammad Ali, Gary Gilmore and Lee Harvey Oswald. His 1986 off-Broadway play Strawhead, starring his daughter, Kate Mailer, was about Marilyn Monroe. His 1973 biography of Monroe, Marilyn: A Novel Biography was particularly controversial: in its final chapter he stated that she was murdered by agents of the FBI and CIA who resented her supposed affair with Robert F. Kennedy. He later admitted that these speculations were "not good journalism."
Despite these problems, the biography was enormously successful and sold more copies than any Mailer book except Naked and the Dead. The book is currently out of print in the United States.
Marriages, mistresses, and children
Mailer was married six times, and had several mistresses. He had eight biological children by his various wives, and adopted one child. Until he died, he had a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights as well as a house on the Cape Cod oceanfront in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Like many novelists of his generation, Mailer struggled with alcohol and drug abuse throughout his life.
He was married first in 1944, to Beatrice Silverman, whom he divorced in 1952. They had one child, Susan. Mailer married his second wife, Adele Morales, in 1954. They had two daughters, Danielle and Elizabeth. In 1960, Mailer stabbed Adele with a penknife after a party, nearly killing her. He was involuntarily committed to Bellevue Hospital for 17 days; his wife would not press charges, and he later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault, and was given a suspended sentence. While in the short term, Morales made a physical recovery, in 1997 she published a memoir of their marriage entitled The Last Party, which outlined her perception of the incident and its aftermath. This incident has been a focal point for feminist critics of Mailer, who point to themes of sexual violence in his work.
His third wife, whom he married in 1962, and divorced in 1963, was the British heiress and journalist Lady Jeanne Campbell (1929–2007), the only daughter of the 11th Duke of Argyll and a granddaughter of the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. The couple had a daughter, Kate Mailer, who is an actress. His fourth marriage, in 1963, was to Beverly Bentley, a former model turned actress. She was the mother of his producer son Michael and his actor son Stephen. The couple divorced in September 1980, after a lengthy court battle. His fifth wife was Carol Stevens, whom he married in 1980, and with whom he previously had a daughter in 1971, Maggie. They were divorced two days after their wedding.
His sixth and last wife, married in 1980, was Norris Church (née Barbara Davis), a former model and painter turned writer. They had one son together, John Buffalo Mailer, a writer and actor, and Mailer informally adopted Matthew Norris, her son by her first husband, Larry Norris. Mailer first met her in 1975, in Russellville, Arkansas, when he was in town visiting an old Army buddy.
Works with children
In 2005, Mailer co-wrote a book with his youngest child, John Buffalo Mailer, entitled The Big Empty. In 2007 Random House published his last novel, The Castle in the Forest.
Mailer appeared in an episode of Gilmore Girls entitled "Norman Mailer, I'm Pregnant!" with his son Stephen Mailer.
In 2008, one of his mistresses, Carole Mallory, sold seven boxes of documents and photographs to Harvard University. They contain extracts of her letters, books and journals.
Mailer died of acute renal failure on the morning of November 10, 2007, a month after undergoing lung surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, New York.
Quotations from Mailer
"I take it for granted that there's a side of me that loves public action, and there's another side of me that really wants to be alone and work and write. And I've learned to alternate the two as matters develop."
"There are two kinds of brave men: those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will."
"One's condition on marijuana is always existential. One can feel the importance of each moment and how it is changing one. One feels one's being, one becomes aware of the enormous apparatus of nothingness -- the hum of a hi-fi set, the emptiness of a pointless interruption, one becomes aware of the war between each of us, how the nothingness in each of us seeks to attack the being of others, how our being in turn is attacked by the nothingness in others."
"The prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on Earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself and conceive children who will improve the species."
"I don’t hate women, but I think they should be kept in cages."
The Naked and the Dead. New York: Rinehart, 1948.
Barbary Shore. New York: Rinehart, 1951.
The Deer Park. New York: Putnam's, 1955.
An American Dream. New York: Dial, 1965.
The Deer Park: A Play. New York: Dial, 1967.
The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer. New York: Dell, 1967.
Why Are We in Vietnam? New York: Putnam's, 1967.
The Executioner's Song. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979.
Of Women and Their Elegance. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1980
Ancient Evenings. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
Tough Guys Don't Dance. New York: Random House, 1984.
Harlot's Ghost. New York: Random House, 1991.
The Gospel According to the Son. New York: Random House, 1997.
The Castle in the Forest. New York: Random House, 2007.
The White Negro. San Francisco: City Lights, 1957.
Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam's, 1959.
The Presidential Papers.New York: Putnam, 1963.
Cannibals and Christians. New York: Dial, 1966.
The Armies of the Night. New York: New American Library, 1968.
Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968. New York: New American Library, 1968.
Of a Fire on the Moon. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
The Prisoner of Sex. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
St. George and The Godfather. New York: Signet Classics, 1972.
Marilyn: a Biography. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973.
The Faith of Graffiti. New York: Praeger, 1974.
The Fight. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975.
Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots. Northridge, CA: Lord John Press, 1980.
Pieces and Pontifications. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982.
Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretative Biography. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.
Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery. New York: Random House, 1996
Why Are We At War?. New York: Random House, 2003
The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing. New York: Random House, 2003.
The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America. New York: Nation Books, 2006
On God: An Uncommon Conversation. New York: Random House, 2007
Norman Mailer: Remembering the pint-size Jewish fireplug.
By Christopher Hitchens Nov. 11, 2007
"Culture," said Norman Mailer, pugnaciously, in 1981, "is worth a little risk." Admittedly, he was uttering these words at a rather chaotic press conference, just after a tripwire-dangerous convict for whose release he had so ardently campaigned had stabbed a harmless waiter to death. But I remember admiring Mailer's audacity even as I slightly whistled at his promiscuity, and I suppose that no appreciation of the man is really possible without taking a comparative survey of both those capacities. I find I have to add that it's quite surprisingly difficult to picture the cultural scene without him.
"Have you read The Naked And The Dead?" wrote George Orwell to David Astor in 1949, a few months before his death. "It's awfully good, the best war book of the last war yet." For those of us who have to accept, bored as we must be with the idea, membership in the postwar "boomer" generation, it is impressive to reflect on quite how many subsequent milestones bore a Mailer imprint. The Kennedy years (with a detour for Marilyn Monroe and a long excursus for the assassination), the Cuban revolution, the agony of Vietnam, the Apollo mission, and the dark shadow of Richard Nixon: All of these were chronicled or encapsulated by Mailer episodes from The Deer Park, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon, and many fine but lesser texts written either for glossy magazines or for the "alternative" papers (Dissent, the Village Voice) that he helped to found and energize.
Yes, he did value risk-taking and not just for the rest of society (which was what was faintly "off" about his recommendation of murderer Jack Henry Abbott, and about some of the exorbitant things that he wrote in "The White Negro") but also and proudly for himself. Flung in the back of a paddy wagon with Noam Chomsky and an American Nazi for company: mixing it up down in the Congo waiting for the Ali-Foreman brawl; running for mayor of New York with Jimmy Breslin as a campaign manager; duking it out with the Stalinist fellow-travelers in the company of his old friend Jean Malaquais, individualist Trotskyist, as intellectual mentor; getting the point of Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song, and appreciating that a stone-cold killer who really wanted to die was the negation of bleeding-heart liberalism and an intuitive curtain-raiser for the Reagan years.
Pint-size Jewish fireplug that he was, Mailer also continually ran a great risk that very few are willing to run. I mean the danger of simply seeming ridiculous. He once nearly lost an eye in a bar fight, because he thought someone had implied that there was something homosexual, not about him, but about his dog! ("Nobody calls my dog a faggot.") He got whimpering drunk and made a complete idiot of himself on The Dick Cavett Show with Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner, and then reprinted the whole transcripted humiliation as part of an article. On that occasion, and on many, many others, beginning with An American Dream, he manifested an obsession with sodomy that was something a bit more (and perhaps even a bit less) than macho. I once made the mistake of asking him about this on a television show with Germaine Greer: Why was he so fixated on penetratio per anum and its occasions, male-on-male as well as male-on-female? Seizing my copy of his terrible novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, he scrawled an inscription that vowed revenge, and later gave an interview in which he said that the book had been ill-received in London because of a coterie of queer reviewers organized by me, Martin Amis, and Ian Hamilton. (Amis and I contemplated writing a hurt response, saying that this was very unfair to Hamilton.) But all this bravado and bullshit and delinquency, including the near-fatal stabbing of one of his wives, only seemed to increase the number of people—including the stabbed wife herself—who found fresh ways of forgiving him. Even Vidal, not a professional forgiver, was once gruffly affectionate about him in my hearing. A slightly schmaltzy way of phrasing this would be to say that Norman Mailer was always somehow life-affirming, and that his justly famous cocky grin was something that even his enemies had to envy.
The life-affirming may be true even of his most embarrassing work. In "The Time of Her Time," which appeared in Advertisements for Myself in 1959, he exhausted upward of a dozen pages in a description of a heroic struggle to bring a stubborn woman to orgasm. (The method that his character finally employs is so underhanded that I shall not quote it, thus forcing you to look it up.) Quite unabashed years later, he reprinted the whole folly and claimed that its original publication had nerved a hesitant editor to publish Lolita, of which novel he straight-facedly claimed that "The Time of Her Time" was "the godfather." Chutzpah could do no more. But without chutzpah, we would have had no Norman Mailer to appreciate in the first place. He would try everything at least once, from acting to directing to boxing to (worst of all, in my experience) cooking, and if it didn't work out, hey, it had been worth taking the chance.
He used to tell me with perfect gravity that politically he was "a left conservative," and this quixotic description has a patina of truth to it. Probably more than anything, Mailer was a libertarian and a foe of any system or mind-set that involved the censorious (feminism) or the overweening and the grandiose (imperialism/communism). His masterpiece, at least in my opinion, is Harlot's Ghost (1991), a historic fictionalizing of the national-security state that came very near to realizing the Balzacian ambition that he had conceived for it. What a shame that it was so dismally received by the critics and that he never delivered the second volume of it that he had promised. Instead, he frittered away a good part of the last two decades in half-baked essays and fictions on liberation theology—of all sorry things—and callow stuff on George Bush as the macho man gone wrong. Where the hell, I always wanted to ask Mailer, was the cultural risk in that?
Norman Mailer: Autocrat of the Remainder Table
There was a time in this country when bright young men did not dream of directing films or inventing software. They wanted to write: books, fiction--what some liked to call "The Great American Novel." This generation included Gore Vidal whose grandfather had been an august senator and James Jones, a self-taught prodigy out of the Midwest--but none was brighter--nor more driven--than Norman Mailer.
Born in 1923, the son of a South African Jew, and an adoring mother, Mailer was given the middle name Kingsley-- after malech, Hebrew for king. Later, his mother said, "I thought Norman was perfect"--an opinion she held throughout life. (Peter Manso, Mailer: His Life and Times, New York, Penguin Books, 1985) But Mailer's father was a struggling accountant, and the young prince grew up working class--in the grimy New York borough of Brooklyn. The streets of Crown Heights during the Depression provided some education--with their hardness, neighborhood rivalries, and "fug you too" philosophy. No wonder in later years Norman would survive decades of literary wars and misalliances. But as the son of ambitious parents, Norman may have learned that survival skills are not an entree into the Establishment--for that a degree was required and a classy one too. So, like many city boys, Norman burned up the public school competition and enrolled in Harvard--determined, at 17, to become-- as he put it--a "major writer." His tuition was paid by a rich uncle, a chocolate manufacturer who had invented the chocolate covered cherry.
Norman found that Harvard was divided by more than just quadrangles. The school was run by scions of old families, prep school graduates--an elite, arrogant crowd that later crowned themselves, "The WASPS." In rare (or maybe not so rare) moments of self-pity, Mailer would tell intimates that at Harvard he lacked the right clothes, the right accent, the right religion.
Norman Kingsley Mailer's four years in Cambridge were very ordinary. He wrote for the school literary magazine, boxed, and played dormitory football. Later, he would boast that he had been "a bit of an athlete," in his John Garfield, tough alley style. Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America was at war, and Mailer wondered which theater, Europe or Asia, he would write his novel about. Still, Norman was in no hurry to join up. After graduation in 1943, he returned home to Brooklyn (with a B.A. in engineering, cum laude) worked on a novel about a summer job he had had in a Boston mental hospital, and waited for Uncle Sam to call. Finally, in 1945 he was inducted, assigned to a Texas National Guard unit that had been mobilized, and was shipped to the Philippines, landing on Luzon at the tail end of the campaign.
In the South Pacific, Norman strung telephone lines for the engineer corps and took part in skirmishes with the retreating Japanese. A fellow soldier later remembered that Private Mailer "had more combat with his supervisors than he did with the enemy." After the war ended, Norman spent a few months as a cook with the U.S. occupation forces in Japan.
Following his discharge, Norman returned home to write his novel, a fictionalized account of a Pacific battle. He called the book, The Naked and the Dead--an epic title he had previously used for a play at Harvard. The story was about a tough three day patrol behind enemy lines that had taken place before Mailer joined the unit but that he had heard about from those who survived.
Mailer's book was a huge success, and he was lionized by the press in that pre-television era in a way that no first novelist would be today. There were only a few stray dissenters (whose number, however, would grow over the years). Mary McCarthy called the novel redolent of "ambition"--as opposed to talent--and young Gore Vidal found the story a rerun of Dos Passos--a "fake," even. But in 1948, at the age of 25, Norman Mailer was famous.
Hoping to sell his book to the movies, Norman headed to Hollywood. The film colony did not roll out the welcome mat. Producer Sam Goldwyn showed up at a meeting in his bathrobe and lectured the young author on screen writing. When no major studio optioned his book, Mailer worked on an original screenplay with his friend, Jean Malaquais, and soaked up the local color. (Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, London, Headline House,1988 ed.)
The screenplay remained unproduced, and Mailer turned to another novel, The Deer Park, which appeared to be a fictionalized account of director Elia Kazan's troubles with HUAC - the Congressional investigating committee--as well as Mailer's own remembrances of Goldwyn. The book had a weird sexuality--one minor character was a homosexual pimp--and, for a time, there were doubts it would be published. Supposedly, Alfred Knopf, the patrician publisher, asked an editor in disdain, "Is this your idea of the kind of book which should bear a Borzoi imprint?" ( Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, New York, Berkley Books, 1970 ed.)
When published in 1955, The Deer Park sold only moderately well and was widely panned: One reviewer called it, "The year's worst snake pit in fiction." Another critic found the plot "crummy" and "sordid." (Over the years, however, the book acquired a cult following that would include a UCLA film student named Jim Morrison.) But, by the time the novel was published, Norman had moved beyond Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Bestsellerdom was no longer his shtick. The "Psychic Outlaw" was Mailer's new hero; he became the prophet of hip. Along with several friends, Norman co-founded The Village Voice and published manifestoes in small circulation journals.
At first Mailer acted as Voice circulation manager, then wrote a puffed up column on his new philosophy. Other staff members found him overbearing, egotistical, inconsiderate. Dan Wolf, a Voice co-founder, told him: "Norman, for a socialist, you're acting like the worst capitalist in the world." (Hillary Mills, Mailer: A Biography, New York, Empire Books, 1982)
After Mailer blew up over a typo, editor Wolf canceled the column, and Norman was off the Voice. "He was bullying everybody," a confrere complained, but this setback did not slow Norman down.
Sex, politics, drugs--in different combinations and various configurations--were throughout the 1950s favorite Mailer themes. He wrote a short story about a college girl's (involuntary) encounter with anal intercourse (which led some early feminists to question Norman's own sexuality)--and romanticized marijuana as "the smoke of the assassins." (This was before Lee Harvey Oswald made the scene.)
In an essay entitled, The White Negro, Mailer took on the complicated subject of race relations. Unfortunately, Norman's dialectical insight went over some people's heads. After reading the essay, James Baldwin, the great black novelist, confessed: "I could not, with the best will in the world, make any sense out of The White Negro." (James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, New York, Dell Books, 1978 ed.)
But for Norman, the 1950s were only a foretaste of the adulation that covered him in the 1960s; that unrestful era was "the time of his time." Meetings, protests, marches--Norman Mailer was everywhere. It was as though LBJ had conjured up the Vietnam War for Norman--and God then sent him Nixon. At one cocktail party Norman challenged McGeorge Bundy, LBJ's foreign policy adviser, to a fistfight. The bespectacled State Department official declined. Apparently, there were no Green Berets around for Norman to take on.
For a time, Mailer could do no wrong; his home-movies were shown in art houses and applauded by critics. He won a Pulitzer Prize (1969) for The Armies of The Night--a journalistic novel in which he was the main character in the march on the Pentagon to stop the war. Two other world class protesters, Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald, were accorded supporting roles. Macdonald, in fact, had been protesting everything--World War II, capitalism, the Third Edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, even--for years. Of Lowell, Mailer wrote: "You, Lowell, beloved poet of many, what do you know of the dirt and the dark deliveries of the necessary?" Political correctness was not yet in vogue--but it was hardly Norman's turgid prose that also earned him the National Book Award that year.
In politics, as in art, fashions change. With the advent of Ronald Reagan, Mailer's career steadily went into decline. The Great Communicator filled the entire arena. There was no room on stage for side shows or freaks. Mailer tried but his potboilers and a coffee table biography of Marilyn Monroe failed to regain his early fame. The Monroe book was launched at a press conference at the Algonquin Hotel--the literary landmark where Dorothy Parker and her circle had exchanged witticisms and repartee. Norman revealed that the theme of his study was that the right wing had murdered the sex goddess to frame Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The ghosts of the Round Table must have had fun with that one. A more earthly critic, John Simon, described the biography as "very demented." When it became known that Mailer's book on capital punishment (The Executioner's Song) had been based upon another's research, Truman Capote commented that Norman "...was just a rewrite man like you have over at the Daily News." (Lawrence Grobel, Conversations with Capote, New York, NAL Books, 1985)
Being on the wrong side of history can happen to anyone. But these times must be especially galling for Norman Mailer. Old comrades now style themselves "neo-conservatives" and write on social issues for right wing journals.
The "shit storm" that Norman predicted in the sixties never materialized. Instead of finding himself in old age a prophet, Norman has become--in the classic put down of that era--marginalized and irrelevant.
Ron Martinetti for AL. Ron is completing a novel, Disloyal Sons, about The Hotchkiss School, where he was formerly a student.
Norman Mailer: Why I Am Protesting the Presidency
democracynow.org August 09, 2004
The legendary writer and journalist talks with Amy Goodman about the November election, the state of protest today and the historic 1968 conventions which he chronicled in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, I had a chance to interview one of the country’s best-known literary figures, Norman Mailer, at a benefit for WOMR in Provincetown Massachusetts.
Over the past half century Mailer has written 39 books, won two Pulitzer Prizes and co-founded the Village Voice.
36 years ago Norman Mailer wrote one of the definitive accounts of the historic 1968 conventions. The book was called “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.”
He also wrote “Armies of the Night” on the 1967 march on the Pentagon by antiwar protesters.
I began by asking him about his thoughts on the November election
AMY GOODMAN: I asked Norman Mailer about his thoughts on this lead-up to the November election.
NORMAN MAILER: The people who are—who hate Bush, like myself, are heating up one end of the stick. We’re getting it red hot, but we’re not reaching the middle at all.
Now, my feeling is that if I were a Republican, I would know how to handle that rage. I would encourage it and encourage it and encourage it. And I would have my little people in with all the activists to create some awful, awful scenes while the conventions are on, because you keep talking about how awful the media is in terms of its limitations. It cuts off both ends of every discussion. The media is that way for a reason, which is this country, the center of this country, the corporations, are determined to control the thing. And my argument is that unless Kerry is elected—and God knows Kerry is not Jesus Christ, nor is he Joan of Arc. He’s a man slightly to the left of the middle, who will play with the corporations and work with them, but nonetheless he will have to have more of an open ear to us than the Bushies.
And so, our first need at this point is not to keep heating one end of the stick; it’s to reach the middle. It’s to reach those conservatives who don’t know what we’re talking about. And the immediate need is to defeat Bush. But to do that, to do that, we have to reach the middle. And the only way we can reach the middle at this late date is if we’re extraordinarily peaceful in our demonstrations before the election, because the media are just waiting there like coiled springs, hoping that there will be a few maniacs who will cut loose. Maybe there will be a few people who will know what to do with the American flag, as far as the Republicans are concerned. And that is, the Republicans are hoping that we’ll make [bleep] of ourselves. They’re counting on that.
And I would like to see the word go out to all the activists that we are walking into a tremendous trap. Why did the—why ever did the Republicans choose New York? Keep asking yourself that question. Leon Trotsky once said there are certain questions that answer themselves by being asked, and that one—you ask yourself, you’ll have the answer. Why did the Republicans choose New York? Let’s not walk into their trap.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we continue in that vein, and you wrote an incredible work, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, about what happened in 1968. Why don’t you talk about the siege of Chicago and relate it to what you’re talking about today?
NORMAN MAILER: Well, there you had—in a funny way, what you had was a reverse media, because the media covered the massacre on Michigan Boulevard. Most of you, I’m sure, know all about it. For those of you who you don’t, there was a huge march of demonstrators, an essentially peaceful march that went up Michigan Boulevard and at a given moment, given the order by Mayor Daley then, not the present Richard Daley, but his father, the police surged into the marchers and beat them up with canes. It was all on television. It was extraordinary television, one of the incredible moments of network television, and everyone was shocked down to the core. The Cronkites, the Rathers, whoever was there then—I don’t even remember—they all were profoundly shocked.
And it looked—at the moment, it looked like: how awful, how awful, the Republicans are going to pay for this. Quite the contrary, the Republicans won, because out there in the core of America, the thing we have to recognize is the injustices you’re talking about in the media, which have rankled me for so many years I can’t even talk about it, are not going to be overcome by our talking; they’re going to be overcome by our acquiring bits of power, more and more. I’d even argue with you that the New York Times, bad as it is today, is far better than it was fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t even written well.
And the point is that to overcome, to overtake this incredible centrality of the corporation, we’ve got to learn guile, we’ve got to learn to understand the enemy, we’ve got to devote our lives to it—not all of our lives; none of us will do that, I hope. But we have to devote a good part of our lives to recognizing that we’re not going to win this war by being funnier than the Republicans. The Democrats and the left have been incredibly more funny than the Republicans for fifty years. I said this in Wellfleet last year. We’ve been laughing at them for fifty years, and we’re further back now than when we began. The way to do it is to acquire power.
And people in the middle of America are terrified of change. Very often they have bad conscience. The bad conscience comes because, to the degree that they’re good Christians, which must be half of the country, they feel that they’re a little too greedy to be a good Christian, and it bothers them, which is why we keep getting this brainwashing all the time, which is immensely more successful than the brainwashing that went on in the Soviet Union. That was crude. The kids saw through it. They hated it. Now the brainwashing is immensely sensitive, subtle, clever.
You pointed it out all over the place, what they do. I was agreeing with you every step of the way, but at the same time I kept saying it can never be enough, because we’re talking to ourselves. We’ve got to reach into that middle. And I would just say the first step is to get Kerry elected, whatever faults he has. Once he’s elected, we will have more of a voice. We’re not going to have the voice. The corporation will still have the voice. But it can be the beginning of a very long march back toward at least the center of the power we need. And I’m slightly ahead, and I’m going to quit.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the role of protest? I mean, you have extensively written about it. You won the Pulitzer Prize for your book—
NORMAN MAILER: I’m all for protest when there’s not—I’ll give you an answer in one sentence: I’m all for protest when an election is not coming up, because protest can have a huge effect slowly, steadily, not immediately. Almost immediately, the media, particularly in America, does its best to, generally speaking, to put protest down.
But over a long haul, the march on the Pentagon ended up being a success. I’ve said this many times, but what Lyndon Johnson saw was that 50,000 middle-class people, middle-aged and young and a few old, came to Washington, paid their way to get to Washington with the prospect of being hit over the head with a club. Lyndon Johnson was a very canny man. He knew if there’s one thing about middle-class people, they didn’t like getting hit over the head with a club. And if they, if they are going to spend their money to come to Washington to protest, he was sick, because he knew if he paid the way of all of the people who would come to support his war in Vietnam, he would be lucky to get 5,000 people. So if 50,000 had come this way, in all fear and all determination, then there probably were somewhere between five million and fifty million behind them, and he didn’t want to find out. It took something away from him.
He brought in Clark Clifford at one point to ask him for an honest appraisal of the war in Vietnam, and Clifford said, “It’s a loser.” Clifford was respected by Johnson, because he was objective. He said, “You’re not going to win this war. You can’t.” And I think that led to—well, now we get into all the complications of history. It’s never clean. So, Johnson stepped down, Nixon came in. Nixon knew his advantage was to keep the war going for four years to get re-elected, etc., etc. Here we get into all of the tangles. I’m saying, we have to enter the land of the tangles.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, at the Republican Convention, there are plans for a massive march of something like a quarter of a million—perhaps there will be more. Do you—
NORMAN MAILER: I hope it’s a half-million. I mean, if—yeah, 500,000. At my age, it gets harder to count. But the problem may well be whether they can get permission, with Bloomberg and Pataki there.
AMY GOODMAN: They have now gotten permission, but it’s to march on the West Side Highway, which is quite far from where the convention is taking place.
NORMAN MAILER: It’s a long walk from the Lower East Side, where it all started.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you approve of this protest?
NORMAN MAILER: Well, I approve of protests of all sorts, depending on their position, their timing. I never approve of a protest that I think is a folly. My point is this protest, yes, I approve, if it’s peaceful, if the marchers, if the leaders of the activists get across the notion that it will be a disaster if there’s too much rioting, and indeed suspect the people who are rioting. They may not be—they might be on another payroll altogether.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have always called yourself a third party man. What do you think about Ralph Nader?
NORMAN MAILER: I met him in Chicago the other day, about a month ago. He’s the nicest, most decent politician I have ever met, but I do think he’s doing what I’m afraid the left and the left-of-center is going to do in this one, is they’re going to end up handing it to Bush before it’s all over. And my feeling is this, that if Bush gets it, everything we do is restricted to Provincetown and San Francisco and places like that, that, in other words, if we want to really have a say in what’s going on in our country and in the world, we absolutely, absolutely have to get Kerry elected.
Amy, let me finish one thought, which is, we’ve got to curb our rage for the next four months, not put it away forever—far from it, far from it. This rage is legitimate. But I think it’s going to be much more powerful after Kerry’s in. And the reverse is true, if he isn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about curbing the rage, do you see a difference between now and 1968, in terms of how many people across the political spectrum are angry? I mean, you have now military families who are rising up, a thousand dead US servicemen and women.
NORMAN MAILER: I know what you want to say. Let me interrupt, because I really got to leave. I really got to leave. There’s more rage across the spectrum now, but I keep repeating this, a profound conservatism in American life. There’s a terror of excess in the average Middle American. And if there are—right now, the election is so close that if the rage erupts and does silly and stupid things before the election, it’s going to lose the election. Now I could be dead wrong. I’m wrong half the time.
AMY GOODMAN: But I mean the conservatives that are mad. I’m asking if you see a difference between now and 1968 in terms of the number of conservatives who are mad?
NORMAN MAILER: Absolutely. Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Across—
NORMAN MAILER: Those are the ones that I want to reach.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you suggest reaching them?
NORMAN MAILER: Moderation. That’s what they live for. People are conservative because they’re moderate.
AMY GOODMAN: But—[ applause ] if the media covers nothing but a protest that becomes violent, if they ice out so much dissent, how do you reach?
NORMAN MAILER: My point is they can ice it out for a period. They can’t keep icing it out. We are a force of outrage. I’m just saying that this force—I’m just hoping that this force waits four months to express itself and then has its jubilee.
AMY GOODMAN: Norman Mailer, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, speaking two weeks ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at Provincetown Town Hall.
In the Belly of the Beast
By Dean Brelis and Claudia Wolffs. Aug. 03, 1981
After a dream of heaven, a nightmare intervenes
You are both alone in his cell. You 've slipped out a knife (eight-to ten-inch blade, double-edged). You're holding it beside your leg so he can't see it. The enemy is smiling and chattering away about something. He thinks you 're his fool; he trusts you. You see the spot. It's a target between the second and third button on his shirt. As you calmly talk and smile, you move your left foot to the side to step across his right-side body length. A light pivot toward him with your right shoulder and the world turns upside down: you have sunk the knife to its hilt into the middle of his chest.
The author of those words, Jack Henry Abbott, 37, had practiced that lethal sidestep on a fellow inmate while doing time in Utah state prison. He described the art of murder in one of some 1,000 letters that he wrote to Author Norman Mailer between 1977 and 1980, providing a cool but furious description of life behind bars. It was an existence filled with violence: the violence done to Abbott in roach-infested solitary-confinement cells and the violence that Abbott, long a prison incorrigible, did to others. His was a voice so choked with rage that he admitted, "I have to intentionally gauge [it] in conversation." That anger, he wrote, "could consume me at any moment if I lost control."
Abbott began his correspondence with Mailer after reading that he was at work on a book about Gary Gilmore, a Utah inmate who was executed for murder in 1977. Abbott, who had spent all but 9½ months of his adult life in prison, offered to give the author a sense of "the atmospheric pressure" endured by long-term convicts like Gilmore. Mailer accepted the offer and was stunned by the hard-edged eloquence of the self-educated Abbott, who boasted: "Nine-tenths of my vocabulary I have never heard spoken." Wrote Mailer: "I felt all the awe one knows before a phenomenon." He helped Abbott publish the letters; In the Belly of the Beast appeared to critical ovations in July. Then, by attesting to the convict's talent and promising him a job in New York, Mailer helped persuade the Federal Parole Board to release him last June. A $15,000 book advance paid three lawyers who handled his release.
Abbott arrived in New York on June 5 with something "only one in a million convicts ever get," as Ed Henson of the federal Bureau of Prisons put it. Not only was Abbott suddenly free—a condition he had once likened to "a free man's dreams of heaven"—he was also a celebrity, invited to literary parties and interviewed on Good Morning America. His work would be hailed in the New York Times Book Review as an "awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenuous . . . articulation of penal nightmare." Says Henson: "He had everything a man needs to start a life outside." Then a new nightmare intervened.
Abbott was staying at a Salvation Army halfway house in Lower Manhattan until his parole became official on Aug. 25. He was required to check in seven times a day, but otherwise was free to enjoy the city. He was doing just that on early Saturday morning, July 18, in the company of two attractive, well-educated young women he had met at a party. At 5:30 they stopped at the Bini-Bon Restaurant near the halfway house; it is a threadbare bohemian place, open 24 hours. Behind the counter was Richard Adan, 22, an aspiring actor and playwright who worked the graveyard shift in the café, which is owned by his father-in-law Henry Howard. Adan took the "toughest duty," explains Howard, "because he was interested in people. Some curious types come in after midnight."
Abbott asked Adan the direction to the men's room and was told it was for the help only. Abbott calmly asked if he could use it anyway. Adan told him it was against health rules; if opened to the public, it would not remain clean. Could this have touched the consuming rage Abbott had written about? He quietly asked Adan to step outside to "talk this over." The younger man agreed. Around the dark street corner, a knife appeared. Adan was stabbed in the chest, in almost exactly the way that Abbott had described in his book.
As Adan staggered toward the restaurant, Abbott ran in and told his two friends, "Come on." Minutes after they left, the police arrived. No charges have been filed, but Abbott is wanted for questioning in the murder. Federal authorities have a warrant out to arrest him as a fugitive, should he leave New York State.
"What happened?" asked Scott Meredith, who is both Mailer's and Abbott's literary agent. "Every conversation I had with Jack, we talked about the future. Everything was ahead of him." John Dockendorff, director of the halfway house, was "absolutely baffled how Jack got the knife and how he hid it." Abbott had been "cooperative" and had even appeared for one of the attendance checks after the murder, before vanishing into the streets.
Others glimpsed the handwriting on the prison walls. Erroll McDonald, Abbott's editor at Random House and one of his guides in the complexities of free life —how to order from a menu, where to buy toothpaste—noticed the ex-convict's tendency to "interpret indifference as rudeness." Novelist Jerzy Kosinski, who had had his own correspondence with Abbott since 1973, said, "Looking at him, I had the feeling there could be uncontrollable anger one moment and a very easy embrace the next." Finally, anyone who read his work noticed, as Kosinski did, that "he wrote in such a sheer rage that I could feel his letter burning in my hand."
Kosinski faults himself and Abbott's other literary friends. "We pretended he had always been a writer. It was a fraud. It was like the '60s, when we embraced the Black Panthers in that moment of radical chic without understanding their experience." There is another analogy from the 1960s, when Conservative Writer William F. Buckley Jr. championed the cause of a literarily gifted convicted killer, Edgar Smith, and helped set him at liberty to attempt murder again. Years later, Buckley acknowledged in an article how easily conned and naive he had been. Mailer, whose writings attest to his fascination with outlaws, has made only one comment on the Abbott affair: "A tragic situation all around."
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro," and new conceptions of the self in postwar America
Mailer Review, The Fall, 2007. by Alan Petigny
Mailer's concern about the lack of individuality in American society was not a substantiation of his claims but of the reverse. In an ironic way, the resonance of "The White Negro" during the late 1950s was further evidence of an ascendant spirit during the postwar era-one which was more secular, more expressive, and, in the aggregate, less conformist than anything that had come before.
DAVID KIRTZER, THE CURRENT PROVOST AT BROWN UNIVERSITY, tells an interesting story about Norman Mailer. In 1967, while an undergraduate at Brown, Kirtzer was enrolled in an English literature class focusing on Mailer's writings. Kirtzer was also the chapter president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and a day before a scheduled examination he left for Washington to take part in the March on the Pentagon. Unfortunately, Kirtzer was arrested in the march and, on the following day, he was despairing because instead of being in the classroom, he was in jail-completely missing his exam on Norman Mailer. However, as fate would have it, locked up in jail with him was none other than Norman Mailer.
So Kirtzer went up to Mailer and said, "You know, I'm missing an exam today-on YOU!"
To which Mailer replied, "Really? Where do you go to school?" When Kirtzer told him it was Brown University, Mailer responded, "Stop worrying. I'll take care of it." Then, right there in Jail, Mailer wrote a little note which read: "Dear Professor, Please excuse David Kirtzer from his exam, as he is with me, protesting against the carnage in Vietnam."
As Kirtzer relays the episode, when he finally returned to Brown University his professor got into a big fight with him ... over who got to keep the letter.
As this little story demonstrates, by the late 1960s Norman Mailer was already a cultural icon, widely seen as an irreverent rebel with a progressive vision. Mailer's scathing critique of social conformity, his championing of existentialism, his warm support for the Civil Rights Movement, and his opposition to the war in Vietnam made it clear to most that he was no friend of conservatism. However, when it came to issues of identity--specifically, race and gender--Mailer's progressive credentials during the late 1960s and early 1970S came under heavy attack. Feminists like Kate Millett and Susan Brownmiller denounced him bitterly, while his standing amongst many of the Black intelligentsia continued to plummet due to his authorship of the infamous 1957 essay, "The White Negro." In explaining why the Black Americans should serve as the inspiration and model for enlightened white Americans, Mailer had written:
The cameos of security for the average white: mother and home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro has stayed alive and continued to grow by following the needs of his body when he could. Knowing in the cells of his existence, that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived
in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm (214).
Needless to say, most Americans today--particularly those in the academy--would be disturbed by Mailer's characterization of the African-American experience. However, in the late 1960s when black pride was in the ascendancy--a development reflected in the growing popularity of afros, dashikis, cornrows, the proliferation of Black Studies programs, and in the very term "Black Is Beautiful"--many African Americans found Mailer's words particularly offensive. Writing only a few months after the March on the Pentagon, Gary Marx observed that cultural rebels like Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac had an image of African Americans that was strikingly similar to the stereotypes embraced by the likes of John E. Rankin, Theodore Bilbo, and James Eastland. "Mailer and Kerouac," he wrote, "differ from them only on the emotive dimension of prejudice; they like super-sexed, narcotics-using, primitive, easy-going, spontaneous, irresponsible, violent Negroes while racists dislike them" (168). However, there is another way we can read "The White Negro." Putting aside, for the moment, the negative racial stereotyping, "The White Negro" succeeded in articulating an alternative vision of the self--a vision reflecting a new mood which was culturally resonant and in the ascendancy during the Age of Eisenhower.
This analysis is at odds with the standard narrative, not to mention Mailer's own account, of the decade of the fifties--a period seen by most journalists and academics as a time of complacency, conformity, and conservatism. In arguing that "The White Negro" did not simply tap into an oppositional undercurrent but, in an exaggerated form, actually reflected the dominant mood of the culture is to break with nearly everything we thought we knew about the early cold war years. Upon closer inspection, it would seem our distorted image of the 1950s has been caused by a failure to distinguish between social conventions and private behavior-or, to state the matter a little differently, by a failure to differentiate between what people professed publicly to believe, and what they actually practiced privately.
If one focuses not on social conventions but, instead, on private behavior, what one sees during the early cold war years is a picture of dramatic change--a time when a religiously oriented vision was fast losing its hold over the American Mind and the American Soul. How else are we to explain the emergence of the Sexual Revolution during the forties and fifties--a development attested to by soaring rates of single-motherhood and premarital pregnancies occurring during the supposedly staid Eisenhower years?
In "The White Negro," Mailer seemed to regard white middle-class America as uptight and sexually repressed. While partially correct, Mailer failed to see what the majority of Americans at the time, and till this day, fail to see: a great and broad liberalization that was unfolding almost unnoticed during the fifties. In 1949, for example, when the public discovered Ingrid Bergman was planning to leave her husband and daughter for Italian director Roberto Rossellini, she was essentially banished from Hollywood. For more than seven years, Bergman resided in Europe-neither appearing in an American film, nor setting foot on American soil. By contrast, when Eddie Fisher left his wife and two children to be with the recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor nearly a decade later, the repercussions were relatively light. Although the behavior of Taylor and Fisher infuriated some fans--according to Eddie Fisher's memoirs, at the height of the scandal he and Taylor were receiving about 7,000 nasty letters per week--both Taylor and Fisher immediately resumed their successful careers (149-150). Indeed, it was only a year after the scandal erupted, in 1959, that Taylor received an Academy Award nomination for her role in Suddenly Last Summer, and only two years after the scandal when Taylor became the first actor to sign a million dollar contract to appear in a motion picture (Leonard 9).
The different responses to the Bergman and Taylor scandals suggests attitudes were evolving during the 1950s, but even more significant than shifting attitudes were notable changes in behavior that were occurring. Despite the greater availability of effective birth control, the rate of single motherhood soared during the middle decades of the twentieth century, rising by more than threefold in the years between 1940 and 1960 (Bureau of the Census 52). What these figures indicate is that at the time of "The White Negro," when Mailer was bemoaning the reticence and conformity of the culture, a sexual revolution was already well under way.
The medicalization of alcohol dependency provides us with another way to gauge changes in popular attitudes. In 1944, less than 10 percent of Americans considered alcoholism to be an illness rather than a personal failing. However, by 1949, public opinion had so shifted that a full third of Americans considered alcoholism to be an illness, and by the mid-1950s a clear majority of Americans held this opinion (Rothe 398-399).
The success of The Lost Weekend is an early indication of the public's openness to a more sympathetic portrayal of the alcoholic in the immediate postwar period. The story of a troubled man who goes on a five-day drinking binge, The Lost Weekend was one of the most acclaimed movies of 1945 Initially, however, the success of The Lost Weekend seemed anything but certain. As actor Ray Milland recalled, when he first accepted the leading role in the film "some of my friends told me that I was committing professional suicide." Yet, in the end, critics and audiences alike responded favorably and sympathetically to the character of Don Birnam. As the movie made plain, although Birnam lied, stole, and appeared weak and irresponsible, these vices were more indicative of a terrible medical illness than of a deficiency in moral character. Thus viewers cheered at the movie's conclusion, when Birnam's girlfriend foils his suicide attempt and convinces him to seek help for his drinking problem. Far from sabotaging his film career, Milland's portrayal of an alcoholic received critical acclaim and an Oscar for Best Actor ("Movie of the Week" 133-136).
By the close of the 1950s, public attitudes toward alcoholism had undergone a complete revolution in less than a generation. What is more, some of the country's leading corporations-including General Motors, IBM, Shell Oil, General Foods, and Revlon-were contributing money to the National Council on Alcoholism (NCA), the chief advocate of the disease model; and, in 1959, President Eisenhower designated the first week of December as "Alcohol Information Week" (National Center 3).
Even in the family, the area one would least expect it to occur, a great liberalization was under way during the fifties. As a wealth of sociological studies make clear, parenting in America was moving in a more permissive direction in the fifteen years following the Second World War. The publication of Dr. Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) did much to persuade parents to adopt a milder, less regimented approach in the rearing of their children. In his manual, Spock encouraged parents to abandon the behaviorism that had dominated child-rearing strategies since the 1920s and, in its place, accept a style of parenting that was more relaxed. In Spock's understanding, the strict discipline of the child was entirely unwarranted. "The things that keep us from doing 'bad' things to each other," wrote Spock "is the feelings we have of liking people and wanting them to like us." Consequently, if parents are "sure in their own minds how they expect him [the child] to behave, and tell him reasonably, not too irritably, they will have all the control over him that they need" (271). One sign of the popularity of Spock's message was the success of his book. With the exception of the Bible, The Common Sense Book has sold more copies than any book in the history of the English language.
Part of the reason a more permissive approach to parenting resonated so strongly after World War II is because of mounting concerns about the dangers of authoritarianism. As Americans emerged victorious from the Second World War, they sought to understand how a country as advanced as Germany could have allowed a man like Hitler to assume power--and they wondered if the same thing could happen in America someday. Could the combination of forces which turned an educated German citizenry into a herd of obedient foot-soldiers have a similar effect on the American population? Among leading thinkers and opinion makers, the answer was a resounding "yes." As they saw it, the problem with the German population, and potentially with any population, was an excessive submissiveness toward authority.
In the decade following the Second World War, a golden age for psychology, this explanation acquired a great deal of currency. Accordingly, a number of social scientific classics written during this time, such as Theodor Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality, Erich Fromm's Man for Himself, David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd, Gordon Allport's The Nature of Prejudice, and William Whyte's The Organization Man, attempted to grapple with the issue of personal submissiveness.
While not as well known today as in the fifties, the image of the subservient German remains strong today. An episode in the Fox-Television cartoon series "The Simpsons" speaks to this point. In the episode, a self-help guru lecturing in Springfield advises the audience to let go of its hang-ups, and try to be more like the mischievous boy Bart Simpson who is in touch with his "inner child." As a result, many of the adults in Springfield begin imitating Bart, acting in a spontaneous, carefree way and generally shirking their responsibilities. At the height of the frenzy, local anchorman Kent Brockman makes the on-air announcement: "Springfield will have its first annual 'Do What You Feel' Festival this Saturday. Whenever you feel like showing up, it will be a welcome change from our annual 'Do What We Say' Festival, started by German settlers in 1946" ("Bart's Episode" #88).
In the effort to define themselves in opposition to the stereotypical obedient German, the spotlight in the 1950s quickly centered on child rearing. According to the conventional wisdom of the day, the origins of the "Authoritarian Man" were to be found in his childhood. That is to say that the chief reason submissive people were willing to follow an authoritarian strong man like Hitler or Mussolini was to be found during their childhood when they were forced to submit to excessively domineering parents whose strict discipline and exacting rules facilitated an uncritical obedience to authority. As Samuel Flowerman, a leading proponent of this view, explained, "research findings indicate that so far the key to the difference between the authoritarian and democratic personalities lies in the relationship between parents and children. Learning to disagree with one's parents may be the capstone of a democratic personality" (a8). In light of these broad cultural concerns, the less exacting approach to child rearing promoted by the likes of Spock received the enthusiastic praise of experts, and the broad backing of parents.
The medicalization of deviancy, liberalizing attitude toward sex, and a more relaxed approach to parenting represented a departure from an older and more traditional Christian morality. Yet more than any factor, the explosive growth of psychology during the forties and fifties gave rise to an increasingly secular culture. Mailer may have regarded White America as repressed, but, if true, that was a condition many Americans were attempting to escape. Between 1940 and 1960, clinical psychology came into its own, with membership in the American Psychological Association growing more than sixfold (American Psychological Association, 1960).
One of the reasons clinical psychology grew so briskly was because, in the aftermath of the war, many mental health professionals decreased their focus on the problems of the severely ill or the criminally insane, and instead turned their attention to the relatively mundane problems of ordinary people. Joining the proliferating ranks of psychologists were psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, and, as we will discuss later, an explosion of pastoral counselors. Together, these mental health professionals democratized psychology, bringing it out of the prison and asylum and into the larger American community.
No less important than the growth of psychology was the changing emphasis of psychological counseling. While Freudianism reigned in the early forties, by the close of the 1950s, it was fast losing ground to the humanistic school of psychology, best exemplified by Carl Rogers. According to Rogers, at the core of every person lies the actualizing tendency--an internal mechanism that is positive, forward-looking, and attempts to push the individual toward his full potential. The job of the therapist, therefore, is not to somehow "cure" the patient, but something far more modest. Through the creation of an accepting atmosphere, the goal is to get the individual to unleash the actualizing tendency and, by so doing, assist the clients in healing themselves (Rogers 415-421).
One would think if forced to choose between humanistic psychology and Sigmund Freud, between the so-called client-centered approach championed by Carl Rogers and orthodox psychoanalysis, most Christian leaders would cast their lot with the Freudians. Freud may have held that most of man's anxieties arose out of his sexual repression, but, at the same time, he believed much of man's repression--and the anguish that accompanies it--are a part of human existence and a necessary development for the functioning of civilization. Likewise, while Freud may have thought psychoanalysis could be helpful in some limited situations, he did not believe in the perfectibility of man--insisting internal conflict and disharmony were an inevitable part of human existence. In short, traditional Christianity's understandings of the human condition and Freud's secularized vision of man were not altogether incompatible: in the case of the former, there was the belief in original sin; in the case of the latter, there was a clear-eyed appreciation of mankind's limitations.
Humanistic psychology, however, had few of these restraints. Its emphasis was on man's ability to persevere, to overcome, to triumph. Thus, throughout the writings of Carl Rogers and his close colleague Abraham Maslow, the themes of "potential" and "growth" continually reappear. Therefore, it seems counterintuitive Protestant churches would choose Rogers over Freud, but embrace Rogers they did-and with great enthusiasm.
As Seward Hiltner, editor of Pastoral Psychology and the author of the most frequently used book in the teaching of ministerial counseling, observed, Carl Rogers was "more concretely influential" in the pastoral counseling movement "than any other individual" (Holifield 265). This mattered a great deal during the 1950s because Americans were approximately three times as likely to go to a minister to assist them dealing with a problem of psychological nature than they were to consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist (Gurin 121). In other words, there was a lot of psychological counseling going on during the fifties, but the bulk of this counseling was not occurring on the psychologist's couch, but in a minister's office.
The Protestant churches' acceptance of Rogers, and their lack of enthusiasm for Freudian analysis, speaks to a larger question. During the 1930s and 1940s Freudian analysis was rarely embraced by religion because it was seen as too liberal. However, during the 1950s churches were slow to embrace psychoanalysis because they tended to see it as too conservative. Put simply, during the peace and prosperity of the Eisenhower years, when trust in the government was high and faith in the future abounded, psychoanalysis was simply seen as too dark, too depressing, too inflexible, and too inhibiting for an increasing number of Americans. To be sure, the politics of the 1950s were conservative. However, once we scratch the surface, what we find underneath are far-reaching changes unfolding on a grassroots level during the Age of Eisenhower--changes which should have heartened feminists, secularists, progressives, and even Norman Mailer himself.
Yet these developments should not surprise us altogether. In order for values to liberalize to any appreciable extent, as they did a decade later, such a shift in private sentiments had to occur first. As long as there was a dominant personality type that looked upon impulses with suspicion and hostility, that took seriously the notion of original sin, and that placed a greater value on self-mastery than self-expression, the extent to which behavioral codes could loosen would have been severely limited.
So, like other critics of the era-such as David Reisman, Gordon Allport, Erich Fromm, and William Whyte-Norman Mailer's hand-wringing about the lack of individuality in American Society was not a substantiation of his claims but of the reverse. In an ironic way, the resonance of "The White Negro" during the late 1950S was further evidence of an ascendant spirit during the postwar era--one which was more secular, more expressive, and--in the aggregate--less conformist than anything that had come before.
American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association Year Book (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1960).
"Bart's Inner Child." Simpson episode #88. Season 5 (first aired on November 11, 1993).
Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1 (Washington: Bureau of the Census, 1975).
Fisher, Eddie, Been There, Done That (New York: St. Martin, 1999).
Flowerman, Samuel H. "Portrait of the Authoritarian Man," The New York Times Magazine (April 23,1950).
Gurin, Gerald; Joseph Ueroff and Sheila Feld, Americans View Their Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, 1960).
Holifield, E. Brooks, A History of Pastoral Care in America (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983).
Leonard, William. "They Love Liz Taylor, Shocks and All," Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine (June 12,1960).
Mailer, Norman. The Time of Our Time (New York: Modern Library, 1998).
Marx, Gary T. "The White Negro and the Negro White," Phylon (Spring 1967).
"Movie of the Week: The Lost Weekend" : Life (October 15,1945).
National Center for Alcoholism and Drug Dependency. For Fifty Years, The Voice of Americans Fighting Alcoholism (New York, 1994).
Rogers, Carl. "Significant Aspects of Client-Centered Therapy," The American Psychologist (Tune 1946), PP. 415-421.
Rothe, Anne (editor). Current Biography (New York: H. W Wilson Company, 1949), (under entry: "Mann, Marty").
Spock, Benjamin. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946), p. 271.
Timeline of Norman Mailer's Relationships
By Sheri & Bob Stritof, About.com
1943: Marriage to Beatrice Silverman.
1949: Birth of daughter Susan.
1952: Divorced Beatrice.
1954: Marriage to Adele Morales.
1957: Birth of daughter Danielle.
1959: Birth of daughter Elizabeth.
1960: Norman stabbed Adele.
1962: Divorced Adele.
1962: Marriage to Lady Jeanne Campbell.
1962: Birth of daughter Kate.
1963: Divorced Lady Jeanne.
1964: Marriage to Beverly Bentley.
1964: Birth of son Michael.
1966: Birth of son Stephen.
1969: Relationship with Carol Stevens.
1971: Birth of daughter Maggie.
1972: Birth of stepson Matthew.
1974: End of relationship with Carol Stevens.
1978: Birth of son John.
1980: Divorced Beverly Bentley in September.
1980: Married Carol Stevens in October.
1980: Divorced Carol Stevens in October.
1980: Married Norris Church in November.
NORMAN MAILER TO SALMAN RUSHDIE
author Normal Mailer
"So, my best to you, old man, wherever you are ensconced, and may the muses embrace you."
Two months after the publication of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" in December 1988, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran declared the book an offense to Islam and issued a fatwa that Rushdie should be killed. "Anyone who dies in the cause of ridding the world of Rushdie," the Ayatollah declared, "will be a martyr and will go directly to heaven." Rushdie, who was born in India but lived in England, was immediately placed under the protection of armed guards by the British government. The threat was genuine; bookstores that sold "The Satanic Verses were firebombed, riots ensued in areas where it was believed Rushdie was visiting, and two of the book's translators were stabbed -- one fatally -- by Muslim extremists. In the midst of it all, many prominent writers sent Rushdie letters of support and encouragement, including the following by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer.
(from "Letters of a Nation", edited by Andrew Carroll)
Dear Salman Rushdie,
I have thought of you often over the last few years. Many of us begin writing with the inner temerity that if we keep searching for the most dangerous of our voices, why then, sooner or later we will outrage something fundamental in the world. and our lives will be in danger. That is what I thought when I started out, and so have many others, but you, however, are the only one of us who gave proof that this intimation was not ungrounded. Now you live what must me a living prison of contained paranoia, and the toughening of the will is imperative, no matter the cost to the poetry in yourself. It is no happy position for a serious and talented writer to become a living martyr. One does not need that. It is hard enough to write at one's best without wearing a hundred pounds on one's back each day, but such is your condition, and if I were a man who believed that prayer was productive of results, I might wish to send some sort of vigor and encouragement to you, for if you can transcend this situation, more difficult than any of us have known, if you can come up with a major piece of literary work, then you will rejuvenate all of us, and literature, to that degree, will flower.
So, my best to you, old man, wherever you are ensconced, and may the muses embrace you.
Jews Still "Acting Black" in 2007: From White Negro to Jewish Hipster
by Eric Goldstein, November 26, 2007
The death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer has cast attention back on some of his early essays, including “The White Negro,” an influential piece that first appeared in Dissent magazine in 1957. Written during a period he described as "the years of conformity and depression," Mailer's essay focused on the hipster—"the urban adventurer. . .who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts"—as a hero capable of providing the antidote to America's stultifying postwar culture.
"The White Negro," and the hipster lifestyle it details, remind us that white Americans have looked to blacks not only as a group upon which they could project the negative aspects of their society, but also as an object of longing: Whites fantasize that the African American embodies the expressiveness and sensuality with which they as whites have lost touch in their self-styled "march toward progress." Bristling under the confines of postwar culture, Mailer admired the hipster as white man who, like his imagined black counterpart, could free himself from "the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization," divorce himself from society, and relinquish "the pleasures of the mind for...the pleasures of the body."
Although Mailer did not explicitly mention his Jewish background in "The White Negro," the essay was undoubtedly shaped by the symbolic importance African Americans and their culture have long held for American Jews. Mailer himself was a product of the urban streets where Jewish youth of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s often listened to "race records," formed their own jazz bands, and occasionally made evening excursions to Harlem and other African American neighborhoods. Not only were many of the leading white interpreters of African American music during the interwar period Jewish, but so was the original hipster, Mezz Mezzrow (né Milton Mesirow), a clarinetist who declared himself a "voluntary Negro" and devoted himself—in his own words—to "hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can."
Because the black experience reminded American Jews strongly of their own pre-immigration past, they tended, more than any other American ethnic group, to see black culture as tool with which to work out the pressures and contradictions of the Americanization process. In a world where young Jews often faced the indignities of social discrimination and felt daily pressure to conform to the mores of white society, exploring black culture could provide a sense of freedom from those strictures. This experience foreshadowed to some extent what Mailer later described in "The White Negro," although it should be noted that most young Jews of the interwar period were not nearly as transgressive as Mailer's ideal hipster. Because they ultimately desired acceptance from the majority society, acculturating Jews tended to dip into black culture in temporary ways that did not threaten—and often even enhanced—their status as white.
Though Mailer favored a more radical break with white mainstream culture than did earlier Jews who flirted with blackness, in some ways his vision was less radical than a newer variation on the theme of the "white Negro" that has emerged in the last several years: the Jewish hipster. Organized around a host of cultural media ranging from Jewcy.com to Heeb magazine to the (hopefully) still emerging "Jewxploitation" film genre, the Jewish hipster movement has marshaled black culture as a weapon in its fight to make Jewishness relevant for a generation so well accepted that it yearns to be different. The bevy of musicians who are producing Jewish reggae and hip hop albums today are perhaps not as revolutionary as Mailer in their political commitments, but today's Jewish hipsters are much more willing to put their Jewishness front and center.
Assuming Mailer's "white Negro" was Jewish (after all, the essay appeared in Dissent), Jewishness was the one aspect of his personality he did not feel free to assert. Instead, he remained a closeted Jew who substituted a black persona for his own identity in order to protest postwar conformity, just as the young Jews of the interwar years used jazz and "slumming" adventures as a cover for their own distinctiveness. By contrast, the Jewish hipster of today uses the cultural cache enjoyed by blackness to argue that Jewishness is similarly "cool" and different.
Yet the way in which contemporary Jews continue to draw on black culture in order to assert themselves suggests just how powerful the black-white divide remains as an organizing principle in American culture. Despite the willingness of Jewish hipsters to be "out" as Jews, they find they still need to speak the language and wear the style that mainstream America recognizes as different. Perhaps one day Jews who want to be recognized and legitimized as different will no longer have to turn to black culture in order to invest Jewishness with the heft needed to be taken seriously in a "multicultural" world.
Professor Eric L. Goldstein holds a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University
Capote and journalism
The White Man Unburdened
Suffering Souls: The search for the roots of psychopathy
David Foster Wallace - An American suicide
The brilliance of creative chaos
Polish-Born English author Joseph Conrad
A selection of notable authors of the American Short Story
Signs don't worry the old - being ignored does
Salman Rushdie - an earlier target for Muslim anger
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