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November 11, 2007
Norman Mailer, R.I.P.
He was considered one of America's greatest writers, a man whose novels and essays powered the New Left through the 1960's and 70's with shattering prose and unforgettable characters raging against the establishment with shockingly violent imagery and macho sexual braggadocio.
But Norman Mailer, who died at the age of 84 yesterday, was also a self absorbed, self aggrandizing peacock of a man whose personal life and political activity encapsulated the "If it feels good, do it" generation which contributed in no small way to the coarsening of American culture and the poisoning of our politics:
He was widely known as a drinker and brawler, womanizer, political campaigner, social critic, talk-show guest, self-promoter and symbol of male chauvinism. He had six wives and nine children. "Armies" may have won a Pulitzer but social critic Roger Kimball, whose "Dissenting View" of Mailer in Pajamas Media is a must read, finds little to celebrate in the book:
As a writer, Mailer produced novels, essays, social commentaries, movie scripts and nonfiction narratives about national events and public figures. His subjects included ancient Egypt, political conventions, Marilyn Monroe, the CIA, Adolf Hitler and the first moon landing. He won the first of his two Pulitzers for "The Armies of the Night" (1968), based on his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon against the Vietnam War.
In fact, like almost all of Mailer’s books, The Armies of the Night is badly written—almost preposterously so. It has often been observed that Mailer’s early literary heroes were Hemingway and John Dos Passos. But his own writing totally lacks Hemingway’s lapidary craftsmanship and Dos Passos’s cinematic control. When The Armies of the Night was serialized in Harper’s, to the great excitement of the editor, Willie Morris, a young copy editor complained about Mailer’s prose and, as one witness recollects, asked, “I wonder what he writes like when he’s sober?” The unfortunate copy editor was promptly fired. But she was right: The Armies of the Night is a hyperbolic, self-indulgent mess that looks sillier and more naive with every year that passes. Its famous third-person narrative strikes one now as a facile gimmick: “Mailer discovered he was jealous. Not of the talent. [Robert] Lowell’s talent was very large, but then Mailer was a bulldog about the value of his own talent… . Nonetheless, to Mailer it was now mano a mano.” That “mano a mano” is about as close to Hemingway as Mailer got.Indeed, Mailer's work has not stood the test of time well. For that, and his rabid anti-Americanism that so enthralled the intellectual left, he should probably be remembered more for his impact on politics than his contribution to American letters.
That won't happen thanks to his legion of admirers among the remnants of the New Left and the media who will miss his bombastic statements against America and adolescent antics that always made good copy.