Should We Still Read Norman Mailer?

May 9, 2018 | 12 books mentioned 8 8 min read

There is a marvelous scene in Dick Fontaine’s underseen 1968 roustabout documentary Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? where we are in a bar watching people watch Norman Mailer on Merv Griffin’s show. He’s ostensibly being interviewed about his latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?. But just as that book is only obliquely about Vietnam, Mailer is only obliquely being interviewed. Griffin lets the pugilistic author hurl denunciatory roundhouses about the war at the camera, the instinctive performer going for where the real audience is. In the bar, the patrons take it all in passively, much as we all do while watching TV unless the Cubs are winning the World Series or the president is announcing that bombing has begun. Eventually there is grousing at Mailer’s fury, though, and the set duly disconnected. America’s great public intellectual is silenced.

The movie is a companion piece of sorts to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s nonfiction novel—a genre he had disparaged when Truman Capote, one of his rivals in the world of literary TV jousters and quipsters, had tried it out—about attending and being arrested at the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Like Fontaine’s quizzical and half-jesting film essay on celebrity and authenticity, Mailer’s book is not so much a document of the thing itself but a cockeyed jape about his vainglorious participation. Yoked as it is to a brooding and half-baked analysis of American sin and militarism, The Armies of the Night is fitfully incandescent. But it rewards for being reported on the ground without resorting to canned narratives. All is filtered through Mailer’s sensibility, trained by years of fiery raging against the creeping totalitarianism of American life. It’s best read with Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the other great grounding component of the new boxed set of Mailer-ana from Library of America: Norman Mailer: The Sixties.

covercovercoverAt nearly 1,400 pages packed into two volumes, it’s all too much at once, like a supercut of Mailer’s TV appearances, those bright dark eyes and halo hair, his machine-gun sentences snapped out one after the other until the white flag is waved. The delineation by decade isn’t particularly helpful, because it necessitates including a couple of Mailer’s noisier but lesser novels.

covercoverAlthough he had spent much of his writing life after the war trying to be recognized as a novelist, nothing after his still-notable debut, The Naked and the Dead, attracted the kind of heat he desired. 1965’s An American Dream was noisy at the time but embarrassing now. It’s a feverish mess related by Stephen Rojack, a war hero turned philosophy professor and politician who just can’t keep himself out of trouble—a character who, in other words, reads purposefully like an exaggeration of all Mailer’s traits (lest we forget that time he ran for mayor with Jimmy Breslin). After murdering his wife, Rojack wastes no time bedding her maid and then falling into bed with a nightclub singer, not to mention nearly killing the singer’s lover and making friends with the cop who’s investigating him. There is some snap to Mailer’s voice here and there (“the air had the virile blank intensity of a teller’s cage”). But its ludicrous potboiler elements are laughable, and the turgid antihero narrative, reflecting his unfortunate tendency for romanticizing violent outsiders, leaves a sour aftertaste.

coverAs for the collection’s other novel, 1967’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, this slogging faux-Burroughs picaresque mockery of American male braggadocio tries to fashion itself as some kind of commentary on the war and the species, but chases its own tail in exhausting fashion. One can see why everybody at the time wanted to know why the whole book, which only directly references the war at the very end, seemed like a tiresome setup for an unfunny joke, like Portnoy’s Complaint without the wit.

coverIt was Mailer’s nonfiction—an earlier batch of which had been collected in 1959’s Advertisements for Myself—staggering under more ideas than they could conceivably carry and redolent with doom, which ultimately did for him and his reputation what his novels’ scandalous content never had.

By the time The Armies of the Night opens, Mailer is in the full bloom of naked self-regard of his brilliance and contradictions. He views himself as a character—“the novelist,” or simply “Mailer.” Bumbling about a pre-march party in D.C., he gets heroically tanked and makes catty little remarks about fellow peace-marching literati like Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell. Then comes a shambling speech at the Ambassador, which he relates in the book as a kind of verbal performance art, but which looks in Fontaine’s movie as garbled and occasionally racist nonsense.

cover“He laughed when he read the red bordered story in Time about his scatological solo at the Ambassador Theater—he laughed because he knew it had stimulated his cause.” What cause was that, exactly? He doesn’t discuss the war itself much at all, in fact. When Mailer can wrest the book away from contemplation of “Mailer,” Armies is a tactical work about how the protestors formed, scattered, and regrouped in their move on the Pentagon, a building whose sheer size made any confrontation or encirclement impossible. (There’s an irony here, in that Mailer had a few years earlier complained about James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, which had been compared to his own World War II Pacific Theater combat novel, The Naked and the Dead, saying that “it is too technical. One needs ten topographical maps to trace the action.”)

In Mailer’s highly personal history, there isn’t any grand forward momentum. Rather, it’s a chaotic melee in which batches of fuzzy-headed youths and intellectuals, and the odd tight phalanx of true activists, swarm fitfully toward a monstrous and unassailable target with no idea of what victory would constitute. As such, Mailer analyzes the whole “ambiguous event” with enough distance to keep from romanticizing it. A note of sorrow pervades the account when he can wrest his eyes from himself, worrying over a “terror” that “nihilism might be the only answer to totalitarianism.” He looks over it all like a tactician studying a dusty book of battle: “they assembled too soon, and they attacked too soon.”

Strategies are also promulgated throughout Miami and the Siege of Chicago. A tighter and angrier piece of work than Armies, it finds Mailer in leaner form. Leaving behind some of those toys that cluttered up the earlier book, he keeps to the subject while not abandoning his orotund voice. It’s an account of a seemingly doomed nation told in two meetings: the 1968 Republican convention in Miami in early August and the Democratic convention that followed in Chicago later that month. Mailer’s voice is fulsome but not playful, as though he has come to the end of things after the killing of Bobby Kennedy two months before: “Like pieces of flesh fragmented from the explosion of a grenade, echoes of the horror of Kennedy’s assassination were everywhere.”

The “Nixon in Miami” segment is a classic slice of New Journalism. Spiky with overblown metaphors and heavy with luxuriantly dark language (“the vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas”), it delivers cynicism by the truckload as Mailer stumps around the plasticine pirate place, sweating in his reporter suit as he delivers the nit and the grit of delegate counting. The competition between a desperately mugging Richard Nixon and serene but outmaneuvered Nelson Rockefeller is handled as mostly a foregone conclusion whose result at this phenomenally dull Potemkin event is ultimately beside the point: “unless one knows him well…it is next to useless to interview a politician.”

At one point, Mailer aims a full racist sneer at the black musicians playing for the white crowd, calling them “a veritable Ganges of Uncle Toms.” This racism is of a piece with many other moments throughout this collection. Witness his observations in Armies of the black people at the march who he thought held themselves apart, referring once to a “Black contingent [drifting] off on an Oriental scramble of secret signals.” Or, after he was arrested, seeing the “sly pale octaroon” with “hints of some sly jungle animal who would scavenge at the edge of camp.”

Like in Armies, with its uncertainty over tactics and goals, at the start of “The Siege of Chicago,” Mailer arrives in town as no friend of Daley’s pro-war hippie-thumping fascists. But it takes time for him to line up behind the protestors. Delving somewhat back into his old self-regarding ways, Mailer puffs himself up as a supposedly unique breed of “Left Conservative” as though there weren’t also millions of Americans who hated the war and the reactionary attitudes of its supporters but still wanted nothing to do with the slovenly utopian narcissism of the Yippies and their compatriots. But the war veteran who first wonders if “these odd unkempt children” were the kind of allies with whom “one wished to enter battle” is turned around once he witnesses the “nightmare” of the police riot on Michigan Avenue and sees the tenacity of the bloodied protestors who faced down assault after assault: “Some were turning from college students to revolutionaries.”

Mailer presents himself as the grounded intellectual, one who might find common cause with the agitators but still holds himself to the side. Some of this is the querulous discontent of the middle-aged man (born in 1923, he was well into his 40s by the time he marched on the Pentagon). Part of that constructed image is also a leftover of that detachment he tried to identify in 1957’s “The White Negro,” that weird firebomb of an article on the permutations of Hip.

But in the ’60s, some things were different. Mailer had determined to put drugs behind him. His contempt for the liberal establishment, especially after they gained power in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, grew ever larger. The divorces and children kept adding up, as did the bills. Paying journalism kept the paychecks coming in more than those pieces for Dissent or the novels that never blew the doors off as much as he imagined they would. So he kept himself going on TV to stir the pot and keep his name out there. He also kept knocking out the articles that fill up this collection’s second volume.

As in any collection of Mailer, this batch is part premature wisdom and part gasbag. Some pieces have both in abundance. “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” supposedly about the 1963 PattersonListon heavyweight fight in Chicago, has top-notch material on the fight itself and a half-comic ode to the “shabby-looking” sports reporters feverishly bashing at their typewriters, all worked into soliloquies on “the Negroes,” the nation, and whatever else was coursing through Mailer’s overtaxed neurons at the time. Occasionally he fixates on a person, and the result is never good, as seen in “An Evening with Jackie Kennedy,” which contains among the most meaningless sentences one could ever read: “Afterward one could ask what it was one wanted of her, and the answer was that she show herself to us as she is.”

coverBut, then, he was writing about a woman, and they eternally flummoxed Mailer. Take 1963’s “The Case Against McCarthy,” a clumsy blatherskite of a piece supposedly reviewing Mary McCarthy’s The Group. It was not only a bestseller, which infuriated Mailer, but written by a woman and about women, which pushed him over the edge.  Loosely framed as a trial enunciating the author’s transgressions, Mailer’s piece windmills frantically. Even as he acknowledges her craft, he huffs and condescends about this lady daring to ascend the Olympus of Male Writers, calling her, a “duncy broad” and “Mary” (nowhere does he say “William” for Burroughs), imagining her as a shop lady with “a little boutique on the Avenue,” and concluding that “she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” Unlike, say, Mailer, who was a good enough man to have stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife three years before writing this piece. She had reportedly told him he wasn’t as good as Dostoyevsky.

covercoverMisogynist character assassinations aside, the essays are replete with literary jousting of the kind one doesn’t see anymore. While savaging Another Country, Mailer extends a deft and graceful appreciation of James Baldwin (“Nobody has more elegance than Baldwin as an essayist, not one of us hadn’t learned something about the art of the essay from him”) before twisting the knife one more time just for fun (“and yet he can’t even find a good prose for his novel”). It’s illuminating also, in this time of shellacked appreciation for J.D. Salinger, to read this dismissive and probably correct assessment: “there is nothing in Franny and Zooey which would hinder it from becoming first-rate television.”

covercoverThe digressions are, as ever, not just rampant but part of the attraction. In the middle of “The Debate with William F. Buckley,” Mailer finds time for an extended journey into “the plague” of the century:

Even 25 years ago architecture, for example, still told one something about a building and what went on within it. Today, who can tell the difference between a modern school and a modern hospital, between a modern hospital and a modern prison, or a prison and a housing project? The airports look like luxury hotels, the luxury hotels are indistinguishable from a modern corporation’s home office, and the home office looks like an air-conditioned underground city on the moon.

What was his point, again? Something about alienation and the Right Wing and our disconnection from reality and responsibility in the great postwar malaise of homogenized madness. Doesn’t matter—he was essentially correct even without being anybody’s idea of an architecture critic.

Mailer and his writing was essential to his time because he declared it so. Later, with the onetime public intellectual’s turn to gaseous fictions (Harlot’s Ghost, Ancient Evenings) and a retreat from the constant engagement demanded by nonfiction journalism, that was not the case. But in the 1960s, he planted himself in the streets and in the pages where battle took place, told what he saw, and made his stand.

is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Publishers Weekly, The Playlist, and the Barnes & Noble Review. His books include Filmology and Handy New York City Answer Book. He internets on occasion at Eyes Wide Open and


  1. Hard to argue with this; but, “Of a Fire on the Moon”? “The Executioner’s Song”?

  2. Norman reigned, briefly, back in that weird era before weedy young sophomore swains learned to spend their pocket money on macho lessons from Jim Morrison (and, later, gangsta rappers)… they used to get these lessons from novelists, believe it or not!

    Before the sexual revolution, when a young man might only find sex in a brothel (or the army), blatantly misogynistic (and crypto-homoerotic) Norman was the perfect teacher. He even stabbed his wife (“to see how it felt!”), kids! The nascent sexual revolution pushed Norm toward irrelevance and the slightly-more-openly homoerotic Beats took over before the Beat-inflected rockers took over from the Beats. These little shifts were very neat: late ’40s to late ’50s to late ’60s.

    It’s kind of shocking to think that On the Road, which seems, still, so fresh and young and new, was an Ike-era (Sputnik) thing; it shows how old and out of it even-older Norman was, already, in 1960, when he had to stab his wife to get in the papers.

    Norman’s increasingly goofy carnival (including squabbles with also-fading Gore) insured that much of his writing remained distractedly first-or-second draftish. He was never strictly a Literary Phenomenon. Like Bellow, I think, the “towering” aspect of Mailer will continue to fade until he finds his permanent niche as a post-War footnote… in Norm’s case, a footnote in the genealogy of Macho.

  3. The misogyny and the circus surrounding his fame will fade and all that’s left will be the texts, so I don’t quite agree that Mailer will become a footnote, largely due to the nonfiction. Mind of an Outlaw is a great recent compilation, recommendable to just about everyone. More importantly, Executioner’s Song is pretty much nonpareil. He essentially took what Capote did with In Cold Blood (the “nonfiction novel”) and blew it up to massive, maximalist proportions. Mailer’s ability to conflate “true crime” into high art is a significant and lasting achievement and presages many of today’s seminal semi-nonfictional texts, as well as influencing the entire New Critics movement.

  4. This comes across as “The Case Against Mailer” – but, in the end, it probably should.

  5. I sincerely wish I got the Art in “The Executioner’s Song”… to me it reads like a transparent attempt to out-do Capote by being bigger, in sheer volume, and by improving on Capote’s musty and florid excesses with a plain-voiced, Hemingwayoid anti-style. But Hemingway’s style had music; I can’t hear Norman’s. But: to each his or her own! No way to know what will last (of “our” culture) and what won’t a century or two from now… all we can know is that *we* won’t (he said, Existentially)…

    (of course, the Cosmic Joke option of The Gods would be to have historians of 2450 poring over A Million Little Pieces and Fifty Shades of Grey)

  6. Read Mailer. Simple. He sucked at life but excelled at writing. Same with Faulkner. Do we reject these authors because they were jerks? Well humans are complex. I am kind as hell, compassionate, decent, yet I can be a jerk sometimes. I do not wish to show support for Faulkner’s repellant views on race. I am just confused as to where we draw the line. My god, I imagine half the paintings in the NYC metropolitan of art wouldn’t pass metoo criteria.

  7. I met Mailer at a book event in San Diego when “Oswald’s Tale” was published, and he was a grand guy. For his works, fiction and nonfiction, there likely isn’t another 20th-century American writer in need major reconsideration, reappraisal, reevaluation, whatever one chooses to call it. Understandably, his reputation rests on his nonfiction work, his interpretive journalism, his essays, and his reviews. But his fiction has a spikey brilliance to it that can’t be ignored, really. There is much going on in his novels, long and short, and though one cannot call him writer of perfect crafted fictions like Updike–someone whose elegant style lends itself to monotony and sea-sickness for all those swaying rhythms that do not relent–Mailer tried and succeeded enough in extending the boundaries of what American novelists can do with form and idea that even his less-perfect commands attention and large degrees of respect. And it’s likely we’ll see a surfeit of new research and critical monographs on this author. So yeah, this fascinating writer is still worth reading.

  8. Culture is worth a little risk, as Norman Mailer would have it, but we should add that that we need to skeptical of anyone’s say-so and disdain any set of world-shrinking absolutes. Cultural pontiffs often enough start off as punks in the alley hanging out by the stage door and wind up giving us revised histories of their salad day heroes by arguing at length that the music, the novels, the plays and the poetry they liked in college and early professional life didn’t try to smash rules, break forms or set fire to the palace , but rather tried to return art and aesthetics to principles that have been dormant, abandoned, forgotten.

    Culture is worth a little risk, of course, but there are times when culture is the risk. Mailer’s quote, originating in his seemingly glib response to convict / author’s Jack Henry Abbott’s murder of a waiter not long after he’d been paroled on the Authorities believe that he had rehabilitated himself by becoming an author. Mailer, we remember, had stabbed his wife Adele and nearly killed her. The books he wrote following this heinous incident were in large measure sincere and often brilliant mixtures of existentialist self-definition, mysticism and imaginative take on the psychology of violence, of how it is often the result of the lone m person without means who attempt to berserk themselves into transcendence. He had given us one fantastically problematic novel, An American Dream, in which his hero defies the combined forces he imagines have conspired against him and aspires to become a “new kind of man”. The consequences of that saga are anything but reassuring, especially for Mailer himself. One of Mailer’s heroes, William S.Burroughs, drunkenly shot and killed his wife Joan when trying to shoot a glass off her head with a pistol. There have been times, more often than not, that I wish the pontiffs, the pundits and the writerly men of action had stayed with their pens and pages and left the guns for the truly deranged who didn’t care a wit about art or a nuanced philosophy behind their violence. Here we pause and wrestle with our conscious and ponder if we can compartmentalize our horror for the acts these writers commit and still esteem the brilliance their writing has challenged our bedrock assumptions with. In either case, these patently evil and insane events were motivations for the future prose of both writers — Mailer commenced on a life long inquiry into the spiritual malady that makes violence the preferred means to move events along in society, and Burroughs, not the most expansively regretful man in show business, as much said that the accidental murder of his wife Joan was the reason why he wrote from that point forward. Wrote Burroughs:

    I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out..
    Both men seemed to continue writing in order to buffer themselves against acts that were irrefutably ugly, evil, foul; the sheer process of making the world a new, over and over, with their fiction, of combining different elements, subverting some genres and extending others, of making the fact of existence a cruel and painful process through which we conduct ourselves with some modicum of grace and invention, or relinquish our wits and allow strange and powerful forces to manipulate our lives and make a mockery of what intellectual integrity we thought we possessed. the respective bodies of work of Mailer and Burroughs seem, to me, a heads up to the reader that they are at risk for merely being born, uninvited, in the middle of someone else’s agenda. And the critic, the pundit, the explainers of art that offer no solace nor comfort, make a career practicing an extemporized philosophy that translates the literary horror and bludgeoning poetry of writing that seeks to make the fairy tales and their tragic ends palatable by acting as if there is a lesson to be learned. A doomed practice, I suspect, as I see the day when we will have no real use for priests, film reviewers, and reviewers who think they are priests. Eloquent apologies for one’s formative taste, though, does not constitute a defense of the starker, more brittle frameworks that have dissolved like so much sugar in the guise of avant gard impulse; I am all for risk taking and rule breaking, but even the nastiest, least comprehensible bodies of work created by suitably sociopath experimenters there are things that catch your ear, your eye, your fancy as you read what’s in front of you, there are measures of genius that find that one thing in experience, that issue that no one had engaged, that combination of forms, ideas and attitude that had yet to be combined that strikes you a get level as real genius.

    I think these elements are genetic, organic, a hard to phrase dimension of human experience that transcends, easily, the problematics of social construction and canon-making. The secret history of art history, the secret history of artistic expression, is how much social misery the creative impulse has caused. This is why I tend to support subjective or heroic criticism — the critic less as tastemaker than as someone who gathers their responses, knee jerk and reasoned both, and conducts an inquiry to his own first-person criteria as to what constitutes failure or success in a frame, in a line, in a string of musical notes.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.