Confessions of a Left-Conservative: Norman Mailer in the Library of America
By Jonathan KirshnerSeptember 19, 2018
Norman Mailer: Collected Essays of the 1960s by Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer: Four Books of the 1960s by Norman Mailer
He was also the greatest writer of long-form narrative nonfiction of the second half of the 20th century. Peerless in his ability to fix in words the measure of a man (and it was invariably a man), no other literary figure approached Mailer’s combination of brilliant writing, superb setting of place, shrewd summary of character, and uncanny political savvy. Give him 22 pages, and he’d give you the world — with impossibly long, impeccably paced sentences that revealed the power and unspoken rules of the game behind the pomp and posturing of public behavior. Ahead of the curve on most of the major issues of the day, Mailer eloquently and vociferously opposed the Vietnam War before most people had given it a passing thought; yet when it came to gender issues, he was knuckle-draggingly backward, leaving behind a trail of obtuse pronouncements that appropriately weigh on his legacy. But, generally speaking (and even with regard to his attitudes toward women, located some two archeological strata below late-’50s rat-pack), Mailer was thoughtful, introspective, and alert to his own shortcomings. A self-described left-conservative, he is considerably less easy to pigeonhole than his reputation might suggest. The only certain thing about Mailer was that he would, with some regularity, let loose a comment sure to embarrass his staunchest defenders.
As the controversies-du-jour of his lifetime recede since his passing in 2007 (a public infidelity here, a head-butt of Gore Vidal there), the written words remain. Those from the 1960s have now been collected in two volumes by the Library of America, edited by Mailer affiliate, keeper of the flame, and official biographer J. Michael Lennon. In addition to writing Norman Mailer: A Double Life (2013; friendly to a fault but essential), Lennon also edited Selected Letters of Norman Mailer (2014; fewer gems than might have been expected). The ’60s were arguably Mailer’s most essential decade, if we are required to go by the zeros. In addition to the four books and three dozen essays represented here, Mailer also directed three films: the wretched Wild 90 (1968), the watchable Beyond the Law (1968), and Maidstone (1970), an uneven but notable truth-blending-with-fiction experiment, shot a month after the shattering assassination of Bobby Kennedy. He closed the decade with a boisterous, quixotic campaign for mayor of New York.
Collected Essays of the 1960s draws on three previous volumes, each long out of print: The Presidential Papers (1963), Cannibals and Christians (1966), and Existential Errands (1972). The Presidential Papers was an uneven collection (Mailer himself seemed to hold it in lukewarm esteem in his preface to the 1976 edition), and was somewhat orphaned by the assassination of President Kennedy soon after its publication. Mailer, having initially fallen under JFK’s charismatic spell, grew increasingly critical of the president, a shift reflected across that book’s pages. In the wake of Dallas, however, Mailer came to realize that, despite his sniping from the sidelines, he had invested much in the possibilities Kennedy seemed to embody — which, as he wrote to a friend, left the tenor of The Presidential Papers “off balance.”
But that collection is well and admirably represented here, anchored by two astonishing pieces, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” and “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” each of which originally appeared in Esquire. The long-form “Superman” (the first 35 pages of Collected Essays), one of the cornerstones of the emerging writer-as-participant New Journalism, reflects the style that would characterize Mailer’s best work of the 15 years that followed. Offering a panoramic view of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, “Superman” begins with the welcoming rhythms of his finest reportage: a setting of the scene, with a smart eye for the architecture, history, and denizens of the host city, followed by perceptive sketches of the principals as they assemble, before moving on to the action at hand. The Democrats in Los Angeles were looking for something new, eager to turn the page on the stultifying 1950s: “In the totalitarian wind of those days, anyone who worked in government formed the habit of being not too original, and many a mind atrophied from disuse and private shame.” Adlai Stevenson, two-time standard-bearer (and two-time loser), still held the hearts of many in the party, but he ultimately underwhelmed (“the applause as he left the platform was like the dying fall-and-moan of a baseball crowd when a home run curves foul”), clearing the field for Kennedy, who had quite evidently captured Mailer’s imagination: “[L]ike Brando, Kennedy’s most characteristic quality is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.”
“Ten Thousand Words a Minute” (actually 20,000 words — the fight lasted two minutes) regards the heavyweight championship bout between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, and offers a trip through subcultures of the United States that rises far above its nominal topic, if perhaps here with a bit more Mailer in the narrative than might be necessary. Dancing prose about boxing, and about the fight game as a metaphor for larger things (however regrettably enmeshed in crude notions of masculinity), is an integral part of Mailer’s oeuvre — he was both an enthusiast and a serious if amateur participant — and so are street-smart passages about New York City, the living city, the character of the city, an equally important component of the writer’s quintessence, a fact also reflected in the Collected Essays. Lennon includes, from The Presidential Papers, a prescient critique of an encroaching, homogenizing modernism, one that warns against a society that would raze the grand Penn Station, “tear down the majestic vaults of the old building” and put in its place a hulking mass of “steel, concrete and glass.”
The selections from Cannibals and Christians are particularly well chosen. The reader is spared “Petty Notes on Some Sex in America” from Playboy (though Mailer’s smart, searing “Speech at Berkeley on Vietnam Day,” from May 1965, is a disappointing omission). The essays included here again evidence his increasingly cautious feelings about President Kennedy: a month before the assassination, JFK is summarized as “a man of many natures, not all of them necessarily rooted in granite.” Especially impressive, from one year later, is “A Vote for Bobby K.,” an endorsement in the Village Voice of Robert Kennedy for senator from New York. Mailer saw quite early Bobby’s remarkable emergence as a great man, and as his own man, in the last four years of his life, after devoting his youth to being a smiler with a knife for his big brother. (“I think something came into him with the death of his brother. I think Bobby Kennedy has come a pilgrim’s distance from that punk who used to play Junior D.A. for Joe McCarthy and grabbed headlines by riding Jimmy Hoffa’s back.”)
The centerpiece of Cannibals, however, and accounting for a full 50 pages of Collected Essays, is “In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964,” which appeared in Esquire that November. Like “Superman,” it shows a writer at the top of his craft, setting the stage, positioning the players (each perfectly drawn, even minor characters barely remembered by history), with keen, seasoned eyes trained to see through the game. (“That was part of Goldwater’s deal — he brought you back to the bright minted certitudes of early patriotism when you knew the U.S. was the best country on earth and there was no other.”) Of the also-rans, Mailer describes Governor Scranton of Pennsylvania, representing the already-atrophying moderate wing of the Republican Party, walking in defeat to the podium to pledge his support for Goldwater “with a slow measured deferential step, like a boy carrying a ceremonial bowl.” And, with a novelist’s flourish, Mailer holds the reader’s suspense during pages of castigation of President Johnson, hinting that he might go the full Sarandon — even voting for the Republican to keep his hands clean and help usher in the political backlash that a Goldwater presidency would surely elicit. But that was a head-fake: “One could never vote for him, one could not vote for a man who made a career of crying Communist — that was too easy: half the pigs, bullies and cowards of the twentieth century had made their fortune inside that fear. I had a moment of rage at the swindle.”
Not that Mailer didn’t have a little rage set aside for President Johnson as well. Reviewing with disdain Johnson’s requisite campaign-season book, My Hope for America (1964), his sketch of LBJ still sounds dead-on more than a half-century of biographies and memoirs later:
He is, one is told, not too unlike Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men, roaring, smarting, bellowing, stabbing fingers on advisers’ chests, hugging his daughters, enjoying his food, mean and unforgiving, vindictive, generous, ebullient, vain, suddenly depressed, then roguish, then overbearing, suddenly modest again only to bellow once more.
But despite that, and more, the election was ultimately a choice between two candidates, and when put that way, the decision was a foregone conclusion: “Lyndon Johnson must be given a vote.” But Mailer’s support was reluctant and relativist — he could not forgive Johnson for Vietnam, not even in 1965. No expert in foreign policy, Mailer nevertheless understood ahead of most (here in an essay for Partisan Review) that the war was unwinnable, that inevitable divisions among the communists would mitigate the consequences of withdrawal, and that Johnson’s introduction of ground troops was no incremental step but a radical escalation, and one of enduring consequence. It was a measure that “will certainly prolong the war. It will also shift the moral center of America.”
Lennon’s choice of material from Existential Errands is handicapped by the quirk that two of the best essays in the collection — arguably the tent-poles of that particular franchise, accounting for over one-fifth of Errand’s pages — were published in 1971, and thus not eligible for inclusion in Collected Essays of the 1960s. Nevertheless, the absence of the vintage-Mailer “King of the Hill,” about the first Ali-Frazier fight, is no small loss; “A Course in Filmmaking,” if not as strong an essay from wire to wire, features free-range musings on the movies, another essential element of the Mailer catalog (slotting in behind boxing but up there with New York City) and one that is not otherwise represented in Collected Essays. “Filmmaking” also includes Mailer’s reflections on the making of Maidstone — and the notorious incident (ultimately included in the film) wherein the legendarily intense Rip Torn took method acting to a whole new level by attacking his director with a hammer. Yet, as Mailer recounts in a remarkable confession, after several months of cooling off he reached the conclusion that the savage, unprovoked ambush was right, and true to the film. To regard Mailer without Maidstone is to not quite get a grasp on Mailer in the ’60s.
There is much to admire in the selections from Errands, including “Up the Family Tree” (a take-down of the memoir written by his friend Norman Podhoretz) and “An Instrument for the City” (a sweeping polemic written during the 1969 mayoral campaign). But a true clunker is “Homage to El Loco,” from November 1967, 20 interminable pages of Mailer fumbling an unfortunate attempt to sound like Hemingway on bullfighting (the only pages in the Library of America volumes where he doesn’t sound like Mailer). Hemingway was one of Mailer’s literary heroes, but what can charitably be chalked up to a misguided attempt at homage (to the writer, not the toreador) sounds less like The Sun Also Rises (1926) and more like the turgid Death in the Afternoon (1932): “[B]ut the bull was big and dull and El Loco had no luck and no magic and just succeeded in killing him in a bad difficult dull fight.” An easy substitution for “Homage” would have been what seems like an omission here: Mailer’s savvy 1966 Village Voice review of Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment — the book that opened the floodgates for the publication of Kennedy conspiracy theories. That long essay gestures toward the nearly 800 pages that, 30 years later, Mailer would pour forth in his own nonfiction inquiry into the assassination, Oswald’s Tale (1995). But perhaps the reasoning was that the set was already too Kennedy-heavy.
It is also the case that, in the late 1960s — in contrast with the years before and after — Mailer produced fewer grand essays that were locks for the time capsule. (Existential Errands includes a left-handed piece from 1967 that opens with “I’m working on something else now,” by way of apology for its brevity.) And Mailer’s energies were indeed then focused elsewhere — on movie-making, political campaigns, and, increasingly, books. Four Books of the 1960s collects all of the proper single-titles-between-covers that Mailer produced in that decade: An American Dream (1965), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), The Armies of the Night (1968), and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968). The four do not make a natural quartet; the first two are proper novels (and not his finest), while the latter are landmarks of narrative nonfiction.
An American Dream originally appeared as a monthly serial in Esquire from January 1964 to August 1964, quenching Mailer’s thirsts for the challenge of writing on the fly just like the great novelists of the 19th century, and for a fast infusion of needed cash. His fourth novel, it was Mailer’s first in 10 years and widely hailed as a comeback; it was also wildly successful for Esquire and attention-getting for its then envelope-pushing depictions of sex. The novel concerns some fast, frantic hours in the life of its narrator — decorated war hero, cup-of-coffee congressman, and well-known public intellectual Stephen Rojack, who sets the action in motion by strangling his estranged wife. With dizzying speed, the novel introduces mobsters, musicians, and call girls, along with assorted cops, feds, and quite possibly spies, all somehow enmeshed and implicitly eyeing each other warily (the murdered wife was an heiress, and her powerful father’s reach touched most of those camps). The principal concern of the story is whether or not Rojack, whose well-appointed life unravels faster than that of a suburban family man trapped in a ’50s film noir, will get away with it. And America Dream does an impressive job of eliciting sympathy for its murderer, at least in comparative perspective with the compromised, corrupt, and criminal cast of characters on offer.
The novel has considerable strengths. Alert to the practices of power and reliably well written, its best moments, such as the give-and-take of the early interrogation scenes, suggest (surely intended) comparisons to similar confrontations in Crime and Punishment: “I knew they were probably watching me, and that I should not move too much; I was aware that once I began to walk about my anxiety would show in every step I took, yet I did not know if I could expend much more of my will in remaining motionless.” But the book is awkwardly structured. As Lennon recounts in his biography, the intended trajectory of the narrative was utterly upended by the Kennedy assassination; originally set in 1965, An American Dream had to be nudged back to early 1963, and early references to the president never pay off, because that thread of the story had to be abandoned. (“I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946” is the first line in the book.) Likely the intention was for Kennedy to reappear, and the initial parallels and divergent trajectories of the two war heroes turned congressmen were an essential subtext. That initial coherence of vision probably explains why the early installments of the book are its best, after which it unravels — and is increasingly unpleasant, mean in spirit, and rancid with passages that could (and would) be introduced as evidence of Mailer’s misogyny.
An American Dream has its strengths; Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) does not. Vulgar, nasty, laughing loudly at its own crude jokes, it is a chore to read — so feverishly written and so indolently obscene, one speculates that Mailer abandoned his traditional traveling companions of drink and cannabis in favor of too much let’s-stay-up-all-night-and-write-this-in-one-long-sentence Benzedrine. The exposition (as far as it goes) is allegorical — famously, despite its title, the word “Vietnam” does not appear until the final page. This is because Vietnam, the novel implies, had nothing to do with Vietnam (an eminently reasonable position), but was a manifestation of something dark in the postwar American soul, something that necessitated a rapacious outlet. Or, as Eliot Fremont-Smith summarized the argument in his generous, qualified, rave review for The New York Times: “Why are we in Vietnam? Because it’s there, man. And violence is as American as cherry pie.” That conjecture is debatable, but Mailer rigs the game so completely (take some young Texans, load them up with guns, and send them off to hunt grizzly bears in Alaska) that it’s hard to give him points for the uncontested layups he manages to sink. Worse, and again lazily, the novel leans on the trope of an almost adolescent homosexual anxiety, a disappointing piece of literary slumming unbecoming the author of the brilliant 1955 essay, “The Homosexual Villain,” included in Mind of an Outlaw (2013), a very fine anthology of Mailer’s essays edited by Phillip Sipiora.
Remarkably, after setting down Vietnam, Norman Mailer would embark on the most impressive eight-year streak of an extraordinary and distinguished career. With The Armies of the Night, he would finally, and definitively, find his singular, strongest voice — one that offered mesmerizing accounts of actual events, written with the craftsmanship of great fiction (thus the essential subtitle: “History as a Novel, the Novel as History”), with Mailer a participant-character in the midst of the action, referred to in the third person (you get used to it and it works). Mailer would follow Armies with Miami, his astounding account of the national conventions of 1968. Into the 1970s, additional landmarks of this genre would follow: Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), on the space program; The Prisoner of Sex (1971), an under-read, under-appreciated effort in which Mailer doesn’t give much ground but delves deeply into his attitudes toward women (“he was obliged to be aware that he had provoked the issue endlessly”); and The Fight (1975), a spellbinding account of the 1974 Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. Add to this St. George and the Godfather (1972), Mailer’s panorama of the 1972 conventions (quite good, but not in the same league as Miami, mostly because 1972 hardly offered the drama of 1968) and that’s six meritorious Mailer-in-the-middle historical accounts in eight years. (The rhythms of history rarely respect the round number dating we impose on them, but if the Library of America follows up this set with two volumes on the 1970s, Mailer’s greatest decade will be properly represented.)
The Armies of the Night recounts the massive October 1967 antiwar rally in Washington, DC, and the subsequent march on the Pentagon, a confrontation that landed many, including Mailer, briefly in jail (one of his cellmates was Noam Chomsky). The book opens, as it must, on the eve of the protest, at a rally-the-faithful gathering where a rambling, drunken Mailer once again makes an incoherent ass of himself. The overture is welcome and disarming because, as the author notes, “Mailer had an egoism of curious disproportions,” and such clear-eyed reporting of his most boorish pratfalls — as well as, in what are among the best moments of all these books, his expressions of fear and self-doubt — takes the edge off a megalomania that, without mitigation, would quickly prove tiresome.
Safely clear of the opening-night debacle, Mailer fares much better at the protest, in prison, and in front of a magistrate inclined to make an example of the famous author and provocateur (the standard punishment for those arrested and charged had been negotiated down to a five-day suspended sentence). At the Pentagon, he vividly describes “the six inches of no man’s land between the U.S. Army and the demonstrators”; thrown into a paddy wagon with counter-protestors, he gets into a staring contest with a menacing neo-Nazi and is pleased with the small victory; in jail he shares the prisoners’ anxiety that the stay will be of uncertain duration, and elucidates plainly in a seven-page passage — “Why are we in Vietnam” — what he failed to express across the chapters of his similarly titled novel. The hanging judge provides some suspense toward the end (the phrases “thirty days” and “no bail” are bandied about), and Mailer’s attorney is optimistic but unnervingly equivocating. (“Lawyers, like doctors and literary agents, were obliged to be professionally reassuring.”) But all ends well, and the writer is soon safely on his way back to New York, arriving in time for dinner at a favorite restaurant. Inevitably, however, he paused before departing the capital to offer some grandstanding comments to the press; one line in particular gained notoriety: “You see, dear fellow Americans, it is Sunday, and we are burning the body and blood of Christ in Vietnam.” In its coverage of the story the following day, the Washington Post felt obliged to observe that “Mailer is a Jew.”
The Armies of the Night won the National Book Award and the first of Mailer’s two Pulitzer Prizes. But Miami and the Siege of Chicago is his best book. Arriving at the Republican Convention, Mailer sketches incisive portraits of the host city, the delegates, the party, and its contenders — Rockefeller, Reagan, and, of course, Nixon — with insights that anticipate what we would come to see more clearly about those players in the following decades. As for the next president, “he has disliked him intimately. […] Nixon’s presence on television had inspired emotions close to nausea.” But having danced on Nixon’s political grave following his bitter kiss-off press conference in the wake of losing the California governor’s race in 1962, Mailer acknowledged that he had not foreseen the prospect of a political comeback. “Either the man had changed or one had failed to recognize some part of his character from the beginning.” But the New Nixon was little improvement over the old:
[H]is half-smile while he listened was unhappy, for it had nowhere to go but into a full smile and his full smile was as false as false teeth, a pure exercise of will. You could all but see the signal pass from his brain to his jaw. “SMILE,” said the signal, and so he flashed teeth in a painful kind of joyous grimace which spoke of some shrinkage in the liver, or the gut, which he would have to repair afterward by other medicine than good-fellowship.
The foregone conclusion of Nixon’s nomination occupies the first third of Miami and the Siege of Chicago; the real action, of course, would be found in the latter venue, which was virtually locked down for the occasion by Major Daley, who ran the town the way only an old city boss could. Mailer hints at the violence to come with six sweeping pages on America’s Second City. Carl Sandburg dubbed it “hog butcher for the world” in the opening line of his classic 1914 ode, and Mailer neatly calls attention to the unstated implications of that trade: “Yes, Chicago was a town where nobody could ever forget how the money was made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood.”
Like all Bobby Kennedy partisans, Mailer arrived in Chicago shell-shocked and miserable. One would not soon recover from the enormity of the loss — a point made eloquently, if indirectly, with this fragment from the funeral: “A river of working-class people came down to march past Kennedy’s coffin, and this endless line of people had really loved him, loved Bobby Kennedy like no political figure in years had been loved.” No, there was no substitute for the fallen senator from New York. Flash-in-the-pan peace candidate Gene McCarthy did not inspire, and appeared not to have the stomach for a fight (“McCarthy looked weary beyond belief […] his tall body serving for no more than to keep his head up above the crowd at the cocktail party”); late entrant McGovern was a decent man with no chance of winning. Vice President Humphrey, backed by the Democratic Party and Johnson’s political machine, would take the lion’s share of delegates even from states where he was soundly defeated in the primaries (and you thought Bernie got a raw deal). LBJ’s people would deliver those votes, one by one if necessary. (“Lyndon Johnson, like the Mafia, worked on point spread and picked up nickels and dimes in every percentage.”) Humphrey, stand-in and standard-bearer for a ruined president, had nothing to say. He addressed the convention, “trudging through an imprecision of language, a formal slovenliness of syntax which enabled him to shunt phrases back and forth like a switchman who locates a freight car by moving everything in the yard.” Still, the party power-brokers would hand him the nomination.
The central story in Chicago, however, and of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, did not take place within the confines of the International Amphitheatre but on the streets outside, where police clashed with protestors in what an official inquiry would later describe as a police riot (“more accurate to call it a massacre, since it was sudden, unprovoked, and total”). The aftershocks of those baton-blows rumbled across the convention floor as discontented delegates shared the news, culminating in that moment when Governor Ribicoff of Connecticut, nominating McGovern from the rostrum, compared the tactics of the Chicago police to those of the Gestapo. Did he really say that? “His voice had quavered a hint with indignation and with fear, but he had said it, and Daley was on his feet, Daley was shaking his fist at the podium, Daley was mouthing words. […] Daley glowered at Ribicoff and Ribicoff stared back” — it was, in Mailer’s estimation, perhaps “Ribicoff’s finest moment.”
Mailer’s fine moments in Chicago were fewer. A fascinating subplot of Miami is the reluctance of its protagonist — a man usually hungry for showy displays of bravado — to dive into the melee. Ambivalent from the start (“He had taken a hint of a bad beating once or twice in his life; he was, conceivably, ready to take much more, but he could not pretend that he welcomed it”), twice Mailer shrinks from potential danger. Leaving Lincoln Park at nightfall, he sees Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Terry Southern heading in, and later felt shame “when he discovered the attack by the police had been ferocious.” But presented with a second chance, he chooses not to march alongside Arthur Miller, Jules Feiffer, and Theodore Bikel, telling himself that, “if he was going to take a beating,” it was best not to throw in his lot with those “so comparatively innocent of how to fight.”
Instead Mailer retreated to the safety of his hotel room. “He was drinking and contemplating his fear.” It was not a pleasant experience. “Had his courage eroded more than his knowledge of fear the last few days? He continued to drink.” With remarkable soul-searching (and more remarkable still that he would publish the ruminations), the writer digs deeper, and finds still more fear, one that exposed the contradictions of his proudly self-professed left-conservative political philosophy: “[H]e looked into his reluctance to lose even the America he had had,” which, for all its profound flaws, found him living “well enough to have six children, a house on the water, a good apartment, good meals, he had even come to enjoy wine. A revolutionary with a taste in wine has already come half the distance from Marx to Burke.” But after several more self-castigating pages, he is finally roused to action, “simply not accustomed to living with a conscience as impure as the one with which he had watched from the nineteenth floor.” Seeking to salvage some of his wounded pride, Mailer takes to the streets, offers a rousing speech before 10,000 at the band shell in Grant Park, and, for good measure, provokes an unnecessary confrontation with a young national guardsman. (Arrested, he eventually talks his way out of further trouble at the station house.)
Mailer was a less central figure in Chicago than he had been at the Pentagon 10 months earlier. But, on the last page of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, his role as participant-observer would serve as a microcosm for the 1968 election. Deprived of Bobby, and like so many other disaffected Democrats, Mailer simply could not bring himself to support Johnson’s man, Hubert Humphrey, and “probably would not vote” in the general election — even if that brought the odious Nixon one step closer to the White House, in what would be a very close election. It was a tragic, selfish, self-righteous mistake that good leftists would make more than once, and may well again.
In his prose and in his public life, Norman Mailer was not a man who took measured steps. His robust sense of self and reckless bravado contributed to uproarious (and often unflattering) episodes that would come to define his reputation in the popular imagination. But as these volumes underscore, Mailer was a major American writer, with a singular voice and style; his incisiveness and clarity of vision are very much missed today.
Jonathan Kirshner is the author of American Power After the Financial Crisis (2014).
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