How Norman Mailer Blurred the Line Between the Literary and the Lurid




FROM THE VERY BEGINNING of his career, Norman Mailer was captivated by the idea of violence and crime, and particularly by the dividing line between the criminal and the civil. You could say his approach to the topic constitutes the through-line running from his earliest works — like his breakthrough story, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” about a young man who escapes a beating after fleecing a group of thugs at pool — to his last.

Even Mailer’s “novel biography” of Marilyn Monroe remakes the movie star into a murder accomplice in some of its fictional passages, artificially implanting in her an impulse to violence. “There was something in me that didn’t show itself to others,” Mailer has Monroe confess in a fictionalized inner dialogue. “Like: I’m ready to commit murder.”

It was a crime that took place a year after Mailer’s birth in 1923, a murder so sensational it transfixed the United States and transformed the literary genre of true crime in American culture, which may have had the greatest influence on Mailer’s ideas on the topic, both in its real and literary manifestations.

In 1924, two affluent University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Albert Loeb, motivated by a pseudo-Nietzschean belief in themselves as Übermenschen, kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old called Bobby Franks. Never before had the country been confronted with a crime as heinous as the murder of a child, motivated not by material gain, political ideology, poverty, or passion, but by a perverse act of the will.

The trial that followed was billed as the “Trial of the Century” (as were two other high-profile trials of that period, one of them being that of Sacco and Vanzetti). Both Leopold and Loeb received life sentences. In 1956, author and journalist Meyer Levin turned the story of Leopold and Loeb into a novel, Compulsion, which was rereleased in 2015 by Fig Tree Books with a foreword by Marcia Clark, a prosecutor from yet another American murder-focused “Trial of the Century.”

With Compulsion, Levin developed what he called a “docu-novel,” openly blending fact and fiction in order to explore the moral and psychological dimensions of a true crime, and in the process creating the literary antecedent to the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s, of which Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s own The Executioner’s Song are examples. Mailer would come to take something of a lifelong interest in Compulsion and its author, eventually listing Levin as one of four living writers deserving of the Nobel Prize (the other three were Nabokov, Henry Miller, and, of course, Norman Mailer). Thirty years after the book’s publication, Mailer backed a stage production adapted by Levin.

For Mailer, Compulsion’s marrying of a new novelistic form with sensational content constituted a “line,” as he would later write to Levin, of murder-centric American fiction that thread Dreiser’s An American Tragedy to Mailer’s own The Executioner’s Song. The book provided Mailer, then reeling from the disappointment of his two previous novels, with a model for using fiction not just to explore true crime in a completely new way but for smashing the boundaries that were limiting to his talents — and ambitions.

With his fourth novel, An American Dream (1965), the first he wrote after the publication of Compulsion, Mailer would invert the model Levin had presented. Rather than using fiction to explore the inner dimensions of true crime, Mailer would draw on his personal experience as a perpetrator of violence to explore the outer limits of his fiction.

An American Dream tells the story of a sexually and spiritually stymied former American congressman and talk-show host named Stephen Rojack who, one night, brutally slaps his estranged wife after she tauntingly admits she’d been unfaithful. Rojack’s wife, Deborah, fights back, trying to knee him in the groin and then attempting to “mangle” his “root.” Curiously, Deborah’s physical description closely matched that of Mailer’s third wife, Jeanne Campbell, whom Mailer married while writing the book.

Enraged, the former war hero Rojack strikes his wife on the back of the neck and slips her into a chokehold. As he chokes her, Rojack imagines he’s straining against an enormous door until an orgasm of violence

came bursting with rage from out of me and my mind exploded in a fireworks of rockets, stars, and hurtling embers, the arm about her neck leaped against the whisper I could still feel murmuring in her throat, and crack I choked her harder, and crack I choked her again, and crack I gave her payment — never halt now — and crack the door flew open and the wire tore in her throat.

Disposing of his wife’s body by pushing it out the window of their 10th-floor apartment, Rojack sets off on a spree of violence and sex that culminates in a roof-top confrontation with his deceased wife’s incestuous and sexually abusive father, who tries to push Rojack off the roof. Keeping with the absurdity that characterizes much of An American Dream, Deborah’s father abruptly changes his mind about his daughter’s murderer, telling him, “You’re not bad.”

Rojack then heads to Vegas where he wins enough money to pay off a debt, buy a car, and set off into the sunset on a road trip to Mexico, thus proving the thesis laid out at the beginning of the book: “Murder offers the promise of vast relief. It is never unsexual.”

Mailer wrote An American Dream three years after what is called the “stabbing” of his wife, Adele Morales. But with a stab wound piercing Morales’s pericardium — missing her heart by millimeters — and multiple wounds to her back, the attack can more accurately be described as attempted murder.

By the time of the attack on Morales and the book that followed, Mailer had been nurturing his views on violence for two decades, since his days as an undergrad at Harvard, where he took his first steps as a serious writer. “At [that] point, what became Mailer’s lifestyle was now breaking out around the edges, where he was doing shocking things or saying things that were far out of the ordinary,” says Harold Katz, the writer’s junior-year roommate at Harvard.

Katz had arrived at Harvard from Terre Haute, Indiana, and had become friendly with Mailer through the writer’s freshmen-year roommate, Martin Lubin. Quartered together at the country’s most elite college where, as Jews, they faced the same subtle prejudice and, as sons of working families, they were separated by a veritable chasm from Harvard’s entitled upper echelons, Mailer and Katz became close.

“We were poor boys among the rich boys whose fathers and grandfathers went to Harvard and Exeter and Andover,” Katz says. “We were taught in public schools, some adequate some not, and grew up in households that emptied the cookie jar to try pay for our education.”

As Mailer’s roommate during a pivotal time, and as someone who called Mailer a friend through subsequent decades, Katz not only came to know both halves of the famous Mailer dyad — the bright, iconoclastic Jewish boy from Brooklyn and the self-conscious, scandal-rousing literary entertainer — but is one of the very few people to watch firsthand as the one developed into the other.

Katz, today a 94-year-old bon vivant who effortlessly quotes Dickens from memory and has a passion for the food scene in and around Tel Aviv, close to where he lives, was approached over the years by a number Mailer biographers and scholars but had refused to give an interview without the writer’s consent, which was never sought or never granted. Now, feeling there’s no longer much risk to damaging Mailer’s reputation, he agreed.

“At the time, I wasn’t alarmed by his idiosyncrasies or I wouldn’t have agreed to be his roommate,” Katz recalls, laughing. “Because Norman always was — with all of his meshugas — he was a warm guy. And there are some aspects of him that made him sort of a loving guy. There was a sweetness about Norman when he wasn’t putting on an act.”

Katz remembers a typical incident involving Mailer. He was sitting in the Dunster House dining hall with Mailer and some other boys one day after getting a phone call from a Radcliffe girl who wanted to set up a date. Preoccupied with his studies, Katz had gently declined. When Mailer asked how the call had gone, Katz said he hadn’t been interested. In response, Mailer spurted, “What’s the matter? She got a wooden tit?”

Though the comment seems to be a clear, if minor, expression of the kind of casual misogyny for which Mailer would become notorious, in Katz’s mind it was motivated not so much by an animus toward women as by a persistent and almost overwhelming need to prove his freedom from the restraints of society. “Foul language loudly stated in the midst of unsuspecting people was another way of saying, ‘You guys are all uptight and I’m liberated, so let’s talk about the real world and go fuck yourselves, all you,’” Katz explains.

Raised as the son of an Orthodox rabbi who’d immigrated from Romania, Katz was in many ways precisely the antipode the young writer needed. While Katz worked as a waiter and struggled to buy kosher food on a full-ride scholarship (awarded to him by an accountant named Alex Vonnegut, who, in addition to being chair of the scholarship committee of the Harvard Club of Indiana, was also the uncle of a budding fiction writer called Kurt), Mailer was struggling to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

But it was this contrast that provided Mailer an opportunity to test out the shocking views and opinions that would become a hallmark of his persona. If an idea, act, or view bounced off Katz, Mailer would have been able to assume it had the power to offend any well-formed sense of decency.

One example in particular stands out for Katz. It was Thanksgiving weekend, 1942, when Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub was engulfed in flames, killing almost 500 people. Authorities asked the relatives of the missing to come identify the remains of loved ones at temporary morgues around the city. Most of the bodies were burnt so badly they could only be identified by the personal effects found on them.

Passing himself off as a relative of one of the deceased, Mailer took the opportunity to sneak in and have a look around. “I said to Norman, ‘That’s outrageous. That’s an invasion of the most intimate moment a person has publicly. I remember the look on his face, he gave me a kind of a bland look, and I think he knew what I was getting at, he was baiting me in a way. He looked at me as if to say, ‘Why not? That’s experience. That’s human experience. Why not?’”

It was this core intuition to free himself from any kind of restraint — “A grandiose declaration of macho freedom,” in Katz’s words — that shaped Mailer’s understanding of himself and of his role as a writer, especially when it came to the topic of sex.

“There was a time,” Katz says, still registering dismay seven decades later, “that he had gotten me and [Mailer’s then girlfriend and soon-to-be first wife] Bea [Silverman] into a room, saying Bea was willing to have sex with me on the theory that I had to be introduced to sex, and it had to be done in the right way. And, magnanimously, Bea would consent to instruct me, and Norman would not be offended. And, indeed, I suspect even now that Norman wanted to stand around and observe.”

“In the first place, the whole thing is so insanely bizarre that it puts you off,” Katz continues. “You really see these people are crazy, and you don’t want to deal with them. All I remember is being closeted in this suite with Norman and Bea and getting the hell out of there. It was just so insane, so crazy, so ridiculous. But that was Norman. And that was no longer a surprise.”

That Mailer at age 18 believed he knew “the right way” to approach sex gives pause not on account of its naïveté but because it was an attitude he carried through the rest of his life and career. Mailer so rigorously asserted his views on sex — often followed by howls of outrage, as when he called contraception an “abomination” — that what might have otherwise come across as a sexual radicalism became a moralism of its own kind.

It’s this moralism, which we might call the Sexual Credo of Manly Action and Experience, that helps explain many of Mailer’s more bizarre outbursts, like ones he made at the infamous “Town Hall” debate in 1971 where, sweaty and defiant, he took on fellow panelists Germaine Greer (whom Mailer introduced as a “formidable lady writer”), Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling on the topic of feminism. Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, Betty Friedan, and Elizabeth Hardwick quipped and challenged from the audience, with Ozick at one point asking what color ink Mailer dipped his testicles in. (The answer was “yellow.”)

In the heat of the debate, Mailer turned to the topic of murderous violence and the male will, answering an audience member’s question about biological determinism by saying:

When a man is sworn that he will not strike a woman, and the woman knows that and uses it and uses it. She comes to a point where she’s literally killing that man, because the amount of violence she’s aroused in him, it’s flooding his system and slowly killing him. So, she’s engaged to that point in an act of violence and murder even though no blows are exchanged.

Far from a spontaneous expression of his frustration with feminism, Mailer’s comments on male violence had evolved into one of the underpinnings of his philosophy. In 1957 (a year after the publication of Compulsion), Mailer laid the groundwork for these ideas in “The White Negro,” his heralded essay on American hipsterism, in which he argued that if a man “cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love, his being is frozen with implacable self-hatred for his cowardice.”

Reaching this state of love meant having to “replace a negative and empty fear with an outward action, even if — and here I obey the logic of the extreme psychopath — even if the fear is of himself, and the action is to murder.”

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With “The White Negro,” Mailer laid out his ideas on murder as sexual liberation and as a pathway to love. But it was with An American Dream, published eight years later, that Mailer was able to give the idea of murder-as-freedom a perspective — and a voice.

Far from being rejected by the United States’s elite literary and cultural circles, these ideas were widely embraced. Joan Didion, in her review of An American Dream, called the book a nearly “perfect novel” and “perhaps the only serious New York novel since The Great Gatsby.”

The eminent critic Richard Poirier wrote that, with An American Dream, Mailer (in addition only to Robert Lowell) had “created the style of contemporary introspection, at once violent, educated and cool.” Poirier went on to argue that, looking back, people would later turn to the language of Mailer “to determine the shapes our consciousness has been taking.”

Diana Trilling took on the question of Mailer’s views on violence in an essay entitled “The Moral Radicalism of Norman Mailer.” Trilling cited an interview Mailer had given to, of all places, Mademoiselle magazine in which where he described a “hate-filled human” who, “grinding his boot into the face of someone, […] in the act of killing, in this terribly private moment,” experiences “a moment of tenderness, for the first time perhaps in all of his existence. What has happened is that the killer is becoming a little more possible, a little bit more ready to love someone.”

Though Trilling condemned this rationale for violence, to her it wasn’t representative so much of a moral radicalism, as her essay’s title suggests, but, as Mailer himself would argue, an antinomian return to a true morality that had been obscured by a tradition of falsehood.

“If we listen closely,” Trilling wrote,

we perhaps hear his insistence [on violence] as less the expression of personal authority than a call to a time when religion was still a masculine discipline — a call, that is, to a Hebraic world, still molded in the image of the stern father, Moses. From Moses to Marion Faye [a character in Mailer’s The Deer Park], with a stopover at Marx: Mailer’s religious route is surely a strange one. But the braver efforts of culture are not always straightaway and simple.

Despite all the praise, there was at least one powerful dissenting voice who saw in these ideas not a braver effort of culture but something uniquely and disturbingly dark. In her classic work of feminist theory, Sexual Politics, Kate Millett offered a devastating criticism of An American Dream by locating the blackness at the heart of the book.

“The humanist convictions which underlie Crime and Punishment (the original and still the greatest study in what it is like to commit murder), may all go by the board,” Millett wrote.

Both Dostoyevsky and Dreiser, in An American Tragedy, gradually created in their murderers an acceptance of responsibility for the violation of life which their actions constituted, and both transcend their crimes through atonement. Rojack has some singularity in being one of the first literary characters to get away with murder; he is surely the first hero as homicide to rejoice in his crime and never really lose his creator’s support. [Emphasis added.]

While Rojack may have been the first unrepentant “hero as homicide” to appear in American culture, he certainly was not to be the last. With the advent of Stephen Rojack a new kind of American cultural antihero began to emerge.

From Travis Bickle to Patrick Bateman, he would be a single, explicitly white loner (a “white negro,” in Mailer’s terms) who seizes control of his own fate by committing an act of senseless violence, often murder. Stuck in an absurd routine and constrained by laws and ethics he sees as arbitrary, this loner adopts an introspective voice, “at once violent, educated and cool,” in order to place himself at the center of a story of epic retribution. As with Rojack (and perhaps his author), the ensuing bloodbath is an unleashing of the “true self” on a womanish society that for too long had kept it caged.

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One of the many remarkable things about Norman Mailer was the skillfulness with which he was able to manipulate his own image. When he needed to don the cloak of madness, he could slip it on with relative ease. And when the image of a sober, serious thinker was called for he could simply shrug it off.

Years after Harvard, Harold Katz, then a leading Boston attorney fighting to advance civil rights alongside the city’s progressive mayor (and the mayor’s young chief of staff, Barney Frank), asked Mailer to come speak to a group of young politicians and lawyers active in Massachusetts politics. Mailer, who had just participated in the 1967 March on the Pentagon, agreed.

“He came and he spoke,” Katz says. “We had fun. But the thing about Norman was, by this time, he spoke — at least in public — in a kind of clipped English, as if he were trying to sound British and not Brooklyn. And it was a patently fraudulent accent, as if he were holding his lips and biting off his syllables. And it was sad, in a sense, because it wasn’t Norman. It wasn’t natural.”

“When he was having a conversation with you, he would instinctively start to bob and weave as if he was a boxer,” Katz says of Mailer at that time. “It was as if, in these moments, his literary efficacy failed him and so he communicated with body language what he couldn’t quite communicate with words. The bobbing and weaving was a way to supplement with body motion what he was really trying to say: Mailer is a macho guy.”

Asked if he ever boxed with Mailer or saw him in the ring, Katz, who boxed throughout high school and wrestled for Harvard, says no, not once. The reason was simple: “He was not a boxer.”

It was as if the writer of Mailer’s mind had to see, to do and to be everything to everyone. He was the Hemingway who boxed and boozed, the Henry Miller who scraped the mucky bottom of Paris, the Céline who chronicled the obscene futility of war, the Dos Passos who swung radically between political poles, and the T. S. Eliot who could effortlessly plumb the depths of poetry in a faux-English drawl.

But to be any of these things Mailer had to be more than them. He had to have not just great experiences, but also great experiences not had by those who’d come before him. He couldn’t just have brilliant ideas, but he had to have the kind of brilliant ideas no one had dared to espouse.

There’s both a beauty and a freedom in the kind of transgression that can be found in the lives and the work of the writers Mailer most admired, who flouted social norms in order to advance form or drive social progress. But with Mailer, transgression was largely an end in and of itself; the need to shock seemed to have shaped his views, which, on account of this, were frequently as regressive as they were repugnant.

It’s in this light that we can better understand Mailer’s fascination with, and elevation of, the murderer — and perhaps which explains much of his work, including the limitations that seem to have been almost artificially placed on a preternatural literary talent. It was neither the suspenseful action nor the moral confrontation that murder precipitates but the transcendence of the ego — the false ideal of the self made supreme above all things — which seemed to have motivated Mailer to embrace it.

“Mailer had this cloak of insanity; he had ambitions. He simply didn’t think any controls were justified,” Harold Katz says, noting that Mailer, the Jewish novelist who began his writing career as Auschwitz’s gas chambers were being filled but never used his pen to confront the horror of the Holocaust, chose Hitler, the ultimate murderer, as the subject of his last novel.

Looking back, it’s hard to appreciate the outsized and almost total role Mailer played in American culture at a defining time for this country. For more than 50 years, wherever there was a cultural moment brewing, Mailer could be found, usually at its center, often holding a lighted match. His words had the power to draw the direct attention of sitting presidents and his ideas formed the spearhead of a rising counterculture that thrust through the conformity of the postwar United States.

With his celebrity status, the brilliance and originality of his thinking, and his uncanny ability to stir controversy, what Mailer did, said, and — more than anything — what he wrote mattered. And though Mailer had the skill needed to juggle alternating images of misfit and moralizer, philosopher and freewheeler, writer, adventurer, journalistic pioneer and countercultural guerrilla, it’s possible that the ideas he hewed into American culture by the force of his personality and the brilliance of his writing were less fleeting.

It’s possible that, much as Mailer would have wanted — but in ways he could never have imagined — the effects of those ideas can still be felt today.

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Ashley Rindsberg is a writer who lives in Tel Aviv. The author of a book of short stories, Rindsberg is currently completing his first novel.


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