“The Norman Mailer Syndrome” by Gore Vidal

“The Norman Mailer Syndrome” by Gore Vidal

This review, by Gore Vidal, of Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, was originally published in The Nation on January 2, 1960.  Thanks to Jon Wiener for suggesting it and to Katrina vanden Heuvel for permission to reprint.


By Norman Mailer. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 532 pp. $5.

I FIRST HEARD of Norman Mailer in the spring of 1948, just before The Naked and the Dead was published. He was living in Paris or had been living there, and just gone home when I arrived in France, my mood curiously melancholic, no doubt because of the most dubious fame I was enjoying with the publication of a third book, The City and the Pillar; at twenty-two I should have found a good deal more to please me than I did that spring and summer in the foreign cities. I do recall at one point Truman Capote telling me about The Naked and the Dead and its author: a recital which promptly aroused my competitive instincts . . . waning, let me say right off, and for reasons which are relevant to these notes. Yet at the time I remember thinking meanly: so somebody did it. Each previous war had had its big novel, yet so far there had been none for our war, though I knew that a dozen busy friends and acquaintances were grimly taking out tickets in the Grand War Novel Lottery. I had debated doing one myself and had (I still think) done something better: a small cool hard novel about men on the periphery of the action; it was called Williwaw and was written when I was nineteen and easily the cleverest young fox ever to know how to disguise his ignorance and make a virtue of his limitations. (What an attractive form the self-advertisement is: one could go on forever relighting one’s image.) Not till I began that third book did I begin to get bored with playing safe.

I took to the field and have often wondered since, in the course of many excursions, defeats, alarums and ambushes, what it might have been like to have been a safe shrewd custodian of one’s talent, playing from strength. I did not suspect then that the ambitious, rather cold-blooded young contemporary who had set out to write the big war novel and who had pulled it off would one day be in the same fix I was. Not safe. Not wise. Not admired. A fellow victim of the Great Golfer’s Age, then no more than a murmur of things to come in the Golfer’s murmurous heart.

My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself has changed. Now I confess I never finished The Naked and the Dead. I read a good deal of it. I recall a fine description of men carrying a dying man down a mountain; but every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken, not from life, but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as the prose poems of Weary Reilley in Studs Lonigan.

Sourly, from a distance that year I watched the fame of Mailer quite surpass John Horne Burns and myself, as well as Truman Capote who had made his debut earlier the same year. I should explain for those who have come in late or were around then but inattentive that the O.K. list of writers in 1947 and ‘48 was John Horne Burns, Calder Willingham and myself. Capote and Mailer were added in 1948. Willingham was soon dropped; then Burns (my own favorite) sank and by 1949 in the aftermath of The City and the Pillar I too departed the O.K. list.


“I HAD the freak of luck to start high on the mountain, and go down sharp while others were passing me,” so Mailer wrote, describing the time after Barbary Shore when he unexpectedly joined the rest of us down on the plain. Now the descent, swift or slow, is not agreeable; but on the other hand it is not as tragic as Mailer seems to find it. To be demoralized by the withdrawal of public success (a process as painful in America as the withdrawal of a drug from an addict), is, I think, to grant too easily a victory to the society one has attempted to criticize, affect, change, reform. It is clearly unreasonable to expect to be cherished by those one assaults. It is also childish, in the deepest sense of being a child, ever to expect justice. There is none beneath our moon. One can only hope not to be destroyed entirely by injustice and, to put it cynically, one can very often flourish through an injustice obtaining in one’s favor. What matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself but one’s own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long, especially in America.

Norman Mailer in 1948 (Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress)

That wide graveyard of stillborn talents which contains so much of the brief ignoble history of American letters is a tribute to the power of a democracy to destroy its critics, brave fools and passionate men. If there is anything in Mailer’s new book which alarms me, it is his obsession with public success. He is running for President, as he puts it. Yet though his best and most interesting works have been unjustly attacked, he should realize that in this most inequitable of worlds his one worldly success was not a very good book, that The Naked and the Dead is redolent of “ambition” (in the Mary McCarthy sense of the word — pejorative, needless to say) and a young man’s will to be noticed. Mailer himself nearly takes this view. “I may as well confess that by December 8th or 9th of 1941. . . I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific.” Ambition and the day coincided and a success was made. Yet it is much less real a book than Burns’s The Gallery, or even some of the stories of Robert Lowry, works which had the virtue of being felt, possessed entirely by the men who made them, not created out of a stern ambition and a dogged competence. But, parenthetically, most war books are inadequate. War tends to be too much for any writer, especially one whose personality is already half-obliterated by life in a democracy. Even the aristocrat Tolstoy, at a long remove in time, stretched his genius almost to a breaking point to encompass men and war and the thrust of history in a single vision. Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms did a few nice descriptions, but his book, too, is a work of ambition, in which can be seen the beginning of the careful, artful, immaculate idiocy of tone that since has marked both his prose and his legend as he has declined into that sort of fame which, at moments I hope are weak, Mailer stems to crave.

But it is hard for American writers not to measure themselves according to the standards of their time and place. I recall a conversation with Stephen Spender when I lapsed, unconsciously, into the national preoccupation: some writer had unexpectedly failed, not gone on, blown up. And Spender said rather pointedly, “The difference in England is that they want us only to be distinguished, to be good.” We order things differently; although our example is contagious: recently, the popular British press has discovered writers in a way ours never has. Outside the gossip column and the book page no writer except Hemingway is ever mentioned as news in the American press, but let the latest young English novelist attack the Establishment and there are headlines in London. Mailer can denounce Eisenhower as much as he likes in Dissent but the readers of the Daily News will never know the name of Mailer, much less the quality of his anger. Publicity for the American writer is of the personality kind: a photograph in Harper’s Bazaar, bland television appearances . . . the writer is a minor movie star, and as unheeded.


MAILER and I finally met in 1954. I had just published my last, or perhaps I should say latest, novel Messiah and it had sunk quietly into oblivion in America (if it were not for the continuing interest of Europe, especially England, a great many of our writers would not survive the various seasons of neglect). I liked Mailer, though I am afraid my first impression of him was somewhat guarded. I am suspicious of people who make speeches at me. And he is a born party-orator. I have not the slightest recollection what we talked about. I do recall telling him that I admired Barbary Shore, and he was shrewd enough to observe that probably I had been driven to read it to see if it was really as bad as everyone thought. Which it was not. Of his three novels I find it the most interesting, the least diffuse and, quite literally, memorable. It is hallucinatory writing of a kind Mailer has only tried, as far as I know, that one time, and though I think his talents are essentially naturalistic, he does seem again in his new novel (judging from the advance samples he offers in Advertisements) to be trying for that revelation through willful distortion that he achieved in Barbary Shore. One is curious to see the result.

I have gone into the chronology of Mailer’s days and mine because they run parallel, occasionally crossing, and because the book he has just published is, in effect, an autobiography covering more or less his entire career with particular attention to the days of the Golfer’s dull terror. Mailer gives us his life and his work together and therefore it is impossible to review the book without attempting to make some estimate of both his character and the corpus of his work, the tension of his present and the shape of his future. Mailer is sly to get himself all this attention, but I must point out that it is a very dangerous move to expose oneself so completely. Indeed, in other times it would have been fatal for an artist not yet full grown to show us his sores and wounds, his real and his illusory strength. Until very recently the artist was a magician who did his magic in public view but who kept himself and his effects a matter of mystery. We know now of Flaubert’s suffering, both emotional and aesthetic, during the days of his work, but it is hard to imagine what would have happened if the court which prosecuted Madame Bovary had had as evidence a volume of his letters. In effect, Mailer has anticipated his own posterity. He is giving us now the storms and the uncertainties, private and public, which he has undergone. He has armed the enemy and not entirely pleased his allies.

However, it may be possible to get away with this sort of thing today, for we live in the age of the confession. What Mailer has done is not different in kind than what those deranged and fallen actresses have accomplished in ghost-written memoirs where, with a shrewd eye on the comeback trail, they pathetically confess their sins to Demos, receiving for their tears the absolution of a culture obscenely interested in gossip. I suspect Mailer may create more interest in himself by having made this “clean breast of it” than he would have got by publishing a really distinguished novel. The audience no longer consumes novels, but it does devour personalities. Yet, what happens after one is eaten? Is one regurgitated? Or does the audience move on to its next dinner of scandal and tears, its previous meal assimilated?


But I am fairly certain that Mailer will survive everything. Despite a nice but small gift for self-destruction, he is uncommonly adroit, with an eye to the main chance (the writer who has not this instinct is done for in America; excellence is not enough). I noted with some amusement that, despite the air of candor, he makes no new enemies in this book. He scores off those who are lost to him anyway, thus proving that essentially the work is politic. His confessions, when not too disingenuous, are often engaging, and always interesting as he tries to record his confusions. For Mailer, simply, does not begin to know what he believes or is or wants. His drive seems to be toward power of a religio-political kind. He is a messiah without real hope of paradise on earth or in heaven and with no precise mission except that dictated by his ever-changing temperament. I am not sure, finally, that he should be a novelist at all, or even a writer, despite formidable gifts. He is too much a demagogue; he swings from one position of cant to another with an intensity that is visceral rather than intellectual. He is all fragments and pieces. He appears to be looking for an identity and often it seems that he believes crude celebrity will give it him again. The author of The Naked and the Dead, though not the real Mailer, was at least an identifiable surrogate, and duly celebrated. But Mailer was quickly bored with the war-novelist role and, as soon as possible, he moved honorably to a new position: radical politics, in the hope that through Marxist action he might better identify himself to us and to himself. But that failed him, too. Nor is the new Mailer, prophet of Hip and celebrator of sex and its connection with time, apt to interest him or us for very long.

I also noted at moments toward the end of this book that a reaction was setting in. Mailer started using military allusions. “Back in the Philippines, we …,” that sort of thing. And there were references to patrols, ambushes. It was startling. Most of our generation was in the war, usually ingloriously, yet I have never heard a contemporary make any reference to it in a military way. The war to most of us was a profound irrelevance; traumatic for some, perhaps, but for most no more than an interruption. When the 1959 Mailer reminds us that he was a rifleman on Luzon, I get embarrassed for him and hope he is not going back to his first attitude to get the attention he wants.

NOW for the book itself. It is a collection of stories, essays, notes, newspaper columns and part of a play. It begins with his first story at Harvard and ends with part of his new novel. The play, which I read in an earlier version, could be remarkable on stage. But the best work in this volume is two short stories. “The Language of Men” tells of the problems of an army cook who has an abstract passion for excellence as well as a need for the approbation of the indifferent men who eat his food. His war with them and himself and his passion to be good is beautifully got and in many ways one of the best stories of its kind I have read, certainly preferable to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which it resembles in theme. But where Hemingway, as usual, was pretentious and external, Mailer is particular and works from within his characters with gentle grace. The other story, “The Patron Saint of McDougall Alley,” is a wildly funny portrait of an archetypal drifter and I think it is of permanent value; we have had this sort of fool in every age (Catullus and Juvenal each dealt with him), but I have not seen him done quite so well in our day.

By and large, excepting “The White Negro,” I did not like the essays and the newspaper columns. Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Actually, when he does approach a point he shifts into a swelling, throbbing rhetoric which is not easy to read but usually has something to do with love and sex and the horror of our time and the connection which must be made between time and sex (the image this bit of rhetoric suggests to me is a limitless gray sea of time with a human phallus desperately poking at a corner of it). He is at his best (who is not?) when discussing his own works and days. The piece about getting The Deer Park published is particularly good, and depressing for what it reveals about our society. But, finally, in every line he writes, despite the bombast, there is uncertainly: who am I? what do I want? what am I saying? He is Thomas Wolfe but with a conscience. Wolfe’s motive for writing was perfectly clear: he wanted fame, he wanted to taste the whole earth, to name all the rivers. Mailer has the same passion for fame but he has a good deal more sense of responsibility and he sees that the thing is always in danger of spinning down into meaninglessness. Nothing is quite enough: art, sex, politics, drugs, god, mind. He is sure to get tired of Hip very soon. Sex will be a dead end for him because sex is the one purely existential act. Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no reads, writes no novels, and sex certainly give no meaning to anything in life but itself. I have often thought that much of D.H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know and, finally, not even palliative to the universal estrangement.


PERHAPS what has gone wrong in Mailer, and in many of our fellow clerks, is the sense that human being to flourish must be possessed by one idea, a central meaning to which all experience can be related. To be, in Isaiah Berlin’s bright metaphor, hedgehog rather than fox. Yet the human mind is not capable of this kind of exclusivity. We are none of us hedgehogs or foxes, but both simultaneously. The human mind is in continual flux and personality is simply a sum of those attitudes which most often repeat themselves in recognizable actions. It is naïve and dangerous to try to impose on the human mind any system of thought which lays claim to finality. Very few first-rate writers have ever subordinated their own apprehension of a most protean reality to a man-made system of thought. Tolstoy’s famous attempt, in War and Peace, nearly wrecked that beautiful work. Ultimately, not Christ, not Marx, not Freud, despite the pretensions of each, has the final word to say about the fact of being human. And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibility and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to a terrified man but is disastrous for an artist.

One of the few sad results of the collapse of the Judeo-Christian ethical and religious systems has been the displacement of those who are absolutists by temperament and would in earlier times have been rabbis, priests, systematic philosophers. As the old establishment of the West crumbles, the absolutists have turned to literature and the arts, and one by one the arts in the twentieth century have become hieratic. Serious literature has become religion, as Matthew Arnold foresaw. Those who once would have ben fulfilled in Talmudic debates or suffered finely between the pull of Rome and the Church of England have turned to the writing of novels, and worse, to the criticism of novels. Now I am not sure that the novel, though it is many things and perhaps as Lawrence said “the one bright book of life,” is particularly suited to didacticism. It is certainly putting an undesirable weight upon the novel to use it as a pretext for sermons or the resuscitation of antique religious myths. Works of fiction, at best, create not arguments but worlds, and a world by definition is an attitude toward a complex of experience, not a single argument or theme, syllogistically proposed. In the nineteenth century most of our critics (and many of our novelists) would have been writing books of sermons and quarreling over points of doctrine. With religion gone out of the intellectual world they now write solemnly and uneasily about novels; they are clearly impatient with the vulgar life of the better novels and were it not that they had one another’s books about books to analyze, I suspect many of them would despair and falter. The novelists don’t seem very bright to the critics and their commentaries seem irrelevant to the novelist. Yet each affects the other; and those writers who are unduly eager for fame and acceptance will write novels which they hope might interest religious-minded critics. The results range from the sub-literary bleating of the Beats to Mailer’s portentous: “I am the way and life ever after, crucify me, you hackers, for mine is a ritual death! Oh, Scott, oh Herman, oh, ancestral voices murmuring, take my flesh and my blood, partake of me and know mysteries!” And the curious thing is that they will crucify him; they will partake of his flesh; yet no mystery will be revealed. For the priests have created the gods, and they are all of them ritual harvest gods.


I WAS most struck by this remark of Andre Gide in the posthumous Ainsi Soit-il: “It is affectation that makes so many of today’s writings, often even the best among them, unbearable to me. The author takes on a tone that is not natural to him.” Of course it is sometimes the work of a lifetime for an artist to discover who he is and it is true that a great deal of good art results from the trying on of masks, the affectation of a persona not one’s own. But it seems to me that most of my contemporaries, including Mailer, are – as Gide suggests – desperately trying to convince themselves and the audience that they are something other than they are. There is even a certain embarrassment about writing novels at all. Telling stories does seem a silly occupation for one fully grown; yet to be a philosopher or a religious is easy when one is making a novel. Also, in a society such as ours, where there is no moral, political or religious center, the temptation to fill the void is irresistible. There is the empty throne so … seize the crown. Who would not be a king or high priest in such an age? And the writers, each in his own way, are preoccupied with power. Some hope to achieve place through good deportment. Universities are filled with poets and novelists conducting demure and careful lives in imitation of Eliot and Forster and others who through what seems to have been discretion, made it. Outside the universities one finds the buccaneers who mean to seize the crown by force, blunt Bolinbrokes to the Academy’s gentle Richards.

Mailer is a Bolinbroker, a born usurper. He will raise an army anywhere, live off the country as best he can, helped by a devoted underground, even assisted at brief moments by rival claimants like myself. Yet when all is said, none of this is the way to live. And it is not a way — at least it makes the way harder — to make a literature, which, no doubt quixotically, remains the interest of each of us. I suppose if it helps Hemingway to think of literature as a Golden Gloves Tournament with himself pounding Maupassant to the mat or fighting Tolstoy to a draw, then no doubt the fantasy has been of some use. But there is also evidence that the preoccupation with power is a great waste of time. And Mailer has had the honesty to confess that his own competitiveness has wasted him as he worries about reviewers and bad publicity and the seemingly spiteful successes of other novelists. Yet all the time he know perfectly well that writers are not in competition with one another. The real enemy is the audience which grows more and more indifferent to literature, an audience which now can be reached only by phenomena, by superior pornographies or meretriciously detailed accounts of the way we live now. No serious American novelist has ever had any real sense of audience. C.P. Snow made the point that he would, given the choice, prefer to be a writer in England to a writer in America because, for better or worse, the Establishment of his country would read him and know him as he knew them, as the Greek dramatists knew and were known by the City’s audience. One cannot imagine the American President — any American President — reading a work by a serious contemporary American writer. This lack of response is to me at the center of Mailer’s desperation. He is a public writer, not a private artist; he wants to influence those who are alive at this time, but they will not notice him even when he is good. So each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells — anything to get their attention and, finally (and this could be the tragedy), so much energy is spent in getting the indifferent ear to listen that when the time comes for him to speak there may not be enough strength or creative imagination left him to say what he knows; exhausted, he becomes like Louis Lambert in Balzac’s curious novel of the visionary-artist who, having seen straight through to the heart of the mystery, dies mad, murmuring: “The angels are white.”

Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Mailer as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievement. There is more virtue in his failures than in most of those small premeditated successes which, in Cynic’s phrase, “debase currency.” Mailer in all that he does, whether he does it well or ill, is honorable, and that is the highest praise I can give any writer in this piping time.

© The Nation, all rights reserved

LARB Contributor

Gore Vidal was an American author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and political activist. His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), outraged mainstream critics as one of the first major American novels to feature unambiguous homosexuality. He also ran for political office twice and has been a longtime political critic.  He was a succesful television writer in the 1950s, a succesful Broadway playwrite, and his novels, from satires like Myra Breckenridge to historical novels such as Lincoln and Burr, were often both critically acclaimed and bestsellers. He was also one of America's most astute literary critics, writing extensive, insightful essays on underappreciated writers ike William Dean Howells and Dawn Powell for the New York Review of Books. He was extremely prolific, writing plays, feature screenplays, and teleplays, and publishing 25 books of nonfiction, 27 novels, and other books under pseudonyms.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!