- "I may as well confess that by Dec. 8 or 9 of 1941, in the 48 hours after Pearl Harbor, while worthy young men were wondering where they could be of aid to the war effort, and practical young men were deciding which branch of service was the surest for landing a safe commission, I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific."
- — Norman Mailer, "Advertisements for Myself," 1959
About a year ago, Norman Mailer's name blipped up on the nation's cultural radar screen. The (misleading) headline was that a "junior staffer" at Random House had scuttled the publication of a new collection of Mailer's essays because they objected to the title of Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster."
The truth, as usual, was a little more complicated than that. What actually happened was that Random House had decided to pass on the collection, envisioned as a response to the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol by people intending to disrupt the certification of the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Though Mailer died in 2007, his son, John Buffalo Mailer, and one of his biographers, J. Michael Lennon, had prepared a collection of Mailer's writings — some previously unpublished — relevant to the polarized nature of our current politics.
Random House did decide to pass on the book, though Mailer had a longstanding relationship with the publisher. Skyhorse Publishing, an independent imprint founded in 2006, did take the book on — it's called "A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy." It's scheduled for publication on Jan. 31, the centenary of Mailer's birth.
Mailer wasn't "canceled." His longtime publisher just decided that, given the current political climate and probably the commercial prospects for a book of Mailer's essays, it didn't want to devote resources to the project.
Did a junior staffer raise an objection to the title of that 1957 essay? Probably. I once wrote an essay (not for this newspaper) where the editor pushed back on mentions of "The White Negro," revealing his dispiriting ignorance of the essay. Did the high-up mucky-mucks at Random House decide not to publish the book because some junior staffer objected? That seems highly unlikely.
That said, Mailer isn't a fashionable read today; he's better known for being a bore than a great writer. Like a lot of rock stars, he often squandered a superb voice on unworthy material, and was frequently victimized by his own excesses.
At times Mailer allowed himself to embrace irrationality, and has at times seemed to regard his talent as something beyond the scope of discipline. Were Ye (the erstwhile Kanye/Yeezy) an actual genius, he might remind me of Mailer.
Ye, who is mentally ill, sometimes says things to lead us to believe he thinks he is a kind of god (for some, he might be just that). Mailer, who was mad but perhaps not in a clinical way, knew his celebrity provided him "a slight understanding of what it's like to be half a man and half something else, something larger."
"Obviously, a celebrity is a long, long, long, long way from the celestial," he wrote for a promotional handout sent out with review copies of his 1997 novel "The Gospel According to the Son," "but nonetheless it does mean that you have two personalities you live with all the time. One is your simple self, so to speak, which is to some degree still like other people, and then there's the opposite one, the media entity, which gives you power that you usually don't know how to use well."
Mailer was capable of mistaking sloppy thought for intuition and facile glibness for poetry. His early promise, once vast and awesome, was comically compressed even during his lifetime when he was easily caricatured as Stormin' Norman, the belletrist equivalent of the celebrity activist, liberator of Jack Henry Abbot and pervy re-animator of Marilyn Monroe, puncher of Gore Vidal, chief fan of Madonna and a lonely and tepid defender of Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho."
But it is nonsense to suggest, as some do, that Mailer is neither a great writer nor an important thinker who deserves to fade into a period piece curiosity like Wavy Gravy or Donovan.
All id and instinct, Mailer anticipated the chaos of the 1960s and rending of the social contract. That controversial essay "The White Negro," which originally appeared in bits and pieces in Mailer's column in The Village Voice before being codified in Dissent, retains resonance as it plumbs the "psychic havoc" wreaked on thinking people by the manifestation of the atomic bomb and Nazi concentration camps.
Mailer's central thesis seems to be that one either opts for a quiet and relatively comfortable living death by conforming with a sick society that suborns such atrocities, or lights out for the wilderness as an "American existentialist" seeking the "rebellious imperatives of the self."
Like the car commercials tell us, you can either be part of the crowd or a rugged Jeep-driving individualist. In the essay, Mailer describes the abdication of moral responsibility that inevitably accompanies the aspiration to coolness. He takes as an example an incident in which two 18-year-olds caved in the head of a middle-aged owner of a candy store, but you might pull examples from any newspaper. Mailer anticipated (and abetted the creation of) our world of trumping swagger and boast.
But the usefulness of the essay doesn't lie in its prescription — Mailer might have been naively excited by the prospect of an army of hipsters, each brimming with their own particular chaos — but in its language and insight. "The White Negro" is not unlike the Unabomber's manifesto in its madness and in its import. We might reject Mailer's ideas as cruel, but we ignore them at our own risk.
No doubt some would like to, but we can't — and shouldn't — cancel Mailer. We should read him. Especially his novels.
When I talked to Mailer more than 25 years ago — a contentious and rollicking event that occurred with me on a Tennessee rest-stop pay phone somewhere between Memphis and Nashville, where I was on my way to speak at a convention of alternative newspapers — I was surprised to find out that he agreed with me about that. By then Mailer had somewhat mellowed — his third marriage to Russellville native Norris Church in 1980 apparently took, and he had settled into a kind of gruff domesticity.
In 1995, I found it ironic that Mailer, perhaps the first person of serious literary aspirations to benefit from television, would complain about the medium's deleterious effect on the American attention span, but he told me he thought it had reduced him to a kind of celebrity bomb thrower.
He regretted ("no offense," he said) that he was probably destined to be remembered primarily as "a journalist." He understood people knew his name, but didn't read him — especially not his "best books."
"I think my fiction has got more to offer than my nonfiction," Mailer said. "I just think the trouble is ... we're at a time now where people don't like long novels. Everybody's so full of options where their feeling is 'I don't want to devote two weeks to reading a novel and use up 10 of my other options doing it.' So there's a tendency to like books that are small and not long."
And this was before the advent of Twitter and Netflix, before we had crypto-billionaires offering their opinion that if you can't say what you need to say in 280 characters or — at most, a six-paragraph blog post — you're a lousy communicator.
"There's a war going on for the American soul, and I'd hate to retire from the war," Mailer said. "We're a very funny country. I don't know where we caught that particular virus, but 95% of the people in America can't bear any question that takes longer than 10 seconds to answer."
Assessing Mailer at 100 means admitting he is more icon than writer; a feminist-baiting bull mansplainer better known for his politics than anything he's published.
Born in Long Branch, N.J., he was raised in a Jewish family; his father, Isaac, was a South African-born accountant, mother Fanny ran a small business that provided housekeeping and nursing services.
Intelligent and ambitious, Mailer excelled academically at Boys High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and went on to Harvard University, where he studied engineering and aeronautics and took writing courses as electives. At 18, he won Story magazine's college story contest and subsequently switched his major to English.
After graduating in 1943, he married his first wife in early 1944 and applied to his draft board for a deferment on the grounds he was involved in writing an "important literary work" about the war.
The deferment was denied, and Mailer enlisted in the Army, serving in the Philippines during World War II. His war experiences would become the basis for his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead," which the Library of America has just reissued, along with a selection of Mailer's letters written while he was in the Army in 1945 and 1946.
"The Naked and the Dead" was an immediate critical and commercial success upon its publication 75 years ago, inviting comparisons to Tolstoy. It is perhaps the best American novel to come out of World War II, a sprawling epic that follows the 13 soldiers of a platoon in the 27th Infantry Regiment as they prepare to land on the island of Anopopei in the Philippines.
Led by Lt. Robert Hearn, a highly educated, sensitive man who struggles to reconcile his liberal idealism with war's brutal realities, the soldiers are depicted as complex and nuanced personalities, though they might at first present as stereotypes, not completely assimilated into the American melting pot.
There are two Jews in the company: arrogant, well-educated Roth, who is ultimately goaded into attempting a suicidal lead by the openly antisemitic Boston Irishman Roy Gallagher, who tried to save his life, and Joey Goldstein, who starts out being bullied by his fellow soldiers but eventually becomes a well-liked and respected member of the regiment despite his occasional lack of resolve. There's a patriotic Italian American who's lucky enough to be wounded just badly enough to be sent home.
Sergeant Croft is a professional killer — a sociopath — better suited to war than civilian life, narcissistic and cold-blooded. He ruthlessly calculates his chances for advancement throughout the book. Red Valsen, a working-class guy from a Montana mining town, is Croft's opposite, a disillusioned, numb soul who joined the Army as a way to run away from human contact. He is ambition-less and disillusioned with the war and the military.
Wilson is the Southerner who is generous despite coming from abject poverty, a lucky poker player who cares less for the money than the company of his comrades. He dies an agonizing death on the beach after being shot in the stomach by the Japanese.
Hennessey is the naive newbie. There's a Mexican American from Texas, a closeted gay general, an orphaned working-class Pole who turns out to be the regiment's toughest soldier, and a proto-feminist who insists that women are as capable as men.
As the soldiers hit the beach and engage the Japanese, they encounter the unfathomable harshness of jungle warfare. Beset by disease, hunger and fatigue, all their romantic patriotic notions evaporate as they struggle to maintain morale and discipline. They begin to balk at their orders and question both the leadership of their superiors and the purpose of the war.
Moving deeper in the jungle, they run into a band of native guerrillas fighting the Japanese and form an uneasy alliance with them that devolves into a petty power struggle. Hearn's misgivings become debilitating as they begin to suffer heavy casualties, and ruthless Croft increasingly exerts his power, effectively becoming the platoon's leader.
Finally, they reach the Japanese stronghold and begin a terrible final assault. Eventually they take the island, but only after most members of the platoon die, including the idealist Hearn. (The dichotomy between sensitive, human Hearn and efficient, monstrous Croft would be echoed in Oliver Stone's 1986 film "Platoon," in the characters of Sergeant Elias and Sergeant Barnes.)
In the end, it's revealed that the Japanese supply lines were broken and the island's defenders were almost out of ammunition before the invasion; had the Americans simply waited, there would have been no need to launch an attack. The whole enterprise was meaningless.
A LONG, RAW READ
Rereading "The Naked and the Dead" a few decades after first encountering it, I was struck by a couple of things.
It's remarkably long, more than 184,000 words — more than 700 pages in the new LOA edition.
Mailer's prose, which in his nonfiction and later novels can be challenging, teeming with allusion and adverbial ornament, is compact and tough here, like that of a less self-conscious Hemingway. It's raw and told in a famously offensive vernacular. (Ed Sanders named his band The Fugs after one of the compromises Mailer was forced to make.) But there's little doubt that his portraits are drawn from life.
And, curious for a first novel, there's no obvious author surrogate — none of the soldiers feels obviously based on the young Norman Mailer. There's no real moral observer — no Nick Carraway to lead us through the story. Mailer simply lights on each of the soldiers and tells us their story (and backstory).
Joan Didion once observed that Mailer was "a great and obsessed stylist, a writer to whom the shape of the sentence is the story." It is true that no matter how ponderous and shaky his words in aggregate might seem, on close inspection his prose revealed itself as intricate and filigreed, as complicated and precise as Swiss watchworks.
He was a technician of language whose sentences would wend like long, slow-burning fuses, exploding at the end. You could find beauty in his most boorish arguments, if you were attuned to the skip and frolic of his voice.
Yet he played a music that was slipping from fashion even as he invented it, wrote long books in a time of short attention spans, and insisted on making nuanced points in an age where the people were losing their ear for anything but violent declamation. He wrote what might be the greatest American war novel — the greatest American anti-war novel ever.
That's enough to save him from cancellation.