The Corner

Teachout On Mailer

Terry Teachout, whose judgment I will almost always defer to in shameless sycophantic admiration, pointed me to a piece he wrote for NR in 1998. An excerpt:

WHY is Norman Mailer still famous? He hasn’t written a good book since The Executioner’s Song, which is 19 years old. Except for The Naked and the Dead, none of his novels continues to be read, and his magazine journalism long ago curdled into self-parody. I’ve never met anyone under the age of forty who took him seriously. Yet Random House, which so far as I know is not a charitable institution, is celebrating his 75th birthday by bringing out a 1,200-page anthology of his writing, chosen by the master himself. That’s a pretty fancy birthday present, especially given the fact that it will surely wind up on the remainder tables by year’s end.

Mailer has been writing badly for so long that it is easy to forget that a great many intelligent people once took him almost as seriously as he took himself….

The trouble with Mailer was that he was drunk on ideas, a deadly tipple for woolly-minded pseudo-intellectuals. Sensing instinctively that liberalism had run its course, he made the mistake of assuming that radicalism was the only way out, and complicated matters still further by opting for a romantic radicalism rooted in sexual mysticism. As a result, his style grew bloated and slack, especially on the increasingly frequent occasions when he grappled with imperfectly digested philosophical concepts:

“It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist — the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry), if the fate of twentieth-century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.”

Yet Mailer had little choice but to write about ideas, for he had little else about which to write. The publication in 1948 of The Naked and the Dead left him “prominent and empty” at the age of 25, and he spent the rest of his youth and early middle age living in the glare of renown, making it impossible for him to accumulate the private experience out of which good novels are spun. He wrote interestingly about this problem in Advertisements for Myself ( “My farewell to an average man’s experience was too abrupt . . . I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality, and status”), but that was a trick that could be brought off only once: from then on, it would be ideas or nothing….

Me:If you go to the NR Digtal Archive you can buy the whole article.

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