Norman Mailer’s greatest achievement was being able to live with himself.

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A new biography of Norman Mailer is out. The New Yorker has the highlights.

He called himself the White Negro. He believed that cancer, mental illness, and irrational behavior could be cured by orgasm. He opposed feminism and publicly antagonized Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Cynthia Ozick. He charged people money to attend his own birthday party.

He was arrested at least four times, and was confined for seventeen days in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue after stabbing his second wife, Adele, and coming within a fraction of an inch of killing her, at a party in their apartment, in 1960. Five years later, he published An American Dream, in which the depressed protagonist strangles his wife and throws her body out the window of an East Side apartment building, which makes him feel much better.

According to Adele’s memoir, “After the Party,” someone tried to help her after she was stabbed, but Mailer kicked her. “Get away from her,” he said. “Let the bitch die.”

[Adele] says that Mailer told her to lie to the grand jury and say she couldn’t remember who had stabbed her, and that he didn’t apologize to her until 1988, at a reception for their daughter’s wedding.

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The aforementioned novel, An American Dream, opens with the narrator comparing himself favorably to the newly elected President Kennedy.

I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz.

Was Mailer mocking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Diamond as Big as The Ritz,” or did he subconsciously internalize the phrase and repeat it as his own?

In 1981, he supported the parole of a convicted murderer, Jack Abbott, whose prison writings he helped to get published, and who proceeded to kill a waiter six weeks after his release and then fled. “Culture is worth a little risk,” Mailer told reporters after Abbott had been captured.

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Apparently it was everybody else’s fault for enabling him.

The stabbing seems to have enhanced Mailer’s social and literary cachet.

Nearly everyone who knew the Mailers, and whose reflections have been reported, blamed Adele. In the literary world, the act was interpreted by the lights of the modernist myth of the artist. James Baldwin, no admirer of “The White Negro,” explained that, by trying to kill his wife, Mailer was hoping to rescue the writer in himself from the spiritual prison he had created with his fantasies of becoming a politician: “It is like burning down the house in order, at last, to be free of it.” Lionel Trilling told his wife, Diana, that the stabbing was, in her words, “a Dostoevskyan ploy”: Mailer was testing the limits of evil in himself.

[Adele] says that some of Mailer’s friends presented her with a petition asking her to refuse to allow doctors to administer shock treatment to her husband, on the ground that it might damage his creative genius. Mailer’s mother came to see her, not to express sympathy but to insist that she tell the police that she had got her injuries by falling on a broken bottle.

His novels were decried as “disasters” and still they topped the New York Times bestseller list.

– Brian Hurley


Filed under Hooray Fiction!

4 Responses to Norman Mailer’s greatest achievement was being able to live with himself.

  1. kevin

    The link in this piece is to a review of the biography in the signature New Yorker style, not to the “Highlights”.

    While this piece itself is merely a facile attempted dismissal of the writer. An attempt whose underpinning seems for the most part moralistic. Ugh.

  2. Brian Hurley

    Hi Kevin. I didn’t mean to try and dismiss Mailer, just to summarize the outrageous and entertaining coverage at The New Yorker, where Louis Menand is trying to dismiss him. (The title of this post is a quote from the article, if I recall correctly.)

    What would you say is a better approach to Mailer? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on him.

  3. kevin

    Hey Brian, thanks for the reply.

    First I would say Menand’s treatment of Mailer is too comprehensive to be called an attempted dismissal. Or certainly not that alone. Actually his essay seeks to be a mini-biography in itself. Menand obviously brought a comprehensive set of judgments about Mailer and his work, crafting his piece to support them. And for sure, with that I take no issue – that’s criticism, rhetoric, in other words, the game.

    Something worth noting, however, is that though Menand’s judgments are weighted toward shrink-wrapping Mailer’s significance and exposing him to ridicule (to which he is wildly vulnerable), they’re not completely one-sided. From Menand’s closing two paragraphs:

    “Mailer took chances. He was sometimes ridiculously wrong; he was sometimes refreshingly right; he was never uninteresting.

    “…still, in spite of the vulnerability, and in spite of the botched projects and the preposterous and occasionally offensive theories and the personal misadventures, miscalculations that would have upended the careers of most writers, he produced some remarkable and original books.”

    As for my thoughts on Mailer, well, I like him. I’m in the Joan Didion camp, who considers him one of the best and most important writers of his times. And I also like what he was ultimately about as a public figure. Not all of it, and I certainly don’t condone his violence toward his second wife. But in the end he emerged as someone who’s sixty plus years of artistic pursuit seemingly made more and more whole, knowing, empathetic, human. Someone who puts me in mind of what Napoleon was alleged to have said upon first meeting Goethe. “Voilà, Un homme!”

  4. Brian Hurley

    Well said, Kevin, thank you.

    I haven’t read much of Mailer’s best work, and I think that’s because the myths about him always get in my way — it’s hard to quiet my mind and pay attention to his texts when rumors and controversies and anecdotes about him are foremost on everyone’s tongues. I wish I could un-know what I’ve heard about him as a person and read his books fresh.

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