James Russell Lowell had American literature figured out in 1848. That’s when he wrote a long poem called “A Fable for Critics” in which the wrote, in passing, about Edgar Allan Poe that he was made up of “three fifths genius and two fifths sheer fudge.”
Poe, said Lowell, “who has written some things quite the best of their kind/But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.”
If you transform the substance, besides genius, that made up Lowell’s Poe from the sweet food stuff to a similarly complected substance used as farm fertilizer, you have the makeup of any number of American writers over the centuries.
Certainly, Lowell’s description of Poe could just as easily describe the last American writer whose celebrity equaled that of movie stars and rock stars, Norman Mailer, who took his pugnacious and self-dramatizing kind of massive literary fame with him when he died Nov. 10, 2007 at the age of 84.
You’ll find Mailer all over the place this week – in a huge piece in the New Yorker and leading off the New York Times Book Review on Sunday – for a very simple reason: There is a huge and much-awaited biography of him by J. Michael Lennon called “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” (Simon and Schuster, 928 pages, $40).
It is, to be frank, quite the most off-putting paradox: the authorized biography of a writer whose capacity for dealing with his own life and most transient unauthorized thoughts and sensations seemed, at times, inexhaustible.
Mailer, Lennon tells us, asked him to write the book. “Beginning in the late 1970s, I worked with him on various projects, served as his archivist, and edited several books by and about him.” He’s editing, as we speak, a volume of Mailer’s letters. In other words, Lennon is his literary executor and a major functionary in Mailer Inc.
The only thing wrong with describing Mailer’s output as “three fifths genius and two fifths B.S.” is that it inaccurately reverses the ratios of genius and B. S.
What is still authentic about a writer who disgorged so much dismissible bullroar in all directions – and provided a couple of generations of Americans with a brilliant advance incarnation of the sort of volatile combative blowhard who’d become the debased stock-in-trade of talk radio and 24-hour cable news – was how much celebrity he accrued that writers never really will again.
Our public intellectuals are no longer for mass consumption. Mailer was one of the most important reasons.
Gore Vidal used to be ruefully witty about being a “famous novelist” in an era where the category had vanished. But Vidal’s snidely grandiose act was a wondrous thing to behold at its best, as if the fellow weren’t just made to write plays, novels, essays and memoirs but to salt TV with withering remarks that drove others nuts.
Especially Mailer and William F. Buckley Jr. After being called a “crypto-fascist” by Vidal, Buckley generously offered to sock Vidal’s “g-d face.” After Mailer confronted him on the “Dick Cavett Show” with his displeasure at being linked to Charles Manson by Vidal, he came off looking like such a buffooning bully that he somehow managed to give up all higher ground in a flash. Later, blood was so bad between the two onetime friends that Mailer reportedly head-butted Vidal at a party.
What is almost impossible, sadly, in 2013 is to explain the sort of fame and reputation that Mailer once possessed.
He not only was capable of being a truly great writer but he was an immensely important writer to other writers, especially younger ones. To be a future journalist and to read his Floyd Patterson/Sonny Liston piece “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” in Esquire – or his Jack Kennedy piece “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” – was to get a glimpse of possibilities you hadn’t begun to imagine before.
As a journalistic liberator, Norman Mailer was uncommonly great, which made the three-fifths B.S. so dismaying as the years wore on.
I never seemed to be able to fall completely in line with everyone else’s cant about Mailer. I never thought the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Armies of the Night” was half as impressive as the pieces of “new journalism” (mostly for Esquire magazine) in “The Presidential Papers” and “Cannibals and Christians.” It was the subject matter of “Armies” – the antiwar March on the Pentagon – and its cast of literary characters (Robert Lowell, Dwight Macdonald) that elevated the book’s reputation to a place that, by itself, it didn’t deserve.
On the other hand, the wretched, all-too-timely title of his novel “Why Are We In Vietnam?” seemed to me to obscure one of his best novels, one that managed to combine William Faulkner’s “The Bear” with William S. Burrough’s “Naked Lunch.”
Life magazine could anoint Mailer a new Hemingway by putting him on the cover for his mammoth space travel book “Of a Fire on the Moon,” but that didn’t mean I could get past 150 pages of it. I felt a little better about his Gary Gilmore book “The Executioner’s Song”; I admired it in theory but I had no appetite to read all of it.
When he got around to the Marilyn Monroe books and the novels “Ancient Evenings” and “Harlot’s Ghost” he was, to me, a great writer who’d been swallowed whole by a blowhard corporation: Mailer Inc.
Most importantly, probably, was Mailer’s tone-deaf response to feminism – “The Prisoner of Sex” – which was so incoherent that no one could help remembering that this was the writer who once was famous for knifing his second wife with a pen knife and then, years later, writing a short poem that declared “So long as you use a knife there’s some love left.”
Lennon’s biography tries to keep track of Mailer’s wives, children and extracurricular women, but for those of us who can never quite get over the genius/B.S. ratio in Mailer, it all seems to be the wrong book at the wrong time about the wrong man.
It is maybe, then, in the weirdest way, a megafactual source for an infinitely better book to come about Mailer, a book that could see the high comedy in an absurdly ambitious writer who “wanted his books to be the literary equivalent of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ or Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ works that would alter the course of artistic history.” (Lennon, page 495).
It seems to me the poor fellow helped, briefly, to alter the course of journalistic history instead. I think a book about Mailer that doesn’t come out of Mailer Inc. will be better prepared to deal with it.
I might even look forward to that one the way the disastrously dwindled number of Mailerites looked forward to Lennon’s book.