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16 January 2023updated 24 Feb 2023 6:46pm

What Norman Mailer can teach us

It is right to condemn the writer’s violent chauvinism – but a literature that has lost the power to challenge is worthless.

By Nick Burns

Norman Mailer was not a good man. This much about the swaggering figure of 20th-century American letters is hardly in dispute. The author of The Naked and the Dead stabbed his second wife nearly to death in 1960, regularly settled literary disputes with his fists, cheated on all six of his wives and once spoke positively of rape.

In his new, unsparing biography of Mailer, Tough Guy, Richard Bradford has the task of persuading his readers of the obvious. Bradford’s themes are all advertised in his curt introduction, which lays out his case against Mailer: that he was a narcissist in life and art, that his political principles were a “shabbily customised version of his personality”, and that his literary production was chiefly devoted to excusing his “calculated licentiousness” and to shocking readers, to no higher purpose.

Bradford tracks his quarry, starting with Mailer’s middle-class Jewish upbringing in the Crown Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Mailer was the son of a doting mother and a father with a British imperial background who had emigrated from across the Atlantic, possibly out of shame from gambling debts. A bright engineering student at Harvard, he remade himself into an upstart writer after the fashion of Ernest Hemingway, bringing a highly calibrated irreverence to the university’s stuffy literary climate. Graduating into a world at war, Mailer’s time in the Pacific (mostly as an army cook) provided the basis for his ambitious first novel The Naked and the Dead – re-released this January in a smart new edition from Library of America – which flits between officers and GIs fighting the Japanese on a small Pacific island. 

Mailer’s real misbehaviour begins with the literary stardom that arrived after his debut. His first night with Adele Morales, soon to become his second wife (he was then married to his first) was, Bradford reports, “the prelude to a prolonged bout of promiscuity”. Once married to Adele, Mailer was a hypocrite in fidelity: he wanted other women but reported feeling devastated when she slept with other men – even though he often encouraged her to do so. Greater and greater drunkenness, violence and delusions of grandeur culminated in his absurd run for New York City’s mayorship in 1960. It was at the very end of the launch party for his candidacy – to which Mailer had invited literary luminaries as well as “drunks and figures with criminal records” – that he stabbed Adele in the chest. She barely survived but would not press charges; Mailer escaped with a suspended sentence. 

More awfulness follows – Mailer headbutting Gore Vidal backstage before a TV appearance, and biting the ear of an actor on his vanity movie project, hardly pausing his relentless affairs to allow whoever he was married to at the time to give birth.

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Such was the man – but what of his art? Bradford finds the two to be intertwined. He does not seem to think that any of Mailer’s works deserve to be thought of as a “Great American Novel”, noting that the latter himself suggested, in an essay in the New York Review of Books, that America could never be encompassed in a single work. But Bradford argues Mailer’s life itself might merit this classification, for how “grotesque and addictive” it is to contemplate. If Bradford believes his subject’s life is the Great American Novel, then he must hold a low opinion of American literature.

Bradford’s verdicts on Mailer’s works become predictable: all the characters in The Naked and the Dead “carry a trace of Norman Mailer” and its attempts at conveying the common sentiments of soldiers, in Thucydidean fashion, only convey “the particular impressions of Norman Mailer”. The novel The Deer Park (1955) “was about Norman Mailer”; his extended essay on the Iraq War, Why Are We at War? (2003), “is about Norman Mailer”.

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When one’s subject offers such a wide target, it is important to remain disciplined and not overshoot. Bradford’s criticism of The Naked and the Dead is excessive. It is true, as Bradford alleges, that the book’s focus on soldiers’ libidinal psychology is monotonous – and its literary devices are sometimes contrived. A “Time Machine” feature, in short chapters announced under this heading, involves flashbacks to characters’ childhoods and sexual initiations.

But these flaws are compensated by the book’s careful investigation into the subtle, emotional aspects of power between men – for example, in its attention to the delicate interplay between a megalomaniacal yet effete general and his stubborn aide-de-camp. Written in the aftermath of a war that forced men from disparate regions and cultural backgrounds to interact with each other on a mass scale, levelling some differences and emphasising others, Mailer’s characters reflect more than just the author’s personality – they also testify to his close observation of the cultural and psychological manifestations of the American character.

[See also: The secret lives of Katherine Mansfield]

Bradford’s book also reveals a cultural gap between biographer and subject: Bradford is a British academic; Mailer a hot-blooded American. This discrepancy demands certain sensitivities that are scarce in Bradford’s treatment. The narration at times verges into the tone of the scolding schoolmarm or the middle-class prude, when speaking of Mailer as a “serial fornicator” or the “terrifying effects” of psychedelic drugs. Even the biography’s title, Tough Guy – taken from Mailer’s noir thriller Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984) – smacks of a British cliché, disapproving of the more aggressive American variety of masculinity.

Mailer’s violent, humiliating displays of machismo are not only, as Bradford convincingly alleges, his rebellion against a childhood spent as a “momma’s boy” – they are also symptoms of the American intellectual’s enduring lack of self-confidence. US society has long seen its thinkers as useless encumbrances or anti-social forces – the historian Richard Hofstadter demonstrated as much in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). Making a living through writing in such a society creates profound anxieties, which manifested, in Mailer’s case, in a crisis of masculine self-confidence that he failed to resolve by writing about sex, punching his rivals and bragging about his exploits.

Bradford, seemingly from a position to Mailer’s right, takes him to task for his political incoherence and hypocrisy. An American through and through, with little interest and still less understanding of political theory or world politics, Mailer drifted towards Stalinism before lapsing into a quasi-Trotskyism. But how, Bradford is incredulous, did he manage to win applause from bien pensant liberal critics? How did he maintain a vaguely radical reputation through the 1960s, when it was obvious his valorisation of black American culture was premised on harmful racial stereotypes?

It does boggle the mind to read through what the authorities, literary and civil, let Mailer get away with. But in other respects, Mailer’s version of debauchery can seem quaint in retrospect. Going to the trouble of marrying six times shows a commitment – however upside-down – to the institution of marriage that is rarely seen among modern-day rakes, who are more likely to pursue one-night stands through hook-up apps, living a far more atomised life while avoiding the tremendous alimony disbursements that plagued Mailer. (Call it sexual neoliberalism.) Meanwhile, Mailer’s oversexed machismo also reflects, as he himself admitted, a homophobia born from the kind of repression of homosexual impulses that has since become rare in Western society.

It is strange that Bradford nowhere reckons with the dimming of Mailer’s star within the US liberal literary constellation. Overall, rather than intensification of the criticism he received from 1970s feminist writers such as Germaine Greer the tendency in recent years in liberal-left US circles has been more to ignore Mailer as another dead white male.

If US society has turned against Mailer, so would Mailer be aghast at many facets of contemporary US society, not least that the word “hipster” – a term Mailer used to describe the kind of social outcast in whose rebellion he saw radical potential – is now most commonly used to describe middle-class snobs: bourgeois bohemians. 

Politics today offers a generous display of the shocking and the grotesque: it is obvious that Donald Trump has something of the Maileresque about him. But in terms of the power of literature itself to shock – a power that, pace Bradford, Mailer was capable of using well – our society has little to offer. American writers in particular now manifest their lurking anxieties in altogether different fashions: by pompously probing themselves and others, through stale autofiction and literary-world melodrama, in search of moral failings; and, through the proliferation of literary credentialling programmes, by becoming professionals. (That is to say: by emulating middle-class American society.)

A literature that has lost the power to challenge is a literature that has nothing to offer. Without countenancing Mailer’s excesses, it is important to recognise that becoming the hidebound society of his most exaggerated criticisms will accomplish little – besides, perhaps, supplying ammunition to the Norman Mailers of the future.

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer
Richard Bradford
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £20

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[See also: Bret Easton Ellis’s death wish]

This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis