Maxwell Geismar on Norman Mailer in his memoir Reluctant Radical (continued from Part One):
What I couldn’t understand was that given the conditions of Mailer’s career, how could he become such a huge literary influence on his time? How could he be described as the contemporary equivalent of Hemingway?
It made no sense to me, as I say, and I hardly paid any attention to Mailer’s developing reputation, until I realized that this reputation and literary stature had grown so much that people — especially young authors — were swallowing it. He was the influence on his generation, far more than Styron or Jones. Writers of the sixties were taking him seriously, having known nothing better.
I remember one evening when we had gone with our friend Jakov Lind to see a Joseph Papp production of the original rock musical Hair. Papp was also about to produce one of Jakov’s books in play form, so the evening was a gala one for us. Then Jakov proposed we go to another party, being given after the first production of a play which later became famous, The Beard. The play was being produced by Jakov’s publisher at the time, Barney Rosset, of Grove Press, then at the height of his fame, with his imported blue movies like I Am Curious Yellow and his new plays. The party was near the Grove Press offices and was a rather fancy late evening affair given while waiting for the first reviews of the play.
I was seated across from a young man in a mod-cowboy outfit whom I assumed to be one of the actors in the play. He started to rave about Norman Mailer. I listened awhile in silence and then finally said: “No!” He responded. “No, what?” “Mailer is not all that good,” said I. “What?” said my cowboy friend, and we were in the midst of so furious an argument that I finally decided to terminate it by getting up and leaving the table. Looking back, I heard my Wild West friend ask loudly: “Who is that character?” And I heard Anne [Geismar] answer him: “He’s just another obscure author like you!”
It was in fact Michael McClure, the author of The Beard. He was an enthusiastic admirer of Norman Mailer, for better or for worse, and it caused me to think and to watch for other young writers who shared this same adulation for Mailer. The problem of Mailer’s preeminence on the contemporary literary scene, and his impact on American authors, continued to occupy my thoughts. And it was only just recently, reading an essay sent to me by a New Left academic, Robert Meredith, whom I knew through his work on Truman Nelson, that I began to get the story straight.
The admiration of a group of young writers for Mailer, and of some older critics, stems from just those traits that my critical standards had found wanting. Meredith, a product of the sixties, tells of his early infatuation with Mailer as a major influence on the period and on the New Left itself.
The key book in this was Advertisements for Myself. “My god!” I wondered while reading this. “Did they take this book seriously?”
According to Meredith’s essay, printed in Modern Fiction Studies, they had indeed. “Since 1959, appropriately on the verge of a new decade,” Meredith had written, “thousands of readers, mostly students, have been psychically and politically turned on not so much by Mailer’s qualities as a writer in Advertisements, not so much by Mailer’s qualities as he describes himself in Armies of the Night…as by…”
By what? I thought. “…as by Mailer’s confessional projection of himself as Hemingway’s successor, a personage, a romantic image of a writer attempting out of existential depths to tell the complex masculine truth about himself and his time.”
Mailer compared himself to Walt Whitman. He said he had been thinking for ten years of running for president of the United States. He confided he was imprisoned “with a perception” that would settle for nothing less “than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” But as to what kind of revolutionary consciousness Mailer was seeking to create, neither he nor Meredith seems to clarify.
Mailer compared himself in Advertisements to Truman Capote, James Jones, and Jack Kerouac, as well as to Hemingway. He talked about “our totalitarian time,” in which he was correct, and compared it with his “creative rage” — which, however beneficial to the artist, is no satisfactory political alternative to totalitarianism.
What Mailer displays in Armies of the Night is not even so much a concern for his idea of himself as a concern for his image. And this concern either for self or for image is at the opposite pole from radical or revolutionary thought. How could Armies of the Night, an antiwar critique still dominated by Cold War ideology and by Mailer’s own ego-posturing, how could such a book be characterized by serious reviewers as a masterpiece, comparable to the work of Whitman, Tolstoy, Henry Adams, Faulkner, Henry James, and Scott Fitzgerald?
What Armies of the Night did, in fact, was to swallow the radical protest whole and regurgitate it, half consumed, as a synthetic radical manifesto of the period. But to those who educated themselves, whose radicalism was genuine, he became a mockery. If he did survive in the national letters it would be as another, luminous example of the literary fakery that characterized the Cold War era. Seduced by and a victim of that corrupt period, during which a dishonest society aped the mores of a lost and long-gone American democracy, he became a parody of all that we had once believed in.