Maxwell Geismar on Norman Mailer (part two)

 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.

Maxwell Geismar on Norman Mailer (part one)


18 thoughts on “Maxwell Geismar on Norman Mailer (part two)”

  1. Geismar doesn’t show any interest in the form or content of Mailer’s work–Armies, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Executioner’s Song, Ancient Evenings–he merely attacks him for being part of the Cold War Generation. Mailer’s celebration of vitality is indeed Whitman-like and his exploration of modern consciousness continues the work of Henry James. If I remember correctly, Geismar didn’t understand Barbary Shore and panned it. Figures.

  2. Maxwell Geismar’s dislike of Norman Mailer is more a review of the public persona than an evaluation of the books he’s written,which is to say that the appraisal is a half step removed from recycled gossip. Whether one cares for Mailer the Person or not, he became famous for writing a brilliant debut novel, and remained famous because he continued to write novels, journalism, essays, and cultural criticism that mattered and continue to resonate, not because he was a publicity hound. There is nothing modest in Mailer, but he has said in the introduction of “The Presidential Papers” that it would do his work no good for him to pretend that he was “more modest than I really am.” He is a writer of huge ambition, and linking himself to Whitman is a logical, sane literary model for him to claim kinship with. Few writers have taken as many chances as Mailer has with his talent and his reputation with the kinds of books he’s written over five decades, and it is a fact that will be born out by future re considerations that his oeuvre that Mailer’s boldness has been matched more often than not by sustained brilliance. One well understands the negative reactions of those who are alienated by Mailer’s clamoring personality, but he is a writer of prodigious and fulfilled gifts whose books, finally, are the measure of his value. Routine naysayers like Geismar, whatever their credentials, come up short with anything interesting to say in response to the questions are posed to them.

  3. Something I overlooked earlier in Michael Lennon’s commments: “Geismar doesn’t show any interest in the form or content of Mailer’s work–Armies, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Executioner’s Song, Ancient Evenings….”

    Remember, Geismar was primarily a critic of novels. That was his main interest by far, and his career in critiquing novels is long and distinguished. Geismar died in 1979, the year that Mailer’s great work of nonfiction Executioner’s Song was published and of course several years before his novel Ancient Evenings. There is much more to art than its form, and the fact is that Geismar heavily critiqued the content of Mailer’s work and found much of it to be problematic. He did have appreciative things to say about The Naked and the Dead, and noted limitations. He was more critical of The Deer Park and Barbary Shore, but far from dismissive.

  4. Like most critics, Geismar appreciated a lot about Mailer’s first novel The Naked and the Dead. Geismar was ahead of his time – in fact, more in keeping with our time – of being far more critical of his subsequent works. He was critical of Mailer’s cult of personality, far from the only one, and didn’t see much positive in the trend of Mailer’s attempts at writing novels. I do think there is more to appreciate in Mailer’s nonfiction, including some of Advertisements for Myself and much more of Armies of the Night than Geismar gives him credit for, not that Geismar ever paid all that much attention to Mailer’s nonfiction, or anyone else’s. Geismar was by far primarily troubled by Mailer’s influence upon artists, especially due to Mailer’s social and political limitations (which most critics, being status-quo liberal or conservative, don’t care about), but not only. And while I may see more connection of Mailer to Whitman than Geismar does, Mailer in my view is far from “a new Whitman,” especially in his fiction. Mailer’s Whitmanesque flair comes out far more in his nonfiction.

    Geismar’s reviews of Mailer’s early fiction are in depth and thoughtful. Geismar did not care to much review Mailer’s nonfiction (or anyone else’s) at length but does give some impressions of the available work in his memoir. Mailer created a public persona ripe for critique, that deserves to be critiqued, and Geismar did not much care for it. (He hardly remains alone in that view.) Thus, to say that Geismar’s “appraisal is a half step removed from recycled gossip” is simply false. You haven’t read Geismar’s thoughtful, exceptional reviews of the novels. Furthermore, Geismar had personal contact with Mailer, and Mailer opened himself up personally to an extraordinary (and purposeful) degree in Advertisements for Myself. In other words, Geismar in no way needed to, and did not, rely on gossip for his appraisal of Mailer as public persona, in Mailer’s work and otherwise. And as evident in the reviews, Geismar evaluated Mailer’s fiction in detail in its own right.

    Again, in my view, Mailer is brilliant in some of his nonfiction, far less so in his fiction. The brilliance has likely inspired artists; however Geismar’s criticisms of Mailer and his work are largely on target – the fiction is not all that special, much of it is limited, stunted, as Geismar explains in detail in his writings on Mailer, and some of these flaws can be readily traced back to the limitations of Mailer as person, whom Mailer so openly shared.

  5. First, my paraprhase of Mailer’s comment on his lack of modesty was on the first page of “Advertisements for Myself”, not “The Presidential Papers”. Writing in haste produces mistakes that needn’t have been made.

    My remarks here concern what you’ve posted here,which indeed are “half step removed from recycled gossip”. He’s a good enough writer to guise his ongoing dislike of Mailer the celebrity
    as an insight over the percieved failure of the novels, but too much of his analysis lies in the
    submerged assumption that the fiction fails precisely because of the author’s admitted grandiosity and stated ambitions. Because Mailer is famous, because he’s expressed a naked desire to change the way the world thinks, he is therefor a bad novelist.This is a consistent theme in anti-Mailer commentary over the last fifty years, and it is a chorus Geismar has joined.

    I would echo what Michael Lennon has said that this a stance that frees someone from having to deal with the substance , style and content of Mailer’s fiction.It’s a dodge, and it leaves much of what’s ripe for discussion dealt with lazily, if at all. For his egotism,I think it works the otherway around and would argue that his ambitions has forced him to make some risky and finally succesful decisions to his projects, both in fiction and nonfiction. I agree with Joan Didion, in her fine review of “Exectioner’s Song”, that the Gilmore novel wasn’t “the big book” readers were waiting for , but instead only the latest in a string of homeruns. Didion is not alone in that opinion.

  6. The concern is with the Geismar remark you cite, not your views, and Geismar’s concentration on Mailer’s public persona, deeds as a means to judge the effectiveness of his body of work is strays from the critical task. That said, again, I’ll leave you with the last word.

  7. In case you missed it, for more on my views of Mailer’s work, see here:

    “the submerged assumption that the fiction fails precisely because of the author’s admitted grandiosity and stated ambitions”

    Yes, it’s so “submerged,” it’s not there. In falsifying Geismar’s views, you imply that no evidence can be given for your falsification of Geismar’s views. The evidence is “submerged” somewhere out of sight, but _you_ know it’s there.

    “Because Mailer is famous, because he’s expressed a naked desire to change the way the world thinks, he is therefore a bad novelist. This is a consistent theme in anti-Mailer commentary over the last fifty years, and it is a chorus Geismar has joined.”

    Because this is a falsification of Geismar’s view, the supposed evidence must be “submerged,” unknown to everyone but you, and, perhaps, to other defensive Mailer fans.

    “I would echo what Michael Lennon has said that this is a stance that frees someone from having to deal with the substance, style and content….”

    You are demonstrating that you know a lot about that tactic.

    Any personal component of Geismar’s that I’ve quoted may well be due to the fact that I’m quoting his _memoir_. If you want a more clinical analysis, you’ll need to refer to Geismar’s studied reviews of Mailer’s work. But even in what I’ve quoted from his memoir, you’ll notice that Geismar is rather strictly critiquing what he has been able to discover in Mailer’s books.

    “It’s a dodge, and it leaves much of what’s ripe for discussion dealt with lazily, if at all.”

    It certainly is a dodge, and you’ve engaged in it, not Geismar. You’ve failed to engage my observations and conclusions. You’ve repeated yourself. And you’ve falsified Geismar’s views.
    For merely one instance, you give no evidence for this at all:

    “My remarks here concern what you’ve posted here, which indeed are ‘half step removed from recycled gossip’.”

    Where and what is the “gossip” that anyway you claim Geismar is a “half-step removed from”? Geismar is critiquing the public self-exposure that, as you well know, and as Geismar points out here, Mailer proudly reveals in his books.

    As to some of the best of Mailer’s work, as I’ve written before, “Armies of the Night and Executioner’s Song are highly accomplished non-fiction works…. However, Armies does have the political shortcomings that Geismar points out.” Etc…

  8. My observations and conclusions here (my “views,” as you put it) disprove your false claims (that you merely repeat, again here) about Geismar’s views, and you fail to counter these “views” of mine — all the while falsifying Geismar’s understanding of Mailer’s work, and thereby not engaging his thought either.

  9. I’ll add — because it’s not clear that my comments are even being comprehended, let alone evaluated — there are two basic questions here:

    1) What does Geismar argue?

    2) Is what Geismar argues correct (valid and sound)? That is, does his evidence and logic support what he claims?

    You falsify/mistake/mis-state what Geismar is arguing — while disagreeing so tremendously with particular claims he makes. Geismar doesn’t attempt to support the particular claims using the “evidence” or “logic” that you claim he does. Therefore, you aren’t evaluating his argument. You’re bashing Geismar for non sequiturs that he doesn’t use. Thus you “stray from the critical task” to put it mildly.

  10. Geismar did comment on non-fiction. His paen to Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” is, in my view, an embarassment. As a critic Geismar was capable of great insight: his essays in “American Moderns” on Styron, Jones, Bellow and John Howard Griffin are worthy still as is Geismar’s understanding of Algren’s “Walk on The Wild Side.”
    Geismar’s early essays on Mailer were fair. But his dismissal and lack of real engagement with “Armies of The Night,” “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” “St.George and the Godather” or essays like “10,000 Words a Minute” on the Patterson-Liston fight show how a critic’s personal animosity can mar judgement. Mailer’s politics were complex and his definition as a left-Conservatice more than a slogan. Mailer’s great books following JFK’s death are, as Kazin said, Whitmanlike in the sense that Mailer transcended the ego tripping of Advertisments For Myself and instead was tapping into America as a tragic country and one of epic dimensions. No longer was LBJ for example a cartoon–he was a tragic leader of Shakespearean proportions. Geismar let his personal feelings stand in the way of coming to grips with Mailer’s art.

  11. Geismar’s later general assessment of Mailer’s writing is considerably more harsh than my own general view of Mailer’s work. That said, I find Mailer’s post Barbary Shore fiction to be very unimpressive.

    A handful of Mailer’s nonfiction works are very impressive…but even here there is much to criticize, which Geismar became utterly impatient with, at the least, as he was forcibly shoved into the margins, while Mailer was leaping toward and in part being embraced by an establishment busily sifting the acceptable from the taboo, on ideological grounds primarily.

    Mailer produced some notable books, none fiction in my view, while playing along with the establishment in his middle and latter career. Geismar in his latter career set himself more or less against the establishment and in doing so produced considerably more valuable books toward the end of his career than Mailer did toward the end of his.

  12. Geismar’s endorsement of Cleaver played into the New Left which itself was it’s own establishment, a precursor to the whole P.C. movement that erupted in the 1980’s. To compare Cleaver and Wright is to court the favor of the campus radicals. I agree that Mailer’s important books are , with exception of Naked and The Dead, all nonfiction but Miami and Siege of Chicago, Armies of the Night, St. George and the Godfather and In the Red Light(about Demo convention in Chicago-1960) as well as “The Fight” and good parts of “Executioner’s Song” are major efforts and they are not steotypical left responses. It seems to me that Geismar, who said goodbye to old left, like many old leftists–was seduced by revolutionary 60’s students and Black radicals…I think Mailer’s more cynical view of New Left the more realistic.

  13. As far as I’m aware, Geismar was not originally a part of the “old left.” Rather, he became more progressive over the years, moving from establishment publishing circles to the left. It might be said that Mailer moved in the opposite direction, though given the early succes of his first novel he was basically always part of the establishment: i.e., corporate America, which has long been, with the state, far and away the overwhelmingly dominant establishment in the US, ruling and controling. Geismar was forced to make sacrifices moving in the direction he did, while Mailer was quite flushly rewarded.

    “P.C. movement” is a prejudicial term, meant to smear, belittle, and mock people and groups working for progressive change. In fact, the most “politically correct” forces in U.S. society have been those powerful ones preserving the unjust status quo. It has been variously known as the old boys’ club and any number of other common terms that denote or imply basic adherence to the ideology of the owners (and therefore the rulers in the U.S.) who remain today overwhelmingly white and male.

    So Mailer was “cynical” of left efforts like those put forth by Geismar and other progressives working to end the war and working to raise awareness of oppressive realities and progressive possibilities? No wonder then that Geismar scorned Mailer’s example. Geismar wasn’t the only one. And one can see why.

    1. Geismar, at his best, worked as a critic with the independence to come to his own conclusions. Some, I think, were off base as in his characterization of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield as a “sad screwed up little punk,” but Geismar at his best was an independent thinker.
      Though he was a friend of Nelson Algren, he placed his bet, as Algren said, on Bill Stryon, casting friendship aside.His early assessment of Mailer was fair. His later was not. It was no longer an assessment but a feeling or emotion untested by Mailer’s actual work beginning with “Armies of the Night.” Geismar wasn’t the only one against the war. I remember thousands who protested. As a critic, Geismar may have felt like an outsider but in reality he took the easy way out. Mailer had multiple problems as a person and a writer but he knew his “side” was imperfect. It took more guts to be critical of aspects of Black Power or the Student Movement than to compare Eldridge Cleaver to a giant like Richard Wright. P.C. thinking is totalitarian thinking. It means making up one’s mind without taking the time to look up evidence and come to one’s own conclusion. Geismar’s introduction to American Moderns gives a beautiful example of how an honest critic works in terms of drafting and seeing if ideas can be proven. When Geismar worked to “end the war” and “raise awareness of oppressive realities and progressive possiblilites…” he left his critical hat at home. It’s too easy to think “God is on our side” which is typical of not onlu of the hard rightbut the hard left as well . Geismar judged Mailer without
      going through the hard work of reading what you have awknowledged is a handful of powerful–I would say major efforts.

  14. P.C. is a slur, against progressives, as it has been intended and used. There are plenty of types of dogmatisms or “totalitarian” thinking. The corporate and state establishments have long pushed plenty.

    Did Geismar review much of anyone in his latter years? And did he devote much space to Mailer at all? He didn’t live to see The Executioner’s Song by several years. I think he would have greatly appreciated that book in which Mailer ditched the faults of the blowhard and the petty, etc. Executioner’s Song is arguably Mailer’s best book and it is also arguably not typical of Mailer’s more grandiose, however accomplished, books that Geismar disdained.

    And if Geismar in his latter years did not pay much attention to Mailer, who is to say he was wrong to do so? Not least since Geismar had turned to critiquing what he saw as more progressive, more vital authors, and quite reasonably had little patience for grandstanders like Mailer.

    Look, in my view, Mailer’s Armies of the Night is a brilliant book, a valuable one, but I’m also very sympathetic to Geismar’s disdain of it, because I think the book could have been greater if some of the comic ego had set itself aside for far greater stretches of time to analyze, inform, and explore more about the larger and more telling context of the March on Washington and related topics and situations. Other, greater books interrupt some of their flow to do exactly that, in my view, such as Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Hugo’s Les Miserables. These are books in which the authors don’t ride too much too few of their various strengths. These works attempt more and achieve more and don’t need to resort to the kind of cheap theatrics and the too superficial jumping, skimming, skipping shallows that partially undermine some of Mailer’s valuable contributions. Geismar had antennae for serious limits in Mailer’s work that in my view are worth paying attention to.

  15. To get back to Geismar’s original argument: young writer’s coming up in the 1960’s (and early 70’s) learned from reading Mailer the essence of –though it was not called that then–Creative Non Fiction. Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson had their followers but Mailer was our hero. Though one would never know it now, it was Mailer who was first to publicly castigate LBJ for the War in Vietnam. (Berkeley, May 1965) yet Mailer was able in his writings to humanize LBJ and even Nixon–while absolutely insisting on both men’s culpability. Mailer’s undersanding of Mohammad Ali was also profound. And in Prisoner of Sex Mailer had the courage to oppose feminism as religion. I would invite anyone to read “Superman comes to the Supermarket) on JFK, In the Red Light (on the REpublican convention in SF in 1964) not the Demo convention as I wrongly stated–and especially Armies of the Night, Miami and the Sietge of Chicago and St. George and Godfather(on Nixon’s pre Watergate criminality–Mailer’s St.George is Dickensian. A host of writers –famous and not–learned from Mailer–from his use of metaphor and also for the courage of seeing the flaws even in his own side–the left.
    In addition– to bring the discussion into our present century–Mailer was among the first American writers to attack George Bush following 9/11. Geismar was,at his best, a fine critic. His attack on Armies of the Night, however, is not up to his standards and is historically wrong. Contrary to Geismar’s write off–Mailer’s nonfiction is good enough to be compared with any American writer of the past fifty years. I invite anyone reading this to see for themselves and test their reading against Geismar’s near absolute dismissal of Mailer’s work. I will leave you to have the last word.

  16. I agree that “Mailer’s nonfiction is good enough to be compared with any American writer of the past fifty years.” In fact, in my view, some of Mailer nonfiction compares well with some of the best writing of many types in US history and beyond. I value Mailer’s writing in some ways that Geismar did not. On the other hand, I don’t think Mailer’s example is a great example for a lot of writers to follow, in many ways, some of which I’ve noted, and some of which overlap with Geismar’s serious and severe reservations.

    Some of Mailer’s writing would fit in the journal I co-edit, for example, Liberation Lit. Much would not. So much so that I can’t say I can look especially to Mailer for progressive leadership in writing either in fiction or nonfiction, a type of more full, more humane, more vital writing that has been badly needed these many years, a mode of writing that Geismar came to be greatly concerned with as well…and not because it was some hobbyhorse but because of concern of the state of writing and the state of society, the world in general.

    So in part here, our concerns are differently focused, and in part we simply disagree. I see Geismar and Mailer both as important writers, though the one has been buried and the other celebrated, and (in part ironically) I find Geismar’s diverse and sometimes severe criticism of Mailer’s work to be of lasting value…

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