In the two previous posts of Maxwell Geismar on Norman Mailer, it seems to me that Geismar is primarily critiquing the political or ideological component of Mailer’s work — which is easy to understand coming from a literary critic whose work and livelihood were threatened, then destroyed, for political, ideological reasons during the Cold War. In my view, Geismar correctly and astutely calls Mailer on these shortcomings.
I think Armies of the Night and Executioner’s Song are highly accomplished non-fiction works, essentially, aesthetically and otherwise. However, Armies does have the political shortcomings that Geismar points out. From a broad political point of view it is largely disappointing, empty.
Otherwise (not focusing solely on the political), I think the best of Mailer’s nonfiction is very good, and an order of magnitude better than the best of his fiction. Mailer has high regard for his second novel Barbary Shore and that happens to be his only novel that much works for me. That said, I scarcely remember a thing about the ideas in Barbary Shore. If trying to work as allegory the novel seemed to me to fail to engage, or to be slight, but I did find engaging and curious the day-in and day-out self trials of the young writer/narrator’s thought.
All in all, I think Geismar profiles Mailer perceptively. Mailer is a weak novelist and a politically limited nonfiction writer. In his nonfiction (and Barbary Shore), Mailer can be especially exciting and perceptive, and thus he became one of the leading writers. However I think Geismar is correct in pointing out that much of the early influence of Mailer, aside from the commercial success of The Naked and the Dead, came from the cult of personality that Mailer cultivated before his writing skills matured and were displayed best at book-length in the late sixties with Armies of the Night, two decades after The Naked and the Dead, and seemingly after many more decades of hype that Geismar usefully cuts to size.
Geismar could give more credit to the liveliness and aesthetic accomplishment of Armies of the Night and some of Mailer’s other nonfiction, but, again, Mailer’s fiction, with little exception, has always been rather weak in my view, as in Geismar’s (and that of many others) and Geismar is correct to point out some limits of the political vision of Mailer’s celebrated works. Those are real problems for art and society both – quite evident in one of the better writers, and certainly one of the most renowned, of the time.