The evolution of Norman Mailer’s legacy has reached a pivotal moment. Simon & Schuster has recently published Norman Mailer: A Double Life, J. Michael Lennon’s authorized biography of the controversial literary lion. In its wake, Random House plans to issue new editions of Mailer’s backlist (in digital and paperback formats) over the course of the next three years.
The extent to which Mailer’s oeuvre will resonate with a new audience may depend on whether a line can be drawn between his dual role as renowned writer and notorious public persona. The division between the two is often undetectable. At times, this is by Mailer’s design, and at times it’s due to his volatile presence at the forefront of the American cultural revolution.
At present, for young people who do recognize his name, Mailer’s significance in the context of his times is obscured. He is best known for a series of infamous moments that resonate within popular culture rather than the world of letters, such as videos of public appearances (available online) which are discussed in the confounded tones often reserved for urban legend. Lost in the circus of such outlandish media is the fact that Mailer was a key figure in the radical ideological shift that took place in the 1950s, ’60s and 70s, as well as a leading writer of the era.
A WWII veteran, Mailer’s great strength was his willingness to expose his own darkest moments and inclinations to his audience, beginning with his blockbuster 1948 war novel, The Naked and The Dead. Within a decade, he had become a prominent novelist and journalist embedded in the Greenwich Village scene. He was seriously engaged with the counterculture, though at some critical distance. In 1957, in his polarizing, landmark essay “The White Negro,” he sought to define “the American existentialist—the hipster.” In the essay, he dissects his own intellect as a study of “the psychic havoc of the 15 concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” Intentional psychopathic violence, he argues, is a form of courage that serves to achieve the Hipster’s ultimate goal: to create a new nervous system, one that could withstand the predominance of Cold War culture and technology which threatened, in Mailer’s mind, to eradicate the human spirit.
This obsession with, and acceptance of, violence as a radical force for personal growth would lead to the most ghastly blurring of the line between Mailer’s art and his life. In the early ‘fifties, Mailer had begun a relationship with Adele Morales, an aspiring painter. Their relationship was volatile, fueled in near equal parts by ferocious argument and wild sexcapades. They were married in 1954, and over the course of the decade, the tension between them escalated. In 1960, as a late night party in their Greenwich Village flat erupted into substance fueled shouting matches and fist fights, Mailer stabbed Adele.
Public misconceptions about the scale of the attack abounded, and still do. Today’s young readers sometimes identify Mailer as the author who “killed his wife.” But he did not kill her, nor was that his intention. Near the end of his life, in an interview with Lennon, Mailer stated:
The idea was not to do her any damage, just give her a nick or two, you see? Damn it, if I didn’t nick her heart. She could have died from it. And, of course, they took her to the emergency hospital, cut her open from the sternum virtually down to below the navel. So for years afterwards, she had this huge scar and she’d sometimes show it at parties.
The surgical scar resulted in exaggerated descriptions of the weapon. Even Mailer’s friend George Plimpton said it had been a kitchen knife, and there were stories that he’d shot Adele. Each misconception bred another. In fact, Mailer had used the two-and-a-half inch penknife he kept to clean his nails. However reprehensible the act, despite scale or intention, Adele chose not to testify against him, and instead to try to preserve their marriage. But the pressure was too much. In the face of it all, their union disintegrated. Eventually, Adele came to forgive Mailer for what he’d done, though Mailer never forgave himself—and neither did the public.
In 1964, Mailer further injured his public image and alienated his audience when he published his novel An American Dream as a serial for Esquire. The story featured an anti-hero of mythic proportions, Stephen Rojack, “a professor of existential psychology with the not inconsiderable thesis that magic, dread, and the perception of death were the roots of motivation.” In the novel, Rojack gets away with murder when, after strangling his wife, he fakes her suicide by throwing her out the window into New York City traffic. It was typical of Mailer to strain the boundaries between fact and art, but this was one bridge too far. The inevitable comparisons of Rojack to Mailer further obscured the line between man and author, and the novel became the central preoccupation of Mailer’s most ferocious critics from the nineteen-sixties through today.
It was on the point of Adele’s stabbing that one of Mailer’s now-infamous public appearances spun into mayhem. At the moment, it survives as a popular video clip, and as a result, it’s the first encounter with Mailer that many potential new readers may experience. In November 1971, the author appeared, along with Gore Vidal and New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner, as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. Mailer was still raw from Vidal’s July 1971 review of Eva Figes’ Patriarchal Attitudes, in which Vidal held up three men, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Charles Manson, as exemplars of his own contention that men hated women: “The Miller-Mailer-Manson man (or M3 for short) has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed.” Vidal cast M3 as the archetypal force responsible for the atrocities committed in the name of Manifest Destiny. “M3 was born, migrated to America, killed Indians, enslaved blacks, conned women.”
By the time Mailer arrived in Cavett’s Green Room, he’d had a few drinks. Vidal belittled him with an intimate touch on the back of the neck. In turn, Mailer slapped him in the face. Vidal returned the slap, and Mailer headed butted him with some force. Vidal called him crazy, quitted the room, and the two did not meet again until they were all on stage. Mailer, visibly incensed, demanded that Vidal read the M3 passage from his review. Vidal ducked, though, searching instead for something positive to say:
Vidal: The good thing about him is his constant metamorphosis. He does rebear himself like the phoenix, and what his next incarnation will be, I don’t know.
Mailer: Well, you seem to have figured out that the next reincarnation for me is going to be Charles Manson. Why don’t you read what you wrote, fella?
Vidal: Well, you let yourself in for it. And I will tell you—let me give you a little background here—that Mailer has…
Mailer: We all know that I stabbed my wife ten years ago. We do know that, Gore. You were playing on it. Now come on.
Vidal: Well, I’d love to forget about that.
Mailer: You don’t want to forget about it. You’re a liar and a hypocrite. You were playing on it.
As Mailer and Vidal’s argument escalated, Flanner protested. In response, Mailer turned his chair toward her and puffed himself up dramatically.
Cavett: If you make history here by punching a lady.
Mailer: Look, you see this whole thing go on. Now you say I’m about to punch a lady. You know perfectly well that I’m the gentlest of the four people here.
Cavett: I just hope it lasts through the next whatever we have left.
Mailer: I guarantee you I wouldn’t hit any of the people here because they are smaller.
Cavett: In what ways?
Mailer: Intellectually smaller.
Cavett: Well, let me turn my chair and join these three.
Mailer turned his chair again, accentuating his opposition to Cavett and the others.
Cavett: Perhaps you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?
The audience whooped and clapped, and Mailer puffed up again.
Mailer: I’ll take the two chairs if you will all accept finger bowls.
It was a comment that perplexed everyone on stage (and continues to stump viewers to this day). A finger bowl is significantly smaller than two chairs, but more than that, it is a symbol of the erudite denial of the carnal elements of fine dining—the devouring of animals and the fruits of the earth. Perhaps Mailer the man felt he was being eaten alive at the expense of Mailer the author.
There is another video available online, filmed a year after the Cavett interview, that reveals Mailer’s willingness to sully his own reputation for the sake of his art—a knock-down, drag-out brawl with Rip Torn. Extracted from Maidstone, a film produced and directed by Mailer in 1970, the clip walks the tightrope between fact and fiction. The movie was experimental and unscripted, and the scene is a hyperbole of method acting.
Torn, playing the murderous half-brother of Norman Kingsley (Mailer), improvises an assault on the last day of shooting. The attack is in earnest, and Mailer’s scalp opens up under the force of two hammer blows. Mailer grapples with Torn. Blood oozes down his forehead as he sinks his teeth into Torn’s ear, struggling to gain an advantage in a fight for his life—via the mortality of his character. “You’re supposed to die, Mr. Kingsley,” Torn says, “You must die, not Mailer, I don’t want to kill Mailer, but I must kill Kingsley in this picture.”
It’s not clear how far Torn would have taken his attack had Mailer not been capable of defending himself. The concept was meta enough that Mailer’s life was genuinely in danger. As Lennon points out in his biography, this is a moment when “The real and the fictional merge.” It is the quintessence of the trouble with Mailer. The clip is described by youthful viewers as “the one where Mailer bit off part of a guy’s ear. Can you believe that?” Mailer comes away looking monstrous—yet, for the sake of his art, he left the scene in the film. It is a decision that exemplifies his willingness to expose his worst experiences through his art in order to provide a view into the deepest caverns—and conversely the highest peaks—of human nature.
Today, Mailer stands as one of the strongest voices of the New Journalism, a genre that’s built on the intersection of historical accounts and literary devices in order to bring contemporary events alive within the psyche of the reader. Mailer’s prose is always most powerful when he risks the divide between the skill of the author and the soul of the man. That divide may or may not be cast in higher relief by the passage of time. It is only if readers are able to understand Mailer in the context of his times that his legacy will endure. As the author himself wrote in the preface of Lennon’s annotated bibliography of primary sources, Norman Mailer: Works and Days:
And should I end by occupying no larger place than a footnote in literary history, it will not be the fault of Michael Lennon. Those historic tides that carry a few authors’ boats to the golden islands of posthumous investiture will have felt his hand on the tiller.
Norman Mailer: A Double Life goes a long way toward navigating into clearer waters.
Nicole DePolo is an author, editor, and graphic designer living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a Writing Fellow at Boston University and a professor of English Composition at Fisher College, where, as part of her curriculum, she teaches Mailer to young readers. As a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University’s Editorial Institute, she is developing an illustrated critical companion to Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings.