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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 625

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This is the grave of Norman Mailer.

This massively overrated twentieth century writer and cultural commenter was born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn. His father was an accountant and his mother ran a housekeeping agency. An outstanding student, he was accepted to Harvard when he graduated from high school in 1939. He started writing while there, despite being an engineering major, and got published as well, winning short story competitions. He married for the first time in 1944 and was drafted into the military shortly after that. He tried to get out of serving by saying his writing was too important. The Army was not interested in this. He was assigned to the Philippines, where he had pretty light duties. But he decided to volunteer for a reconnaissance platoon, where he engaged with the Japanese in several firefights. He was sent to Japan after the war ended, promoted to sergeant, and mostly served as a cook. He hated the military, but of course it shaped his writing and attitude toward life profoundly.

After he left the military, Mailer moved to Paris and wrote The Naked and the Dead, his World War II novel that came out in 1948. It’s possible this is the only halfway worthwhile novel he ever wrote. It was a bestseller and is widely considered one of the classic war novels. It made Mailer famous. And he really, really, really liked being famous. Turns out he had very little else to say about life that was interesting, but he would say a whole lot of other things, worthy or not, over the next half-century. Most of his other novels are basically forgotten today–1951’s Barbary Shore, 1955’s The Deer Park, 1964’s An American Dream, 1980’s The Executioner’s Song, etc.

What Mailer is far more known for is his non-fiction and outsized cultural presence during these years. In an era where intellectuals could actually be superstars, Mailer was front and center. Unfortunately, he represented a lot of what was awful about America. A deep misogynist with a history of violence against women, he also had the kind of primitive fascination with black sexuality at the root of much of America’s racism. He claimed for himself a hipness that put him in touch with black people, but he was really a voyeur attempting to gain his own authenticity through being around them. This especially came through in his excruciating 1957 essay “The White Negro.” Attempting to write about the hipster movement, he fetishized black sexuality to a grotesque degree. Mailer is the kind of guy who would go on for long periods of time about the supposed size of black penises, channeling the supposed uncontrollable super-sexuality of black men that went back to slavery and which has been used in all sorts of ways, from justification for lynching to the Blaxpolitation film movement that turned these stereotypes on their heads. In the essay, he connects all this up to the pop psychology of the Cold War, the belief in infantilization during slavery and the Holocaust, the impending doom and death in the face of the nuclear age, the fear of the collective and the death of the individual inside the totalizing impact of the state, the popularized Freudian thought infusing all of it. For Mailer, the black man, already excluded from the inner workings of society, was the model of the individual to stand up to all of this. In writing all of this, Mailer was hoping he was that person himself. It also gave him an excuse for his own personal violence as he saw the expression of the individual through violence, even if that was often directed at women.

James Baldwin hated all of this. He excoriated the essay, noting that Mailer was really just jumping on the Kerouac bandwagon. Baldwin actually liked Mailer and thought he was a really smart guy. So he was highly disappointed with this crap, made worse by the fact that it got so much attention. Baldwin pointed out that all Mailer did was to expand on the same myths of black sexuality that had existed forever by this point without offering anything new at all. Lorraine Hansberry hated it too, noting how it was just a new excuse for white racism. Feminists despised it too, with Kate Millett later calling it a giant excuse for rape. Mailer hated feminists back plenty, but even if you want to argue that the feminist movement at its peak might have gone a bit far in some of its rhetoric, when you think of it responding to a violent misogynist such as Mailer, one can understand how these women knew they were up against.

It’s not that Mailer was without skill. His epic Harper’s essay on the 1967 March on the Pentagon is one of the most important pieces of writing on the anti-Vietnam War protests, for example. “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” on the rise of JFK in 1960, is another example. But Mailer was so invested in his aggressive masculinity and obsession with black men’s sexuality that he became more of a clown than an intellectual. He continually measured his own masculinity and sexually to the black men he fetishized, especially jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and athletes such as Muhammad Ali. I think for lots of people in my generation, their main exposure to Mailer is as a talking head for the remarkable documentary When We Were Kings, about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. Mailer channels himself very well in that movie, for better and for worse. He’s entertaining to listen to, but he’s also so consciously channeling a Heart of Darkness-esque sense of Africa and so clearly obsessed with Ali’s masculinity that he comes across as a completely ridiculous figure.

And of course, personally Mailer was awful. He’s most known for nearly murdering his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife after a party they held, nearly puncturing her heart. His suspended sentence of three years probation was not nearly enough. But violence toward women infuses many of his works and many of his relationships. Mailer was part of a generation who legitimately saw Hugh Hefner and the Playboy phenomenon as a liberating moment, one in which the liberation was mostly for men to act as they wanted to with women mostly just open to more sex with them. Then there’s the time that Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal backstage during the Dick Cavett Show, then came on stage drunk and proceeded to insult both of them, which Cavett then expertly destroyed through his wit. And while Alan Dershowitz is far, far, far from a reliable narrator, it’s easy to believe his story about how when Mailer attended a dinner party with Claus Von Bulow, he walked out when Dersh talked about why Von Bulow was actually innocent, since Mailer thought it would be more fun to talk about how he actually had killed her. Christ, what an asshole.

In 1980, Mailer married for the sixth time, to Norris Church. Born Barbara Davis, she had been married to a man named Larry Norris. She divorced him, but then somewhat oddly took his last name as her own first name later in life. She claimed to have slept with Bill Clinton after her divorce but before she met Mailer. She was working as a high school art teacher in Arkansas when she met him. They met at a book signing, she wrote him, a relationship started, and they married. After they married, she worked as a minor actress in a number of films. She received a cancer diagnosis in 2000 that gave her only two years to live, but she made it another 10, dying in 2010. In doing so, she took care of Mailer in his last years. He died in 2007.

Norman and Norris Mailer are buried in Provincetown Cemetery, Provincetown, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit some of the other culturally relevant figures of the second half of the twentieth century in the world around Mailer, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hugh Hefner is in Los Angeles and Muhammad Ali is in Louisville. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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