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Critical Essay by Robert Merrill
SOURCE: "Norman Mailer's Early Nonfiction: The Art of Self-Revelation," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 28, 1974, pp. 1-12.
In the following essay, Merrill offers critical examination of Mailer's nonfiction essays, including "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," "The White Negro," and "Ten Thousand Words a Minute."
It has become a commonplace—unavoidable at cocktail parties, student bars, even the dinner table—that Norman Mailer's real achievement is to be found in his nonfiction. There, it is argued, we come upon Mailer "happily mired in reality, hobbled to the facts of time, place, self, as to an indispensable spouse of flesh and blood who continually saves him from his other self that yearns toward wasteful flirtations with Spiritus Mundi." If it seems a bit harsh to describe Mailer's novels as "wasteful flirtations with Spiritus Mundi," many of us would still agree with Richard Foster's basic point: Mailer's nonfiction is a pleasant subject if one has any sympathy for his pretensions as a major writer. This is why it is curious that Mailer's much-admired nonfiction should have generated so little critical commentary. From the attention it has received (or lack of it), one might think that Mailer's nonfiction was no more than artful journalism, as his enemies no doubt believe and his friends have failed to dispute.
Mailer has filled the breach himself, of course, arguing at every opportunity that his realistic nonfiction should not be confused with factual journalism. He has said recently that it is "the superb irony of his professional life" that he should receive the highest praise as a journalist, "for he knew he was not even a good journalist and possibly could not hold a top job if he had to turn in a story every day." For Mailer, journalism is a matter of getting up factual reports intended for the mass media. It is an affair of facts, a ceaseless inquiry into who did what to whom, at what place and at what time. If he is not unreliable as a journalist, Mailer is hardly in competition with the daily reporter. In fact, the whole thrust of his nonfiction is away from "factual" history. "For once let us try to think about a political convention without losing ourselves in housing projects of fact and issue." So Mailer begins his first important essay of the 1960's, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket." Mailer would replace housing projects of fact and issue with a sense for the mysteries of personality and the relations among such mysteries (interests obviously taken over from the house of fiction). He has written that "there is no history without nuance," and finally this defines his goal as a "journalist": to capture the nuances of our recent American experience and so define its true, as opposed to its statistical, meaning.
The concern for nuance and the rejection of "fact" have led of course to Mailer's "involved" journalism—have led to a literary form closer to the novel than to traditional reportage. This form is best embodied in The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both 1968), Mailer's first extended forays into the political history of our time. It is also to be seen in his more recent works: Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), The Prisoner of Sex (1971), St. George and the Godfather (1972), and Marilyn (1973). Contrary to a widely-held opinion, however, these books did not come to us as unanticipated and unique achievements. As early as 1959 Mailer began the nonfictional innovations which made his recent books possible. It is this early work that I want to consider here, both as the preparation for Mailer's writings after 1967 and as an independent achievement which deserves more attention than it has yet received. By tracing the gradual emergence of Mailer's "personal" approach to nonfiction, we should come to see what A. Alvarez meant when he said that Mailer's early essays now seemed "like so many training flights" for The Armies of the Night. But we should also come to see that as Mailer turned more and more to the techniques of fiction he was able to succeed in the essay form as never before. This achievement is no mean one; among his contemporaries only James Baldwin has surpassed Mailer as an essayist. At any rate, this is the claim I would like to test in considering Mailer's early nonfiction.
The story of Mailer's nonfiction does not begin happily, for his political and social essays have changed remarkably over the years. The pieces which go back to the 1950's hardly anticipate the essayist who broods over the psychic forces at work in a championship prize fight; whether their subject is David Riesman, homosexuality, Marx, or Sputnik, they all betray the radical intellectual who once dissected Western Defense for the readers of Dissent. Significantly, Mailer has all but repudiated his earliest essays: "… whenever I sat down to do an article, I seemed to thicken in the throat as I worked my sentences and my rhetoric felt shaped by the bad political prose of our years." Indeed, such essays as "The Meaning of Western Defense," "David Riesman Reconsidered," and "The Homosexual Villain" are unpleasant reading for anyone who admires Mailer's prose style. Since collected in Advertisements for Myself (1959), these articles suggest that Mailer has no real gift for the analytical essay which is closely reasoned and "objective." Mailer seems to have recognized this himself, for his nonfiction has become less and less analytical as the years have passed.
"The White Negro" (1957) is Mailer's one significant essay of this early period. In one sense an almost scholarly discussion of the Hipster, this piece succeeds where Mailer's other early essays do not because it goes beyond the analysis of a cultural or political situation to create what Mailer has called a sociological "fiction." Mailer's "fiction"—the Hipster as revolutionary elitist—is not, of course, a wholly imaginative creation. In this essay, Mailer tries to describe a real phenomenon with real historical roots. He traces the birth of the Hipster to the catastrophes of the twentieth century and sees this figure as a rebel against society, that "collective creation" revealed by World War II to be "murderous" and by the postwar era to suffer from "a collective failure of nerve." He is also careful to identify the source of the Hipster's life style—the Negro culture based on jazz, marijuana, and sexuality (hence his title). But starting with these observations on the Hipster's genesis, Mailer is quick to take up a partisan defense of the Hipster's intuitions. The real thrust of his "analysis" is not descriptive but prophetic: the Hipster is seen as "the dangerous frontrunner of a new kind of personality which could become the central expression of human nature before the twentieth century is over." The more inspired passages in "The White Negro" always reject the generally analytical tone of the essay for a more lyrical evocation of the new hero who has come among us. The following passage is representative:
It is this knowledge which provides the curious community of feeling in the world of the hipster, a muted cool religious revival to be sure, but the element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmarish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence for it sees every man and woman as moving individually through each moment of life forward into growth or backward into death.
The "knowledge" Mailer refers to is the Hipster's supposed awareness of what is good or bad for his own psyche. Mailer begins by remarking this "knowledge" and ends with nothing less than his claim that the Hipster has "a dialectical conception of existence." Jean Malaquais has called this claim "a gorgeous flower of Mailer's romantic idealism," and I doubt that many of us would disagree. So far as "The White Negro" is sociology as we tend to think of it, Mailer's achievement is surely limited by such excessive claims for his subject. But "The White Negro" is really a lyrical defense of Mailer's conversion to Hip, an "American existentialism" which differs from the French variety because it is based on "a mysticism of the flesh" rather than "the rationality of French existentialism." Mailer succeeds in "The White Negro" insofar as he persuades us that Hip has "a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence," not that it has literally derived from Black culture or that it is a major social force. Despite its sometimes ponderous tone, "The White Negro" should therefore be seen as not altogether different from Mailer's more recent essays. Like these essays, it is distinguished by the quality of Mailer's brooding and most partisan reflections on what he has observed.
If "The White Negro" was an advance, the real turning point for Mailer's nonfiction was Advertisements for Myself. After 1959 Mailer's essays are marked by the strong personal voice he developed in writing the "advertisements" to his first collection. At first the difference is only stylistic, as Mailer cultivates this personal voice and so avoids the "thickening" in the throat which came to him while writing those political essays influenced by "early, passionate, and injudicious reading of the worst sort of Max Lernerish liberal junk." But gradually Mailer did much more than this; he came to introduce into his "journalism" not only his personal voice but his personality as well. His writings from 1960 to 1968 represent a continuing effort to focus his explorations into recent American history by transforming this personal element into a functional persona.
Before he could do this, however, Mailer had to discover the value of fictional techniques for a work of nonfiction. He seems to have made this discovery in "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" (1960). Ostensibly a report on the 1960 Democratic Convention, this essay is really a glorification of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the convention's nominee. Impressed by Kennedy's charisma rather than his politics (which were traditionally liberal, if not a bit conservative), Mailer set out to dramatize the mysterious allure of Kennedy's personality. Toward this end he employed numerous literary devices, most of them novelistic: character sketches, shifts in chronology, the juxtaposition of contrasting characters and events, etc. But his first tool was sheer rhetoric. He remarks at the beginning of his essay that he will "dress" his argument in "a ribbon or two of metaphor," and the "argument" is indeed metaphorical. Kennedy is variously imaged as "a great box-office actor," "a hero central to his time," and "a prince in the unstated aristocracy of the American dream"; he is said to have "a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz." Kennedy is contrasted throughout with the sort of candidate desired by the bosses of the convention—the totally political, totally predictable candidate such as Richard Nixon or Richard Daley. Mailer laments that we are a country of mythical heroes, yet our faith in such heroes has dried up. We are in need of a Kennedy, an American prince who will rekindle our faith in the American dream. The nation will reveal itself by its selection of Kennedy or Nixon: "One would have an inkling at last if the desire of America was for drama or stability, for adventure or monotony." Will the American people be so courageous as to embrace their own lonely and romantic desires?
Needless to say, the "argument" here is some distance removed from "fact and issue." It is a novelist's argument, and throughout "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" Mailer performs the good novelist's task of heightening his protagonist by treating everything else in a manner which can only set off Kennedy's contrasting excellence. The scene at the convention is described so as to make Kennedy appear not only a matinee idol by contrast but a saviour come unto heathens. Los Angeles is "a kingdom of stucco, the playground for mass men"; the Biltmore hotel, convention headquarters, is "one of the ugliest hotels in the world." The people at the convention are either political hacks or party professionals like Lyndon Johnson ("when he smiled the corners of his mouth squeezed gloom; when he was pious, his eyes twinkled irony; when he spoke in a righteous tone, he looked corrupt." It is to this city, this hotel, and these people that Kennedy comes, the movie star come to the palace to claim the princess. Mailer also places in evidence Nixon's incredibly mawkish remarks upon receiving the Republican nomination: "'Yes, I want to say,' said Nixon, 'that whatever abilities I have, I got from my mother … and my father … and my school and my church.'" He dismisses with contempt the Republican Convention which followed and offers yet another judgment on that convention's nominee: "The apocalyptic hour of Uriah Heep." He presents in detail Adlai Stevenson's presence at the Democratic Convention, for Stevenson plays the passive anti-hero to Kennedy's hero. The "events" Mailer chose to describe in this essay were selected by a professional novelist, not a political journalist. That is, they serve the ends of the novelist as well as the propagandist. The very texture of his essay validates Mailer's attractive "creation" of John Kennedy—a creation soon to be adopted by the country at large.
"Superman Comes to the Supermarket" reveals the novelist's hand, then, but it does not include the device most characteristic of Mailer's recent nonfiction—the use of himself as participant as well as spectator. For this we must look to the later essays, beginning with Mailer's second convention piece, "In The Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964." As its subtitle suggests, "In The Red Light" is about the Republican Convention rather than its leading man. (Goldwater is its most important figure, but he is hardly the hero of the piece.) The essay is formally divided into three parts: a history of events prior to the convention, including Goldwater's rise to power in the Republican Party; a description of the convention up to Goldwater's nomination; and a spectator's views on Goldwater's acceptance speech. Only at the end does Mailer abandon the pose of reporter to reflect on Goldwater's ascendancy and the state of the union in this year of Johnson versus Goldwater. Yet his interpretive presence is felt throughout. It is this "presence" which distinguishes "In The Red Light" from other journalistic accounts of the convention.
Mailer's role in the essay begins to emerge in the political portraits of part two. Here Everett Dirksen is described as "an old organist who could play all the squeaks in all the stops, rustle over all the dead bones of all the dead mice in all the pipes," and we can hear Dirksen as Mailer describes him, "making a sound like the whir of the air conditioning in a two-mile tunnel." And once you have read Mailer's description of George Romney as "a handsome version of Boris Karloff, all honesty, big-jawed, soft-eyed, eighty days at sea on a cockeyed passion," you can never see Romney again without visions of Frankenstein. These examples will suggest that Mailer is not exactly a disinterested historian. This is especially clear in his "analysis" of the Goldwater crusade. Goldwater delegates are presented as "a Wasp Mafia where the grapes of wrath are stored"; "a frustrated posse, a convention of hangmen who subscribe to the principle that the executioner has his rights as well"; their representatives in the California delegation are said to resemble Robert Mitchum playing the mad reverend in Night of the Hunter. Mailer even sense this fanaticism in the bagpipers who play throughout the convention, for theirs is "the true music of the Wasps" in which one detects "the Faustian rage of a white civilization … the cry of a race which was born to dominate and might never learn to share." Mailer's metaphorical rendering of the convention may be charged with bias, but many of us will sympathize with the underlying assumption: what really happened at the convention can only be captured in language which speaks of human acts and betrays a human speaker. Even where Mailer is on shakiest ground as a reporter—his characterizations—most of us will probably find that his Goldwater, Scranton, or Eisenhower at least suggests the man we all observe rather than the faceless political "figure" we encounter in news reports. But the point is perhaps obvious. Dealing with the convention as he would in a novel, Mailer achieves the same imaginative authority in what is formally an essay.
Mailer's impressionism is justified because "In the Red Light" is about his response to the ascending Right Wing rather than the phenomenon itself. At one point Mailer writes, "I had been leading a life which was a trifle too pointless and a trifle too full of guilt and my gullet was close to nausea with the endless compromises of an empty liberal center. So I followed the convention with something more than simple apprehension." This passage goes far to explain Mailer's fascination with Goldwater, for Goldwater is an answer to the empty liberal center. But it also anticipates the strategy of Mailer's essay. Rather than "describe" the convention, Mailer dramatizes his ambivalent response to Goldwater and the Goldwaterites. He does this not only to bring the convention to life as an experienced event but also to offer an ominous clue to our condition as a people. For Mailer's undeclared assumption is that his reactions are representative. And if men like Mailer feel the attraction of a Goldwater, then Mailer's conclusion is probably true: "America has come to a point from which she will never return. The wars are coming and the deep revolutions of the soul." Mailer has rendered the convention so persuasively that such prophecies almost seem inevitable.
We can be grateful for Mailer's fascination with Goldwater—his account of the Republican Convention is much richer than it might otherwise have been. Elsewhere in his nonfiction, however, Mailer has used his personality not only to focus the coverage of an event or movement but as his fundamental subject. He has treated himself as a character in one of his novels might be treated and so brought the essay form to the borders of fiction. This strategy is to be seen in such early essays as "An Evening with Jackie Kennedy, or, The Wild West of the East" (1962), but it is used most successfully in "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" (1962), Mailer's account of the first Patterson-Liston fight. Here Mailer emphasizes his own role in a public event almost to the exclusion of the event itself. He may have arrived at this strategy through necessity rather than choice, for the fight itself was a one-round "fiasco." In any case, Mailer's title is a sly hint that he is here concerned with more than the coverage of a championship fight. Mailer has indeed written almost twenty thousand words about a two-minute fight—and what he takes to be its symbolic meaning, his relation to it that week in Chicago, and his reaction to its outcome. These latter concerns are what justify the length of "Ten Thousand Words a Minute," the longest and the best of Mailer's essays.
I don't mean to suggest that Mailer here neglects his duties as a reporter. In part one he gives an interesting account of the men surrounding the two fighters; in part two he offers a very professional report on the Patterson and Liston training camps; in part three he presents what must be the most vivid published account of the fight itself; and in part four he manages to cover all the post-fight activities, including Liston's press conference the next day. Impressive as Mailer's reportage can be, however, "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" is still about Norman Mailer's coverage of a prize fight rather than the fight itself. We sense this as early as part two, where Mailer dramatizes not only his observations of Patterson and Liston but also his conversations with such men as Cus D'Amato, Patterson's manager, and Jim Jacobs, Patterson's Public Relations Assistant. The humor here is at Mailer's expense; like the self-deprecating passages in "An Evening with Jackie Kennedy," it hints at the ironic self-characterization so crucial to The Armies of the Night and Mailer's more recent nonfiction. For that matter, the humor is important here. "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" offers Mailer's symbolic reading of the Patterson-Liston fight, where Liston is Faust and Patterson the archetypal Underdog; where Liston is Sex and Patterson is Love; where Liston is the Hustler and Patterson the Artist; where Liston is the Devil and Patterson is God. Such weighty identifications are presented in all metaphoric seriousness. Like The Armies of the Night, "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" can afford such extravagance because the man who speculates so largely is himself an object of dramatic irony. Mailer is revealed here in a familiar role: "Once more I had tried to become a hero, and had ended as an eccentric." Yet the speculations offered above are not to be dismissed as eccentric lunacies. As in his later works, Mailer wins a hearing for his insights as the best fruit of a writer who will reveal everything about himself, his most ridiculous "capers" but also his most dazzling intellectual connections.
The essay's final sections make it clear that Mailer's ultimate subject is himself. Once he has described the fight and offered his ideas on what it all "meant" (i.e., what the fighters represented), Mailer would seem to be done. Yet he goes on for another fifteen pages. The fight inspires a severe self-analysis in which Mailer takes upon himself part of the blame for Patterson's defeat. (Briefly, Mailer finds that he has backed Patterson in an "idle, detached fashion"; like Patterson's liberal supporters, he has failed to nourish the champion's spirit). Here Mailer considers the events of that week in Chicago, including his debate with William Buckley at Medinah Temple. He finds that the ledgers are heavily against him: he has supported Patterson too complacently, he has drunk much too much, he has sulked over such trivialities as the account of his debate in the New York Times. Mailer feels something like Patterson's humiliation because he has identified with the lonely artist in Patterson:
Patterson was the champion of every lonely adolescent and every man who had been forced to live alone, every protagonist who tried to remain unique in a world whose waters washed apathy and compromise into the pores. He was the hero of all those unsung romantics who walk the street at night seeing the vision of Napoleon while their feet trip over the curb, he was part of the fortitude which could sustain those who live for principle, those who had gone to war with themselves and ended with discipline.
Mailer has failed both Patterson and himself, for his week in Chicago has been ruled by the world's apathy, compromise, and lack of discipline.
His disruption of Liston's press conference, the essay's final episode, reveals Mailer as yet another "unsung romantic" who has the vision of Napoleon as he trips over the curb. The scene is saved from bathos because Mailer sees it for what it is ("Once more I had tried to become a hero, and had ended as an eccentric"). Yet it is also a fitting climax to his narrative, for here Mailer dramatizes his determination to be "some sort of center about which all that had been lost must now rally." The defeat of Patterson has become for Mailer the defeat of Love and Art and Discipline. His bravura at the press conference registers his decision to reaffirm what the week's events and the fight itself have called into question. Indeed, this reaffirmation is what the essay is ultimately "about." Mailer has made us see that Patterson and Liston do not merely represent forces such as Love and Sex; finally, they represent us, that heroic—or demonic—part of us with which we identify. Mailer comes to see this and to act on what he sees—however "comic" his action. We, his readers, can hardly see less.
Years later Mailer would involve himself in another struggle where the opposing sides would suggest the "countered halves" of his own nature. In his account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, Mailer would again dramatize his conversion to one side in the conflict. Both "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" and The Armies of the Night are narratives about the comical yet serious education of Norman Mailer. The essay anticipates the later work in technique as well as form, for "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" depends on fictional techniques to a degree unparalleled in Mailer until The Armies of the Night. Such devices are used selectively in "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," "In The Red Light," and "An Evening with Jackie Kennedy." And Mailer's use of himself as a persona can be seen emerging as long ago as Advertisements for Myself, where his controversial self-portrait is a major unifying device. But in "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" Mailer's fiction-like nonfiction is fully in evidence. Such figures as Patterson, Liston, D'Amato, Jacobs, and the cabbie who takes Mailer to Comiskey Park are treated in a manner Mailer formally reserved for his fiction. Mailer dramatizes almost every scene in the essay and makes particular use of the flashback, a device we normally associate with fiction. If he is to be seen here as "hobbled to the facts of time, place, self," Mailer is also to be seen deploying his "facts" in a literary structure which betrays both the novelist and the historian-to-be of The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
The most "novelistic" of his essays, "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" is also the piece in which Mailer's self-reference is most conspicuous. For this reason it is not surprising that the essay has received insufficient recognition as a minor masterpiece. Nor is it really curious that Mailer's nonfiction should have been examined so seldom. As Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, "There are always those to whom all self-revelation is contemptible, unless it ends with a noble thanks to the gods for the Unconquerable Soul." Mailer's detractors have been quick to find his self-revelations contemptible, failing to see that in registering its effects on himself Mailer has illuminated the history of our time. Mailer has offered his reactions to modern life as those of a representative American—unusually sensitive and intelligent, perhaps, but subject to the same contradictory emotions as the rest of us in confronting such phenomena as Goldwater, Floyd Patterson, the Peace Movement, Women's Liberation, the space program, and enigmas such as Richard Milhous Nixon. As Mailer says, there is no history without nuance. And what his method suggests is that the nuances of recent history can only be caught in the response of a troubled American to the events which are America. If he has shown this most convincingly in The Armies of the Night, Mailer has anticipated that achievement in the essays I have discussed here. More than brilliant miniatures, these essays are one of Mailer's enduring contributions to American writing.
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