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Critical Essay by Harold Bloom
SOURCE: "Introduction," in Modern Critical Views: Norman Mailer, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 1-6.
In the following essay, Bloom considers Mailer's unconventional literary production and problematic critical reputation as a remarkable author who "has written no indisputable book." However, according to Bloom, Mailer will likely endure "as the representative writer of his generation."
Mailer is the most visible of contemporary novelists, just as Thomas Pynchon is surely the most invisible. As the inheritor of the not exactly unfulfilled journalistic renown of Hemingway, Mailer courts danger, disaster, even scandal. Thinking of Mailer, Pynchon, and Doctorow among others, Geoffrey Hartman remarks that:
The prose of our best novelists is as fast, embracing, and abrasive as John Donne's Sermons. It is polyphonic despite or within its monologue, its confessional stream of words….
Think of Mailer, who always puts himself on the line, sparring, taunting, as macho as Hemingway but deliberately renouncing taciturnity. Mailer places himself too near events, as science fiction or other forms of romance place themselves too far….
Elizabeth Hardwick, a touch less generous than the theoretical Hartman, turns Gertrude Stein against Mailer's oral polyphony:
We have here a "literature" of remarks, a fast-moving confounding of Gertrude Stein's confident assertion that "remarks are not literature." Sometimes remarks are called a novel, sometimes a biography, sometimes history.
Hardwick's Mailer is "a spectacular mound of images" or "anecdotal pile." He lacks only an achieved work, in her view, and therefore is a delight to biographers, who resent finished work as a "sharp intrusion," beyond their ken. Her observations have their justice, yet the phenomenon is older than Mailer, or even Hemingway. The truly spectacular mound of images and anecdotal pile was George Gordon, Lord Byron, but he wrote Don Juan, considered by Shelley to be the great poem of the age. Yet even Don Juan is curiously less than Byron was, or seemed, or still seems. Mailer hardly purports to be the Byron of our day (the Hemingway will do), but he might fall back upon Byron as an earlier instance of the literary use of celebrity, or of the mastery of polyphonic remarks.
Is Mailer a novelist? His best book almost certainly is The Executioner's Song, which Ms. Hardwick calls "the apotheosis of our flowering 'oral literature'—thusfar," a triumph of the tape recorder. My judgment of its strength may be much too fast, as Ms. Hardwick warns, and yet I would not call The Executioner's Song a novel. Ancient Evenings rather crazily is a novel, Mailer's Salammbô as it were, but clearly more engrossing as visionary speculation than as narrative or as the representation of moral character. Richard Poirier, Mailer's best critic, prefers An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?, neither of which I can reread with aesthetic pleasure. Clearly, Mailer is a problematical writer; he has written no indisputable book, nothing on the order of The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Crying of Lot 49, let alone As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! His formidable literary energies have not found their inevitable mode. When I think of him, Advertisements for Myself comes into my memory more readily than any other work, perhaps because truly he is his own supreme fiction. He is the author of "Norman Mailer," a lengthy, discontinuous, and perhaps canonical fiction.
Advertisements for Myself (1960) sums up Mailer's ambitions and accomplishments through the age of thirty-six. After a quarter-century, I have just reread it, with an inevitable mixture of pleasure and a little sadness. Unquestionably, Mailer has not fulfilled its many complex promises, and yet the book is much more than a miscellany. If not exactly a "Song of Myself," nevertheless Advertisements remains Mailer at his most Whitmanian, as when he celebrates his novel-in-progress:
If it is to have any effect, and I can hardly look forward to exhausting the next ten years without hope of a deep explosion of effect, the book will be fired to its fuse by the rumor that once I pointed to the farthest fence and said that within ten years I would try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters. For if I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoyevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might have come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way.
Hemingway in 1959 reached the age of sixty, but was neither old nor moldering. He was to kill himself on July 2, 1961, but Mailer could hardly have anticipated that tragic release. In a letter to George Plimpton (January 17, 1961) Hemingway characterized Advertisements for Myself as "the sort of ragtag assembly of his rewrites, second thoughts and ramblings shot through with occasional brilliance." As precursor, Hemingway would have recognized Mailer's vision of himself as Babe Ruth, hitting out farther than Stendhal, Tolstoi, et al., except that the agonistic trope in the master is more agile than in the disciple, because ironized:
Am a man without any ambition, except to be champion of the world, I wouldn't fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off. The Dr. had terrific wind and could go on forever and then some….
But these Brooklyn jerks are so ignorant that they start off fighting Mr. Tolstoi. And they announce they have beaten him before the fight starts.
That is from a letter to Charles Scribner (September 6-7, 1949), and "these Brooklyn jerks" indubitably refers to the highly singular author of The Naked and the Dead (1948), who had proclaimed his victory over Hemingway as a tune-up for the Tolstoi match. Hemingway's irony, directed as much towards himself as against Mailer, shrewdly indicates Mailer's prime aesthetic flaw: a virtually total absence of irony. Irony may or may not be what the late Paul de Man called it, "the condition of literary language itself," but Mailer certainly could use a healthy injection of it. If Thomas Mann is at one extreme—the modern too abounding in irony—then Mailer clearly hugs the opposite pole. The point against Mailer is made best by Max Apple in his splendid boxing tale, "Inside Norman Mailer" (The Oranging of America, 1976), where Mailer is handled with loving irony, and Hemingway's trope touches its ultimate limits as Apple challenges Mailer in the ring:
"Concentrate," says Mailer, "so the experience will not be wasted on you."
"It's hard," I say, "amid the color and distraction."
"I know," says my gentle master, "but think about one big thing."
I concentrate on the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It works. My mind is less a palimpsest, more a blank page.
"You may be too young to remember," he says, "James Jones and James T. Farrell and James Gould Cozzens and dozens like them. I took them all on, absorbed all they had and went on my way, just like Shakespeare ate up Tottel's Miscellany."
There are no such passages in Mailer himself. One cannot require a novelist to cultivate irony, but its absolute absence causes difficulties, particularly when the writer is a passionate and heterodox moralist. Mailer's speculations upon time, sex, death, cancer, digestion, courage, and God are all properly notorious, and probably will not earn him a place as one of the major sages. The strongest aesthetic defense of Mailer as speculator belongs to Richard Poirier, in his book of 1972:
Mailer insists on living at the divide, living on the divide, between the world of recorded reality and a world of omens, spirits, and powers, only that his presence there may blur the distinction. He seals and obliterates the gap he finds, like a sacrificial warrior or, as he would probably prefer, like a Christ who brings not peace but a sword, not forgiveness for past sins but an example of the pains necessary to secure a future.
This has force and some persuasiveness, but Poirier is too good a critic not to add the shadow side of Mailer's "willingness not to foreclose on his material in the interests of merely formal resolutions." Can there be any resolutions then for his books? Poirier goes on to say that: "There is no satisfactory form for his imagination when it is most alive. There are only exercises for it." But this appears to imply that Mailer cannot shape his fictions, since without a sacrifice of possibility upon the altar of form, narrative becomes incoherent, frequently through redundance (as in Ancient Evenings). Mailer's alternative has been to forsake Hemingway for Dreiser, as in the exhaustive narrative of The Executioner's Song. In either mode, finally, we are confronted by the paradox that Mailer's importance seems to transcend any of his individual works. The power of The Executioner's Song finally is that of "reality in America," to appropriate Lionel Trilling's phrase for Dreiser's appropriation of the material of An American Tragedy. Are we also justified in saying that An American Dream essentially is Mailer's comic-strip appropriation of what might be called "irreality in America"? Evidently there will never be a mature book by Mailer that is not problematical in its form. To Poirier, this is Mailer's strength. Poirier's generous overpraise of An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? perhaps can be justified by Mailer's peculiarly American aesthetic, which has its Emersonian affinities. Mailer's too is an aesthetic of use, a pragmatic application of the American difference from the European past. The Armies of the Night (1968), rightly praised by Poirier, may seem someday Mailer's best and most permanent book. It is certainly not only a very American book, but today is one of the handful of works that vividly represent an already lost and legendary time, the era of the so-called Counterculture that surged up in the later 1960's, largely in protest against our war in Vietnam. Mailer, more than any other figure, has broken down the distinction between fiction and journalism. This sometimes is praised in itself. I judge it an aesthetic misfortune, in everyone else, but on Mailer himself I tend to reserve judgment, since the mode now seems his own.
Mailer's validity as a cultural critic is always qualified by his own immersion in what he censures. Well known for being well known, he is himself inevitably part of what he deplores. As a representation, he at least rivals all of his fictive creations. Ancient Evenings, his most inventive and exuberant work, is essentially a self-portrait of the author as ancient Egyptian magician, courtier, lover and anachronistic speculator. Despite Poirier's eloquent insistences, the book leaves Mailer as he was judged to be by Poirier in 1972, "like Melville without Moby Dick, George Eliot without Middlemarch, Mark Twain without Huckleberry Finn." Indeed, the book is Mailer's Pierre, his Romola, his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. At sixty-two, Mailer remains the author of Advertisements for Myself, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song.
Is he then a superb accident of personality, wholly adequate to the spirit of the age? Though a rather bad critic of novelists, he is one of the better critics of Norman Mailer. His one critical blindness, in regard to himself, involves the destructive nature of Hemingway's influence upon him. Hemingway was a superb storyteller and an uncanny prose poet; Mailer is neither. Essentially, Mailer is a phantasmagoric visionary who was found by the wrong literary father, Hemingway, Hemingway's verbal economy is not possible for Mailer. There are profound affinities between Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, but none between Mailer and the best poetry of his age. This is the curious sadness with which the "First Advertisements for Myself" reverberates after twenty-five years:
So, mark you. Every American writer who takes himself to be both major and macho must sooner or later give a faena which borrows from the self-love of a Hemingway style …
For you see I have come to have a great sympathy for the Master's irrepressible tantrum that he is the champion writer of this time, and of all time, and that if anyone can pin Tolstoy, it is Ernest H.
By taking on Hemingway, Mailer condemned himself to a similar agon, which harmed Hemingway, except in The Sun Also Rises and in The First Forty-Nine Stories. It has more than harmed Mailer's work. The Deer Park defies rereading, and An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? have now lost the immediacy of their occasions, and are scarcely less unreadable. In what now is the Age of Pynchon, Mailer has been eclipsed as a writer of fictions, though hardly at all as a performing self. He may be remembered more as a prose prophet than as a novelist, more as Carlyle than as Hemingway. There are worse literary fates. Carlyle, long neglected, doubtless will return. Mailer, now celebrated, doubtless will vanish into neglect, and yet always will return, as a historian of the moral consciousness of his era, and as the representative writer of his generation.
This section contains 2,174 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)