Last month I was privileged to be part of Georgetown University’s day-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, his autobiographical-historical-novelistic account of the l967 March on the Pentagon. Mailer was in the hospital and unable to attend as he’d planned — but it was still a fascinating day. My favorite moment was when the delightful and erudite Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who wrote his thesis on Mailer, explained that in the 1960s and 70s Mailer failed to grasp the reductive nature of television — he would go on a talk show ,utter a complex thought, and then find that the only part that was quoted was an inflammatory soundbite, like “all women should be kept in cages.” Ah, yes, context. I’ll bet it made all the difference! My second favorite moment came after my bit on the literary panel,–in which yes, as the only woman I did feel compelled to mention Mailer’s rather staggering misogyny– when various older gentlemen in the audience leapt to their feet to assure me that his violent hostility to women was just a phase . Their wives had met Mailer in the late l970s and found him very nice. My third favorite moment was when, after the showing of Richard Fountain’s l971 documentary about mailer — the product of the very film crew that Mailer reveals, halfway through the book, is following him about as he makes one weird speech after another, sometimes in strange voices– a Georgetown student told the panel on stage that she and her activist friends always tried to present their political points in a sober, respectful way, and she found the 1960s, and Norman Mailer in particular, entirely bewildering: Was everybody just crazy back then?
It probably astonishes you to hear that I’m not a charter member of the Norman Mailer Society, but I enjoyed Armies of The Night. One of the great things about books, especially when they are of a previous generation, is that you don’t have to swallow them whole — you can take what you want and leave the rest. If you are a writer yourself, you might even see a signpost in what strikes you as mostly a swamp. Take, for example Mailer’s third-person depiction of himself as a major jerk ,obnox and social climber– “the Novelist” worries endlessly about what to wear to the big march , about his literary status and whether Robert Lowell respects him; he pisses on a restroom floor because he’s too drunk to find the toilet in the dark, gives an incoherent ranting speech that it turns out nobody could hear, spends a lot of mental energy wondering how to schedule his arrest at the Pentagon so that he can be back in New York in time for a glamorous party, and gets so tied up in egomaniacal knots that when he finally bunks down in jail for the night, in stead of having a historic prison-memoir moment he is unable to address a word to the reputed young genius in the next bed — Noam Chomsky. It’s all pretty funny. But who is telling you this story that reflects so poorly on “the Novelist’s” claims to moral seriousness, political commitment, and fitness for the leadership position he longs to hold? Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer the narrator knows perfectly well –at least in Armies of the Night he does — what an anxious, obsessive, narcissistic, fantastical, insecure, over-the-top, ridiculous person ” Norman Mailer” is. The writer sees what the character doesn’t see. The expression of that double consciousness is a masterpiece of style. Still, there is that little problem of misogyny. I wish The Nation’s considerable coverage of his life had given that more than a passing wave. What a failure of imagination and humanity there is in his ravings about the evils of birth control and women’s liberation, his cult of hatred and domination and violence, his fatuous pronouncements about what women should be (goddesses,whores, mothers of as many children as a man could stuff into them), ), his pronouncements of doom on a culture that let them get out of their cage . I remember him speaking at a PEN meeting in the l990s about the damage women would do to the Democratic Party if they exercised power within it. That made about as much sense as his famous essay in “Advertisements for Myself,” (l959) in which, having insulted every famous male writer of his day from Bellow to Baldwin, he wrote . ”I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.”
The obits don’t make much of this but it should be said straight out: Mailer did a lot of harm in his life. He stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, and it wasn’t some larger-than-life zany antic they both had a good laugh over later: he nearly killed her. Psychologically, a recent New York times story suggested, she never recovered. He helped get the writer and murderer Jack Abbott out of prison , and immediately plunged this unbalanced man who had spent over half his life behind bars into the heady world of literary celebrity; within days Abbott had killed a waiter he imagined was dissing him. Several obits have humorously recounted how Mailer assaulted on the street a sailor he thought called his dog gay, but the near murder of Morales, and the actual murder of Richie Adan by Mailer’s protege, show that his infatuation with machismo was not just a literary joke, much less endearing protective covering for his inner nice-Brooklyn-boy-who-loved-his-mother.
What can a woman writer take from Mailer? Not much of his content, and certainly not his career advice. But what about style? The boldness, the risk of failure, the willingness to be big and raw and to work the language hard. To let yourself not look good and make readers admire you anyway through sheer virtuosity. Style, I thought after my day with the Mailerites, is everything, content almost nothing. True? I’m not sure, but for Mailer’s sake let’s hope so.