He went off to war and came home with a brief taste of combat to write the Great American War Novel. That’s what ambitious young writers of his generation were supposed to do. The Naked and the Dead was so lavishly praised that, he said, he lost his sense of who he was, as a writer and as a man. The novels that followed were dissed by the critics, so he turned to autobiography, essays and journalism, letting his wild-man side strut and blow on the public stage. He excoriated fear within himself but as a writer showed steadfast courage.
Like a lot of novelists he contained many selves, starting with the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn he destroyed. His life became his art and vice versa. For younger writers who came after him, that was a tough act to follow, especially when his life seemed a litany of New York Post headlines like Mailer Stabs Wife! and Norm Bites Ear!
But if, as his detractors said, he was only a self-promoting public delinquent, how could he have written thirty-some books, directed movies, run for mayor of New York, co-founded the Village Voice, written thoughtful essays? Could it be that Mailer was also a consummate workman, a serious artist, though pressured at times into hackdom to keep up alimony payments?
Because of his penchant for ironic, self-scouring confessions in works like Advertisements for Myself and The Armies of the Night, his epic Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, we always knew Mailer, even if we didn’t know him personally. He was an active presence in our lives–sometimes a pretentious, mouthy one, like the guy on the next bar stool, but more often a challenging thinker, acting out dramas of self, engaging with our times, using his life and his art to challenge our self-satisfaction.
Politics and history always preoccupied him. He took the measure of Presidents, starting with Jack Kennedy, whom he magnified into an existential hero. He focused on the evil of LBJ’s and Nixon’s Vietnam War. He treated George W. Bush with paternal contempt in The New York Review of Books:
What is to be said of a man who spent two years in the Air Force of the National Guard (as a way of not having to go to Vietnam) and proceeded–like so many another spoiled and wealthy father’s son–not to bother to show up for duty in his second year of service! Most of us have episodes in our youth that can cause us shame on reflection. It is a mark of maturation that we do not try to profit from our early lacks and vices but do our best to learn from them.
Yet Mailer called himself a “left conservative,” perhaps because Tough Guys Don’t Dance with anybody. When he was president of PEN, the writers’ organization, he took a drubbing from the contemporary left (with Nation literary editor Elizabeth Pochoda leading the charge). Without consulting PEN’s executive board, Mailer had invited Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, to address a PEN congress.
Theologically he might be called a believing existentialist. Rejecting Sartre’s atheism, he wrote in the June 6, 2005, Nation:
Base our beliefs…on the fact of our existence, and it takes no great step for us to assume that we are not only individuals but may well be a vital part of a larger phenomenon that searches for some finer vision of life that could conceivably emerge from our present human condition.
Ave atque vale, Aquarius.