Why Mailer Matters
He was an innovator, public intellectual, and chronicler of the latter 20th century.
Mailer was the key innovator in the new wave of participatory journalism that took place in the in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He argued that there were no immutable boundaries, no lines drawn in heaven between the genres, and demonstrated this by drilling holes through all the watertight compartments dividing them.
Mailer once described himself as “a Nijinsky of ambivalence,” and he was able to deploy the warring parts of his psyche as both actor and observer, protagonist and witness, and thus achieve the enviable status Walt Whitman described as “being in and out of the game, watching and wondering” — and doing. The consummate artistic control he exercised over his persona enabled him, in The Armies of the Night (1968) and succeeding works, to shift from The Beast to The Ruminant with ease, jumping from one to the other like circus acrobats leaping from one horse to another and then back again. Thus, he was able to avail himself of the techniques and powers of journalism, historical narrative, biography, autobiography, and the novel — always the master form for him because of its tendency to engulf and ingest other forms.
I would add, however, that it was the idea of the novel, and its aspiration to range wide yet dive deep, that inspired and allowed him to plunder and reshape the other forms. His actual novelistic achievements, while brilliant, sit in the second row behind his successes in the polemical essay and several kinds of nonfiction narrative, including one often passed over too quickly — biography. As Richard Poirier once wrote, Mailer was Melville without Moby-Dick, George Eliot without Middlemarch, and Mark Twain without Huckleberry Finn. But with The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song (1979), he has his Walden and his Crime and Punishment.
Mailer was the most important public intellectual in the American literary world for over 30 years, and along with other figures such as William Buckley, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, and Susan Sontag, helped establish the creative writer as important a commentator as politicians, pundits and professors. Mailer presented his ideas and commentary on modern politics and culture in every major media venue, save the Internet, and he even dabbled there in his final years. No American writer going back to Mark Twain mastered the modes of communicating with a variety of audiences for as long or as well as Mailer.
He wrote for every sort of magazine and journal, underground and aboveground — Partisan Review, Parade, Esquire, Playboy, Way Out, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, Dissent, Life, Look, Village Voice, Nugget, the NYRB and the New Yorker — over 100 different periodicals. He appeared on every major talk show, and many obscure ones. People saw him with Charlie Rose and Dick Cavett, and heard him at 2 a.m. on a local radio show in Nevada. He spoke at most of the major universities in the country, making hundreds of appearances; he was on symposia and panels in a variety of venues. One of his wives said he would go to the opening of an envelope. He could be counted on to present his point of view on the controversy du jour in a letter to the editor — hundreds — an essay, interview, live broadcast or a book. He was the cultural spokesperson for a generation, probably two, and was our hero, our man out on a limb talking a blue streak, fulminating against technology, pollution and plastic, worrying about our fragile democracy, and taking on all comers. No American writer — Christopher Hitchens (another Left Conservative) might be the closest — has yet come close to replacing him.
Mailer was the most important chronicler of and commentator on the major events and figures of American life during the last half of the twentieth century.
He had daring ideas and insights on the great events and phenomena of the period: the Depression and World War II, McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, the Cold War, Black Power, the sexual revolution, Vietnam and civil disobedience, the Women’s Liberation Movement, technology and the space program, prize fights and political conventions (he covered six), and some of the most loved and hated persons of the 20th century: Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe, Hemingway, Castro, Nixon, Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, Madonna, Jackie Kennedy, Picasso and Henry Miller, and at the end of his life, Adolph Hitler. The most important figure was John. F. Kennedy. No event in American history reverberated as long and hard for Mailer as Kennedy’s assassination. It was either the focus or the backdrop for eight of his books, from The Presidential Papers (1963) to Oswald’s Tale (1995). He owned two sets of the 26-volume Warren Commission Report, and was obsessed by the causes and effects of J.F.K.’s death and legacy. The Time of Our Time (1998), his 1300-page, one-volume anthology organized by the date of the events chronicled therein, is one of the few narrative works that can stand comparison to John Dos Passos’s chronicle of the first half of the 20th century, U.S.A. We would not know what America was about for a long stretch of years after WWII, not as well as we do, were it not for his words.
In sum: Perhaps no career in American literature has been as brilliant, varied, controversial, public, productive, lengthy, and misunderstood.
Note: the phrase “out on a limb talking a blue streak,” or something close to it, is borrowed from a review read long ago, and not since located. Thanks to the reviewer, wherever he is ensconced.
Presented at the Mailer-Jones Conference, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas-Austin, November 10, 2011.