MAILER: The Philosopher of Existential Hip

Mailer with Vonnegut and Vidal

Norman Mailer is one of the most important novelists of the later half of the 20th Century. Norman stands next to Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut, in a picture taken nearly a decade ago.

This photographed group of men were America’s great veterans – along with Joseph Heller, the writer of Catch 22 – who fought in World War 2 and wrote at least one novel on the war.

Mailer’s Naked and the Dead is often listed as the greatest novel on World War 2.

Mailer was among the “New School” of Journalists, along with Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thomson.

The “New School of Journalism” sought to combine reportage with the novelistic voice, format, and length.

Norman Mailer is to be listed among the major writers/contributors of the New York Review of Books  in Scorsese’s upcoming documentary on the history of the magazine.

Most of Mailer’s fictional novels incorporate nonfictional elements to the boundary-point between fiction and non-fiction.

Mailer was among the most televised authors of the 50s – 70s. He was featured and debated William F. Buckley, the leading conservative television commentator of the 50 -70s, on Buckley’s show the Firing Line.

Mailer’s fiction and non-fiction are not universally and nationally enjoyed or recognized, as of national importance.

Many writers and critics underrate him and attempt to ban  or keep him from the national and western canons. They often exist among extreme politically correct (PC.) circles. 

Extreme PC conscious critics and detractors call Mailer’s prose narcissistic, violent and sex obsessed – thus, dismiss him for these reasons.

Mailer seldom appears on a community college or university syllabus. He seems to be rarely read among book groups. Perhaps PC prevalence may be the cause.

Despite these dismissals, Mailer participated and reported on many of the important events, which occurred during his writing career.

Mailer was also a best seller; during those decades – to downgrade his importance is foolish, despite his perceived foibles. This is especially apparent, upon consideration of the prizes he was awarded, during his writing career.

Mailer won two Pulitzer Prizes – one for the Armies of the Night in 1968 and one for The Executioner’s Song in 1979.

Armies of the Night concerned Mailer’s reportage and personal involvement on the march on Washington. The Executioner’s Song dealt with the requested death penalty and execution of Gary Gilmore.

Norman Mailer liked to use third person perspective, when inserting himself into a work. He portrayed himself as a cynical, narcissistic, loud mouthed, charismatic bourbon-enthusiast reporter or political incumbent.

The most effective use this voice was employed in Armies of the Night, The Fight, and some of the pieces and commentaries on those pieces in Advertisements for Myself and Existential Errands.

Existentialism, Freud and Marx were main themes he conglomerated in his bibliography. Sex – both heterosexual and homosexual is on full display, in many of his works.

Homosexual repression and its negative outcome are present in the general in The Naked and the Dead and Harry Hubbard in Harlot’s Ghosts.

Mailer also showed Hollywood’s insistence on hiding and suppressing the homosexuality of their big stars, during the 50’s, in The Deer Park.

Existential force is displayed in Mailer’s most famous and praised essay The White Negro.

The essay discusses how the Negro used sex as a tool of survival, in a world against him, since he/she was robbed of their cultural identity.

This loss and use of sex enabled the Negro to display a detached, yet engaged image in America, which the white culture, who was responsible for his/ her loss of culture roots, accessorized.

The Fight is a narrative on Mailers reportage of the Muhammad Ali v. George Forman fight, held in Kinshasa, Zaïre.

Mailer showed Ali’s boy-picking-legs-off-insect toying with his opponents and his gravitational charismatic allure with the crowd.

The Fight displayed the cockiness of Ali and the rage of Foreman. The description of the match was as detailed and intense as Hemmingway’s descriptions of bull fighting in Death in the Afternoon.

The Existentialism of Sex is best shown in The Prisoner of Sex, Marylyn and Of Women and Their Elegance.

The Prisoners of Sex is a book length, Freudian musing on the difficulties and being a man and the biological boundaries of women. Mailer attracted a lot of negative responses from the book from certain sectors of the feminist lobby.

Of Women and Their Elegance is a fictional account of Marylyn Monroe’s inner thoughts. Mailer was obsessed, as was American with Marylyn seductive charm. He was also interested in her fragile, neurosis. Mailer later went on to do a non-fictional account of Marylyn, incorporated a suggested FBI instigated murder link to her death.

There is an account of Mailer being furious with Henry Miller, her then husband, who he shared apartment building occupancy with in New York. The rage was over Miller’s refusal to introduce him to Marylyn. The truth was Marylyn was scared of him.

Existentialism of Murder, Power and how power dominates sexual relations and is linked to possible violence is portrayed in The Executioners Song, The American Dream, and Ancient Evenings

The American Dream deals with sexual jealousy, which leads the protagonist of the work to kill his wife, then haunt the bars, and low life establishments of New York.

Gary Gilmore in the Executioners Song influences his girlfriend, from his prison cell, to co-commit attempted suicide with him.

Ancient Evenings deals with Pharaoh Rule and the sexual power the Pharaoh has over his subjects – along with giving insight into the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Ancient mental consciousness.

Mailer comments on Existential paranoia and its influence and how paranoia influences the abuse of power in Harlots Ghost and Barbary Shore.

Both Barbary Shore and Harlots Ghost deal with the Communist witch trials. Harlots Ghost also deals with self-instituted CIA missions, without presidential ok in Cuba and elsewhere.

I believe Norman Mailer’s insight into the above listed modes of existentialism and his influence and participation in “New Journalism” and his commentaries on the events of the 40s through the 70s should place him on a milestone platform in American Letters and the Western Canon.