I met Norman Mailer when he visited Dartmouth in the spring of 1973 shortly after the infamous party at which he’d celebrated his fiftieth birthday and drunkenly recounted the dirtiest joke he knew, according to the colorful story in the New York Times. He was sufficiently indulgent to share the joke while sober with undergradute idolaters such as I, a courtesy that I appreciated ever after. It was dirty as advertised, but it was also good and funny.
I had read The Armies of the Night on my own with admiration as a teenager and read The Naked and the Dead respectfully as a freshman in Dartmouth’s course on the twentieth-century American novel with Professors Noel Perrin and Chauncey Loomis. By the time I was a senior even I found it hard to take Mailer’s lucubrations over Marilyn Monroe seriously when he read from the book he had just written about her as part of his public lecture.
His adolescent egotism and grandiosity took a tremendous toll, but it seems to me that The Naked and the Dead, Of a Fire on the Moon, and The Executioner’s Song overcame it, and will survive. Roger Kimball is considerably less charitable than I. In the profusion of obituaries that will inadequately come to terms with Mailer’s literary career, Roger’s essay “Norman Mailer, a dissenting view” may serve as an important corrective.
Norman Podhoretz devotes a memorable chapter (“A Foul-Weather Friend to Norman Mailer”) of his memoir Ex-Friends to Mailer. Podhoretz recounts that Mailer rushed up to Podhoretz’s apartment after Mailer had stabbed his then-wife Adele Morales in 1960; Podhoretz wonders in retrospect whether he did the right thing in agreeing to help Mailer avoid institutionalization and psychiatric help afterwards. In recounting his friendship with Mailer, Podhoretz mixes personal, political and literary considerations. He notes that Mailer was good not only with Mailer’s own children, but with Podhoretz’s, who refused to believe that Mailer had in fact stabbed his wife.
I wonder whether the obituarists will recall Mailer’s dissent from the first wave of feminism in the early 1970’s. Given his own notorious marital relationships, it was hard to take him seriously as a sexual philosopher. I nevertheless read and enjoyed The Prisoner of Sex, though too long ago to vouch for it now. But among the recollections of Mailer worth bringing to mind is one that reader Bob Day sent us a while back regarding a Mailer lecture at the Unversity of Colorado dating from that era:
After an overlong and fawning introduction, Mr. Mailer waited offstage (obviously prolonging the applause), then strutted out, his shoulders pulled back, dressed all in black. At the time he was quite well known for antagonizing women’s libbers, so there was quite a contingent of sign waving female protestors, and some males as well.
As he began to speak in his rapid fire and theatrical style, he was often heckled from the large audience. Most of this had to do with his supposedly misogynistic leanings. After 10 minutes or so, he decided to respond, telling the audience he would be happy to deal with the shouters directly. He then challenged them to “hiss me resoundingly,” which they did with some gusto. He then derided their effort and commitment, telling them how puny was their voice, and implored them to do better. The response was much bigger the next time, with lots of profanity and vile name calling. Mailer stood there stoically receiving their rage.
When the din had mostly died down and people were waiting for his response, Mailer simply looked out over the audience and said, “Thank you, obedient bitches.”
The tension had gotten just high enough, and the anticipation was certainly high enough, so that this perfect piece of theatrical verbal judo caused the room to explode with screams, hoots, laughter and sustained applause. I have never seen before or since such a wonderful performance.
Of course, though the protesters were afraid to open their mouths thereafter, that didn’t stop one of them from going back to their dorm room and calling in a bomb threat. It was the perfect end piece to a perfect evening.