Questioning Authority: Donald Weber on Norman Mailer

Literary lion Norman Mailer died this month in New York City at the age of 84. Questioning Authority asked Donald Weber, the Lucia, Ruth and Elizabeth MacGregor Professor of English and chair of English, to weigh in on Mailer’s life and work.

QA: Was Mailer a truly great writer or a badly behaved celebrity with a larger than life ego (or both)?

DW: I suppose it's hard for most college students to imagine in 2007 the kind of cultural celebrity, and for his admirers on the literary left, the cultural authority that Norman Mailer possessed for most of his career, which began in 1948 with the publication, at the age of 25, of The Naked and the Dead, considered among the great novels about the experience of soldiers in World War II.

Looking back, it's also hard to separate Mailer's celebrity from his orbiting literary ambition. He confessed in Advertisements for Myself (1959) of his desire to "settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." You ask, Was he a truly great writer or a badly behaved celebrity with a monstrous ego? My answer would be "no" and "yes." Nevertheless, he remains for me an indispensable, audacious American writer who, in the critic Alfred Kazin's words, "insisted on upsetting all expectations."

QA: Was Mailer significant as a Jewish writer?

DW: Mailer might also be situated among a cohort of Jewish writers, in the sense that he considered himself an outsider; he was a self-styled "hipster"-outlaw seeking to demystify the centers of power, above all the power of the United States government. To quote Kazin, Mailer's "central theme . . . was American aggressiveness and grittiness in the setting of America the powerhouse."

QA: Do you teach any of Mailer's writings in your classes?

DW: My favorite book by Mailer remains The Armies of the Night (1968), about the anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon in 1967. I teach this book in courses on the 1960s, for it vividly captures the paranoia and rage and apocalyptic feeling of the era yet concludes, nevertheless, with the hope of potential redemption, with the possibility of America as "prophetic nation"--only if we could expel the "liars" who controlled the evil Pentagon. Of course the revolutionary-protestors’ "political" strategy, the collective shamanistic chanting of "Out! Demons Out!" to levitate the symbol of American imperial power, also suggests something about Mailer's 1960s-inflected vision.

QA: What will Mailer most be remembered for?

DW: I suppose he will continue to be read as one of the first practitioners of the "New Journalism," a mode of creative nonfiction that places the reporter at the center of history, distilling events through the mediating consciousness of the self. To quote Kazin again, Mailer "made his mind public." And I suppose Mailer will also be remembered for his pugnacity (in the Hemingway tradition, he was the writer as pugilist, taking on all literary and intellectual foes); his risk taking; above all for his desire to make us reimagine our relation to those malign powers in the universe that would impose limits. He was, in the critic Harold Bloom's words, "a historian of the moral consciousness of his era."

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