Norman Mailer passed away on November 10, with a number of eulogies published by those in the literary world, some friends or acquaintances, who related their encounters with the esteemed writer/celebrity.
In the 1960s, as an immigrant girl in Rochester, New York, who loved books, I was far removed from Norman Mailer’s heady and glamorous life in New York City. Mailer, who had grown up in an upper-class family, had been granted entrée into that world after gaining fame for his novel The Naked and the Dead, a novel that presents a jaundiced view of heroism and the American military. It was based on Mailer’s service during World War II, a stint that reportedly exposed Mailer to very little action or danger.
It was not until I was researching my dissertation several years ago that I saw the connection between Norman Mailer and me. Mailer, like the Beats around him, rebelled against “squares,” those who, in his estimation, did not live authentically. For the model of the “hip,” or the authentic man, Mailer looked to the “Negro.” In his 1957 Dissent essay, “The White Negro,” Mailer wrote, “Hip is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle.” Hence, “the white negro.”
Mailer posited an elite of those who lived authentically to the point of having no restraint. These he glorified and identified as psychopaths: “The psychopath murders—if he has the courage—out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love, his being is frozen with implacable self-hatred for his cowardice.” Mailer presented the case of two eighteen-year-old thugs beating the brains of a candy-store keeper. Though such murder is not therapeutic because it’s not murder of an equal—still, says Mailer, “courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well.”
I was reminded of such a candy store owner, Otto, in my inner-city, multicultural (Ukrainian, German, Jewish, Polish, Italian, and Yugoslavian), neighborhood. Otto had the patience of a saint as he waited for this first-grader as she debated how to spend the nickel she had earned each week for a bag of penny candy. But when the mobs busted his windows and beat him up during the riots of the 1960s, Otto had to close shop. It was the beginning of the end of that neighborhood around Otto’s store, on the corner of Conkey Avenue and Saranac Street.