How to deal with Norman Mailer? I begin by acknowledging the truth of much that is being said about him, that he was a towering figure in American literary life for 60 years, almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unrivaled in his co-existence with it. Roger Kimball of The New Criterion has written that Mailer "epitomized a certain species of macho, adolescent radicalism that helped to inure the wider public to displays of violence, anti-American tirades, and sexual braggadocio."
But to delve into one's own little portfolio, Mailer's career intersected with my own when in September 1962 two entrepreneurs rented the Medinah Temple in Chicago, which held over 4,000 people, and engaged Mailer and me to debate on the nature of the right wing in American politics. It pleased Mailer, who was complaining widely about his poverty, that Playboy magazine immediately contracted to publish his and my opening statements in its next issue.
A few years later I had Mailer as a guest on "Firing Line," and one critic was deeply inquisitive about the meaning of the engagement. "Seeing Buckley and Mailer on the tube yesterday I can't get over it," Mel Lyman wrote in the New York Avatar. "The greatest representation of the two extremes I've seen in a long time. Conservative meets liberal, right meets left, before meets after. Buckley didn't know what the f--- Mailer was talking about, it just jammed his computer, he even had to resort to childish insults to try and keep up his end." ("Norman Mailer decocts matters of the first philosophical magnitude from an examination of his own ordure, and I am not talking about his books," I had said.)
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"Buckley is a computer," Lyman went on, "Mailer is a man. A man can only be categorized and computerized to a certain extent, the greater part of him lies out of definition. Greatness can be recognized only. That is why Buckley went all to pieces when Mailer spoke of the 'greatness' he saw in Castro. Buckley could only see the un-American activities accredited to the man, Castro. He could only see him as far as he could define his actions. Mailer could look right at him, like a child, and see a great force, an inner strength, a fearlessness that had nothing to do with right or wrong.
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"I love Buckley," this disciple of Mailer wrote, "but he makes me very sad, he's completely mastered the art of living in prison but Mailer's mastered the art of what you do after you get out, and Buckley doesn't even know there is an out."
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