My Norman Mailer Moment

Posted: Dec 02, 2007 12:01 AM
My Norman Mailer Moment

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.

Mailer was not the only one who wrote such incendiary prose, but he was one of the first and influenced writers like Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon visited the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles the year following the riots and wrote an aesthetic analysis about it for The New York Times Magazine. Pynchon, like Mailer, hailed from a well-to-do family. Their houses, in safe suburban enclaves, were like the ones I went to with my mother on her jobs as a cleaning lady.

Racial riots in Rochester, New York, rocked not only the neighborhood where I attended elementary school, but also the halls of my high school, where the utopian ideas of the intellectual elites were implemented through forced bussing. It took me a long time to separate school lessons and speeches on “racial harmony” from the memories of broken glass and blood in the hallways of Benjamin Franklin Junior-Senior High School. I stepped over these as I escaped to run home after having the doors to my French class unlocked. Ideas from adult theorists and the promotion of “authentic” violence have a way of filtering down to children, especially in the media age. The symbol of the clenched fist becomes disseminated and adopted by adolescents. The atmosphere in my school rippled with hostility, especially for those who sought the quiet of learning. The hallways became a Darwinian “jungle,” with the weak (those who dared to carry books) intimidated by the aggressive. Most teachers settled for suppressing violent outbursts. That still is the goal in many public high schools today from what I hear from teachers.

Mailer’s disjointed prose was tame compared to the lyrics of rap music, but it helped pave the way to according respectability to brute displays of power and violence. The menacing gesture has taken over the written word. Today’s multimillionaire “gangster” rap artist is the descendent of Mailer’s racist depiction of the “Negro.” In fact, some of my colleagues, Ph.D.’s in English, have abandoned traditional literature and are now writing conference papers on rap—among other topics like the sex life of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or graphic novels.

I doubt that rappers, and the millions of adolescents who emulate them, have heard of Norman Mailer. Nor did the rioters who roughed up Otto, a slight man in his fifties, read “The White Negro” or anything else by Mailer. Rather, Mailer’s influence was felt in the way his ideas were given a certain cachet once they were put in print in influential publications. Other than an occasional knock on the head by a schoolmate who hated the sight of a girl who carried books home, I was not the recipient of direct violence. And although Otto was roughed up, he did not die. His “institution,” a tiny corner store with an apartment above, was closed down. Who knows what he and his wife/business partner did after that?

But Mailer is more famous for successfully arguing for the release from prison of Jack Henry Abbott. Richard Addan, whom Abbott murdered six weeks after his release, of course, was more a victim of Norman Mailer’s literary efforts.