Can you cancel the dead? Haven’t they been, in the profoundest sense, cancelled already? Then again, a large reputation will tend to float onwards posthumously, rising and falling on the tides of cultural righteousness. A test case: in January of this year the muckraking journalist and practitioner of the higher trolling Michael Wolff (he of the Donald Trump exposés Fire and Fury and Landslide) claimed in an article for The Ankler that a collection of Norman Mailer’s nonfiction writings, scheduled for publication in 2023 to mark the centenary of his birth, had been “cancelled” by Random House. According to Wolff, a “junior staffer” at Random House had objected to the planned inclusion of “The White Negro”, an essay about race and politics that Mailer published in 1957. Wolff’s source for this information was, he said, Michael Mailer, the novelist’s eldest son. Was Norman Mailer, who died in 2007, cancelled? Or had something more banal occurred?
That word, “cancelled”, now of course lies ready to hand, like a small grenade, usable by any willing soldier in what we have come to call the culture wars. This particular grenade detonated in a flurry of Tweets and op ed columns – the twin venues in which “cancellations” tend, if not actually to occur, then at least to be unproductively debated. For a day or two Mailer’s long career of public fiascos was rehashed. We heard once again about his near-fatal stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales, in November 1960; about his sponsorship of Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted murderer paroled partly on Mailer’s recommendation who almost immediately murdered again; about his mortifying 1971 appearance with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show, when he hectored the audience incoherently; and so on. Mailer was also defended by, among others, the columnist Tim Black, whose article for Spiked appeared under the indelible headline “If Norman Mailer can be cancelled, no one is safe”.
The facts arrived, as facts will, late. Michael Mailer, writing for The Spectator two weeks after Wolff’s guerrilla raid, explained that Random House had approached the Mailer estate to invite a proposal for a book that would contain “excerpts from several of [Mailer’s] political writings and interviews in which he presciently laid out the fragility of democracy”. Having received the proposal “favourably”, Random House then declined to publish. “The reasons are hearsay,” Michael Mailer writes; “according to rumour, there were concerns from cultural critics who may have let my father’s past […] jaundice their view of future publications.”
Hearsay. According to rumour. It is hard to fault a loyal son for taking his late father’s side; and, for those of us who have, as I do, a professional investment in Norman Mailer’s career (I wrote a PhD thesis on his work), it is hard not to sympathise with Michael Mailer when he articulates a suspicion that his father’s work might not find a warm welcome among bien pensant contemporary readers, and that this is something to be deplored. “Cancellation is an ugly word,” he wrote. “We should know better. Rather than preserving all our culture, nurturing the full gamut of voices, regardless of colour, gender, orientation, age, or any other defining feature, we have summoned the mob and set it on voices that don’t adhere to the party line.” He invoked also the ghosts of William Styron, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and John Updike, all of whom, he said, had been recently “cancelled” with “howls of wokeness”.
As with most incidents in which a “cancellation” is understood to have occurred, what was at stake here was not so much a political principle as a generalised feeling of paranoia. The effort to understand and combat “cancel culture” frequently arises from a suspicion, widespread among middle class white men in America and elsewhere, that the grammar of the world is becoming illegible to them; that as the twenty-first century unfolds, the rules of class and taste are being rewritten in a language that they do not speak. Complaints about cancel culture constitute a perhaps predictable response to the late empowerment by social media of a wide range of minority political movements. (That these movements have often abused their online power, and have themselves trafficked in paranoid rhetoric, perhaps says less about the nature of progressive movements as such than it does about the toxic intimacy of paranoia and power.)
As the political scientist Corey Robin suggests, conservative and reactionary ideas tend to derive from a specific emotional experience, to wit, “the felt loss of power”. To complain that Norman Mailer has been cancelled is to complain that the rules of politics and art that for so long favoured middle class liberal white men are now in crisis – have perhaps been fatally undermined. The map in your hands, oh well-meaning liberal male, no longer matches the territory. The writers who loomed so large in your self-fashioning have been, like unreplicatable scientific studies, discredited. If Norman Mailer can be cancelled, are any of us safe?
The good news, at least for the Mailer estate, is that Mailer’s centenary volume will, after all, be published. It has been picked up by Skyhorse, the American independent press that has cultivated a reputation for publishing the books that no one else will touch – they did Woody Allen’s memoir after Hachette employees staged a walkout in protest at its publication, and they have also picked up Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth biography after Bailey was accused of grooming teenage girls at the middle school in New Orleans where he taught in the 1990s.
Skyhorse’s approach to the business of publishing is either spunky or cynical, depending on your point of view, though whether this distinguishes them in any meaningful way from their larger corporate rivals is perhaps an open question. Thanks to them, in any event, a book of Mailer’s political writings will appear in 2023. It will almost certainly include his classic account of the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”, still one of the best on-the-spot portraits of John F Kennedy (“some angers can be relaxed only by winning power”). It will also almost certainly include “The White Negro”, which originally appeared in Dissent in 1957, when Mailer, casting around for a usable identity, was deep in his cringe-inducing hipster phase.
Roughly speaking, “The White Negro” contends that, in the aftermath of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the human race as a whole now finds itself in the same psychic and physical predicament experienced by black people in America in the 1950s – that is, deindividualised, oppressed by violent systems of control, risking their lives every time they walked down the street. To live authentically in such a world, Mailer suggests, we must become “white Negroes”, or hipsters. Our morality must be psychopathic – radically free from inherited codes. Our philosophy must be existentialist. We must live like teenage hoodlums – weighing up the “therapeutic” value of “beat[ing] in the brains of a candy store keeper”.
“The White Negro” is a strikingly paranoid piece of work. It is also racist, though in a more or less well-intentioned sort of way: unlike, say, the viciously and openly anti-Black Alabama politician George Wallace, Mailer had actually spent time with, and had thought carefully about the lives of, Black people. Our amnesiac moment might suppose that Mailer faced no consequences for spouting his nonsense when “The White Negro” first appeared. Not so. Irving Howe, the editor of Dissent, quickly came to feel, and to say, that publishing the essay in the first place had been “unprincipled”. Jack Kerouac called Mailer a “fool”. And James Baldwin, in his 1961 essay-portrait of the man, expressed his “fury that so antique a vision of the blacks should, at this late hour, and in so many borrowed heirlooms, be stepping off the A-train”. Baldwin also punctured Mailer’s pretensions superbly by quoting a black jazz musician whom Mailer had been at pains to cultivate: “the only trouble with that cat is that he’s white”.
Mailer was unabashed. (He was always unabashed. He was, to a remarkable degree, immune to embarrassment – not because he was arrogant, but because he was paranoid: why should I be embarrassed when all you finks are out to get me?) He republished “The White Negro” in his 1960 collection Advertisements for Myself, accompanied by twenty pages of justifications and “reflections”. Perhaps strangely – or perhaps not – the essay is one of the most reprinted things that Mailer ever wrote. It is, in fact, currently available in a collection of his essays edited by Philip Sipiora called Mind of an Outlaw, published, in America, by Random House. Oh dear.
What is not in print is a later Mailer embarrassment – one that really did get him cancelled, avant la lettre, by a radical progressive movement. As with most cancellations, this one both fatally undermined Mailer’s reputation and left it largely untouched, in a metaphysical nicety that Mailer himself would have delighted in unpicking across ten thousand or so fevered words. At the time he complained that his radical enemies were “killing my wallet, my ego, my reputation”. It was Norman vs the feminists, and the embarrassment in question is The Prisoner of Sex, Mailer’s 40,000-word response to what was then called the Women’s Movement, which first appeared as an essay in Harper’s in 1971 and came out as a book in the same year.
The Prisoner of Sex was, properly speaking, not the cause of Mailer’s cancellation but his response to that cancellation, and thus anticipates a peculiarly contemporary genre: the self-exculpatory I-was-cancelled memoir, in which a banished man mourns, often in the pages of a high-profile journal, his now-occluded reputation. The book was prompted by a phone call from an editor at Time, who wondered if Mailer had noticed that the Women’s Movement saw him as “their major ideological opposition”.
Mailer knew a good subject when one came in over the phone lines. He set out to read the literature of the movement, initially by looking for his own name in every index. Soon he became absorbed. His prose did not rise to the occasion. “[T]he themes of his life had gathered here. Revolution, tradition, sex and the homosexual, the orgasm, the family, the child and the political shape of the future, technology and human conception, waste and abortion, the ethics of the critic and the male mystique, black rights and new thoughts on women’s rights – the themes were pervasive enough to depress him.” Nevertheless: “On came the ladies with their fierce ideas.”
One of the “ladies” was the Columbia scholar Kate Millett, who in 1970 revised her PhD dissertation and published it as Sexual Politics. This book, now considered a foundational pillar of second-wave feminism, has had a powerful influence on the feminist critique of culture, and hence, of course, on culture itself. It is proof of the cogency of Millett’s arguments that many of them, fifty years later, have become the small change of the intellectual economy; reading the book now, you think “but this goes without saying” – when, of course, the whole point, in 1970, was that it did not go without saying. Sexual Politics is interested in the relationships between (or among) sex, power, and culture. The first half of the book supplies a history of feminism as such. The second half is a critique of the images of women as they have appeared in works of literature by Jean Genet, DH Lawrence, Henry Miller, and – of course – Norman Mailer.
Millett is a sharp reader of Mailer. She knows that he is a complex case – no simple male chauvinist pig. “A prisoner of the virility cult,” she writes, “Mailer is never incapable of analysing it.” But for Millett, Mailer’s work in the last analysis crudely approves of and thus abets misogynistic violence. “In Mailer’s work the sexual animus behind reactionary attitude erupts into open hostility.” In writing “The White Negro”, Millett contends, Mailer “appears to have fallen in love with [violence] as a personal and sexual style”. She also points out how often Mailer, in his fiction, depicts a virile male protagonist forcing anal intercourse on a woman who soon learns that this is the one true path to orgasm and therefore to liberation. (Mailer’s 1965 novel An American Dream, in which this precise scenario unfolds, is still in print and is published by – who else? – Random House.)
Mailer’s revenge on Millett, in The Prisoner of Sex, is to challenge her on her own field of battle: literary criticism. “By any major literary perspective,” Mailer writes, “the land of Millett is a barren and mediocre terrain, its flora reminiscent of a PhD tract, its roads a narrow argument, and its horizon low.” Her prose was “ideological lard”; she saw only “signs that men were guilty and women must win”. For Mailer, Millett’s attack on Henry Miller was blinkered and partisan – not to mention unethical. Adopting his customary third-person style, he wrote: “He did not know why a lack of such literary niceties as fair quotation and measured attack should bother him more in women. Was it because a male critic who practiced such habits could not go far – the stern code of professionalism in other men was bound to cut him down[?]” Obeying his stern code, Mailer the critic will close-read the feminists, and show them where they have gone wrong.
The feminists have gone wrong, according to Mailer, in two ways. Firstly, they are progressive technocrats, advocating scientific and medical solutions, for example abortion and contraception, to ancient problems of inequality. (Mailer regarded technocrats as fascists in embryo.) Secondly, they ignore the “incontestable mystery that women are flesh of the Mystery more than men […] Men were by comparison to women as simple meat” and women were “in full possession of a mysterious space within” (he seems to mean a uterus) that offers the time-bound male a connection to “the future”.
In other words, Mailer both got the point of feminism and missed it completely. Similarly, in choosing Mailer as their “major ideological opposition”, the second-wave feminists were both bang on target and barking up the wrong tree. Mailer’s misogyny was the kind that requires women to serve as embodiments of a cosmic mystique; this was what permitted men (that is Mailer) to get away with being mundane, gross, violent, imperfect. Mailer had also in his own calamitous fashion made the classic political journey of his generation of American intellectuals, from Marxism (in the 40s, Mailer later said, his position was “some far-flung mutation of Trotskyism”) to what boiled down, in the 1960s, essentially to liberalism (which Mailer, seeking to square the circle, called “Left Conservatism”); in the process, he had jettisoned his commitment to revolution and replaced it with a Burkean skepticism about radicalism as such, tinctured with a nostalgic fondness for any upstart movement that promised to restore life’s “existential” qualities. This journey, for Mailer, had been so tortuous and so costly (vide the stabbing of Adele Morales) that once the shape of his thinking was set, he was not about to revise his premises.
On the other hand, he was a natural showman. This might explain why he agreed to appear on stage at the New York Town Hall on April 30th, 1971 alongside Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos and Jill Johnston. The topic was “a dialogue on Women’s Liberation”. The text, or pretext, was Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex. The women spoke; Mailer moderated. Germaine Greer had just published The Female Eunuch. Diana Trilling was the esteemed literary critic. Jacqueline Ceballos was the president of the New York chapter of the National Organisation for Women. Jill Johnson was a writer for The Village Voice and a leader of the lesbian separatist movement of the 1970s.
The evening was filmed by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker; the footage was released in 1979 as Town Bloody Hall. You can watch it on YouTube. It is a remarkable document, not so much because it illustrates superbly a specific moment in American cultural history (although it does) but because the debate it enshrines still feels dismayingly pertinent. Town Bloody Hall requires zero additional historical information for a viewer in 2022 to construe. We are still having this conversation, half a century later. The only real difference is that we have all become more fluent speakers. When Susan Sontag rises from her seat in the audience towards the end of the film to point out that calling the female speakers “ladies”, as Mailer has been doing throughout, is condescending and misogynist, she is tentative, as no contemporary feminist would be.
Mailer’s performance is hypnotically embarrassing to watch. If he was a natural showman, he was also a terrible actor. He affects a sort of fake Texan snarl; he speaks too quickly; he mumbles; he loses his temper; he makes jokes that are intelligible only to himself. He is clearly enjoying himself, but his enjoyment is predicated on a misapprehension about the nature of the event taking place around him. As you watch him snap and spar with the audience, you realise that Mailer has plainly decided to understand the Women’s Movement as yet another intriguing leftist-intellectual crusade, fated ultimately to fizzle out like the Trotskyism of his youth. He has no sense of the anger of women; he has no sense that his own carefully nurtured dialectics of sex is no longer fit for purpose; he has no sense that the future has already kicked down his door.
I am indulging, perhaps, in Whig history here. And I am making fun of Mailer – an irresistible temptation to anyone who writes about him, but dishonourable nevertheless, because Mailer is always more complicated than you expect him to be, and his career in toto constitutes a kind of proof that nobody is ever simpler than you think. If a position was worth holding, Mailer tried to hold both that position and its opposite. If, for instance, he was endlessly, arrogantly self-serious, he was also always ready to make himself the butt of the joke. The Prisoner of Sex begins with him receiving word that he’s won the Nobel Prize. At last! But no; the journalist who called him misheard; it was André Malraux who won. A disarming sally, to begin a serious critique. If Mailer survived his cancellation in the early 1970s, this may be because he was a protean operator, as well as a beneficiary of good old-fashioned patriarchal structures of power.
Mailer’s protean nature was thrust upon him by success. He was the beloved child of an attentive mother. In school he was bright and successful. At Harvard he was the anointed writer. Even in the army – he fought as a rifleman on the Pacific Island of Luzon – he was able to stay sane by telling himself that he was special, that he would write the great novel of World War II. That he did indeed become, aged twenty-four, the bestselling author of a novel about the war in the Pacific (The Naked and the Dead, 1948) was the kind of psychological disaster that life likes to arrange for the innocent and un-self-knowing. It wasn’t until the commercial and critical failure of his second novel, Barbary Shore, in 1952 that it seriously occurred to Mailer to wonder if perhaps he wasn’t the universally beloved genius he had always assumed himself to be. As generally happens with big fish who are reeled out of their small pond, Mailer’s ego collapsed. The rest of his career – until he achieved, in his sixties, a productive serenity that lasted until his death – was a search for a new image of himself: one of sufficient magnitude to restore him to the days of glory.
To lack a convincing image of yourself is necessarily to be paranoid. Who am I? What do other people want from me? What do I want from myself? In the middle of the 1950s, after the failure of Barbary Shore, Mailer’s prose starts to evolve by lurching stages into a volatile compound of braggadocio and refinement. In every paragraph, baroque generalisations collide with precisely rendered sensory details. In a typical piece from this period – the novella “The Time of Her Time”, collected in Advertisements for Myself – you get passages like this one, describing the children of a poor Lower East Side neighbourhood:
They were the defilers of the garbage, knights of the ordure, and here, in this province of the capital Manhattan, at the southern tip of the island, with the overhead girders of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges the only noble structures for a mile of tenement jungle, yes here the barbarians ate their young […] I heard that the Olympics took place in summer when they were out of school and the streets were so thick with the gum of old detritus, alluvium and dross that the mash made by passing car tyres fermented in the sun. Then the parents and the hoods and the debs and the grandmother dowagers cheered them on and promised them murder and the garbage flew all day.
A style that simultaneously deploys soaring rhetoric and scrupulous attention to detail is a paranoid style, and it was Mailer’s paranoia that made his prose, just a few years later, feel like the right instrument at the right time. Emotionally unstable, ideologically incoherent, acutely conscious of the weight of history and staggeringly attentive to nuance, Mailer was the writer the American 1960s seemed to have called forth: to explain, to embody, to record. The uncertainty of the times found itself mirrored in his pages. He could empathise with the counterculture kids as they reviled the bourgeois-liberal order; he knew they were deluded. He wanted a violent revolution; he distrusted all revolutions. He was all performance; he was a passionate believer. He knew that the whole sprawling mess had to make some kind of sense, if he could only figure it out and write it down.
So. Was he actually any good? He could be better than good. He could be great. An example. On July 16th, 1969, Mailer watched the Apollo 11 launch from the press enclosure at Cape Kennedy. He described it in Of a Fire on the Moon – one of his best books. When the rocket thrusters ignited, Mailer wrote, the sound came “like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furious bark of a million drops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Apollo-Saturn fifteen seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from that near-audience watching”. When the rocket has climbed out of sight – “one’s heart took little falls at the changes” – Mailer gets back in his car, and immediately runs into a traffic jam. A radio DJ says, “Folks, get in on the Apollo 11 Blast-off Scale.” Mailer thinks: “The radio had lost no time.” He thinks: “America – his country. An empty country, filled with wonders.”
Passages like this one remind you that Mailer, for all his proneness to error and fiasco, was plugged in to crude energies inaccessible to other writers. John Updike’s description of the Apollo 11 launch would have been a finely wrought bit of prose. Mary McCarthy would, perhaps, have noticed ironies that Mailer did not. But neither of them could have done what Mailer does here: that is, make you feel as if you’d been there yourself, and show you, at the exact same instant, the melancholy innocent aspirational technocratic lonely imperial hayseed heart of mid-twentieth-century America. Mailer knew that heart because it closely resembled his own. Who was he? What was America? America – his country. Norman Mailer: an empty country, filled with wonders.
Kevin Power’s The Written World: Essays and Reviews will be published in May by The Lilliput Press.