Like many who came of age in the 1960s, I found the late Norman Mailers neo-primitivist, hipster Marxism a force to be reckoned with. I was intrigued, too, by Mailers second-hand Menckenisms (by way of Wilhelm Reich) about how Americas sexually repressive, puritanical culture was the source of all of our problems. As a 20-year-old, I certainly found it to be the source of mine. But many years before Mailer, who saw Western civilization as the great evil, hailed the killers of September 11the perpetrators were right, and we were not, he exclaimedI had my own brief reckoning with him.
To set the scene: New York in the late 1960s was like a lab experiment for Mailers nostrums. Civilization was breaking down; almost everyone, it seemed, from the underclass to underclassmen, was shaking free from the old mores, sexual and otherwise. But what followed was misery and murder, not liberation. People began speaking of New York as the ungovernable city. Yet no one seemed to hold Mailer to account, even though, in 1969, he had run for mayor of New York on a quixotic, two-part platform. First, he wanted the city to separate from the benighted folks north of the Bronx to become the 51st state. Thenwarming to the idea of decentralization within New Yorkhe decided he would go Mayor John Lindsay, who supported a black-power arrangement for some of the schools, one better. Mailer called for community control for all neighborhoods, covering everything from housing to policing. Give the street toughs community control, he argued, and they will police themselves without having to bow down before the white mans law.
Two years later, the scattered site housing controversy was raging in the Forest Hills section of Queens, involving plans by the city to build low-income housing in a middle-class neighborhood. I was then a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, and Mailer arrived on campus to give a talk. In the course of a series of disconnected fulminations, Mailer denounced the Jewish burghers of Forest Hills as repulsive racists for their opposition to the housing project. He wasnt interested in the specifics of Mayor Lindsays plan to build massive high-rise towers in the midst of the one-, two-, and three-family homes of middle-class Forest Hills. At a time when crime was exploding, Lindsay planned on reserving roughly a quarter of the new apartments for families on welfare. The ethnic logic was clear: Lindsay feared that violence might erupt if he proposed such a plan for an Italian or Irish neighborhood. A Jewish neighborhood was a safer bet.
Mailer, waving his arms and spitting to show his authenticity, went through his standard routine of mocking the dulls, the wad, the human blobs, and the stunted (and no doubt sexually repressed) middle-class minds of Forest Hills. When my chance came to ask a question, I referred to his support for community control in the 1969 mayoral campaignhis slogan had been all power to the neighborhoods, in an imitation of the black-power motto. Speaking tentatively at first, I asked how he could denounce community control in Forest Hills given his fulsome support for the idea just two years earlier. What was the basis for his shift? Befuddled by what he described as the narrow logic of the question, Mailer harrumphed, and when I persisted in pursuing the point, he resumed his descriptions of the blob and the wad that lacked the authenticity to make its own decisions.
I then turned first to Mailer, then to the audience, and noted that the black homeowners of Forest Hills were also opposed to the scattered-site project. This guy is just an act, I said. Its all just self-promoting shtick. Youre hectoring me, Mailer shouted, responding to the titters of laughter from those in the large crowd amused by his discomfort. Stop hectoring me. Flustered, the great man walked off the stage briefly. When he returned, he made it clear that there would be no more questions on issues where he could be subject to ridicule.
For my part, I was never again able to read his rantings, though I continued to follow his misadventures in the news. But 20 years later I ran into Mailer again, when he was on perhaps his fifth of six wives, and had, as I did, a young son playing soccer on the Parade Grounds near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. As I approached him, I saw a cloud move across his face, and his eyes narrowed. Did he remember? Without a word, he abruptly turned on his heel and walked in the other direction.
Fred Siegel is a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.