A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy, by Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon and John Buffalo Mailer (Arcade, $28.99, 336 pp.)
Norman Mailer was a passionate observer of American politics and an occasional participant. He ran, quixotically, for mayor of New York City in 1969, winning the support of the Black Panther Party but few primary votes. He waded, unwisely, into gender politics in 1971 with The Prisoner of Sex and participated in a disastrous event (memorialized in the D. A. Pennebaker documentary Town Bloody Hall) at which he was thrashed by feminist adversaries. He sought, and failed to win, a place as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy, to whose election he believed he had contributed with a celebrated campaign piece for Esquire, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.”
A new collection of Mailer’s political writings, A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy, co-edited by Mailer’s son, John Buffalo Mailer, and his literary executor, J. Michael Lennon, is one of a number of Mailer-related projects pegged to his recent centenary. As its subtitle suggests, A Mysterious Country seeks to capitalize on current political anxieties—ones that Mailer surely would have shared, but onto which his writings are less easily mapped than the book’s editors would have us believe. Indeed, much of the interest of Mailer’s political writing lies in his attempt to fit his hexagonal thoughts into the round holes of American party politics. In a starchy letter to Playboy in 1963, included here, Mailer protests the magazine’s having called him a liberal. “I don’t care if people call me a radical, a red . . . a nihilist, or even a left-conservative, but please don’t ever call me a liberal.”
Mailer’s politics were always visionary rather than practical. He made large claims about his understanding of the American psyche. He glimpsed a great variety of his country’s human types as an infantry soldier in World War II, a transformative experience for a bookish and sensitive young man. He believed that it was Americans’ secret desires and fears that called forth political figures, who themselves mostly lead from behind. He was always working to bring that “dream life” closer.
He wanted to believe in the democratic potential of his country but feared its latent authoritarian potential. “Fascism,” he wrote, “may be more to the tastes of the ruling powers of America than democracy.” I don’t think Mailer believed that General LeMay was actually going to take over the government. What he feared was the dimming of the nation’s creative and spiritual potential in the name of security and conformity. Mailer was a lapsed Jew, but when he invoked the soul, he was speaking literally rather than figuratively.
Mailer rarely made political arguments per se. His method was to call upon his trusted instincts for the correct attitude—and then to elaborate. He was skeptical of Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society he approved, because he didn’t like Johnson’s face. (“If I don’t like your face,” he told Martin Amis in 1991, “I figure, I probably don’t like whatever you’re up to.”) No foolish consistency constrained him. He decried Cold War paranoia but wrote a deeply researched and mostly admiring novel about the CIA, Harlot’s Ghost (1991). When he missed, he missed big: after meeting Fidel Castro in the 1980s, he called him a “genius.” (Apparently, he liked El Comandante’s face.) He hated Ronald Reagan (“As shallow as spit on a rock”), but in Reagan’s rise, he foresaw the role that celebrity would come to have in American politics. He thought that the next logical step was simply to draft a movie star, and he tried to convince Warren Beatty to run for president as a Democrat. Beatty flirted with politics for decades but never did become a candidate.
Mailer’s radical openness offers both a positive and a negative example. He called his engagement with jazz music “the most fertile and creative aesthetic experience I had in those years of the late fifties, early sixties.” He had friends across the political spectrum, including William F. Buckley. He took Christianity seriously. On the other hand, his fascination with criminal violence and willingness to let it in to his own psyche probably led to his stabbing his wife, Adele Morales, in 1960—and later, to the Jack Abbott affair, in which Mailer lobbied for the release from a Colorado prison of a lyrical psychopath with whom had carried on an intense correspondence. Abbott, who really could write, quickly committed an especially senseless murder. Mailer was also a studious and deliberate abuser of alcohol, marijuana, and Benzedrine for years, which he thought stimulating to his creativity but which could not possibly have helped his judgment. I think he would say that he lived more richly because he drew so few boundaries. He paid a price for his cherished existential freedom, though, and at times, he imposed a considerable price on others, too.
Mailer had faith in his first thought, but he also cared immensely about prose style, and it was this care that kept him for long hours at his writing desk, even with the lures of celebrity just outside the door. It would be a mistake—a mistake that A Mysterious Country invites, very much to the detriment of its subject—to judge a writer of Mailer’s creative energies on the same terms that we do a political correspondent. (Mailer himself understood this; “I [am] wrong,” he admitted, “at least 50 percent of the time, on declarations.”) The book’s editors have placed excerpts from some of Mailer’s most admired books (Advertisements for Myself, Miami and the Siege of Chicago) next to pieces apparently written rather quickly and sometimes carelessly. A Mysterious Country therefore does not represent well Mailer as a writer, which is the reason we care about him.
I can perceive no principle in the way that the 68 pieces collected here are organized. Not strict chronology, which would have been the simplest; not subject or theme, which would offer other advantages; not even register. Letters stand beside celebrity interviews, newspaper pieces beside novel excerpts. The book thus inadvertently evokes the chaos of Mailer’s personal life and the incoherence of his most self-indulgent writing. J. Michael Lennon has been an admired custodian of Mailer’s legacy for decades, notably in preparing his authorized biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life (2013), and Mailer’s Selected Letters (2015). Here, however, I do not think he has served his subject well. With some effort, it might have been possible to build a sense of continuity and integrity out of Mailer’s political obsessions. That work has not been done with this collection.
Indeed, after reading A Mysterious Country, one cannot help but regret all the things, including politics, that pulled at Mailer and arguably prevented him from completely fulfilling his vocation as a novelist. Mailer would have rejected this sentiment, probably with a smiling obscenity. He believed that his creative work, which necessarily was done in private, drew energy from his public life, even when that public life went disastrously wrong. But what the author of The Naked and the Dead (now out in a new Library of America edition) and The Executioner’s Song was doing interviewing Pat Buchanan or writing Marilyn: A Biography, I do not know.
Mailer’s reputation is at low tide right now, which is partly his own fault. He allowed his personal myth to overtake his work, and that myth is increasingly seen in an unflattering light. Eventually, a time will come when we can once again take his best work as seriously as it deserves. Two impending critical studies, by David Bromwich and Christopher Ricks, may shift the center of gravity back toward the books themselves. When we have the argument that really matters, the one that concerns Mailer’s best writing, then the outcome seems inevitable. A Mysterious Country, despite the fidelity of its editors to Mailer’s legacy, does not move us closer to that moment.
Photo by Michael Brennan/Getty Images