Norman Mailer famously compared his relationship with America to a marriage. “America,” he said, “is my spiritual wife. I love her; I hate her; she charms me; she repels me.” Mostly she disappointed him, especially in the last decades of his life. And like any man in a long, bad marriage, he dreamed of a grand gesture of reconciliation, something simultaneously romantic and just.
Mailer’s last major novel, Harlot’s Ghost, is a kind of psychohistory of the United States in the Cold War period. Published in 1991, it is also a summa of his tortured, but frequently loving, relationship with his country. As an account of the culture of the Central Intelligence Agency, an institution Mailer ostensibly loathed, it is surprisingly indulgent; as an assessment of the Protestant establishment’s imaginative life, it is surprisingly affectionate. In his obituary of Mailer, book critic Charles McGrath wrote that Mailer “conceived of [the CIA] as a kind of cold-war church, the keeper of the nation’s secrets and the bearer of its values.” Despite his characteristic political paranoia, Mailer gave his fictional spooks motives that he understood and at times even admired.
Mailer often referred to himself as a “left-conservative.” He reveled in this kind of paradox; he believed that he himself contained multitudes. He is remembered, though, as an orthodox man of the mid-century Left, one who called himself a socialist and spoke warmly of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital as a literary text. He embraced radical chic avant la lettre. And on Vietnam, where as a novelist he might have been expected to see nuance—that if the war was evil, the Americans fighting it mostly were not—he succumbed to self-righteous rage.
But he was also strongly anti-utopian. He resisted all coercive thought, and he was vigilant against abuses of the English language. Indeed, much of the trouble in his public life arose from an irresistible impulse to twit the right-thinking. He picked fights with feminists and homosexuals that sometimes ended in his own humiliation. While his great contemporaries, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, made Jewishness a major subject, Mailer subsumed his own Jewishness in the inexhaustible project of imagining America from the inside out.
It is not that Mailer was a romantic about America. Indeed, anatomizing American folly was one of his chief preoccupations. “Is this a serious country or isn’t it?” he asked, despite his fear of the answer. But he believed in the United States’ privileged destiny, less of an historical than an existential sort. He thought we were the freest people that the world had ever known. And he hated the small-mindedness in public life that made the country a meaner place than it ought to have been.
Harlot’s Ghost contains long stretches of fine writing, but the novel was not the career capstone he hoped for. While writers were fraternally indulgent of Mailer and generally praised the book, with reservations (Salman Rushdie: “In large part brilliant”), the critics were generally hostile (John Simon: “An arbitrary, lopsided, lumpy novel that outstays its welcome. And keeps on outstaying it”). Alas, stretches of fine writing do not make a fine novel. Harlot’s Ghost is unreasonably long, and it relies narratively on a somewhat hoary epistolary device. It was also, astonishingly, unfinished: Mailer intended a second volume, Harlot's Grave, which he never wrote.
A sense of proportion was always missing in Mailer’s work, as in his life. Proportion is precisely what he didn’t believe in. As Thomas Mann wrote in words that Mailer repeatedly endorsed, “only the exhaustive is truly interesting.”
Mailer was, despite his frequent foolishness, a gentleman in an obscure sense—a man who does not judge another by his station but by his attained wisdom and quality of conversation. He was an elitist, but of a spiritual sort, a cultivator of his own soul and of those whose own soulful strivings he could identify with. He was a great egotist, but crucially not a narcissist. A defining feature of narcissism is an absence of authentic interest in others. This cannot be said of Mailer, on whom his countrymen made such an enormous impression, and to whose unconscious byways he devoted his capacious mind for more than a half century.
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