You’ve Got Mailer
Norman Mailer, whose literary archives were purchased by the University of Texas this spring, has always been a cranky, outspoken writer. Care to guess what he thinks about Texas?
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AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA in the early seventies, one of my colleagues was the genial Robert Lucid, Norman Mailer’s longtime friend and authorized biographer. From Professor Lucid I heard a lot of insider talk about Mailer and even met the great man once when he came to campus. Mailer talked for six or seven hours, until most of the students and faculty were worn out. Then he talked some more. I forget the subject. Existential politics? The greatness of Fidel Castro? America’s inexorable drift toward fascism? It could have been any or all of these.
Don’t get me wrong; I like Norman Mailer. He is, after all, the man who wrote The Naked and the Dead, arguably the greatest novel about World War II, and The Executioner’s Song, a bleak masterpiece about the modern West. But my encounter with him was more than thirty years ago, and Mailer has written umpteen books and letters (and e-mails) since then and lived so long that a generation of undergraduates no longer even knows his name. Last spring, though, Mailer was back in the news, holding press conferences and talking about three of his favorite subjects: writing, politics, and himself. It was good to see him in action in Austin, where in April he presided over the purchase of his vast archival holdings by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. For once the word “vast” is not hyperbolic. The collection includes approximately five hundred boxes weighing more than 20,000 pounds, with manuscripts of all of his books and thousands of letters, notes, e-mails, photographs, canceled checks, even the registration tags for his dogs. (His mother, Fanny Schneider Mailer, believed in her son’s greatness from day one and saved everything.)
In the various comments occasioned by the announcement of UT’s acquisition, Mailer always mentioned that his early experience with Texans in the Army influenced his decision. He said that during his time in the Philippines in World War II, he “learned a good bit about Texas and Texans, so that may have been a factor in choosing the University of Texas.” Another reason, he said, was the status of the Ransom Center as “one of the finest, if not the finest, collections of American literary archives in the world.” The $2.5 million that UT paid for the archives probably played a role as well, a figure, incidentally, that seems quite reasonable given the significance of Mailer’s omnipresence in post-WWII literary culture.
Mailer’s public-relations remarks, however, hardly tell the real story of the importance of Texas in his psyche. His service in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry, out of San Antonio, altered him forever, in his mother’s view. Upon his return from the South Pacific, she felt that “something was lost . . . a certain kindness, his softness.” But it wasn’t necessarily because of the war. It was, in her words, “because those Texas men were wild.” In that melting pot cauldron of the Army, Mailer encountered cursing, drunkenness, and anti-Semitism. Fanny never forgave the effect the Army had on her sensitive son (this is the same son, by the way, who stabbed the second of his six wives). It is also hard to imagine that Mailer might have gone through his life at that point without picking up a few curse words in New York City.
Mailer himself was both repelled by and drawn to the rugged Texas type. He admired the Texans’ physical hardness and began to imitate their drawl when he wanted to appear tough. That style would continue to be a useful part of Mailer’s public persona in the decades of boozing, bragging, and brawling to come. But his truest feelings about Texans are found in his work. His early fascination with the state finds its way into The Naked and the Dead, which was published in 1948. Two of the most unforgettable characters in the novel—sergeants Samuel Croft and Julio Martinez—are both Texans. In a section titled “Sam Croft The Hunter,” we learn that Croft hails from “the red dry soil of western Texas” (wherever that is) and is a glinty, blue-eyed killer, a man who fears—and hates—women and “EVERYTHING WHICH IS NOT IN MYSELF.” He is the way he is “because the devil has claimed him for one of his own. It is because he is a Texan; it is because he has renounced God.” Mailer’s strange affection for Croft is confirmed by his friends at the time. When he was living in France in the late forties, he and his wife (number one) and friends used to play a game called “The Naked and the Dead,” and Mailer always insisted upon playing Croft.
Julio Martinez represents another side of Lone Star life. Apparently based on a Mexican American from South Texas who served in Mailer’s platoon, Martinez grows up on the “festering streets of San Antonio,” where race, class, and prejudice will keep him from realizing the American dream of becoming “a doctor, a lawyer, big merchant, chief.” Only the Army offers an escape from the barrio, but regardless of how much Martinez “breathe[s] the American fables,” the old barriers of race and poverty prove insurmountable: “No need to stumble over pebbles and search the Texas sky. Any man jack can be a hero. Only that does not make you white Protestant, firm and aloof.” Here Martinez is like the Jews in the novel: The WASP status is forever beyond his reach, and Mailer’s Texas, with its rigid racialist agenda, stands for a kind of über-America. Whatever America is, it is writ larger in what was then the nation’s largest state and in Mailer’s perfervid imagination.
Until George W. Bush came along, Mailer’s biggest Texan bête noire was Lyndon Johnson. That he succeeded Mailer’s idol, John F. Kennedy, was enough to make the writer dislike LBJ. But it was Vietnam that really got Mailer’s political juices flowing. Here is Mailer, in a speech he made at Berkeley on Vietnam Day in 1965, discoursing on what he considered to be Johnson’s matchless opportunism: “The Nigras had their civil rights, and the rednecks could be killing gooks. Yes, thought the president, his friends and associates were correct in their estimate of him as a genius. Hot damn. Vietnam. The president felt like the only stud in a whorehouse on a houseboat.”
The Texan—Southeast Asian nexus, in Mailer’s mind (disregarding President Kennedy’s own anti-Communist agenda in Vietnam), led to one of his strangest novels, a vernacular romp called Why Are We in Vietnam? In a highly energized “stream of conch” style, Mailer explores the “kink which resides in the heart of the Lone Star” by telling the story of two Texas youths, D. J. Guthrie and Tex Hyde, who go on a crazed hunt for grizzly bear in Alaska. The model for the Texans is a familiar one, as Mailer has stated: “I would make them out of a reserve of memories of Texans I had served with in the 112th Cavalry. . . . The boys would be still young, still mean rather than uncontrollably murderous.” Tex, we’re told, is a “looker” who stands above six feet, “all whip leather, saber and hide even when he seventeen.” D.J. is a scatological narrator of considerable comic panache. Some of his racier riffs on race, sex, and the metaphysical connections thereof are amazing, and his sexual interpretation of the Alamo, which “accounts for why it’s such a crazy state,” is both hilarious and unprintable in this magazine. Most times when Dallas is mentioned, it’s “Dallas ass” and “Texas ass” the same; the simple premise is that Texas rites of manhood, power, and capitalism are why we are in Vietnam.
And still Mailer was not done with Texas. The “Super-Americans,” as John Bainbridge had dubbed them in a 1961 book, summoned Mailer’s increasingly self-absorbed and antic muse. In 1969, Of a Fire on the Moon tracked the Apollo mission, and at NASA headquarters, in Houston, Mailer once again encountered that stereotype from World War II: men who had “the contained anger and cool crisp manner of men who have domiciled their unruly and bust-out impulses: so they emit a sense of discipline, order, and unmistakably virile, if controlled, determination.” The he—for this piece of New Journalism is narrated in the third person, as became Mailer’s wont in this period of further advertisements for himself—is Aquarius, as in “the age of.” Aquarius’ self-analysis is interesting in the light of the men of action he saw: “He was weary of his own voice, own face, person, persona, will, ideas, speeches, and general sense of importance.”
The sixties had been strenuous for a man like Mailer. First, there was that incident with the second wife, then all the assassinations that roiled the nation, all the protests, his experimentation with marijuana and other drugs, and his own venture into electoral politics in the campaign to become mayor of New York, finishing fourth out of a field of five.
Mailer’s last book-length look at Texas is curiously tepid on a usually torrid topic. Instead, the two-volume nonfiction Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, published in 1995, hews closely to the official record. Although we learn a great deal about Marina Oswald’s sex life and Lee Harvey’s possible homosexuality, there is little room for Maileresque pyrotechnic asides and flights into personal and political paranoia. For the reader unwilling to slog through its 791 pages, Mailer believes that Lee Harvey did it.
For almost sixty years, then, the character of Texas—its masculine, can-do frontier energy versus a dark, murderous, racist xenophobia—has attracted Mailer’s artistic gaze. Evidence that the long-held dichotomy still governs his thought was on display in Mailer’s address in Austin on April 27. To a heavily blue-state audience he showed the old fire, declaring that Texas “has produced some of the bravest people and some of the most god-awful. In my mind, George W. Bush falls firmly in the second category.” At the age of 82, Mailer remains Mailer.