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