Writer-at-large Don Graham on provocative writer Norman Mailer, New Journalism, and existentialism.
texasmonthly.com: Mailer is famously confrontational—always ready for a fight. At eighty-plus years old, does he appear to have mellowed?
Don Graham: I don’t think he has mellowed very much. He continues to comment on current politics and continues, when the opportunity arises, to try to be provocative.
texasmonthly.com: You wrote that Mailer has written several masterpieces, but that that 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.” How did he go from a writer of masterpiece literature to obscurity among today’s college students?
DG: It’s very hard to stay at the center of literary culture, especially as the importance of reading serious American literature gives way to competing forces: music, TV, film, video games, etc. Also, postmodernism has gained such a headway that certain writers, like the newest flavor of the month, are in, and the old guys are forgotten. Maybe Oprah could have a Norman Mailer Reading Month and bring him to the attention of a new generation of readers.
texasmonthly.com: You wrote that the “masculine, can-do frontier energy versus a dark, murderous, racist xenophobia” has attracted Mailer’s artistic gaze for almost fifty years. Do you think that is an accurate description of Texas in the first place?
DG: I do not think it’s an accurate description, but it’s certainly the way many members of elitist culture (located in New York and L.A.) still view Texas, so it’s not surprising that Mailer does. Mailer was in love with the Kennedy mystique and even thought that Ted Kennedy had charisma. And Texas, of course, is where JFK was killed.
texasmonthly.com: Mailer has been credited with developing a new-style journalism, in which novel techniques are used in creating a non-fiction narrative (The Armies of the Night, 1968). Do you see a danger in this process of slipping away from factual accuracy?
DG: Mailer should not be credited ahead of Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) for writing nonfiction narrative using fictional techniques. The problem with The Armies of the Night, as I see it, is that the event, the march on the Pentagon, is so time-bound now that nobody much remembers or cares, and Mailer’s third-person positioning of himself at the center of American history now seems to be overwrought. I find this book all but unreadable nowadays.
texasmonthly.com: Thomas F. Staley, the director of the Harry Ransom Center, said that “From the Vietnam War to capital punishment, from first amendment rights to the role of the writer in the modern world, Mailer engaged the important intellectual and social issues of his time.” What do you think Mailer sees as the role of the writer in the modern world?
DG: Mailer sees the writer, i.e., himself, as a combination of Jeremiah and Muhammad Ali.
texasmonthly.com: Mailer has been married six times. How much of his work deals with marriage and male-female relationships?
DG: For somebody who has been married so often, Mailer’s work remains pretty much dominated by a male voice, it seems to me. He has also famously assaulted (in print, I mean) the feminist movement. Mailer’s maleness may also be a factor in his fading from the scene.
texasmonthly.com: Does he indicate why this marriage—his sixth—has endured for 25 years?
DG: Not to my knowledge, but I haven’t read everything Mailer has said or written in the past 25 years. He has always loved to talk about his personal life, so he probably has answered this question at some time—or will in the future.
texasmonthly.com: What is Mailer’s view of his literary legacy? How much credit does he take for the “new journalism,” and how would he define the term?
DG: Mailer is one of the last members of that generation of writers who aimed high and thought openly about writing The Great American Novel. Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself (1959) offers the best claim, I believe, to his being one of the founders of what came to be called New Journalism. And this was before many of the New Journalists had appeared on the scene.
texasmonthly.com: Norman Mailer has been described as an “American Existentialist.” What does this term mean to him, and how would American existentialism differ from the French existentialism of, say, Sartre?
DG: Well, he likes to describe himself that way. He is on record as saying that Sartre took existentialism down the wrong road, toward atheism. Mailer’s existentialism is the subject of a new book that he is working on; perhaps he will explain all then.
texasmonthly.com: Has his preoccupation with the concerns of American culture been in any way a distraction from more serious pursuits? Does he seem able to distinguish between the important and the gimmicky?
DG: Sometimes, I think not. He wrote a book in the seventies trying to defend random graffiti in New York as art. He has argued in favor of the O.J. decision on the grounds of some kind of “tribal” justice prevailing over a rationalistic legal system.
texasmonthly.com: What did Mailer mean when he wrote of “a slow death by conformity”? Has he avoided this in his work?
DG: I think that Mailer has always subscribed to the idea that the artist must be a romantic who lives his life on the edge. Many of them, of course, died young: Byron, Shelley, Rimbaud, etc. But there’s another tradition, of the bourgeois artist—Flaubert, John Updike, for example—who live quietly and just write. Mailer, I guess, is somewhere in between. Certainly in his work he has tried very hard to avoid conformity.