In the republic at twilight, where the cult of the self is our one true faith and energy has superseded virtue as the object of our reverence, it was inevitable that someone like Norman Mailer should become America’s most celebrated man of letters. He pursued greatness with unrivaled perfervid longing, aching to produce the masterwork that would place him among the immortals. And even to be a great writer was not enough: he was determined to be known for a great man, as manly a man as there ever was, a towering oaken totem of courage and erotic force.
But he was also hell-bent on fame as the whimsical passions of the hour dispensed it, craving the narcotic of his outsize image in the press and on television, perpetually measuring his accomplishment against those of his contemporaries and invariably proclaiming himself biggest.
His vulgarity was a more significant factor in his allure than whatever he possessed of high aspiration. The way his most serious ambition was joined to his crassest need made him singularly appealing to a literary public that fed on nonsensical political ideas and fantasies of artistic superstardom, with its fabulous perquisites of cultural ubiquity, wealth, and hot sex.
He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the body’s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. -Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorified—not quite what Eliot had in mind.
As the second anniversary of his passing approaches, it is worth asking: How is Norman Mailer to be remembered? Well, Algis Valiunas, writing at commentarymagazine.com suggests that until he is forgotten, Mailer should be remembered not only in a fool’s cap and bells but also in a scoundrel’s midnight black. For in an age crawling with intellectual folly, he was one of the reigning dunces, even his best works were shot through with adolescent fatuities, while the worst of his words and deeds were stupid and vicious without bottom. One is torn between wishing that his memory would disappear immediately and wanting his remains to hang at the crossroads as a lasting reminder to others.