The Long Patrol: 25 Years of Writing from the Work of Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work
At this relatively quiet moment in a noisy career, it may be tempting to try to see Mailer steadily and whole, as Professor Robert Lucid’s anthologies invite us to do. One gasps at the subtitle of The Long Patrol—has it really been twenty-five years since The Naked and the Dead? Even though the strictest answer is “no, not quite,” a lot of Mailer has indeed happened since 1948, as well as a lot of other things, and the institutional reek of “the man and his work” smells at least less inappropriate to the subject than it would have a few years ago. If Lucid’s professorial coupling of Mailer with Washington Irving and Longfellow in a tradition of “public writers” is a bit unsettling, still Mailer has never notably shied away from the idea of becoming an institution, the champion, the mayor, the president of letters, though he insists on his own terms, as in his remarks upon accepting the National Book Award: “It is nice to have awards and to accept them. They are the measure of the degree to which an Establishment meets that talent it has hindered and helped.” One notes who meets whom here, while relishing the precision of “meets,” which I suppose can only mean “comes into conformity with.”
Mailer’s friends and admirers needn’t worry about the prospect of his becoming a cultural monument. It’s one of his best roles. But how should the thing be constructed? From what angle should it be viewed? Lucid’s The Long Patrol, which strikes me as an imaginative and commercial absurdity, shows how not to do it. Who could conceivably want to spend fifteen dollars for a collection of excerpts from Mailer’s books, however nicely printed and tastefully chosen, when for an equivalent sum you could buy most of the books, entire, in paperback? To be useful to anyone, such an anthology should have included two or three whole books with briefer selections from the others; if copyright problems precluded this, the project would better have been scrapped.
The Man and His Work is more successful. Lucid assembles a good and representative sampling of writing about Mailer since 1959, the year in which Advertisements for Myself arrived to advise everybody that he not only still existed but was going to require a more complex attention than the early novels had suggested. Two articles from that year define the critical drama to follow: Alfred Kazin admiring the talent but worrying that it was being destroyed by self-consciousness, and Norman Podhoretz rising above his distaste for hipsterism to argue that Mailer was about to become a major novelist, maybe the major novelist, of his time. There was, of course, always a third camp, here represented by petulant putdowns by Calder Willingham and Tom Wolfe, but The Man and His Work mainly shows the division between people who respected Mailer’s gifts but complained, more or less kindly, about misapplications and abuses—Kazin, Gore Vidal …