Norman Mailer died yesterday in Manhattan. With his death goes perhaps the most prominent voice that came out of the Second World War. Out of a group of young, writer-vets that included Herman Wouk, Leon Uris, James Jones, Gore Vidal, Mailer was the author who received the most acclaim for writing the “Great War Novel,” “The Naked and The Dead.” In an era when the European theater is remembered far more than the war in the Pacific, and the Holocaust looms over it all, “The Naked and The Dead” stands as a compelling monument to beach landings and the savage fighting against the Japanese. I recommended it just a couple of weeks ago to a young post-grad who was only nominally aware of America’s efforts in the Pacific.
With the exception of Vidal, whose later works dwarfed his achievement with Williwaw, his first novel, of which there is a sly reference in Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” Mailer was the only one of these writers to grow after the war. As much as I enjoyed Wouk’s “Winds of War” and Uris’s “Exodus”, these are essential books of middlebrow pop. Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” is an innovative, towering achievement.
Still, as much as Mailer owed to the American who wrote the great World War I novel, Ernest Hemingway, he never became his generation’s Hemingway. Perhaps it was that he brandished his masculinity in too calculated of a way. Or maybe times dictated something different. As open as Hemingway was to charges of being a poseur, he was a more fair-minded reporter than Mailer. Hemingway went to Spain and filed dispatches on the Civil War. While staunchly anti-fascist, Hemingway injects more than a little skepticism about the Communist-backed Republican cause in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Hemingway didn’t go as far as George Orwell does in “Homage to Catalonia” but his account of the massacre in the town of Pablo foreshadows skepticism about the horrors of Communism. Mailer, on the other hand, was completely MIA in the great post war struggle, the fight against Communism, until Vietnam, when he affiliated himself with the anti-war movement. Here’s a Roger Kimball essay that puts Mailer in critical and somewhat negative perspective.
You have to credit Mailer for his insightful essay, “The White Negro,” which prefigured the mainstream embrace of hip hop by the white masses before the phenomenon even existed. I’d also make the case that his epic television battles with Gore Vidal represent punditry at its best, a height unequalled since the 1960s.
There’s much to criticize and even ridicule in Mailer. But his death leaves a massive gap in our culture. He was larger than life, and it is left to lesser voices to carry us forward.