Summing up Norman Mailer has been a thorny proposition for obituary writers. Roger Kimball had no trouble passing judgment on Mailer’s literary body of work, but on Sunday, The NY Times struggled to find a consistent note. It seems clear his literary reputation had been shrinking in recent years, particularly if one looks at current scholarship on jazz literature.
Mailer notoriously used jazz in his essay “The White Negro,” as a symbol of a sexual potent existentialism that only achieves full flowering in acts of nihilistic violence, leading him to glorify the hypothetical impulse killing of a candy-store owner by juvenile delinquents. Mailer infamously wrote: “jazz is orgasm” and as a result, created a raft of hipster baggage for jazz artists to deal with.
Mailer’s violent racial and sexual jazz associations were not well received by some at the time, and have aged poorly. David Yaffe is remarkably even-handed and dispassionate in his analysis of jazz and American literature in Fascinating Rhythm, but his portrayal of Mailer is not flattering. Of Mailer’s understanding of jazz, Yaffe writes:
“A detailed investigation of what was actually happening on and around the bandstand would have complicated his argument, and the nuance would have cooled the fire of his prose. Mailer needed musicians to be tough, black, and hypersexual men, and the last thing he wanted was for bop to be the ‘miscegenated’ phenomenon identified by [Anatole] Broyard.” (p. 36)
Yaffe dramatizes Mailer’s musical ignorance with this description:
“Those who knew Mailer well said he never did have an ear for music, and, according to Carl Rollyson’s biography, he rented a saxophone to play along with Monk’s music despite his complete inability to play the instrument. Indiscriminately honking along with Monk’s music was ‘hip’ to Mailer, who thought he was witnessing black masculinity in its purest unadulterated form.” (p. 38)
While Yaffe’s analysis of “The White Negro” as jazz writing is unflattering, he gives it credit on some levels, arguing it: “misses the music but succeeds as polemic.” (p. 197) Another recent scholarly examination of “The White Negro” comes from Scott Saul in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties. The political tone of Saul’s writing suggests he would be more inclined to cut Mailer slack for ideological reasons, but he quotes extensive criticism of “WN” from contemporary critics:
“Nat Hentoff criticized Mailer for inflating the acumen of the hipsters, whose ‘reactions’ to jazz were ‘as superficial and unknowledgeable’ as those of white ‘adolescents’ who loved the onstage hamming of Stan Kenton . . . Some of its practitioners, he added evenhandedly, led itinerant lives of adventure and disrepute, but many were ‘cigar makers, dock workers, artisans, sons of small businessmen,’ even ‘the children of the middle class.” (p. 68)
Others were even more caustic according to Saul, like Ralph Ellison, whose letter to Albert Murray complaining about Mailer and Jack Kerouac is also cited:
“These characters are all trying to reduce the world to sex, man, they must have strange problems in bed . . . That’s what’s behind Mailer’s belief in the hipster and the ‘white Negro’ as the new culture hero” (ellipsis in Saul, p. 69)
Mailer needed 1960’s jazz to be 1990’s hip-hop. That many jazz artists were consciously working to perfect their art while working to provide for their families was not sufficiently revolutionary. He would eventually move on to more suitable objects for hero-worship: convicted killers Gary Gilmore and professed Marxist Jack Abbott.
Kimball might be dismissive of Mailer’s talent as a writer, but I would argue there was at least some “there” there, at one time. The only Mailer novel I have read is his critically castigated Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Churned out in a matter of months when Mailer was in desperate financial straights, it is filled with foul language and misogynistic sex, perhaps the perfect window into his soul. It is also an oddly compelling crime novel that pulls you through the story by the nose (though Mailer would probably say he was reaching for a different body part). In the NY Times obit, Mailer actually identifies it as one of his favorites—sometimes the wolf at the door can be a heck of a muse. Mailer also deserves credit for his aspiration to write “the Great American Novel,” a lofty goal, that he can not be blamed for failing (by his own admission) to attain.
Mailer evidently came to consider himself above editing, as his books became increasingly long polemical doorstoppers. Fewer and fewer among the literary smart set would feel the need to keep up with Harlot’s Ghost and Oswald’s Tale. In his later years Mailer was evolving from vaunted literary figure to mere celebrity, writing an O.J. Simpson mini-series, and even guest-starring on The Gilmore Girls. Such were the demands of maintaining celebrity status. Guilty pleasures aside, Mailer’s future place in the literary canon is increasingly murky, and his writings on jazz in particular have already fallen into critical disfavor.