Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Death of a Pugilist

Of the several amusing stories about the life of Norman Mailer, the confrontational don of postwar American letters, in the BBC's obituary for him, I found these to be notable:
Mailer's obsession with masculinity and violence often got him into trouble. He once beat up a sailor on a Manhattan street because he believed that the man had questioned the sexuality of his dog.

In 1971, he head-butted his fellow writer Gore Vidal before a television chat-show after Vidal had written that "there has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression".
In addition to being a respected novelist and biographer, Mailer was a boxer, womanizer, social commentator, and newspaper man (he co-founded The Village Voice). His was the voice of the insurgent American male who saw his "status" as a man socially and culturally diminished in the years following the war.

Critics usually point to his influence on literary contemporaries such as Philip Roth and John Updike. But it seems to me Mailer's shadow is also cast over the work of filmmakers Woody Allen and Terence Malick (notably The Thin Red Line), as well as the "ethnic" writers Ishmael Reed and Frank Chin (in his public dispute with Maxine Hong Kingston). There's also Mailer's contribution to hipster culture, "The White Negro" (1956; reprinted in Advertisements for Myself in 1959). From the beatniks to the Beastie Boys, Mailer influenced generations of disaffected white youth who found soulful expression in cool "black" pose.

Norman Mailer was a figure who, although his books may have fallen out of favor in recent decades, embodied the voice of the modern American man in all his contradictions: bullish yet victimized (by women), brash yet fundamentally insecure.

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