Norman Mailer: the Writer as Fighter

The recent death of Norman Mailer called to mind an article I once wrote about bellicose writers. I started off talking about Stanley Crouch’s quarrel with Dale Peck and Ernest Hemingway fight with Max Eastman. That led to my take on Mailer:

When Norman Mailer grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, he idolized Hemingway. In due course, Mailer was able to replicate the pugnacious career of his hero, getting into many dust-ups, both literary and physical. By the early 1970s, he had made a particular enemy of his fellow novelist Gore Vidal.

The two men quarreled over sexual politics. In many books and essays, Mailer had cast himself as an unorthodox defender of traditional sexual norms by sharply criticizing feminism, gay rights and even the use of birth control. For Vidal, a witty champion of sexual liberation, Mailer had become a retrogressive joke. “The Patriarchalists have been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons, at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated and killed.” Vidal wrote in New York Review of Books in 1971. “There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression.”

Mailer was particularly incensed by the last jibe, which linked him to a mad killer. Mailer took his feud to a television audience later in 1971, when Vidal was scheduled to appear on the Dick Cavett Show. Mailer pushed Cavett to let him appear on the same program.

“By the time of the show, I was explosive,” Mailer would later recall. “I had been drinking for a few hours before the show, and I confronted Gore in the dressing room before the show. I was steamed up and very angry. I was in battle mode. I ran at him and butted him in the head in the dressing room. Being a very cool professional, Gore just went onstage and acted as if nothing had happened and told some wonderful stories, particularly the one about Eleanor Roosevelt putting flowers in her toilet bowl to keep the flowers fresh.”

When Mailer went on stage, he created an even more outlandish display by making the bizarre accusation that Vidal ruined Jack Kerouac’s life by having sex with the beatnik writer. Five years later, Mailer was still looking for revenge. At a dinner party he threw a drink at Vidal before trying to tackle him to the ground. In his old age, however, Mailer has mellowed and in a well-publicized 1985 event he publicly reconciled himself to Vidal.

The issue of sexual identity hides behind all these writerly scuffles. Female writers don’t seem to have the same need to prove themselves by fisticuffs. There are no stories of Virginia Woolf getting into barroom brawls or Alice Munro sucker-punching Margaret Atwood. Male writers of the Hemingway mold, by contrast, are always anxious that by engaging in a literary trade they run the risk of being called sissies. Aside from getting back at smart-alecky book reviewers, the literary punch-up is a good chance to demonstrate your virility. Ironically, these fights validate Eastman’s original critique of Hemingway and his followers.

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