Was Norman Mailer the last tough guy?

Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-la

Norman Mailer: a Double Life
J Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, 960pp, £30

Norman Mailer spent the summer of 1997 rereading the books he had written over the previous 50 years: novels about the Second World War, Hollywood and ancient Egypt; literary journalism on US politics, anti-war demonstrations and space exploration; polemics against feminism and biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald and Picasso. There were short stories, screenplays and poems. Mailer was approaching his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel that had made his reputation, The Naked and the Dead.

To mark these two occasions, he was planning a book. This was published the following year as The Time of Our Time, a huge anthology of pieces taken from across his career. The extracts are arranged not in the order of their composition but according to the year of the events they describe: so a scene from Mailer’s 1991 novel about the CIA (Harlot’s Ghost) is presented alongside an essay that he wrote in 1959. In doing so, Mailer reshaped his many writings into an idiosyncratic biography of the US in the 20th century.

J Michael Lennon’s new biography of Mailer tries to tell the whole story of the writer’s life. This is no humble ambition. Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-law. He is commissioned to write 20,000 words for a magazine article and given a month deadline. He writes 90,000 words instead, which the magazine, Harper’s, publishes – “the longest piece ever published in an American magazine”, according to Lennon – and which then wins the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer was maximal. He ran for mayor of New York twice. He was interviewed 700 times.

Mailer lived his life in order to gather material. He was 19 when the US entered the Second World War and he wondered whether a better novel could be written about the Pacific campaigns or the war in Europe; he started planning his war novel before he was called up in March 1944. During basic training, he took notes “on the sex lives of the other soldiers”. He fought in the Philippines and listed the names of the soldiers he met; they turn up in The Naked and the Dead.

This hunger – to get life into literature –was a constant. He followed The Naked and the Dead with two more novels but soon became frustrated with the restrictions of fiction. In the late 1950s, after an unhappy period in Hollywood trying to write screenplays, he turned to journalism and non-fiction. The so-called New Journalists of the 1960s –Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion –made their pursuit of the story part of the story and wrote themselves into their reports. Mailer’s innovation was an extreme version of this.

In October 1967, he participated in a demonstration at the Pentagon. His account of the march and its aftermath, in which he was arrested and briefly jailed, was published the following year as The Armies of the Night. In it, Mailer uses what he called the “third-person personal”: he refers to himself as “Mailer”. This became his signature technique. In The Fight (1975), his superb account of the boxing match in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, he is “Norman”. In the book’s most moving and revealing scene, “Norman” goes for a midnight run with Ali and his frank, funny account of his pride and nervousness at exercising with the boxer makes Ali seem both greater and more human.

This technique dissolves the barrier on which literary biography depends – between a writer’s life and works. The colourful, confessional presence of Mailer in his books suggests that the writer’s personal life is one more part of the performance and this in turn puts his biographer in an impossible position. Mailer asked J Michael Lennon (his amanuensis for On God) to write this biography and was interviewed frequently by him. The result is that this book reads at times as a weird paraphrase of the story inside Mailer’s head. We are told, for example: “He had the feeling that he’d be busy when he got home in August.” Here, the biographer is the spokesman for Mailer’s inner life; elsewhere, Lennon falls into a pastiche of Mailer’s mannerisms and obsessions. Strangest of all, Lennon refers to himself in the third person: he quotes himself and then identifies the speaker as “Lennon” or “Mike Lennon” without noting that this is himself. This biography, then, is Mailer as rewritten by a lesser Mailer.

Mailer did not write only about himself. His finest book is The Executioner’s Song (1979), which describes the crimes and subsequent execution of a murderer called Gary Gilmore. Mailer does not, however, appear in it. Instead, the book is 1,000 or so pages of beautiful, subtle ventriloquism, as he inhabits the perspectives of the killer, his victims and his lover and then the lawyers and journalists who swarm around the trial. It is possibly the greatest work in all American non-fiction but it reads so like a novel that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

This was Mailer’s gift: in shaping and compiling the great mess of experience and daily life into powerful stories that thwart simple categorisation – or biographical analysis.

Daniel Swift is a senior lecturer in English at the New College of the Humanities

Fighting spirit: Norman Mailer at a New York gym in 1978. Image: Michael Brennan/Corbis

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times