Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer at the PEN Club, NYC, 1985 – photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, 1984. Photo: Jerry Aronson / The Life & Times of Allen Ginsberg

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) was born on this day. Here’s Mailer’s contribution to Bill Morgan’s Best Minds festschrift collection, a letter dated March 22, 1984:

Dear Bill Morgan. You may use this for the Festschrift. Years ago I wrote a poem about Allen which went something like – I quote from memory – “Sometimes I think ‘That ugly kike,/That four-eyed faggot/is the bravest man in America”. Well over the years Allen’s gotten considerably better looking and has doubtless earned that most curious position of being a major and near to elder statesman in homosexual ranks and his poetry, bless it, goes on forever. That is always major, or the next thing to it – even when it’s verbose, it’s grand, and even when it’s elevated, it’s too obscene for audiences, Allen has even learnt to sing , and his Buddhism is as deep and vast as the sea, and he has no ego that he does not share with us, yet still I’d say I subscribe to the poem.Doubtless he’s not the bravest man in America, but he sure has got to be among  the  ten or twenty that one can argue about, and that is why I love him from afar, and to get pious about it, will always esteem him,  Cheers, Norman Mailer.

from a July 1984 classroom visit to Naropa (the full audio is available here and here – and much appears in transcription in Michael Schumacher’s  First Thought – Conversations with Allen Ginsberg (2017)):

AG: Norman, before you came in I was saying that, as far as I’m concerned, that kind of vividness (Reznikoff-ian vividness), which catalyzes a certain consciousness in people is the function of art. It’s what I’m interested in. Do you have some ideas about what you do that might be comparable? What’s your angle?

NM: Oh, I don’t know if I can formulate it, really. I never trust myself when I’m talking about what I’m up to.

AG: It’s the trouble with teaching – when you teach you start talking a lot.

NM: Well, I don’t talk, so I’ve always been afraid to teach. I had a feeling I might start fooling    with my underpinnings. I only talk about writing in the most mechanical fashion – good habits, bad habits, how to know when you’re working right, how to know when you’re working wrong. I almost never like to think about the aim. I assume the aim just comes out of the deepest part of your consciousness, if you’re serious about the job. There are purposes you can state, but it could be misleading to talk about them, because there are other deeper purposes that you can’t state.

William S Burroughs (also present):  – Absolutely, I agree with that.

AG: I remember you saying before that a novelist is like an athlete

NM: The inner daily life of a novelist is probably closer to that of a professional athlete – not an amateur, but a professional athlete – than that of a poet. Because what an athlete is thinking about is keeping up a certain level of performance every day. Let’s say a basktetball player is playing there for four games a week. No matter what is happening in his personal life, his public life in the media, his economics, his habits, he can’t let any of that get into the performance. And what generally makes a good novelist is that he or she is reasonably good day after day, week after week, season after season. And then, at the end of a year or two, you have a novel.

AG: Do you write every day?

NM: Well it varies greatly depending on what the book is demanding. There are some books where you just have to stop every few days and learn some more about your subject. There are other books where you get on a roll and you’re afraid to stop because you know, if you do, you’ll have trouble getting going again. And of course ego is involved when you’re writing a novel. You have to keep up your notion of yourself which is very difficult. A poet doesn’t;t have that problem of ego, they have other problems..

AG: You don’t have ego problems if you’re a poet?

NM: Well, in the sense that, if you can write it down in an hour or even in a week, it’s not hard to believe that you’re truly doing something important. If you can at least get a short draft finished in a short period, then you can contemplate it and go through many moods about it later.But as a novelist you have to keep your idea going even when you know that you’re not writing your best – you can sense it, you can feel that something flat has gotten into the work. You have to keep it moving; you have to keep fighting to support it. It’s very much like an athlete in a slump. So stories make demands on you. And they change your life. I know I’m making a large generalization, but I’d say almost all novelists would write novels without stories if they could get away with it. Characters are much more interesting than stories. But if you get two interesting characters. it’s almost obligatory that they start doing something together!

AG: I think Bill (Burroughs) has abandoned the story-line

William S Burroughs: I haven’t abandoned the story line at all! My last two books have had very definite, elaborate story lines….

& from Peter Manso‘s 1985 oral biography, Mailer – His Life And Times

AG:  I thought Advertisements For Myself was good prose because it was personal – maybe too stylized but still personal – and it connected his private life with his public personality.
It didn’t seem that he was more confused than me or Kerouac. We were all foundering. Kerouac was drinking himself to death by then. Burroughs was coming out of junk. The odd thing was the graciousness of Mailer’s effort to keep in constant communications with the ongoing spiritual battle over the American soul, to include the world and its response in his art. Perhaps it wasn’t graciousness so much as grace and you draw this in Advertisements.


Kerouac disapproved of what some people called Norman’s grandstanding, but I think Norman’s got a spiritual motive for his public address. I recognized it because I have public address too – it’s the awareness that there is a living world and mind outside that is influenceable and influencing, and that if you talk directly to it you can break through and communicate, actually alter the attitude of mind or human consciousness through a work of art. The work of art therefore becomes Shelley-ian, an unacknowledged legislative act, which  can work in a lot of different ways – as Kerouac did it, in total saintly privation, writing all his works knowing that they’re never going to be published  except maybe after he’s dead; or you can try, as Norman and I have tried, to address the public directly.
But I didn’t think –  don’t think – Norman’s celebrity was a problem. If you’re smart enough, and by that I mean transparent-hearted enough, you can go anywhere and do anything and there will be no problem with either celebrity or the law. If Mailer can talk about himself as a victim, then he is aware and has become transparent, and that nullifies all dangers.

Here‘s Al Aronowitz in 1960, in the Village Voice, on the occasion of the publication of Seymour Krim’s Beats anthology –  (on Mailer and Kerouac):   “Kerouac and Mailer have long been literary brothers, even if under each other’s skin. Which one founded the Beat Generation and which one merely found it is just a question of semantics.”

Mailer’s 1957 essay – The White Negro – Superficial Reflections on the Hipster was, and of course remains, a seminal text (some have argued, in its time, as essential as On the Road  in defining the Beat aesthetic). Both Ginsberg and Kerouac had significant reservations about, for example, its position on violence, (not to mention its arrogant, seemingly unapologetic, cultural appropriation), but its timeliness, its sympathy, its insightfulness and post-war relevance, could hardly be denied.
It was, in Allen’s estimation, ” the most intelligent statement I’d ever seen by any literary-critical person, anyone acquainted with the great world of literature”.  He saw Mailer (as Aronowitz noted Kerouac and Mailer) as a brother (brother in the struggle against oppressive conformity),

It was a relationship they maintained, (if not intimately), for the next four decades. (Allen and Mailer seemed particularly united in the ‘Sixties)

Mailer’s “star” has significantly diminished (brutality and machismo, quite rightly, not too much in favor these days) – but perhaps time for a revival?

Here’s his obituary (from November 2007) in the New York Times.

One comment

  1. For those interested in learning more about Mailer, I recommend J. Michael Lennon’s in-dept biography “Norman Mailer: A Double Life.” NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

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