Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer: the Ali and Frazier of American letters
One of the most bitter public feuds in the history of American letters raged between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal from the early 1970s all the way into the mid-eighties, when they finally reconciled. It was conducted in print and in person in various joint television appearances, most spectacularly on an episode of the Dick Cavett talk show in 1971. Away from the public eye, the feud most memorably manifested at a party in 1977, when Mailer punched Vidal in the face over the latter’s scathing review of his book on feminism The Prisoner of Sex. Legend has it that afterwards the latter looked at his assailant and said, “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.”
It was a clash of two literary titans, both of whom, if honest, would grudgingly have admitted a sneaking regard for the other even when their acrimony was at its most intense, what with the role of creative whetstone that each played in the other’s work.
Of the two the work of Norman Mailer, like whisky, is a taste acquired; his prose layered to such a fine point and poise that it could be no other. I still recall reading his work for the first time and feeling daunted at being confronted with one of the finest examples in the English language of what he described as the ‘spooky art’. The work in question was his classic book The Fight (1975) on the epic 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo). It remains one of the finest sports books ever written.
It seems like eight rounds have passed yet we only finished two. Is it because we are trying to watch with the fighters’ sense of time? Before fatigue brings boxers to the boiler room of the damned, they live at a height of consciousness and with a sense of detail they encounter nowhere else. In no other place is their intelligence so full, nor their sense of time able to contain so much of itself in the long internal effort of the ring. Thirty minutes go by like three hours. Let us undertake the chance, then, that our description of the fight may be longer to read than the fight itself. We can assure ourselves: It was even longer for the fighters.
Or how about this snippet from his 1976 essay, ‘Genius’, on the work of Henry Miller:
Henry Miller, however, exists in the same relation to legend that antimatter shows to matter. His life is antipathetic to the idea of legend itself. Where he is complex, he is too complex — we do not feel the resonance of slowly dissolving mystery but the madness of too many knots; where he is simple, he is not attractive — his air is harsh. If he had remained the protagonist by which he first presented himself in Tropic of Cancer — the man with iron in his phallus, acid in his mind, and some kind of incomparable relentless freedom in his heart, that paradox of tough misery and keen happiness, that connoisseur of the spectrum of odors between good sewers and bad sewers, that noble rat gnawing on existence and impossible to kill — then indeed he could have been a legend, a species of Parisian Bogart or American Belmondo.
Here I confess to having dismissed Mailer as a study in narcissism and self-aggrandisement in years gone by. I had him down as a writer who used his work not to mine and explore the human condition but rather to construct, maintain and promote a persona of rugged masculinity and derring-do. He came over as a study in male angst and insecurity, of a type Freud knew intimately. Thus, back then, I considered his prose self-conscious and contrived, lacking verisimilitude and fundament.
I was wrong.
My issue with Mailer, I later came to realise, was less to do with his writing and more to do with my reading. For if good writing is a serious craft, one that calls to us from the mists of the past and speaks to an uncertain future, how can good reading be anything less? The former, it should be indelibly absorbed, cannot and does not exist without the other.
And what is good reading if not the product of maturity; the fruits of an evolving sensibility? It’s why reading the right book at the wrong time can only result in failure to grasp its depth and importance, not forgetting the proper appreciation of the craft of the author. How many of us, being honest, have managed to get to grips with Joyce’s Ulysses at first attempt? Similarly when it comes to any number of other clasic works.
I make this point as someone who recently managed to get through Gore Vidal’s Lincoln at second time of asking. It was only then I was able to bring to bear the requisite level of concentration necessary to keep up with the shifting narrative, told through the eyes of the novel’s multiple characters, in process of which Vidal elegantly constructs a comprehensive and multidimensional insight into the mind of the book’s pseudonymous subject. The sense of time and place he succeeds in imparting is stunning when viewed in the context of the novel’s totality.
While Mailer may be a taste acquired, Gore Vidal is a taste required; his writing so imperious it affirms the centrality of great writing in lifting humanity out of the realm of necessity to experience, however temporarily, the transcendence of the inner life.
Consider this passage from his 1952 essay ‘The Twelve Caesars’, reviewing the classic work of the same name by Suetonius:
The unifying Leitmotiv in these lives is Alexander the Great. The Caesars were fascinated by him. The young Julius Caesar sighed enviously at his tomb. Augustus had the tomb opened and stared long at the conqueror’s face. Caligula stole the breastplate from the corpse and wore it. Nero called his guard the “Phalanx of Alexander the Great.” And the significance of this fascination? Power for the sake of power. Conquest for the sake of conquest. Earthly dominion as an end in itself: no Utopian vision, no dissembling, no hypocrisy. I knock you down; now I am king of the castle. Why should young Julius Caesar be envious of Alexander? It does not occur to Suetonius to explain. He assumes that any young man would like to conquer the world.
Mailer and Vidal lived parallel literary lives. Products of the Second World War (in which they both served), they each published their debut novel in the immediate postwar period - in Mailer’s case The Naked and the Dead to critical acclaim in 1948, and in Vidal’s Williwaw to critical indifference in 1946.
Both of them became immersed, personally and professionally, in the seismic events that unfolded over the course of the ensuing decades— events which, together, amount to one of the most tempestuous periods in American history. The Vietnam War; Black Civil Rights and Liberation movements; the rise and assassinations of JFK, RFK, Malcolm X, Dr Martin Luther King; the emergence of Reagan and Reaganomics; the fall of the Berlin Wall; these events, not to mention others, traced a downward trajectory from the hope spawned in the mid to late sixties of coming social, racial and economic liberation, to, by the early 1980s, the rise of an ironclad corporate dictatorship underpinned by the values of Wall Street.
Such a radical shift from the revolutionary upsurge of 1960s to the counter-revolutionary kickback of Reagan must surely have been disorienting for those actively engaged in the times.
Mailer and Vidal both ran for political office — Vidal seriously on two occasions in 1960 and 1982, Mailer less so on one, when he ran for mayor of New York in 1969. Mailer’s image as someone with neanderthal biases towards women (he was married six times and stabbed his second wife Adele Morales) and homosexuals was not undeserved. Add to the mix his years of hard drinking, replete with a catalogue of barroom brawls — and not forgetting his passionate interest in boxing — and you arrive at someone who aspired to emulate not just Ernest Hemingway’s writing write but his very ontology.
This being said though, in 1955 Mailer made an attempt to confront his anti-homosexual views in his essay ‘The Homosexual Villain’. As to how successful he was, readers can make up their own minds:
At any rate I began to face up to my homosexual bias. I had been a libertarian socialist for some years, and implicit in all my beliefs had been the idea that society must allow every individual his own road to discovering himself. Libertarian socialism (the first word is as important as the second) implies inevitably that one have respect for the varieties of human experience…I suppose I can say that for the first time I understood homosexual persecution to be a political act and a reactionary act, and I was properly ashamed of myself.
Gore Vidal, himself, was an unrepentant homosexual who was fearless in his defence of his right to indulge his sexual orientation as he saw fit, while at the same time refusing to be defined by it. He once opined on the matter thus: “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people. The sexual acts are entirely normal; if they were not, no one would perform them.”
Vidal’s courage in this regard was redolent of Oscar Wilde, who like him was a public intellectual with a penchant for same sex sex (and indeed got sent to prison for it), while also being a writer of extraordinary biting wit and depth. Both men were fiercely defiant of conformity and its ugly progeny, hypocrisy. In fact, one of the finest things Gore Vidal ever wrote was along those very lines: “I do not accept the authority of any state — much less one founded as ours was on the free fulfillment of each citizen — to forbid me, or anyone, the use of drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sex with a consenting partner or, if one is a woman, the right to an abortion. I take these rights to be absolute and should the few persist in their efforts to dominate the private lives of the many, I recommend force as a means of changing their minds.”
Interestingly, given the bitter rivalry and animus they shared over so many years, at one time amity rather than enmity existed between them. Here, by way of evidence, is a passage from a Gore Vidal essay in 1960. It appeared in The Nation magazine and though ostensibly a review of Mailer’s book Advertisements for Myself (1959), Vidal, as was his wont, offers up a sweeping analysis of Mailer’s work and his development as an artist up to that point:
Of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Mailer as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievement. There is more virtue in his failures than in most small, premeditated successes which, in Cynic’s phrase, “debase currency.” Mailer, in all that he does, whether he does it well or ill, is honourable, and that is the highest praise I can give any writer in this piping time.
Of the samples of Mailer and Vidal’s work so far referenced in this piece, none have been lifted from their works of fiction. This is no accident. To my mind, though both have due claim when it comes to writing renowned works of such, their best work is to be found in their essays and non-fiction journalism. It was a form they elevated into an art, raising the bar high enought to ensure their passing left a mammoth lacuna in American letters that is yet to be filled.
They also both made a foray into writing for the theatre and movies, Vidal far more successfully than Mailer. In fact, during the 1950s Gore Vidal mined a lucrative career writing for television and doctoring screenplays for the studios — most significantly working on a rewrite of the script for Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston. Vidal also enjoyed huge success on Broadway with his 1960 political play The Best Man, which he later adapted into the screenplay of the movie starring Henry Fonda in 1964.
Politically, both sat on the left of the spectrum; although here congruence ends. Whereas Vidal was a modern incarnation of Rome’s famed Tiberius Gracchus, which means to say by birth a member of the patrician class who nailed his political colours to the mast of the common man at the cost of finding himself outcast by his class, Mailer was down with the kids and the cool blacks in the counter cultural movement of the sixties going into the seventies. The former was fixated on the way the republic had in his considerable opinion been hijacked by hucksters, charlatans, warmongers and first rate second rate men (to coin Wendell Phillips’ withering excoriation of Abraham Lincoln). Men such as Harry S Truman, for example, who by dint of some cruel quirk of fate and circumstance found himself occupying the office of President of the United States after the death of FDR in 1945.
Truman was the progenitor of the National Security Act which kickstarted the US military industrial complex, the Cold War and decades of anti-communist hysteria and witchhunts, all of which scarred American society for generations, along with the world entire. Gore Vidal was, it is fair to say, non too impressed, averring in his 1999 Vanity Fair essay ‘The Last Empire’,
In regard to the ‘enemy, Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith — a former general with powerful simple views — wrote to his old boss General Eisenhower from Moscow in December 1947 apropos a conference to regularize European matters: ‘The difficulty under which we labor is that in spite of our announced position we really do now want or intend to accept German reunification in any terms the Russians might agree to, even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements’. Hence, Stalin’s frustration that led to the famous blockade of the Allied section of Berlin…The President [Truman] did not explain that the United States had abandoned [the agreements made at] Yalta and Potsdam, that it was pushing the formation of a West German state…and that the Soviets had launched the blockade to prevent partition.
Vidal was not a man ever minded to play the patriot game.
And neither was Norman Mailer, as adduced in his 1991 piece ‘How the Wimp Won the War’ on the First Gulf War in Iraq, against Saddam, and the central role of George Bush Sr in that event:
Mailer had decided that America — no matter how how much of it might still be generous, unexpected, and full of surprises — was nonetheless sliding into the first real stages of fascism. The Left, classically speaking, might be the most resolute defense against fascism, but what was the Left now about to contest? No part of it seemed able to cooperate effectively with any other part, nor was it signally ready to work with the Democratic Party for any set of claims but its own. The Democratic Party was bereft of vision and real indignation, and, given the essential austerity of the Christian ethic, the Republican Party was never wholly comfortable with that idea that Americans like themselves ought to be that rich. They grew more and more choleric about the blacks. Their unspoken solution became the righteous prescription: if those drug bastards won’t work, throw them in jail.
Both men had other literary feuds, Mailer with Tom Wolfe and James Baldwin, Vidal with William Buckley and Truman Capote, in response to whose death in 1984 he is said to have quipped, “A wise career move.”
Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, whom I was privileged to meet in person at an anti-Iraq war rally in 2003 in Hollywood at which he spoke, were among the last true giants of American letters. Their feud was redolent of two gunslingers for whom the town they were in was not big enough for both.
They were giants in the Land of Lilliput.