The Existentialist Hipster
“It's excellent. Please do
Norman Mailer is dead, and with that the literary world has lost another one of its shining lights. He may have never produced the great American novel but on many different occasions and with varying degrees of success he got close. He was born before the Great Depression and much of what he heard and saw in his youth directed his early writing. He was gifted enough to join Harvard at the age of 16 and harboured dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer. But those dreams soon dissipated and into his sophomore year he was writing copiously. He claimed to become a great writer-- one had to get the bad writing out of one's system and with that in mind he set himself a target of 3000 words a day, thus exorcizing what he thought to be his early “bad” writing. Soon enough he was drafted into the army and in 1944 served in East Asia. By now his characteristic persona was emerging, he was combative, loud, arrogant and full of himself.
His time in the war provided him with the material for his first and arguably greatest success, The Naked and the Dead-- a partly autobiographical novel about his experiences in the war. It proved to be a runway success and by the tender age of 25 he was touted as the next great literary figure. Aspirations he never quite achieved in his lifetime, but not for a lack of trying. He was a tireless writer, cultural commentator and of course one of the founding fathers of new journalism.
Over and above his work he was a real entertainer, a personality like none had seen before. He was outspoken to say the least and often courted controversy, if not on purpose but he could never shy away from it. His love for experimental drugs and a fondness for drink led him to say the most bizarre things and more often than not on a public platform. For years he was fodder for talk show hosts as they invited him specifically because they wanted him to say something outrageous. His public feuds were legendary as his verbal duels with such authors as Gore Vidal often bordered on insanity.
Mailer led the essential New York writer's life through the 50's and the 60's. Constantly linked with the beat generation his erratic lifestyle only added to his aura. Mailer's best known work of new journalism is his epic essay "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on a Hipster", where he says “Our search for the rebels of the generation led us to the hipster. The hipster is an enfant terrible turned inside out. In character with his time, he is trying to get back at the conformists by lying tow”. Mailer's beat prose brought his writing to the forefront of a generation still trying to find a drug fuelled, existentialist meaning to the universe and life. But while that was the time and era, his novels and most of his writing matured (if that is the right word to choose) with the passage of time.
He was good enough to win two Pulitzer prizes and The National Book Award, but every single piece he wrote was either critically acclaimed or panned, it seems there was no common consensus regarding his work. You either loved it or hated it. Mailer remained a prolific writer up until his death, writing book after book without fail, like any good artist he showed with the material time and time again, the rest was up to the audience.
It would be impossible to disassociate Norman Mailer from jazz as he truly loved the first real American art. Constantly shmoozing with the stars he loved and lived it. He is even etched into the great folklore of jazz music as he presided over a citizens' meeting with the editor of The Paris Review and other literati to discuss the seemingly unnatural death of Lord Buckley. His tireless lobbying and activism got the controversial New York City Cabaret Card scrapped. In 1969 he even unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York in what people first thought to be a joke, he even put forward secessionist ideas, campaigning for New York to become the 51st state. Politics always played a major role in life as he covered many Republican and Democratic conventions through the sixties and into the seventies, even managing to a few in the nineties. His convention writings were legendary as his mix of journalism with elements of fiction placing him at the centre of the story was ground-breaking.
His private life was also anything but ordinary as he married six times and even famously stabbed one of his wives in a drunken fit. His anti-feminist stances should have made him public enemy number one for most females and possibly six marriages may have been how they paid him back. Mailer even found the time to write a volume of poetry entitled Deaths for the Ladies and Other Disasters. To say it was well received would be a joke. Its small run on poems are at best those of a bored mind, but every now and then he came up with a gem. There are many, people who would have been more than happy to say, its excellent/please do stop, to him but the enormity of his personality would not allow that. Mailer was a real hipster who filled the istentialist vacuums of his life with words few people could fathom, let alone say or write. To talk of him in the past tense is to disrespect him; Norman Mailer is larger than life, nothing more, nothing less.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007