In honor of the late Norman Mailer, here’s a review I wrote in 1999 of Mary V. Dearborn’s biography of him, and here’s Mailer’s feisty reply.
Posted by Caleb Crain on 10 November 2007 in obituaries
Out of curiosity: How did you feel about Mailer's reply? I mean, as a reviewer your responsibility lay with the book you were reviewing and not toward the man that book was about. Primarily. And yet… because Mailer was still around to dispute the facts of his life, perhaps you should have weighed more judiciously the difference (as Mailer claims there was a difference) between fact and "factoid"? If you could you have known the "facts" as he identifies them in his letter (assuming they are that), would you have been obligated to point those out as part of a critique of Dearborn's biography?
I'm not making an argument one way or the other, by the way–Mailer of all people could take multiple interpretations of his life; heck, he perpetrated many such interpretations himself–I'm just interested in whether, as a biography's reviewer, you took on any of the obligations of biography itself of fairness toward the (living) subject, and if so, did it make the review more difficult?
Very good questions. I don't entirely remember all my feelings; I think that I was rattled at first by Mailer's letter, but ended up amused that I'd got caught in the crossfire. It seemed sort of an honor to be attacked by Norman Mailer.
I think the reviewer always has an obligation to be truthful and to be fair, whether the subject is living or dead. What the to-and-fro made me wonder about was how much diligence a reviewer ought to go to in fact-checking. I think that if it's possible for a reviewer to know the facts, the reviewer is responsible for them—maybe not as responsible as the author, but responsible nonetheless. But there was no way for me to check Dearborn's original research without re-interviewing her sources, which wasn't practicable. Dearborn seemed to me to be a responsible biographer, not a scandal-hunter by a long shot, and I think I was in the clear for reporting her assertions, even if it turned out that she had gotten some of them wrong. They weren't disputed until Mailer himself disputed them.
As it happens, after the review ran, Mailer himself got in touch with Dearborn—I seem to remember that he faxed her an image of some kind, because he was then doing some artwork—and she looked me up in the phone book and contacted me to ask if I had received a similar fax. I hadn't. (This was the first contact of any kind that I had with Dearborn, for the record.) After Mailer's letter was released, Dearborn told me that she stood by her facts, but that she wasn't going to write a rebuttal. Presumably Robert Lucid's authorized biography, when it comes out, will have the goods on these questions and many others.
Robert Lucid died in December 2005 with only a small part of his Mailer biography completed. Mailer's authorized biographer is now J. Michael Lennon, the guy behind the Norman Mailer Society (which publishes the Norman Mailer Journal in which an excerpt from Lucid's manuscript recently appeared) and, indeed, the man who announced old Norman's passing to the world. I was halfway convinced that after Doris Lessing (a woman last talked of as a serious Nobel contender the same time Norman was, in the early '80s) managed to win that award, Norman would figure he was back in the running for a trip to Stockholm and hold on for a couple more years. But his kidneys didn't agree.
They weren't disputed until Mailer himself disputed them.
That's what I thought. It seems a difficult position to write in. On the one hand, you have a seemingly (probably) well-researched biography in your hands; on the other, Norman Mailer, already loose with his own story, who wasn't necessarily a good interview subject. On top of all that, you didn't have a lot of space to work with: you weren't asked to write 10K words with an eye toward meticulously evaluating Dearborn's research.
Anyway, it's a fascinating exchange to have been caught in–part of what will be, I'm sure, a long history of dispute and debate about the man. Thanks for sharing it.
Well, the biographer can stick to her guns all she wants, but the idea that Mailer hadn't studied Marx is absurd.
Whole chunks of his second novel consist of Marxological dialectic-chopping, of the sort otherwise only produced by guys who have spent a while in a far-left group where you only win arguments by knowing chapter and verse. (I'm thinking of writing something about how much that phase of his work overlaps with the ideas of the the Johnson-Forest Tendency. And soon, of course, because that is the sort of article bound to earn some big bucks.)
Anyway, Mailer definitely read Capital and a fair bit of Trotsky's historical writing, and it made a big impression on him, at least for a few years there. For what it's worth, I also don't doubt that he read "Being and Nothingness."
Hi, Scott. Not so fast, not so fast! I can't rule on the facts, but I feel obliged to put in a word in Dearborn's defense here.
When, in my review, I quoted from Dearborn's biography the line "Just as he believed himself an existentialist without reading Sartre, so he believed himself a Marxist sympathizer without reading Marx," (p. 60) I was quoting it to show how bold Dearborn was willing to be in calling Mailer's bluffs. But by quoting it that way, I took Dearborn's claim out of context. In that line, Dearborn was describing Mailer's political identity in the years immediately following World War II. She was not claiming that Mailer never read Marx or Sartre, only that he styled himself as "a Marxist sympathizer" and as an existentialist before he had read the key texts for himself.
In her biography, Dearborn wrote that "In 1948, Being and Nothingness was available only in French—it wouldn't be translated into English until 1956—and Norman's French was, though fairly accomplished, not really good enough to handle complex philosophical abstractions." Dearborn may still be wrong—perhaps Mailer did read Being and Nothingness in French—but her inference that he didn't is not absurd.
As for Marx, when Mailer wrote in his rebuttal to Dearborn that he read Capital in the "winter, spring, and summer of 1948-49," he more or less confirmed that he hadn't read it before the moment that Dearborn was describing in the quoted passage, namely, just prior to meeting Jean Malaquais. Malaquais, Dearborn wrote, "complained that Norman knew nothing of the Russian Revolution, nothing of the history of radicalism," and Dearborn described the two of them conducting an intense one-on-one seminar on Marxism in "the fall and winter of 1948-49," (p. 69) roughly the same period specified by Mailer in his rebuttal.
Dearborn was aware that Mailer's second novel had a lot of Marx in it. In her biography, she wrote that Mailer intended Barbary Shore to be "a book about revolutionary socialism" and described that aspect at some length.
Is that clear? Once again, I can't speak to the underlying facts, but I want to be careful not to misrepresent Dearborn's claims.
Mm, I can see how Mailer could have been pissed off when he read that he didn't empathize w/ his friend's suicide. But more delightful is his disgust & rage about Cohn's plexiglass bed which he purportedly did not see. About the wham, biff & pow: it seems that you were playfully commenting on Dearborn's summary take-downs which mirror her subject's male animist rants & excoriations. It's hard to see how Mailer read that as you being in an 'uncritical' collusion with Dearborn.