Mailer biography: frank but not mean

October 03, 1999|By Steve Weinberg | By Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

"Mailer: A Biography," by Mary V. Dearborn. Houghton Mifflin. 448 pages. $30.

Born in 1923, Norman Mailer seems to have been famousforever. For some of us, he has. He achieved fame at age 25, in 1948, the year of my birth. The vehicle for his fame was his first published novel, "The Naked and the Dead." It captured the sights, sounds and personalities of World War II for thousands upon thousands of readers who had to re-live the battles for whatever reasons.

From 1948 on, Mailer was a famous novelist. But he quickly became, and remained, so much more than a novelist. He became a presence, to some extent famous for being controversial, then later on famous for being famous. He helped invent and refine literary journalism, telling more or less true stories by using the techniques of novelists such as internal dialogue and foreshadowing. "The Executioner's Song" and "The Armies of the Night" are today classics of the literary journalism genre.

Mailer became well-known for his essays and other personal pieces of journalism. While still a young man, he published a collection of essays called "Advertisements for Myself," and they were indeed just that.

Last year, Random House made available a 1286-page collection of selected Mailer writings, titled "The Time of Our Time." Many reviewers hated it. Jimmy Guterman in the Chicago Tribune said the collection "is enough to make you wonder whether he wants you to applaud him or if he simply wants to beat you into submission. Then, as you read this doorstop of a book, you realize that the two are the same for Mailer."

Writing for the on-line magazine salon.com, Vivian Gornick confided that before picking up "The Time of Our Time," she had not read any of Mailer's prolific output for 25 years. Few women had, she said; Mailer's "antifeminism was pathological, a thing we turned away from in fear as well as rage."

Given Mailer's well-known antifeminism, bordering on misogyny, it is perhaps surprising that his most recent and arguably most skilled biographer is a woman. On the other hand, Mary V. Dearborn's choice of subject is perhaps unsurprising given that she previously wrote a life of Henry Miller.

Dearborn lacked Mailer's cooperation -- he is saving his material for an authorized biography in progress, by a man. Mailer was cordial to Dearborn, though, promising not to stand in her way. She says he kept that promise.

The biography is frank without descending into meanness. Dearborn chronicles Mailer's childhood and adolescence in Brooklyn as the much loved son of a lower middle-class Jewish family. She tells of his unlikely entry into, and success at, Harvard University. After graduation, Mailer entered World War II in progress, gaining material, it seemed in retrospect, for "The Naked and the Dead."

Mailer handled the fame and wealth flowing from the novel rather well for awhile. But eventually the celebrity contributed to six marriages with enough children to form a starting baseball team, brushes with the law including the nonfatal stabbing of wife number two and an embarrassing attempt to run for mayor of New York City.

Dearborn's research seems solid. Her writing is clear and contains enough flair to enhance a traditional chronological accounting of a life still not finished.

Many, perhaps most, biographers of writers analyze the published work to draw conclusions about the life. That can be dicey stuff. After all, novelists are allowed to make things up, and those things do not have to derive directly from personal experience. Mercifully, Dearborn usually eschews such exercises. She comments that Mailer scorns Freudian analysis; Dearborn honors that.

Of Mailer, Dearborn comments that "the man and his life are of equal, often competing stature with his work, and it is for his life as well as his work that he will be remembered." When Dearborn examines each piece of writing -- Mailer's work -- she does a good job of explaining the provenance, then does a good job of discussing the meaning.

As for Mailer's life, well, it would take a mighty inept biographer to make such a brawling, self-absorbed person dull. Dearborn is not inept.

Steve Weinberg, who lives in Columbia, Mo., has published a biography of Armand Hammer and is completing one on Ida Tarbell. He has also written a book about the craft, "Telling the Untold Story."

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