Saturday, November 10, 2007

Pour A Little Liquor: Norman Mailer

So Norman Mailer is dead at the age of 84.

I've always had a fancy for Norman, his zeal for being bold and audacious. Of course he's given me fodder on the Negro Hipster quest in the form of his essay "The White Negro." But more than his accomplishments and literary legacy I think I've been intrigued by his status as a living legend who ultimately failed in his quest for lasting relevance.

Looking back now, his ambition and desire outsized his talent, which is a torment I relate with far too often. But his passing feels like a burial of that ego-archetype as much as Mailer himself. Narcissism and vanity run amok in our new media era, but it's mutated from the grandiose god-complex that was, in the end, his calling card. We still have ego-warriors, but they are incapable of ruling the land and commanding our attention the way Mailer did in his prime. I wasn't around in those days, but seems he lived his life like he was in a reality show, and back then that meant you were an american hero, now we know it just means you have an american ego.

I wonder, for black people, if we appreciate someone like Mailer. I know it's hard for me to think of him as something other than an old-school caucasian who The System forced me to place on a pedestal. When I first read "The White Negro" I was like, wow. Then years later reading James Baldwin tearing the essay apart, I was like, WOW. But Mailer's still compelling, not necessarily as an author -- where you might take him or leave him -- but as a personality. How does he compare with a Kanye, or a Terrell Owens, or a Kobe Bryant, or any of our celebs/stars who have legitimate talent but have taken a road that inextricably wraps their ego with their work? Sometimes I think black people in general suffer from a higher rate of outsized ambition and desire. Or maybe we all suffer from the ego-itis, but black folks have a tougher time reconciling the reality and dealing with it. We're not as familiar with the expansive middle ground of a happy life with modest, but manageable, goals and expectations. Too often we still only see The Projects or The Superstar....

I don't know, I'm rambling now. But I wonder if we're just now getting our Norman Mailers. Is Kanye walking the same dead-end road, or is he something new and different? Mailer, like 'Ye and so many others, wanted to conquer his industry and the world through his talent. And now he's dead. And I think that model of star-celebrity might be as well.

Norman Mailer Dead at 84 [Yahoo News]


  1. it's sad when anyone dies, but Mailer's been shoved down my throat by every white teacher I've had from 8th grade to senior year in college.

    As an aspiring writer and a young black male, they just knew i'd automatically connect with his "white negro" essays; they just knew i'd "get it" on levels my fellow white students wouldn't/couldn't.

    ironically, i couldn't bribe them to get black authors on the syllabus/cirriculae.

    but whatever.

    Mailer was cool and he took on folks that normally ignored us "outsiders".

    that counts for something.

  2. Anonymous11/12/2007

    Brilliant observations on Mailer and Ego! He always struck me as coming from the "Fight the Power" school of celebrity. Sadly, so sadly, these days "American Ego" predominates, amongst celebrities and far too many Americans. I would also add to your theory of American Ego the undeniable lack of accountability of so many public and private citizens Example - How else do we explain Bush, Cheney, Wall Street Vultures, celebrities whose financially benefit from bragging about their murderous and criminal backgrounds.

    Horrendous behaviour is glamorized and rewarded because we simply do not "FIGHT THE POWER". (Thanks Chuck D!!!)

    I take solace in the fact that all things work in cycles and moreso in the words of Nelson Mandela "Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished."

    Thanks again for a brilliant post.

  3. Anonymous6/14/2008

    this is an amazing blog.
    i found you through google. I'll bookmark it now. I googled mailer and narcissism and you were the first in line.
    I haven't read the 'white negro', but I must now.
    I'm an Australian woman but I have been inspired by the black American male. They have at many times been a symbol of human rights and spritual freedom, as well as oppression and outsider status.

    I think Mailer was a wild spirit and a brilliant mind.
    Alot of women my age rejected mailer as a misogynist but he had some insights that were profound for me. I loved his book of essays, I think it's called 'conversations?'. I loved Deer Park. He has an eye. He was alive and thrashing around for his truth and everybody wanted to shoot him. He wasn't empty like reality tv stars these days. What he had to say was interesting, is still interesting, but he pressed too many buttons with everyone. Eventually they got him.

    You're a great writer. I love your mind:)



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