No writer personifies the maddening contradictions of American democracy better than the late Norman Mailer. He was brilliant and buffoonish; a true artist, yet obnoxious; sensitive to the suffering of the poor, combat veterans, and the unduly censored, but shockingly self-absorbed. Like Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes. Like the American bard, he was obsessed with the United States—once proclaiming, “I see my relationship to America as analogous to a marriage. You know, I love this country. I hate it. I get angry at it. I feel close to it. I’m charmed by it. I’m repelled by it.”
That’s not an uncommon sentiment these days on the right and left. Mailer’s comparison of his connection to his country as one of matrimonial bliss and misery is one of many fascinating confessions and observations in a new posthumous collection of essays, journalistic reports, interview transcripts, and novel excerpts. A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy, published late last month, follows his rise from an enfant terrible. (Mailer became famous in 1948 as a 25-year-old with his war novel, The Naked and the Dead.) It tracks his celebrity in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to his last years, when he was hardly forgotten but not on everyone’s lips.
The collection arrives at an ideal moment, more than 15 years after his death in 2007. Throughout his prolific 50 years in letters, Mailer routinely articulated fears that the U.S. would descend into a form of “soft totalitarianism.” He even used the word “fascism,” correctly predicting that the word itself, even as its dangers loomed large, would become verboten in the esteemed circles of legacy media and academia.
Critics dismissed his concerns about democracy as alarmist and paranoid, but recent years, unfortunately, have made him appear prescient. Donald Trump cleared a public park of peaceful protesters with federal forces so he could wave a Bible. His top advisors talked the Republican president down from ordering protesters shot in the street. As he denigrated Black Lives Matter, a mostly non-violent movement, Trump gave aid and comfort to violent militias and hate groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. These are the same extremist organizations that would lead an attempted coup d’état in his honor on January 6, 2021. Always skeptical of multiracial democracy, the American right has become outright hostile—clawing back voting rights, banning books, gerrymandering, and reacting with a blasé shrug to death threats against school board members, election workers, and even librarians.
A Mysterious Country begins with a speech that Mailer gave in 2006, a year before his death at 83, in which he called democracy a “grace” essential to maintaining a “good society.” He warned that its survival depends upon the “slow elaboration of safeguards and traditions” constantly under attack. This may sound a tad banal, but it wasn’t even a decade before Trump’s ascension.
According to Mailer, the escalating rage of the right wing, the expansion of multinational corporations, and the dehumanizing effect of digital technology put America on a path toward totalitarianism. Mailer predicted the malevolence of social media algorithms, right-wing conspiracy theories, plus casual—and calculated—misinformation before these terms became standard nomenclature of political debate.
The New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-raised Mailer was a Jewish World War II veteran, a lifelong anti-war activist, a free speech advocate, a supporter of Black equality, and a one-time candidate for mayor of New York, running on the memorable slogan, “Throw the Rascals In!” He sired nine children and had six wives, one of whom he famously stabbed—not fatally, he often noted. His politics were as eccentric as his writing and his public persona. Mailer often identified as a “left conservative,” explaining in one passage in this welcome and timely new collection that he was “two-thirds leftist” and “one-third conservative.” He was a troll ahead of his time, goading liberals on The Dick Cavett Show or in the pages of Esquire. The then-famous Cavett episode, well worth watching, culminated with him attempting to headbutt Gore Vidal in the dressing room.
Among the book’s chapters, a few of the “one-third conservative” passages are the most interesting. Mailer lamented that “we are no longer building cathedrals for the poor” (he meant this literally) and bemoaned the state of modern architecture, as Tom Wolfe later would, correctly ridiculing how it is almost impossible to distinguish the function of one modernist building from another. Schools look like prisons, and prisons look like schools. In a transcript from a 1990s interview with the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the modern writer who had the most in common with Mailer’s iconoclastic temperament, Mailer worries about the growing rage and anger infused in American culture, citing as an illustrative example the devolution of music from the “genius” jazz of Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis to the hateful and inartful subgenre of gangsta rap.
It is, perhaps, out of his fusion of leftist ideas with conservative values that he fretted over an American public that he believed was not sufficiently committed, disciplined, and diligent to uphold the rickety structure of democracy. Whitman expressed the same fears in the 19th century, for many of the same reasons, in his essay collection Democratic Vistas—a celebration of America with a dollop of worry. (Mailer reversed those ratios.) Mailer, the writer as entrepreneur and celebrity, thought that the influence of the multinational corporation and the endless pursuit of wealth would weaken the American spirit. Whitman wrote that greed was a “magician’s serpent eating up all the other serpents.” Mailer and Whitman agreed that only a public dedicated to freedom’s political, spiritual, and intellectual labor could preserve democratic liberalism.
This concern about a kind of spiritual decline of the civic ethic made Mailer surprisingly sympathetic to President Jimmy Carter, who would seem to be his opposite in every way as a monogamous, born-again Baptist, more likely to be hammering a nail for Habitat for Humanity than mixing it up at Elaine’s. After spending time with Carter at his home in Plains, Georgia, during the 1976 presidential campaign, Mailer wrote in a letter to Mary Bancroft, an author and intelligence analyst, that he “really liked Carter” and that the then-governor of Georgia “stayed with me in a good glow.”
“Not many people do that to me,” he added.
Carter’s profound and morally powerful, albeit politically ineffective, “crisis of confidence” speech—often called the “malaise” speech, although he never used that word—is a White House version of Democratic Vistas and Mailer’s consternation over America’s “weakened spirit.” In his 1979 address, Carter sounded an alarm over American life’s growing fragmentation, fatigue, and cynicism. He cautioned that “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives that have no confidence or purpose.”
The journalism that Mailer produced after spending two hours with Carter demonstrates his flaws as a writer. The celebrity author writes more about himself and his failed attempts to get an irritated Carter to analyze Kierkegaard than anything the former president said or did. J. Michael Lennon, Mailer’s archivist, in his introduction of the chapter, writes that it is “comical.” Maybe that’s true if you knew Mailer. I never did, and without familiarity, he comes off as a narcissist wasting a great opportunity.
The self-involved story about Carter is not the only passage of Mailer’s that doesn’t age well. In 1996, Mailer sat down with the reactionary and barely closeted white nationalist Pat Buchanan. Mailer had become fond of the former Nixon aide turned TV talking head after listening to him excoriate the influence of corporations on American politics and culture—an anti-big business conservatism that, as has been often remarked, presaged Trump. (The real estate mogul’s version was more rhetorical than governmental, as evidenced by his $2 trillion tax cut for the wealthy and his surrender of the EPA and other public agencies to corporate cronies).
The summit of Mailer and Buchanan, an unabashed fan of Joseph McCarthy and Francisco Franco, is a preview of the imbecilic notions of a populist, far-right and far-left alliance that internet pundits such as Briahna Joy Gray, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald think they are forging. Mailer tries and (shockingly) fails to persuade Buchanan to join the Democratic Party and run for the presidential nomination with Jesse Jackson as his running mate. The idea would undoubtedly horrify Jackson, who has dedicated his life to leading a “rainbow coalition” of Black, white, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, straight, and gay voters. Buchanan spent his life assaulting the very idea of that coalition, along with many of the people it aspired to represent. His antisemitic remarks got him condemned by William F. Buckley, and his culture war speech at the 1992 Republican convention helped doom George H.W. Bush’s reelection. Mailer, a proponent of racial equality and an anti-Vietnam War stalwart, was too blind to see that Buchanan was no comrade.
Mailer endorsed Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, but his obtuse effort to draft Buchanan shows that he didn’t understand the civil rights leader either. For all the brilliance of Mailer’s writing, A Mysterious Country demonstrates that the kinetic pugilist could not be troubled to slow down for nuance.
The editors omit all of Mailer’s writing on feminism and the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s—most of which has aged as poorly as a smoker’s lungs. The 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall, a must-see cultural artifact, shows Mailer in intellectual combat with many of the leading feminists of the 1970s. He fares poorly when he asserts that gender is “not destiny, but it is half of it.” The film’s most memorable moment is a response to Mailer’s declaration that “a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” Cynthia Ozick asks, “When you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?” The amused Mailer admits that his chauvinistic statement was “idiotic,” and he says he was only joking when he called the critic Diana Trilling a great “woman writer.” Susan Sontag queries from the audience why he couldn’t just call her a great writer.
Mailer was fixated on the “sexual outlaw” and the “search for an orgasm,” often infusing his fictional characters with massive libidos, and writing essays, most famously The White Negro, about the link between lust and liberty. Interestingly, he never wrote anything substantive about the gay rights movement, which bloomed on his watch. He did pen an essay about how forming friendships with openly gay writers and neighbors in New York enabled him to overcome his own homophobia, and he often used homoeroticism as a storytelling device in novels. But it remains surprising that Mailer never wrestled with the political implications of the gay liberation movement’s fight for economic opportunity and cultural acceptance.
While lamenting the fragility of democracy, Mailer can’t be bothered with the quotidian work of politics, which results in dunderheaded moments like his call for a Buchanan-Jackson ticket. Mailer also urged Clint Eastwood—a libertarian—to run for president while the author also maintained an abiding affection for Karl Marx, who was not exactly a libertarian or a democrat. A free-wheeling and wildly incoherent theorist of politics who could produce stunning insights, Mailer was also capable of generating bewildering nonsense. Unlike his sometimes friend and usually bitter rival, Gore Vidal, Mailer showed little interest in the actual mechanisms of American power, which Vidal chronicled brilliantly in his fiction and the best of his essays. At his best, Vidal could dissect power and propose feasible solutions.
Yet Mailer was a magnificent writer and observer. The Armies of the Night, his chronicle of the 1967 anti-Pentagon protests, captured the yin and yang of demonstrations as well as anything. Even when communicating weird or wrong ideas, he rendered them with an artist’s palette. The editors of A Mysterious Country were wise to include several excerpts from his short book about the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968, Miami and the Siege of Chicago—his best work of literary journalism—but they made a few odd exclusions as well. Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer’s book about the Apollo 11 moon landing, includes his most awe-inspiring prose about technology’s dangers, and yet it is absent from the new collection.
In his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn, also missing from A Mysterious Country, Mailer invented the often-misused word “factoid.” A “factoid,” according to Mailer’s original definition, is something untrue that most people believe simply because they’ve heard it so many times, not as it’s often used to describe a small fact. If there was ever an age of the “factoid,” it is the current one, in which lies, legends, and rumors spread across social media. Equally frustrating is that there are no excerpts from his most significant work of nonfiction, the masterpiece The Executioner’s Song, which tells the story of Gary Gilmore, an intelligent deviant who murdered two people in Utah for no ostensible reason, and then fought to have the state execute him. Nor is there anything from what I (perhaps a minority) would argue is Mailer’s greatest novel, Harlot’s Ghost, a CIA epic.
It is easy to look back on Mailer’s decades of writing with nostalgia for a time when a serious novelist and author could be a household name. Mailer, like his peers Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—Jewish American authors very much embraced by the culture but wary of it—wrote in a testosterone-fueled way that could never power a literary career today. (He’d have been tossed out of Iowa’s MFA program on the first day.) But Mailer was fantastically unpredictable and interesting—qualities in short supply amid today’s tepid novels about modern manners; a culture of tribalistic partisanship, which encourages pandering if you want to make the bestseller list, and in an economy where people proudly turn themselves into “brands.”
During the speech that opens A Mysterious Country, Mailer argues: “A nation’s greatness depends, to a real extent, on how well-spoken its citizens are. Good things develop out of a populace that knows how to use the language and use it well.”
Mailer’s gift was the same: He bequeathed eloquence to the country he so loved and hated. Few writers before and few since have composed sentences as creative, unnerving, and breathtaking. Take, for example, his description of the Republican rank and file entering their party’s convention in 1968: “Their bodies reflected the pull of their character. The dowager’s hump was common, and many a man had a flaccid paunch, but the collective tension was rather in the shoulders, in the girdling of the shoulders against anticipated lashings on the back, in the thrust forward of the neck, in the maintenance of the muscles of the mouth forever locked in readiness to bite the tough meat of resistance, in a posture forward from the hip since the small of the back was dependably stiff, loins and mind cut wary from each other by some abyss between navel and hip.”
It is impossible to imagine anyone other than Mailer writing a description of right-wing voters as lyrical, comical, and insightful. For his literary art and eloquence alone, everyone who cares about American culture and democracy should thank him for his service.