I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.
Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.
When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.
Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.
He was in the midst of writing Of a Fire on the Moon, his book about America’s determination to put a man on the moon while its cities were engulfed by race riots and half a million of its soldiers were losing a misbegotten war half a world away. Mailer gave a compelling performance, one in which he refused to pander to the expectations of his naïvely radical audience. If memory serves (which it increasingly fails to do), he read from a section of the book that described a gathering of his artist and bohemian friends on Cape Cod, contrasting them with the extraordinary technical skill, bravery, and Promethean ambition of NASA and the astronauts. He was deeply suspicious of both the iron cage of our burgeoning technological future and the complacent liberalism, liberated from any sense of sin, of his dearest friends and political allies.
The novelist and critic Thomas Mallon captures this aspect of Mailer’s personality and writing in a review of a new book about the surprising friendship between Mailer and William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley held Mailer’s talent in high esteem, regarding him as a genius. Much to his delight, he also found congenial Mailer’s instinctive rejection of liberalism’s moral timidity and metaphysical modesty. Mailer had no interest in banishing God from the public square, and liked to call himself a “libertarian socialist” and a “left conservative.” He was a notorious critic of feminism and even a skeptic about birth control (although not about serial marriage!). Mallon concludes his review by noting that, despite their remarkable and very different talents, neither man was able to significantly alter the “liberal ethos of their time.” In the fatuously “self-actualizing” days of the 1960s and ’70s, Americans (especially we college students) protested that we wanted to be “a name and not a number.” But today’s triumphant marriage of technology, liberal individualism, and identity politics has brought us to a very different place. “Everyman, with each click of the keyboard,” Mallon writes, “now embraces his digitization, sells his privacy for a mess of algorithms used to orchestrate a world neither libertarian nor socialist, an app-happy Cloud of anesthetized convenience.”
My brief encounter with Mailer was a very long time ago. I read him avidly for many years after that. He was obsessed with the idiosyncratic notion that humanity had an essential part to play in God’s battle with the Devil, and he understood modern convenience to be very much the Devil’s tool. He was no theologian in the technical sense, but as Buckley acknowledged, his genius for metaphor offered hints of a transcendent reality that much of modern life seems designed to deny and suppress. Mailer certainly made more than his fair share of mistakes, but if he was not able to change the trajectory of American life, he still threw up a needed roadblock or two.