Mailer’s Fatal Flaw

By Championing a Violent Criminal, Norman Mailer Tarnished His Legacy

Norman Mailer with his son John Buffalo in Brooklyn Heights, NY, February 5, 1980. (Jill Krementz)

Why do some people despise Norman Mailer?

Mailer, who died in November 2007, was what other writers at all stages of their careers would like to be: a novelist and personality who astonished critics and the public with his bold and brilliant work. Some authors, like J.D. Salinger, turn out a slender book and then fade from view. Mailer is the opposite case. Starting off in his twenties with a number of inventive short stories and his monumental debut novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer’s six-decade career exists without parallel in American letters.

While some authors have impressive erudition in one area or another, Mailer wrote with unfeigned expertise on a breathtaking range of topics. He could produce a nonfiction book displaying a staggering amount of research, like his 500-page account of the 1969 moon landing, Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), and then turn out another book demonstrating an equal or greater breadth of research on a totally different topic, such as his nearly 1,200-page chronicle of the crimes, trial, and execution of murderer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song (1979). In his accounts of civil unrest, such Miami and the Siege of Chicago and the “nonfiction novel” The Armies of the Night, both published in 1968, Mailer didn’t just appear to have his finger on the zeitgeist, it seemed he was the zeitgeist.

But Mailer’s reputation really rests on his fiction, whose brilliance is hard to exaggerate. Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead at an age when many people struggle with elementary aspects of writing. He went on to show incredible range. Not content to write about his own time, Mailer imagined ancient civilizations and rendered them with stunning vividness and verisimilitude. Mailer conceived, and pulled off, a novel using a Joycean stream-of-consciousness technique to tell the story of a young member of a hunting party in Alaska just before his deployment to a faraway war in Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). It is impossible to summarize books like this one. They must be experienced. Mailer became a synonym for creative daring. American literature would be a poorer and more dismal place without such novels as Barbary Shore (1951), The Deer Park (1955), An American Dream (1965), Ancient Evenings (1983), Harlot’s Ghost(1991), and others.

So, why is Mailer controversial? He wasn’t just callous and amoral, he relished violence. Mailer stabbed his wife, Adele Morales, in a drunken rage in November 1960. And if that weren’t bad enough, Mailer championed the release of an inmate, Jack Henry Abbott, who murdered a young waiter in Greenwich Village just weeks after getting parole in 1981.

During his research for The Executioner’s Song, Mailer began a correspondence with Abbott, who was in prison thanks to a lengthy criminal history that included bank robbery and manslaughter. The correspondence bloomed. In the acknowledgments to his work, Mailer thanks Abbott for providing an unvarnished account and helping Mailer see the realities of prison in America. The letters appeared in the form of a book, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison, published by Random House in June 1981. It is a sobering read, to say the least, but perhaps more for what it tells us about Abbott than for what we already could have guessed about life in jail. Abbott openly expresses violent urges in a number of the letters. (More on this below.)

In the course of their correspondence, Mailer obviously gained deep respect and concern for a man he thought of as one of society’s bottom dogs. When Abbott came up for parole, Mailer led the campaign to help his correspondent get out of jail. Upon Abbott’s release in June 1981, the convict made a splash in the New York literary scene as a writer with a perspective on the underside of American society and as Mailer’s researcher. Just six weeks later, the unthinkable happened. Abbott got into a dispute with a twenty-two-year-old waiter, Richard Adan, over access to the restroom in a café on Second Avenue. He pulled out a knife, and fatally stabbed Adan.

If you want to understand why some people detest Mailer, look no further than this tragic episode. It’s not just that Mailer earnestly believed that Abbott had reformed and was ready to re-enter society. That would have been a grave enough mistake. You can’t be wrong when it comes to a decision to grant parole. But the really confounding, flabbergasting thing here is that it wasn’t even an honest mistake. Mailer knew full well from their correspondence that Abbott harbored dark and violent urges. But he championed Abbott’s release in spite of, or perhaps because of, those urges. Look at a passage from one of Abbott’s letters to Mailer, in the section of In the Belly of the Beast entitled “American Violence/American Justice.” Abbott is describing what he sees as the empowering nature of violence for someone who has been under the jackboot of American capitalism with its oppressive prison system:

“By the time you get out—if you get out—you are capable of anything, any crime at all…. To discover that there was no basis for your anxieties about murder is a feeling similar to that of a young man who has doubts about being capable of consummating his first sexual encounter with a woman—and when the time comes, if he did not perform magnificently, at least he got the job done. You feel stronger.”

By this point, Mailer must have realized what letting Abbott out of prison meant, if it was not already obvious from many other passages in Abbott’s letters. Abbott is explicitly praising what he sees as the therapeutic effects of violence. But there is more. Abbott goes on:

“If you can kill like that, you can do anything…. You have changed so that you are not even aware there was a time you were incapable of such things…. This is because you do not remember you were not afraid originally.”

And here is a passage where Abbott might have been imagining his encounter with someone like Richard Adan. One does have to wonder what the parole board might have made of this letter, when considering Abbott’s readiness to walk the streets of a crowded city.

“Most important, you learn never to trust a man, even if he seems honest and sincere. You learn how men deceive themselves and how impossible it is to help them without injuring yourself.”

Near the conclusion of the letter, Abbott states: “All you require is a little self-confidence—and anyone who walks out of prison has that: he has confidence in himself, but no confidence at all in others.”

Acting in the belief that Abbott was a talented writer, Mailer may have claimed to support Abbott’s release partly for literary and cultural reasons. But that is obviously nonsense. Abbott was able to write all he wanted, and to publish books, while in prison. (In the Belly of the Beast came out before Abbott’s release.) Letting Abbott out did not give the convict freedom to express himself or further any literary cause. All it did was place innocent people at risk. Mailer had every right to gamble with his own life, if he chose to do so, but he had absolutely no right to gamble with the lives of other people. That’s exactly what he did, while avoiding putting himself in any danger.

How could Mailer have behaved this way? One clue lies in an early story, “Maybe Next Year,” published in 1941, the tale of a boy who grows tired of hearing his parents squabble about their petty middle-class concerns. He contravenes his father’s warnings by going out to a desolate part of town populated with hobos and winos who appear, to the boy, to fulfill a notion of authentic, valuable experience much in the way that a violent convict might for a successful writer living a life of cocktail parties and literary events.

But the real problem may have had its origins in Mailer’s ego. Given that writers of slight talent all too often have an inflated sense of their worth and importance, it is not hard to imagine how a writer of Mailer’s stature could have come to think of himself as a kind of deity. Mailer spoke and acted as if rules and standards to which we hold others accountable did not apply to him. A man lost his life because of this arrogance. That matters as much as a literary legacy, even one as substantial as Norman Mailer’s.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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