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Profiles of the Early Beats: Norman Mailer

July 31, 2107

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Profiles of the Early Beats: Norman Mailer

We don’t usually associate Norman Mailer with the Beat Generation anymore. But long before the Beat canon was semi-settled Seymour Krim in his 1960 early early anthology of the Beat writers still considered Mailer as one of their own. Pay attention.

“Mailer is moving these days, carving out his own version of beat vision with his philosophy of the Hip, which he actually sees as the seed of a new religion equivalent to Christianity or Judaism. Hip to Mailer means a great transitional period of ‘violence, new hysteria, confusion, and rebellion’ as a means of smashing a repressive White Protestant morality which has made America a ‘sick country, proliferating cancer into every breath of being.’ Breathstopping in its sweep, Mailer’s imagination is both noble and sinister, ruthless and brilliant. In his dramatization of ‘The Deer Park’—his novel which almost never got published because it was thought to be too dirty for even a dirty age—this imagination comes to earth long enough to be embodied in some fascinating characters: Eitel, the Hollywood director who went to jail for refusing to talk to a congressional committee about his Commy past; Marion Faye, the hip pimp; Elena, the sad chick who wants to be a call girl; and Collie Munshin (whom we don’t see), producer-boss of Eitel’s and cultivator of elegant broads. Mailer’s handling of these people is mature and knowing; unlike the more circusy of the beat writers, Mailer knows the Stork Club world of money and bigleague sex with a hardness and sureness that came from his being launched into it via his early success at 25 with ‘The Naked and the Dead.’ Mailer himself makes fun of some of the beats as kooky kids although he has learned from their jazz and applied it in his own more intellectually drastic way. In the sections of his play which we’re running here you can see Mailer’s eerie and tender gift for exploring the man-woman relationship against a nightlit melodramatic background of money, suicide, prostitution—against the tabloid murder world that evilly grins from U.S. radio and scandal mag and newspaper. Mailer does this beautifully and with skill greater than his years; he has enormous potentialities as a writer, also slickness, glibness, pretentiousness. But what makes his work electrically flicker like a snakehead, always ready to strike at the reader’s vitals, is this grand silken murderous imagination which can take our casually conventional perspective and bewitch it into uneasy possibilities.”

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Paul Varner

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