Democracy According to Mailer
Re-reading the bulk of my work in the course of a spring and summer, one theme came to predominate-it was apparent that most of my writing was about America. How much I loved our country-that was evident-and how much I didn't love it at all!
-Norman Mailer, foreword to Time of Our Time
The first time I read anything written by Norman Mailer-it was an excerpt from the Vietnam-era Armies of the Night-I remember two things coming to my mind. The first thing that popped into my head: what an arrogant, self-righteous jerk this Mailer guy is! What kind of egotistical writer places himself in his own novel? What new-age Narcissus finds the tragic flaw of every individual he encounters? What brand of windbag slices to bits the dignity of one of the most important movements in American history, the Vietnam War protests? A child of the Enlightenment, it twisted my stomach to watch the workings of our American democracy tackled and torn to shreds by Mailer's writing. But the second thing I remember thinking? You know . . . he is kind of right. Not all Vietnam protesters were the idealistic, selfless icons American society made them out to be. Not every military guard was a heartless, conservative monkey. Not every principle and ideal of the Enlightenment's picture of "democracy" was put into practice by the United States. Confused at my latter revelation, I quietly gnawed on my double-edged conclusion. Maybe there is something to this Mailer guy, my brain murmured, and his apparently outrageous, yet often correct, opinions.
Of course, I must qualify "kind of right." At first read, Norman Mailer is unfailingly rebellious, loud, arrogant, vulgar, cruel, and, on occasion, downright offensive. But dig a little deeper and you can't dispute that his observations on American society are right on. For fifty years Mailer has played the part of social barometer, political prophet, and fly in the ointment of any number of social and moral causes. His writings offer an invaluable historical memoir of sorts, the piercing thoughts of a man involved in the essence of what America has been for most of the 20th century. A Harvard graduate who served in World War II, co-founded The Village Voice, ran for political office, and provided a major voice for the anti-Vietnam movement, Mailer's "been there, done that" point of view gives readers a vital perspective on what America truly is, underneath the red, white, and blue facade every small town, big city, and baby-kissing politician bears (Mailer 1305).
Mailer set himself the goal of offering "some hint at a societal and cultural history over these last 50 years," and by creating such a body of work, Mailer gives America a rare opportunity, the chance to look itself in the mirror, accept the good and bad of what exists, and decide to improve upon what it can for the generations of Americans yet to be born (xi). He knew that our democracy was riddled with anti-Enlightenment...