Further advertisements for himself by the late and increasingly not-so-well-remembered bad boy of postwar American literature.
In Advertisements for Myself (1959), with which this collection has some overlap, Mailer famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) wrote, “The only one of my contemporaries who I felt had more talent than myself was James Jones.” Even then, he took apart Jones’ From Here to Eternity (1951) for its “faults, ignorances, and a smudge of the sentimental,” naturally preferring his own novel The Naked and the Dead (1948). As for Jack Kerouac, no go; James Baldwin “is too charming a writer to be major”; and so forth. It has to be remembered, on reading such unguarded statements, that for all Mailer’s pugnacious self-regard, he had a point: He was the big dog in the yard, at least for a time, and what he wrote, plenty of people read and pondered and argued about. His 1957 essay “The White Negro,” included here, was one such occasion, bringing the word “hipster” to currency but, more seriously, giving voice to the existential angst that characterized the time. Mailer risked ostracism and worse by declaring that the United States was the heavy in the Cold War, and if he could be heavy-handed and lumbering and old-fashioned sounding (“Technological man in his terminal diseases, dying of air he can no longer breathe, of packaged foods he can just about digest, of plastic clothing his skin can hardly bear and of static before which his spirit has near expired”), very few did political outrage better. In fact, as this wide-ranging collection shows, which is political from start to finish, about his only rival in miffed political discourse was Gore Vidal.
As good an introduction to Mailer’s habits of mind as there’s ever been, though there’s also room for an anthology blending the greatest hits of his fiction as well as his sharp-edged essays.