October 9, 2020

From Gerald R. Lucas

Notes on “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” covid-19: day 202 | US: GA | info | exit

Reading notes on Norman Mailer’s 1960 essay.

File:Mailer Corrects Title.jpg
Mailer corrects the title in Esquire.

Mailer opines that politics is like nicotine: it “quarantines on from history.”[1] It seems, that in order to understand the convention, we must reconsider some of its events at a distance. Mailer seems to suggest that the convention itself, representing “politics,” was boring, but might be the “most important” convention in America’s history.[2] America is now the supermarket—a homogenous marketplace of the same—and Los Angeles, that “capital of suburbia,” might be its quintessence.[3] Mailer characterizes the Democrats as a kind of inbred family gathering in the “ugliest hotel in the world” to wallow about in a depression about their own insecurity for their nominee.[4]

John F. Kennedy is unlike any presidential candidate ever nominated, and this is the heart of Mailer’s essay. Written shortly after The White Negro, “Superman” takes up some of the essay’s concerns and applies them to Kennedy and the willingness of Americans to take a risk in choosing an unknown value for president. Kennedy was like no other candidate before him: he was, perhaps, more American than any other, and this worried the establishment:

Kennedy is an unknown quantity, and this fact both excites and terrifies the Democrats. Yet, for Mailer, it’s this very potential of JFK that makes him interesting, for he might be the one to finally reawaken America from its over-analyzed, homogenized, and packaged lives—from “individual man to mass man.”[6] Americans, Mailer argues, “have been leading a double life” since World War I: one was the “triumph of the corporation,”[7] obvious and dull, while the other was like a “subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.”[8] Kennedy was the movie star that could reawaken the myth of America—“the violent, the perfumed, the unexpected, . . . which could not be tamed” no matter how much the nation’s ideologues might wish to keep it hidden.[9]

The life of politics and the life of myth might be brought together again with unpredictable outcomes, but either way “politics would would now be also America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s bestseller.”[11] This is a fascinating statement for Mailer, knowing his antipathy for television and bestsellers. It also presages the 24-hour news cycle and politics as entertainment, which helped to elect America’s first reality TV president. Mailer’s knows what he’s doing here.

This is all very romantic and maybe “too simple,” as Mailer points out, but there's also something more interesting and germane for today: it could all go very badly. For Mailer, this is the nature of the existential moment—the risk of making a choice that has never been made, of teetering on the parapet. A vote for Kennedy could have unexpected consequences:

. . .

Mailer also mentions two events which “stunned the confidence of American into a new night”: Sputnick and Civil Rights.[12]

. . .


  1. Mailer, Norman (2013). "Superman Comes to the Supermarket". In Sipiora, Phillip. Mind of an Outlaw. New York: Random House. p. 109.
  2. Mailer 2013, p. 110.
  3. Mailer 2013, p. 114.
  4. Mailer 2013, p. 116.
  5. Mailer 2013, p. 113.
  6. Mailer 2013, pp. 121–122.
  7. Mailer 2013, p. 126.
  8. Mailer 2013, p. 191.
  9. Mailer & 2013 122.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Mailer 2013, p. 125.
  11. Mailer 2013, p. 127.
  12. Mailer 2013, p. 124.