September 13, 2021
Bullfighting in the Village: The Late Short Fiction of Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer’s later short fiction was a proving ground of sorts for ideas that he developed during the second half of the 1950s and his struggles to publish his third novel The Deer Park. His difficulty in publishing The Deer Park becomes the catalyst for Mailer’s reassessment of his role as a writer and artist. It prompts him to keep a journal of self-discovery, Lipton’s Journal, in which he develops a theory for himself as an artist and individual in conflict with an external and hostile world. This conflict and resolution finds its way into his late short fiction and is publicly articulated in “The White Negro” and Advertisements for Myself.
|“||I was working my way toward saying something unforgivable . . . my vision . . . was leading toward the violent and the orgiastic. I do not mean that I was clear about where I was going, it was rather that I had a dumb dull set of intimations that the things I was drawn to write about were taboo.||”|
Norman Mailer ended his short story-writing career by blowing up the world. “The Last Night: A Story” was published in the December 1963 edition of Esquire and provided an apocalyptic transition between a struggling artist of the 1950s and the more mature and seasoned “author who takes himself seriously.” The Mailer signing off in the pages of Esquire had discovered a new voice in Advertisements for Myself after a difficult decade had him questioning his own competence as a novelist. His second novel Barbary Shore had not been as well received as he would have liked, one critic calling it “evil-smelling” and another “paceless, tasteless, and graceless.” The Deer Park had publishing difficulties, recounted in “Mind of an Outlaw,” until Knopf, after a lengthy consideration, ultimately refused because Blanch Knopf was “almost irrationally terrified” of consequences to the publishing house. Even though these trials had Mailer considering that his breakout novel The Naked and the Dead might have been “an imposture,” Walter Minton of Putnum’s finally agreed to publish The Deer Park, but only after Mailer’s dark night of the soul forced him to take a long, critical look at himself and to pick up the mantle of the artist/rebel to transform himself and his work. The apocalyptic orgasm ending “The Last Night” propels his White Negro protagonist to inseminate the universe beyond simultaneously blowing up the world—an apt metaphor for his last short story.
Mailer’s views at the time were expansive. He longed to be something great, and he knew he had the capacity and desire to prove himself a “major writer,” though he was tired of playing “the comic figure” running “the circuit from Rinehart to Putnamn.” Even before Minton accepted The Deer Park, Mailer had been ready to self-publish the novel “to make a kind of publishing history” and as an act of defiance against the “gentlemen” of the publishing industry that had become too conservative and spineless. He writes: “I was finally open to my anger. I turned within my psyche I can almost believe, for I felt something shift to murder in me. I finally had the simple sense to understand that if I wanted my work to travel further than others, the life of my talent depended on fighting a little more, and looking for help a little less.” Mailer’s conviction to become a “psychic outlaw” has its genesis in his negative experience in publishing The Deer Park, but his thoughts were leaning in this direction even before: specifically in his later short fiction that acts as a proving ground for ideas he workshopped in Lipton’s Journal and published in Advertisements for Myself—specifically in “The White Negro.” The group of short stories dating from the winter of 1951–52 and those that followed allowed Mailer a fictional space to explore the dissident and subversive ideas that would characterize his breakthrough work of the 1960s.
For Mailer, short fiction was not to be taken as seriously as novels—or as a shameful pastime between novels, as he complains in a letter to Mickey Knox: “I’ve given up temporarily trying to write my damn novel, and have started doing short stories. (Don’t spread this around.)” In the “deadest winter of the dead years 1951–52,” Mailer would write a handful of short stories as antidote to his troubles in writing The Deer Park, but these stories were written quickly and, he comments, were characterized by “sadness in the prose” that suggested to him that “I had nothing important left to write about, that maybe I was not really a writer—I thought often of becoming a psychoanalyst.” Indeed, the short stories coming out of this time were all characterized by beaten protagonists, culminating with “The Man Who Studied Yoga” whose narrator is disembodied and separated from his pathetic protagonist, Sam Slovoda—a narrator who finally takes his leave of Sam, as if it is Mailer who has purged these negative aspects of himself with his writer’s block. This group of stories includes three about World War II—“The Paper House,” “The Language of Men,” and “The Dead Gook” (all written by the end of 1951)—and two in the city: “The Notebook” (1951), a scene inspired by an argument with his wife Adele, and “Yoga” (April 1952). In addition to similar protagonists, these stories are also interested in psychology, the external forces that influence one’s psyche, and the destructive “power of psychoanalysis in popular culture.”
. . .
Many of the texts from this time period are not even short stories in the traditional sense, while others pushed the limits of the genre, seeming to act as transitions from one state to another. They, like their author, longed to be something grander, more provocative, weighty and significant. His somewhat tongue-in-cheek introduction to his 1967 collection The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, he begins by stating that he agrees with his critics, both real and imagined, that his short fiction is nothing “splendid, unforgettable, nor distinguished,” and ends by claiming that “The Time of Her Time” and “The Man Who Studied Yoga” are “superior to most good fiction.” He is the Salesman hawking the virtues of his wares with an understated and false modesty. He is a “journeyman” who considers the short story easy to write and who “is seduced more by method than by gold or gem.” For him, “the hearty protagonist” and short story prospector, his concern is experimentation: “short stories are imperfect artifacts—various drillings, diggings, tests, and explosions on the way to finding a certain giant mine, well-advertised over the years by the prospector.”
While he might claim to be a short-story dilettante, Mailer cautions the careful reader not to dismiss this collection too quickly, as there are treasures to be gleaned with careful excavation. The collection, when considered together, truly does appear as a sounding board for Mailer’s desire to push the limits of short fiction not only in form but in content. Mailer’s short fiction, particularly his later stories, are emblematic of his desire as a writer to see just how far he could stretch the genre and himself. Success, for Mailer, would come to mean being true to himself and his individual vision and not selling out to one imposed from the external world of consumerism, technology, and authoritarianism. Mailer’s later short fiction illustrates this struggle with various outcomes for his protagonists, either with them as victims of external forces set against them or them growing into more through a struggle that’s usually violent, taboo, or apocalyptic.
. . .
- Mailer 1959, p. 106.
- Lennon 2013, p. 333.
- Rollyson 1991, p. 71.
- Lennon 2013, pp. 179–180.
- Mailer 2020, #159.
- Mailer 2013, pp. 89, 88, 87.
- Mailer 2013, p. 87.
- Mailer 2013, p. 90.
- Mailer 2014, p. 110.
- Mailer 1959, pp. 186, 108.
- Lennon 2013, p. 139.
- Gordon 1980, p. 31.
- Mailer 1967, pp. 9, 13.
- Mailer 1967, pp. 9, 11.
- Mailer 1967, p. 11.
- Heyne 2000, p. 250.
- Gordon, Andrew (1980). An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer. London: Fairleigh Dickinson UP.
- Lennon, J. Michael (2013). Norman Mailer: A Double Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam.
- — (2020). Lennon, J. Michael; Lucas, Gerald R.; Mailer, Susan, eds. "Lipton's Journal". Project Mailer. The Norman Mailer Society. Retrieved 2021-09-13.
- — (2013). "Mind of an Outlaw". In Sipiora, Phillip. Mind of an Outlaw. New York: Random House. pp. 83–106.
- — (2014). Lennon, J. Michael, ed. Selected Letters of Norman Mailer. New York: Random House.
- — (1967). The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer. New York, N.Y.: Dell.
- Rollyson, Carl (1991). The Lives of Norman Mailer. New York: Paragon House.