HUNG UP ON NORMAN MAILER—A CONTINUING SAGA
I’ve quoted before a number of disparaging Shepherd remarks about Mailer. If all references to Mailer so far encountered represent the frequency of their occurrence throughout Shepherd’s WOR broadcasting, he mentioned him on average once a month for 22 years. I find Shepherd’s obsession with trashing Mailer fascinating.
Several times Shepherd mentioned that he and Mailer had conversations at the offices of The Village Voice. They’d known of each other during the early days of the Voice when Mailer was a part-owner and writer for it and Shep was a columnist for it. In a broadcast dated August 14, 1960 Shepherd, as a lead-in to a Voice commercial, talks about the early days when the Voice was struggling financially and was on the verge of going under because of its small circulation. He says that Mailer, one of the founders and still working there to help out, took a carload of the papers and drove from newsstand to newsstand giving stacks of them free to whichever stands would accept them. Shepherd speaks of this act in an admiring, totally positive way, so I guess that whatever happened between them in fact or in Shepherd’s mind, was still to come.
Yes, tonight it’s the human comedy hour—tonight. And would you please bring a little human comedy music in there if you will, please. [Scats] You have no idea what I was doing today out there in that human comedy of which we are all a part. You cannot escape. Even you, Norman Mailer, you’re part of the human comedy. Even though you take yourself awful seriously. And that’s what makes you so funny. (March 23, 1965)
Man is always attempting to make a statement. Trying to grab ahold of those brass rings of reality. How are you doing out there, Norman Mailer? Got ahold of them brass rings of reality okay, heh? (November 25, 1967)
Shepherd and I had both been hung up on Norman Mailer for decades. I admire Mailer’s writing. Shepherd, I believe, envied his success, and there also must have been some personal clash that led Shepherd to carry on a continuing vendetta on his broadcasts. I’ve quoted some of his comments about Mailer before. J. Michael Lennon, editor of several books on Mailer and his authorized biographer, in an exchange regarding a Mailer book, asked me twice about why I thought Shepherd disliked Mailer, and I gave the subject more thought:
Mailer and Shepherd are both “performing selves” in that they are self-observing of their real-life activities—their creative lives feed on their real lives. Yet the two, in their ways of handling their lives as lived and as recreated in art, differ profoundly.
Mailer observes, analyzes, and is open and confrontational in his relationship to the world, and he expresses his more political and psychologically considered relationship to the world in his work. He has a deeper, more complex vision of his life and the world he lives in than Shepherd, and an urge to explore it for himself and for his audience. He exposes himself, puts himself into the rough and tumble of life—in his way of writing and reacting to life, he prescribes by example. He promotes conflict, doing his best to stir up emotional reactions. He’s an expounder and dialogist. His life and art seem very much of an integrated piece.
Mailer’s approach to both his place in the world, as well as to his way of writing about it, is described by perceptive Mailer critic Richard Poirier in his Norman Mailer. He writes:
A combative eagerness that takes him against many a windmill, an acceptance of the chance that the enemy may be within as well as outside himself, a bodily commitment to the contests of life, a willingness to meet the enticements of drugs, drink, and pop culture, a wasteful playfulness and the courage to be a fool half the time if that is the price of being more than that the other half…..
I”ve recently read the most marvelous biography of Norman Mailer by Lennon: Norman Mailer–A Double Life. Barely a sentence goes by in this 800-pager without some significant connection to Mailer’s art. As another indicator of why the two would be opposites despite their similarities, here’s a bit from the book–Mailer describing himself:
“I am a phenomenon to myself….I always was my own experiment, and that is such a simple way to live, and no one could ever comprehend it. I don’t even think it took great guts, just my intense scientific curiosity about one’s subject, myself and the bizarre phenomenon of myself.”
Shepherd observes and describes human foibles. He is very open to life and new experiences, promoting such to his audience, but, as he has said, he’s just going through life as an observer and doesn’t want to get involved other than for his private experience/enjoyment. Shepherd has at least two separate personas—there is the public one that he creates, producing a strong sense that it’s his real, full, complete one he is exposing nightly to his audience. That life as shown to his audience may be basically true, but it’s only a segment of himself. He also lives a private life that is very different, full of secrets and enigmas that he fiercely hides from his public. He’s self-contained—a monologist who expresses his take regarding his observations, seeking no opposition but expecting devoted listening followed by applause.
This very different approach to life and self-expression in art makes Mailer and Shepherd fundamentally, psychologically, opposites. Considering Mailer’s deep and quick-witted mind, one can’t image him putting up with Shepherd’s extended, self-absorbed monologs for long, and Shepherd doesn’t seem aware of the causes behind Mailer’s extroverted, confrontational, and seemingly erratic behavior. Whether for Shepherd this contrast between the two of them is recognized or not, one would think that the dichotomy must affect his attitude toward Mailer. Among other differences, I’d imagine that Shepherd’s egotistical insistence in holding the stage and not letting another get a word in, would have been unsupportable for an egotistical force with such a powerful mind and analytical prowess as Mailer, to suffer much of Shep’s monologs. He must have exploded with hostility in a way that Shep never forgave. My wife, a Victorianist with a strong dislike for what she knows of both men, suggests that the inevitable conflict might be between what she refers to concisely as “egotistical bastards.”
Norman Mailer, pugilist
In Shepherd’s straightforward way, he probably could not understand Mailer’s frequently outrageous attitudes. As seen below, Shep obviously believes that Mailer’s An American Dream is supposed to be a “realistic” depiction of life, while I see it as a fantasy-like tale–a parable–an American “dream.”
Now on the other hand, let’s take serious things. A—what we call—so we don’t put much stock in the movies you know. Let’s face it. So they go out and they take a novel, let’s say An American Dream, by Norman Mailer. You really think that’s the way life is, Norman? In these United States in 1965? Or is this part of Norman’s fantasy—about life in 1965?…Now what is this urge on the part of man to top all other men? Well, it finds its expression in many ways. One way, it finds its expression in the tall story. Another way it finds its expression in—a tall, fantasizing of the individual himself—and so Norman Mailer spins endless stories about what a fantastic person Norman Mailer is. (August 25, 1965)
Shepherd and Mailer both loved America greatly. During America’s outrageous ’60s, Mailer, in An American Dream, Mailer expresses that in outrageous fashion. Both attempted to criticize their country in the context of their love, but they did it in decidedly contrary ways. Ways of Mailer’s that Shep apparently failed to grasp.
While working on my Excelsior, You Fathead!, after having managed to contact and get a bit of a written response from Mailer about Shepherd, I waited for my chance during a book reading-and-signing session at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. As he was signing my copy of his new book, I thanked him for his response to my query. He looked up and said words to the affect: “Just make sure you express all the truth you can about him.” Enigmatic that, but with a crowd behind me waiting for Mailer’s name inscribed in their book I didn’t feel I could ask him to elaborate.
illustrates his acuity and bravado.
“I am a phenomenon to myself.”
Mailer, the wild man actor-protagonist/self-analyzer.
Shepherd, the more laid back and self-satisfied entity.
I think you have captured the essence of the issue. Shepherd was an observer who used what he observed to create his art. Mailer was a participant who often created the events or amplified them. Mailer was self-referential while Shep stood outside himself as he commented.
Wikipedia contains this about him “Along with the likes of Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact-based journalism.”
According to Wikipedia, Mailer attempted but failed to avoid being drafted, and served mostly as a cook in the Philippines. Yet he wrote what became a seminal book about WW2. I suspect Shepherd envied and resented Mailer’s using his military service to score such a giant literary hit, considering how important Shepherd’s army stories were to him. Yet their approach to applying their art to the military was so different. Mailer’s was blood, guts and heroism. Shepherd’s was about small things, KP, cleaning latrines, exhausting hikes, crappy food, indignities and mundane experiences. In Shepherd’s view, that is the reality and Mailer’s was the fiction. Yet grown-ups went for Mailer’s fiction over his reality.
So, on the same playing field–the Village of the 50s and 60s, Mailer became the adored one and the celebrity of the adult world, while Shepherd became a cult celebrity among adolescent boys. Easy to see whose was bigger!