When Norman Mailer finally got to talk shit in the New Yorker | Bleader

Friday, June 29, 2012

When Norman Mailer finally got to talk shit in the New Yorker

Posted By on 06.29.12 at 12:59 PM

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Norman Mailer
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Earlier this week I wrote about John McPhee's essay in the current New Yorker, in which McPhee recounts how editors William Shawn and Robert Gottlieb kept most profanities out of the magazine. A commenter on that post asked, "They ran nothing by Norman Mailer, ever?"

Hardly ever. The acclaimed and politically vocal writer, who died in 2007, had just five bylines in the New Yorker. There were two short poems in 1961, and a third in 1995—"Homage to Faulkner", half of which said: "Newt Gingrich looks for angry votes; Ergo, he hammers welfare folks." Which is a nice reminder of the consistency of Newt's politics over the years.

Mailer also authored an article in 1995 on Lee Harvey Oswald's time in Russia under KGB surveillance, and a short essay in 2002 on writing ("Birds and Lions"). Both were profanity-free.

Why wasn't there more Mailer in the New Yorker? In his nonfiction novel The Armies of the Night, in which he wrote about himself in third person, Mailer described a correspondence with Lillian Ross, a longtime writer for the magazine who also was editor Shawn's lover. Mailer said Ross asked him why he didn't write for the New Yorker, and he wrote back, "Because they would not let me use the word 'shit.'" Ross "suggested that all liberty was his if only he understood where liberty resided." Mailer responded that true liberty consisted of his right to say shit in The New Yorker.

There of course were likely other reasons Mailer wrote so little for the magazine. In The Armies of the Night he also observed that "the New Yorker had not printed a line in review of The Presidential Papers, An American Dream, or Cannibals and Christians [three Mailer books], and that, he'd decided, this "was an indication of some of the worst things to be said about the magazine."

Though it was not a bylined article, Mailer had an entry in the magazine's "Talk of the Town" on May 20, 1974. The New Yorker had asked various luminaries, including Mailer, for their opinions on the recently released edited transcripts of the White House tape recordings made by President Richard Nixon. Mailer offered grudging appreciation for the president's decision to release the transcripts. But then, guess what subject Mailer got into about Nixon's transcripts?

He lacks the simple New York smart to keep the obscenities in. . . . We still do not know if he even swears well. He could have had the bars of America laughing with his prejudices, saying, Hey, the guy is no good and he can prove it, but he's one funny guy, he'll make you laugh. Instead, our Richard squirts deodorant at the smell in the room.

Posthumously, Mailer finally got his chance to say shit in the New Yorker. In 2008, a year after his death, the magazine ran excerpts from letters he'd written to various people between 1945 and 2005. It was politics, mainly, that brought out the cussing in him. In 1987, referring to political reforms in Russia, he observed that the reforms might force America "to cut out so much of its own bullshit and come face to face with the idea . . . that our own stables are overflowing. And our horseshit is reaching our nostrils."

In 1999 he wrote of his "disgust" with the "boutique politics" of Democrats and President Bill Clinton—which was "served with loads of bullshit slathered over it." But the Republicans, he quickly added, were "a psychotic monstrosity . . . they're God, flag, and family—although few of them would know Jesus Christ if he were standing at the next urinal pissing along with them." And in a 2003 letter to a friend he called President George W. Bush a "shallow, manipulative shit."

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