Monday, November 12, 2007

The Passing of a Giant

Those of you who’ve read my interview with Lacey Presnell elsewhere on this site will know of my admiration for the late Norman Mailer. I was saddened this past weekend, while attending a conference in South Carolina, to learn of the death of this colossus of American letters in New York at the age of 84.

One of the last of the great postwar generation of literary figures now unjustly fallen into near-obscurity, Mailer more than any other writer had shaped my literary sensibilities in the 1960’s. It will always be a cherished memory for me that his life and mine once touched, however briefly.

After the publication of my first novel I decided to quit my day job and become a full-time writer. This perhaps irrational act seemed to me a leap of literary faith not unlike some of Norman Mailer’s more improbable experiments, like The Prisoner of Sex or Marilyn or Why Are We in Vietnam? So a couple of years after settling in Burnsville, I wrote him a shameless mash note:

“Dear Mr. Mailer,

“For the past few weeks I have been feasting on the delights of your anthology The Time of Our Time, and in doing so I find I have been traveling again much of the emotional terrain of my own life from my early twenties, when I made the rich discovery of your work, right through till now; and I have also come to see how much of that terrain you laid out for me. In a powerful way, without knowing, you set the terms of the most worthwhile passages of my youth. Yet we are strangers. The recollection of this paradox of intimacy and distance lingers very near me as I read.

“I suppose I am one of those young men of the 1950's David Denby wrote about in his recent piece in The New Yorker, who were smothering in the doldrums of that time till you burst on the scene with Advertisements for Myself. The vigor of the book electrified me. I had cherished a somewhat half-hearted notion to be a writer; Advertisements showed me how far I was from that goal but at the same time was so exhilarating that it inspired me to try actually crossing the space. Although it took me many years to make the trip, it is not too much to say that over that period you gave me much of what I needed to grasp the prize, for each new work of yours showed me how dear was the goal and how poor my skill, yet also fired my ambition to get better and better and then to try as greatly as you had tried.

“On a deeper level you offered me the worthy notion that despite your great talent and fame we were human together. If I had failed to be master of all that confronted me, so at times had you. Occasionally, pursuing some earnest endeavor, we both ended by making fools of ourselves. We both longed to be heroes and often fell short of that. But you succeeded often enough that I had that example to encourage me, even as your blunders made us - in my mind - complicit, and gave me comfort when I missed the mark.

“In those years when I was young I sensed that the weather of my soul and yours was the same. All your insights, enthusiasms, vendettas, triumphs, misadventures - all that matchless prose - resonated in me; I wanted you to be as great as we both knew you could be, and I wanted the world to acknowledge it. And conversely, whatever new crisis arose in my life or the life of the times, you were always there offering up something that usually made comprehensible to me what had been only perplexing or woeful before. And always you enriched my world, gave me pleasure when for much of the time my pleasures were few.

“Let me end by saying that two years ago, at the age fifty-eight, I saw my first book published at last - Hiwassee: A Novel of the Civil War (Academy Chicago, 1996). It was a modest effort but in general was kindly reviewed and could, I suppose, be counted a mild success. With Hiwassee I finally closed that distance between what I wanted to give and what I had to offer; and upon reflection I've come to think it was the encouragement of your example, more than anything else, that led me over. I have completed a second novel, to be published next spring, and am working now on a third. Each, I believe, has been better than the last.

“And I think whatever merit the books may possess comes in part from my having dared big risks to write them. Which calls to mind something you often used to say, reflecting on Hemingway, about the importance of bravery in the making of a writer. Never before had I thought myself large enough to be so brave - security was my god. But after Hiwassee I quit a 35-year career of working for what you would call the corporation in Washington, DC and elsewhere; withdrew to a home in a remote section of my native North Carolina mountains; and began to write full-time. In every way but one, the move looked like madness. I am consuming my substance and have no income of any significance: I swing to and fro over the abyss. Yet my work goes deeper and deeper, and I have come to see that the work is what I'm here for, that everything in my life before now was just a preparation for it. And I know that the very dangers that dog me are what sweeten the work most. So I am content that I have been brave enough at last.

“Long life to you, Mr. Mailer! May you go on and on forever. Thank you for showing me the way.”

Needless to say, I did not expect an answer. Yet a few weeks later I found in my mailbox this hand-addressed letter, postmarked Brooklyn Heights, NY:

“Dear Charles F. Price,

“This is to thank you for your warm and generous letter and to wish you good luck on the brave decision you’ve made to withdraw to the North Carolina mountains and enter the sometimes awesome world of writing as a full-time occupation. Let me wish you a Merry Christmas and the best of luck.

Norman Mailer”

I had read that Mailer, despite his reputation for ferocity, was unfailingly gracious to aspiring writers. His letter proved the truth of the rumor.

Swollen with self-importance, certain that Norm and I were now on intimate terms, I later sent him a copy of my second novel, suitably inscribed. A year or so afterward a friend of mine saw it up for sale on E-Bay. So Norm and I weren’t to be literary confidants after all. But that didn’t matter to me. For one moment in time he had given me and my work an exclusive thought, and that was more than enough.

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