Aging icon Mailer visits, engages with young writers

The Daily Pennsylvanian
March 2, 2004

Perhaps the most startling elements of Norman Mailer's visit to the University of Pennsylvania were the two canes he leaned on as he walked into the room at Kelly Writers House.

Here was an icon of 20th-century American literature, at Penn on the 40th anniversary of his first venture to the school, poised to interact with a group of students who were born after the bulk of his work was published.

Here was the man whose public persona frequently competed with his written words for attention, the short feisty guy from Brooklyn who loved sports and boxing metaphors and who was always ready to throw a few verbal - or physical - jabs at perceived opponents.

But Mailer is 81 now. And last week, the author of Why Are We at War?, a case against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, complained lightheartedly to the kids around him that listening to the world through a hearing aid is somewhat surreal.

He apologized in advance if his answers didn't jibe with their questions. "I'm deaf," he said pleasantly. "I'm damn deaf."

He said he first realized he was losing his hearing years ago, when he thought his son said, at the dinner table, "Nazis are nice."

No, Dad, his son corrected with exasperation. "I said, 'Please pass the rice!' "

Mailer is frail, but he still knows how to use his gravelly voice to rivet a roomful. His visit to Penn included several of his trademark rants, on everything from George Bush (no surprise there) to the overuse of adjectives.

The visit, organized by the writers house, had the wistfulness of a valedictory.

Mailer met first with a selected group of students, to discuss the current political climate in America and Why Are We at War? In the evening, he met with Penn faculty and writers from the community, for a discussion of The Spooky Art, a compilation of his musings over the decades on the art of writing.

"I sensed the students realized this was a symbolic event, a once-in-a-lifetime thing for them," said Alan Filreis, an English professor who oversees the writers house. "It was a brief touching of two generations - very different generations."

Mailer, in his rant on the Iraq war, called Bush "an oaf and fraud and mountebank" and said a nation that can no longer stand answers that last more than 10 seconds has the president it deserves.

He said that the Bush war denied the Iraqi people the right to topple Saddam Hussein on their own and that democracy can't be injected from the outside.

"What he did was hideous," Mailer said of Bush. "They were cooking up an easy war."

Penn senior Peter Schwarz, his voice trembling, gathered the courage to challenge Mailer, saying the book on Iraq merely trotted out the typical complaints of the left without providing any solutions.

Mailer bristled teasingly at being labeled, and then apologized for interrupting Schwarz mid-thought. "It's not fair, but it's an old trick," he said.

Later, Schwarz said, Mailer expressed admiration that the student was willing to take him on.

Schwarz said on Friday, the day after Mailer's visit, that, to the ears of younger Americans, older political writers who have attacked Bush have relied on tired rhetoric that "sounds like 1920s ragtime played to an audience of techno-punk-pop moshers."

Mailer's ilk can't lead the new generation through the crises facing the country, Schwarz said. "We must cultivate our own intellectual leaders. The wheel is turning, and it's time that a new generation accepts the torch."

Graduate student Christina Bunner said she, too, was unimpressed with Mailer's arguments in his Iraq book. "My thought was that we were gathering to meet this guy who pitched a shutout World Series game 50 years ago... to talk about his current efforts volunteering as a Little League coach," she said later.

Clearly, the tactics and methods that were useful and dramatic with the post-World War II generation aren't necessarily effective in addressing this newest generation, which don't have the imminent threat of nuclear war always hovering, but which now faces its own uncharted, fearsome threats.

But Mailer pleased these students as an expert on writing. Bunner said she was pleasantly surprised how much she liked and connected with Mailer.

She had lamented that whenever she sat down to write, her head was bombarded with competing ideas and plots and characters, all shouting so loudly that she ended up writing little, or nothing.

He suggested she ditch the computer for a week and write with a pencil. He also told her that the most important thing a writer can do is develop a good relationship with one's unconscious. She also liked Mailer's comparison of writing to a marriage, both being relationships that must be worked at constantly.

Mailer, for his part, seemed as eager to discuss writing as he did politics. During the evening session, he was asked about writers with swagger, such as Hemingway and himself.

Hemingway, he said, had more swagger.

"I didn't start with swagger," Mailer said. "I was more timid." But he won fame, in his mid-20s, with The Naked and the Dead in 1948 - almost, he said, before he was ready for it. That put pressure on him to become bigger, and bolder, to stay on top.

"Every man who swaggers," he said, "is fraudulent."

He noted that writers are obsessed with height, that Hemingway had the advantage of being 6-foot-1.

"It helps impress people," Mailer said. "If you're shorter, you have to try harder."