Christian v. Cannibal

Michael Rogin

  • The American Century by Harold Evans
    Cape, 710 pp, £40.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 224 05217 9
  • The Time of Our Time by Norman Mailer
    Little, Brown, 1286 pp, £25.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 316 64571 0

‘The 20th century belongs to the United States because of the triumph of its faith in its founding idea of political and economic freedom.’ Not only did the American people ‘grow rich and expand their domestic freedoms. They sustained Western civilisation by acts of courage, generosity and vision unparalleled in the history of man.’ So Harold Evans introduces his lavishly illustrated ‘popular political history’ of ‘the American century’, written to educate American immigrants like himself about the ‘nature of their heritage’. Something goes wrong when the page numbers change from roman to arabic numerals, however. The first page of Chapter One, ‘The Last Frontier’, introduces us to the theft of the land promised to the Cherokee Indians in perpetuity, and to the gap between a Western history of ‘failure, exploitation and despoliation’ – the effects on the original inhabitants are attended to with eloquent detail – and a mythic West that epitomises the ‘spirit of freedom ... in America’s perception of itself.’

The American Century does not aim to mobilise American history against the self-justifying American myths with which it begins. Nonetheless, Harold Evans identifies a ‘direct intellectual link’ between American 19th-century Social-Darwinist gospels of the survival of the fittest and ‘Hitler and Stalin’. He is enthusiastic about the radical Populist movement against corporate power and political corruption, and sides with the working class in a chapter subtitled ‘The Class Struggle in America’, which not only celebrates such working-class heroes as Frank Little and Big Bill Haywood of the IWW, the Communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Louis Tikas (a union leader gunned down in John D. Rockefeller Jr’s ‘Ludlow Massacre’ of striking copper miners and their families), but also recognises the corporate and state industrial violence and denial of labour freedom that was a distinctive feature of the ‘American exceptionalism’ celebrated in the introduction. He identifies white supremacy as another constitutive feature of the United States, one that became ever more pervasive after the Emancipation Proclamation, and one which, according to Evans, white Americans have had more difficulty coming to terms with than Germans have with their history of racial extermination. To demonstrate its continuing role in US politics, Evans cites Ronald Reagan’s decision to begin his 1980 Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964.

The American Century details J. Edgar Hoover’s personal and the FBI’s institutional linking of white supremacist and anti-Communist hysterias, to which America’s national police devoted far more resources than to the fight against organised crime. It stands against the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and the American historical myths that continue to make such criticism politically impermissible; Evans even accepts that the bombs were directed as much against Russia in the emerging Cold War as against Japan in the World War Two endgame. He accuses Time editor Henry Luce, the man who coined the expression ‘the American century’, of proceeding in the manner of a Fascist in his role as leader of the post-World War Two pro-Nationalist China lobby. Although he sides with the United States in the Cold War, Evans comes down hard against the Red Scare at home, the advance across the 38th parallel that prolonged the carnage of the Korean War, the anti-Castro obsession that led to the Cuban missile crisis, and the American war on South-East Asia. He shows how Ronald Reagan’s Capraesque ‘nostalgia for small-town life’, far from saving America from predatory bankers (as in It’s a Wonderful Life), produced the $500 billion Savings and Loan deregulation scandal and the takeover of American politics by money and entertainment. (Reaganism is called state capitalism for the rich.)

Ending his tale before the Clinton follies that have initiated the third century of the American republic, Evans is all too aware of the growing gap between rich and poor, the absence of universal health care, and the collapse of public life into privately-financed and policed spaces. But then, like the Heil Hitler salute of Dr Strangelove’s uncontrollable right hand, the triumphalist tone returns in the final pages of The American Century: Reagan may have presided over the largest peacetime expansion of the military budget in American history and then imagined that the Soviets and Americans could unite behind his Star Wars Strategic Defence Initiative ‘to repel invaders of Earth from other planets’, but the result was to bankrupt the Soviet Union, produce a breakthrough in nuclear disarmament and defeat what Reagan rightly called (imitating Star Wars again) ‘the evil empire’. The fall of the Berlin Wall and America’s Cold War victory – 200 years after the ratification of the United States Constitution – made 1989 the ‘brilliant climactic year of the American century’, a triumph extended into the next century by the Gulf War. Even the covert operations of Government agencies, denounced in the body of the book, get on the honour roll (in the form of AFL-CIO) intervention in the 1949 Italian elections). Having introduced political idealism as the heart and soul of the United States, The American Century concludes by giving up on politics in favour of ‘a resurgent economy and increasing social mobility’. But even as he rejects totalitarian utopianism for the American spirit of pragmatic experimentation, Evans closes his double-columned 663 pages of text with the avowal that ‘in the American adventure, all is possible while freedom lives.’

Two histories are contending with each other in The American Century. Or perhaps there are two Harold Evanses (or, a rather crueller suggestion: perhaps the senior author superintended only the margins of the book and overlooked the subversive role of his ‘chief history researcher’, Kevin Baker, at the centre). Did the devil paint the picture, as Norman Mailer might have it, while God supplied the frame (or, since Mailer’s eschatology is not easy to decipher, was it the other way around)? Mailer, too, is having a love affair with America, but unsurprisingly he is entirely up-front about its ambivalent character. Introducing half a century of his writing about the United States, the author/editor observes: ‘How much I loved my country – that was evident – and how much I didn’t love it at all.’ Evans may begin and end with what Mailer condemns as a ‘non-stop reflexive patriotism’ that is split from the brilliantly achieved, compellingly dramatised visual and narrative history of the substance of the book, but there is a better explanation for this divided American Century than what Mailer would call schizophrenia.

Harold Evans may abandon politics in his finale, but he is offering his history lesson as a clarion call to wake the American Left (a summons answered in the enthusiastic endorsements of, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith, the reporter Neil Sheehan and the historian Sean Wilentz). The antagonist he explicitly argues with most often is his fellow philo-American of British origins, Paul Johnson (once on the Left, then Thatcherite, now an admirer of Tony Blair), whose own celebratory history of the United States appeared in 1997. In imagining an American narrative around which a renewed progressivism could unite, Evans adopts the Popular Front model that other liberal public intellectuals are now following, by reconnecting reform to an American patriotism that the New Left of the Sixties is accused of having turned against. It’s as if he wanted to replace the Thirties slogan ‘Communism is 20th-century Americanism’ with something like ‘humanitarian idealism is 21st-century Americanism.’ Contrary to his intentions, however, this effort exposes the chasm between his version of the American past, which progressives could endorse, and any that’s considered acceptable in contemporary political debate. For by mainstreaming a radical past, Evans believes he has found solid liberal ground on which to stand against multiculturalism.

Praising the Black struggle for civil rights as the greatest social movement in American history, Evans distinguishes it from the ‘quest for racial spoils’, the ‘quotas for broad groups of “minorities” ’ – the affirmative action which, he wrongly asserts, Martin Luther King Jr opposed. According to Evans, moreover, the ‘ill-judged 1965 Immigration Reform Act’ – it repealed the restrictive, ethnocentric national origins quotas of the 1924 legislation – transformed the ‘ethnic mix of the country’, as ‘the proportion of the flow from Europe, the primary historic homeland, was cut back sharply.’ This brief fall into xenophobia gives way to a confidence that Third World immigrants ‘want to become part of mainstream America’, and that the threat of disuniting America lies not with these new Americans on their own but with ‘liberal élites’ who, abandoning individual for group rights, encourage ‘the identity politics of ethnic grievance’. The mission announced at the beginning of The American Century has now been brought all the way home, as a post-1965 immigrant from the ‘historic homeland’ offers his Third World counterparts a national history around which he and they, on the New Deal model, can unite. Give up your old loyalties for the sake of the American dream, Harold Evans is preaching, as if liberal-sponsored ethnic allegiances bear significant responsibility for a United States ‘increasingly segregated’ (as Peter Shrag recently put it in the Nation) ‘between the winners in the global economy in their highrise offices and their privately policed, gated residential developments and a sort of lumpenproletariat, much of it black or Hispanic, stuck in rotting neighbourhoods and seedy trailer parks’. (And however justified it may be for Evans to celebrate America’s interventions in Europe and to criticise its Asian involvements, the resulting Eurocentricism does not require any sacrifice of natal loyalties from him.) Tina Brown’s husband is more supportive of feminism than many of his compatriots in the culture wars, but the feminisation of poverty goes unmentioned in the book’s final pages, replaced by concern for the ‘white male’ sacrificed to racial quotas.

Enter Norman Mailer. Arranging his own selection of his own writings according to the events they address rather than their date of publication, he aspires ‘to offer some hint at a social and cultural history over these last fifty years’, and takes as his model ‘one of the most monumental works of American literature, nothing less than USA, by John Dos Passos’. A nearer ancestor of The Time of Our Time would be The Education of Henry Adams. ‘I could look upon myself as blessed,’ our author confesses, ‘because I had the good fortune to be able to write about my time as if it were our time.’ Although The Time of Our Time may seem just the sort of autobiographical ‘monument to the ego’ that Adams, writing about himself in the third person, rejected, The Education did not so much ‘efface the ego’ (Adams’s claim) as make it the measure not just of American but of eschatological history. Mailer, who (except in the few pages written especially for this publication) almost never appears as ‘I’ but either as one of his fictional alter egos or else under such sobriquets as ‘Mailer’, ‘the reporter’, ‘Aquarius’ and ‘the dean’, is following Adams’s model. A self-proclaimed ‘left conservative’ (Adams called himself a ‘conservative Christian anarchist’), Mailer also offers a version of American as sacred history, a battle between God and the devil, sexuality and technology (the dynamo, the virgin and the goddess of sex and reproduction in Adams’s version). The power of these forces is measured, as in The Education, by their effects on the observer.

Pretending to disappear into the first American century, Henry Adams may have disguised self-aggrandisement as self-effacement, but his work remains one of the classics of American letters. What is one to make of Norman Mailer’s compulsive self-exposures? Harold Evans brings providence to life in his American century through dramatic personal vignettes, but he would hardly put himself into the ring. Mailer, by contrast, appears on stage as both hero and schlemiel. It is one thing to begin with a Hemingway/Fitzgerald boxing anecdote then report one’s own weekly workouts and small sparring triumph a thousand pages later, setting up fiction-writing as a boxing contest and anointing oneself Hemingway’s successor. It is another to show oneself off at one’s worst moments, making a drunken fool of oneself in a speech before Vietnam protesters at the Pentagon march or losing to the Gore Vidal/Janet Flanner tandem on the Dick Cavett show. This self-centred writer – who returned to public prominence after a bad Fifties by publishing a collection entitled Advertisements for Myself (1959) – has chosen for this anthology the most personal material from his collected works, however unflattering a light it casts on him. What is going on?

A short extract from Advertisements for Myself explains the method in this madness: ‘I have been running for American President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind,’ the author says in a rare first-person appearance. ‘The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.’ Mailer ‘could be wrong’ to think that his writing ‘will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years’, and if he is, he continues, ‘then I’m the fool who will pay the bill, but ... it would cheat the collection of its true interest to present myself as more modest than I am.’

What makes Mailer’s time our time, he believes, is that he acts out the American repressed, that the subterranean dream life of the country, in all its darkness, runs through him. Where Harold Evans offers an American Century of idealism, inventiveness and social protest, Mailer’s Time of Our Time hones in on violence and sex, often in deadly combination. In the antinomies through which the United States has been seen, at least since D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Mailer exhibits the Lawrentian ‘Destroy, destroy’ that hums beneath the ‘cackle’ of Evans’s ‘love and produce’. Evans is the ‘paleface’ to Mailer’s ‘redskin’ in Philip Rahv’s counter-position, or the ‘Christian’ to Mailer’s ‘Cannibal’, to invoke one of Mailer’s own titles borrowed from Moby-Dick.

Consider race. Both writers place the question of black and white at the absolute centre of things. But whereas Evans celebrates the civil rights movement as the realisation of American ideals, Mailer’s romance is with ‘the white Negro’ – title of the notorious Fifties essay reprinted here – the hipster who places himself outside the law. Since ‘any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day,’ Mailer writes, then ‘in this wedding of the white and black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.’ Though both have invested equally in the redemption of America through black identification, Evans takes the Declaration of Independence high road, Mailer the low road of jazz, drugs and sexual conquest.

Black men hover as sexual competitors around the edges of the 1959 story, ‘The Time of Her Time’ (the echo is obvious). The first-person narrator of ‘Her Time’, Sergius O’Shaughnessy, chronicles the sexual combat by which his ‘avenger’ (as he calls his penis) and the words ‘dirty Jew’ force her first orgasm on a Greenwich Village bohemian. What is Mailer telling the readers of The Time of Our Time that he wants to do to us? The story as I remembered it was of a piece with the distaste Mailer showed in The Armies of the Night for Paul Goodman’s sexual positions (‘Mailer, with his neo-Victorianism, thought that if there was anything worse than homosexuality and masturbation, it was putting the two together’), with his opposition to contraception because it eliminates existential sexual risk (in Mailer’s lunatic view, good fucks are more likely to produce good children) and with his response to Kate Millett (in The Prisoner of Sex) and to Gore Vidal. Don’t they all make the prosecution case against Mailer the homophobe and misogynist?

The thing is, Mailer knows they do. Reading ‘The Time of Her Time’ again now, one is not so sure which side the author intends the reader to be on. In spite of (or is it because of?) the narrator’s disdain for psychoanalysis, the girl’s charges of ‘phallic narcissism’ and homosexual flight hit home: against Sergius O’Shaugnessy, against Norman Mailer. Is Mailer not, in Vidal’s throwaway line, one of the three Ms, along with Henry Miller and Charles Manson, ‘conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons, at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed’? (His initial defence, if that is what it was, was to compile the table ‘Number of times married, Number of children, Number of daughters: Mailer 5 Vidal 0, Mailer 7 Vidal 0, Mailer 5 Vidal 0.’) Reprinting his 1991 review of American Psycho, Mailer adds the title, ‘Children of the Pied Piper’. The obvious piper is Reagan, using the lure of sex and power, but the subterranean worry is that the real piper may be Mailer. His self-defence (repeated in a review of A Man in Full published after this collection appeared) could not be more Jamesian: it lies in the alleged superiority of the art of fiction over mere external reportage. Bret Easton Ellis’s nasty book, Mailer claims, reproduces sexual violence instead of making sense of it. Good fiction undertakes a journey to the heart of darkness; the time of Mailer’s time becomes the time of our time, he believes, when it is realised in his prose.

Yet it was political journalism not fiction that gave Mailer back the iconic status he achieved so young with The Naked and the Dead (1948) and then lost in the Fifties. As he sensed in his first coverage of a political convention, the one that nominated John Kennedy, Mailer would be grateful to the Sixties. In ‘Superman Comes to the Supermarket’ he had held out the hope that Kennedy would synthesise the ‘double life’ of America, that he would enliven the ‘history of politics, which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull’, by bringing to the surface the ‘subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely, and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation’.

Mailer did his part. Sandwiched between two brief extracts from The Naked and the Dead (they come, poignantly, as if from another planet) is a scene from An American Dream (1965). Dated 1944-46 (and only the fourth selection in the anthology), it introduces its first-person narrator, Rojack, as a John Kennedy double (World War Two heroes, the same age, elected to Congress the same year), on a foursome-date with JFK in which Rojack seduces the woman he will later marry and then murder. Interlaced between extracts from his coverage of the 1960 Convention, Mailer places two selections from the 1991 CIA novel, Harlot’s Ghost. The first introduces Modene, the mistress of both Sam Giancana and JFK (Judith Campbell Exner was the real-life model); in the second the first-person narrator begins his own affair with Modene. (An extract from Marilyn, 1973, about another woman Kennedy shared with other men, makes its appearance earlier in the collection. There are also selections from the book on Lee Harvey Oswald, 1995.)

The problem with Mailer’s imaginative participation in Kennedy’s sex life and murder is not that he imports his own private obsession into American politics. Harold Evans, too, finds a macho core infecting Kennedy’s Cold War politics, leading directly to the Castro assassination plots, the threat of nuclear war over Cuba (and, Mailer would add, Kennedy’s own assassination). There is something excessive about the weight of sex, violent and otherwise, in this anthology, of which Mailer’s twinning with Kennedy is a part, but the difficulty goes beyond mere quantity. Mailer rejects the banality of evil that he sees in American Psycho. Evil is satanic, he wants to believe, rooted in a Manichaean struggle between the devil and a less than all-powerful God, a struggle that has its seat in alternative bodily orifices. In Mailer’s theology, the fear of succumbing to domination from the rear during primal male combat generates a self-protective retreat to institutional aggression. ‘Individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State,’ he had written in ‘The White Negro’, a view he reiterated during the Vietnam War. The depersonalised mass violence of mediocrity is to be found in faceless architecture (‘corporate blockhouses of the soul’), dead prose and modern war. Where Ellis reduces evil to the banal, Mailer sees banality itself as the real evil. But does that make Kennedy, O’Shaughnessy and Rojack, the romantic Catholic doubles of this Brooklyn Jewish kid, the devil’s instruments, or do they offer the way out?

What one gets from Norman Mailer is not an answer to this question but, in the two decades introduced by ‘Superman Comes to the Supermarket’, its triumphant efflorescence. The most impressive fruits are the political reporting from The Presidential Papers (1963) through Cannibals and Christians (1966) to The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both 1968); the undervalued fictional masterpiece, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), where Faulkner’s ‘Bear’ provides the model, rather than the Hemingway grace under pressure so alien to Mailer; and The Executioner’s Song (1979), which takes the killer Gary Gilmore as the subject for a ‘true-life’ novel. If Gilmore chose to kill and be killed rather than, like his working-class forerunners in The Naked and the Dead, having these things inflicted on him, Mailer was nonetheless returning here for the first time to the trauma that had given rise to his writing without the need to redeem and romanticise it.

By the time of The Executioner’s Song, Mailer had turned from politics. The Vietnam War had given way to his war with feminism; and his odd sympathy for Richard Nixon as the victim of liberals and the CIA deprives Watergate of the dramatic place it occupies in The American Century. On the other hand, in recognising Nixon as a Kennedy/Johnson heir and in considering his attempted executive coup as a culmination of liberal war-making, Mailer sees further than Evans, who focuses too narrowly on Nixon’s paranoid personality. Yet Mailer and Evans are both seduced by Henry Kissinger, who took the war criminal’s route to the Nobel Prize. (When Evans writes that Kissinger emerged ‘unscathed’ from Watergate, he confuses political dexterity with moral innocence.) Extracts from Ancient Evenings (1983) and The Gospel According to the Son (1997) fill most of the pages of The Time of Our Time that cover the twenty years since Nixon’s resignation. (The Education of Henry Adams also abandons politics for more ethereal regions as it moves toward its conclusion, disengaging itself from an unworthy object.)

Although Mailer opposed the Cold War that Evans critically supported, and although he stresses the domestic price of victory, he shares Evans’s Americocentric view that US military spending, rather than its own internal upheaval, defeated the Soviet Union. Mailer is surprised to find himself supporting the Gulf War in 1991; his reason – ‘the country needs a purge ... some sacrifice of blood ... an extravaganza to take us out of ourselves’ – bloodily fleshes out the spirit of ‘inspired leadership’ to ‘prevent further aggression’ that Evans finds in George Bush.

In 1996, hired by the slick magazine George, Mailer covered a political campaign for the first time in twenty years. ‘The dean’, as he now calls himself, comes through with unforgettable portraits of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and of the ‘corporate welfare’ that now constitutes American politics and to which – each uncomfortable with it in his own way, each going along – both candidates adapted. In the reform orientation and political disenchantment they share, contemporaries Norman Mailer and Harold Evans are together at last, each disappointed by his America. But Mailer’s defeat has, of necessity, a more personal edge. Well before the exposure of Oval Office oral sex, Mailer realised that the Clinton television serial – combining ‘the perilous sport of tom-catting’ with the defence of the American family – had the potential to make the O.J. Simpson case look insignificant, and that the ‘large share of American viewers would not wish the Clintons to go off the air’. He spotted as well the Clinton/African American love affair: thanks to Clinton, ‘one had to go back to the Fifties to recall a time when liberal whites and blacks had been so ready to have a good time together.’

What Mailer could not let himself imagine, writing in the celebrity journal that had been founded by John Kennedy’s son, was how Clinton would fulfil the time of our time: for Clinton was about to become not just any white Negro but ‘our first black President’, as Toni Morrison has called him, with black Americans supplying ‘the dowry’ of transgression, punishment and forgiveness for sexual misbehaviour. (Andrew Johnson, the only other impeached President, was brought to the bar because he opposed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, wanting to deny equality before the law to black Americans; Clinton was impeached for being one of them, if one believes the white Negro thesis.) Aided by the President’s co-dependents on the Christian right, Clinton’s supermarket shopping for sex – something it would be better for Mailer not to contemplate – marked the reductio ad absurdum of his own half-century investment in sexual eschatology. Testifying under oath to the Presidential version of Mailer’s distinction between what counted and did not count as sex, Clinton was trapping himself in an externalised parodic form of Mailer’s superego maxim, ‘Without guilt, sex was meaningless.’ Only when at the end of their affair the President finally allowed Monica Lewinsky to give him the time of his time did there issue forth on the semen-stained dress the reincarnation of Watergate’s ‘smoking gun’, the evidence to impeach. When Presidential sexual exposure finally generated a Constitutional crisis, it brought Norman Mailer’s subterranean American dream to the surface and mocked the banality of it.