Norman Mailer: a boxing life

Kasia Boddy
13 November 2007

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) did everything he could to break free from his childhood self, "the one personality he found absolutely insupportable" - the "nice Jewish boy" from Brooklyn. Being a nice Jewish boy meant being gentle, clean, and above all, "modest", but Mailer sought only "the greatest", a title that he applied seriously to Muhammad Ali and less seriously to himself.

Writing about himself was always tied up with writing about America. In both cases, the idea was quite separate from the reality. "The grandson of immigrants", Mailer said that he could never really be an American; what he could do, however, was "have a love affair with America", and occasionally even feel a bit "like an American". From the mid-1950s onward, boxing helped him do this.

For Mailer, the boxing-match provided a metaphor for what he often described as the "schizoid" nature of "modern life" in America, a useable structure within which to explore many of the violently felt debates of the cold-war era: debates about sex, gender, sexuality and race, about vitalism and the death-wish, about literary style, and, all too often, about literary rivalry.

Kasia Boddy is a lecturer in English at University College London. She has just completed a book on the representation of boxing in literature and art, Boxing: A Cultural History (to be published by Reaktion in March 2008). This article is adapted from the chapter called "King of the Hill, and Further Raging Bulls"
Also by Kasia Boddy in openDemocracy:

"Borat" (6 November 2006)

"Rocky's American dreams" (19 January 2007)

In some ways these debates are all the same. Mailer presents every concept in absolute and rather abstract terms: an essential masculinity is pitted against an essential femininity; an idealised heterosexuality confronts a mythical homosexuality; imaginary "blacks" encounter imaginary "whites". The continuing clash of one against each other is what constitutes "existential politics", and "form" becomes "the record of a war...as seen in a moment of rest". In fiction, Mailer's characters function as the embodiments of opposing positions which need to be argued through; in non-fiction, he favoured the Q&A in which he could have "a rousing club fight" with an interviewer, or sometimes an imagined alter ego.

If all relationships are dialectic, then it makes equal sense to use the language of sex to describe boxing (the first fifteen seconds of a fight are equivalent "to the first kiss in a love affair") and vice-versa. But heterosexual masculinity does not just have to battle femininity; it must also face, and defeat, "the homosexual that is you". The ring serves as a place where our taboos can be enacted and thus contained. This applied to race too. Again Mailer recycles familiar stereotypes: whites are civilised, sophisticated, cerebral, literate and literary, while blacks are primitive, illiterate, "physically superior", attuned to the "pleasures of the body", and fluent in its language. It is his strength and weakness as a writer that Mailer sees everyone and everything - including himself - in rather abstract symbolic terms.

The crucible of style

Mailer first started to think about literary style in relation to boxing in the mid-1950s, when he sought out a new and more "muscular" style for his third novel, The Deer Park (1957). The story of an Irish-American orphan (and former air-force boxer) called Sergius O'Shaugnessy who abandons the novel on bullfighting he wanted to write as "inevitably imitative" of Hemingway, reflected Mailer's own crisis of confidence; and led to the book in which he would find his own style, creating the distinctive, much "bigger" than life first-person voice with which he will forever be associated.

Harold King, cover of WJ Wetherby, Squaring Off: Mailer vs. Balwin (1977)

Advertisements for Myself (1959) was like nothing else - a compendium of stories, essays, interviews, it opened by declaring Mailer's arrival as a major American writer, an identity requiring both a new style and a new persona - the "slightly punch-drunk and ugly club fighter" who understood, because he was a part of, celebrity culture. Mailer never stopped writing novels, but his best work lies in the "enormously personalized journalism" that he wrote in the 1960s, essays exploring the "dream life of the nation" as embodied in the iconic figures of John F Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and "Norman".

No one could mistake "Ten Thousand Words a Minute" (1962) for a sports report. Mailer devotes quite a lot of space to distinguishing himself from the kind of sportswriter who endlessly rehashes tired statistics for stories that come out "like oats in a conveyor belt". Instead he segues from Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson (his ostensive topic) to Emile Griffith vs Benny Paret to his own "club fight" with conservative commentator, William F Buckley, and an ongoing "quarrel" with fellow novelist, James Baldwin. All of these feed into a Lawrentian mediation on the anti-Establishment "religion of blood". This was an "existential" boxing report.

The man who epitomised "existential heroism", whose life was a work of art and who embodied "the very spirit of the twentieth century", was, of course, Muhammad Ali. The fact that Ali, stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, was both "the mightiest victim of injustice in America" and "the mightiest narcissist in the land" proved to Mailer that "the twentieth century was nothing if not a tangle of opposition".

But King of the Hill (1971) is also, inevitably, about style. Boxing is a "dialogue between bodies" - white and black. The white style is simple, clumsy and masculine; "close to rock" and with "guts". The black style is "complex", "tricky" and feminine. Since all the "dialogues between bodies" that Mailer describes take place between two black boxers, his dialectic requires him to suggest that, on each occasion, one black boxer (here Joe Frazier) has a "white style". For Mailer, the triumph of the fight's end is that Ali had somehow managed to combine white masculine endurance (he could stand) and black feminine grace (he could dance).

In the ring

Mailer's final mediation on the "vortex" of heavyweight boxing - here the epic Ali-George Foreman contest in what was then Zaire - was The Fight (1974). He borrows more than a title from the New Journalists' favourite essay, written by William Hazlitt in 1822.

Also in openDemocracy on American literature's "giants":

Tom McBride, "Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow (1915-2005)" (6 April 2005)

Christopher Bigsby, "Kurt Vonnegut : a voice for life" (11 April 2007)

Hazlitt's "The Fight" began with the narrator-protagonist keen to escape the sentimental complications of daily life. Mailer is similarly keen for diversion, but, in his case, the disappointing love affair is not with a woman but with himself. His thoughts have been "mediocre" and repetitive, "like everyone else's". At 51, he is feeling old. Moreover, his "love affair with the Black soul, a sentimental orgy at its worst" had not held up under several "seasons of Black Power". All of these feelings are expressed in the language of indigestion and constipation. Both men experience a "restoration of being" through journeys to watch boxing. But while Hazlitt ends by celebrating the ephemeral achievement of both the boxing match and his essay, Mailer wants more, nothing less in fact than the restoration of the title "champ among writers". The Fight plays with various versions of magical thinking, but all are designed to the same end - "the powers of regeneration in an artist". Ali's victory works magic on Mailer by showing him that regeneration is possible; Ali's antithesis here is not Foreman but Ernest Hemingway, whose suicide fourteen years earlier haunts the book.

Jeremy Morgan, caricature of Norman Mailer

For all his clever uses of boxing metaphors to think about style, Mailer most often employed it when thinking about the public life of the writer. He seemed to believe that regular spats with other male writers was necessary to "keep in shape". Asked once whether he let anyone see his work in progress, Mailer replied, "I do it the way I box: I pick my sparring partners carefully." Once a book was published, however, the gloves came off and the real competitive business of being a writer began: at parties, during political marches and (a sign of the times) on television.

Sparring on television, it seemed, made one a proper celebrity fighter, even if the show in question was Dick Cavett (where he famously took on Gore Vidal) rather than the Gillette Sport Cavalcade. Today there are many contrarians contending for Mailer's title as the Ali of the chat-show / Sunday-supplement circuit, but none has his biting, self-undermining wit. Mailer knew that American masculinity was an elaborately constructed masquerade, and celebrity the consequence of a "wretched collaboration with the multimillion-celled nausea machine, that Christ-killer of the ages - television". "Champ" was just one of many "half-heroic and three-quarters comic" advertisements for himself that "Norman" or "Mailer" entertained us with. Who today can deadpan like him?

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