12.11.07

“I haven't got your shoulders”

Norman Mailer was president of PEN American Center from 1984 to 1986. In that last year, he “used all his powers of persuasion and charm,” as Salman Rushdie recently recalled, “to raise the funds that brought more than 50 of the world’s leading writers to Manhattan to debate, with almost 100 of America’s finest, the exalted theme of ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.’” According to Rushdie—who was, he confesses, “more than a little awestruck”—the “atmosphere” at this grand PEN congress was “electric from the start.”
Much to the chagrin of PEN members, Mailer had invited Secretary of State George Schultz to speak at the opening ceremony, at the Public Library. This prompted howls of protest by the South African writers Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Sipho Sepamla, who accused Schultz of supporting apartheid. Other writers, including E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Irving and many more, also disapproved of Schultz's presence, protesting that writers were being set up “as a forum for the Reagan administration,” as Doctorow put it.
Rushdie goes on to quote Mailer’s welcoming remarks, in which he spoke of New York: “If it is one of the great cities of our civilization, it is, like that civilization, in peril from above, from below and on the flank.”

Links to interviews and remembrances of Mailer have abounded on literary blogs over the last few days, and here’s one more: Hilton Als recalling the unusual, combative friendship between Mailer and James Baldwin in PEN America 2. (The title of this post comes from a remark-- ironic? sly, surely-- by Baldwin, directed at Mailer, in his 1961 essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”) As Als notes, the written exchanges between Baldwin and Mailer were charged with questions not only about race but about sexuality.

There is something remarkable and even inspiring about the willingness of both men to so publicly engage with each other on these fraught, personal subjects. Among the many public relationships in Mailer's long and varied career, this one is certainly worth remembering.

(Photo of Mailer by Doug Elbinger, Elbinger Studios; photo of Baldwin by John "Hoppy" Hopkins.)

1 comment:

wanda1234 said...

thanks for sharing....

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