Sunday, November 11, 2007

case study

Norman Mailer died the other day. Somehow he managed to survive to his 83rd year, ever trying to transmute himself into something better, or a least different, from the person he was in his youth.

He was a feisty celebrity; a self-indulgent romantic, kin to Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas, though himself from a world opposite to theirs. I compare him to Amiri Baraka, chameleon revolutionist, poet, and chronicler of The Blues.*

Noting the dozens and more of appreciations that Mailer's death generated,** I spent a fruitless hour yesterday trying to find a record of what was obvious to me when I was a neo-grad student many years ago: Mailer modeled the characters in his debut novel, The Naked and The Dead, on potted neo-Freudian case studies contained in many an academic psych text book.

I did not find any account that mentioned this borrowing, though it was so flagrant, it seemed to me, as to be recognized and condemned as plagiarism if attempted by a college student. Only one comes close. Roger Kimball, who is sort of a professional contrarian, writes:
From 1944 to 1946, he [Mailer] served with the U.S. Army in the Philippines and Japan.

In 1948, when he was only twenty-five, Mailer’s war novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published. For most critics of war fiction, The Naked and the Dead ranks somewhere between the novels of Herman Wouk (e.g., The Caine Mutiny) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity). It is more pretentious, but less well-crafted, and its narrative develops less momentum. Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing.
I knew about Mailer's unacknowledged borrowing because I'd used a text book in college that outlined the various psyches of the characters in Mailer's novel with pretty much word-for-word accuracy. I don't have either that text or the novel handy and cannot demonstrate what I say, but have a vivid memory of the time I made I put this 2 plus 2 together. It's 1965. I'm studying British History, and my girlfriend, who's is doing a paper on Naked and Dead, asks me to look at what she's got. I give her to low-down on the case-study connection. She gets an A. I notice, yet again, how much easier it is to work on someone else's assignments than on one's own.

*Why Behan, Thomas, and Baraka? Give me time and I will explain, but not today.

**Here are a bunch (courtesy ALD): NYT ... AP
... LAT ... Nation ... Guardian ... Reuters ... Telegraph ... Salon ... Chic Trib ... BBC ... Newsday ... Boston Globe ... NPR ... Time ... CNN ... NYT ... USAToday ... Wash Post ... London Times ... LAT ... Salon ... SF Chron ... Independent

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