Where Hemingway was pretentious and external, Mailer is particular and works with gentle grace from within his characters.
He is at his best (who is not?) when discussing himself. He is a born defendant. The piece about getting The Deer Park published is especially good, and depressing for what it reveals about our society. But, finally, in every line he writes, despite the bombast, there is uncertainty: Who am I? What do I want? What am I saying? He is Thomas Wolfe but with a conscience. Wolfe's motive for writing was perfectly clear: he wanted fame; he wanted to taste the whole earth, to name all the rivers. Mailer has the same passion for fame but he has a good deal more sense of responsibility and he sees that the thing is always in danger of spinning down into meaninglessness.
The human mind is in continual flux, and personality is simply a sum of those attitudes which most often repeat themselves in recognizable actions. It is naïve and dangerous to try to impose on the human mind any system of thought which lays claim to finality. Very few first-rate writers have ever subordinated their own apprehension of a most protean reality to a man-made system of thought. Tolstoi's famous attempt in War and Peace nearly wrecked that beautiful work. Ultimately, not Christ, not Marx, not Freud, despite their pretensions, has the final word to say about the fact of being human. And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to a terrified man but disastrous for an artist.
Image: "Authors Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, from left, gather at a 1993 party after the Actors Studio's benefit production of George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" at Carnegie Hall in New York City." (AP/Los Angeles Times)