I learned by e-mail early this morning that Mailer had died in the night. I’d been expecting the news for weeks. I knew he’d been sleeping his way toward death in Mount Sinai Hospital. That doesn’t mean I was ready for it. I’ve spent most of the day divided among phone calls, e-mails, and tears.
Not for Mailer, of course. He’s fine. I have no doubt of it. And already busy at it taking notes. But for all the rest of us who have to figure out how to get from here to there without him.
I first read him in April 1964 when my American Lit professor assigned Advertisements for Myself. I became obsessed with his work and devoured everything he wrote. There were times in those bad days, as we moved into the late 1960s, when his was the only voice that brought me any comfort. (His and Bob Dylan’s.) So I began writing him letters. It seemed the only sane thing to do.
After about a year, he risked answering one. It arrived in my mailbox on April Fool’s Day 1970, and it took me some minutes to understand that I wasn’t being joshed by my grad school colleagues who knew of my passion. But, no. He really had written me from Brooklyn Heights. We met two months later. He liked the way I wrote.
As was appropriate for the pair of us, our friendship remained its closest and most authentic on paper, in our correspondence, which is now archived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. It will close with the letter I sent him on October 9 musing on the fact that I had to be at the Friends United Meeting general board in Greenfield, Massachusetts, at exactly the same time that the Mailer Society was holding its annual meeting at the other end of the state in Provincetown. He never got to read it.
The e-mails, as I mentioned, have been flying as those of us who loved him reach out to console ourselves. Anecdotes and literary quotes are jostling for position. I haven’t found the one that speaks for me yet. It’s going to take a while. But I knew I wanted this one here.
From pages 318-319 of my 1968 Signet paperback of The Armies of the Night . . .
But probably it was in Occoquan and the jail in Washington, D.C., that the March ended. In the week following, prisoners who had chosen to remain, refused in many ways to cooperate, obstructed prison work, went on strikes. Some were put in solitary. A group from a Quaker farm in Voluntown, Connecticut, practiced non-cooperation in prison. . . . some of them refused to eat or drink and were fed intravenously. Several men at the D.C. jail would not wear prison clothing. Stripped of their own, naked, they were thrown in the Hole. There they lived in cells so small that not all could lie down at once to sleep. For a day they lay naked on the floor, for many days naked with blankets and a mattress on the floor. For many days they did not eat or drink water. Dehydration brought them near to madness.
. . . . These naked Quakers on the cold floor of a dark isolation cell in D.C. jail, wandering down the hours in the fever of dehydration, the cells of the brain contracting to the crystals of their thought, essence of one thought so close to the essence of another–all separations of water gone–that madness is near. . . .
Did they pray, these Quakers, for forgiveness of the nation? Did they pray with tears in their eyes in those blind cells with visions of the long column of Vietnamese dead, Vietnamese walking in a column of flame, eyes on fire, nose on fire, mouth speaking flame, did they pray, “O Lord, forgive our people for they do not know, O Lord, find a little forgiveness for America in the puny reaches of our small suffering, O Lord, let these hours count on the scale as some small penance for the sins of the nation, let this great nation crying in the flame of its own gangrene be absolved for one tithe of its great sins by the penance of these minutes, O Lord, bring more suffering upon me that the sins of our soldiers in Vietnam be not utterly unforgiven–they are too young to be damned forever.”
The prayers are as Catholic as they are Quaker, and no one will know if they were ever made, for the men who might have made them were perhaps too far out on fever and shivering and thirst to recollect, and there are places no history can reach. But if the end of the March took place in the isolation in which these last pacifists suffered naked in freezing cells, and gave up prayers for penance, then who was to say they were not saints? And who to say that the sins of America were not by their witness a tithe remitted?