Norman Mailer Accepts the 2005 Medal for Distinguished Contribution in American Letters

Presented at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 16, 2005
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York

Garrision Keillor (host): Toni Morrison has won so many awards and prizes it is easier to talk about the ones that she has not won like the Heisman Trophy, the Cy Young Award. To the best of my knowledge, at least, she has not. She has won this prize and the other one and the one named for Joseph Pulitzer and she has, of course, won the prize where the phone call comes in the morning from the guy with the Swedish accent. You must wonder which of your friends would be capable of doing this to you. This year it is 35 years since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Please welcome Toni Morrison. [Applause]

Toni Morrison (introducing Norman Mailer): Thank you. Thank you. Actually, several people ought to be standing here next to me to complete this recognition of Norman Mailer’s career. No one perspective can voice or even successfully accomplish it. Certainly, there should be someone who experienced World War II. There should be another with very keen memories of the Vietnam era. A third who fell under the sway of Muhammad Ali. There should be a fourth who understood the interior void of a death row inmate, how attractive death is to a killer, even or especially if it is his own.

Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesSuch a collection of readers and writers who prize the carnivorous intelligence accompanied by huge and provocative talent would underscore what I believe to be simply undeniable, that the history of American literature in the 20th and early 21st century would be both depleted and inaccurate, minus the inclusion of the work of Norman Mailer. [Applause]

In fiction, nonfiction, polemic, literary criticism, he has plumbed war, Hollywood, the CIA, death row, politics, moon shots, his gaze as wide as his intellect is passionate. Well, loud and justifiable praises of his prowess as a writer, however, competes with some rather violent objections to some of his views. I have to say I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race, [Laughter, applause] which I have to say even he admits to.

But at the very least, excoriating this particular writer’s view is a battle worth engaging. It is not a pseudo-struggle with a sly dissembling antagonist who hides behind the pale pose of the mediocre. Norman Mailer is nothing if not a worthy adversary. If one thinks of America as a charged field, Mailer is one of its tallest lightning rods. It has always seemed to me that the body of his work is very much like the America he loves and chastens.Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images Like the country, the man, the writer, is fascinated by the romance of violence. Like the country, he is confrontational in his despair of American military confrontations. Like the country, he is routinely disrespectful of borders, trespassing literary genre and classifications with glee, innovative, creating new vocabularies as he merges the traditional with the new. He is willing to dissect the imperial demands of his own ego while he deplores the demands of the national ego, endlessly confessional, offering his feelings and experiences to help educate and shape those of others.

Generous, intractable, often wrong, always engaged, mindful of and amused by his own power and his prodigious gifts, wide spirited. Like the nation itself, sui generis, a true original. I think you would agree that for a writer this prolific, this able with language, he should have the last word. So let me quote it. If, as he has said, “Writers are the marrow of the nation, its nutrient,” then as a nation, as readers, we are healthier, stronger, smarter, more resistant, perhaps even more honest because of him. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Mailer.
Norman Mailer, Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

Norman Mailer: It’s a curious night. First I was cursing Larry Ferlinghetti because he was saying all the things that I’m going to say and then I was being honored by Toni Morrison whose gift, I think, was to show me, since she was talking about me, her gift was to show me that I am obtuse about women. [Laughter] Which reminded me of my wife because my wife can hear 50 paeans of praise and one small criticism and all she will ever remember is the small criticism.

So I’m obtuse about women but wary of them. At any rate, I thank Toni Morrison for her prodigious generosity. On my best days, I have that high an opinion of myself but not on my worst ones.

Now, here comes the speech, the speech for which I cursed Ferlinghetti. Something interesting happened with this speech on the way to the occasion which is that I forgot it. We were ten minutes away from my home and I shrieked and said to my wife and one of my sons, “We have to go back. We have to go back. I put my speech in the wrong suit jacket.” It never happened to me before. May it never happen to me again.

All right. In these years, I’m feeling the woeful emotions of an old carriage maker as he watches the disappearance of his trade before the onrush of the automobile. The serious novel may soon be in danger of being adored with theHarold Augenbraum and Norman Mailer, Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

same poignant concern we feel for endangered species. There is all but unspoken shame in the literary world today. The passion readers used to feel for venturing into a serious novel has withered. Indeed, how many of you even in this audience do not obtain more pleasure from an egregiously cruel review of a good novel in the New York Times than from the art involved in reading that good but serious book?

Meanwhile, we are told that literacy is improving and more novels are being read than ever before. That may be true. It is just that the vast majority of such successful fiction is all too forgettable. The purpose of a great novel is not, however, to cater to one’s passing needs but to enter one’s life, even alter it. So the great novel will kill no time on airplane trips. They are not good page turners. They are in danger of becoming a footnote to our technological, cybernetic and advertising worlds.

Alberto Vitale and Norman Mailer. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesNature’s rude beast has appropriated the marketplace. The good serious novel, and most certainly, the rare great novel, is now inimical to the needs of this marketplace. The most dedicated novels of the future are lucky, therefore, to have the same lack of relation to the ambitions and greed of the world as fine poetry offers today. So too will the serious novel be seen as doing little harm provided it is kept on that high shelf we save for family whatnots.

If these gloomy predictions are correct, let us look at least at what we may be losing. Civilization has become a dangerous vehicle, hurtling toward a fate that could be dire. Is it not by now a giant who can no longer see? It is too blind in its ambitions and blind in its wars. Its great limbs do not coordinate with each other. Theology is one of those limbs, is helpless before the unanswered questions of the holocaust, even as formal religion insists on an all good and all powerful God. While fundamentalists are gung ho in their manic rush to godly judgment, liberals are in a state of woe before their increasing powerlessness.

Norris and Norman Mailer. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesThe great light of the Enlightenment which fortified their sense of entitlement over the last three centuries is now a flickering light. The military would do well to become familiar with the works of Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí since war has become surrealist.

What then can a great novel offer such a world? It is possible that the novelist, if his or her talent is deep, may even unravel enigmas that major disciplines are not ready to approach. Our field, our ground, our illumination does not derive from disciplines which have hardened over the centuries to advancing one chosen field of inquiry at the expense of others. We are bound to no discipline but the development of our own experience or, if we are fortunate enough to find it, our vision. So a gifted few may even be ready to explore experience far into moral advances that are not available to other professions.

On the other hand, novelists are rarely heroic. Gawky, half formed, shy, perverse, spoiled, vain in their youth, so too can their vision be astigmatic. Nonetheless, the best do look to honor the profound demands of their profession by offering insights with which goodreaders can enrich themselves on the meaning of their lives. Whose comprehension of society is not more incisive after reading Proust?Judith Miller and Norman Mailer. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesWho does not know more about language once James Joyce is encountered? Who says that compassion has not been deepened by living in Tolstoy’s novels?

So where are the future Tolstoys, the future Joyces, Dostoevskys, Prousts? In the interim, let me salute the award winners who are yet to be honored on this evening. May they startle us with the breadth and power of their vision. May there be a Theodore Dreiser or a Herman Melville among them. I would say thank you for this award you are giving me tonight and I would add one coda: Would the English nation have been as great in surviving without Shakespeare? Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity today if not for James Joyce? Thank you.

 

 

 

Toni Morrison Accepts the 1996 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

THE DANCING MIND – NOVEMBER 6, 1996

 

TONI MORRISON: There is a certain kind of peace that is not merely the absence of war. It is larger than that. The peace I am thinking of is not at the mercy of history’s rule, nor is it a passive surrender to the status quo. The peace I am thinking of is the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one–an activity that occurs most naturally, most often in the reading/writing world we live in. Accessible as it is, this particular kind of peace warrants vigilance. The peril it faces comes not from the computers and information highways that raise alarm among book readers, but from unrecognized, more sinister quarters.

I want to tell two little stories– anecdotes really–that circle each other in my mind. They are disparate, unrelated anecdotes with more to distinguish each one from the other than similarities, but they are connected for me in a way that I hope to make clear.

The first I heard third or fourth-hand, and although I can’t vouch for its accuracy, I do have personal knowledge of situations exactly like it. A student at a very very prestigious university said that it was in graduate school while working on his Ph.D. that he had to teach himself a skill he had never learned. He had grown up in an affluent community with very concerned and caring parents. He said that his whole life had been filled with carefully selected activities: educational, cultural, athletic. Every waking hour was filled with events to enhance his life. Can you see him? Captain of his team. Member of the Theatre Club. A Latin Prize winner. Going on vacations designed for pleasure and meaningfulness; on fascinating and educational trips and tours; attending excellent camps along with equally highly motivated peers. He gets the best grades, is a permanent fixture on the honor roll, gets into several of the best universities, graduates, goes on to get a master’s degree, and now is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at this first-rate university. And it is there that (at last, but fortunately) he discovers his disability: in all those years he had never learned to sit in a room by himself and read for four hours and have those four hours followed by another four without any companionship but his own mind. He said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do, but he taught himself, forced himself to be alone with a book he was not assigned to read, a book on which there was no test. He forced himself to be alone without the comfort of disturbance of telephone, radio, television. To his credit, he learned this habit, this skill, that once was part of any literate young person’s life.

 

The second story involves a first-hand experience. I was in Strasbourg attending a meeting of a group called the Parliament of Writers. It is an organization of writers committed to the aggressive rescue of persecuted writers. After one of the symposia, just outside the doors of the hall, a woman approached me and asked if I knew anything about the contemporary literature of her country. I said no; I knew nothing of it. We talked a few minutes more. Earlier, while listening to her speak on a panel, I had been awestruck by her articulateness, the ease with which she moved among languages and literatures, her familiarity with histories of nations, histories of criticisms, histories of authors. She knew my work; I knew nothing of hers. We continued to talk, animatedly, and then, in the middle of it, she began to cry. No sobs, no heaving shoulders, just great tears rolling down her face. She did not wipe them away and she did not loosen her gaze. “You have to help us,” she said. “You have to help us. They are shooting us down in the street.” By “us” she meant women who wrote against the grain. “What can I do?” I asked her. She said, “I don’t know, but you have to try. There isn’t anybody else.”

Both of those stories are comments on the contemporary reading/writing life. In one, a comfortable, young American, a “successfully” educated male, alien in his own company, stunned and hampered by the inadequacy of his fine education, resorts to autodidactic strategies to move outside the surfeit and bounty and excess and (I think) the terror of growing up vacuum-pressured in this country and to learn a very old-fashioned skill. In the other, a splendidly educated woman living in a suffocating regime writes in fear that death may very well be the consequence of doing what I do: as a woman to write and publish unpoliced narrative. The danger of both environments is striking. First, the danger to reading that our busied-up, education-as-horse-race, trophydriven culture poses even to the entitled; second, the physical danger to writing suffered by persons with enviable educations who live in countries where the practice of modern art is illegal and subject to official vigilantism and murder.

 

I have always doubted and disliked the therapeutic claims made on behalf of writing and writers. Writing never made me happy. Writing never made me suffer. I have had misfortunes small and large, yet all through them nothing could keep me from doing it. And nothing could satiate my appetite for others who did. What is so important about this craft that it dominates me and my colleagues? A craft that appears solitary but needs another for its completion. A craft that signals independence but relies totally on an industry. It is more than an urge to make sense artfully or to believe it matters. It is more than a desire to watch other writers manage to refigure the world. I know now, more than I ever did (and I always on some level knew it), that I need that intimate, sustained surrender to the company of my own mind while it touches another’s–which is reading: what the graduate student taught himself. That I need to offer the fruits of my own imaginative intelligence to another without fear of anything more deadly than disdain–which is writing: what the woman writer fought a whole government to do.

The reader disabled by an absence of solitude; the writer imperiled by the absence of a hospitable community. Both stories fuse and underscore for me the seriousness of the industry whose sole purpose is the publication of writers for readers. It is a business, of course, in which there is feasting, and even some coin; there is drama and high, high spirits. There is celebration and anguish, there are flukes and errors in judgment; there is brilliance and unbridled ego. But that is the costume. Underneath the cut of bright and dazzling cloth, pulsing beneath the jewelry, the life of the book world is quite serious. Its real life is about creating and producing and distributing knowledge; about making it possible for the entitled as well as the dispossessed to experience one’s own mind dancing with another’s; about making sure that the environment in which this work is done is welcoming, supportive. It is making sure that no encroachment of private wealth, government control, or cultural expediency can interfere with what gets written or published. That no conglomerate or political wing uses its force to still inquiry or to reaffirm rule.

Securing that kind of peace–the peace of the dancing mind–is our work, and, as the woman in Strasbourg said, “There isn’t anybody else.”