Terry Teachout looks back at Norman Mailer:
So what is it about this seventy-five-year-old has-been that continues to make aging editors weak in the knees? The answer, I think, is that he is to literature what the Kennedys are to politics, a living, breathing relic of the vanished era of high hopes. Even though he was already washed up as a novelist by 1960, Mailer had retooled himself as a middlebrow journalist just in time to bang the drum for JFK. Talk about sucker bait: Mailer had spent the Fifties bemoaning the “partially totalitarian society” that was America under Dwight Eisenhower, and along came a handsome young Democratic philosopher-king, a glamorous millionaire who wrote books (or at least signed them), flattered susceptible authors (including Mailer), and hung out with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. All at once the joint was jumping, and everything seemed possible, from racial equality to free love…
No doubt Mailer, like Kennedy, will never lack for bootlickers, at least while his generation is still alive. It’s hard to accept that a once-promising writer has become a burnt-out case, especially when the memory of his promise is part of your own lost youth. Who would have guessed in 1960 that the first literary star of the electronic age would end his days as a nostalgia act, the Glenn Miller of Camelot? Once again, Jack Kennedy got it wrong. Life is fair–all you have to do is give it time.
While Tom Wolfe is still writing good material and the late George Plimpton is still warmly remembered, it seems safe to say that most of the rest of the cast of Wolfe’s epochal New Journalism book–Mailer, Capote, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, et al–didn’t exactly age well, or adapt to the times as their careers went on. Many became unknowing parodies of their former selves (see: Capote, Studio 54 era), a reminder it’s only a matter of time before the avant garde become merely garde.
Which is why staying humble (or at least grounded somewhere close to planet Earth), somewhat current and avoiding bitterness when the zeitgeist doesn’t break your way seem like awfully good career warnings for today’s would-be authors.