A few nights ago at the White Water Tavern, The Observer was deep in conversation with Max Brantley, former editor of the paper you are now reading, when the latter mentioned off-handedly, as though it were common (and uninteresting) knowledge, that Norman Mailer had once submitted a piece to the Arkansas Times, and that moreover he, Max Brantley, had rejected it. We have known Max a while — have known him to be a basically honorable and morally serious person — and so it was with no small amount of personal disappointment that we returned our beer to the table in front of us and replied, "Bullshit."
Mailer, of course, was the novelist and television personality who leapt into public consideration with his first book, the now little-read World War II document "The Naked and the Dead." He wrote many novels after it, most of them savaged by critics and ignored by readers, and did many other things in the service of performing his role as Great American Novelist: ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City, duked it out on television with Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, nonfatally stabbed his second of six wives. One widely held take on his career, however, holds that it's his nonfiction work that makes the best argument for his greatness. Nowadays he's listed in the front ranks of the New Journalism — for his early essays collected in "Advertisements for Myself," his Gary Gilmore nonfiction-novel "The Executioner's Song," the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Armies of the Night." So where did the Arkansas Times come in?
Max, still nonplussed by the encounter decades later, explained that Mailer had written a long piece on the 1992 Clinton-headlining Democratic National Convention that had been rejected by its intended publication and thus offered by his agent to the Times. If we were interested, that is, which apparently we weren't. Max waved it off, took another sip of his beer. It was 23 years ago, after all. The past. Among newspapermen, Max is unique for his aversion to all forms of nostalgia.
Back at home, we consulted the Mailer biography, J. Michael Lennon's "Norman Mailer: A Double Life," and found this note: "His report on the Republican convention of 1992 was published in The New Republic. The companion piece on the Democratic convention was written but never published. Mailer felt that it was too obviously approving of Bill Clinton." Far be it from me to criticize a studiously researched and vetted biography of an American artist, but if Max's account were to be believed, this was simply not true. But was Max's account to be believed?
The next morning we reminded Max of our conversation and before we could formulate a question he reached down into a low drawer and retrieved a stack of typewritten pages that had apparently been exiled there since 1992. A lost Mailer story! This was literary history, destined to gather dust in Max Brantley's desk. There was a note attached to the first page: "Dear Max Brantley: Per our conversation, here's Norman Mailer's piece on the Democratic Convention, ACT ONE OF THE RELIGIOUS WARS. I'm eager to hear your thoughts."
The first surprising thing about the piece, other than its existence, is its length: It's 49 pages long. Clinton himself doesn't show up until page 32. The next surprising thing: It's not actually all that great. It's mostly a rote recitation of the convention proceedings, complete with interminable block quotes and often unsophisticated political commentary. There are moments of loveliness on the sentence level, as you'd expect from Mailer. "Clinton's task," he writes, was "to coax the worm of distrust off the surface of America's raw and fevered brain." Of the candidate's New Covenant, he writes, "It came down on the ear ... with as little joy as the title of a sermon on the outdoor notice-board of a church." Mostly, though, it's a bit of a slog. Max claims he offered to carve out a small editorial from the story, and that Mailer's agent wasn't interested. And that was that.
Thus concludes another vanished chapter in the history of the Arkansas Times. If you're a Mailer fan, come by the office sometime. We've got the story now, or anyway, we did. We think we put it in a drawer somewhere.