Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Head of the class

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Meryl Street at the Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention was filled with striking moments, but the one that lingered in my mind the most was the speech given by Meryl Streep, which was memorable less for what she said than for what she represents. Streep is undoubtedly the most acclaimed actress of our time, maybe of all time. At the peak of her career, she could come across as artificial and mannered—Pauline Kael once quoted a friend who called her “an android”—but she almost glows these days with grace and good humor. Even if this is just another performance, it’s a virtuoso one, and she maintains it with seeming effortlessness as she continues to rack up awards and nominations. Streep, in short, doesn’t need to be jealous of anybody. But as an article in the New York Times points out, there’s at least one exception:

Meryl Streep, the most accomplished, awarded and chameleonic actress of her generation, once confessed something approaching envy for Hillary Clinton: For women of her age, Ms. Streep said, Mrs. Clinton was the yardstick by which they inevitably measured their lives—sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not.

The idea that Meryl Streep, of all people, might bite her hand a little when she thinks of Clinton made me reflect on how each generation settles on one person who serves as a benchmark for the rest. And it’s often either the first to win the presidency or the first who might have a good shot at attaining it. It’s no accident that one of the earliest biographies of Bill Clinton was titled First in His Class.

I’m at a point in my life when people my age have just reached the point of eligibility for the Oval Office, and there isn’t an obvious frontrunner. (As a friend of mine recently said at an informal college reunion: “I guess nobody we know is going to be president. By now, we’d know it.”) But it’s still something I think about. One of my favorite examples of the role that a president—or a candidate—can play in the inner life of an ambitious novelist is Norman Mailer’s obsession with John F. Kennedy. Judging from how frequently he returned to the subject, it was second only to his fascination with Marilyn Monroe, which in itself was probably an outgrowth of his interest in the Kennedys, and he revisited it in works from “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” to Harlot’s Ghost. In An American Dream, he puts Kennedy right there in the opening sentence, which is like inviting a guest into the holy of holies:

I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me…Of course Jack has gone on a bit since those days, and I have traveled up and I have voyaged down and I’ve gone up and down…The real difference between the President and myself may be that I ended up with too large an appreciation of the moon, for I looked down the abyss on the first night I killed: four men, four very separate Germans, dead under a full moon—whereas Jack, for all I know, never saw the abyss.

Mailer isn’t speaking as himself, but as a fictional character, but it’s hard not to interpret these lines as a conjuring of an alternate life in which he was friends with the man whom he had missed, by just a few years, at Harvard.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy and Mailer did meet briefly, and it resulted in a moment that speaks volumes about the uncanny prominence that a presidential candidate our own age can take in our thoughts. In “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer writes:

What struck me most about the interview was a passing remark whose importance was invisible on the scale of politics, but was altogether meaningful to my particular competence. As we sat down for the first time, Kennedy smiled nicely and said that he had read my books. One muttered one’s pleasure. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve read…” and then there was a short pause which did not last long enough to be embarrassing in which it was yet obvious no title came instantly to his mind, an omission one was not ready to mind altogether since a man in such a position must be obliged to carry a hundred thousand facts and names in his head, but the hesitation lasted no longer than three seconds or four, and then he said, “I’ve read The Deer Park and…the others,” which startled me for it was the first time in a hundred similar situations, talking to someone whose knowledge of my work was casual, that the sentence did not come out, “I’ve read The Naked and the Dead…and the others.” If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisers.

I like this story best for what Mailer called its significance “to my particular competence.” A favorable remark, even in passing, from the man who had ascended to a level that no writer could ever hope to achieve was one that Mailer would savor forever. And then it was over.

Most of us never get that close, but it doesn’t matter: even from a distance, a president or a candidate makes everyone’s imagination follow a similar track, like a magnet acting on iron filings. That particular mixture of envy and admiration is especially visible among products of the Ivy League. A writer for The Simpsons once noted in an audio commentary that if the writing staff loved to write presidential jokes—like the one in which Grandpa Simpson claims to have been spanked by Grover Cleveland on two nonconsecutive occasions—it’s because the ones who went to Harvard can’t quite get over the idea that they could have been president themselves. You can feel the same sense of agonizing proximity in Mailer, who attended Harvard at a time when his Jewishness made him an outsider among heirs to power, and who later channeled that need into an absurdly unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of New York. As he later wrote:

Norman was lazy, and politics would make him work hard for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his life. He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.

He concludes: “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” But the memory of Kennedy lived on. Mailer wrote these lines in Of a Fire on the Moon, which chronicled the Apollo mission that Kennedy had set in motion. Kennedy would alter the future, and Mailer would write about it, just as Streep might play Clinton someday in a movie. But we’re all writing or acting these roles in our minds as we measure ourselves against the head of the class, even if we’re not sure who it is yet.

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