The Moth of Literary Fame: A Tale of Two Writers

The Moth of Literary Fame: A Tale of Two Writers

By David Daniel

Emerson likened literary fame to a “flitting moth.” The recent imaginative-biodrama Emily reminds us what an uncertain thing a writer’s legacy can be. Dead from tuberculosis at 30, a mere year after her lone novel appeared to unspectacular notice, Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights have come to occupy an established place in the halls of literary immortality.

Closer to home, consider two post-World War II American writers: Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer. Kerouac would have turned 101 last month; Mailer is having his centennial. Parallels between the two are many. Precocious children of working families, with doting mothers and gambler fathers, they went on from urban public schools to the Ivy league. Both achieved acclaim for their writing as representative voices for the World War II generation and went on to prolific careers. While not personally close (they moved in very different circles) they had an arm’s-length acquaintance and a respect for one another. Both have strong Massachusetts links—Kerouac born in Lowell; Mailer lived for many years in Provincetown, and both are interred in Bay State soil.

From early on, Kerouac and Mailer harbored grand ambitions. Like Thomas Wolfe, one of his inspirations, Kerouac longed to capture the full “meat and meaning of life.” Mailer sought to succeed Hemingway as literary heavyweight champ, and foment “nothing less than a revolution in the consciousness” of his time.

While they did gain sudden and immense attention, (Mailer with his first novel The Naked and the Dead, Kerouac with his second published novel, On the Road) it would prove to be acclaim that bled over into notoriety. Each became a lightning rod for controversy; but whereas Mailer, a born gadfly, courted it, Kerouac wore the “King of the Beats” crown uneasily. At their best, they are excitingly distinctive stylists: lyrical, rhythmic, haunting, virtuosic. At their worst they fall into bombast, rant, sexism, and tediousness.

The two writers diverge in key ways: Mailer was intellectual and political, Kerouac was spiritual and emotional. And the arcs of their careers and literary reputations could not have been more different.

Mailer’s success came fast, in 1948 when he was 25. He would go on writing for decades, having many bestsellers, winning two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and other kudos. He was an outsized public figure whose brash opinions on all manner of topics were news, his presence on TV always fraught with dramatic tension. Gauged in terms of his output, and the measure of cash advances (often for books of dubious value, written to satisfy alimony and child support  demands—he was married six times and had eight children) Mailer was the far more commercially successful of the two. He wrote over forty books, including eleven bestsellers, many of them still in print at the time of his death in 2007 at 84.

Although Kerouac published his first novel when he was 28, his crowning achievement came at 35 with his second novel, written when he was in his late 20s but not published until 1957. On the Road was an overnight sensation, likened to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in terms of its being a voice for a generation. There followed a rapid string of books in the wake of that success, but none matched OTR’s critical and commercial heat. There were years that saw him chafe under the unsought mantle, King of the Beats. Twelve years later, broke, corroded by chronic alcoholism, most of his work out of print, he was gone, having undershot his centennial by 54 years. At time of his death in 1969, he was mostly forgotten, his once-loud voice crying in the American wilderness, reduced to a whisper, a footnote to a generation.

Enter Emerson’s flitting moth. Two decades after Kerouac’s death, the tide began to turn for his reputation as a deeper examination of his work commenced and new readers discovered him. Shunned for years by academia, he was relevant again. This trend has continued, with critical interest and sales growing each year, to where On the Road now sells over 100 thousand copies annually and has done for since the early 1990s. Many of his other books sell well, too. There are already more than a dozen biographies. Lowell, the city of his birth, honors him with annual celebrations. In San Francisco there’s a street named for him.

Kerouac’s fortunes continue to rise. A number of previously unpublished original works have appeared, beginning with Atop an Underwood, early essays (edited by Paul Marion). Beat studies has become a cottage industry. He’s embedded in the popular landscape, lionized by new generations of readers and high-profile fans like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Johnny Depp, “Jack,” as he’s referred to with affection, is a touchstone, an emblem of some deep human yen for freedom.

Mailer has not “aged” as well. His books remain in print, but sales are unimpressive. His massive, prize-winning The Executioner’s Song, which many consider his best book, sells only about 1000 copies a year. And titles that were bestsellers in their day (An American Dream; Tough Guys Don’t Dance) are largely forgotten. Now, in his centennial year, this may be changing. Library of America has republished The Naked and the Dead and some of his 1960’s books, and there is a brand-new biography. Whether this will encourage an upsurge of interest in and readership of Mailer’s work remains to be seen, but he may be at an inflection point.

In “Ozymandias,” poet Percy Shelley’s haunting imaginative reflection on the nature of fame, his narrator cites the words on the statue of the eponymous “king of kings”, which lies tumbled in the desert of “an antique land”: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Then reports:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


David Daniel’s new book, Beach Town, will launch at Lala Books in Lowell on Saturday April 15, at 2-4 p.m. It is available at; lalabooks in Lowell; and on Amazon.

7 Responses to The Moth of Literary Fame: A Tale of Two Writers

  1. Jim Provencher says:

    This timely piece makes me think of Melville’s revival & revaluation begun on the centennial of his birth in 1919; or of Walt Whitman, sole mourner turning up at Poe’s funeral; or Emily Dickinson’s ten published poems in her lifetime: so as Robert Frost said–‘Most of the change we think we see in life/ Is due to truths being in and out of favor.’ Like all avant-garde artists, Mailer and Kerouac were antennae of the race. Also, a perceptive distinction: Mailer, intellectual & political; Kerouac, spiritual and emotional. That about spans the gamut of being in & out of fashion.

  2. Jason Trask says:

    Very illuminating. Before reading this, I don’t recall putting Kerouac and Mailer in the same sentence, but you show some interesting similarities. And while I admit that Mailer’s writing has more meat on its bones–and, true, that depends on what one considers meat–I prefer Kerouac. Without reading this, I don’t think I would have recognized that. Kerouac speaks to my soul, while Mailer speaks to my mind. And, though the mind is not exactly meaty, the soul has neither meat nor bones to put it on.

    Another thing that surprised me about this piece is that Kerouac was born a bit before Mailer. I guess because Jack never got old, I always think of him as young, as the little brother I never had, though he was born only 5 years after my father and three after my mother. My parents seem like they were part of their time, depression childhoods, and WW2 young adulthoods. Kerouac lived through all of that as well–was even in the military, albeit the naval reserves–but none of that seemed to touch him as much as it touched the rest of his generation, Mailer included.

  3. byron hoot says:

    It may be that an “intellectual and
    political ” writer is more easily, more readily grasped than an “emotional and spiritual ” writer.
    And the former is more easy discarded than the latter.
    The great ones, as I understand, deal with the heart and spiritual aspects of whom we are.
    My bias is showing. But it may be more than a bias.
    A good, provocative piece.

  4. Tim Trask says:

    A wonderful, thoughtful comparison, one that will have me pondering it for a while.

  5. Malcolm Sharps says:

    Ah, the precarious life of literary reputations. A nice subject to tackle, David. Not just JK and Norman Mailer but the whole history of rises and falls in our estimation of wielders of the pen and the changes in the public’s taste which bring it about. Sometimes the changes are so great one can hardly understand how the public fell for (or was taken in by) a writer. One figure will suffice to represent hundreds who have suffered close to total neglect and perhaps are beyond revival after a prodigious start: Thomas Carlyle. Orwell buried him in one line (sorry if I misquote): ‘With all his intellect, he had not the wit to write a single sentence in plain English.’ I’ve tried The French Revolution and I’m with Orwell there.
    What sounds apocryphal to me, at best, a joke; it’s too perfect. A critic was trying to bolster an unsuccessful writer’s reputation. ‘X will be read long after Shakespeare has been forgotten’.
    To which some wit added, ‘But not before’.
    Good luck, David, with the sales of Beach Town. Long may it be read.

  6. Tim Coats says:

    A lot of interesting stuff here. I think that Kerouac began outclassing Mailer because in society and politics in general the heart has become ascendant. The downside is in the bewildering mindlessness that’s taken hold of so many.