Mailer vs. Vidal: Those Were the Days!

The recent passing of Norman Mailer has been an occasion for the literati to reflect on both his genius and craziness (Christopher Hitchens' reminiscence is a treat). But perhaps the most voyeuristically captivating is Dick Cavett's recollection of the infamous episode of his late night TV talk show on ABC in 1971 wherein the talk show couch became an impromptu boxing ring as Norman Mailer squared off with Gore Vidal. The antics are ludicrous; and yet they stem from a sense that literature and criticism mattered (after all, the thrown-down-gauntlet that occassioned the fray was a claim Vidal made about Mailer in the New York Review of Books.)

But don't miss the really significant and depressing point: apparently in 1971, late night talk television was home to literary figures like Mailer, Vidal, and others. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates on Letterman? Or Alice Munro and Tom Wolfe making an appearance on Leno? Sadly, if this was ever going to happen on late night TV, I'd expect to see it on Comedy Central's Daily Show or Colbert Report.