Marilyn Essay - Critical Context

Norman Mailer

Critical Context

Marilyn can easily be understood as the product of perilous times, a book produced during the height of the Watergate affair, when public distrust of the federal government was at an all-time high. Conspiracy theories of one sort or another had been in the air since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and such theories only multiplied after the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Besides, as Mailer shows, undeniable links existed between the two Kennedy brothers and Marilyn Monroe. This book, then, must be reckoned as one of the representative documents of the decade in which it appeared. In its New Journalism style, in its heavy reliance on psychohistory, and in its conspiratorial outlook, it typifies the culture that produced it.

Marilyn also marks an important turning point in Norman Mailer’s career: Having fought the big battles over the book and triumphed (a fact which he celebrated in an advertisement in The New York Times Book Review on December 9, 1973), Mailer had reached a new literary plateau. He was now free to become the celebrity and public figure, and he could devote himself to a new kind of project, a book with no immediate connection to American culture, a book that freed him from the bondage of the present, Ancient Evenings (1983).

Perhaps the most enduring contribution that Marilyn offers the reader is Mailer’s concept of “factoids,” “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” Marilyn herself was to drop many factoids on the plates of unsuspecting reporters. In the end, she had tragically lost the ability to distinguish between the facts and certain factoids she delivered (especially about her childhood) with all the earnestness of method acting. In Marilyn’s tragedy, with all of its chilling consequences, Norman Mailer has left the reader with an idea that contains truly frightening implications, since factoids may be at the base of everything the reader so confidently assumes is real.