Mailer, Norman (Vol. 11)
Mailer, Norman 1923–
Mailer, a novelist, essayist, social critic, and filmmaker, is one of the most prominent contemporary American writers. The Naked and the Dead is considered one of the major novels to be written about the Second World War, but his fiction since has been of uneven quality. He has shown a much more consistently capable hand in his nonfiction, most of which is written in the style of New Journalism. Foremost among these works are Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon. A writer of powerful prose, he is at his best when attacking the materialism and spiritual malaise of contemporary American society. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
F. W. Dupee
Advertisements for Myself is chaotic; its tone is uncertainly pitched between defiance and apology. So much is this the case that anyone can easily lay hands on its jugular, and many reviewers have done so and thought they severed it. But the condition of Norman Mailer's life and art is that his jugular remains exposed. With all its faults in view, Advertisements for Myself is a confessional document of considerable interest and an engrossing chronicle of the postwar literary life. It is also an extremely funny book, for Mailer's gifts as a humorist are among his most reliable gifts. The one thing that his candor and wit leave unmolested is his own heavy dependence on the literary past, on what has been done. (pp. 97-8)
[The] attraction of Moby Dick to Mailer [who once described a projected thousand-page novel as "a descendant of Moby Dick"], seems to consist largely in its bulk, profundity, and prestige. It is to him, I should imagine, an image of literary power rather than a work to be admired, learned from perhaps, and then returned to its place of honor. And to judge by Advertisements, the literary past is all the weightier for him because it includes the achievements of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and others of their vintage, all of them together representing to him a massed accumulation of potency. How did he come to write his first published book, The Naked and the...
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Through the years Mailer has acquired notoriety through incidents ranging from the stabbing of his second wife to his New York mayoralty campaign, and his facility for antagonizing his audiences is well known. Whatever the circumstances of his exposure to the public, Mailer rarely fails to be "good copy" and consequently has been fair game for the media newsmakers. Because of the difficulty of reconciling this notorious Mailer with the much-admired author of The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night, critics have commonly, at their most charitable, dismissed Mailer's public acts as irrelevant to his written work, or, at their least, considered them damaging to his reputation as a writer. (p. 3)
Ironically, with the awarding of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award to The Armies of the Night, Mailer was admitted to the American literary establishment despite his continued violations of its decorum, which, indeed, since that time are more often received as the eccentricities of a literary genius than as the self-indulgences of a publicity-seeking minor novelist.
Far from being antipathetic to his writing, however, as The Armies of the Night demonstrates, Mailer's public acts are the tests of the efficacy of his theories without which he could grow neither as a man nor as a writer. To attempt to separate Mailer's art from his life is to invite the question, "What is his art...
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Joyce Carol Oates
Mailer is shameless in his passion for women, and one is led to believe anything he says because he says it so well. He is so puritanical, so easily and deeply shocked, like any hero, that his arguments, which approach the fluidity and senselessness of music, have the effect of making the dehumanized aspects of womanhood appear attractive. (p. 216)
[To] Norman Mailer, "the prime responsibility of a woman is probably to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species."
But we don't know what the species is. A post-Darwinist name for "God"? A scientific concept? A mystical concept? A word? An identity? An essence? Do we locate ourselves in it, or does it push through us, blindly, with the affection of a stampeding crowd? And how long is "long enough"? Should we remain on earth for twenty years, or forty, or dare we hope for an extravagant eighty years, though our last several decades will be unproductive and therefore unjustified?… The "power to conceive or not to conceive" is, after all [according to Mailer], the "deepest expression of [a woman's] character…." Not one kind of expression, not even the most pragmatic expression, but the deepest expression! One sees why the mystic is the most dangerous of human beings. (pp. 217-18)
The mechanical fact of possessing a certain body must no longer determine the role of the...
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Norman Mailer,… in his shifting and for the moment truncated career as a novelist, illustrates precisely how American writing has tended to move into a new, problematic relationship with history. His first book, The Naked and the Dead (1948)—in many respects still his most adequate novel—draws on techniques of Dos Passos, Farrell, Steinbeck, and other American social realists of the 30's in order to present a panoramic view of American society in the crucible of war, the writer using his medium to grapple strenuously with the complex ideological forces that were exposed in the war, and struggling to imagine some way to a livable human future beyond this or other wars. Mailer's two novels of the 50's, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, try to explore technical possibilities and human situations beyond the purview of The Naked and the Dead, but he remains in both of them an essentially political novelist, keenly attentive to how power is exerted in a particular time and place, how ideology and the moral imagination respond to the felt pressures of power. In Mailer's two novels of the next decade, however, An American Dream (1964) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a radical shift occurred, a shift that may explain why Mailer has written no novels since. The very titles, of course, emphasize a programmatic concentration on issues of national destiny, but both novels in fact are largely devoted to the playing...
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Philip H. Bufithis
Over the perspective of both officers and enlisted men [in The Naked and the Dead] prevails the narrative voice of Mailer, who, Olympian-like, remains a detached, omniscient observer. He conveys the tribulations of war with almost scathing objectivity. (p. 18)
Clearly, Mailer's perspective in this novel seems noninnovational for it is derived from naturalism, the prevailing point of view of the American masters of the 1930s—Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Farrell, and Hemingway—who inspired him. Naturalism's most frequent metaphor, the lawless jungle, is the literal setting of The Naked and the Dead. (p. 19)
What makes this novel so disturbing is not the actual horror of war, but Mailer's unrelenting vision of the void—of the lack of love, justice, and mercy. Nothing human is sacred, and the only constant is change. The unpredictable oscillations of nature and man's emotions charge every scene. To be human is to be a mass of uncorrelated impulses. (p. 24)
The mythic heroism of [the three main characters] and the naturalistic universe they oppose is the primary dramatic conflict in The Naked and the Dead. In artistic terms, the conflict is between romance and realism. The interplay between these two elements gives this novel its identifying form as a work of art. (p. 26)
The Naked and the Dead is the finest novel in English to come out of World War II. More...
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