Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Executioner’s Song was a dramatic success, both commercially and critically. Though nonfictional, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize of Fiction in 1980—the first time that the ambitious novelist had achieved that honor in his thirty-two years of publishing (Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History did win the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1969). It marked a transition in Mailer’s literary reputation from that of enfant terrible and dissipated talent to that of mature literary master.

From his first published novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer has been intent on creating the comprehensive, consummate book; as he proclaimed in Advertisements for Myself (1959), his goal wasto hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters. For if I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way.

Spacious and ambitious as it is, The Executioner’s Song is not the definitive book to end all books, but it is probably closer to being Mailer’s masterwork than its successor, the long, convoluted novel that he called Ancient Evenings (1983).

It is odd that so flamboyant and idiosyncratic a figure as Mailer should have succeeded so remarkably with a book whose style is as self-effacing as is that of The Executioner’s Song. He brought to its construction the craftsmanship of his most powerful inventions. Yet culminating a decade of involvement in prominent public issues such as electoral politics, feminism, militarism, and penal reform, for which The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 (1969), Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), and The Prisoner of Sex (1971) provide eloquent testimony, The Executioner’s Song is an extraordinary romance of the ordinary.