(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

To read Marilyn is to experience one of the primary documents of New Journalism, the literary technique that dominated the 1960’s and 1970’s, especially in the work of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson. In New Journalism, the writer drops all pretenses of objectivity and distancing; the author, in fact, becomes part of the story, as Mailer himself demonstrated with great success in The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968). In Marilyn, he does not pretend to have known his subject personally (or to have participated in her life in the way in which he participated in the march on the Pentagon), but he does inject his candid opinions of those personages he does know, such as Arthur Miller.

One of the issues, then, in any critical analysis of Marilyn is Mailer’s authority and the validity of his voice. Kate Millet and Germaine Greer have attacked Mailer as a sexist writer, and Mailer defends himself in such works as The Prisoner of Sex (1971) and Pieces and Pontifications (1982). Yet a close reading of Mailer reveals a rather complex and deeply sympathetic treatment of the character and personality of Marilyn Monroe, in spite of the considerable controversy created by the book (eight lengthy articles on aspects of this controversy appeared in The New York Times alone in 1973). In addition to being charged with sexism, Mailer was roundly criticized for purported plagiarism, and a libel suit was eventually filed against him. Thus, Mailer’s attitude and methodology must figure into any critical appraisal of the book.

There is a considerable amount of Mailer’s trademark prose style, a kind of high-energy assemblage of adjectives and nouns that yields such characterizations of Marilyn as “a sexual oven” with “a sweet little rinky-dink of a voice” for whom sex becomes “ice cream,” a woman who “emanated sex” and whose womb was “fairly salivating...

(The entire section is 820 words.)