Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Marilyn owes its genesis to photographer Lawrence Schiller, who assembled some sixteen thousand photographs from the files of twenty-four photographers to create a special exhibition titled “Marilyn Monroe: The Legend and the Truth.” It was Schiller who contacted Norman Mailer after this exhibition with the proposal that Mailer write the text for a book featuring the best of these photographs. Mailer originally planned to compose 25,000 words but ended with a text of 90,000 words. Schiller printed 118 photographs, including work by such notables as Richard Avedon, Milton H. Greene, Sam Shaw, and Eve Arnold. The arrangement of the photographs in relation to Mailer’s text is rarely governed by principles of chronology or simple illustration. Mailer and Schiller deliberately place some photographs out of sequence in order to provide a sharp tonal contrast with the printed text or to create some kind of visual essay (sequences of photographs showing Marilyn on various beaches, for example). Marilyn, then, is a rich and complex work that can be appreciated on many levels, as a collection of stunningly effective photographs, as a boldly original text, or as a powerful combination of the two, constantly beckoning to the literal eye and to the eye of the imagination.

Drawing extensively on two previously published books for his primary facts (Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe, 1969, and Marilyn Monroe, 1960), Mailer quotes frequently from these secondary sources, using them more than twenty times. In addition, Mailer makes use of other background data gathered from another dozen primary sources he personally interviewed (all these primary and secondary sources, and all the photographers, are acknowledged in the last chapter of Marilyn). Describing himself as a kind of psychohistorian, Mailer tends to summarize the well-documented facts of Monroe’s life and career, preferring to dwell on the psychic impact of key moments in her emotional life.

Mailer moves in a chronological fashion, spending a considerable amount of time on Marilyn’s unhappy childhood in Los...

(The entire section is 872 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Norman Mailer, 1986.

Clemons, Walter. Review in Newsweek. LXXXII (July 30, 1973), p. 71.

Kael, Pauline. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXVIII (July 22, 1973), p. 1.

Mills, Hilary. Mailer: A Biography, 1982.

The New Yorker. Review. XLIX (August 6, 1973), p. 87.