Norman Mailer’s career as one of the most highly regarded novelists in the United States got off to a resounding start with The Naked and the Dead, the first major treatment of World War II in American fiction. The novel is considered, along with James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), to be one of the few American masterpieces about the war. It is one of the best realistic treatments of combat since Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929). Mailer based the novel on the eighteen months he spent overseas in Leyte, Luzon, and Japan (with the occupation forces) from 1944 to 1946.
As is usually the case in a first novel, the influences on the book are fairly clear. Critics cite stylistic echoes of Ernest Hemingway, social concerns like those of John Steinbeck, naïve young men in search of maturity as with the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, and a flashback structure similar to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936). The style of The Naked and the Dead is simpler, partly because of the Hemingway influence, than Mailer’s later self-conscious, often ornate writing, but the thematic concerns—among them, the conflict of the individual with a hostile, indifferent society—are the same as in his more mature fiction. Mailer intends the Anopopei campaign to be a microcosm not only of the war in the Pacific but of any war at any time or place. In showing the disconnect between the worlds of command and combat, Mailer emphasizes how war creates alienation in...
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