Norman Mailer Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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Article abstract: One of the most controversial literary figure of his generation, Mailer redefined the art of literary journalism and became one of the most prominent and unpredictable novelists and social critics in the United States.

Early Life

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, to Isaac Barnett Mailer and Fanny Schneider Mailer. He was an only child. After his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1927, Norman had a calm childhood playing neighborhood sports, building model airplanes, and excelling in public schools. His innate intelligence (an intelligence quotient measured at 165 in school and about 150 later in the Army) propelled him to college. At age sixteen, he applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for study in aeronautical engineering, but the university suggested he take a year of college elsewhere. Norman enrolled at Harvard University, where he received his engineering degree with honors in 1943.

At Harvard, Mailer had become attracted to the career of a writer. He began writing in earnest, contributing pieces to the Harvard Advocate and winning a national collegiate fiction award in 1941. Emulating his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, Mailer sought some life experience to bolster his writing, which approached one million words before his first novel appeared. He hitchhiked through the South and worked at a mental hospital to gather material. In 1944 he married Beatrice Silverman, his college girlfriend and the first of his six wives. Induction into the Army followed. At first, Mailer had telephone lineman and clerk positions, but he volunteered for combat as a rifleman. He was part of a reconnaissance platoon in the Philippines and the occupation army in Japan before his discharge in 1946.

Life’s Work

Mailer burst onto the American literary scene in 1948 with a bold, big first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Fame came quickly to the twenty-five-year-old as the sweeping war adventure became a best-seller and won critical acclaim. His second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), however, was a failure, a claustrophobic debate of the Cold War in a Brooklyn boardinghouse. The third novel, The Deer Park (1955), an examination of sex and power and spiritual failure in Hollywood, was a mixed success and deepened Mailer’s fear that he had expended his talents on his first book. Not for another decade did he write another novel, but by the time An American Dream (1965) appeared, Mailer had already resecured his career with his nonfiction essays.

From the outset, Mailer threw himself into the intellectual and political currents of his day. The Naked and the Dead had criticized the war, and by extension American culture, as totalitarian. In 1948 he studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and established a long friendship with Marxist philosopher Jean Malaquais. Mailer began to envision the role of the writer as one of political commitment and activism rather than isolated retreat from society. Later that year, he worked for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Throughout the 1950’s, Mailer moved toward more extreme positions of cultural radicalism. His first marriage ended, and in 1954 he married Adele Morales, a painter he met in Greenwich Village. He became associated with the Beat movement and helped found The Village Voice as an alternative to the mainstream press. He experimented with drugs and drank heavily. In 1957, in Dissent, he published The White Negro, praising the hipster—what he called a “psychic outlaw”—as vital for a free society. Two years later, he collected his Village Voice columns and other pieces into his first prose collection, Advertisements for Myself (1959).

These forays into journalism reenergized Mailer. He decided to run for mayor of New York in 1960. However, his private life remained tumultuous. In November of that year, after a drunken party, Mailer stabbed Adele with a penknife. This led to incarceration at Bellevue mental hospital and eventually to divorce. After a short marriage to his third spouse, British journalist Lady Jeanne Campbell, he wed actor Beverly Bentley. Some domestic stability ensued, but with an expanded family of five children from his marriages, Mailer relied on journalism for financial security. In 1963, he published The Presidential Papers (1963), undoubtedly one of his best collections of prose. In “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” he covered the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and, with his vivid portrait of John Kennedy, Mailer found his forte in the style of political coverage that would sustain him throughout the rest of his career.

Emboldened with his success, Mailer returned to fiction. In An American Dream, a novel much underrated by critics, he took the reader on a...

(The entire section is 2018 words.)