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.)

Norman Mailer Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on January 31, 1923, the son of Isaac (“Barney”) and Fanny Mailer. Mailer’s mother had family in business in Long Branch, but she and her husband soon moved to Brooklyn, where their son, Norman, and his younger sister, Barbara, attended public schools. Mailer has described his home life as deeply nurturing, with his mother taking the lead not only in caring for the children but also in earning the income (through an oil delivery business) that supported the family during the Depression when his father (an accountant) was sometimes out of work.

Mailer was a precocious child who did extremely well in school. Assembling an impressive model airplane collection and excelling in his mathematics and sciences courses, his early dream was to become an aeronautical engineer. Accepted at Harvard University in 1939 as an engineering student, Mailer was soon captivated by his writing courses, and by the end of his freshman year, he had determined to become a writer. He graduated in 1943 with an engineering major in deference to his parents’ wish for him to have a degree that would qualify him for employment in a profession. He had already written several dozen stories and one unpublished novel. Waiting to be drafted for service in World War II, he wrote in eight months another novel, A Transit to Narcissus (published in facsimile in 1978).

Drafted in 1944, Mailer was assigned a number of desk jobs before volunteering as a rifleman so that he could get some experience in combat for the novel about the war that he wanted to write. Originally intended as a short account of a combat patrol, The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer’s first published novel, developed into a long, complex study of the war, the military, and an impressive cross section of soldiers from all regions of the United States. It was hailed as the greatest fictional work to have come out of World War II, and Mailer found himself at twenty-five on the best-seller lists and launched as one of the most promising writers of his generation.

Mailer enjoyed his sudden celebrity, but it also frightened him, for he had not had time to develop his talent. Success had come with a rush. He floundered in the next few years, trying to find a subject as large as World War II, not wanting to repeat himself by writing a second war novel, but afraid that he did not have the experience yet for another major work. He traveled to Europe, visited Hollywood, and dabbled in radical politics. All these experiences found their place in his second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), which was heavily criticized as incoherent and excessively didactic. Searching for a new style that was less naturalistic than his first novel, Mailer had tried to write a political allegory that would reveal the fantastic, phantasmagoric, paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War years, when...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)

Norman Mailer Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Many critics have suggested that Mailer’s greatest achievement has been in nonfiction, where he has had a plot ready-made and a cast of characters about whom he can report with uncanny accuracy and insight. At the same time, in turning to nonfiction he has adapted the techniques of fiction to show how much of history—once it is reported—can be seen as a novel. To dismiss his novels, however, would be a mistake, as The Naked and the Dead and An American Dream, for example, express and often superbly realize the way he has tried to shift between and balance the countervailing forces of the individual and society.

(The entire section is 110 words.)

Norman Mailer Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Norman Kingsley Mailer grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Harvard University (1939-1943), where he studied aeronautical engineering and became interested in writing. After he graduated from Harvard, he married Beatrice Silverman and was inducted into the U.S. Army, serving with the 112th Cavalry out of San Antonio, Texas. He was overseas for eighteen months in Leyte, Luzon, and with occupation forces in Japan. His varied experience as a field artillery surveyor, clerk, interpreter of aerial photographs, rifleman, and cook undoubtedly contributed to the comprehensive portrayal of the military in The Naked and the Dead.

After his discharge from the Army in May, 1946, Mailer immediately began work on...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Norman Mailer Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Norman Mailer attained fame in 1948 with his best-selling and critically acclaimed war novel, The Naked and the Dead. This work provides an encyclopedic view of Americans from all regions and ethnic identities going to war. Mailer’s public celebrity forced upon him a keen consciousness of his own role in the culture. Repeatedly asked about his own opinions of politics and social issues, he began using fiction and nonfiction to explore his own identity—which was often in conflict with American values.

Whatever Mailer’s subject—the Democratic convention that nominated John F. Kennedy in 1960 in The Presidential Papers or the protest against the Vietnam War in The Armies of the...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Norman Mailer Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

Norman Kingsley Mailer grew up in Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Harvard University, and served in the Philippines in World War II. In 1948, he became a best-selling author with the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. His second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), which concerned Cold War politics, received a mixed reception, and his third novel, The Deer Park (1955), an exposé of Hollywood, also failed to match the success of his first novel. He turned to journalism, experimental fiction, and politics in the 1960’s, hoping to recoup his reputation and to make an impact on public affairs.

The 1960’s

In the 1960’s,...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)

Norman Mailer Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on January 31, 1923. Much of his childhood was spent in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived in a Jewish neighborhood. He never wrote about his upbringing, but it is clear from several published accounts of his life that he took to literature quite early—even though he earned an engineering degree from Harvard University. By the time of his college graduation, he had thoroughly absorbed the writing of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos and was bent on becoming a great war novelist. He served as a rifleman in the Pacific during World War II, and his novel about the war, The Naked and the Dead, was greeted with great acclaim and popularity.


(The entire section is 896 words.)

Norman Mailer Biography

(Novels for Students)
Norman Mailer Published by Gale Cengage

A self-proclaimed philosophical "existentialist" and political "left conservative," Norman Mailer has led a colorful and notorious life. He...

(The entire section is 334 words.)