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.
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.
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....
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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 publishedThe 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 phantasmagoric trip through murder, lust, power, and Las Vegas, turning Theodore Dreiser’s classic An American Tragedy (1925) inside out, as the hero escapes prosecution. In this novel, Mailer sought to illuminate what he labeled in The Presidential Papers the “dream life of the nation,” a “subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely, and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence.” Next Mailer delivered his most experimental novel, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a story of a bear-hunting trip to Alaska symbolic of the United States’ approaching debacle in Southeast Asia. In this book, Mailer told the tale through the hipster dialect of a teenager, one of the sons along on the hunt. The novel received a National Book Award nomination.
As fine as those novels were, Mailer was about to embark on his most productive period of literary journalism. In Cannibals and Christians (1966), he widened his scope to explore all sorts of topics from politics to architecture, plastics to cancer. The next year, however, he focused his attack on the Vietnam War and produced a Pulitzer Prize winner, The Armies of the Night (1967). Embracing the “new journalism” techniques employed by Tom Wolfe and others, Mailer jettisoned any attempt at complete journalistic objectivity and described his interior feelings as a participant in a major antiwar rally at the Pentagon in October, 1967. Writing of himself in the third person in the first part, “History as a Novel,” Mailer fashioned a persona caught up in the protest and the subsequent arrest. In the second part, “The Novel as History,” he wove together newspaper accounts, other eyewitness accounts, and other sources to narrate the story of the incident.
Hitting full stride as a literary reporter, Mailer next covered the 1968 presidential conventions in Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1969), the 1969 Apollo 11 moonshot in Of a Fire on The Moon (1970), and the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight boxing match in King of the Hill: On the Fight of the Century (1971). With the last, he continued his literary and personal interest in boxing dating from a 1962 piece, “Ten Thousand Words a Minute.” He then published a rebuttal to the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminist attacks on his fiction in The Prisoner of Sex (1971). The next year brought another prose miscellany, Existential Errands (1972), and political reportage on the 1972 presidential campaign, St. George and the Godfather (1972). In 1973, he put together a stunning biography and photographic study of actress Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn (1973) allowed Mailer to indulge in his fantasies for the blond bombshell and speculate on her death as a possible murder. Indeed, at a self-organized fiftieth birthday party that year, Mailer announced an effort to start a watchdog organization to watch the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other federal agencies. Ever the gadfly, his next prose work, The Faith of Graffiti (1974), contended that graffiti, instead of being an ugly defacement of property, was a vibrant expression of individualism. In mid-decade, he delivered another piece of boxing coverage, The Fight (1975), and an annotated collection of Henry Miller’s fiction, Genius and Lust (1976).
For the next four years, Mailer retreated from the limelight. In 1979, however, he astonished the literary world with the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Executioner’s Song (1979). Submerging his own ego to near invisibility (no mean feat for Mailer), he recounted the story of Gary Gilmore, who had murdered two people in Utah in 1976 and then refused to appeal his execution the next January. The tale provided Mailer a chance to explore the place of personal and institutional violence in American culture. Two years later, he became involved in a bizarre spinoff when he helped arrange the publication of Utah convict Jack Henry Abbott’s letters from prison and supported his release, a few weeks after which Abbott stabbed a New York waiter to death. On a more peaceful plane, Mailer resolved his marital situation in 1980 by divorcing Beverly, quickly marrying and divorcing Carol Stevens (a singer with whom he had lived in the 1970’s to legitimize their nine-year-old daughter), and marrying his sixth wife, Norris Church, an Arkansas artist and the mother of his eighth child. He also published another prose ensemble, Pieces and Pontifications (1982).
Mailer then entered another stretch of literary waning. Ancient Evenings (1983), a long and sluggish disquisition on reincarnation, preceded a murder mystery, Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984), which in turn preceded another large-scale novel on CIA intrigue, Harlot’s Ghost (1991). Critics found little to cheer in these three works. Mailer returned to nonfiction, cranking out his own interpretation of part of the Kennedy assassination in Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (1995) and a study of another artist with whom he likely identified, Pablo Picasso, in Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man (1995). Two years later, he published a quirky small novel, The Gospel According to the Son (1997), a retelling of the life of Jesus from Christ’s vantage point. The following year, he published a reprise of some of his more famous essays and some unpublished prose in The Time of Our Time (1998).
More than any other writer since Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer has merged his pugilistic personality and ebullient persona with his writing. Alternately belligerent and contrite, Mailer has explored the intersection of experience and fiction as an activist writer. Always predictably unpredictable, he has rarely shied away from the confrontational and aggressive theories about American culture that have won him many admirers and earned him probably an equal number of detractors. Sometimes a lightning rod for the crackpot and the harebrained, Mailer has nonetheless patrolled areas of violence, lust, power, and greed that unsettle most Americans. His public image, his thrust for celebrity and brushes with notoriety, however, distract from an appreciation of how solid and professional his written work has been. With his virtuoso versatility, arguably no other author has seized on so many topics, spiritual and material, in his literary quest to explain modern American life. Undoubtedly one of America’s major prose stylists, Mailer helped elevate the craft of writing during an era of the visualization of American popular culture. He may never deliver his promised blockbuster “Great American Novel,” but Mailer’s thirty or so works have ensured him a secure place as one of the most ferocious social critics of late twentieth century America.
Lennon, J. Michael, ed. Conversations with Norman Mailer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. A fine collection of interviews from 1948 to 1987.
Lucid, Robert F., ed. Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. A good assemblage of pre-1971 literary criticism that places Mailer in historical context.
Mailer, Adele. The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer. New York: Barricade, 1997. Although this memoir focuses on a short (about eight years) period of Mailer’s life, it is the most detailed book about him.
Manso, Peter. Mailer: His Life and Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985. A “biography” composed of excerpts and remembrances from Mailer’s friends, acquaintances, and enemies.
Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1992. An updated version of Merrill’s 1970 literary study of Mailer with more emphasis on his work than his life.
Mills, Hilary. Mailer: A Biography. New York: Empire, 1982. A standard, straightforward biography covering Mailer’s life and career to 1982.
Rollyson, Carl. The Lives of Norman Mailer. New York: Paragon House, 1991. This full-scale biography is probably too sympathetic to Mailer.
Solotaroff, Robert. Down Mailer’s Way. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. A thoroughly academic but spirited critique of Mailer’s literature and nonfiction.
Wenke, Joseph. Mailer’s America. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1987. A competent analysis and summation of Mailer’s work to the late 1980’s with some attempt at relating it to his times.