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 He had already written several dozen stories and one unpublished novel.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...
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