Norman Mailer Additional 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 He had already written several dozen stories and one unpublished novel.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.)


(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.


(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.)


(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 Night—he was concerned with how he could create an identity in the face of pressures to conform to society’s dictates. The Deer Park and An American Dream feature heroes in conflict with American powers such as the Hollywood film industry and business tycoons.

Mailer made himself a controversial subject not only in his writing but in his life. He seemed to advocate a violent rejection of the status quo. “The White Negro” in Advertisements for Myself lauds the style of some African Americans and their white imitators who lived on the margins of society. His aggressive style was called into question when he stabbed his second wife and was briefly detained at Bellevue Hospital in 1960, shortly before he was to declare his candidacy for mayor of New York City.

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s Mailer came under increasing attack for his treatment of women, with some critics becoming outraged that in his novel An American Dream the main character, Stephen Rojack, murders his wife and gets away with it. Mailer answers his critics in The Prisoner of Sex and made the issue of a woman’s identity the crucial subject of his biography of Marilyn Monroe.

In the later stages of his career, Mailer has turned to issues of capital punishment, espionage, and assassination, probing, in The Executioner’s Song, Harlot’s Ghost (1991), and Oswald’s Tale, the identities of murderer Gary Gilmore, of various spies in the Central Intelligence Agency, and of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in order to explore the shifting nature of American identity.


(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.)


(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.)


(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.)