Norman Mailer Mailer, Norman (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mailer, Norman 1923–

Mailer, a novelist, essayist, social critic, and filmmaker, is one of the most prominent contemporary American writers. The Naked and the Dead is considered one of the major novels to be written about the Second World War, but his fiction since has been of uneven quality. He has shown a much more consistently capable hand in his nonfiction, most of which is written in the style of New Journalism. Foremost among these works are Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon. A writer of powerful prose, he is at his best when attacking the materialism and spiritual malaise of contemporary American society. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

F. W. Dupee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Advertisements for Myself is chaotic; its tone is uncertainly pitched between defiance and apology. So much is this the case that anyone can easily lay hands on its jugular, and many reviewers have done so and thought they severed it. But the condition of Norman Mailer's life and art is that his jugular remains exposed. With all its faults in view, Advertisements for Myself is a confessional document of considerable interest and an engrossing chronicle of the postwar literary life. It is also an extremely funny book, for Mailer's gifts as a humorist are among his most reliable gifts. The one thing that his candor and wit leave unmolested is his own heavy dependence on the literary past, on what has been done. (pp. 97-8)

[The] attraction of Moby Dick to Mailer [who once described a projected thousand-page novel as "a descendant of Moby Dick"], seems to consist largely in its bulk, profundity, and prestige. It is to him, I should imagine, an image of literary power rather than a work to be admired, learned from perhaps, and then returned to its place of honor. And to judge by Advertisements, the literary past is all the weightier for him because it includes the achievements of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and others of their vintage, all of them together representing to him a massed accumulation of potency. How did he come to write his first published book, The Naked and the Dead, a novel of army life in the late war? "… I may as well confess I had gone into the army with the idea that when I came out I would write the war novel of World War II." With this idea in mind he did serve in the army (proudly, as a rifleman) and he did produce, punctually, efficiently, and as if on demand, The Naked and the Dead. But what an idea, and what a phrase, "the war novel of World War II"! The war novel? To be sure, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and others of their time had used their varied experiences of World War I in the writing of a lot of enormously varied books. Not they, but later journalists and sociologists, lumped those books together in the misleading, the unreal, category of "war novels." And when the second war arrived, the same crowd created that demand for "the novel of World War II" which Mailer determined to meet.

Advertisements for Myself testifies to his constant preoccupation with those 20's writers, in their capacity not merely as war novelists but as symbols of literary prestige in general. (pp. 98-9)

No Olympians can ever have looked more Olympian to an outsider than Hemingway and the others have looked to Mailer…. His genuine appreciation of their work was laced with a strong sense of their material stature—their reputation, influence, position in the literary market place. One sees, too, that his disposition to regard them, and the literary past in general, in this light, arose not only from the fact of his coming of age at this formidable phase of their careers. He also came of age at a moment of rapidly growing prosperity and expanding culture in...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)

Laura Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Through the years Mailer has acquired notoriety through incidents ranging from the stabbing of his second wife to his New York mayoralty campaign, and his facility for antagonizing his audiences is well known. Whatever the circumstances of his exposure to the public, Mailer rarely fails to be "good copy" and consequently has been fair game for the media newsmakers. Because of the difficulty of reconciling this notorious Mailer with the much-admired author of The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night, critics have commonly, at their most charitable, dismissed Mailer's public acts as irrelevant to his written work, or, at their least, considered them damaging to his reputation as a writer. (p. 3)

Ironically, with the awarding of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award to The Armies of the Night, Mailer was admitted to the American literary establishment despite his continued violations of its decorum, which, indeed, since that time are more often received as the eccentricities of a literary genius than as the self-indulgences of a publicity-seeking minor novelist.

Far from being antipathetic to his writing, however, as The Armies of the Night demonstrates, Mailer's public acts are the tests of the efficacy of his theories without which he could grow neither as a man nor as a writer. To attempt to separate Mailer's art from his life is to invite the question, "What is his art if not the creation of himself?" Part of the problem we have had in accepting this relationship in Mailer (although not in his Romantic predecessors) stems from his huge ambition and his usurpation of the critic's role with respect to his own work. At a time when he had only one popular and critical success to his name, his fine 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead, and three comparative failures, his ambitions seemed presumptuous…. [In Advertisements for Myself] he planned to outdo all other American writers, past and present, by trying to hit "the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters." Were these not presumptions enough, the book itself was a rejection of conventional criticism, conventional themes, conventional forms. (p. 4)

Committed … to altering the contemporary consciousness, Mailer continually changed and refined his methods in his search for the most effective means to this end. The years between Advertisements for Myself (1959) and The Armies of the Night (1968) were rich in explorations into both subject matter and style, always aimed at pushing back their existing limits. Much of the difficulty readers had with An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?, for example, was caused by the unconventional subject matter of the former and the difficult style of the latter…. While of uneven quality, the quantity of work produced during this period is prodigious.

Mailer resolved his thematic and stylistic concerns in the work which may be considered the end product of this experimental period, The Armies of the Night. That Armies is further the culmination of twenty years of writing may be seen through the perspective I have termed Mailer's aesthetics of growth. Since the late 1950's Mailer has had a vision of forces at war for possession of the universe, metaphors for our moral directions which he calls God and the Devil, whose victories or defeats are seen as ultimately productive...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mailer is shameless in his passion for women, and one is led to believe anything he says because he says it so well. He is so puritanical, so easily and deeply shocked, like any hero, that his arguments, which approach the fluidity and senselessness of music, have the effect of making the dehumanized aspects of womanhood appear attractive. (p. 216)

[To] Norman Mailer, "the prime responsibility of a woman is probably to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species."

But we don't know what the species is. A post-Darwinist name for "God"? A scientific concept? A mystical concept? A word? An identity? An essence? Do we locate ourselves in it, or does it push through us, blindly, with the affection of a stampeding crowd? And how long is "long enough"? Should we remain on earth for twenty years, or forty, or dare we hope for an extravagant eighty years, though our last several decades will be unproductive and therefore unjustified?… The "power to conceive or not to conceive" is, after all [according to Mailer], the "deepest expression of [a woman's] character…." Not one kind of expression, not even the most pragmatic expression, but the deepest expression! One sees why the mystic is the most dangerous of human beings. (pp. 217-18)

The mechanical fact of possessing a certain body must no longer determine the role of the...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Norman Mailer,… in his shifting and for the moment truncated career as a novelist, illustrates precisely how American writing has tended to move into a new, problematic relationship with history. His first book, The Naked and the Dead (1948)—in many respects still his most adequate novel—draws on techniques of Dos Passos, Farrell, Steinbeck, and other American social realists of the 30's in order to present a panoramic view of American society in the crucible of war, the writer using his medium to grapple strenuously with the complex ideological forces that were exposed in the war, and struggling to imagine some way to a livable human future beyond this or other wars. Mailer's two novels of the 50's, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, try to explore technical possibilities and human situations beyond the purview of The Naked and the Dead, but he remains in both of them an essentially political novelist, keenly attentive to how power is exerted in a particular time and place, how ideology and the moral imagination respond to the felt pressures of power. In Mailer's two novels of the next decade, however, An American Dream (1964) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a radical shift occurred, a shift that may explain why Mailer has written no novels since. The very titles, of course, emphasize a programmatic concentration on issues of national destiny, but both novels in fact are largely devoted to the playing out of private fantasies. Frequently articulated with stylistic brilliance, the fantasies do on occasion illuminate certain aspects of the larger American context, but too often their self-indulgence only leads us down some primrose path in Mailer's own teeming mental garden. After such fiction, this abundantly talented writer, losing purchase on both form and subject, seems to have concluded that he had little choice but to become a self-dramatizing journalist. (p. 45)

Robert Alter (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1975.

Philip H. Bufithis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Over the perspective of both officers and enlisted men [in The Naked and the Dead] prevails the narrative voice of Mailer, who, Olympian-like, remains a detached, omniscient observer. He conveys the tribulations of war with almost scathing objectivity. (p. 18)

Clearly, Mailer's perspective in this novel seems noninnovational for it is derived from naturalism, the prevailing point of view of the American masters of the 1930s—Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Farrell, and Hemingway—who inspired him. Naturalism's most frequent metaphor, the lawless jungle, is the literal setting of The Naked and the Dead. (p. 19)

What makes this novel so disturbing is not the actual horror of...

(The entire section is 3420 words.)