Norman Mailer Mailer, Norman (Vol. 11)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 America, when similar rewards seemed to be within reach of himself and other aspiring young writers.

Hence, probably, the dreams of worldly power which, in the pages of Advertisements , give unmistakable signs of being conjoined to his legitimate literary ambitions. Unmistakable?...

(The entire section is 7,075 words.)