Norman Mailer Mailer, Norman (Vol. 111) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Norman Mailer 1923–

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, journalist, screenwriter, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Mailer's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 14, 28, 39, and 74.

An outspoken intellectual and celebrity, Norman Mailer is a controversial figure in contemporary American literature. Highly regarded for his prodigious ability as a novelist and social critic, Mailer's literary endeavors exhibit extensive experimentation with narrative forms and styles, notable for their synthesis of fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, and journalism. Increasingly colored by radical politics and existentialism in the 1960s, Mailer's writing attempts to engage and reenact the major crises of the modern world to affect greater understanding of self and society, and is mirrored in reality by his active participation in national events. Mailer achieved sudden fame with his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), still considered among his finest accomplishments along with the award-winning nonfiction novels The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner's Song (1979). An independent thinker who eschews identification with literary and political circles, Mailer has given forceful expression to the voice of alienation and disillusionment in postwar American society.

Biographical Information

Born Norman Kingsley Mailer in Long Branch, New Jersey, Mailer moved with his parents to Brooklyn, New York, at age four, where he grew up in a comfortable Jewish community. Mailer was a precocious, though modest, child who earned high marks in school and occupied himself with model building. At age sixteen he enrolled at Harvard to study aeronautical engineering but soon became interested in the contemporary fiction of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, who together became his early literary influences. Vowing to become a great novelist himself, Mailer wrote several short stories and won first prize in Story magazine's annual college contest. After graduating from Harvard with honors in 1943, Mailer joined the army and married his first wife shortly before setting off to serve in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. Upon his discharge in 1946, Mailer attended graduate courses at the Sorbonne in Paris. He recorded his military experiences in his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, a popular and critical success that launched his literary career with its publication in 1948. Mailer followed with Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), both of which failed to live up to the promise of his debut novel. In 1952 Mailer divorced his first wife and two years later entered into the second of six subsequent marriages over three decades. In 1955 he co-founded the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper covering politics and the arts, to which he was a regular contributor. He published "The White Negro," his much anthologized essay, in Dissent magazine in 1957. The essay reappeared in Advertisements for Myself (1959) and became a staple of Beat literature. Mailer's unabashed drug and alcohol use also became a feature of his writing and personal life during this time. He was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric treatment in 1960 after stabbing his second wife during a night of heavy drinking. For this incident and other acts of defiance and exhibitionism during the 1960s, Mailer earned a reputation for self-aggrandizement and belligerence. His involvement in the turbulent politics of the 1960s became material for much of his writing, including the novel Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), the nonfiction narrative Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), and The Armies of the Night (1968), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and a National Book Award. Mailer was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song (1979), which he also adapted into a popular television movie. While retreating somewhat from the public eye in recent decades, Mailer continued to produce a diverse body of work including essays, screenplays, literary criticism, biographies, and several major novels—Ancient Evenings (1983), Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), Harlot's Ghost (1991), and The Gospel According to the Son (1997).

Major Works

Mailer's preoccupation with the struggle for individuality and free will in the face of natural forces and institutional authority is central to his work. The Naked and the Dead describes the combat experiences and interaction of fourteen American soldiers as they advance on a small Japanese-held island in the Philippines during the Second World War. Mailer presents the diverse members of the platoon as a microcosm of the American people, each with their own wide-ranging geographic, economic, and social backgrounds. As in most of his writing, Mailer examines the complex tensions that evolve as the main characters attempt to impose their will upon an essentially uncaring and inexorable universe. Mailer similarly portrays an assemblage of Cold War political extremists in Barbary Shore and a blacklisted Hollywood director in The Deer Park. In the late 1950s Mailer abandoned such naturalistic studies of the external world to probe the inner conflicts of consciousness and being in Advertisements for Myself, a miscellany of short stories, essays, poems, and personal statements. This collection, along with The Presidential Papers (1963), represents an important shift in Mailer's approach to ethical and metaphysical examinations in which, through unflinching introspection, he sought to expose the psyche of the American citizen at large. In "The White Negro" Mailer argues that the American "hipster" is a desirable adaptation of the uninhibited urban African-American, a "philosophical psychopath" whose enjoyment of desublimated desires is essential to subvert social control in the interest of a free existence. In subsequent works, Mailer increasingly drew upon existentialist philosophy to explain the primacy of the flesh over the spirit and to justify violence as an outpouring of repressed rage. In the novel An American Dream (1965), the protagonist, Stephen Rojack, murders his estranged wife and abandons all personal and professional self-identities to return to his subconscious self, a nonrational state of primitive sensualism and mystical revelation that informs conscious action. Mailer further explored this ideal interchange between personal experience and political advocacy in his experiments with the novel and nonfiction narrative. In Why Are We in Vietnam? Mailer describes the inhumane activities of a hunting party in Alaska as a parable for American military activity in Southeast Asia. In The Armies of the Night, significantly subtitled "History as a Novel, The Novel as History," Mailer recounts his involvement in a large antiwar protest at the Pentagon in 1967. By referring to himself in the third-person in this story, Mailer relates autobiographic experience in detached objectivity through a fictional incarnation of himself. Such forays into the genre of New Journalism, a fusion of fiction and reportage, is exemplified by The Executioner's Song. Here Mailer recounts the real-life story of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer put to death at his own insistence by the state of Utah in 1977. Supported by exhaustive research, Mailer reconstructs Gilmore's criminal life and the controversial judicial and moral circumstances surrounding his punishment. Mailer's highly recognizable authorial voice is conspicuously subdued in this novel in deference to a large cast of characters whose multiple perspectives provide the story. In more recent novels, Mailer turned away from current events to produce lengthy historical works: Ancient Evenings, an epic account of debauchery and authoritarianism in ancient Egypt; Harlot's Ghost, a fictional chronicle of the United States Central Intelligence Agency through the 1960s; and The Gospel According to the Son, a first-person narrative presented as the autobiography of Jesus Christ.

Critical Reception

While most critics acknowledge Mailer as possessing enormous talent and originality, critical evaluation of his writing is problematic due to his divided personae as an author, political dissenter, social critic, and notorious celebrity. Although he was once touted as the successor to Ernest Hemingway, Mailer's large and uneven body of work defies easy comparison or classification. Though The Naked and the Dead remains a highly regarded conventional war novel in the realistic style, Advertisements for Myself is a product of the Beat movement that more closely resembles the declarative egotism of Walt Whitman. Mailer's perceptive critiques of American society and politics during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly as found in The Presidential Papers and Why Are We in Vietnam?, earned him a reputation as a leading commentator on national affairs. His innovative ventures in nonfiction and journalism culminated in The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song, both of which are considered consummate examples of the nonfiction narrative, drawing comparison to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Criticism of Mailer's less effective work is often directed at his baroque excesses and overt political or philosophical exposition. Mailer has also sustained attacks from feminist critics who find his writing sexist, particularly as noted by Kate Millet in her Sexual Politics (1970). Mailer's response to such charges in The Prisoner of Sex (1971), a treatise on his sexual relationships, and Genius and Lust (1976), a laudatory critical study of Henry Miller, did little to assuage his detractors. Despite the distractions of his public antics and reckless bravado, Mailer's willingness to defy authority and to engage himself in controversial contemporary events is essential to his art. For his penetrating studies of American society, superior prose style, and influential experiments with various literary forms, Mailer is considered among the most important American writers of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Naked and the Dead (novel) 1948
Barbary Shore (novel) 1951
The Deer Park (novel) 1955
The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (short stories, essays, and verse) 1957
Advertisements for Myself (short stories, essays, and verse) 1959
Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (poetry) 1962
The Presidential Papers (essays) 1963
An American Dream (novel) 1965
The Deer Park (drama) 1967
The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (short stories) 1967
Why Are We in Vietnam? (novel) 1967
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History (nonfiction novel)...

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James Toback (essay date 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Norman Mailer Today," in Commentary, Vol. 64, No. 4, 1967, pp. 68-76.

[In the following essay, Toback provides a survey of Mailer's writings and personal politics upon the publication of Why Are We in Vietnam?]

In the late 50's, Norman Mailer's reputation still stood on The Naked and the Dead (1948), neither of his subsequent efforts, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), having quite convinced Mailer or anyone else that he was the major novelist he insisted he could become. By his own later account, his head was leaden with seconal, benzedrene, and marijuana; a sense of what he himself has termed passivity, stupidity, and...

(The entire section is 7943 words.)

Robert Merrill (essay date 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Norman Mailer's Early Nonfiction: The Art of Self-Revelation," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 28, 1974, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Merrill offers critical examination of Mailer's nonfiction essays, including "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," "The White Negro," and "Ten Thousand Words a Minute."]

It has become a commonplace—unavoidable at cocktail parties, student bars, even the dinner table—that Norman Mailer's real achievement is to be found in his nonfiction. There, it is argued, we come upon Mailer "happily mired in reality, hobbled to the facts of time, place, self, as to an indispensable spouse of flesh and blood who...

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Kenneth A. Seib (essay date 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mailer's March: The Epic Structure of The Armies of the Night," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 1, 1974, pp. 89-95.

[In the following essay, Seib identifies elements of Homeric epic in The Armies of the Night, particularly Mailer's concern for the destiny of the United States, allusions to the supernatural, and warfare as its central theme.]

When speaking of Norman Mailer, it is common to discuss his various avatars as public persona and literary court jester. We see Mailer advertising for himself, sounding his yawp over the television airwaves, slugging it out mano a mano with such disparate opponents as Gore Vidal, Jose Torres, Germaine...

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Donald Fishman (essay date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Norman Mailer," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 9, 1975, pp. 174-82.

[In the following essay, Fishman discusses Mailer's three-fold persona as public celebrity, social critic, and American writer in relation to his experiments with the New Journalism genre. As Fishman asserts, this "new form accentuates the strengths of each of the personae so that the whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of the parts."]

Why does he [Mailer] have to push himself forward all the time and make such a spectacle of himself … why can't he let his work speak for itself?

—Flannery O'Connor...

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Robert Gorham Davis (review date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Excess without End," in The New Leader, May 16, 1983, pp. 14-16.

[In the following review, Davis offers a generally unfavorable assessment of Ancient Evenings. Though acknowledging the novel's "virtuosity and inventiveness," Davis finds shortcomings in Mailer's uninspired ideas and fascination with debauchery and violence.]

This is a work of staggering ambition, far exceeding in inventiveness and scope anything Mailer has attempted before. Several reviewers have supported—and then backed away from—the publisher's claim that it is one of the major novels of the 20th century. On that level the obvious comparison is with Thomas Mann's vast tetralogy,...

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Harold Bloom (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Modern Critical Views: Norman Mailer, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 1-6.

[In the following essay, Bloom considers Mailer's unconventional literary production and problematic critical reputation as a remarkable author who "has written no indisputable book." However, according to Bloom, Mailer will likely endure "as the representative writer of his generation."]


Mailer is the most visible of contemporary novelists, just as Thomas Pynchon is surely the most invisible. As the inheritor of the not exactly unfulfilled journalistic renown of Hemingway, Mailer courts danger, disaster,...

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Mark Edmundson (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Romantic Self-Creations: Mailer and Gilmore in The Executioner's Song," in Contemporary Literature. No. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 434-47.

[In the following essay, Edmundson discusses Mailer's portrayal of Gilmore in The Executioner's Song in light of Mailer's romantic narrative style and Emersonian literary aspirations.]

Romantic writers are, for better and worse, obsessed with originality. In practice this means that each one who aspires to matter has to initiate his life as an artist with a story about what originality is, and that story must itself strike readers as being a new one. To compound the difficulty, the romantic writer is...

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Robert Merrill (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mailer's Sad Comedy: The Executioner's Song," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 129-48.

[In the following essay, Merrill reconsiders the critical reception of The Executioner's Song through analysis of Mailer's presentation and major themes in the novel. According to Merrill, Mailer's treatment of social injustice and tragedy evokes compassion for all characters involved.]

This is an absolutely astonishing book.

—Joan Didion

The time is right, I think, to reconsider The Executioner's...

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William H. Pritchard (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mailer's Main Event," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 149-57.

[In the following review, Pritchard offers favorable assessment of Harlot's Ghost, praising the admirable ambition of the work despite Mailer's characteristic narrative style that ranges from "the sublime to the ridiculous."]

Six weeks ago one of the larger pieces of mail ever received turned up at my front door in the form of a dauntingly wrapped copy of Harlot's Ghost, all four pounds of it. It was mid-semester break, my sinuses were full of misery, and I settled in, if somewhat warily, to ingest Mailer's longest book. Somewhat warily since a trusted friend,...

(The entire section is 4095 words.)

Robert Merrill (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Naked and the Dead: The Beast and the Seer in Man," in Norman Mailer Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 11-29.

[In the following essay, Merrill explores elements of documentary, social critique, and dramatic action in The Naked and the Dead. Upon reevaluation, Merrill concludes that the novel "remains one of Mailer's most impressive achievements."]

It is often a shock to reread the early work of a writer we have come to admire. The second time around this work usually seems rather thin; we find we have remembered effects that do not exist, values that were never there. Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), is a...

(The entire section is 7420 words.)

Michael Kimmelman (review date 15 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tough Guys Don't Paint," in The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1995, p. 16.

[In the following review, Kimmelman provides a generally unfavorable assessment of Portrait of Picasso, citing incidents of unsubstantiated speculation and Mailer's failure to break new ground on the subject of the celebrated artist.]

He has "a greedy desire for recognition," and "the vanity and the need for group applause of someone like Muhammad Ali." When young, he pushed "his explorations into sex, drugs," and had a lengthy affair that was one of "those delicate, lovely and exploratory romances that flourished like sensuous flowers on slender stems, those marijuana...

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Joan Didion (essay date 6 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Let's Do It," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1996, p. 94.

[In the following review, Didion offers high praise for The Executioner's Song, which she describes as "an absolutely astonishing book."]

It is one of those testimonies to the tenacity of self-regard in the literary life that large numbers of people remain persuaded that Norman Mailer is no better than their reading of him. They condescend to him, they dismiss his most original work in favor of the more literal and predictable rhythms of The Armies of the Night; they regard The Naked and the Dead as a promise later broken and every book since as a quick turn for his...

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Frank Kermode (review date 15 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Advertisements for Himself," in The New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1997, pp. 4, 6-8.

[In the following review, Kermode offers a favorable assessment of The Gospel According to the Son, which he concludes is "a book of considerable intellectual force."]

To read the surviving ancient examples of apocryphal gospels is to see how impressive the canonical ones usually are. The apocrypha, sometimes clever, sometimes silly, try to elaborate or continue those originals, thus following, with varying degrees of irresponsibility, the example of the Evangelists themselves. All manner of strange things are said to have happened to Judas; for instance, that the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Algeo, Ann M. "Mailer's The Executioner's Song." In her The Courtroom as Forum: Homicide Trials by Dreiser, Wright, Capote, and Mailer, pp. 105-40. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Examines the major themes and presentation of The Executioner's Song.

Barnes, Annette. "Norman Mailer: A Prisoner of Sex." Massachusetts Review 13 (1972): 269-74.

Provides critical analysis of Mailer's essay "The Prisoner of Sex."

Mellard, James M. "Origins, Language, and the Constitution of Reality: Norman Mailer's Ancient...

(The entire section is 294 words.)