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.
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).
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.
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.