Norman Mailer Mailer, Norman (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Norman Mailer 1923–

American novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and journalist.

Since the 1948 publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, Mailer has been regarded as one of America's most prominent contemporary writers. A prolific and highly controversial literary figure, Mailer resists identification with current writing movements and is usually viewed independently. According to many critics, Mailer's fiction since The Naked and the Dead is of uneven quality. But most critics agree that he has consistently produced outstanding works of nonfiction in a style frequently referred to as New Journalism, a blend of factual and dramatic, usually highly subjective reporting, which is often unsympathetic to traditional attitudes.

In the 1950s, Mailer's work became more radical. His gravitation to a leftist philosophy began when he associated with Marxist intellectuals while studying in Europe. His novels Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955) began the social attack which typifies Mailer's later works. The main character in The Deer Park is a sociopathic hipster, a figure Mailer comes to celebrate, mythologize, and identify with in his first non-fiction works. In the late 1950s, Mailer published two works which defined and advanced the "Mailer Myth." His essay "The White Negro" (1957) defines his philosophy of "hip" as a combination of rebelliousness, violence, primitive sexuality, and existentialism. "The White Negro" appears in Advertisements for Myself, a 1959 collection of essays in which Mailer plays the role of an American artistic and cultural critic.

In the late 1960s, the Vietnam conflict was the focus of Mailer's most celebrated argument in the New Journalistic style. The Armies of the Night won both the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and a National Book Award in 1968. In this work he narrates his involvement in contemporary events from a third person view-point, referring to the central character as "Mailer." Leo Braudy has commented, "The Armies of the Night gains much of its power from the perfect melding of the public author and the private foolish individual, the public event and the limited individual perspective. All of Mailer's impotent and weak heroes culminate for a moment in the 'Norman Mailer,' whose double consciousness … can understand the Pentagon march, both in its immediacy and its history, its moment-to-moment nature and its ultimate meaning."

During the 1970s Mailer tended to focus on celebrated individuals whose lives were emblematic of the conflict between public and private life. Two of these books were about the late actress Marilyn Monroe: a novelized biography entitled Marilyn (1973) and Of Women and Their Elegance (1980), a fictional interview between Mailer and Monroe. His most acclaimed biographical work is The Executioner's Song, which received both the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and a National Book Award in 1979. While The Executioner's Song relates the events in the life of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, it also examines the dynamics of American society, which Mailer contends simultaneously fosters and condemns aberrant behavior.

While he was producing his biographical novels, Mailer was working on a novel which he has described as the most am-bitious project of his career. This novel, Ancient Evenings, which is set in Egypt during the reign of the pharaohs, was the object of much critical anticipation and speculation long before its publication in 1983. Critical reception of Ancient Evenings has been mixed, with the majority of critics finding the work too long and unnecessarily laden with shocking sexual content. However, most critics praised Mailer's thorough historical research and evident knowledge of Egyptology.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols, 9-12, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)

Jennifer Bailey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the major obstacles to a proper understanding of Norman Mailer's work is his series of pronouncements on the nature of his ambitions. If these remarks are taken quite literally then Mailer's achievements can easily be distorted. Dotted throughout his writing since 1959, when Advertisements for Myself was published, is a thinly veiled longing to embody the conflicting currents of thought in the twentieth century just as Melville did in the nineteenth. The response to this has often been to regard Mailer's novels as noble but failed efforts and to settle for his journalism as a frequently brilliant but comparatively second-class literary activity. His forays into politics, poetry, biography, literary criticism, the theatre and filmmaking are then relegated to the amateur efforts of a versatile man. This kind of pigeonholing tends to miss the essentially innovatory nature of Mailer's talent.

In The Armies of the Night (1968), Robert Lowell makes the same mistake when he assures Mailer, '"I really think you are the best journalist in America".' Mailer irritably replies, '"Well, Cal,… there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America".' The point is that throughout his career, Mailer has attempted to transgress and transform the boundaries between literary genres in order to realise and maintain a major premise first defined in Advertisements for Myself: 'one may even attempt to reshape reality in some small way with the "fiction" as a guide'.

In order to see how a writer like Mailer engages with these polarities, it is useful to turn to the analysis by Richard Poirier, in his book A World Elsewhere, of the relationship between self and environment in the American imagination. Poirier considers that the categorisation of American writing into genres tends to obscure the more important issues. 'The crucial problem for the best American writers is to evade all such categorizations and to find a language that will at once express and protect states of consciousness that cannot adequately be defined by conventional formulations….' By means of a richly metaphorical language, Mailer has maintained the premise, formulated in Advertisements for Myself, that 'There is finally no way one can try to apprehend complex reality without a "fiction".' (pp. 1-2)

Mailer declares his aesthetic artifice even as it is reaching for a reality that threatens it. But he also wants to demonstrably exercise a control over that reality—to 'reshape' it. The development of Mailer's use of metaphorical oppositions in his writing reflects a movement towards an effective appropriation of the external world in his radical 'fictions'. In his early novels, Mailer opposes politics and history in order to distinguish between collective and individual power. But as yet, this individual power is seen to be impotent, even though General Cummings in The Naked and the Dead (1948) hints at its subversive possibilities: '"politics have no more relation to history than moral codes have to the needs of any particular man".' Mickey Lovett, the narrator of Barbary Shore (1951) puts this notion into a literary context. His projected novel must give the duplicitous social reality a historical meaning. Yet this historical meaning is, as yet, uncertainly defined. In 'The White Negro' (1957), civilised history is opposed to the personal history, or the new nervous system of the existential hipster. The essay defends the individual's independent choice to act against a society of 'conformity and depression'…. To stress the force of this radical rebellion, the act is always described as violent in a murderous or sexual sense. Because these actions are socially subversive, the hipster is entering an unknown realm and creating a causality to his actions that is distinct from the causality of impersonal 'civilized history …'…. (p. 2)

The status of the hipster's personal time or new nervous system, which is the precondition of this subversive action, is uncertainly figurative in the context of the essay. But in suggesting that the psychopath (and Mailer argues that the hipster possesses a psychopathic personality) seeks love that is 'Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it …'…, Mailer first develops a metaphor which describes the method by which the individual searches for an independent and therefore creative means of self-expression. By employing the sexual metaphor, Mailer can relinquish the term history as representing everything beyond the individual's control. The forces that threaten the creative act are found within a metaphor that is restricted to the creative life of one individual and by extension to Mailer himself. He is not forced to oscillate confusedly between literal and figurative terms of reference in order to incorporate the world into his writing. Any sexual activity that prevents conception undermines the individual's selfhood. Masturbation, buggery and contraception are therefore condemned. Mailer reiterates his views from the publication of The Presidential Papers...

(The entire section is 2120 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] can be little doubt that in some important respects "Ancient Evenings" is a triumph of technique over what for many writers would have proved forbiddingly intractable material. By a simple and altogether plausible use of mental telepathy, Mr. Mailer is able to compress into one narrative voice, speaking over the course of a single, albeit interminable, evening, an account not only of the 19th and 20th dynasties of ancient Egypt (1320–1121 B.C.), but also of the four lives of a heroic figure who manages to reincarnate himself three times over the course of 180 years.

What's more, by achieving this technical victory, Mr. Mailer has created a world ideally suited to many of his pet theories...

(The entire section is 629 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Here it is at last, more than a decade in the making,… Norman Mailer's long-awaited "Egyptian novel." For months the publishing trade press has hummed with reports of responses to the work, and the range of compliments already on file is striking. The most recent compliment came from Mailer's alma mater, Harvard; usually reserved in its relations with famous sons and daughters, the university put his photograph on the cover of its alumni magazine this spring and filled pages with an interview probing the meanings of "Ancient Evenings." Nobody doubts the newsworthiness of memoirs by government officials or biographies of film stars by their embittered children, but pre-publication interest in imaginative writing is...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)

Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ancient Evenings] is hands down the most surprising work Mailer has ever offered. It really is set entirely in an alien long ago, just as the author had been promising during the decade he took to write it. Yet no amount of advance speculation proves adequate to the thing itself: an artifact of evident craftsmanship and utterly invisible significance.

A lengthy journey begins with the agonies of death ("Volcanic lips give fire, wells bubble. Bone lies like rubble upon the wound"). Surviving this fiery purgation is the ka (diminished soul) of an Egyptian named Menenhetet II. After experiencing the mummification of his discarded body, this ghost meets the kindred spirit of his great-grandfather...

(The entire section is 558 words.)

Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Ancient Evenings] Mailer has gone back to the ancient evenings of the Egyptians in order to find the religious meaning of death, sex, and reincarnation….

[There is] spiritual power in Mailer's fantasy (it is not the historical novel that it masks itself as being) and there is a relevance to current reality in America that actually surpasses that of Mailer's largest previous achievement, The Executioner's Song. More than before, Mailer's fantasies, now brutal and unpleasant, catch the precise accents of psychic realities within and between us. Ancient Evenings rivals Gravity's Rainbow as an exercise in what has to be called a monumental sadoanarchism, and one aspect...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We learn, in [the 709 large pages of "Ancient Evenings"], a great number of things. Most of all we learn how much Egyptology Mailer has learned in the past 10 years. Gold mining, magical ceremonies, priests and eunuchs and concubines, the moods of the Nile, crocodiles, the character of Queen Nefertiti and her son Amen-khep-shu-ef—the whole of ancient Egypt is set before us, complete with its odours and its sexual ecstasies, these two last being given about equal billing. And the secret of power, which the book is chiefly about? This lies in magic, and magic is essentially control of the lower human functions. In a word, magic is anal.

The anus is here sometimes called the ass or the asshole. This...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Richard Poirier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ancient Evenings is] the strangest of Norman Mailer's books, and its oddity does not in any important way have to do either with its Egyptian setting or with the exotic career—exotic even by ancient Egyptian standards—of Menenhetet, its protagonist-narrator whose four lives, including three reincarnations, span 180 years (1290 to 1100 BC) of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties (1320 to 1121 BC). What is remarkable here is the degree to which Mailer has naturalized himself as an ancient Egyptian, so that he writes as if saturated with the mentality and the governing assumptions, some of which he revises rather freely, of a culture in which the idea of the human is markedly different from what it has been...

(The entire section is 2047 words.)