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.)