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The Naked and the Dead has been called the greatest American novel about World War II. What does it say about war and military life?

Some have claimed that Norman Mailer’s nonfiction writing is superior to his fiction. Argue for or against this assertion.

How does Mailer explore the conflict...

(The entire section contains 1338 words.)

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The Naked and the Dead has been called the greatest American novel about World War II. What does it say about war and military life?

Some have claimed that Norman Mailer’s nonfiction writing is superior to his fiction. Argue for or against this assertion.

How does Mailer explore the conflict between the individual and society?

Mailer has often been criticized for his failure to create well-developed female characters. Is this complaint valid?

Discuss the political commentary in Mailer’s writings. Does a unified picture of American politics emerge?

How does The Armies of the Night comment on the concept of history?

Other literary forms

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Beginning with The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer published several works that cross the conventional boundaries of fiction and nonfiction: a “novel biography,” Marilyn; a “true life novel,” The Executioner’s Song; and an “imaginary memoir,” Of Women and Their Elegance. Because of his sophisticated handling of style, structure, point of view, and characterization, many of Mailer’s works of journalism and reportage approach the novel’s complexity of language and form; examples include Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 (1969), Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), The Prisoner of Sex (1971), St. George and the Godfather (1972), and The Fight (1975). His essays, interviews, short stories, poems, and drawings have been collected in Advertisements for Myself (1959), Deaths for the Ladies and Other Disasters (1962), The Presidential Papers (1963), Cannibals and Christians (1966), The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (1967), The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations (1968), Existential Errands (1972), Pieces and Pontifications (1982), Modest Gifts: Poems and Drawings (2003), The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker, and Bad Conscience in America (2006; with John Buffalo Mailer), and On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007; with Michael Lennon). His work in drama and literary criticism appears in The Deer Park: A Play (pb. 1967) and Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller (1976).

Achievements

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With the appearance of The Naked and the Dead in 1948, Norman Mailer was hailed by many critics as one of the most promising writers of the postwar generation. Since his early acclaim, Mailer’s reputation has risen and fallen repeatedly—in part because of the unevenness of his writing and in part because of his intense participation in the causes and quarrels of his age. More important, however, his work has often been misunderstood because of its remarkably changing character and its innovative procedures, for Mailer relentlessly searched for the style and structure that could most effectively express his ambition to make “a revolution in the consciousness of our time.”

By whatever standard Mailer is judged, it is clear that several of his books have a secure place not only in postwar literary history but also in thecanon of significant American literary achievements. The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night continue to receive attention as masterpieces, and his other novels have begun to benefit from the serious exploration accorded to the finest works of fiction. The Executioner’s Song—very favorably reviewed when it first appeared—may eventually rank with Mailer’s greatest writing because it contains a complexity of point of view and characterization rivaled only by The Naked and the Dead, An American Dream, and Why Are We in Vietnam? He believed that his last novel completed novel, The Castle in the Forest, was a major achievement, and certainly the reviews of this work were among the best Mailer had received in more than two decades.

In addition to receiving several literary honors and distinctions—including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters—Mailer has been the subject of more than a dozen book-length studies and hundreds of articles. His work is an essential part of college syllabi in contemporary literature, not only because it addresses crucial events, concerns, and institutions such as World War II, the Cold War, Hollywood, Vietnam, the Pentagon, and capital punishment but also because Mailer treats all of his important themes in the light of a deeply imaginative conception of literary form. As Robert Merrill has noted, far too many critics have treated Mailer’s writing as simply a record of his opinions. They have taken his musings for assertions, and they have failed to see that he aims at conveying the “meaning” of characters and events with the fluidity of metaphor. What Mailer imagines rather than what he believes is important in assessing all of his prose—and what he imagines consists of entertaining several possible selves, and several sides of issues and events, simultaneously. In other words, he rejects fixity of thought in favor of the play of prose, which in turn parallels the complex play of characters and events.

Bibliography

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Adams, Laura, ed. Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1974. A valuable collection of reviews and essays on Mailer’s life and work, which is arranged in strict chronological order to resemble a composite biography.

Braudy, Leo, ed. Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. Contains an excellent introduction surveying Mailer’s career, providing thoughtful criticism on individual works and themes, and a bibliography.

Glenday, Michael K. Norman Mailer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A good critical survey of important themes and strategies in Mailer’s writings.

Gordon, Andrew. An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. One of the most penetrating studies of Mailer’s fiction and nonfiction, which shows how deeply rooted in his work are aspects of his biography.

Leeds, Barry H. The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer. : Pleasure Boat, 2002. An analysis of Mailer’s works that includes Leeds’s 1987 interview with his subject. A good introduction to Mailer.

Leigh, Nigel. Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Explores the political and social views of Mailer and how they come across in his fiction. With an index and bibliography.

Lennon, J. Michael, ed. Conversations with Norman Mailer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. A collection of the most important interviews with Mailer, which reveals his developing and changing attitudes toward his work.

Lennon, J. Michael, ed. Critical Essays on Norman Mailer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of criticism on Mailer’s work, important reviews, and an extremely valuable overview by Lennon of Mailer’s reputation as it evolved.

Mailer, Adele. The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer. New York: Barricade, 1997. Although this memoir focuses on a short (about eight years) period of Mailer’s life, it is the most detailed book about him.

Manso, Peter, ed. Mailer, His Life and Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Provides an excellent narrative survey of Mailer’s career in its cultural and political contexts.

Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. A revised version of one of the best introductory studies. It includes a chapter on Mailer’s novels of the 1980’s, a chapter on his biography and his legend, and a concluding assessment of his career. The chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography make this a very useful volume.

Mills, Hilary. Norman Mailer: A Biography. New York: Empire Books, 1982. The first full-fledged biography of Mailer based on extensive interviews. Mills treats the reception of Mailer’s work but does not provide a critical perspective.

Poirier, Richard. Norman Mailer. New York: Viking Books, 1972. A brief but provocative critical study, considered to be one of the most insightful examinations of Mailer’s career.

Rollyson, Carl. The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Contains much more discussion of Mailer’s writing than does Mills or Manso, including a chapter on Harlot’s Ghost. Detailed notes and comprehensive bibliography.

Wenke, Joseph. Mailer’s America. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1987. Concentrates on Mailer’s attitudes toward America in his major fiction and nonfiction, including Ancient Evenings and Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

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