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An outspoken, independent thinker, Norman Mailer was a significant and controversial figure in twentieth-century American literature. Mailer was famous for conventional novels in which he examined the conflict between social restrictions and the human search for self-actualization, as well as for nonfiction narratives written in the style of New Journalism, a fusion of fiction and reporting. For his penetrating studies of American society, superior prose style, and influential experiments with various literary forms, Mailer was highly regarded as a novelist and a social critic.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Engineering to Literature
Born on January 31, 1923, in Long Branch, New Jersey, Mailer moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, when he was four. A precocious child, Mailer was an intelligent student who enjoyed building models. At the age of sixteen, he enrolled in Harvard University to study aeronautical engineering, but he soon became interested in the works of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Inspired to become a great novelist himself, Mailer wrote several short stories and won first prize in Story magazine’s annual college contest.
Disappointment Follows Early Success
Graduating from Harvard with honors in 1943, Mailer was drafted by the United States Army and married his first wife—whom he would divorce in 1952—shortly before leaving to serve in Japan and the Philippines during World War II. Upon his discharge in 1946, he attended graduate school at the Sorbonne in Paris. Mailer recorded his military experiences in his debut novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), which received much critical acclaim and remained number one on the New York Times best-seller list for eleven consecutive weeks. The Naked and the Dead is frequently cited among the greatest twentieth-century American novels. After publishing his second book, Barbary Shore (1951) to generally unenthusiastic reviews, Mailer conceived an ambitious cycle of eight novels centering on a universal mythical hero named Sergius O’Shaughnessy. Three years in the making, The Deer Park (1955), the first installment, proved to be the cycle’s only volume.
In 1955 Mailer cofounded the Village Voice, an alternative weekly newspaper in New York’s Greenwich Village covering politics and the arts, and he began to write the contentious political and socially conscious articles that established his reputation in American literary circles as a maverick. The title of his collection of essays from the 1950s, Advertisements for Myself (1959), reveals his strategy for cultivating his literary persona. To many, Mailer appeared to play the devil’s advocate for no other reason than to elicit a reaction. In 1957 he published ”The White Negro,” a defiant essay about jazz and the emerging lifestyle of the ”hipster” that became a staple of Beat literature and has since been much anthologized. Mailer’s unabashed drug and alcohol abuse also became a feature of his writing and personal life around this time. His erratic behavior came to a head in 1960, when he stabbed his second wife with a pocketknife during a night of heavy drinking. When she refused to press charges, Mailer received a suspended sentence. Though the couple quickly reconciled, they divorced in 1962.
During the 1960s, Mailer became known for public acts of defiance and exhibitionism. In Provincetown, Massachusetts, he was arrested for fighting with police. He was jailed for arguing with a bartender over his liquor tab at a New York nightclub. In 1969 he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York, advocating that the city secede from the state. While Mailer’s tendency to attract publicity prompted many critics to consider him opportunistic or self-aggrandizing, others asserted that such public demonstrations served as inspiration for his work.
Redemption through New Journalism
Mailer’s involvement in the turbulent politics of the 1960s became material for much of his writing, including The Armies of the Night (1968), a literary triumph that redeemed him in the eyes of those critics who were convinced that he had wasted his talents by playing the part of a national celebrity. Mailer’s role as both participant and observer in a massive demonstration against the Vietnam War staged in front of the Pentagon on October 21, 1967, resulted in a night in jail—and a book that won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Furthermore, The Armies of the Night marked Mailer’s first major contribution to New Journalism, a journalistic style that had emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which factual events are related from a subjective observer’s perspective and incorporate such novelistic prose devices as narrative, dialogue, and multiple points of view.
Arguably Mailer’s most damaging controversy concerned his literary association with convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott. Mailer helped find a publisher for Abbott’s book In the Belly of the Beast (1981), which became a great success. Mailer successfully petitioned the Utah State Prison parole board to release Abbott; however, one month after leaving prison, Abbott killed another man, causing widespread condemnation of Mailer’s role in setting him free. Mailer had met Abbott while conducting research for The Executioner’s Song (1979), a true-life novel about serial murderer Gary Gilmore, who, on January 17, 1977, became the first convict to be executed in the United States in more than a decade. The Executioner’s Song was an extraordinary success and Mailer’s second work to win a Pulitzer Prize.
While retreating somewhat from the public eye in the 1980s and 1990s, Mailer continued to produce a diverse body of work, including essays, screenplays, literary criticism, biographies, and several novels. His longest work, coming in at over thirteen hundred pages, was Harlot’s Ghost (1991), a meticulously researched novel concerning the origins and early history of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including the covert schemes the agency used to topple foreign governments. In 2003 Mailer published the highly praised The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing in which he reflects on the craft of writing, using interviews, essay, lectures, and other pieces he had written throughout his tumultuous career. The same year, Mailer published a book scrutinizing the foreign policies of President George W. Bush, titled Why Are We at War? and made several television appearances speaking out against the war in Iraq.
The Last Year
Mailer’s health declined rapidly in 2007, the same year The Castle in the Forest, a retelling of Adolf Hitler’s early life, was published. Mailer was hospitalized in Boston for breathing problems; he was transferred to New York, where he recovered from surgery that removed scar tissue from around his lungs. On November 10, 2007, Mailer died of acute renal failure at the age of eighty-four. At the time of his death, he was working on a sequel to The Castle in the Forest.
Works in Literary Context
The inspiration for most of Mailer’s writing came from his personal exploits and lifestyle as one of America’s leading celebrity writers, a distinction he aggressively encouraged. Many of his protagonists are modeled after Mailer himself, and his strongest writing includes explicitly autobiographical elements. Certainly, Mailer’s provocative self-portrait as philosophical existentialist and political leftist ensured that his own personality would be a continuing stage for dramatic conflict.
Mailer has influenced other writers with his extensive experimentation with narrative forms and styles as well as his distinctive synthesis of fiction, autobiography, and journalism. Although Mailer considered himself primarily a novelist, he left a more enduring mark as a journalist and essayist. Beginning with his articles for the Village Voice, Mailer helped establish New Journalism as a literary style. New Journalism takes creative liberties with the conventions of journalism, seeking to bring events to life and involve readers in major
crises of the modern world so that people have greater understanding of self and society. Several prominent American writers, such as Mailer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion, are associated with the New Journalism movement, which peaked in the 1970s.
The Theme of Self-Actualization
Miller’s preoccupation with the struggle for individuality and free will in the face of natural forces and institutional authority makes it a central theme in his work. In The Naked and the Dead, Mailer examines the complex tensions that evolve as the main characters attempt to impose their will upon an essentially uncaring universe. Describing the combat experiences and interaction of fourteen American soldiers as they attempt to seize control of a Japanese-held island in the Philippines during World War II, Mailer presents the diverse members of the platoon as a microcosm of the American people, each with their own geographic, economic, and social backgrounds. Writing in an unsentimental narrative voice, Mailer discourages reader sympathy for a liberal commander who is violently betrayed by an immoral and ambitious sergeant. The conflict between individual willfulness and established power is not only natural, but necessary.
Mailer’s theme of the individual’s struggle against collective forces that threaten to rob him of his selfhood is perhaps best explained in ”The White Negro.” In this essay, Mailer argues that the American “hipster,” a “philosophical psychopath” immune to traditional institutions of social control, is a desirable adaptation of the uninhibited urban African American, whom Mailer praises for placing the needs of the self over those of society. The narrator of An American Dream (1965) explicitly illustrates Mailer’s comments in ”The White Negro” when he violently transgresses social and moral restrictions by murdering his estranged wife in an attempt to shed his conventional social self as a professor and thereby emerge with a new identity.
Works in Critical Context
While most critics acknowledge Mailer as possessing enormous talent and originality, critical evaluation of his writing is problematic due to his multiplicity as an author, political dissident, social critic, and notorious celebrity. Throughout his career, Mailer has both fascinated and angered critics who contend that his fame has been as much the result of his own self-aggrandizement as his writing talent. Though finding that much of his work has become dated due to its focus on current events, scholar Harold Bloom characterizes Mailer as ”a historian of the moral consciousness of his era, and as the representative writer of his generation.” According to writer Andrew O’Hagan, Mailer has been ”as compulsive a literary character as we’ve had, but he has also been among the most compelling on the page… [because he] risked and emboldened his talent by imagining himself at the core of things.”
The Gospel According to the Son
With The Gospel According to the Son, a first-person account of the life of Jesus, Mailer undertook a project that he told interviewer Bruce Weber was the ”largest dare of all” for a writer. Critic Michiko Kakutani assessed the novel as simply another installment in Mailer’s self-centered exploration of fame and infamy. Comparing Mailer’s Jesus to both a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars series, Kakutani asserts that Mailer has turned both Jesus and God ”into familiar contemporary types: he has knocked them off their celestial thrones and turned them into what he knows best, celebrities.”
As always, opinions of Mailer and assessments of his work vary greatly. While some critics argue that The Gospel According to the Son lacks style and is slow, others, such as Brad Hooper, applaud the novel for successfully ”[escaping] Mailer’s own image.” Because of this, Hooper says, Mailer has produced ”a provocatively imagined historical novel.” As in many of his other works, critics have praised selected passages of narrative brilliance. In addition, critics have noted Mailer’s knowledge of canonical texts, as well as his surprising—and to some, disappointing—adherence to tradition.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Norman Mailer: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
- Braudy, Leo Beal, ed. Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972.
- Ehrlich, Robert. Norman Mailer: The Radical as Hipster. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978.
- Glenday, Michael K. Norman Mailer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
- Jackson, Richard. Norman Mailer. Rochester: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
- Hooper, Brad. ”Review of The Gospel According to the Son.” Booklist (April 15, 1997): 34.
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”Norman Mailer s Perception of Jesus.” New York Times, April 14, 1997.
- O’Hagan, Andrew. ”Interview with Norman Mailer.” Paris Review 181 (Summer 2007): 88-92.
- Weber, Bruce. ”Yes, His New Book Is Biblical, but Don’t Call Him God.” New York Times Book Review (April 27, 1997): 6-8.
- Lennon, J. Michael. A Brief History of Norman Mailer. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http:// www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/ mailer_n.html. Last updated in 2008.
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