Norman Kingsley Mailer

Norman Kingsley Mailer (born 1923), American author, film producer and director, wrote one of the most noteworthy American novels about World War II. Only in his later political journalism did he reach that level of achievement again.

Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on Jan. 31, 1923. The family soon moved to Brooklyn. Mailer graduated from high school in 1939 and earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from Harvard University. He won a college fiction contest, wrote for the Harvard Advocate, worked on two ambitious (unpublished) novels, and contributed a no-vella to an anthology. Drafted into the Army in 1944, he served in the Philippines in an infantry regiment, as both intelligence clerk and combat reconnaissance rifleman.

In the Army, Mailer knew he was living the material for his third novel. From notes in letters to his wife, he fashioned a brilliant narrative around an Army platoon's taking of a Japanese-held Pacific island. Borrowing naturalist techniques from John Dos Passos and James Farrell, a symbolist's stance from Herman Melville, and the instinctive journalist's observations from Ernest Hemingway, he described (in language considered objectionable in its day) the ironies of war and the inner conflicts of a cross section of American fighting men. Many readers saw only the realism in The Naked and the Dead (1948). Mailer insisted he was writing not only of a specific war but of "death and man's creative urge, fate, man's desire to conquer the elements…" The work was a popular success and won him critical acclaim.

After attending the Sorbonne in Paris under the G.I. Bill, Mailer returned to the United States in the mid-1950s, and founded, along with Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher, the newspaper Village Voice.

In his next four novels, Mailer wrote from "intense political preoccupation and a voyage in political affairs which began with the Progressive Party and has ended in the cul-de-sac (at least so far as action is concerned) of being an anti-Stalinist Marxist who feels that war is probably inevitable." Barbary Shore (1951) is set in a Brooklyn rooming house. The Deer Park (1955), both the novel and the play Mailer adapted from it, takes place at a kind of Palm Springs of the imagination and focuses on two of Mailer's most memorable characters, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, former Air Force pilot, and Elena Esposito, broken-down dancer and actress. An American Dream (1965) shows Steve Rojack, trapped in an urban nightmare of sexual orgy, murder, and despair, escaping with what remains of his soul to the jungles of Yucatán. Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), the low ebb of Mailer's fiction, takes its 18-year-old hero on an Alaskan hunting expedition that ends with his initiation into manhood. These books voiced Mailer's view of the frustrations and compulsions that lay beneath the surface of American life, violently portrayed through existential heroes and at times written with flamboyant crudeness.

Mailer began a second career in the mid-1950s as essayist and journalist. He became a national personality with the publication of Advertisements for Myself (1959), a compendium of earlier writings that included bitter polemics, personal interviews, psychocultural essays, stories, works in progress, and unabashed confessions of how Mailer reached the depths of his own existential state and found a "new consciousness."

Although the sixties were a time of personal conflict and public rebellion for Mailer, he wrote many nonfiction works during that period that helped establish him as a preeminent writer in the genre. The Presidential Papers (1963) presented a critique of American politics and society that introduced a revitalized Mailer, the public historian of the John Kennedy years. This work along with Cannibals and Christians (1966) attempted to establish him as "self-appointed master of the Now." Issues pertaining to gender and sex were the basis of The Prisoner of Sex (1971), a treatise on Mailer's various sexual relationships in which he responds to Kate Millett's attack on his presumed sexism in her Sexual Politics (1970).

The peace march on Washington (1967) and the presidential conventions (1968) gave Mailer some of his most fruitful material. A seasoned reporter, he wove his copious notes into "non-fictional novels" using the style of New Journalism, in which factual events are related from the writer's perspective and incorporate prose devices such as narrative, dialogue, and multiple points of view. The Washington experience became The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968), for which he received a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The political conventions shaped Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968). In addition to reportage, these works reflect Mailer's personality and controversial opinions on historic events, creating incisive portraits of the conflict between individual and collective power.

Other works using New Journalism techniques include Of a Fire on the Moon (1971) about man's first landing on the moon, The Executioner's Song (1979), an examination of the life and death of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, the first person executed (in 1977) in the United States under death-penalty legislation in more than a decade, and Harlot's Ghost (1991), in which Mailer treats factual events such as the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs from an overtly fictional perspective to imagine the inner workings of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

During the 1990s, the prolific and egocentric writer again turned his attention to biographical essays and novels. Portrait of Picasso As A Young Man (1995) and Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (1995) received poor critical reviews for his reliance on what many considered dubious new sources for subjects whose lives were already well chronicled. Still, David Gelernter in the National Review credited Mailer's heavy use of other authors in Picasso saying, "Picasso is a collage…The counterpoint that results is odd but effective," and that there were occasional flourishes of brilliant writing. Among the theories he presents is that violence and death are at the heart of Picasso's Cubism.

Not one to shy away from challenging subjects, Mailer chose to write a novel about Jesus Christ in 1997. As noted in the New York Times Book Review, Mailer wrote not merely a life of Jesus, but a contemporary apocryphal Gospel, The Gospel According to the Son, in the first-person voice of Jesus Himself—a choice avoided by all surviving ancient Gospels and by virtually all modern novelists. As in many of his other works, critics pointed to spotty narrative brilliance and "rare powerful moments of invention." However, in Gospel, Mailer also was credited for his knowledge of canonical texts, as well as his surprising—and to some, disappointing—adherence to tradition.

Mailer continued analyzing and commenting on major social and political issues throughout the 1990s, often interviewing his philosophical opposites, such as the staunch right-wing politican and newscaster Patrick Buchanan. The self-styled maverick and outspoken social and political arbiter of the times was widely regarded as the most prominent writer of his generation, and praised for the diversity and scope of his works.


Further Reading on Norman Kingsley Mailer

The fullest critiques of Mailer are Richard J. Foster, Norman Mailer (1968), and Barry H. Leeds, The Structural Vision of Norman Mailer (1969); see also Norman Podhoretz, Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After in American Writing (1964); Ronald Berman, America in the Sixties: An Intellectual History (1968); Richard Gilman, The Confusion of Realms (1969); Laura Adams, Norman Mailer: A Comprehensive Bibliography (1974), Scarecrow; Laura Adams, editor, Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? (1974), Kennikat Press; Laura Adams, Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer (1976), Ohio University Press; Robert Alter, Motives for Fiction (1984), Harvard University Press; Martin Amis, The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), Jonathan Cape; and Chris Anderson, Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction (1987), Southern Illinois University Press.