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Mailer, Norman Kingsley

MAILER, Norman Kingsley

(b. 31 January 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey), major American writer who became an influential and controversial public figure during the 1960s.

Mailer was one of two children born to Isaac Barnet Mailer, an accountant, and Fanny Schneider, a housekeeper. Mailer's parents immigrated to the United States from the same small Lithuanian town, although his father's family went first to South Africa. After Mailer's birth, the family moved to Brooklyn, settling first in Flatbush and then in Crown Heights. Mailer graduated from Boys' High School in 1939 and went on to Harvard University, receiving a B.S. degree in engineering in 1943. At Harvard he met Beatrice Silverman, who became the first of his six wives when they eloped in January 1944. They had one child, but divorced in 1952.

Mailer was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944 and served as a rifleman in the South Pacific during World War II. Discharged in 1946, he took advantage of the GI Bill and spent two years at the Sorbonne in Paris, focusing on writing. The Naked and the Dead, a novel informed by Mailer's combat experience, appeared in 1948 to critical acclaim and became a best-seller. His next two novels, the politically charged Barbary Shore (1951) and the sexually charged Deer Park (1955), did not fare as well. During the late 1950s Mailer turned to the essay as the narrative form that best allowed him to express his increasingly extreme social and political views. This move galvanized his career, propelling him to the fore of the nation's cultural consciousness during the 1960s.

Mailer's first essay collection, Advertisements for Myself (1959), included fragments of fiction, interviews, and polemics, as well as a running autobiographical commentary that offered a no-holds-barred account of his opinions and ambitions. Mailer's audacious autobiographical voice struck a nerve, as did his essays. "The White Negro," originally published in Dissent in 1957, generated controversy for defining the "hipster" as a philosophical psychopath who had absorbed the most brutal aspects of black urban experience and could invigorate an otherwise enervated postwar culture. Readers balked at the essay's premises and violence, but it had a profound influence. In 1967 Eldridge Cleaver, the writer and Black Panther leader, claimed in his book Soul on Ice that the essay contained a "solid kernel of truth" that allowed him to "forgive Mailer for his excess of esoteric verbal husk."

In another essay, "Evaluations: Quick and Expensive Comments on Talent in the Room," Mailer ruthlessly evaluated his literary contemporaries, many of them friends, judging their capacity to become "major" American writers. For Mailer, a major writer was one who occupied a prominent place in public life and who could have an impact on the culture in which he or she lived and worked. He dismissed nearly all of his contemporaries according to these criteria, including such highly regarded writers as James Jones, William Styron, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Saul Bellow, J. D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and—in a footnote—Mary McCarthy. Although he did not hesitate to expose his shortcomings, Mailer was more generous about his own literary talent. Becoming a major writer was his consuming ambition, he announced, and as a writer he would "settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." Advertisements for Myself was prescient, capturing the social and political tensions that defined the 1960s along with the desire for self-realization that fueled the countercultures to which those tensions gave rise. It also defined Mailer as an unapologetic and politically driven literary contender.

During the early 1960s Mailer honed his journalistic skills, his autobiographical voice, and his flair for public controversy with a series of essays for Esquire magazine. His relationship with the magazine was one of his most productive, lasting throughout the decade. Mailer's early essays for Esquire covered such diverse topics as the 1960 Democratic National Convention, the suicides of the screen star Marilyn Monroe and the novelist Ernest Hemingway (Mailer's literary idol), the Cuban Missile Crisis (when the Soviets positioned missiles in Cuba), and the 1962 Sonny ListonFloyd Patterson boxing match in Chicago. Mailer abandoned the journalist's traditionally distanced, objective stance in these essays, choosing instead to report on himself as an active participant in the events he covered. In so doing, he revolutionized the field of journalism, influencing a new generation of writers that eventually came to be known as the "New Journalists." Mailer collected many of the early Esquire essays in The Presidential Papers (1963), which he published as "open letters" to President John F. Kennedy. With one or two exceptions, the essays were not addressed to the president explicitly, but concerned either "topics a President ought to consider and rarely does" or "topics he considers every day, but rarely in a fashion which is fresh." Mailer's list of such topics included, on the one hand, capital punishment, censorship, the press, the Mafia, the cold war, and totalitarianism and, on the other, architecture, witchcraft, cannibalism, and scatology.

Imbroglios in Mailer's personal life contributed to his growing fame and infamy. During the early 1960s he lived a wild social life in New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, with his second wife, Adele Morales, an artist whom he had married on 19 April 1954. They had two daughters. In 1960 the couple made headlines and Mailer was committed briefly to Bellevue Hospital after he stabbed Adele with a penknife following a party. They divorced in 1962. In early 1962 Mailer married Lady Jeanne Campbell, who gave birth to a daughter that August. Jeanne divorced Mailer in 1963. In December of that same year, he married for the fourth time, to actress Beverly Bentley. They had two sons. Continuing public squabbles with such writers as James Baldwin, Jim Jones, Norman Podhoretz, William Styron, and Gore Vidal also helped define Mailer's public persona. Not all these squabbles were literary or political in nature. Mailer followed professional boxing and was himself an amateur boxer, often challenging his friends, houseguests, and rivals (both male and female) to spar with him.

In 1964 Mailer returned to fiction with An American Dream. The novel was published serially in Esquire, requiring Mailer to write eight installments against a deadline. It documents the rise and fall of the fictional Stephen Rojack, a war hero, former congressman, television personality, professor, and public intellectual, who murders his wife and then embarks on a long, odyssean run from the police. The Esquire series was a success, in part because some of its more sensational elements corresponded to scandals in Mailer's own life, but An American Dream received very mixed reviews when it appeared in book form in 1965. By then, however, Mailer was once again immersed in public life, covering the 1964 Republican National Convention and electrifying an audience of more than 15,000 with his speech during the 1965 antiwar protest organized by the activist Jerry Rubin at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1966 Mailer published a third collection of essays, Cannibals and Christians, followed the next year by Why Are We in Vietnam?, a short work of experimental fiction that explored the indirect causes of the Vietnam War. Both were generally well received, although some critics complained about the latter's obscenity and violence (exacerbated by the original cover photograph, in which Mailer sports a black eye).

During the mid-1960s Mailer also experimented with drama and film. He staged theatrical productions of The Deer Park, including an off-Broadway production that was poorly received by critics but ran for almost 150 performances. Mailer also directed and starred in several films, through which he continued his lifelong exploration into the nature of American masculinity and its relationship to violence. His first film, Wild 90, in which Mailer played the leader of a group of gangster hoods, had no script and was shot without retakes over the course of two days and nights in the spring of 1967. In his next film, Beyond the Law, he portrayed an Irish police lieutenant whose precinct comes under investigation for brutality. The film, more carefully produced than Wild 90, was screened at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1968 and was generally well received by critics, although it did very poorly in distribution. Mailer's other projects were more arcane. In 1965, for example, he had begun to build an imaginary utopian city in his living room out of Lego blocks, a project he publicized widely in advance in such serious periodicals as Architectural Forum. The massive and time-consuming project harked back to Mailer's training as an engineer and reflected his ongoing concerns about how contemporary institutional architecture contributed to social and political ills.

In October 1967 several of Mailer's passions converged when he participated in the anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon, one of the nation's most symbolic examples of institutional architecture, a formidable structure that the marchers planned to levitate through sheer revolutionary mind power. The night before the march an intoxicated and inspired Mailer appeared at a rally with the poet Robert Lowell, and the next day he was arrested and imprisoned along with hundreds of others. The entire experience formed the basis of one of his most celebrated and important works, The Armies of the Night (1968). The first section of the book, titled "The Steps of the Pentagon," originally appeared in the March 1968 issue of Harper's, subtitled "The Novel as History." The second section, "The Battle of the Pentagon," was first published in the April 1968 issue of Commentary, subtitled "History as Novel." The Armies of the Night is in equal parts detailed historical reportage and moving autobiographical meditation, with the overall effect being a relentless inquiry into the boundaries that traditionally separate history from fiction and personal from political experience. Although typically brash and unapologetic, the novel is also a remarkably poignant study of revolutionary protest and the generational ruptures that defined America's self-identity during the 1960s and early 1970s, and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Mailer followed this success with a disastrous third film (the debauched Maidstone, which appeared in 1968), but more literary awards followed quickly for Miami and the Siege of Chicago, about the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Nevertheless, the decade ended on a sour note for Mailer. In 1969 he ran a spirited but doomed race for mayor of New York, campaigning under the often-censored slogan "No More Bullshit." Mailer's platform was ahead of his time, calling for the establishment of New York City as the nation's fifty-first state, the banning of private automobiles in Manhattan, the legalization of gambling, the institution of state-subsidized day-care centers and nurseries, the provision of free bicycles in city parks and methadone to heroin addicts, and perks for police officers who chose to live in the areas they patrolled. That same year Mailer separated from Bentley, although they did not divorce until 1980.

The turmoil caused by the loss of the election and the failure of his marriage left Mailer in a funk. In his next major work, Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), about the Apollo 11 mission, Mailer described his fallen mood, referring to himself in the third person: "He had in fact been left with a huge boredom about himself. He was weary of his own voice, own face, person, persona, will, ideas, speeches, and general sense of importance." Mailer's dissatisfaction was reflected in his unhappiness with his work; although it captivated the nation, the Apollo 11 Moon shot did not fully engage Mailer as a writer.

Nevertheless, the 1960s were arguably Mailer's most productive years, during which he vigorously fused personal experience with public life in ways that not only revolutionized narrative form, but also shaped the nation's cultural and political climate. For Mailer, as for much of the United States, the turbulent decade culminated in January 1970, when he appeared as a witness for the defense in the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Eight—the individuals who had helped staged the general protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which Mailer had covered to grand acclaim in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In 1971 Mailer published The Prisoner of Sex, which served as his public response to the women's liberation movement. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, however, his publication pace slowed, and the focus of his writing altered as he concentrated on a massive novel set in ancient Egypt, which finally appeared in 1983 as Ancient Evenings. By the turn of the century Mailer's body of writing spanned more than three dozen books of fiction and nonfiction (with many that continued to trouble the distinction), including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Executioner's Song (1979), the celebrated Harlot's Ghost (1991), and The Time of Our Time (1998), an anthologized survey of his work, life, and times, which are inextricably linked.

Mailer was married to his fifth wife and longtime mistress Carol Stevens for only one day, 7 November 1980. They married to honor their relationship and to publicly acknowledge their daughter, but two hours after the civil ceremony, Mailer flew to Haiti to obtain a divorce, returning the next day. Four days later, on 11 November 1980, he married his sixth wife, the artist Norris Church; they have one child.

Mailer's literary brilliance, coupled with his personal exploits and his outspoken criticism of politics and popular culture, earned him a lasting reputation as one of the twentieth-century America's most notorious talents.

Mailer's official biographer is Robert Lucid, whose biography is forthcoming. For a good overview of how Mailer and his work were perceived in the 1960s, see Lucid's compilation Mailer: The Man and His Work (1971), as well as Richard Poirier, Norman Mailer (1972). Unauthorized biographies include Jennifer Bailey, Norman Mailer: Quick Change Artist (1979); Peter Manso, Mailer: His Life and Times (1985); Carl Rollyson, The Lives of Norman Mailer (1991); and Mary Dearborn, Mailer: A Biography (1999).

Shaleane Gee

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