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Mailer, Norman (1923—)

Mailer, Norman (1923—)

With the publication of his brilliant first novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), Norman Mailer established himself as the next important writer of his age; and indeed, over the next five decades, he has fulfilled that promise many times over. Mailer's literary output has been extraordinary—over 30 volumes of fiction and nonfiction; his prolificness, in fact, is matched only by the prodigiousness of his public persona. But his work has consistently aroused controversy and elicited as much scorn as acclaim. Even today—after garnering numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes, and after being repeatedly mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize—Mailer is as relentlessly criticized by detractors for his views on sex, violence, and politics as he is applauded by admirers for his bold experimentation. Yet the essential Mailer remains elusive, a kind of curiosity to many of his critics and readers, who seem unable to agree on the literary merits of his books, the quality of his ideas, or his ultimate place in American letters.

The critical disagreement results in part from the protean nature of Mailer's work. Since 1941, the year he won first prize in Story magazine's annual college contest, Mailer has written widely, if not always well. In addition to poetry (Deaths for the Ladies, and Other Disasters, 1962), drama (The Deer Park—A Play, 1967), and screenplays (such as Maidstone, 1971, scripted for one of the experimental films he produced), Mailer has explored numerous prose forms, including autobiography, biography (Marilyn, 1973 and Pablo and Fernande: Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography, 1995), novella (the graphic, erotic The Time of Her Time, included in Advertisements for Myself, 1959), short stories (Short Fiction, 1967), sports reportage (The Fight, 1975, about the Ali-Foreman championship match in Zaire), political reportage (St. George and the Godfather, 1972, and his other accounts of the national conventions and of contemporary events like the march on the Pentagon), literary criticism (Genius and Lust, 1976, his extended commentary on the works of Henry Miller), interviews, essays, newspaper columns, letters, book reviews, and memoirs. Although Mailer considers himself above all a novelist, his versatility has defied easy categorization, and his forays outside of high culture have occasionally confounded even his strongest supporters.

Moreover, Mailer has helped to undermine his own reputation as a serious writer by his tireless self-promotion and his penchant for celebrity. "Every time I get into the newspapers," he once remarked, "I injure myself professionally." To be sure, much of Mailer's life reads like the stuff of fiction: his six marriages, including his stabbing of second wife Adele, for which he was briefly jailed and committed to Bellevue Hospital; his legal and financial problems; his pugnaciousness and affinity for drugs and alcohol; his co-founding of the Village Voice ; his ubiquitousness as a television talk show guest; his politics, including his costly campaign for mayor of New York City; his odd personal alliances with people like convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott (whose prison letters Mailer helped to get published and whose release he facilitated, only to have Abbott kill again); and his public feuds (with, among others, writers Gore Vidal, whom he punched out at a party, and former friend William Styron). Mailer, in turn, has transformed that outrageous life into the stuff of his own popular essays and fiction. But such melding of life and art has led many critics to analyze and dissect the figure behind the books rather than to judge the quality of the books themselves. His "crude celebrity," as Vidal dubbed it, has made Mailer's name familiar to readers and non-readers alike and assured his status as a literary personality; but Mailer is still struggling to achieve universal admiration as a true literary "champ."

Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1923 and raised in Brooklyn, Mailer graduated with honors from Harvard in 1943 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Drafted by the Army in early 1944, Mailer served as a rifleman with a combat unit in the South Pacific. After his discharge two years later, he returned to Brooklyn, where he began his celebrated first novel, a realistic and naturalistic account of the dialectic contest between authoritarian General Cummings and his liberal aide Lieutenant Hearn (a contest that recurs in much of Mailer's later fiction) and of the fates of the other members in their platoon on the fictional island of Anopopei.

In the two novels that followed, Mailer shifted his artistic focus from the omniscient narrator who probed the consciousness of the multiple characters in The Naked and the Dead, to more existential first-person narratives that redefine the role of the hero in an unheroic world. Despite its bold depiction of Cold War American politics and idealism, however, Barbary Shore (1951) was a critical and popular failure; and, while The Deer Park (1955) received more favorable reviews, it too was panned for its sexual explicitness and cynicism. Several collections of Mailer's prose pieces, many of them attacking technological society, appeared over the next decade: Advertisements for Myself (1959), which included such important essays as "The White Negro," his Beat-influenced treatise on the hipster-hero; The Presidential Papers (1963); and Cannibals and Christians (1966).

Mailer returned to fiction with An American Dream (1965), the compelling story of Stephen Rojack's regeneration through sex and violence, and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), in which a bear hunt serves as a metaphor for America's involvement in Vietnam. He continued his reflections on the American character in nonfictional works like The Armies of the Night (1968), a disarmingly passionate and award-winning account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon; Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), about that year's tumultuous political conventions; Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), an analysis of the first lunar landing; and The Prisoner of Sex (1971), a critical examination of the women's movement that incurred the wrath of feminists and launched a series of vitriolic attacks on Mailer as well as on his work—one reviewer dismissed Prisoner as "dribble: long and continuous."

Much of Mailer's writing during the 1970s focused on famous and infamous Americans, including Marilyn Monroe (in Marilyn, 1973, and again in Of Women and Their Elegance, 1980), Muhammad Ali (in The Fight, 1975), and murderer Gary Gilmore, the first person to be executed in the United States in over a decade (in The Executioner's Song, 1979). Ancient Evenings, the massive and surprisingly successful novel of epistemological adventure in ancient Egypt that Mailer began in 1971, was finally published in 1983 and was followed by other spirited works, such as the bestselling murder mystery Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), one of several of Mailer's books to be adapted to film. Harlot's Ghost (1991)—another lengthy novel, about CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) operations over two generations—Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (1995)—in which Mailer returns to his "nonfiction fiction" narrative techniques to explore the mind of Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald—and The Gospel According to the Son (1997)—an unconventional "auto-biographical" retelling of portions of the Biblical story—mark his most work of the late twentieth century.

Ambitious, egotistical, often controversial, always entertain-ing—Mailer continues to do what he has done so well for more than half a century: to challenge and to provoke with his ideas and techniques. Arguably "the greatest writer to come out of his generation" (as Sinclair Lewis declared), Mailer is unquestionably one of that generation's most astute social observers and literate spokespersons.

—Barbara Tepa Lupack

Further Reading:

Braudy, Leo, editor. Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Leeds, Barry H. The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer. New York, New York University Press, 1969.

Lennon, J. Michael, editor. Critical Essays on Norman Mailer. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1986.

Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer Revisited. New York, Twayne, 1992.

Mills, Hilary. Mailer: A Biography. New York, Empire, 1982.

Poirier, Richard. Norman Mailer. New York, Viking, 1972.

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