Mailer Publishes

Norman Mailer’s publication of The Naked and the Dead launched the career of a dominant personality in American literature in the second half of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

In 1948, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was published. The book was an immediate commercial success. It topped the New York Times best-seller list for eleven weeks and sold 197,185 copies in its first year. Naked and the Dead, The (Mailer)
[kw]Mailer Publishes The Naked and the Dead (1948)
[kw]Naked and the Dead, Mailer Publishes The (1948)
Naked and the Dead, The (Mailer)
[g]North America;1948: Mailer Publishes The Naked and the Dead[02240]
[g]United States;1948: Mailer Publishes The Naked and the Dead[02240]
[c]Literature;1948: Mailer Publishes The Naked and the Dead[02240]
Mailer, Norman

Norman Mailer.

(Library of Congress)

Within a year after he had graduated from Harvard University with a degree in engineering sciences, Mailer had enlisted in the U.S. Army, and during World War II he had served in the Philippines. In The Naked and the Dead, Mailer used his personal military experience and individual artistic vision to reshape the genre of the war novel. Critics agreed that his 721-page book was one of the finest novels to come out of World War II. Mailer suddenly was considered the best literary mind of the war generation.

While critics praised The Naked and the Dead, however, many underestimated the depth and artistry of Mailer’s book and focused instead on the effective verisimilitude Realism;literature of the novel. They commented on Mailer’s technical prowess and his ability to record reality. Most critics at the time did not recognize the allegorical implications of the characters and the metaphoric nature of the plot. They eventually discovered, however, that The Naked and the Dead was far more than a realistic novel of men at war. Mailer had written a rich parable of power, a novel of character that would take its place alongside other classic, symbolic works of American literature. As Mailer was to say, he had written a symbolic book concerned basically with characters. If it took a while for most critics to recognize Mailer’s full accomplishment, though, it was clear from the outset that, in Mailer, a new literary sensibility had been born.

The Naked and the Dead is a novel about war on a small island in the Pacific. The tale can be read as a metaphor for much larger concerns—the human condition and struggle to retain some humanity amid the savagery of war. The totalitarianism of the Army generally proves too strong for the book’s individuals; if it does not, fate does.

The Naked and the Dead is about the invasion of the mythical Japanese-held island of Anopopei and the challenge of Mount Anaka on the island. The commander of the U.S. Army division that invades Anopopei is General Cummings, an egotistical fascist. His adversary is the liberal Hearn, who holds on to style as substance slips away from him. Also pivotal are the aggressive, sadistic Sergeant Croft, who finds war is his natural element and who shares the will and vision of Cummings, and Croft’s adversary, Red Valsen.

The long patrol of a single platoon to Mount Anaka brings a resolution to their hopes and illusions. At the end, Hearn is dead, Cummings has not gotten credit for the victory, Croft has failed to conquer or even understand his mountain, and Valsen is a submissive survivor. The man who accidentally gets the credit for the victory is a mediocre, banal major with foolish ideas.

The Naked and the Dead was a controversial novel because of its language and sexual material. In the novel, the soldiers speak crudely, and the book’s first potential publisher—Little, Brown, and Company—refused Censorship;United States to print the profanity. Mailer took the book to Rinehart and Company, which was also reluctant but less intransigent. Mailer agreed to cut down his profanity and to use the euphemistic “fug” in place of the more offensive term.

The Naked and the Dead looked at the moral and philosophical questions raised by war as no novel ever had. Mailer was compared favorably to Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Joseph Conrad, and his novel was mentioned as worthy of comparison with Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869).

Mailer burst on the scene with his first major full-length publication, but he had written other novels. At the age of nineteen at Harvard, he wrote a short novel called A Calculus at Heaven that was the genesis of The Naked and the Dead. It was one of fifty-one works by promising writers published in a 1944 anthology. In the months after his graduation, Mailer wrote a six-hundred-page novel about mental illness, A Transit to Narcissus, which went unpublished. When The Naked and the Dead was published, Mailer was living in Paris with his first wife. He came back to the United States a famous writer.

After the publication of The Naked and the Dead, playwright Lillian Hellman Hellman, Lillian tried to adapt the book into a play with Mailer’s blessing, but she was unsuccessful. In 1958, The Naked and the Dead
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Naked and the Dead[Naked and the Dead] was made into a film starring Cliff Robertson and Raymond Massey; Mailer told the journal Film Heritage that the result was one of the worst films ever made. Despite such difficulties, The Naked and the Dead made Mailer a major literary figure. Harvard-educated and from a middle-class Jewish Brooklyn background, Mailer had risen above his esoteric heritage to become the voice of a new generation. Mailer saw the power of authority in both the Army and society, and he saw the loss of individual possibility and faith. In The Naked and the Dead, Mailer issued a provocative alert to the postwar world.


The publication of The Naked and the Dead launched Mailer as a major artist and personality. He rivaled Ernest Hemingway in the stories told about his personal life and became recognized as a major twentieth century literary persona. The Naked and the Dead gave him his platform, and he did not relinquish it.

The Naked and the Dead was revolutionary in its treatment of obscenity and sex. No novelist had used obscenities as Mailer did. At the time, obscenity charges could be brought against a publisher, so Mailer’s frankness was dangerous. Critic Bernard De Voto DeVoto, Bernard was sent Mailer’s manuscript by publisher Little, Brown, and De Voto criticized the manuscript for its profanity and obscenity and did not support the book’s publication. Even in the watered-down form published by Rinehart and Company, the book was a milestone of explicit language and a harbinger of frankness to come.

When the novel came out, many critics saw Mailer as influenced by John Dos Passos. Later, others tried to define The Naked and the Dead by what Mailer subsequently wrote and tried to find evidence of his existentialism and political liberalism in the novel. Those that saw the novel as a parable of power were most convincing. Mailer himself said that the source of the novel was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851); like the whale in Melville’s novel, the mountain in Mailer’s book was a symbol of obsession and defeat.

In The Naked and the Dead, Mailer portrayed the arena of war with new insight. His book showed war and society as creating a new totalitarianism that threatened the soul of man and society. In The Naked and the Dead, the characters experienced a loss of faith that Mailer suggested an entire society faced.

Mailer’s subsequent work was not so well received critically. His subsequent novels, including Barbary Shore (1951), The Deer Park (1955), An American Dream (1965), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), Ancient Evenings (1983), Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984), and Harlot’s Ghost (1991), had uneven, sometimes hostile, receptions. Mailer was perhaps more successful in composing nonfiction and in mixing elements of nonfiction and fiction. He received critical affirmation as well as Pulitzer Prizes Pulitzer Prizes;literature for both The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1979); the latter was released as “A True Life Novel.” Mailer also tried his hand at directing films, but with desultory results. Marilyn: A Biography (1973) and The Prisoner of Sex (1971) were two nonfiction books that gave Mailer more visibility.

One of the enduring effects of his various publications and public appearances has been the myth of Mailer. He has called himself “a psychic outlaw.” Mailer became a large personality, his image fueled by his public actions. He had a lengthy feud with Gore Vidal, who once called him “a fake”; in turn, Mailer insulted Vidal on television and once threw a drink on Vidal at a party. Mailer earned additional notoriety for stabbing one of his wives with a penknife and for campaigning unsuccessfully to become mayor of New York City.

With The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer began his quest as a cultural warrior, besieged by friends and foes and by a diminishing world, trying to redeem moral power. His body of work constitutes a participation in postwar America and shows how he lived and evaluated the experience of a changing America. Mailer has been a man in search of himself, charting his personal Mount Anaka, in search of heroism in a world of many icons but few if any heroes. Naked and the Dead, The (Mailer)

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Norman Mailer. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Collection of essays by leading scholars evaluating Mailer’s life, work, and career. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Lucid, Robert F., ed. Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. This collection of critical essays, seventeen pieces mostly by major critics (all originally published elsewhere), shows Mailer’s controversial reputation. Effective introduction by Lucid. Included are Richard Foster’s notable lengthy study and a classic essay by Diana Trilling.
  • Mailer, Norman. The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing. New York: Random House, 2003. Mailer discusses the art of writing, providing advice for new and experienced writers, anecdotes of his own experiences as a writer, and discussions of many famous authors, from Mark Twain to Samuel Beckett.
  • Marcus, Steven. “Interview with Norman Mailer.” In Writers at Work, Third Series. New York: Viking Press, 1967. This Paris Review interview reveals some of Mailer’s techniques and intentions. Mailer discusses his influences, his method of working, and the writing of The Naked and the Dead.
  • Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A thought-provoking interpretation of The Naked and the Dead emphasizing that the book is a novel of character. Defends Mailer’s ending and argues against others’ rejection of it on the grounds that they were looking for something Mailer was not trying to do.
  • Mills, Hilary. Mailer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. The first full-length biography of Norman Mailer. Mills presents a view of Mailer in his totality; there is an effective balance between Mailer the artist and Mailer the individual. Mills leans a little in the way of gossip, but she has much solid factual information about Mailer’s publication history, his wives, and his personal and public experiences.
  • Poirier, Richard. Norman Mailer. New York: Viking Press, 1972. Poirier ranks Mailer alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner and analyzes Mailer’s literary transformation as a writer as well as performer. Poirier recognizes Mailer’s mastery of language, but he suggests that Mailer has created a system that may have confined him.

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