Authors: Norman Mailer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American novelist, playwright, and essayist

January 31, 1923

Long Branch, New Jersey

November 10, 2007

New York, New York

Biography

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on January 31, 1923. Much of his childhood was spent in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived in a Jewish neighborhood. He never wrote about his upbringing, but it is clear from several published accounts of his life that he took to literature quite early—even though he earned an engineering degree from Harvard University. By the time of his college graduation, he had thoroughly absorbed the writing of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos and was bent on becoming a great war novelist. He served as a rifleman in the Pacific during World War II, and his novel about the war, The Naked and the Dead, was greeted with great acclaim and popularity.

Mailer’s sudden success and celebrity troubled him. He thought that his first novel was derivative of the work of greater writers, and he was not yet certain of his own style. His remedy was to plunge himself into contemporary life, especially in the cultural and political scene, out of which he created his second novel, Barbary Shore, a turgid allegorical vision of the Cold War that alienated many critics. The Deer Park, a study of Hollywood during the years of the blacklisting, received a more favorable response. Still, Mailer was concerned about his difficulties in getting the right narrative voice, and critics gave the novel a mixed reception.

Norman Mailer

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(Library of Congress)

Throughout the first ten years of his career, Mailer continued to get respectful attention—even from critics who believed that he had not lived up to his potential. Still floundering for a fictional form, he produced a work, Advertisements for Myself, that made literary capital of his frustrations as a writer. This collection of essays, stories, excerpts from novels, autobiographical fragments, and letters was a stunning tour de force that demonstrated Mailer’s facility with many different styles and points of view. It was his breakthrough book, in which he used himself as a character, and as his own best critic, commentator, and creator.

Two novels quickly issued from Mailer’s new sense of himself as an existentialist, a writer who lived in the moment and made material out of his personal crises and out of the nation’s predicaments. An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? treated the sexual ambiguity and violence that Mailer believed to be at the core of the American identity. In both cases, the novels drew great praise and vilification—some critics honoring him for his honesty in showing the murderous instincts of his heroes, Steven Rojack and D.J., and others attacking him for the depravity of his vision.

It was not until The Armies of the Night that Mailer won over many of his hostile critics. He presented himself as a flawed yet brilliant observer of the American scene, caught up in the march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. The book had all the hallmarks of Mailer’s mature style—his comical, ironic treatment of himself and his deeply serious and shrewd study of the event itself in the context of American history. What is more, he elaborated a two-part structure (“History as Novel” and “The Novel as History”) that demonstrated perfectly his ability to grasp both the factual and the imaginative aspects of history.

After this watershed book, Mailer continued to produce fascinating and unconventional work: a detailed and highly imaginative treatment of the moon shot, a fictionalized psychobiography of Marilyn Monroe, a meditation on women’s liberation, and several collections of essays and literary criticism. The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s story of the death-row convict Gary Gilmore, is a departure in style from his self-reflexive, semiautobiographical works; this objective and deeply moving study of an executed murderer rivals The Naked and the Dead in its panoramic view of individuals and society. Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a slighter work, represents Mailer’s not entirely successful effort to wed his existential psychology to the form of the mystery-detective novel.

In the 1990s, Mailer continued to pursue a broad range of interests, contributing essays on politics and culture to popular magazines and publishing another psychobiography on the young Pablo Picasso. His most important project was a multivolume fiction about the American and Russian intelligence communities and their involvements in the Kennedy assassination. As works of speculative history and historical fiction, Harlot’s Ghost and Oswald’s Tale weave together Mailer’s criticisms of American politics and violence, his existentialist and sexual themes, and the technical mastery over research and storytelling that characterizes his best writings. Many reviewers lamented their length, but these books confirm Mailer’s place as the premier political novelist of his time.

The 1997 novel The Gospel According to the Son is a restrained retelling of the Gospels from Jesus’s point of view. Mailer successfully finds a voice quite different from his own for the first-person narrator. Jesus is portrayed as very much of a man—driven by his divine mission but also doubting his ability to carry it out. In Mailer’s desire to respect the story while humanizing it, however, he perhaps does not risk enough in making Jesus a believable character.

Mailer’s final novel, The Castle in the Forest (2007), imagines Adolf Hitler’s childhood with a devil as narrator. Later that year, on November 10, 2007, Mailer died of acute renal failure in New York City at the age of eighty-four.

Author Works Long Fiction The Naked and the Dead, 1948 Barbary Shore, 1951 The Deer Park, 1955 An American Dream, 1965 Why Are We in Vietnam?, 1967 The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, 1968 Marilyn, 1973 The Executioner’s Song, 1979 Of Women and Their Elegance, 1980 Ancient Evenings, 1983 Tough Guys Don’t Dance, 1984 Harlot’s Ghost, 1991 Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, 1995 The Gospel According to the Son, 1997 The Castle in the Forest, 2007 Short Fiction New Short Novels 2, 1956 The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, 1967 Drama The Deer Park: A Play, pb. 1967 Screenplay Tough Guys Don’t Dance, 1987 Poetry Deaths for the Ladies, and Other Disasters, 1962 Nonfiction The White Negro, 1957 The Presidential Papers, 1963 Cannibals and Christians, 1966 The Bullfight, 1967 The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1968 Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968, 1969 Of a Fire on the Moon, 1970 The Prisoner of Sex, 1971 The Long Patrol: Twenty-five Years of Writing from the Work of Norman Mailer, 1971 (Robert Lucid, editor) Existential Errands, 1972 St. George and the Godfather, 1972 The Faith of Graffiti, 1974 (with Mervyn Kurlansky and Jon Naar) The Fight, 1975 Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions, 1960-1972, 1975 Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976 Pieces and Pontifications, 1982 Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, 1995 (also known as Pablo and Fernande: Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, 1994) The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, 2003 The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America, 2006 On God: An Uncommon Conversation, 2007 Miscellaneous Advertisements for Myself, 1959 The Time of Our Time, 1998 Bibliography Adams, Laura, editor. Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? Kennikat Press, 1974. A valuable collection of reviews and essays on Mailer’s life and work, which is arranged in strict chronological order to resemble a composite biography. Braudy, Leo, editor. Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, 1972. Contains an excellent introduction surveying Mailer’s career, providing thoughtful criticism on individual works and themes, and a bibliography. Glenday, Michael K. Norman Mailer. St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A good critical survey of important themes and strategies in Mailer’s writings. Gordon, Andrew. An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1980. One of the most penetrating studies of Mailer’s fiction and nonfiction, which shows how deeply rooted in his work are aspects of his biography. Leeds, Barry H. The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer. Pleasure Boat, 2002. An analysis of Mailer’s works that includes Leeds’s 1987 interview with his subject. A good introduction to Mailer. Leigh, Nigel. Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer. St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Explores the political and social views of Mailer and how they come across in his fiction. With an index and bibliography. Lennon, J. Michael, editor. Conversations with Norman Mailer. UP of Mississippi, 1988. A collection of the most important interviews with Mailer, which reveals his developing and changing attitudes toward his work. Lennon, J. Michael, editor. Critical Essays on Norman Mailer. G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of criticism on Mailer’s work, important reviews, and an extremely valuable overview by Lennon of Mailer’s reputation as it evolved. Mailer, Adele. The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer. Barricade, 1997. Although this memoir focuses on a short (about eight years) period of Mailer’s life, it is the most detailed book about him. Manso, Peter, editor. Mailer, His Life and Times. Simon & Schuster, 1986. Provides an excellent narrative survey of Mailer’s career in its cultural and political contexts. Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer Revisited. Twayne, 1992. A revised version of one of the best introductory studies. It includes a chapter on Mailer’s novels of the 1980s, a chapter on his biography and his legend, and a concluding assessment of his career. The chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography make this a very useful volume. Mills, Hilary. Norman Mailer: A Biography. Empire Books, 1982. The first full-fledged biography of Mailer based on extensive interviews. Mills treats the reception of Mailer’s work but does not provide a critical perspective. Poirier, Richard. Norman Mailer. Viking Books, 1972. A brief but provocative critical study, considered to be one of the most insightful examinations of Mailer’s career. Rollyson, Carl. The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography. Paragon House, 1991. Contains much more discussion of Mailer’s writing than does Mills or Manso, including a chapter on Harlot’s Ghost. Detailed notes and comprehensive bibliography. Wenke, Joseph. Mailer’s America. UP of New England, 1987. Concentrates on Mailer’s attitudes toward America in his major fiction and nonfiction, including Ancient Evenings and Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

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