Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist, playwright, and essayist
January 31, 1923
Long Branch, New Jersey
November 10, 2007
New York, New York
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
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.