Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Norman Kingsley Mailer, the son of Russian immigrants, was born in New Jersey on 31st January 1923. His father was an accountant and his mother ran a housekeeping and nursing agency. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1927 and after attending local schools he entered Harvard University to study aeronautical engineering in 1939.

Soon after he graduated in 1943 Mailer joined the US Army. He served overseas in the Philippines. According to Mailer he only saw "modest bits of action" and spent most of his time as a cook. By the end of the Second World War he had reached the rank of sergeant technician.

Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published to great acclaim in 1948. The book is set in the South Pacific and contains several combat scenes, but its main focus is on the psychology of the individual soldiers. The book is highly critical of the decision-making of high-ranking officers and Mailer's anti-authoritarian approach to the war was highly popular with returning servicemen.

Described by The Times as "the best war novel to come out of the United States" The Naked and the Dead established Mailer's reputation as one of America's most promising novelists. Its honest portrayal of ordinary men in battle, altered forever the popular perception of warfare. The book sold 200,000 copies in just three months. Mailer later said of it: “Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace."

Mailer's next two novels were an artistic response to McCarthyism in the United States. Barbary Shore (1951) was about Socialism. As one critic said: "At the height of the McCarthy era, Norman Mailer proved his audacity by writing a novel about Socialism, a book that is at once an elegy and an indictment, sinuous moral thriller and an intellectual slugfest." Atlantic Magazine called it a "work of remarkable power, of amazing penetration, both into people and the determining forces in American life" and the novelist Sinclair Lewis argued that Mailer was "the greatest writer to come out of his generation".

Norman Mailer moved to Hollywood and wrote about his experiences in the novel Deer Park (1955). Sergius O'Shaughnessy, recently discharged from the Air Force, finds his burning ambition as a novelist is weakened by the depravity of the movie industry. In part it is a fictionalized account of Elia Kazan decision to give evidence to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In 1955, together with two friends, Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher, he founded The Village Voice. Mailer wrote a regular column for the paper and according to the New York Times: "he began to evolve what became his trademark style — bold, poetic, metaphysical, even shamanistic at times — and his personal philosophy of hipsterism. It was a homespun, Greenwich Village version of existentialism, which argued that the truly with-it, blacks and jazz musicians especially, led more authentic lives and enjoyed better orgasms."

Mailer now went to live in Paris. He met James Baldwin and the two men became close friends. This resulted in the book The White Negro (1957). Baldwin responded by writing the essay, The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy where he claimed that: "The Negro jazz musicians among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being remotely hip."

In 1959 Mailer published Advertisements for Myself, a collection of Mailer's stories, essays, polemic, meditations and interviews. This included attacks on fellow novelists such as William Styron, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin.

Mailer took a keen interest in boxing and wrote several articles about the subject for newspapers and magazines. This included a 30,000 word piece for Esquire on the Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson fight in 1962. As the fight only lasted one round the article was entitled, Ten Thousand Words a Minute.

A supporter of John F. Kennedy, Mailer published The Presidential Papers in 1963. Mailer considered Kennedy capable of uniting the American people in following a progressive agenda. However, the book did include an attack of Kennedy's policy towards the Fidel Castro government. Mailer wrote: "Wasn't there anyone around to give you the lecture on Cuba? Don't you understand the enormity of your mistake - you invade a country without understanding its music."

Mailer's next novel, An American Dream (1965) was an attempt to resurrect the methodology used by Charles Dickens and other 19th century novelists and initially appeared in serialized form for Esquire. Once again, the book's protagonist, Stephen Rojack, is a former soldier in the Second World War. Rojack is now a talk-show host and in an alcohol-fueled rage, Rojack murders his wife. The book was attacked by feminists, most notably by Kate Millett, for its portrayal and treatment of women.

This was followed by Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). The novel is about three Texans on a hunting trip in Alaska but is narrated by a teenager on the eve of his departure to fight in the Vietnam War. The next novel, The Armies of the Night (1968), was about the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that culminated in the October 1967 march on the Pentagon. The novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, included real-life characters such as Abraham Muste, H. Rap Brown, David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, Dwight Macdonald, Noam Chomsky and Sidney Lens. Mailer was now a committed political activist and in 1969 was candidate for mayor of New York City on a "left conservative" platform.

Mailer was developing what became known as the non-fiction novel. He employed the same technique in his next two books, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), about the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 and Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), an account of the Apollo 11 Mission.

Other works during the next few years included The Prisoner of Sex (1971) and Marilyn: Biography of Marilyn Monroe (1973). The Fight, an account of the world heavyweight championship fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali appeared in 1975.

Norman Mailer won another Pulitzer Prize with his next non-fiction novel, The Executioner's Song (1979).The novel depicts the events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore. Based almost entirely on interviews with the family and friends of both Gilmore and his victims. The first section of the book deals with Gilmore's early life and involvement in crime. This included the cold-blooded murders of a petrol-station attendant and a motel manager in Utah. The second section focuses on Gilmore's trial and execution.

In 1977 Jack Abbott, a prisoner serving life for murder, entered into correspondence with Mailer after he read about Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song. Abbott wrote to Mailer and offered to write about his time in prison. Mailer supported Abbott's attempts to gain parole and he was eventually released on parole in June 1981. Mailer also helped helped Abbott to publish In the Belly of the Beast (1982). Just six weeks after getting out of prison, Abbott killed Richard Adan by stabbing him in the chest. Abbot was convicted of manslaughter and given fifteen years to life. Mailer was criticized for his role in getting Abbott released from prison.

Mailer's next book was Ancient Evenings, a novel about ancient Egypt. This was followed by Harlot's Ghost (1991). The characters in the novel are a mixture of real people and fictional figures. The book appears to be the autobiography of Harry Hubbard, a CIA official. The novel starts with the death of Hubbard's mentor Hugh Montague, who has either been assassinated or committed suicide on his boat. This character is probably based on that of John Paisley who had died in similar circumstances in September, 1978. On hearing about the death of Montague goes to the Soviet Union to work on his account of his life in the CIA. Hubbard's autobiography ends in 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

His next book also covers the events surrounding the death of Kennedy in 1963. Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (1995) is a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. The book includes a detailed examination of his movements in the years, and particularly in the months, leading up to Kennedy's death November 22, 1963. Mailer suggests that Oswald killed Kennedy in a desperate search for achievement.

Mailer's next novel, The Gospel According to the Son (1997) created a great deal of controversy as it was about Jesus Christ. The novel takes the form of an autobiography. At one point he asks: "Is God speaking to me, or am I hearing voices? If the voices are from God, why has he chosen me as His son? and if they are not from God, then who gave me the power to perform these miracles?"

In 2003 he published The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (2003). Two years later he co-wrote a book with his youngest son, John Buffalo Mailer, entitled The Big Empty. A novel about Adolf Hitler, The Castle of the Forest, appeared in 2007.

Norman Mailer died of acute renal failure on on 10th November 2007, at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Primary Sources

(1) Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (2003)

Over the years, I've found one rule ... If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write. The point is that you have to maintain trustworthy relations.

(2) Charles McGraph, New York Times (10th November, 2007)

Mailer burst on the scene in 1948 with “The Naked and the Dead,” a partly autobiographical novel about World War II, and for the next six decades he was rarely far from the center stage. He published more than 30 books, including novels, biographies and works of nonfiction, and twice won the Pulitzer Prize: for “The Armies of the Night” (1968), which also won the National Book Award, and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979).

He also wrote, directed, and acted in several low-budget movies, helped found The Village Voice and for many years was a regular guest on television talk shows, where he could reliably be counted on to make oracular pronouncements and deliver provocative opinions, sometimes coherently and sometimes not.

Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

He was also the least shy and risk-averse of writers. He eagerly sought public attention, and publicity inevitably followed him on the few occasions when he tried to avoid it. His big ears, barrel chest, striking blue eyes and helmet of seemingly electrified hair — jet black at first and ultimately snow white — made him instantly recognizable, a celebrity long before most authors were lured out into the limelight.

At different points in his life Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women’s liberation and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one, he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch.

Gore Vidal, with whom he frequently wrangled, once wrote: “Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

Mr. Mailer was a tireless worker who at his death was writing a sequel to his 2007 novel, “The Castle in the Forest.” If some of his books, written quickly and under financial pressure, were not as good as he had hoped, none of them were forgettable or without his distinctive stamp. And if he never quite succeeded in bringing off what he called “the big one” — the Great American Novel — it was not for want of trying.

Along the way, he transformed American journalism by introducing to nonfiction writing some of the techniques of the novelist and by placing at the center of his reporting a brilliant, flawed and larger-than-life character who was none other than Norman Mailer himself....

In November 1960, Mr. Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife, seriously wounding her. The incident happened at the end of an all-night party announcing Mr. Mailer’s intention to run in the 1961 mayoral campaign, and he, like many of his guests, had been drinking heavily. Mr. Mailer was arrested, but his wife declined to press charges, and he was eventually released after being sent to Bellevue Hospital for observation. The marriage broke up two years later.

All told, Mr. Mailer was married six times, counting a quickie with Carol Stevens, whom he married and divorced within a couple of days in 1980 to grant legitimacy to their daughter, Maggie. His other wives, in addition to Ms. Silverman and Ms. Morales, were Lady Jeanne Campbell, granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook; Beverly Rentz Bentley; and Norris Church, with whom he was living at his death. Lady Campbell died in June.In the 1970s Mr. Mailer entered into a long feud with feminists and proponents of women’s liberation, and in a famous 1971 debate with Germaine Greer at Town Hall in Manhattan he declared himself an “enemy of birth control.” He meant it. By his various wives, Mr. Mailer had nine children, all of whom survive him: Susan, by Ms. Silverman; Danielle and Elizabeth Anne, by Ms. Morales; Kate, by Lady Campbell; Michael Burks and Stephen McLeod, by Ms. Bentley; Maggie Alexandra, by Ms. Stevens; and John Buffalo, by Ms. Church. Also surviving are an adopted son, Matthew, by an earlier marriage of Ms. Norris’s, and 10 grandchildren.

(3) James Campbell, The Guardian (10th November, 2007)

The term 'literary lion' could have been invented to fit the American writer Norman Mailer, who has died aged 84 of acute renal failure. He relished confrontation, and was often at his most impressive in the public arena. However, underneath the lion lurked a clumsy cub, and among Mailer's many appealing attributes was his talent for play.

He led a double life as a literary artist, being both novelist and journalist, addressing himself to the major issues of his times, from feminism to consumerism ("Plastics," Mailer replied when asked to designate the modern world's main enemy), space travel to birth control, Vietnam to race riots, the psychology of the mass murderer to that of the graffiti artist. Gaining an idea of his range requires sampling from all over the vast table of his output. But if there is a 'best' book from the more than 40, it is perhaps The Executioner's Song (1979), in which he fused his two careers by writing a "non-fiction novel" based on the life of the murderer Gary Gilmore, executed in 1977, the first person to suffer the death penalty in the US after a four-year moratorium.

That book showed Mailer to be capable of controlling a style of lyrical simplicity, whereas his reputation had been built on baroque, complex sentences, fizzing with ideas to the point of genius or idiocy. Though intending to send up a fireworks display, Mailer was unafraid of the damp squib, and often pricked his grand ego with bathos. Describing his meeting with the poet Robert Lowell in The Armies of the Night (1968), Mailer related how Lowell called him "the best journalist in America". He had been hoping the poet might have said "best writer"; but Lowell's assessment was nearer the truth.

(4) BBC (10th November, 2007)

Norman Mailer, who has died aged 84, was the bad boy of post-war American literature. Short and stocky and with opinions on almost every subject, he combined a formidable writing talent with the streetwise attitude of a prize fighter.

With writers like Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe and John Updike, Norman Mailer was part of an exclusive club of novelists and essayists who challenged, tantalised and often outraged readers with their reflections on American life, history and morality.

A natural essayist, Mailer mused on John F Kennedy in The Presidential Papers (1963) and on his own involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night (1968).

Mailer's obsession with masculinity and violence often got him into trouble. He once beat up a sailor on a Manhattan street because he believed that the man had questioned the sexuality of his dog.

Besides this, he skied, climbed mountains and boxed obsessively.

In 1971, he head-butted his fellow writer Gore Vidal before a television chat-show after Vidal had written that "there has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression".

Politically, Norman Mailer described himself as a "left conservative". He mixed radical politics - damned capitalism, supported the black power movement - while simultaneously baiting feminists, in works like The Prisoner of Sex, and seemingly deepening his love affair with all things violent.