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Norman Mailer

Throughout history, few authors have influenced a national fabric so greatly as Norman Mailer.  During the turbulent Sixties, he developed a form of journalism that combines real-life events such as autobiography and political commentary with the rich tableau of descriptive words endemic of the novel.  Mailer's works have aroused controversy because of both their stylish nonconformity and his controversial views of American life.  Poet Robert Lowell praised him as "the best journalist in America," although he was less lavish when evaluating the author's fiction.

Mailer was born on January 31, 1923, in Long Branch, New Jersey, of Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania.  When he was still a child, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Mailer grew up to become a tough kid in an even tougher neighborhood.  He soon learned how to fend for himself. 

At the age of nine, he wrote a 250-page story in notebooks, called Invasion From Mars.  He was graduated from Boys High School in 1939 and studied aeronautical engineering at Harvard University, Cambridge, from 1939 - 1943, where he received his BS degree in science.

While at Harvard, Mailer took several elective courses in literature and worked on the university's literary journal, The Harvard Advocate.  When the story, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” was selected as the winner of Story's annual contest for college students, Mailer began toying with the idea of turning his avocation into an occupation.

In 1944, Mailer married his first wife, Beatrice “Bea” Silverman, shortly before he was inducted into the U.S. Army.  While he was in training as an artilleryman, his novella, A Calculus at Heaven, was published in Cross-Section: A Collection of American Writing

During the war, Mailer served as a gunnery sergeant.  He was disappointed when he wasn't chosen to be among the first wave of invasion troops in Europe and was sent, instead, to the South Pacific.  There, he served in Leyte, Luzon, and Japan and became an astute observer of what happened on the war scene.  In his letters to his wife, he described various battles so vividly, she said that she could practically hear the shellfire. 

In 1946, Mailer was discharged, and, taking advantage of the G. I. Bill, he enrolled in several classes at the Sorbonne--shortly after completing work on a manuscript entitled The Naked and the Dead.  The book was published in 1948 when Mailer was still 25, and its triumphant release made him an overnight international celebrity.  "Its success rips away my former identity," Mailer said about the publishing phenomenon.  The Naked and The Dead drew upon the author's combat experiences in the Philippines.  It quickly became the definitive literary novel centered during World War II.

"Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach... All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead." - from The Naked and the Dead

For three years, Mailer was on top of the world.  But his next novel, Barbary Shore (1951), flopped, and critics began spreading the rumor that Mailer had been simply a flash-in-the-pan, a one-book wonder who had failed to live up to his promise as a writer.  Barbary Shore, set in a Brooklyn boarding house, depicts the conflict between a former radical and a federal agent.  Time Magazine called it "paceless, tasteless, and graceless."

Distraught over the bad reviews and his recent divorce from Bea, Mailer decided to take a break from writing the Great American Novel.  He left Hollywood, where he'd been working as a screenwriter since 1949, and moved to New York's Greenwich Village, where he met and married artist Adele Morales while working on his third book, The Deer Park, about the corruption of values in Hollywood.  In the thinly veiled story, Mailer depicts his tumultuous relationship with his new wife.  Several publishers refused it outright, and Mailer's depression grew deeper.  He spent his days listening to jazz and his nights smoking marijuana and drinking.  When the book was finally published, it, too, was panned. 

The following years in Mailer's life were chaotic.  He had grown more violent and less productive.  The low point came in 1960, when he stabbed his wife "with a dirty three-inch penknife" after an all-night Manhattan party.  He was given a suspended sentence when she refused to press charges.

With Advertisements for Myself (1959), Mailer wrote one of the most startling self-confessional books that had ever been published.  It was the story of his own ambitions and fears, an examination of the violence, hysteria, crimes, and confusion in American society as portrayed through the fashionable framework of existentialism.  In it, he wrote, "Like many another vain, empty and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind... The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time."

In 1962, the year that his divorce from second wife, Adele, was finalized, Mailer married Lady Jeanne Campbell.  It was a short-lived affair that produced one daughter, Kate.  The next year, Mailer and his third wife divorced, and he quickly married Beverly Bentley, a union that resulted in two sons, Michael Burks and Stephen MacLeod. 

By the mid-1960s, Mailer had grown increasingly concerned about the state of American politics.  He co-founded and named the Village Voice, one of the earliest underground American newspapers, as an alternative voice to conservative commentary.  He was a columnist ("Big Bite") at Esquire (1962-63) and Commentary (1962-63), a member of the executive board (1968-73) and the president (1984-86) of the PEN American Center.  In 1969, he ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for the office of mayor of New York City.

With The Presidential Papers (1963), Mailer became one of the most vigorous and influential essayists in America.  In The Armies of the Night (1968), he used fiction techniques to study current events.  The work won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.  In the same vein, he wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) about the convention-day riots and followed that up with Of a Fire on the Moon (1970).  In Cannibals and Christians (1966), he accused American writers of not being able to produce works that would "clarify a nation's vision of itself."

Mailer began writing on the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions in  1960.  He has placed himself at the center of American political and cultural life by reporting his observations on the civil rights movement, political assassinations, and other social upheavals.  He has published numerous essays in popular and men's magazines, including Esquire and Playboy, as well as in more intellectual journals, such as Dissent, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books

In 1965, a decade after The Deer Park, Mailer returned to the novel with An American Dream.  It defines the author's obsessions more clearly than any other work and is reflective of his talent.  At the end of his profile of the author for The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, A. O. Scott observed:

Mailer's worst novel – the novel whose place in his canon is therefore absolutely central – is An American Dream.  All of his characteristic preoccupations – Manichean theology, political power, nostalgie de la boue, anal sex, and the subterranean connections between them – are on display, knit together in a plot that veers from the incredible to the incomprehensible.  Yet the book's chaos seems now to be a vivid and indelible reflection of the disorder of its time and place.  It is a work of sublime bravery.

In 1969, Mailer and his fourth wife separated.  With the publication of The Prisoner of Sex in 1971, the author once again found himself the controversial center of conversation.  By proposing that gender might determine the way a person perceives and orders reality, he painted himself as the quintessential male chauvinist pig, and author Kate Millett proclaimed him so in her book, Sexual Politics.  Mailer went on to write the highly successful true life novel, The Executioner's Song (1979), a wandering and richly detailed tableau exploring the life mind of career criminal and convicted killer Gary Gilmore.  Writing for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, James R. Frakes observed:

There's no such thing as a minor figure in this panoramic study of crime and punishment, madness and greed, sex and religiosity, karma and universal guilt.  All turn out to be complex, quivering human beings because of Mailer's compassion, a quality rarely attributed to this writer. The author calls it “A True-Life Novel.”  I call it a masterwork.

Mailer followed that up with The Fight (1975), a coolly received account of the legendary bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

When Italian director Sergio Leone started to work on his gangster film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), he asked Mailer to help with the screenplay.  The film was based on the 1953 novel The Hoods by Harry Grey.  Mailer barricaded himself in a Rome hotel room with several bottles of whisky and spent three weeks writing the script.  "We could hear him singing, cursing and shouting for ice cubes from about ten blocks away!" Leone said later.  Grey, a former Sing-Sing prisoner, met the author in New York and was not happy with his adaptation of the book.  Leone agreed: "Mailer, at least to my eyes, the eyes of an old fan, is not a writer for the cinema."

In 1980, the year that his divorce from his fourth wife, Beverly, was finalized, Mailer married for a fifth time, to Carol Stevens.  As short-lived as the author's third marriage to Lady Jeanne Campbell had been, this marriage – which also produced a daughter, Maggie Alexander – ended in divorce after less than a year.  That same year, Mailer--an unabashed lover of women and the mystique that surrounds them--published a giant cloth-bound fictional biography-picture book of Marilyn Monroe.  The book is a series of thinly framed interviews with the screen star, written in what purports to be Monroe's own voice.  Mailer was attacked on all sides for his presumptuousness.

Late in 1980, Mailer married for the sixth and last time, to Norris Church.  This most enduring of his relationships with women has produced one son, John Buffalo.  His ambitious novel, Ancient Evenings, released in 1983, was set in ancient Egypt (1290-1100 BC).  Mailer had worked on it for 11 years.  It was characterized by Anthony Burgess as "one of the great works of contemporary mythopoesis."

"Is one human?  Or merely alive?  Like a blade of grass equal to all existence in the moment it is torn?  Yes.  If pain is fundament, then a blade of grass can know all there is." - from Ancient Evenings

By the mid-1980s, Mailer had become uneasy over the state of American politics.  He traveled to the Soviet Union, which he realized was not "the evil empire" that Americans had been taught but, instead, a "poor, third-world country." 

With Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), a thriller, Mailer returned to the movie business.  He wrote the screenplay and directed the film.  The protagonist, Tim Madden, is an unsuccessful writer addicted to bourbon and women.  He awakens with a hangover.  He remembers practically nothing of the night before and then he finds in the nearby woods the severed head of a blonde.  "Horror films do not prepare us for the hours lost in searching after one clear thought.  Waking from nightmares and sleeping in terror, I climbed at last onto one conclusion.  Assuming I was no part of this deed - and how could I be certain of that? - I still had to ask: Who was?"

In 1992, Mailer published Harlot's Ghost, a 1300-page chronicle of the CIA that the author considered one of his best books.  While researching it, he discovered previously unknown Russian documents that led to Oswald's Tale (1995), the exhaustive biography of Lee Harvey Oswald.  Two years later, he wrote The Gospel According to the Son, retelling the story of Jesus.  The book continued his series of portraits of well- known figures, from Monroe and Gary Gilmore to Oswald and Pablo Picasso.  In 1998, his The Time of Our Time, an anthology of the author's fiction and non-fiction writings, led reviewer Michiko Kakutani to comment, "Yet what this volume makes clear, if it were not already quite apparent, is that Mr. Mailer's strength lies in non-fiction, not in fiction."

"It is not routine to bring off a long novel when your ambition is more than major," Mailer wrote in The New York Times Review of Books in 1998, "when you will settle for nothing less than an attempt to write a great novel, and when you are into your sixties and not all that well."

Lauded as one of the greatest authors of all time, chided as an opportunistic hack, Mailer has spent a lifetime honing a career that is nothing if not controversial.  Some critics wonder whether or not his works can ever be fairly and objectively judged in light of the celebrity status of the author, himself.  Whether hobnobbing with stars or chastising politicians, he is never more than a written word or two away from international headlines.  From his first book to whatever will become his last--flamboyance through his own notoriety is something the world can count on from Norman Mailer.  It is what keeps the author going.

In 2003, Mailer celebrated his 80th birthday in New York with the publication of The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, in which the author collects a career's worth of observations on both the mundane realities and the abiding mysteries of his craft. In 2005, he received the National Book Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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