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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
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
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,
"poor, third-world country."
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
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
"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."
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.
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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