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Norman Mailer

MAILER, NORMAN (1923– ), U.S. novelist and essayist. Born in New Jersey, Mailer grew up in New York City and attended Harvard College. His two years with the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater during World War II provided him with the background for his bestselling novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), whose violent dialogue and often lyric prose that evoked the fears and passions of men at war made him an overnight literary celebrity. Barbary Shore (1951) was a semi-surrealistic political novel set in a Brooklyn rooming house and The Deer Park (1955) a novel about Hollywood; in both of these books, which he himself called "existential," he revealed his growing fascination with the individual who intellectually, physically, or morally feels compelled to drive himself to extremes beyond the norms of human conduct in order to experience his own individuality. Mailer's increasing impatience with the novel as a medium for expressing his extraordinarily fertile if undisciplined mind and his ability to yoke together ideas of the most varied political, psychological, and philosophical nature led him in the 1950s to turn more and more to the essay, of which he published several collections: Advertisements for Myself (1959), The Presidential Papers (1963), and Cannibals and Christians (1966). Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) represented an experiment to deal in symbolic fictional terms with a burning political issue of the day. In 1968, Mailer wrote Armies in the Night, an eyewitness account of an anti-Vietnam demonstration held in front of the Pentagon in Washington whose melange of reportage, social and political speculation, and personal confession, written in a wildly exuberant prose, established his reputation by general critical consensus as the most brilliant virtuoso stylist in the United States. A second documentary, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), about the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions of 1968, was again a masterpiece of its kind.

Mailer's interest in radical politics took him from Socialism to anarchism to a generalized hostility toward the regimentation and mechanization of modern life that he labeled "radical conservatism." Always partial to publicity, he sought to popularize his ideas by running in the New York mayoralty campaign of 1969.

A Fire on the Moon (1970) was about the implications of the U.S. space program. In 1971, Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex was published, drawing the ire of the feminist movement. In 1980 Mailer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Executioner's Song, which offered a detailed account through an ensemble of characters of the life and execution of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer. Ancient Evenings (1983), a novel, is set in the Egypt of the 13th to the 12th century B.C.E. His look at the CIA, Harlot's Ghost, appeared in 1991, and his study of Lee Harvey Oswald, Oswald's Tale, was published in 1995. The Time of Our Time (1998) is a massive sampling of Mailer's work. His The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (2003) is a gathering of his thoughts about writers, his own work, and the writing life.

Evaluations of Mailer often return to his fascination with violence and sexuality. Mailer's reading of violence in "The White Negro" (found in Advertisements for Myself) is a good example. Mailer argued that the Negro could survive his perilous American existence by accepting the desires of the body, living sensuously within the present moment. This creation of the self through action leads to the existential recognition of the self, in part, as body. The existentialist "must be able to feel oneself … to know one's desires, one's rages, one's anguish …" Jazz, for Mailer, the endowment of "orgasm," became one of the commanding achievements of the African-American, and spoke to, and of, "instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond." The hipster's consecration of the present, his living his hatreds, his seeking the end of cultural and political repression through a life outside bourgeois mores, would be shaped in the future by the African-American's winning equality, a "potential superiority" that was feared, providing the background for domestic politics. Mailer's essay cemented into a mosaic the Holocaust, the concentration camp, African-American humiliation, endurance, and self-resurgence. Its affirmative violence coupled with sexuality provides a clue to some of Mailer's other work, most notably "The Time of Her Time" (found in Advertisements for Myself), An American Dream (1965), and possibly his life (he stabbed his second wife, Adele, in 1960).

His place in American literature is large, though his place in American-Jewish writing is problematic. (In her "Toward a New Yiddish" (Judaism, Summer 1970) Cynthia *Ozick believed that he would become a minor, if not forgotten writer because he did not write within the liturgical and moral richness of Jewish tradition.) On the one hand, his sharp indictments of the alliance among American politics, commercialism, and violence are insightful and enduring. His choice of characters and their novelistic development concentrate one version of American culture within the psychological and social existence of his subjects (whether fictional or actual; whether individuals or actual events). On the other hand, his influence on the American-Jewish novelist is, perhaps, that of craft. He is at ease in developing a realism in both its narrow and extreme senses – a focus on the empirical furniture of experience as well as a concentration on American myths and cultural directives informing the way we perceive, and act upon, the world.


H. Bloom (ed.), Norman Mailer (1986); M. Dearborn, Mailer: A Biography (1999); P. Manso (ed.), Mailer: His Life and Times (1985).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.