Mailer, Norman

Mailer, Norman
Jan. 31, 1923-Nov. 10, 2007
American novelist


Mettlesome author and public personality Norman Mailer, who has a penchant for prize-fighting metaphors, would like nothing better than to be known as "the Champ" of American letters, and many in the literary establishment are willing to concede him that title. Mailer, who became famous in 1948 with his best-selling realistic World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, has in recent years turned his enormous maverick talent-especially for evoking ambience through concrete visceral images-to political journalism and personal essays filled with his dazzling insights. His Armies of the Night, a personal account of the four-day antiwar protest in Washington, D.C. in 1967-during which he was arrested-won Pulitzer, Polk, and National Book awards for 1968. Reviewing the book in the New York Times (May 5, 1968), Alfred Kazin wrote: "Only a born novelist could have written a piece of history so intelligent, mischievous, penetrating, and alive, so vivid with crowds, the great stage of American democracy."

Probably the best capsule biography and personality portrait of Mailer was written-in the third person-by the author himself in Armies of the Night: "[The] warrior, presumptive general, expolitical candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hardworking author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter … had … a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable-the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn."

Normal Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey on January 31, 1923 to Isaac Barnett Mailer, a struggling accountant who had emigrated from South Africa by way of England, and Fanny (Schneider) Mailer. He has a sister, Mrs. Barbara Alson, who has at times served as his secretary. His father, who still works as an accountant, and his mother, who runs the Miss Baltimore Agency for housekeepers and nurses, now live near him in the Brooklyn Heights section of Brooklyn.

The Mailers moved from New Jersey to the Eastern Parkway section of Brooklyn when Norman was four. In Brooklyn, he compiled an excellent scholastic record at P.S. 161 and Boys High School. Chiefly interested in aeronautics during his school years, he spent most of his leisure time building model airplanes, and he looked forward to becoming an aeronautical engineer. At nine he filled two notebooks with a story called "An Invasion of Mars," but that was written, a chapter a day, at the suggestion of his mother. He did not become seriously interested in writing until late 1939, when he was a sixteen-year-old freshman engineering major at Harvard University. During the following year he wrote a score of short stories, one of which, "The Greatest Thing in the World," won Story magazine's college contest for 1941. During the summer of 1942 he worked at a state mental hospital in Boston. Out of that experience came a novel, "A Transit to Narcissus," which was, by his own description, "romantic, morbid, twisted, and heavily tortured." It was never published.

After taking his degree in engineering at Harvard, in 1943, Mailer was inducted into the United States Army. He served as an infantryman in the Philippines until the end of World War II, and then as a member of the United States occupation forces in Japan. Francis Irby Gwaltney, a novelist who served with Mailer in the Philippines, has recalled: "Back then 'scrawny' was the best word for him. He was very gentle, shy, quiet, not at all aggressive. It must be a burden to him to be aggressive." In an interview with Brock Brower for Life (September 24, 1965), Gwaltney testified that Mailer was as reckless of risk then as he is now: "He was a brave soldier, but not a good one. It's a miracle Mailer lived through the war."

Discharged from the United States Army in May 1946, Mailer resettled in New York City and embarked on the writing of a novel based on his war experience. In fifteen months he finished The Naked and the Dead (Rinehart, 1948), a massive book with echoes of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell. As Brock Brower noted in his Life article, the novel "made the GI a kind of holy figure and the GI's mother tongue [including obscenities] a new vulgate in American letters." The Naked and the Dead enjoyed immediate critical acclaim and general popularity and sold 197,185 copies during its first year after publication.

In the late 1940's Mailer, always torn between anarchism and socialism, went through a political crisis of conscience, flirting with the Communist-infiltrated Progressive party until his French-born left-wing friend and ideological mentor Jean Malaquais dissuaded him. From the cul-de-sac of anti-Stalinist Marxism he wrote Barbary Shore (Rinehart, 1951), a murky, agonized exorcism of his disillusionment with Communism and his sadness over the trend to authoritarian government in the United States. In that novel Mailer pitted an ex-Communist with a sense of loyalty and a set of ideals against an F.B.I. agent capable of any betrayal in the course of his work. The book received, as Mailer himself later observed, "possibly the worst reviews of any serious novel in recent years."

Barbary Shore was begun in Hollywood, where Mailer put in a brief, unhappy stint as a script writer, and finished in rural retreat in Putney, Vermont. In 1951 Mailer left his first wife and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he helped to found the weekly newspaper the Village Voice (in which he still owns a 15 percent interest). For two years he wrote columns for the Voice in which he expounded his philosophy of "Hip," or "American existentialism." His definitive essay on the subject was "The White Negro," in which he defined the "hipster" as "the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l'univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity, with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled, … the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self."

Mailer spent four years writing and rewriting his third published novel, The Deer Park (Putnam, 1955), a pansexual story set in Hollywood. According to James Toback in Esquire (December 1968), Eitel, the disgraced movie director who is the "hip" hero of the novel, "gave eloquent expression to the psychopathic extremes-both sexual and political-of Mailer's own personality," and Brock Brower in his Life article asserted that "the turbulent love affair between Elena, the transient amorosa, and Eitel … was only a thin veil for his [Mailer's] own drifting marriage to Adele [his second wife]."

Careful readers and sympathetic critics have generally recognized The Deer Park to be Mailer's best novel, but reviewers gave it short shrift when it was published. Mailer, who had expected the book to prove to doubters in the literary establishment that he was still very much alive creatively, was at first demoralized by the tepid response. Then, he has recounted, as quoted by Raymond A. Sokolov in Newsweek (December 9, 1968), he came to the conclusion, that "We are not inferior…. They are killing us … because they don't know what they're doing…. Suddenly I became very complex. I had mad ideas, I believed in orgies…. Once you've decided nobody knows how to run the machine, you suddenly see yourself running it. And then you become very curious about yourself. You start making all sorts of experiments."

After interviewing Village Voice associates and others who knew Mailer in the middle and late 1950's, Brock Brower wrote in Life: "The novelist in him began to manipulate real people instead of fictional characters-and especially Adele-to fit the new moral schema that preoccupied him more and more…. The worst distortions … took place as he moved out with her to the pot scene and the sexual anomy of mere orgiastic linkage. He was living up to the code that the worst violation of life is to play it safe, but he was also slipping into a profound depression down the slide area of seconal." That phase of Mailer's life came to a crashing denouement on November 19, 1960, when, at the end of an all-night party at his Manhattan apartment, he stabbed his wife with a penknife, seriously wounding her. Mailer was arrested and received a suspended sentence when Adele-who recovered fully from her wounds-refused to press charges. The author apparently emerged from the experience a chastened man. "It's as if he really let go of something," his sister has testified. "A great deal of the sweetness came back." As if in reference to the experience, Mailer has said, in explaining his variety of existentialism: "It suggests that man learns more about the nature of water … if he comes close to drowning."

Mailer's first collection of occasional pieces, strung together with confessional commentary, was Advertisements for Myself (Putnam, 1959), which Bruce Cook in the National Observer (September 18, 1967) called "that most naked of books." In it, Mailer revealed: "I was one of the few writers of my generation who was concerned with living in Hemingway's discipline…. I shared with Papa the notion, arrived at slowly in my case, that even if one dulled one's talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than a very good writer, that probably I could not become a very good writer unless I learned first how to keep my nerve."

In the early 1960's Mailer wrote monthly columns for Esquire magazine under the heading "The Big Bite." The best known of his Esquire articles was "Superman Comes to Supermarket," a report on the 1960 National Democratic Convention in which he portrayed, in comic-strip strokes, John F. Kennedy as a hero comparable to Clark Kent's dashing, Herculean alter ego. Many of Mailer's magazine articles in the following three years were open letters to President Kennedy, criticizing him for not living up to his potential greatness. Those articles, along with the Convention report, were collected in The Presidential Papers (Putnam, 1963). James Toback in his Esquire article observed, "Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers, apart from establishing Mailer as the best essayist in America, yielded explicit intimations of the author's megalomania, or, more politely, revealed that a large part of him believed he could become a hero."

Verse written by Mailer was collected in Deaths for the Ladies, and Other Disasters (Putnam, 1962). Some verse was also included in his book Cannibals and Christians (Dial, 1966), a collection otherwise made up of several short stories and many essays, including political and prize-fight reportage, interviews, polemical tracts, and a proposal for vertical city planning based on the Legoblock principle. In the commentary holding the short pieces together, Mailer explained his "vision" of "the totalitarian plague" that afflicts modern life, particularly (to his profound sadness) in the United States. The plague that he described, usually as a pervasive, corrosive "cancer," is, in its basis, spiritual, "a malfunction of inner communication between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind." But its physical manifestations are all around us, from the proliferation of actual new diseases ("as medicine presumably grows wiser") to "ugly, aesthetically emaciated buildings as the world grows ostensibly richer, … deteriorat[ing] workmanship as corporations improve their advertising, … and patriotism [turned] to carnage." "My obsession," Mailer wrote, "is not merely an obsession, I fear, but insight into the nature of things, perhaps the deepest insight I have, and this said with no innocence of the knowledge that the plague can have its home within, and these condemnations come to no more than the grapplings of a man with a curse on his flesh."

Hard-pressed for money, Mailer deliberately wrote An American Dream (Dial, 1965) in serial form for Esquire magazine, so that the pressure of monthly deadlines would prohibit him from time-consuming, perfectionist polishing. That nightmarish novel covers two wild, violent, sex-ridden days in the life of one Stephen Rojack, a war hero and former Congressman consumed by his own animality as he crosses the terrain of "magic, dread, and death." It drew a mixed response from critics, ranging from "dreadful" to "powerful" and "electric."

In his scatological, stream-of-consciousness novel Why Are We in Vietnam? (Putnam, 1967), Mailer told the story of a grizzly bear hunt in Alaska through the eyes of D.J., a young boy from Dallas, Texas who feels that "the center of things is insane with force." Many critics complained that the novel was not about Vietnam. "Not about Vietnam?" Mike McGrady asked rhetorically in Newsday (October 7, 1967). "It's about violence and brutality, fear and power, thwarted and misdirected sexuality, the Texas way of thinking."

Reviewers generally hailed as brilliant Mailer's highly personalized reportage on the Presidential nominating conventions of 1968, brought together in the book Miami and the Siege of Chicago (World and New American Library, 1968), and his equally personal account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon by anti-Vietnam demonstrators, Armies of the Night (World and New American Library, 1968). Both books were nominated for National Book Awards, and Armies of the Night won the award in the arts and letters category. In the citation accompanying that award the book was called "an American epic." The same book won a George Polk Memorial Award, sponsored by the School of Journalism of Long Island University, and for it Mailer shared the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction with Dr. Rene Jules Dubos, the microbiologist who was honored for his book So Human an Animal.

In June 1968 Mailer ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic mayoralty primary election in New York City, on a secessionist ticket proposing that the city be made the fifty-first state and that each of its neighborhoods be given city-like autonomy. He and others told the story of his campaign in Running Against the Machine (Doubleday, 1969). On assignment from Life magazine, Mailer wrote a series of articles on the United States space program that landed a man on the moon in 1969. The articles are scheduled for publication as a book by Little, Brown and Company. In 1967 Mailer produced an off-Broadway stage version of The Deer Park, written by himself. He has also produced three improvised films: Wild 90 (about the Mafia), Beyond the Law (about the police), and Maidstone (about a movie director with Presidential ambitions). The casts for the films consist of Mailer, his friends, and his family.

Norman Mailer and Beverly Bentley, an actress, were married in 1963. They have two children, Michael and Stephen. Mailer was previously married to, and divorced from, Beatrice Silverman (1944-52), Adele Morales (1954-62), and Lady Jean Campbell (1962). By his first marriage he has a daughter, Susan; by his second, two daughters, Danielle and Elizabeth; and by his third, a daughter, Kate. With his present wife and children Mailer lives in a house he owns in Brooklyn Heights, overlooking the East River and providing a magnificent view of the lower Manhattan skyline. He does his writing on the top floor of the house, in an attic room with nautical decor that is reached by a rope ladder. In public he usually dresses with old-fashioned nattiness, but in private he prefers informal clothes, such as cut-off dungarees.

Physically, Mailer is a chunky man, five feet eight inches tall, with brilliant, wild blue eyes and a shock of curly brown hair that is graying. Nearsighted, he wears spectacles when he is writing or reading. Full of restless energy, he speaks with a clipped delivery, spurting out streams of words-and with them, often, spontaneous, brilliant insights-in machine-gun fashion. His emulation of prize fighters (such as his friend, Jose Torres) is evident in his rolling, shuffling gait, in the boxer's crouch he likes to affect, and in his pastimes of shadow boxing and arm wrestling with his hard-drinking cronies. Many who know him have testified that, although his belligerent stance can be "frightening," he "radiates warmth." "He is actually a very sweet man," Brock Brower wrote in Life, "often gentle, always generous." Politically, Mailer-who characterizes President Nixon as a "tranquilizer"-now classifies himself as "left conservative." More generally, he likes to think of himself as "a slightly punch-drunk … fighter."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License