Norman Mailer

“Norman Mailer.” Scribner’s Great Writers Series, 2003. New York: Gale, 2003.

One way to understand the amazing diversity of the career of Norman Mailer, its complex relationship with his personal life, and the sharply divided opinion of the merit of his achievements is to see all of these as reflections of Mailer’s effort to stay alive spiritually, artistically, even physically.  “Repetition kills the soul” is a favored mantra of Mailer’s even if, in mid-career, he was guilty of it.   But for the great majority of his writing life he has moved back and forth through the literary genres, rotating his crops, so to speak, among the novel (always the favored form), novellas, short stories, every sort of essay, sports and political reportage, screenplays, film and book reviews, the interview, plays, the nonfiction novel, newspaper and magazine columns, a bit of science fiction, a few scraps of memoir, philosophical dialogues, brief and extended biographies and poems.  Speaking in the voice of Jesus, he has even re-told the Gospels.  He has put his hand to virtually every form, everything but autobiography, which he has avoided in the belief that such a volume would be a tombstone. Mailer’s Emersonian belief in the infinitude of the self, a self energized by new ventures,  precludes the sort of summing up that a full-scale autobiography demands.

Mailer is the most widely known of living American authors first of all because of the length of his career and his many different and important books.  But there are other factors: his forays into public life, his attempts to delineate the art in politics and the politics in art, his fights, causes, underground films, divorces and other legal problems, and his relentless appearances in the media.  He has been on the cover of every major American magazine and has appeared on nearly every talk show in existence.  It is safe to say that he has been interviewed on radio, television and in print more than any other author, well over 500 times. Although he has little use for the Internet, his presence there is also large.   He has been tremendously productive, publishing 40 books from 1948 to 2003,  but he has also been a provocateur, a performer and a regular in gossip columns.  His life, especially after the 1950s, has alternated between monkish labor—when he is working, he writes almost every day—and heralded appearances at literary events, protest meetings, intellectual forums, fund-raising receptions, college campuses, and, of course, on television. He is the prototypical public artist/intellectual of the last half of the twentieth century.  In his essay, “Prolegomenon to a Biography of Mailer,” collected in Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, the dean of Mailer critics, Robert F. Lucid,  says Mailer “may seem finally to have embodied our time” (182).

No discussion of the modern American novel would be complete without reference to his novels, several of which have   become classics; no record of the “new journalism” and the nonfiction novel (Mailer dislikes the term) could pass over his contributions to the form, which some critics believe he, more than anyone else, invented; no examination of several post-World War II events, movements and phenomena—the Cold War, the rise of feminism, the Kennedy assassination,  the moon shot, the great prize fights, presidential campaigns, conventions  and elections (he has covered six) , capital punishment, and the compacted miseries of urban life—could eschew his commentary.   In the unlikely event that plastic is ever banned for its ill effects, he will be credited for his strident warnings;  any consideration of the role of the post-war author as celebrity hero in opposition to the deadening effects of modern technology, bureaucracy and the corporation will have to begin with Norman Mailer.


His mother’s family ran small resort hotels on the Jersey Shore and he was born there, in Long Branch, on January 31, 1923.  But he grew up in Brooklyn where his parents moved in 1925.  He was the first child of Isaac Barnett “Barney,” who emigrated from South Africa after World War I, and Fanny Schneider Mailer, whose family came from Lithuania a generation earlier.  His sister, Barbara Jane, was born on April 6, 1927.   His parent  had  lifelong  professional occupations: he was an accountant and she managed a series of small businesses.  In 1933 the family moved to Crown Heights, a bastion of the Jewish middle class.  Mailer attended public schools, skipping three half-year terms, and in 1939, at sixteen,  graduated with high grades from Boy’s High School.  He applied to Harvard and M.I.T., choosing the former partly because an older cousin had gone there.  Intending to major in aeronautical engineering, he immediately became entranced with his creative writing classes, reviving the interest he had as a young boy.   He wrote scores of stories and took every available writing class while at Harvard, and in April 1941, one of them, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” won Story magazine’s college contest.   The influence of three writers—John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell and John Steinbeck—was apparent in the story, a fast-paced, naturalistic tale of violence and hustling, set in Chicago.  The story’s success convinced him that he was launched as a writer and in the summer of 1941 he began his first novel, No Percentage, which is still unpublished.   When he graduated in June 1943 with a degree in engineering sciences (with honors),  the war was on, and he wondered, as he told the story later in Advertisements for Myself, whether “a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific” (28).  He was already anticipating his literary career.


Before shipping out to the Pacific as an artillery trainee, he married his college sweetheart, Beatrice “Bea” Silverman, and completed a second apprentice novel, A Transit to Narcissus, which remained unpublished until 1978.  He arrived in Leyte in the Philippines in late December 1944 and shortly after was re-assigned to the 112th Regimental Combat Team, a Texas outfit, serving first as a clerk and then as a rifleman in a reconnaissance squad.   Mailer went on patrols, dug foxholes, got into a few firefights and carefully observed  his fellow soldiers, the landscape, the weather and the ways in which the Army shaped behavior.  His lifelong interest in the permutations of power began with his study of the “fear ladder” of the Army.  He also read the books and letters that his family sent him and, in return, send hundreds of fat letters to Bea describing the incidents of the day to be used in the war novel he planned to write after the war.  The central action of the novel was to be a long patrol, one that resembled in many ways an actual patrol into unexplored territory that his platoon had undertaken.   It ended disastrously, as he later recounted in an interview with Steven Marcus (collected in Conversations with Norman Mailer), when someone in his unit kicked over a hornet’s nest and half of them ran ingloriously down the mountain.   But the incident became a perfect turning point for his novel.   “War is disproportions,” he told Marcus, “and the hornet’s nest seemed a perfect disproportion to me.  We were ready to lose our lives but we weren’t up to getting stung by a hornet” (89).

After the war ended in August 1945 Mailer was sent to Japan, where he served as a cook.  He was discharged on May 2, 1946, and in June began work on what was to become The Naked and the Dead in a rented apartment in North Truro, Massachusetts, near Provincetown, the town in which he would spend most of his summers for the next half-century.  In November of the same year, he signed a contract with Rinehart and Company, and in September 1947, he turned in a completed manuscript.  Then he and Bea, also a veteran, left for Paris to study at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill.  When the book came out on May 6, 1948 Mailer was still in Europe.  The reviews were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and one of the most dazzling careers in postwar American literature was launched.  The Naked and the Dead was aided by timing: immediately after the war readers wanted to forget about it, but then there was a resurgence of interest.   Mailer’s novel rode the crest of this wave.  It jumped to the top of the best-seller list where it remained in first position for eleven straight weeks, aided by continuing strong reviews, award nominations and praise from Sinclair Lewis who called Mailer “the greatest writer to come out of his generation,” a comment publishers used on his books for years.  All told, the novel was on the New York Times best-seller list for 62 weeks from its publication through the summer of 1949.

The novel is set on the fictional Pacific island of Anopopei where an American division commanded by Gen. Cummings seeks to defeat a Japanese force entrenched behind the Toyaku Line.  The first thing to be said about this struggle is that it is secondary to the one among the Americans.  The key power struggle takes place among the officers and among the enlisted men, and along two different, but related plot lines.  The first half of the novel focuses on Cummings’s effort to marshal his troops and so rout the stubborn Japanese forces.  The division is sluggish and recalcitrant, and he is frustrated by his inability to mold it to his will.  The tide of the war in the Pacific is beginning to turn and Cummings (the first of  several machiavellian power-seekers in Mailer’s work) knows he must be quickly victorious if he is to rise to the pinnacle in the post-war Army, which, he believes, may have to fight Russia—something that Americans, including Mailer, began to fear in the years right after the war.  His aide, Lt. Hearn, is fascinated by the General’s intelligence and foresight, but ultimately opposes his semi-fascistic methods, his use of the “fear ladder,” on which every officer and soldier must torment the man on the next lower rung, passing down the punishment and looking up for the occasional reward.  On the enlisted level, Sgt. Croft, a sadistic, whipcord Texan, leads a fourteen-man platoon of lower and middle-class soldiers from every part of the U.S.  This  cross-section enables Mailer to juxtapose a member of every major ethnic group (save African-Americans—the Army was still segregated) with every other one, and capture a representative range of dialects, biases and values.  His ability to orchestrate so many characters and themes in this 721-page novel foreshadows his later efforts to handle even more complex materials.  So Jews and southerners, Swedes, Poles, Irish and Italians, Mexican-Americans and WASPs cooperate and oppose one another even as they fight the Japanese.  To illumine the motivations of his characters, Mailer inserts ten “Time Machine” sketches of the soldiers in their pre-war lives, including Cummings, Croft and Hearn.  This technique, adapted from John Dos Passos’s  1936 novel,  U.S.A., gives pace and balance to the narrative by juxtaposing domestic scenes with battle scenes, sex with violence, linkages Mailer will explore many times during his career.

In the early part of the novel, Hearn and Cummings debate the nature and uses of power with Hearn ultimately siding with those on the lower rungs.  Their discussions are the beginning of Mailer’s life-long study of the totalitarian mentality, and a notable display of intellect by the 25 year-old author.  Indeed, it is clear that Mailer admires the Faustian energies of Cummings, “his unique ability to extend his thoughts into immediate and effective action” (62), as much as he dislikes the half-baked liberalism of Hearn.  The discussions lead finally to a confrontation and Hearn is forced to back down, to “crawfish,” after which the General reassigns him to lead Croft’s reconnaissance platoon.  Thus, Hearn becomes the link between officers and enlisted men, as well as between the two major plot lines.  The second part of the novel centers on the platoon’s long patrol, which is intended to determine if  the Toyaku Line can be attacked from the rear, something that Croft believes can only be accomplished by climbing Mt. Anaka, the tallest mountain on the 150-mile long island.  The mountain and the assault on it are symbolic—much like Melville’s white whale and Ahab—of  nature’s power and human desire to dominate it.  This is especially true for Croft, who “felt a thrill of anticipation at the thought that by the following night they might be on the peak.  Again, he felt a crude ecstasy. He could not have given the reason, but the mountain beckoned him, held an answer to something he wanted.  It was so pure, so austere” (496).  But before the assault can be made two things happen that demonstrate Mailer’s ideas about the nature of war.  First, Wilson, a member of the platoon, is gut shot in a Japanese ambush.  Four soldiers are detailed to carry the suffering, increasingly incoherent Wilson on a litter back to the beach, an exhausting journey down and away from the mountain that parallels the platoon’s journey up the flank of Anaka.  The second event is Hearn’s murder.  He is killed by a Japanese machine gun, but only because Croft has suppressed information about Japanese positions.  This surprising event has generated much critical comment with some believing that Mailer eliminates Hearn to discredit his ineffectual liberalism, and others seeing it as a realistic event that underlines the disproportions of war.  It also reveals that Cummings’s power lust is equaled by that of Croft, who Philip Bufithis calls the General’s “emotional twin” (Norman Mailer, 21).  Together they dominate the action of the novel, although in the end both are defeated.   Croft’s unit is driven off the mountain by the hornets, demonstrating that nature has its own tricks and is not easily subjugated.  As for Cummings, he is denied the self-aggrandizing pleasure of wielding his division like a fine sword and slicing through the Toyaku Line.  When he is away from the island attempting to secure naval firepower to blast the Japanese, his dull understrapper, Maj. Dalleson, unimaginatively penetrates the Line and crushes the Japanese, who are found to be sick, starving and dispirited.   It is a fluke victory, not a military masterstroke, and the star of Gen. Cummings will now decline.

Some readers, while lauding Mailer’s powerful ability to describe men in action, and to capture the obscene lingo of soldiers (using the word “fug” for the commonest four-letter obscenity), concluded that the string of defeats and defaults in the novel amount to a bleak depiction of the human condition, something that Mailer disputed.  He said in an interview with Lillian Ross that the novel “offers a good deal of hope,” and that even in the novel’s “corruption and sickness” there are “yearnings for a better world” (Conversations, 14).  Such positive elements can be seen in the portage of Wilson by Goldstein and Ridges, the novel’s odd couple, Brooklyn Jew and southern sharecropper.  Heroically and stoically, they carry on after the other two soldiers fall away in exhaustion.  Wilson groans and hallucinates obscenely as they carry him through jungle, field and stream.   When he dies, they never consider leaving him; they labor on only to lose him in a surging jungle stream.   This memorable sequence, coming near the end of the novel, balances the cold-blooded murder of Hearn and the novel’s other acts of violence and treachery.

In what is generally considered to be the finest essay on The Naked and the Dead, Donald Pizer calls it “a work in which Mailer has successfully created a symbolic form to express the naturalistic theme of the hidden recesses of values in man’s nature despite his tragic fate in a closely conditioned and controlled world” (92).  For  the remainder of his career Mailer will continue to show us the most abominable in human nature, while continuing to endorse the merits of courage—the essential virtue for Mailer—leading to growth and a hint of transcendence.


In the middle of the twentieth century, American writers were more celebrated than at century’s end , and The Naked and the Dead was a huge success, selling millions of copies.  This success, Mailer later explained in Advertisements for Myself, cut him off from his past; he called it “a lobotomy” (93). He was 25 and famous.  Microphones were thrust in his face; the option of being a detached observer was gone.  In Paris, under the influence of Jean Malaquais, his French translator, Mailer had begun a new novel about leftists and an FBI agent living in a Brooklyn rooming house much like the one where he had finished The Naked and the Dead.  But his success unsettled him, and he shelved his new novel and moved to Hollywood where he eventually worked on a screenplay for Hollywood producer, Samuel Goldwyn.  He moved to California with his family (his daughter Susan was born in 1949) and Malaquais and met the famous actors and actresses who were eager to meet the newly famous author.  After a year of accomplishing little in collaboration with Malaquais (but soaking up material about Hollywood), he returned to the East and finished his novel, titled Barbary Shore.  It came out in May 1951.

Mailer wanted his second novel to be a radical novel and radically different from his first and it was both.  He shifted from third to first-person narration, worked with a smaller number of characters and all but eliminated descriptions of physical activity of the kind that he was so highly praised for in his first novel.  Barbary Shore takes place in several closed rooms where the five chief characters talk a blue streak about the collision of the two “colossi,” America and the Soviet Union, and about the past and future of Marxism, its mistakes, horrors, promise and ruling ideas.  Sometimes the debates are engaging, sometimes not.  Mailer was, in a sense, continuing his education with this novel, learning from his characters as he did in the Cummings-Hearn dialogues.  The five chief characters are Mrs. Guinevere, the sexy landlady; her husband, McLeod, a former high functionary for the Soviets; his nemesis, Hollingsworth, a sadistic FBI agent; Lannie Madison, a mad Cassandra; and Mickey Lovett, a war veteran who has only fragmentary memories of his youth and war experiences.  Lovett is writing a novel and, like everyone else, wants to have sex with the blowzy Guinevere.  Besides the tracing of sexual desire, the only discernable plot thread is Hollingsworth’s continuing interrogation of McLeod concerning his Stalinist affiliations and secrets.  Despite the tedium of much of the talk, there are many bright moments, including  Lovett’s surreal memories and visions of an Orwellian future, and the very different fantasies of Guinevere and Lannie.  Guinevere, the novel’s most genuinely felt character, has a hilarious idea for a tabloid-type, murder-love story, which she presents in detail to Lovett (Mailer’s comic gifts have not always been appreciated).  Lannie’s dark, Holocaust visions anticipate Marion Faye, the hipster  in his next novel, The Deer Park, and show, as Mailer told Steven Marcus, his unconscious interest in “murder, suicide, orgy, psychosis, all the themes I discuss in Advertisements” (Conversations, 86).  Lovett, who is tutored in Marxism and its offshoot, Trotskyism, by McLeod, is both the narrator and the chief protagonist, but except for his dreams and visions, he is a dull tool.   McLeod, a pontificator of leftist thought wishes to pass on the remnants of a viable Marxist program, his hope for a just world, to Lovett’s generation.  Mailer will use this sort of father-son relationship in every one of his future novels to clarify their philosophical underpinnings.  McLeod gives Lovett the symbolic but unnamed object sought by Hollingsworth as the novel closes with Lovett’s flight and McLeod’s murder.  The torch has been passed, it seems, but Lovett’s future is ambiguous at best.  Barbary Shore is a bold, claustrophobic, somewhat Kafkaesque narrative that never succeeds in merging a river of abstract argument (which is evidence of Mailer’s lifelong admiration for the dialectics of  Marxist thought) with the development of characters or plot.  One important reason for the lack of integration is that he did not have a  line of action to counterpoint the polemical debates, as he did in Naked.  Barbary Shore received the worst reviews of any of Mailer’s books, but intellectually represented a genuine advance.  The novel also transmitted something of the zeitgeist, always one of  Mailer’s cardinal virtues.  As he put it in Advertisements,  “[I]t has in its high fevers a kind of insane insight into the psychic mysteries of Stalinists, secret policemen, narcissists, children, Lesbians, hysterics, revolutionaries—it has an air which for me is the air of our time, authority and nihilism stalking one another in the orgiastic hollow of this century” (94).  Today the novel is seen as a seedbed of ideas, one to which Mailer would return many times.


One of the commonplaces of Mailer criticism is that his first three novels deal, respectively, with violence, politics and sex.  Certainly there is a good deal of sexual content in The Deer Park, material considered salacious by the prudish conventional standards of the time.  The novel created a stir in the publishing world, and, presented Mailer with a completely new set of narrative challenges and opportunities.  Turned down by Rinehart, he went to six  publishing firms before Putnam’s accepted it.   Originally, Mailer conceived the novel as the first in a cycle of eight interlocking novels that would each explore a different reach of modern life—pleasure, business, crime, church, working class life and so forth— but he gave up the ambitious scheme after he had written the prologue, a long short story titled “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” and the first draft of the “pleasure” novel, The Deer Park.  (It should be noted that Mailer has on two other occasions projected serial novels but only written the first; it seems to be a method of jump-starting new work.)  The story’s protagonist, Sam Slovoda, was supposed to have a dream which laid out the eight-part scheme and introduced the hero, one Sergius O’Shaugnessy.   But Mailer, as always, followed the new flow he discovered at the point of his pencil.  Still, the story, one of his two finest, was a success and Slovoda stands as a negative exemplum, the timid opposite of Mailer’s hipster heroes.  O’Shaugnessy survived as one of the chief characters of the “pleasure” novel, and later shows up as a Greenwich Village bullfighting instructor and sexual athlete in “The Time of Her Time,” his most erotic, most polished and provocative short story, published in 1959 in Advertisements for Myself.

The chief protagonist of The Deer Park is Charles Francis Eitel.  O’Shaugnessy, a former U.S. Air Force jet pilot, stands, roughly, in the same relation to him as Nick Carraway does to Jay Gatsby.  He narrates the novel and, as Robert Merrill astutely points out, Mailer “counterpoints Sergius’s development and Eitel’s moral decline” (45), again, very roughly paralleling The Great Gatsby.  The novel is set in Desert D’ Or, a resort community modeled after Palm Springs where the Hollywood community comes for recreation.  Sex and other illicit pleasures are for sale there and a river of booze runs through it.  Eitel is a blacklisted director, banned from making films because of his leftist connections in the 1930s, who is unwilling to testify about these associations before a congressional committee.  Middle-aged, divorced, handsome and cultivated, he is trying to write an ambitious film script while living on the last of his savings.  His former boss, Herman Teppis, the head of Supreme Studios, and Teppis’s son-in-law, the producer Collie Munshin (another small comic masterpiece), would like to have Eitel produce more of the money-making, sentimental films he made before the war, but first he must tell what he knows.  And he won’t.  He wants to get back to the kind of honest social realism films he made when he first came to Hollywood, but he misses the action, the fame, the high life.  Like Gatsby, the novel details the effects of corrupt money.  There are other parallels, but Eitel differs greatly from Jay Gatsby in that his goal is not to regain a lost love but to recover his artistic integrity.

O’Shaugnessy is young and handsome and has $14,000 won in a Tokyo poker game, but he is also uncertain and impotent as a result of his war experience, most of which, as he explains in the long, beautiful opening of the novel, was spent dropping firebombs on Korean villages.  He becomes part of the bar-party scene at the resort and makes friends with Eitel, a pimp named Marion Faye, and a beautiful, zany movie star named Lulu Meyers, one of the biggest attractions of Teppis’s studio.  As O’Shaugnessy falls in love with Meyers, Eitel picks up with Elena Esposito, a former mistress of Munshin’s.  The course of their two affairs, especially Eitel’s, make up the heart of the novel.  Mailer’s clear intention is to show the arc of Eitel’s attempt to regain his moral-artistic stature, and the role Esposito (based loosely on Mailer’s new love, Adele Morales) plays in this quest.  It is one of the most brilliantly depicted affairs in modern literature.  As Robert Merrill, one of the finest critics of this novel,  notes in his study, Norman Mailer, “[N]owhere else in Mailer’s fiction is a love relationship developed so fully” (53).  Mailer’s problem was that by choosing the first-person point of view, he made it impossible to present the most important aspects of the Eitel-Esposito affair.  Mailer’s narrator can report on the machinations of Teppis and Munshin to get Eitel to testify, return to the fold, and make more sappy films; he can tell us what Faye, the Baudlairean pimp who functions as Eitel’s good angel, is saying and doing; he can report the gossip of  the bar flies, call girls and flunkies; and he can, of course, give us Lulu Meyer’s take on things.  He is a marvelous narrator in the first half of the book, far superior to Lovett, but he can’t take us into the bedroom, can’t be privy to the intimate conversations between the passionate, uneducated Esposito and the older man who is teaching her about life just as she is inspiring him, at least at the beginning of their relationship.  Mailer’s solution was to use O’Shaugnessy less and less as narrator as the novel progresses, and shift to an omniscient perspective.  He does this at the beginning of the novel’s third part (of six), noting only that Sergius will use his “imagination” to present the affair from the inside.  The shift is jarring.  The narrative focus moves from Eitel and Esposito (she is only seen from the outside) to O’Shaugnessy’s parallel affair with Lulu, and later to Faye, a total of some thirty shifts in point of view.  Henry James would be appalled, but in truth, the fascinating love affair of Eitel and Elena more than compensates for the split perspective.  Readers feel an urgency to return to the private place where the couple struggle with each other in an effort to locate their deepest identities.

Some critics believe The Deer Park to be a satire of Hollywood Babylon, a not unreasonable position, but others argue that the novel is really about a great, tragic love affair.  Both are right, but there is no debating the fact that the rising action of the novel culminates in Eitel’s decision to shed Elena,  name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (his name is pronounced “I-tell”), and “make some more crud” (40), as Faye puts it.  She is the moral winner in the battle, and her long letter to Eitel is strong evidence of Mailer’s power to create character—always his strong suit.  She is one of his most memorable characters.  Mailer’s instinct when revising the novel in early 1955 (it came out in October 1955) was to make O’Shaugnessy stronger, tougher, more believable, even as he worked to make the affair more vibrant.  But although O’Shaugnessy develops muscles, as it were, he is unable to lift us into a vantage point on the affair.  Eitel’s love affair and his battle with the greedy forces of commercialism is the novel’s morality play, and O’Shaugnessy’s new stubbornness and belligerence, which is, Mailer says in Advertisements, “an implicit portrait of myself” (238), has only tangential importance.  Eitel sells his integrity and splits with Esposito, who then is sorely but successfully tested when she moves in with Faye, who ends up in prison.   Sergius goes off to Mexico and later New York to run his bullfighting school and write “this novel” (355), an admission which weakens its pretensions to reality.  The novel is, after all, the only form that tries to convince us that it is something else.


The Deer Park made the best-seller list,  but it was not the big success Mailer badly needed.  Its reception made him angry at the Establishment in a more intense way; an outlaw mentality surged up in him.  Now divorced from Bea and living in New York City with Adele (who he married in 1954), he began to soak up jazz and the night life and get involved in new ventures such as Dissent, a leftist journal of ideas.  With Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher, he co-founded The Village Voice, which he named. The first issue appeared on October 26, 1955 just as his novel was climbing the best-seller list.  He devoted much of the next eight months to the paper and contributed a weekly column, titled “Quickly: A Column for Slow Readers,” the first of his many journalistic forays.  But Mailer’s most important effort immediately after The Deer Park was his 1957 essay for Dissent, later collected in Advertisements, titled “The White Negro,” in which he presents his emerging view of the challenges of life in a post-Holocaust world threatened by the atomic bomb.  This dense, beautifully written piece is Mailer’s most important polemical essay and one of the most anthologized of the postwar period.  In its emphasis on the primacy of inner promptings, it is a key to all of Mailer’s later work. The essay presents a prospectus for a new hero, the hipster, an urban, jazz-soaked, sexual adventurer whose closest parallel are the blacks who live on the dangerous edge in America’s cities.  The hipster believes that “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 off on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self” (Advertisements, 339).  The essay’s celebration of personal violence, among other things, created a great stir, and it was often linked, with some justification, to the “Beat” Movement, which took off at about the same time.  What made Mailer’s argument different from those of the Beats and other extreme romantic programs is that the search for  growth, aided by a variety of risk-taking ventures, most notably the release of damned-up sexual energy, is never-ending.  No one has explained this better than Robert Solotaroff.  In his study, Down Mailer’s Way, he says that Mailer’s prescription for growth “in its ideal or natural movement describes a spiral—a man grows by freeing energy, but this energy must be put to the task of freeing still more energy.”  Mailer’s “endlessly spiraling dialectic” is ultimately “the quest for the infinite” (97-98).


Mailer’s next novel, An American Dream, would not appear until 1965, over nine years after The Deer Park.  In the work published in the interim, and in interviews, he often referred to the “big novel” he was writing.  Advertisements contained two excerpts, and The Presidential Papers, a 1963 miscellany focused on the Kennedy Administration, offered another.  Between these two books came Mailer’s only extended foray into poetry, Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (1962).  In 1966 he published his  third miscellany, Cannibals and Christians, although the great majority of this collection was written before An American Dream.  The point is that the bulk of Mailer’s activity between his third and fourth novels was not directed at the “big novel,” but consisted of a series of narrative ventures and experiments in several literary forms, as well as a reconsideration and consolidation of all his previous work.  So the content of these three miscellanies includes a majority of his columns from The Village Voice, Esquire and Commentary, a generous sampling from his second and third novels, short stories, reviews, interviews, dialogues, dramatic fragments, speeches, political commentary, a clutch of essays, a long piece on the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight  (titled “Ten Thousand Words a Minute”), “The White Negro,” some poems and literary criticism.  Each of  the three miscellanies is linked internally by a series of “advertisements,” “postscripts” or “arguments” which federate a narrative thrust, especially in Advertisements, where they are often more important than the work they frame.  Like Henry James in the prefaces to his novels, Mailer broods and muses over the context of each separate piece, telling the story of the story.  Together the miscellanies comprise a comprehensive source book of Mailer’s wide-ranging concerns.  The tone is by turns wry, edgy, angry, sardonic; the content is rich with social observation, now-or-never fulmination, jeremiads, pointed comments on his own career and future possibilities and life in these American states.  But they contain little new fiction.  Nevertheless, the reader gets the sense of a man very much in motion.

Now the father of two daughters by Adele (Danielle in 1957 and Elizabeth Anne in 1959), Mailer was considering running for mayor of New York, but after he stabbed Adele with a penknife at a drunken party in November 1960 (an event that continues to resonate in Mailer’s life), he had to shelve the idea.  Adele recovered quickly and refused to press charges, but their marriage was effectively over.  They were divorced in 1962 and shortly after Mailer married Lady Jeanne Campbell, an English woman who gave him his fourth daughter, Kate, also in 1962.  This marriage also failed, and they were divorced in 1963.  The uxorious Mailer then married Beverly Bentley, an actress, who became the mother of his first two sons (Michael, born in 1964 and Stephen in 1966).  Mailer’s roiled psychic state is apparent in the miscellanies, especially Advertisements for Myself, the most powerful of the three, and the most autobiographical.  Many who came of age after WWII shared Mailer’s rage at American moderation, compromise and conformity.    Advertisements is where he forged his distinctive style, a fierce, frank, agile, self-reflective and often humorous voice; his angry cry, “the shits are killing us” (19), became a rallying point for a second generation of Mailer readers.  The Presidential Papers has a similar tone, focusing on the politics of the early 1960s.  It includes one of the prototypes of the “new journalism,” his report on the 1960 Democratic political convention in San Francisco, titled “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.”  The tenor of the piece, the first of many profiles of presidential candidates, can be gauged by the fact that  Mailer calls JFK the first “hipster” candidate for president.  The third in the series, Cannibals and Christians, focuses, in part, on the Johnson administration.  Among its many items of continuing interest are Mailer’s assessment of nine of his novelistic colleagues, “Some Children of the Goddess,” two long philosophical dialogues on matters such as form, spirit, beauty and soul, and some strong criticism of the Vietnam War.  Mailer was among the earliest and most thoughtful critics of the War.


Constantly tempted to write nonfiction about the tumultuous events of the period, Mailer knew he must find a way to commit himself to a new novel, his first in over eight years.  His solution was to up the ante by writing a serialized novel, following the same frantic pace of earlier novelists such as Dickens and Dostoyevsky.  He announced An American Dream in his final “Big Bite” column in Esquire in December 1963, a magazine that was on the stands when JFK was killed in Dallas.  The Esquire version appeared in  eight parts, January-August 1964, and the final, much-revised version, the following March.  Barry Leeds, in his study, The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer, aptly summarizes the novel as “a pilgrimage by protagonist Stephen Richards Rojack from imminent alcoholism, damnation and madness to salvation and sanity” (77).   Rojack, a television talk-show host, ex-congressman and professor of existential psychology, says he holds “the not inconsiderable thesis that magic, dread and the perception of death were the roots of motivation” (8).  His compromises and failures have made him suicidal; he receives emanations from the moon and smells cancer and carnality in people.  In fact, he has perhaps the finest olfactory intuition in modern literature.  A war hero like JFK, Rojack met Deborah Kelly, whom he later marries and murders, on a double date with him during their term together in Congress after WWII.  Rojack’s murder of the hateful Deborah (which he tells the is suicide), a love affair with Cherry Melanie, the former mistress of Deborah’s father,  Barney Oswald Kelly, the “solicitor” for the Devil, and a series of  physical and psychic confrontations with the police, the Mafia,  Shago Martin (Cherry’s former lover, a black jazz artist), and Kelly—all taking place within thirty-six hours in New York City—make up the external action of the story.  But the novel is really an account of a battle between God and the Devil.  Rojack’s internal war both mirrors and partakes of the struggle between good and evil.  Dream is the first fully developed depiction of Mailer’s Manichaean cosmology, which holds that the universe is a dialectical process with the final synthesis unknown.  God is limited, imperfect in the same way humans are, and locked into combat with a powerful, wily Devil.  Human beings are participants in this war, usually unknowingly, and fight on both sides.  The outcome is uncertain; the Devil could win.  Rojack is aware of the nature of this struggle, but he doesn’t always know which side his actions will benefit.  “The moral consequences of this,” Mailer said in a 1958 interview with Richard G. Stern and Robert F. Lucid, “are not only staggering, but they’re thrilling; because moral experience is intensified rather than diminished” (Conversations, 33).  As in The Deer Park, the primary linkages between the characters are sexual.  A web of infidelity and incest links the mob with high society, Harlem with the small-town South, black with white, father with daughter and sister with brother.  Cherry, who is murdered at the end of the novel, sleeps with almost every important male character.  While it is clear that Mailer intends her love for Rojack to be of a higher order, she is not developed enough for this to be completely convincing.

By far the best analysis of the novel is Tony Tanner’s in his essay, “On the Parapet,” collected in Harold Bloom’s Norman Mailer: Modern Critical Views.  He points out that while initially many critics found the novel to be an outrageous study of how to murder your wife and get away with it, such views miss the deeper moral dimensions of the novel.  It is, he says, “a vivid exploration of a man’s relationship to the different orders of American reality.”  Tanner notes the extraordinary use of metaphors of “pre-social reality—the jungle, the forest, the desert, the swamp, the ocean-bed” (41), and how these metaphors contrast with the realistic depictions of New York City.  The novel presents a series of oppositions between nature and civilization, the supernatural and the rational, the demonic and the angelic, and ultimately, between the forces of life and death.  Rojack must contend among and between these competing and unsymmetrical dualisms, Tanner explains, aided by not much more than the voices he hears in his head, his sense of smell and the talismanic umbrella of Shago Martin, which trembles portentously in his hands.  In the novel’s climax, high up in the Waldorf Towers, where Rojack has been summoned by Kelly to answer questions about Deborah’s death, he resists the carnal temptations of his host, and then, in a self-imposed test, walks the parapet around Kelly’s terrace, smashing him with the umbrella when he attempts to push him off the edge, and then throwing the umbrella over the parapet.  Tanner concludes his brilliant discussion by noting that Rojack has “to prove that he can negotiate that edge where the worlds meet” (46), succumbing to neither to the fixed and rational nor the formless and irrational.  He shows that he can, at least for a time, “hold on to his identity between two threatening realms” (47).  Mailer was pleased with the achievement of Dream. He imbued the novel with his dynamic belief system; melded, for the first time with Rojack, the narrative consciousness and the main protagonist, the teller and the chief character; and  his style was now fully mature—it has never been more lyrical, energetic and richly metaphoric.  The novel sold well and made the best-seller list, although the reviews were mediocre at best.  Reviewers have often been unable to appreciate Mailer’s bold vision and experiments in form.

After Dream he was again uncertain which way to move and how much energy to expend on various projects.  But he knew, as he says in Cannibals, that “repetition kills the soul” (64), and that he must tackle new projects.  In 1967 his solution was to move in several directions simultaneously.  His play, “The Deer Park,” opened off-Broadway in New York in January and had a successful four-month run.  He published four books: The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, The Deer Park: A Play, his fifth novel, Why Are We In Vietnam? and The Bullfight, a long nonfiction essay about a Mexican bullfighter.  He also made two experimental films, “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law,” (and the following year, “Maidstone,” his most ambitious film). Mailer also appeared at several anti-war protests, including the October March on the Pentagon, where he was arrested, and before the year was over he was at work on his nonfiction narrative on the March, The Armies of the NightWhy Are We In Vietnam?, his most linguistically innovative work, follows a party of Texans hunting big game in Alaska, and is narrated by the son of the party’s leader, Ranald Jethroe, an eighteen-year old known to all as D.J.  Part Huck Finn and part William Burroughs,  D.J. talks, as he himself notes, like a wired disc jockey.  His rapid-fire recounting of the high tech hunts in the Brooks Range of Alaska, recollected two years later on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, crackles with obscene merriment.  The novel does not directly consider American involvement in Vietnam.  Rather, it accounts for American militarism by depicting the Texans as nature-defiling louts.  It is Mailer’s most extended meditation on nature after Naked.  But the descriptions in Vietnam are superior to those in Naked because its natural world is the incarnation of a prodigious and divided anima.  The forests and mountains of Alaska vibrate with supersensory messages from heavenly and demonic forces, much as the forests of Lebanon do in his later novel, Ancient Evenings.  Passages of  description of caribou and wolves alternate with unforgiving portraits of the Texans (all employed by a huge corporation) competing for the biggest trophy animals.  The rams and grizzly bears are shot, in some instances, from a helicopter.  The novel was generally reviewed well and nominated for a National Book Award, the first of five nominations for Mailer.


From 1967 through 1979 Mailer published 22 books.  Only one of them—Vietnam—was a novel.   During this tumultuous period in American life, especially the late 1960 and early 1970s, history seemed to be accelerating.  As Mailer put it in Of a Fire on the Moon, “the real had become more fantastic than the imagined” (221).  In response, Mailer interrupted his novelistic mission in order to chronicle these events, and to challenge them with his imagination.  Some of the books he wrote during this period were just sparks from the wheel, but several of them are among his major achievements.  Perhaps the most important of these are the five nonfiction narratives he published from 1968 to 1972: The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History (1968), a depiction of the October 1967 anti-war protest March on the Pentagon; Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), a report on the violent 1968 political conventions;  Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), a long analysis of the American space program and the first landing on the moon; The Prisoner of Sex (1971), an account of his debate with the Women’s Liberation Movement, which earned its enmity; and St. George and the Godfather (1972), a report on the 1972 political conventions.  In his glowing review of Armies, Alfred Kazin concluded by stating, “Mailer’s intuition in this book is that the times demand a new form.  He has found it” (Critical Essays, 65).  Each of the five nonfiction narratives attempts to bridge what Mailer in The Presidential Papers calls the “double life” of Americans: “the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull,” and “a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation” (38).  Whether Mailer is writing about astronauts or feminists, athletes or presidents, protestors or FBI agents, he is always attempting to bridge outer and inner, public and private in our national experience.  It is his deepest narrative aspiration.  To capture the complexities of a nation poised between the malevolent and the heroic, he was obliged to break down the walls between narrative genres.  A work like Armies accomplishes this by employing the techniques of both the modern psychological novel and the historical narrative.  The narrativeis divided into two parts.  The first “novelistic” part is three times the length of the second “historical” overview, the latter serving as factual ballast for the first, which traces Mailer’s involvement in the protest activities, the events leading up the March, his arrest, incarceration and two days later, his release.  He does not divide the other four narratives in the same way; instead, he shuttles between outer and inner, the events, his participation and his mercurial, often humorous responses to them.  But he does employ the same unusual point of view; he describes himself in the third person, a technique used by some classical historians, and in the twentieth century, most notably, by Henry Adams and Gertrude Stein.  Here is an example, a description of the scene just before his arrest at the Pentagon.

It was not unlike being a boy about to jump from one garage roof to an adjoining garage roof.  The one thing not to do was wait.  Mailer looked at Macdonald and Lowell.  “Let’s go,” he said. Not looking again at them, not pausing to gather or dissipate resolve, he made a point of stepping neatly and decisively over the low rope.  Then he headed across the grass to the nearest MP he saw. It was as if the air had changed, or light had altered; he felt immediately more alive—yes, bathed in air—and yet disembodied from himself, as if indeed he were watching himself in a film where this action was taking place.  He could feel the eyes of the people behind the rope watching him, could feel the intensity of their existence as spectators.  And as he walked forward, he and the MP looked at one another with the naked stricken lucidity which comes when absolute strangers are for the moment absolutely locked together (147).

It reads like a modern novel, which is precisely what Mailer wanted.  In Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, he used first-person narrators who resembled him in some ways, but not too much.  It was not permitted; a modicum of distance between narrators and authors was required.  Authors were supposed to be invisible and powerful, everywhere and nowhere, like God.  But Mailer wanted to use himself, explore himself, watch himself winning, losing, being bold, being a fool, performing, as he says in the quoted passage, as if he were in a movie, and above all searching for connections between himself and the Republic in peril.   So he took the step of describing himself in the third person, which, in effect, divided him into teller and told, narrating and narrative selves.  It is only an apparent paradox that this division of self by aesthetic fiat came as a result of his growing awareness of the desirability of no longer attempting to separate the private and public hemispheres of his life.  To harness both selves, use them simultaneously,  he was, in effect, taking seriously Emerson’s injunction in his essay, “Fate”:  “A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of the one and the other foot on the back of the other.”  This is Mailer’s narrative stance in the five nonfiction narratives, as well as his 1975 account of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman boxing match in Zaire, The Fight.  He is even a bit more nimble than Emerson’s metaphor allows in that he also explores the many sides and pockets of his character.  Here is a list of the names he uses to describe himself: Brute, Ruminant, Reporter, Aquarius (a favorite, used in both Fire and St. George), Acolyte, Novelist, Director, Prisoner, Prospector and Participant.  Besides these formal appellations, Mailer has placed himself over the years everywhere on the political spectrum from the left of Robespierre to the right of William F. Buckley, from Marxian anarchist in Advertisements to “grand conservateur” in Armies (27).  During his quixotic race for mayor of New York in 1969, his campaign literature said he was to the Left and Right of everyone else in the race, and by the time of Armies, he regularly described himself as a “Left Conservative” (141).  From his cosmology to his politics and everywhere in between, Mailer is a thoroughgoing dualist, but one whose two sides are themselves often divided.  Richard Poirier, in perhaps the most intelligent full-length study of Mailer, Norman Mailer, pointed out that Mailer “is quite unable to imagine anything except in oppositions, unable even to imagine one side of the opposition without proposing that it has yet another opposition within itself,” or “the minority within” (114).


Mailer received the best reviews of his career for Armies; it won a Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and is generally seen to be one of the finest achievements of the “new journalism.”  The others fared almost as well, garnering awards, plaudits from reviewers and strong sales.  He was widely seen as Aquarius-in-charge-of-construing-America, but he recognized that he had all but used himself up as a reference.  There were other problems: his marriage with Beverly Bentley failed in 1969, and he never seemed to earn enough to pay alimony and expenses for his seven children (Maggie, his seventh, was born to Carol Stevens, his fifth wife, in 1971).  By the early 1970s, he felt an urgent desire to get back to his first love, the novel.  Even before St. George and the Godfather appeared in late 1972, he was at work at what was initially called “the Egyptian novel.”  Shortly after, he signed a contract with Little, Brown for a three-part novel and a large advance.  But there were distractions, obligations, opportunities to be dealt with along the way to completing it.  All through the seventies—which might be called his biographical decade—Mailer alternated between work on the Egyptian novel and a series of portraits of famous-infamous Americans, twin lines of artistic enterprise that necessarily overlapped.  The first biography was of Marilyn Monroe, which was also the first of several collaborative efforts with the entrepreneurial photographer and producer, Lawrence Schiller.  Marilyn: A Biography was originally to have been a 25,000-word preface to a selection of photographs by Schiller and other photographers, but it grew into a 95,000-word, full-scale biography, which concluded with the suggestion that she had been murdered.  Controversy surrounded the book, which only increased sales; 400,000 copies were in print by the end of 1973. It was Mailer’s biggest best-seller since Naked.

His next outing, The Fight, is a portrait of Muhammad Ali in Africa.  Mailer again complained in the narrative that using himself as a lens, describing himself in the third person, was tedious, and the book is most successful in its depiction of Ali’s amazing improvisations in the ring.  He then returned to “the Egyptian novel,” pausing in 1976 to publish a collection of his political writings, Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions, 1960-1972, and later the same year, a collection of excerpts from the work of an author he admired.  Genius and Lust: A Journey through the Major Writings of Henry Miller also contains eighty pages of commentary on Miller, making it Mailer’s lengthiest piece of literary criticism.  The cover drawing of Miller is by Barbara Norris (later Norris Church Mailer), who Mailer met in Arkansas in 1975.  He later married her after she and her son from an earlier marriage, Matthew, moved to New York.  In 1978 she gave birth to their son, John Buffalo.  This marriage, Mailer’s sixth and last, brought a large measure of stability to his life.  Norris Church Mailer is an actress, painter, novelist and theatrical artistic director in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Mailer’s permanent home since the mid-1980s.


Gary Gilmore was a convicted murderer who gained national attention by insisting that his death sentence by firing squad be promptly carried out.  Shortly after his execution in early 1977, Lawrence Schiller contacted Mailer to ask if he would collaborate with him on Gilmore’s story, to which he owned the rights.  Mailer dropped work on his novel and spent six months in Utah with Schiller interviewing hundreds of people who had known Gilmore, including convicts, lawyers, prison guards, members of the media, his mother and his girlfriend, Nicole Barrett, and poring over 15,000 pages of interviews and court transcripts.  He was excited by Gilmore’s story; it seemed to embody many of the ideas that had preoccupied him for years, ideas about existential violence, the good in bad people and the efficacy of dying in a state of grace, as well as the whole issue of capital punishment and American’s fascination with outlaws.  After the relatively quiet years of the middle and late 1970s, Mailer was also eager for another victory; he wanted a new audience.  The narrative had several working titles: Violence in America, The Saint and the Psychopath, and American Virtue.  He finally settled on The Executioner’s Song.  Choosing a title was a small difficulty.  Mailer had larger problems.  The first was point of view: inserting himself in the narrative and then describing himself in the third person would not work; he had never met Gilmore and much of his material was secondhand.  He needed to be a central eye, but could not be an actor.  His second problem was style: the filigreed style of the nonfiction narrativeswould be cumbersome for the large cast of characters and their unadorned, western way of speaking.  It would also be ineffective in handling the huge number of facts and views of Gilmore and tessellating them into a narrative mosaic.  Finally, he had to create a structure that could  handle both Gilmore’s dark tale, and how it came to be told, something which involved a struggle among competing journalists, including Schiller, who was both Gilmore’s confidante and the accumulator of the vast archive on which Mailer would rely to tell the story.

Mailer later told the Los Angeles Times that Song “was what I’d been looking to do since The Naked and the Dead.  I wanted to do an immense panoramic novel with a strong narrative thread to it, a sort of collective novel of America” (October 25, 1979, Sec. 4, 30).  The solution to his point of view problem was to revert to the omniscient, anonymous point of view of Naked, which appropriately eliminated him from the story.  Mailer then chose a style as flat as the Utah landscape and relied heavily on the actual words of those involved.  Here and there a careful reader can find some of Mailer’s characteristic locutions, but not enough to weigh on the narrative, which accelerates as it progresses.  His structural problem was solved by dividing the book into two parts, “Western Voices” and “Eastern Voices.”  The first part tells the story of Gilmore’s life up to his incarceration for two senseless murders, and is told mainly by women, as Joan Didion noted in her highly laudatory review.  She continues, saying that “Eastern Voices,” Book Two, “are largely those of men—the voices of the lawyers, the prosecutors, the reporters, the people who move in the larger world and believe that they can influence events.  The ‘Western’ book is a fatalistic drift, a tension….The ‘Eastern’ book is the release of that tension, the resolution, the playing out of the execution” (Critical Essays, 81).  Mailer boldly resolves the problem of how to situate Schiller by making him the chief figure of Part Two, and after Gary and Nicole the most important in the book.  Schiller is both Gilmore’s executor and a journalist struggling to assemble the raw materials of the story with integrity.  The effort of compiling the massive documentary cache is the main line of action in Part Two, although Gilmore’s execution—four bullets through the heart from a firing squad—autopsy and cremation ends the narrative.   Mailer subtitled Song “a true life novel,” even though it was scrupulously factual, out of his debatable conviction that its scope, form, characters and themes made it a novel.  The Executioner’s Song, another best seller,won him another cadre of admirers.  The reviews were mainly quite positive and the book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, bearing out Mailer’s belief in its fundamental novelistic identity.  He is the only writer to date to win the Pulitzer in both fiction and nonfiction.


As soon as Song was completed Mailer returned to “the Egyptian novel,” although he broke from the effort twice more: in 1980 for a novella titled Of Women and Their Elegance, which is narrated entirely by Marilyn Monroe, his only female narrator; and in 1982 for Pieces and Pontifications, his sixth miscellany.

The first half consisted of his essays from the seventies; the second half of twenty of his most important interviews, 1958-1981.  There was one other interruption.  In 1981 Mailer supported the parole request of Jack Henry Abbott, and then wrote the introduction to Abbott’s book,  In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison.  Abbott was released and Mailer supported him generally.  But within a month of his release Abbott killed a waiter in a New York restaurant during a petty dispute.  Mailer was accused of being blind to Abbott’s violent nature, and was pilloried in the tabloid press, while others who had helped Abbott out of prison went relatively unnoticed.  Mailer admitted his culpability, but the tragic situation haunted him.  Abbott was convicted and, after his later parole attempts failed, committed suicide in 2002.

Ancient Evenings was published with unusual fanfare in April 1983.  It is Mailer’s most ambitious, complex work, and by his estimate, his finest.  Set in Egypt over a 180-year span (1320-1100 BCE), it is also his most unread major work.  Readers for two decades have complained of getting bogged down in what one critic, Michael Glenday, in his study, Norman Mailer, called the novel’s “involutions,” its memories of memories of the magical moments of Menenhetet I, who has learned from a Jewish slave how to father himself and lives four lives in the course of the novel.  The process of re-creating himself, like much of the magic in the book, is obscure.  Glenday goes on to say that the critical community, not to mention the common reader, remains baffled by the novel because it “is still regarded as both outre and so resistant to category as to subvert any substantial critical appraisal of it” (117).   The violent, carnal and magical religiosity of the Egyptians is not presented in any symbolic or metaphorical way, as Robert Begiebing points out in his study, Toward a New Synthesis.  When Mailer chose ancient Egypt, a time and place saturated in magic, he was automatically released from “the restrictions of fictional realism,” as well as from “twentieth-century rationalism and scientism” (98).  Mailer was free to indulge his gnostic impulses to the fullest, free to re-create a society unaffected by Western culture’s ruling beliefs—Judaic monotheism, Christian compassion and distrust of the body, Faustian progress, romantic love and Freudian guilt.  Mailer attributes telepathy and reincarnation to the Egyptians, but apart from these, he does not depart from the available evidence on the nature of Egyptian culture, including its burial customs, which fascinated him.  Unable to narrate a novel except in the first person, Mailer uses telepathy as a substitute for omniscience; reincarnation allows him to explore Menenhetet’s four very different lives as charioteer-general and harem master, high priest, wealthy businessman, and, finally, tomb robber—note the trajectory—thus providing views of different levels and corners of Egyptian life without shifting from one consciousness to another, and then two more (Menenhetet remembers his previous lives).  The first of his lives is the most impressive by far; depiction of the others, according to Harold Bloom in his review, gives “every sign of truncation” (Norman Mailer: Modern Critical Views, 194).  Almost all reviewers and critics agree that the account of the Egyptians’ great chariot battle against the Hittites at Kadesh—an actual battle—is one of the strongest expositions in Mailer’s work and, for many, in modern literature.  Menenhetet fights alongside his Pharaoh, Ramses II  (who is as important a character in the book as is Meni, as the Pharaoh calls him), and the Pharaoh’s ferocious lion, Hera-Ra.  The aftermath of the Egyptian victory is even more impressive than the battle itself.  Perhaps the high point of the novel is his account of the rape and butchery during the drunken celebration before the gates of the Hittite capital, which he contrasts with the majestic aplomb of Ramses receiving through the long night the severed  hands of slain Hittites from thousands of his troops.  The Pharaoh deftly tosses each hand into a perfectly pyramidal pile, never moving his feet, as his scribe records the soldiers’ names and gory trophies.  In addition to this luminous account, there are other wonderful runs of prose in the novel.  The opening offers a remarkable re-telling of the myths of the Egyptian gods by Menenhetet I to his grandson, Menenhetet II after their deaths, one ghost to another, inside the great pyramid of Khufu as they prepare for a final journey and final judgment.  Meni II is the actual narrator, although he is displaced from most of the action, much like O’Shaugnessey in The Deer Park.  Between the marvelous retelling of the stories of the gods and the ending when the spirit of Meni I dies but passes on, like McLeod to Lovett, a blessing to Meni II , comes the long middle, which is an account of Meni I’s four lives, as told to another pharaoh, Ramses IX, by Meni I during one extended ancient evening.  The narrative’s involuted provenance is often confusing, but the chief criticism of the novel centers on the languorous Book of the Queens, a 130-page account of Meni I as harem master.  Future consideration of the novel may focus on its complex epistemology, its spiraling narrative skeins and inlaid perspectives, and their relationships with the four narratives he wrote during the same period as  Ancient Evenings, narratives focusing on Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Henry Miller and Gary Gilmore.  Certainly the blend of their cardinal vices and virtues are manifested in both Menenhetet I and Ramses II.


Mailer’s next book was an “entertainment,” to use Graham Greene’s phrase, a murder mystery set in Provincetown.  It was published in 1984, the same year Mailer was elected President of the international writers’ organization, PEN, and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Tough Guys Don’t Dance is notable mainly for its evocations of the drear winter landscapes of lower Cape Cod, and its portraits of the eccentrics, artists and criminals who live there.  It was written in sixty-one days to fulfill a contract with his publisher at the time, Little, Brown, although ultimately published by Random House, his continuing publisher.  It was also a way of winding down after the decade-long effort to complete Ancient Evenings.  Mailer went on to direct a feature film based on the novel, a film that has gained something of a cult reputation.  But the bulk of his effort during the 1980s was focused on a very long novel that deals with the Cold War.  The novel’s length may be an American record. Harlot’s Ghost is 1310 pages longand ends with the words “To be continued.”  The sequel, Mailer said when the novel was published in October 1991, will continue the story of  Herrick “Harry” Hubbard, his father “Cal,” both CIA agents, his godfather Hugh Montague (code name “Harlot”), and Montague’s wife Kittredge, also CIA agents.  After she divorces Harlot, she marries Harry, who might be seen as Harlot’s ghost, or one of them.  He ghostwrites spy novels favorable to the CIA and shadows Harlot in several ways, most notably with Kittredge.  But Harlot’s ghost  refers chiefly to the spirit of the dead Harlot, if he is indeed dead.  A body resembling his washes up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay with the face blown away and finger tips missing.  Mailer’s eighth novel is crammed with questions about the CIA, the Cold War, the cosmic war of God and the Devil and the fundamental loyalties of all the characters, including Harlot, who is loosely based on American master spy, James Jesus Angleton.  One critic of the novel, John Whalen-Bridge, in his essay, “Adamic Purity as Double-Agent,” calls it an “obsessively dualistic novel,” where “the coexistence and interdependence of good and evil…receive supreme expression” (118).

Harlot’s Ghost is of course divided into two parts, “Alpha” and “Omega,” both manuscripts written by Harry, who narrates the story from Moscow in 1984.  “Omega,” about 100 pages, begins the novel and is set in Harry’s island home in Maine on a day in 1983.  It is a riveting opening, replete with sex, murder, an icy road and a stormy sea,  double agents, a dank cellar and, of course, ghosts.  It ends with the revelation of the body washed ashore, the disappearance of Kittredge (with Dix Butler, a bisexual professional rival of Harry’s), and Harry’s flight from his burning house.  “Alpha,” at 1200 pages, is the story of Harry’s early life, and includes his youth in the 1930s and 1940s, Yale education, and tours of duty abroad and in the U.S., up to 1965, where the narrative ends.   Presumably, the period between 1965 and 1984  dealing with Vietnam, Watergate, the impeding collapse of the Soviet Union and the marriage of Hubbard and Kittredge, will be in the sequel, although Mailer seems to have abandoned it.  While the novel cannot be justly called an all-encompassing picture of American life, it does provide a privileged perspective on some of the most cataclysmic events and fabled figures of the American scene in the 1950s and 1960s.  Like a long freight train, Mailer’s story of WASP agents at the center of intrigues at home and abroad (Berlin, Uruguay, Russia and Cuba), picks up speed as it snakes through  postwar America life, accelerating tremendously as it moves through the CIA’s failed invasion of Cuba, attempts to assassinate Castro and the Cuban missile crisis.  Kennedy’s assassination is treated almost cursorily, but his affair with Judith Exner (which also involves Frank Sinatra and Mafia boss Sam Giancana), comprises another strand of the Byzantine plot of clandestine operations, double-dealing and heroism.  Mailer bends over backward to fairly present the CIA, making clear the contradictory impulses of selfless patriotism and Faustian arrogance that motivate its agents and leaders.

Harlot’s Ghost was Mailer’s eighth best-seller, although reviews, as usual, were mixed.  Praised for the interleaving of fiction and fact, his extraordinary anatomy of the agency, and the authoritative portraits of so many prominent figures (Kennedy, Castro, Allen Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, Kim Philby), the novel was also criticized for the length of some episodes, especially the nearly 300 pages devoted to Hubbard’s years in Uruguay, and for his protracted correspondence with Kittredge.  In an attempt to reveal Kittredge—who never comes completely into focus—within the limitations imposed by a first-person narrator, Mailer was forced to create an awkward, epistolary relationship.  Finally, many reviewers contrasted the fast-paced opening with the tedium of some of the South American material.  This counterpoint, like that in Ancient Evenings, not to mention Moby-Dick and other ambitious novels, was undoubtedly intentional; Mailer has always believed that the parts of a narrative should clarify and complicate other parts.  Given the novel’s length and ambition, and its saturation in the horrors and glories of the American Century, it seems more likely than any of Mailer’s other works to be measured by his 1959 statement in Advertisements that he wanted to “try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters” (477).


No event in twentieth-century American life has resonated longer or stronger for Mailer than JFK’s assassination.  Yet until Oswald’s Tale he never considered it directly, but in several earlier books circled or erected a scaffolding around the event, almost as if he felt it could be approached but never dominated.  This is the case in Harlot’s Ghost, where the assassination occurs offstage, as it were. In 1992 he decided to tackle it head on via a biography of the much-despised, but poorly understood Lee Harvey Oswald, the man arrested for shooting the president and then executed by a small-time Dallas mobster, Jack Ruby.  The opportunity was presented to him by his collaborator on The Executioner’s Song and Marilyn, Lawrence Schiller, who had gained access to KGB archival material and operatives in Belarus, where Oswald had lived in 1960 after marrying Marina Prusakova.  Mailer and Schiller spent six months there, 1992-93, interviewing everyone available who had known Lee and Marina, or spied on them (seventeen current or former KGP officers), and poring over the verbatim transcripts of the couple’s dreary life in the bleak city of Minsk.  Characteristically, Mailer divides the resulting  828-page narrative, Oswald’s Tale, into two parts. The first, “Oswald in Minsk with Marina,” is devoted to Oswald’s two-and-half years in Russia; the second, “Oswald in America,” moves back to his childhood and Marine service, skipping his Russian years and moving to the dark day in Dallas when the world changed.  Mailer’s subtle analysis of Jack Ruby’s enigmatic motives follows his unmatched re-creation of the assassination, which he concludes was seventy-fice percent likely to be the sole work of Oswald.  The full narrative, equal if not superior to The Executioner’s Song, ends with wrenching portraits of three widows: Jacqueline Kennedy, Marina Oswald and her mother-in-law, the nattering, narcissistic Marguerite Oswald, who Mailer says “is worthy of Dickens” (790).

The portrait of Oswald is the fairest hearing he might ever receive.  Mailer attempts the Herculean task of generating, if not sympathy, then understanding of the dyslexic, nerdy Oswald.  A failure at almost everything to which he put his hand, but possessed of the ambition of the young Hitler or Lenin, Oswald comes across as much victim as monster.  Reviewers favored the first part of the narrative, which presented fascinating material theretofore unavailable on the domestic life of Lee and Marina.  For the second part of his narrative, Mailer relied on the twenty-six volume Warren Commission Report and a large number of biographies and investigative reports.  Many readers are still not ready to fully appreciate Mailer’s portrait of Oswald, but one hundred years from now it might stand as definitive, worthy in its severity and compassion of Tolstoy.

Never one to let the grass grow, Mailer had all but completed a biography of Pablo Picasso by the end of 1992, but because of various difficulties in obtaining permissions, Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man  was not published until after late 1995, some months after Oswald’s Tale.  Without referring to himself, Mailer uses his own fifty years of artistic success, failure and experimentation to measure Picasso’s career from his birth in 1881 to the end of his early manhood and the flowering of cubism at the beginning of World War I.  Mailer’s biography is premised on the notion that Picasso was a self-created artist who “gambled on his ability to reach into mysteries of existence that no one else had even perceived” (357).  His insights in this rather comradely biography vibrate with fellow-feeling.  Picasso was “doomed,” Mailer says, “to relive his obsessions through all of ninety-one years of life” (352), to continue to paint until the end “as if work itself could hold death off” (367).  Mailer, who turned eighty in 2003, is still writing furiously.  Set a thief to catch a thief.

Picasso received terrible reviews, especially from members of the professional art community, which was not eager to sanction a somewhat iconoclastic portrait of the central figure of twentieth-century art.  Mailer toyed with the idea of publishing his next book, The Gospel according to the Son, anonymously, but finally did not.  When it appeared in 1997, it fared only slightly better than Picasso, with some reviewers castigating Mailer for daring to speak in the first person as Jesus.  Others saw his gospel-as-autobiography as another example of his brilliance at integrating narrative forms.  His motive, he explained in various interviews, was to improve on the committee prose of the Gospels, to place the wisdom  and agony of Jesus in a narrative without the contradictions, lacunae and weak transitions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  As Mailer put it in an interview with Sean Abbott in At Random, “If I can write about Isis and Osiris and Ra, then certainly the New Testament is not going to be that difficult to do” (No. 17, spring-summer, 1997, 51).  With his plot in hand (always a worry for Mailer), he expended his creative energies on depictions of Judas, Pilate, Mary, John the Baptist and, especially, Satan, who comes across as a devious, Middle Eastern playboy-prince.  Mailer’s other important achievement in Gospel is the voice of Jesus, who according to John Updike in his New Yorker review, speaks in “a direct, rather relaxed English that has yet an eerie, neo-Biblical dignity” (May 12, 1997, 92).

On May 6, 1998, fifty years to the day after the publication of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer published The Time of Our Time, a massive consolidation of all his previous work.  Searching for an organizing principle for the 1286-page anthology containing 139 excerpts from 26 previous books, Mailer decided that each piece would appear “in accordance with the year it refers to rather than the year it was written” (x). So it opens with a short sketch describing a 1929 boxing match between Hemingway and Morley Callaghan and works its magnificent way, event by chronological event, to the 1996 presidential race between Clinton and Dole, although Mailer then violates his own scheme by ending with several excerpts from Ancient Evenings and The Gospel according to the Son.  The true heart of the collection, however, are those pieces which treat World War II and the Cold War, taken from both the fiction and nonfiction.  All of his portraits of major figures of the last half of the twentieth century—JFK, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Castro, Oswald, Henry Kissinger, Mayor Daly, Nixon, Carter, Bush and Clinton—are included, as well as movie stars, athletes and writers.  Mailer rigorously excluded his own presence from the book, however, in order to focus on the major events and figures of the time. Besides the preface and acknowledgments, the only original piece in the collection is “The Shadow of the Crime: A Word from the Author,” a one-page reflection on the 1960 stabbing of his second wife Adele.  The collection sold well and was generally praised by reviewers.

Besides collaborating with Schiller on television scripts dealing with O.J. Simpson and FBI spy Robert Hansenn in the years immediately following The Time of Our Time, Mailer began work on a new, unnamed work, and in 2003 published a compilation of his comments and insights on being a professional writer for more than fifty years.  Titled The Spooky Art: A Book about Writing, the collection also included most of his literary criticism.  It was published on his eightieth birthday.

It is difficult to sum up a career of such length and achievement, so full of awards and fights, mistakes and masterpieces.  Mailer has challenged, angered and amazed three generations of readers worldwide.  Perhaps no life in our literature has been at once so brilliant, varied, controversial, public, provocative and misunderstood.  When asked by the New York Times to describe himself in one word, he answered “improvisational” ( February 13, 1994, Sec. 9, 1), providing a key to his protean identity and achievements.  But he is improvisational by design rather than by default or happenstance.  Metaphorically speaking, he always keeps a bag packed on the chance he will hear the train whistle of new opportunity that may result in new energy, new success, new growth.  Consequently, he is pre-disposed—sometimes erroneously—to sense turning points and sea changes in America’s health and identity, and his own.  Constant anticipation of a new plot for American lives is for him the price, and the reward, of the liberty of his consciousness.  Unprecedented and perhaps irreplaceable, Norman Mailer can lay fair claim to being the chief narrative chronicler and interpreter of the American Century.

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