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.