Seer, savager, and sage describes Norman Mailer, the American writer who has expanded the boundaries of every nonfiction form he has assayed—including the essay.
Mailer has published seven essay collections and won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his 15 book-length narrative essays (The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, 1968; The Executioner’s Song, 1979). In truth, he has written more (and more innovative) nonfiction than fiction. More than any other American writer, Mailer has dared to place himself at the center of American political and cultural life and report back his observations. These have taken the form of lengthy and ambitious hybrid works which merge the travel essay and political essay (Miami and the Siege of Chicago, 1968; St. George and the Godfather, 1972; Oswald’s Tale, 1995), the travel essay and the science essay (Of a Fire on the Moon, 1971), the travel essay and the sports essay (King of the Hill, 1971; The Fight, 1975), the cultural polemic and the literary review (Advertisements for Myself, 1959; The Prisoner of Sex, 1971; Genius and Lust: A Journey
Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976), and the artist biography (Marilyn: A Novel Biography, 1973; Of Women and Their Elegance, 1980; Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography, 1995).
The novelist Norman Mailer began to find his voice as an essayist in the mid-1950s as an angry anti-establishment prophet of hip. As the self-proclaimed General Marijuana, he cofounded and named the Village Voice, one of the earliest underground American newspapers, in 1955, and proceeded to write a series of provocative essays that uncannily foreshadowed the 1960s. His controversial 1957 essay “The White Negro” predicted that “A time of violence, new hysteria, confusion and rebellion [would]…replace the time of conformity.” His equally famous Esquire essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” written on the eve of the 1960 presidential election, is often credited with helping John F.Kennedy defeat Richard Nixon. Mailer’s was one of the first voices against the Vietnam War, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his arrest during a 1967 protest march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night, established forever the inescapable subjectivity of journalism and history—indeed of all nonfiction forms.
Because of this widely celebrated volume, Mailer is usually listed among the 1960s New Journalists. “I think if I started any aspect of the New Journalism—and I did,” Mailer observed in 1980, “it was an enormously personalized journalism where the character of the narrator was one of the elements not only in telling the story, but in the way the reader would assess the experience.” A related contribution is Mailer’s innovative treatment of himself as a third-person “character” in his works, a technique he admits to borrowing from The Education of Henry Adams (1907). In The Armies of the Night Mailer depicts himself at various times as The Novelist, The Historian, The Participant, Mailer, and even as The Beast. In later works he is Aquarius (Of a Fire on the Moon, St. George and the Godfather), The Prize Winner, The Prisoner (The Prisoner of Sex), and Nommo, spirit of words (The Fight).
A gifted stylist, Mailer has been called a quick-change artist for his ability to alter his style to meet new artistic or intellectual goals. The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the macabre life and death of Utah murderer Gary Gilmore, confounded and delighted readers, not only because of Mailer’s conspicuous absence as a character in the work and his equally uncharacteristic use of simple, even homespun metaphors, but because of his use of substitutionary narration, whereby he narrated the story in the accents and diction of his story’s personae. Mailer has written on the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions since 1960; most recently he narrated part of his essay on the 1996 convention in a clipped imitation of the interior voice and diction of Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole: “Dole. Didn’t sound like prosperity. More like a grim tomorrow. So Dole could see it. Had to bet the farm. His time had come. Bet the farm.”
Mailer has always sought to address the national conscience, and so has published his essays in popular and men’s magazines such as Esquire, Playboy, and (most recently) John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s George, as well as more intellectual journals like Dissent, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books. He is a Hegelian, and often will structure his works to pose a synthesis of warring oppositions (“The White Negro,” 1957; Cannibals and Christians, 1966; The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1968; St. George and the Godfather, Genius and Lust). Within these works, he employs metaphors as probes of his subject and as a tool for enhancing intimacy with his readers as well as stimulating mental and social activity.
Indeed, it is the forced intimacy of the metaphoric transaction that often causes disproportionate reactions to Mailer’s essays—reactions usually of supreme admiration or distaste. Metaphor is coercive. One fails to make the (metaphoric) trip, or avoids intimate understanding, only if one fails to comprehend the metaphor. Because many of Mailer’s metaphors are elaborate trips designed to stimulate or activate the reader, they naturally irritate those who do not wish to move—or be moved. On occasion, Mailer will compound this creative tension by verbally savaging his readers. He began his first Village Voice column in 1955 by stating: “That many of you are frustrated in your ambitions, and undernourished in your pleasures, only makes you more venomous.” In his second column, he admonishes: “If you are not in the mood to think, or if you have no interest in thinking, then let us ignore each other until the next column. And if you do go on from here, please have the courtesy to concentrate.”
Readers alienated by Mailer’s verbal assaults often have difficulty recognizing that his most profound wish as a writer is to bring life, to animate both individual bodies and the “body politic” into greater being. He is thus more socially conscious than is often credited. Mailer’s own literary life is a model of the regeneration he seeks for others and for the American nation as a whole. He has described James T.Farrell’s Studs Lonigan (1934) as “the best single literary experience” of his life, for Studs’ working-class and lower-middle-class background were similar to his own. “Suddenly I realized you could write about your life,” Mailer told the Paris Review in 1964. In terms of ideas, Mailer says he has gained more from Karl Marx than from anyone else he has read. Marx, Mailer stresses, “has something to say in every phrase.”
Mailer followed Ernest Hemingway in creating a public persona, and his early bullfight essays can be seen as direct competition with “Papa.” The Hemingway influence culminates in Mailer’s volume The Fight, his artful reprise of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon in which Mailer achieves renewed literary life for both Hemingway and himself through Muhammad Ali. Mailer’s work also shows the influence of Walt Whitman (Advertisements for Myself) and Henry Miller. In addition, The Executioner’s Song can be read as Mailer’s Moby-Dick, with Gary Gilmore the white whale ultimately eluding all social institutions and both Western and Eastern voices.
Today a grey sage in his seventies, Mailer retains his intuitive, synthesizing daring. “Everything in society from the largest social institution to those private intimate personal moments, and the deepest mystical moments such as the onset of death, might all be seen in their connections if one had the courage to begin,” he has observed. “You can never understand a writer until you find his private little vanity and mine has always been that I will frustrate expectations. People think they’ve found a way of dismissing me, but, like the mad butler—I’ll be back serving the meal.”
Norman Kingsley Mailer. Born 31 January 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey. Studied at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1939–43, S.B. (cum laude) in aeronautical engineering, 1943; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1947. Married Beatrice Silverman, 1944 (divorced, 1951): one daughter. Sergeant in the United States Army, 1944–46.
Married Adèle Morales, 1954 (divorced, 1961): two daughters. Contributing editor, Dissent, 1954; cofounder, 1955, and columnist, 1956, Village Voice; columnist of “Big Bite,” Esquire, 1962–63, and of “Responses and Reactions,” Commentary, 1962–63.
Married Lady Jeanne Campbell, 1962 (divorced, 1963): one daughter; married Beverly Bentley, 1963 (divorced, 1979): two sons. Arrested for anti-war protest at the Pentagon, October 1967. Member of the Executive Board, 1968–73, and President, 1985–86, PEN American Center; ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York City, 1969. Married Carol Stevens, 1980 (divorced, 1980); married Barbara Norris Church, 1980: three children.
Awards: National Book Award, for nonfiction, 1969; Pulitzer Prize, for nonfiction, 1969, 1980; MacDowell Medal, 1973; National Arts Club Medal, 1976; Emerson-Thoreau Medal, 1989; honorary degree from Rutgers University. Member, American Academy, 1985.
Essays and Related Prose
Advertisements for Myself, 1959
The Presidential Papers, 1963
Cannibals and Christians, 1966
The Bullfight, 1967
The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings on the Kennedy and Johnson
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, 1968
Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968, 1968
Of a Fire on the Moon, 1971; as A Fire on the Moon, 1971
King of the Hill: On the Fight of the Century, 1971
The Prisoner of Sex, 1971
The Long Patrol: 25 Years of Writing, edited by Robert F.Lucid, 1971
St. George and the Godfather, 1972
Existential Errands, 1972; in The Essential Mailer, 1982
Marilyn: A Novel Biography, 1973; enlarged edition, 1975
The Faith of Graffiti, 1974; as Watching My Name Go By, 1975
The Fight, 1975
Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions 1960–1972, 1976
Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976
The Executioner’s Song: A True Life Novel, 1979
Of Women and Their Elegance, 1980
The Essential Mailer, 1982
Pieces and Pontifications, 1982
Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, 1995
Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography, 1995
Other writings: ten novels (The Naked and the Dead, 1948; Barbary Shore, 1951; The Deer Park, 1955; An American Dream, 1965; Why Are We in Vietnam?, 1967; A Transit to Narcissus, 1978; Ancient Evenings, 1983; Tough Guys Don’t Dance, 1984; Harlot’s
Ghost, 1991; The Gospel According to the Son, 1997), short stories, poetry, screenplays, and a play.
Adams, Laura, Norman Mailer: A Comprehensive Bibliography, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1974
Adams, Laura, Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976
Adams, Laura, editor, Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up, Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1974
Anderson, Chris, “Norman Mailer: The Record of a War,” in his Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987:82–132
Begiebing, Robert J., Acts of Regeneration: Allegory and Archetype in the Works of Norman Mailer, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980
Bloom, Harold, editor, Norman Mailer: Modern Critical Views, New York: Chelsea House, 1986
Braudy, Leo, editor, Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1972
Bufithis, Philip H., Norman Mailer, New York: Ungar, 1978
Ehrlich, Robert, Norman Mailer: The Radical as Hipster, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1978
Flaherty, Joe, Managing Mailer, New York: Coward McCann, and London: Michael Joseph, 1970
Foster, Richard, Norman Mailer, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968
Hellmann, John, “Journalism as Nonfiction: Norman Mailer’s Strategy for Mimesis and Interpretation,” in his Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980:35–65
Hollowell, John, “Mailer’s Vision: History as a Novel, the Novel as History,” in his Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977:87–125
Lennon, J.Michael, editor, Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, Boston: Hall, 1986
Lounsberry, Barbara, “Norman Mailer’s Ages of Man,” in her The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfictton, New York: Greenwood Press, 1990
Lucid, Robert F., editor, Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work, Boston: Little Brown, 1971
Manso, Peter, editor, Mailer: His Life and Times, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985
Merrill, Robert, Norman Mailer Revisited, Boston: Twayne, 1992
Mills, Hilary, Mailer: A Biography, New York: Empire, 1982
Radford, Jean, Norman Mailer: A Critical Study, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975
Stone, Albert E., “Factual Fictions: Experiments in Autobiography by Norman Mailer, Frank Conroy, Lillian Hellman,” in his Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts: Versions of American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw, Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982:265–324
Wenke, Joseph, Mailer’s America, Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1987
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