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by Bamber Gascoigne

Norman (Kingsley) Mailer (1923-2007)


Innovator of the nonfiction novel, a towering figure in American literature for nearly 60 years. Norman Mailer developed in the 1960s and 1970s a form of journalism that combined actual events, autobiography, and political commentary with the richness of the novel. (See also Truman Capote and the classic "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood.) Mailer's works always stirred controversy – because of both their stylish nonconformity and his controversial views of American life. The poet Robert Lowell praised him as "the best journalist in America",but what he thought of Mailer's fiction was left open.

'"I decided the only explanation is that God and the Devil are very attentive to people at the summit. I don't know if they stir much in the average man's daily stew, no great sport for spooks, I would suppose, in a ranch house, but do you expect God or the Devil left Lenin and Hitler and Churchill alone? No. They bid for favors and exact revenge. That's why men with power sometimes act so silly."' (from An American Dream, 1965)

Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, but he was raised in Brooklyn, New York. Every summer the family went back to Long Branch, where Mailer's grandparents had a small summer hotel. Mailer's father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was an accountant and businessman; he lived in South Africa before immigrating to the United States. The dominant figure in the family was Mailer's mother, the former Fanny Schneider, who worked in a small trucking company. Her father was an unofficial rabbi, who couldn't speak English very well.

"I thought Norman was perfect, a really lovely baby. He weighted about seven pounds at birth", Fanny recalled. Mailer was said to have insulted guests at his bar mitzvah by reading the excommunicated 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. (Norman Mailer: An American Aesthetic by Andrew Wilson, 2008, p. 233) In his youth Mailer constantly presented himself as "a poor Jewish boy from Brooklyn," but he did not celebrate Jewish holidays or talk to his non-Jewish friends about his family. It was not until 1983, when Mailer traveled to Vilna, Lithuania, wanting to look at where his family came from.

Mailer's literary talents were recognized and encouraged at school by his teachers, who let him write whatever he wanted. His first literary effort was a 250-page story called 'Invasion From Mars', which he penned at the age of nine in notebooks. However, it was not until he attended Harvard that he decided to become a writer. In 1939 he graduated from Boys High School and then studied at Harvard University, Cambridge (1939-43), receiving B.S. in aeronautical engineering. In 1941 Mailer's 'The Greatest Thing in the World' won Story magazine's college contest.

During World War II Mailer served as a sergeant in the United States Army. Originally he wanted to go to Europe and be in the first wave of invasion troops, but for his disappointment he was sent to the South Pacific. Mailer served in Leyte, Luzon, and Japan, observing what happened on the war scene. He saw a little bit of action but not as much as it was in The Naked and the Dead (1948). Most of the time in the Philippines Mailer felt tired.

In his letters to his first wife, Beatrice Silverman, he described patrols he was on during the war – Mailer did not want to carry notes with him. In 1946 he was discharged, and the next year he enrolled at the Sorbonne. The Naked and Dead was born in fifteen months, and published when Mailer was just 25. "Its success rips away my former identity," Mailer once said.

The Naked and The Dead drew upon the author's combat experiences in the Philippines. It is not so funny as Heller's Catch-22 or Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Schweik, but more realistic than Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front, and not so sentimental as Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. The story depicts a group of American soldiers who are stationed on the Japanese-held island in the Pacific. Flashbacks that illuminate their past mix with feverish combat scenes. On its appearance the work was hailed as one of the finest American novels of WW II, but also dismissed as obscene, plainly motivated by personal disgust with army life. In England, several publishers rejected it because of the obscenity of its language. "It is virtually a Kinsey Report on the sexual behavior of the GI. Its style is an almost pure Army billingsgate that will offend many readers, although in no sense is it exaggerated: Mr. Mailer's soldiers are real persons, speaking the vernacular of human bitterness and agony. It gives off a skyglow that is quite faithful to the spectrum of battle, and exposes the blood, if not always the guts, of war." (David Dempsey in The New York Times, May 9, 1948)

Mailer's subsequent novels did not receive similar respect. Barbary Shore  (1951), which was set in a Brooklyn boarding house and depicted the conflict between a former radical and a federal agent, was labelled in Time Magazine as "paceless, tasteless, and graceless."

In the late 1940s Mailer worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. He moved in 1951 to Greenwich Village in New York City. Mailer's third novel, The Deer Park (1955), was about the corruption of values in Hollywood. Mailer had a contract with Rinehart and Company. Three months before publication, Stanley Rinehart told Miller that he would have to delete six lines of the fellatio scene. He was "concerned about what his mother [mystery author Mary Roberts Rinehart] would think, since she was on the board of directors." As a result of Mailer's refusal, Rinehart broke the contract. Several other publishers turned the novel down, and it was eventually published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. The Deer Park rose to number six on the best-seller list.

Mailer felt he was an outlaw; he listened to jazz and smoked marijuana. In the thinly veiled story Mailer dealt with his relationship with Adele Morales, an artist whom he married in 1954. The following years in the authors life were more or less chaotic, and in 1960 he stabbed Adele at the end of an all-night party in Manhattan with "a dirty three-inch penknife." Mailer was given a suspended sentence because Adele refused to press charges. Her own own account of the circumstances she recorded much later in the book of memoirs, The Last Party (1997). Paramount Pictures planned to adopt it into a movie in the late 1960s with the Swedish director Bo Widerberg, whose Elvira Madigan was an international success, but eventually Widerberg made Victoria based on Knut Hamsun's novel.

One of the actresses who tried for a role in a stage production of The Deer Park was Edie Sedgwick, the superstar in Andy Warhol's films. Mailer and the director Leo Garen turned her down. "She used so much of herself with every line that we knew she'd be immolated after three performances," Mailer recalled. As a director Mailer had learned a lot from Warhol: "He made every director brave enough to make a slow scene without trying to speed it up." Mailer once argued that Warhol's Kirchen (1965), starring Edie Sedgwick and Roger Trudeau, records better than any other work the spirit of the period.

From the mid-1950s Mailer started to gain fame as an anti-establishment essayist. He had read Marx's Das Kapital and later said that it helped him to become a better writer. However, he did not believe that Communism would solve all problems, and he was never persecuted by HUAC but his father was. "The Communists for some years now have been calling me a Trotskyist; the Trotskyists call me a "so-called splinter Socialist"; the splinter socialists call me an anarchist; the anarchists call me a capitalist..." (Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso, 2008, pp. 184-186) In 1961 Mailer wrote an open letter to Fidel Castro, saying "you are giving us hope".

In his notorious essay 'The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster' (1956) was originally published in Dissent and reprinted in Advertisements for Myself  (1959), Mailer examined violence, hysteria, crimes and confusion in American society through the fashionable existentialist framework, which owes much to Jean Genet. Mailer defined the hipster as a philosophical psychopath, and urban adventurer, who has adopted elements from black culture and could be called "a White Negro." To become a hipster is a conscious choice for members of the intellectual élite. However, the black man knows the art of the primitive "in the cells of his existence", and is forced to accepts the moral wilderness of civilized life, condemned by "the Square". "But the Negro, not being privileged to gratify his self-esteem with the heady satisfaction of categorical condemnation, chose to move instead in that other direction where all situations are equally valid, and in the worst of perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash, bottle-break, what-have-you, the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom, an ethical differentiation between the good and the bad in every human activity from the go-getter pimp (as opposed to the lazy one) to the relatively dependable pusher or prostitute."

After the difficult, tumultuous period, Mailer realized that he could write well about people like himself – people without roots, such as Henry Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and Picasso. In the 1960s Mailer was listed among the New Journalists, who applied the techniques of the novel to depict real events and people. He co-founded and named the Village Voice, one of the earliest underground American newspapers. He was a columnist ("Big Bite") at Esquire (1962-63) and Commentary (1962-63), a member of the executive board (1968-73), and the president (1984-86) of PEN American Center. In 1969 he was an independent candidate for mayor of New York City. Mailer's campaign slogan was "No more bullshit." He came fourth with about 5 per cent of the vote.

The Presidential Papers (1963) established Mailer as one of the most vigorous essayists in America. He wanted to advise President Kennedy, but he did not like Lyndon Johnson's face. "Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the Gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision." (from The Presidential Papers, 1963) He used in The Armies of the Night (1968) the techniques of fiction, and studied his own reactions as a barometer of the events themselves. The work won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. In the same vein he wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) and Of a Fire on the Moon  (1970). In Cannibals and Christians (1966) Mailer accused American writers of not being able to produce works that would "clarify a nation's vision of itself".

When Mailer started to cover the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions in the 1960s, he placed himself at the center of American political and cultural life and also reported his observations on the civil rights movement, political assassinations and other upheavals. Mailer published essays in popular and men's magazines, such as Esquire and Playboy, as well as in more intellectual journals like Dissent, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books. "It is not routine to bring off a long novel when your ambition is more than major, when you will settle for nothing less than an attempt to write a great novel, and when you are into your sixties and not all that well." (Norman Mailer in The New York Review of Books, December 17, 1998)

Mailer's outspoken style led him in the 1970s into collision course with feminist movement. In The Prisoner of Sex (1971) Mailer proposed that gender might determine the way a person perceives and orders reality. In Kate Millett's Sexual Politics Mailer was labelled as the quintessential male chauvinist pig. Gore Vidal   compared Mailer's work to "three days of menstrual flow." ('Vidal, Gore' by Roger Chapman, in Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices, Volume 2, 2010, edited by Roger Chapman, p. 578) Mailer wrote a biography of the life and career of Marilyn Monroe, and published a highly successful true life novel, The Executioner's Song (1979) – In Cold Blood in Mailer's style. The story about the life and death of a convicted killer Gary Gilmore was based on face to face interviews, documents, records of court proceeding, and Mailer's trips to Utah and Oregon. The Fight (1975) was an account of the legendary bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Mobutu's totalitarian Zaïre. Mailer's vision of boxing bears similarities to Hemingway's picture of bullfighting, both of them classed as creative art.

Mailer never met Marilyn Monroe, but was fascinated with her life and death for decades. Eventually he wrote two books about her, Marilyn (1973) and Of Women and Their Elegance (1980). Mailer's daughter Kate was cast in the role of Marilyn in his one-act play Strawhead (1986), which was produced at the Actors' Studio in New York City.

When the Italian director Sergio Leone started to work on his gangster film Once Upon a Time in America (1984), he asked Mailer to help with the screenplay. The film was based on the 1953 novel The Hoods by Harry Grey. Mailer barricaded himself in a Rome hotel room with several bottles of whisky, and spent there some three weeks, writing the script. "We could hear him singing, cursing and shouting for ice cubes from about ten blocks away!" Leone said later. Grey, a former Sing-Sing prisoner, met the author in New York, and was not happy with his adaptation of the book. "Mailer, at least to my eyes, the eyes of an old fan, is not a writer for the cinema", concluded Leone.

In the 1980s Mailer had become tired of politics. After visiting the Soviet Union in March 1983 he realized that it was not "the evil empire" but a "poor, third-world country". Although Mailer often compared the U.S. to the Roman empire, Ancient Evenings (1983), with its slight parallels to today's America, was set in the ancient Egypt (1290-1100 BC). It took 11 years to complete the ambitious novel. Anthony Burgess characterized it as "one of the great works of contemporary mythopoesis". "Is one human? Or merely alive? Like a blade of grass equal to all existence in the moment it is torn? Yes. If pain is fundament, then a blade of grass can know all there is." (from Ancient Evenings)

With Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), a thriller, Mailer returned to the movie business – he wrote the screenplay for the film and directed it. The protagonist, Tim Madden, is an unsuccessful writer addicted to bourbon and women. He awakens with a hangover. He remembers practically nothing of the night before and then he finds in the nearby woods the severed head of a blonde. "Horror films do not prepare us for the hours lost in searching after one clear thought. Waking from nightmares and sleeping in terror, I climbed at last onto one conclusion. Assuming I was no part of this deed – and how could I be certain of that? – I still had to ask: Who was?"

Mailer supported the Persian Gulf War for patriotic reasons in 1991, feeling that the U.S. was in a bad state and needed a war. Harlot's Ghost, which the author himself considered one of his best books, was a 1300 pages long chronicle of the CIA. While gathering material, Mailer also found not previously known Russian documents for Oswald's Tale (1995), his exhaustive biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mailer concludes the case by referring to Dreiser and stating that "one would like to have used 'An American Tragedy' as the title for this journey through Oswald's beleaguered life".

The Gospel According to the Son (1997) was a relatively mild retelling of the Jesus story, compared to Nikos Kazantzákis novel The Last Temptations of Christ (1955) or Jose Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991). The book continued his series of portraits of well-known figures, starting from Monroe and Muhammad Ali to Gary Gilmore and Harvey Oswald, and implying thus more or less directly, that the story of Jesus runs parallel with non-stop obsession with the lives of celebrities and notorious characters. The Time of Our Time (1998) was an anthology of Mailer's fiction and non-fiction. "Yet what this volume makes clear, if it were not already quite apparent, is that Mr. Mailer's strength lies in non-fiction, not in fiction." (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, May 8, 1998) Mailer celebrated his 80th birthday in New York and published The Spooky Art (2003), a collection of writings about writing.

Mailer was awarded in 2005 the National Book Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. His final novel, The Castle in the Forest  (2007), about the young Adolf Hitler, formed in a way a complementary pair to the The Gospel According to the Son. The story was narrated by a devil. Mailer died of renal failure on November 10, 2007, in Manhattan, at the age of 84. Mailer was married six times. Before his death, Mailer embarked on a series of conversations with his friend and literary executor J. Michael Lennon. "... I feel no attachment whatsoever to organized religion", Mailer said in their book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2008), which was published posthumously. "I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist. I see human beings as His most developed artworks." Mailer was a bookworm. His last wife, Norris Church, has said that he spent $1,000 a month on books. According to Lennon, there were more than 7,000 volumes in his three libraries at different locations. ('The Naked and the Read: Inside Norman Mailer's Library' by J. Michael Lennon, Times Literary Supplement, Issue 5997, Mar. 9, 2018)

For further reading: Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford (2023); Mailer's Last Days: New and Selected Remembrances of a Life in Literature by J. Michael Lennon (2022); In Another Place: With and Without My Father, Norman Mailer by Susan Mailer (2019); The Cinema of Norman Mailer: Film Is Like Death, edited by Justin Bozung (2017); Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon (2013); Norman Mailer and the Modernist Turn by Jerry Schuchalter (2015); Mornings with Mailer: A Recollection of Friendship by Dwayne Raymond (2010); Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso (2008); Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (2006); The Last Party by Adele Mailer (2004); The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer by Barry H. Leeds (2002); Ex-Friends by Norman Podhoretz (1999); Mailer: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn (1999); The Last Party by Adele Mailer (1997); Norman Mailer by Michael K. Glenday (1995); Norman Mailer Revisited by R. Merrill (1992); The Lives of Norman Mailer by C.E. Rollyson (1991); Radical Fiction and the Novels of Norman Mailer by N. Leigh (1990); Norman Mailer's America by Joseph Wenke (1987); Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, ed. by J. Michael Lennon (1986); Norman Mailer, ed. by Harold Bloom (1986); Norman Mailer: His Life and Times, ed. by Peter Manso (1985); Mailer: A Biography by Hilary Mills (1982); Norman Mailer by Robert Erlich (1978); Existential Battles by Laura Adams (1976) 

Selected works:

  • The Naked and the Dead, 1948
    - Alastomat ja kuolleet (suom. Jorma Partanen, 1951)
    - film 1958, prod. Paul Gregory Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Raoul Walsh, screenplay Norman Mailer, Denis Sanders, Terry Sanders, starring Aldo Ray, Cliff Robertson, Raymond Massey, William Campbell, Richard Jaecel
  • Barbary Shore, 1951
  • The Deer Park, 1955
    - Hirvipuisto (suom. Kaarina Jaatinen, 1958)
  • The White Negro, 1957
  • Advertisements for Myself, 1959
  • Deaths for the Ladies, 1962
  • The Presidential Papers, 1963
  • Gargoyle, Guignol, False Closet, 1964 (privately printed)
  • An American Dream, 1965
    - Amerikkainen unelma (suom. Antti Salomaa, 1965)
    - film 1966, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, directed by Robert Gist, screenplay Mann Rubin, Norman Mailer, Howard Rodman (uncredited), starring Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Eleanor Parker, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, J.D. Cannon
  • Cannibals and Christians, 1966
  • The Bullfight - A Photographic Narrative, 1967 (with Robert Daley, Peter Buckley and Bob Cato)
  • Why Are We in Vietnam?, 1967
  • The Deer Park: A Play, 1967
  • The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, 1967
  • Beyond the Law, 1968 (screenplay)
    - film 1968, prod. Evergreen, Supreme Mix Productions, written and directed by Norman Mailer, starring Ripn Torn, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Mickey Knox 
  • The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel: The Novel as History, 1968 (awarded with the Pulitzer Prize)
    - Yön armeijat (suom. Eero Mänttäri, 1968)
  • The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings, on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1968
  • Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968, 1968
  • Running against the Machine: The Mailer-Breslin Campaign, 1969 (edited by Peter Manso)
  • Of a Fire on the Moon, 1970 (serialised in Life magazine in 1969 and 1970)
  • Maidstone, 1970 (screenplay)
    - film 1970, prod. Supreme Mix Productions, written and directed by Norman Mailer, starring Norman Mailer, Rip Torn, Paul Austin, Joy Bang, Beverly Bentley, Jean Campbell 
  • The Prisoner of Sex, 1971
    - documentary 1979: The Bloody Hall, prod. Pennebaker Hegedus Films, dir. Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker, starring Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos, Jill Johnston
  • King of the Hill: Norman Mailer on the Fight of the Century, 1971
  • The Long Patrol: 25 Years of Writing from the Work of Norman Mailer, 1971 (edited by and with an introd. by Robert F. Lucid)
  • Maidstone; a Mystery, 1971
  • St. George and The Godfather, 1972
  • Existential Errands, 1972
  • Marilyn: A Biography, 1973 (the MacDowell Colony Medal)
    - TV film 1980, prod. Schiller Productions Inc., directed by Jack Arnold, John Flynn, Lawrence Schiller, screenplay Norman Mailer, Dalene Young, starring Catherine Hicks (as Marilyn Monroe), Richard Basehart (as Johnny Hyde), Frank Converse (as Joe DiMaggio), John Ireland (as John Huston), Jason Miller (as Arthur Miller)  
  • The Faith of Graffiti, 1974 (aka Watching My Name Go By, with Jon Naar)  
  • The Fight, 1975
  • Genius and Lust: A Journey through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976 
  • Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions, 1960-1972, 1976
  • The Executioner's Song, 1979 (awarded with the Pulitzer-prize)
    - Pyövelin laulu (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1985)
    - TV film 1982, prod. Film Communications Inc., directed by Lawrence Schiller, screenplay Norman Mailer, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Christine Lahti, Rosann Arquette, Eli Wallach
  • Of Women and Their Elegance, 1980 (photos. by Milton H. Greene)
  • Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots, 1980
  • Pieces, 1982
  • Pontifications: Interviews, 1982  (edited by Michael Lennon)
  • The Essential Mailer, 1982
  • The Last Night: A Story, 1984
  • Ancient Evenings, 1984
    - Muinaiset illat (suom. Juhani Karve, 1984)
  • Tough Guys Don't Dance, 1984
    - Kovat kundit eivät tanssi (suom. Arto Häilä, 1986)
    - film 1987, prod. Golan-Globus Productions, Zoetrope Studios, written and directed by Norman Mailer, starring Ryan O'Neal, Isabella Rosselini, Debra Sandlund, Wings Hauser. A parody of the Chandler's style and film noir.
  • Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100, 1985
  • Harlot's Ghost, 1991
    - Porton haamu (suom. Arto Häilä, 1994)
  • Pablo and Fernande: Portrait of Picasso As a Young Man, 1994 (as Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography, 1995) 
  • Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery, 1995
  • The Gospel According to the Son, 1997
    - Pojan evankeliumi (suom. Heikki Salojärvi, 1998)
  • The Time of Our Time, 1998
  • American Tragedy, 2000 (teleplay)
    - TV movie 2000, prod. 20th Century Fox Television, Fox Television Studios, Lawrence Schiller Productions, dir. Lawrence Schiller, teleplay Norman Mailer, with Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth, starring Ving Rhames, Ron Silver and Bruno Kirby
  • Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story, 2002 (screenplay)
    - TV film 2002, prod. Production Co:20th Century Fox Television, Fox Television Studios, Lawrence Schiller Productions, directed by Lawrence Schiller, starring William Hurt, Mary-Louise Parker and David Strathairn
  • Into the Mirror: The Life of Master Spy Robert P. Hanssen, 2002 (based upon an investigation by Norman Mailer and Lawrence Schiller; dramatized for television by N. Mailer)
  • The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, 2003
  • Why Are We At War?, 2003
  • Modest Gifts: Poems and Drawings, 2003
  • The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America, 2006 (with John Buffalo Mailer)
  • The Castle in the Forest, 2007
    - Adolfin linna (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, Tommi Uschanov, 2007)
  • Correspondance, 1949-1986 / Norman Mailer, Jean Malaquais, 2008 (translated into French by Hélène Ancel) 
  • On God: An Uncommon Conversation, 2008 (with Michael Lennon)
  • Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays, 2013 (edited by Phillip Sipiora; introduction by Jonathan Lethem)
  • Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, 2014 (edited by J. Michael Lennon)
  • Collected Essays of the 1960s, 2018 (edited by J. Michael Lennon)
  • Norman Mailer : the Naked and the Dead & Selected Letters 1945-1946, 2023 (edited by J. Michael Lennon)

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