Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer (Norman Kingsley Mailer), 1923–2007, American writer, b. Long Branch, N.J., grad. Harvard, 1943. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., served in the army during World War II, and at the age of 25 published The Naked and the Dead (1948). A partially autobiographical best seller, it was one of the most significant novels to emerge from the war and it catapulted Mailer to literary fame. His next two novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), were generally considered failures. More successful was An American Dream (1966), an exploration of sex, violence, and death in America—themes that Mailer was to revisit throughout his career—through the experiences of his semiautobiographical protagonist.

Mailer, who tended to view himself and his fictional protagonists in a heroic mode, was very much a public figure—pugnacious, self-promoting, and articulate, with a distinctive candid charm. He made frequent appearances at public events, in forums, and on television talk shows, making a variety of often controversial public pronouncements—aesthetic, philosophical, and political. In 1955 Mailer was one of the founders of The Village Voice newspaper, and in 1961 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City.

The Armies of the Night (1968; Pulitzer Prize), a dramatic account of the 1967 anti–Vietnam War march on Washington, D.C., is one of the earliest works to make use of the personalized style that came to be called New Journalism and is one of Mailer's most significant books. In it and in later books and essays, he pioneered the usage of novelistic techniques in nonfiction works. Among his other journalistic works are Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1969), on the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions; A Fire on the Moon (1971), an account of the Apollo 11 moon flight; and the brilliantly novelistic The Executioner's Song (1979, Pulitzer Prize), the epic story of the life and execution of killer Gary Gilmore, a book that many consider his masterpiece. The Prisoner of Sex (1971) is Mailer's generally oppositional response to the women's liberation movement. He also wrote "interpretive biographies," Oswald's Tale (1995), a study of the life of President Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man (1995), on the youth of Pablo Picasso.

Mailer's later novels tend to be long and intricate, and they met with decidedly mixed reviews: Ancient Evenings (1983), which Mailer considered his best book, is set in pharaonic Egypt; Harlot's Ghost (1991) is a complex cold-war spy novel; and The Castle in the Forest (2007) is a fictional exploration of the boyhood of Adolf Hitler. A shorter detective novel, Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), was made into a film in 1985. He also wrote, directed, and acted in several movies, e.g., Maidstone (1970). Among his other works are the nonfiction The White Negro (1958), Advertisements for Myself (1959), and Marilyn (1973), a study of Marilyn Monroe.

See the large retrospective anthology of his work, The Time of Our Time (1998), and anthology of his writings on writing, The Spooky Art (2003); J. M. Lennon, ed., Pontifications: Interviews (1982) and Conversations with Norman Mailer (1988); memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, by his sixth wife, N. Church Mailer (2010); biographies by H. Mills (1982), P. Manso (1986), C. Rollyson (1991), and M. V. Dearborn (1999); studies by B. H. Leeds (1969, 2002), L. Braudy, ed. (1972), R. Poirier (1972), J. Radford (1975), R. Merrill (1978, 1992), S. Cohen (1979), J. M. Lennon, ed. (1986), H. Bloom, ed. (1986, repr. 2003), J. Wenke (1987), N. Leigh (1990), M. K. Glenday (1995), and B. H. Leeds (2002); bibliography by B. Sokoloff (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Norman Mailer
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1986
American Naturalistic and Realistic Novelists: A Biographical Dictionary
E. C. Applegate.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Norman Mailer" begins on p. 261
Encyclopedia of the Essay
Tracy Chevalier.
Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Mailer, Norman: American, 1923-" begins on p. 518
The (Jewish) White Negro: Norman Mailer's Racial Bodies
Levine, Andrea.
MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 2003
Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation
Donald Pizer.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1982
Librarian’s tip: "Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead" begins on p. 90
The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction
Barbara Lounsberry.
Greenwood Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Norman Mailer's Ages of Man"
Literary Selves: Autobiography and Contemporary American Nonfiction
James N. Stull.
Greenwood Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Armies of the Night: Norman Mailer's Performing Self"
The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America
Roger Kimball.
Encounter Books, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Norman Mailer's American Dream"
In the Mainstream: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1950s-1980s
Louis Harap.
Greenwood Press, 1987
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "The Jew Manque: Norman Mailer"
A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics
Irving Howe.
Horizon Press, 1963
Librarian’s tip: "A Quest for Peril: Norman Mailer" begins on p. 123
Contemporary American Novelists
Harry T. Moore.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1964
Librarian’s tip: "James Jones--Norman Mailer" begins on p. 106
The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem: A Lively Account of Famous Writers and Their Feuds
Myrick Land.
Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Mr. Norman Mailer Challenges All the Talent in the Room"
Rumbles Left and Right: A Book about Troublesome People and Ideas
William F. Buckley Jr.
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963
Librarian’s tip: "Instructing Norman Mailer on the True Meaning of the American Right Wing" begins on p. 71
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