Mailer, Norman

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Mailer, Norman

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 in which the author is a character who participates in the events he describes. 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 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), Marilyn (1973), a study of Marilyn Monroe, and Mind of an Outlaw (2013), an essay collection.

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), M. V. Dearborn (1999), and J. M. Lennon (2013); 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).

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