When Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948 it was all but universally acclaimed as a major novel marking the appearance of a new American writer destined for greatness. During the next twenty years, however, though he had some warm defenders, the negative judgments among critics substantially outnumbered the positive as book after book appeared: novels, a play, collections of stories and poems, and gatherings of essays and other fugitive pieces. And yet, unlike most of his generation of novelists—the "war novelists" and the urban Jewish writers—he has pursued a course of individualistic development and change which has continued to command the attention of peers, critics, and public; if his readers have sometimes been baffled and frequently hostile, they have grown ever more interested. To use a Maileresque analogy, he has rather resembled an overmatched boxer who, floored in the second round, springs back and sustains the fight far beyond expectations through variety and inventiveness of footwork and temporizing punches.
The match is still not decided. But however it finally comes out, there can be no doubt that the overmatched boxer will at the very least be remembered for his remarkable performance. Mailer's adversary through the 1950's and 1960's has been the current embodiment of operative cultural and literary norms, that plodding but powerful opponent of idiosyncrasy and innovation which Eliot long ago dubbed "the tradition." Mailer had won his first round with a skillful and moving but conventional novel in the realist-naturalist vein. Everything since The Naked and____________________