Normal Mailer used to be VERY IMPORTANT. He wrote what was said to be the great World War II novel – The Naked and the Dead (it wasn’t even then and certainly is not now). He took over Hemingway‘s mantle as America’s tough guy novelist – drinking heavily, getting into brawls, marrying several times, beating up his wife, even running for political office. He wanted to be important. If I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoevsky, and Marx, Joyce and Freud, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler, Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read – for it would carry what they had written another part of the way. But now it all seems so trivial and petty and poor old Norman is no longer important. Indeed, he doesn’t really matter at all. And no-one reads him, particularly not the ten avatars named above.
Norman was born in New Jersey – where else? – specifically in Long Branch, in 1923. His father, a Russian Jew, had served in the British Army and came to the USA shortly after World War I. They moved to Brooklyn when Norman was four. He wrote his first large work when he was seven, a science-fiction epic about Earth invading Mars. When he was sixteen, he went to Harvard to study engineering but discovered writing and won a prize in Story magazine’s college contest. He wrote a novel – by his own account it was no good and it was never published. His first published work – a novella – was a year after he graduated from Harvard. In 1944, he married his first wife, Bea Silverman, and joined the army.
After doing a variety of jobs in the army, he finally saw some action and this action was the basis for his novel The Naked and the Dead. This novel was published in 1948 and made his reputation. His second published novel, Barbary Shore, was a critical failure, not least because it was expected to be another The Naked and the Dead. He divorced Bea and married the painter, Adele Morales. His third novel, Deer Park set in Hollywood, was also a critical failure. His next work, a pamphlet called The White Negro, which praised the bravery of the hoodlum, was highly controversial and let him in a for a lot of criticism. This was the period in his life when sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll took over – booze, drugs, women and fights, with Adele the victim of a stabbing at his hands. She did not press charges but they did divorce and Mailer married Lady Jeanne Campbell, a British woman. The marriage soon broke up and he married an actress, Beverly Bentley.
Mailer was publishing at this time but not successfully. His poems – Deaths of the Ladies – were rightly damned, though his book of political essays – The Presidential Papers – did better. His next novel, was serialised in Esquire but the reviews of it were very critical, not least because the hero, Rojack, murders his wife. After publishing the collection of essays, Cannibals and Christians, he made two films, Wild 90, with Beverly Broadbent and Mailer and Beyond the Law, with Beverly Broadbent, Mailer, Rip Torn and George Plimpton. Neither had any critical or commercial success. Why Are We in Vietnam? had a lot more success. It was, of course, nothing to do with Vietnam but about bear-hunting in Alaska. I have met people who have claimed this is one of the best novels ever. It isn’t.
His two non-fiction works – The Armies of the Night, about the Vietnam War protest at the Pentagon, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, about the political conventions – were his most successful, both critically and commercially, since The Naked and the Dead. Unfortunately, the success went to his head and he decided to run for Mayor of New York. He did not win. His next book was also a critical success – Of a Fire on the Moon about the Apollo space mission. However, his pathetic sexist The Prisoner of Sex and his public brawling with Gore Vidal won him no friends. Marilyn, his book on Marilyn Monroe, was successful but The Fight, on the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle, was less so. The Executioner’s Song, a huge work on the execution of Gary Gilmore, the first criminal to be executed in the United States for ten years, brought Mailer his second Pulitzer. The following year he married and divorced Carol Stevens and married Norris Church in the same week (to legitimise their children).
His next controversy was his assistance to Jack Abbott, a convicted killer, who wanted to publish a collection of prison letters, In the Belly of the Beast. Mailer helped to get Abbott released. Six weeks after his release, he murdered a man over the use of a restroom. His next novel, a massive bore on ancient Egypt called Ancient Evenings, was trashed by critics but the public seemed to like it and it became a bestseller. His next novel was a thriller called Tough Guys Don’t Dance, which he also filmed. It was a flop. His two CIA novels – Harlot’s Ghost and Oswald’s Tale had mixed success, as did Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man and The Gospel according to the Son. The Time of Our Time is a greatest hits collection.
Mailer continued to think he was great and he still has many supporters. However, history will be less kind to him. He has too many failures, too many weaknesses and, frankly, the tough guy act does not sell any more with the literati. He won’t be forgotten but he is not the Great American Novelist he thought he was going to be. Poor Norman. He died in 2007. And here is what one blogger said about him.
Books about Norman Mailer
Joe Flaherty: Managing Mailer
Donald Kaufmann: Norman Mailer: the Countdown; the First Twenty Years
Peter Manso: Mailer: His Life and Times
Hilary Mills: Mailer: A Biography
Carl Rollyson: The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography
Norman Mailer’s 10 Favorite American novels
Norman Mailer’s Proust Questionnaire Responses
Norman Mailer’s testimony at the Chicago 7 Trial
Norman Mailer: Autocrat of the Remainder Table
Norman Mailer (an article about his non fiction writings but includes Why Are We in Vietnam?)
Only in America (article by Mailer)
The Norman Mailer Society
Articles by Mailer in The New York Times
Obituary and interview
1948 The Naked and the Dead
1951 Barbary Shore
1955 Deer Park
1957 The White Negro
1959 Advertisements for Myself
1962 Death for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (poetry)
1963 The Presidential Papers
1965 An American Dream
1966 Cannibals and Christians
1967 The Bullfight: A Photographic Narrative
1967 Deer Park: A Play
1967 The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer
1967 Why Are We in Vietnam?
1968 The Armies of the Night
1968 The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings
1968 Miami and the Siege of Chicago
1970 Of Fire on the Moon
1971″King of the Hill”: On the Fight of the Century
1971 Maidstone: A Mystery
1971 The Long Patrol: 25 Years of Writing from the Work of Norman Mailer
1971 The Prisoner of Sex
1972 Existential Errands
1972 St. George and the Godfather
1974 The Faith of Graffiti
1975 The Fight
1976 Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions 1960-1976
1976 Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller
1978 A Transit to Narcissus
1979 The Executioner’s Song
1980 Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots
1980 Of Women and Their Elegance
1982 The Essential Mailer
1982 Pieces and Pontifications
1983 Ancient Evenings
1984 Tough Guys Don’t Dance
1984 The Last Night
1985 Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100
1985 A Fragment from Vietnam: A Play in One Act
1991 Harlot’s Ghost
1992 How the Wimp Won the War
1996 Oswald’s Tale
1995 Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man
1998 The Time of Our Time
2003 Why Are We At War?
2003 The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing
2006 The Castle in the Forest
2006 The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America
2007 On God: An Uncommon Conversation
2018 Collected Essays of the 1960s