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Norman (Kingsley) Mailer Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Long Branch, New Jersey, 1923. Education: Boys' High School, Brooklyn, New York, graduated 1939; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (associate editor, Harvard Advocate), 1939-43, S.B. (cum laude) in aeronautical engineering 1943; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1947. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1944-46: Sergeant. Career: Co-founder, 1955, and columnist, 1956, Village Voice, New York; columnist ("Big Bite"), Esquire, New York, 1962-63, and Commentary, New York, 1962-63. Member of the Executive Board, 1968-73, and president, 1984-86, PEN American Center; Independent Candidate for Mayor of New York City, 1969. Lives in Brooklyn, New York. Awards: Story prize, 1941; American Academy grant, 1960; National Book award, for non-fiction, 1969; Pulitzer prize, for non-fiction, 1969, 1980; MacDowell medal, 1973; National Arts Club gold medal, 1976. D. Litt.: Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1969. Member: American Academy, 1985. Agent: Scott Meredith Literary Agency, 845 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10022.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Naked and the Dead. New York, Rinehart, 1948; London, Wingate, 1949; 50th anniversary edition, with a new introduction by the author, New York, Holt, 1998.

Barbary Shore. New York, Rinehart, 1951; London, Cape, 1952.

The Deer Park. New York, Putnam, 1955; London, Wingate, 1957.

An American Dream. New York, Dial Press, and London, Deutsch, 1965.

Why Are We in Vietnam? New York, Putnam, 1967; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

A Transit to Narcissus: A Facsimile of the Original Typescript, edited by Howard Fertig. New York, Fertig, 1978.

Ancient Evenings. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Macmillan, 1983.

Tough Guys Don't Dance. New York, Random House, and London, Joseph, 1984.

Harlot's Ghost. New York, Random House, and London, Joseph, 1991.

The Gospel According to the Son. New York, Random House, 1997.

The Time of Our Time. New York, Random House, 1998.

Short Stories

New Short Novels 2, with others. New York, Ballantine, 1956.

Advertisements for Myself (includes essays and verse). New York, Putnam, 1959; London, Deutsch, 1961.

The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer. New York, Dell, 1967.

The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (not same as 1967 book). New York, Pinnacle, 1981; London, New English Library, 1982.

Plays

The Deer Park, adaptation of his own novel (produced New York, 1960; revised version, produced New York, 1967). New York, Dial Press, 1967; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

A Fragment from Vietnam (as D.J., produced Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1967). Included in Existential Errands, 1972.

Maidstone: A Mystery (screenplay and essay). New York, New American Library, 1971.

Screenplays:

Wild 90, 1968; Beyond the Law, 1968; Maidstone, 1971; The Executioner's Song, 1982; Tough Guys Don't Dance, 1987.

Poetry

Deaths for the Ladies and Other Disasters. New York, Putnam, and London, Deutsch, 1962.

Other

The White Negro. San Francisco, City Lights, 1957.

The Presidential Papers. New York, Putnam, 1963; London, Deutsch, 1964. Cannibals and Christians. New York, Dial Press, 1966; London, Deutsch, 1967.

The Bullfight. New York, Macmillan, 1967. The Armies of the Night: The Novel as History, History as a Novel. New York, New American Library, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968. New York, New American Library, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.

The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. New York, Dell, 1968.

Of a Fire on the Moon. Boston, Little Brown, 1971; as A Fire on the Moon, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

The Prisoner of Sex. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

The Long Patrol: 25 Years of Writing from the Works of Norman Mailer, edited by Robert F. Lucid. Cleveland, World, 1971.

King of the Hill: On the Fight of the Century. New York, New American Library, 1971.

Existential Errands. Boston, Little Brown, 1972; included in The Essential Mailer, 1982.

St. George and the Godfather. New York, New American Library, 1972.

Marilyn: A Novel Biography. New York, Grosset and Dunlap, and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1973.

The Faith of Graffiti, with Mervyn Kurlansky and John Naar. New York, Praeger 1974; as Watching My Name Go By, London, Mathews Miller Dunbar, 1975.

The Fight. Boston, Little Brown, 1975; London, Hart Davis MacGibbon, 1976.

Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions 1960-1972. Boston, Little Brown, 1976.

Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, with Henry Miller. New York, Grove Press, 1976.

The Executioner's Song: A True Life Novel (on Gary Gilmore). Boston, Little Brown, and London, Hutchinson, 1979.

Of Women and Their Elegance, photographs by Milton H. Greene. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

The Essential Mailer. London, New English Library, 1982.

Pieces and Pontifications (essays and interviews). Boston, Little Brown, 1982; London, New English Library, 1983.

Huckleberry Finn: Alive at 100. Montclair, New Jersey, Caliban Press, 1985.

Conversations with Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Pablo and Fernande: Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man. New York, Talese, 1994; published as Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.

Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery. New York, Random House, 1995.

*

Bibliography:

Norman Mailer: A Comprehensive Bibliography by Laura Adams, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1974.

Critical Studies (selection):

Norman Mailer by Richard Foster, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1968; The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer by Barry H. Leeds, New York, New York University Press, 1969; Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, New York, Doubleday, 1970, London, Hart Davis, 1971; Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work edited by Robert F. Lucid, Boston, Little Brown, 1971; Norman Mailer by Richard Poirier, London, Collins, and New York, Viking Press, 1972; Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Leo Braudy, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1972; Down Mailer's Way by Robert Solotaroff, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1974; Norman Mailer: A Critical Study by Jean Radford, London, Macmillan, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1975; Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer by Laura Adams, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1976; Mankind in Barbary: The Individual and Society in the Novels of Norman Mailer by Stanley T. Gutman, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1976; Norman Mailer by Philip Bufithis, New York, Ungar, 1978; Norman Mailer, Boston, Twayne, 1978, and Norman Mailer Revisited, New York, Twayne, 1992, both by Robert Merrill; Norman Mailer: The Radical as Hipster by Robert Ehrlich, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1978; Norman Mailer's Novels by Sandy Cohen, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1979; Norman Mailer, Quick-Change Artist by Jennifer Bailey, London, Macmillan, 1979, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1980; Acts of Regeneration: Allegory and Archetype in the Work of Norman Mailer by Robert J. Begiebing, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1980; An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer by Andrew M. Gordon, Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980; Mailer: A Biography by Hilary Mills, New York, Empire, 1982, London, New English Library, 1983; Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso, New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Viking, 1985; Mailer's America by Joseph Wenke, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1987; Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer by Nigel Leigh, London, Macmillan, 1990; The Lives of Norman Mailer by Carl Rollyson, New York, Paragon House, 1991; Norman Mailer by Brian Morton, London, Arnold, 1991; Norman Mailer by Michael K. Glenday, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer by Adele Mailer, New York, Barricade Books, 1997; Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer by Norman Podhoretz, New York, Free Press, 1999.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: FilmsWild 90, 1968; Beyond the Law, 1968; Maidstone, 1971; Tough Guys Don't Dance, 1987. Actor: Films—his own films, and Ragtime, 1981.

* * *

A formal distinction between fiction and non-fiction, or between fiction and journalism, is not the most helpful way to approach either the direction or the value of Norman Mailer's work. Involving himself directly with public events as well as private concerns, reporting on activities as diverse as protest marches, prizefights, the moon landing, political conventions, and the life of the first man executed for murder in America in more than ten years, Mailer characteristically blurs, argues about, and plays with the conventional categories of fiction and non-fiction. The public events he reports become metaphors that clarify and demonstrate the issues he sees as significant, apocalyptic, or destructive about contemporary America. This combination of reporting with a personal fictive vision underlies some of Mailer's best and most searching prose, particularly The Armies of the Night or much of The Executioner's Song. Mailer began his career with a much more conventional idea of the difference between fiction and non-fiction, for, in the early novel The Deer Park, he had Sergius O'Shaugnessy, the young Air Force veteran trying to become a writer in the "new" Hollywood off-shoot of Desert D'Or, smugly certain that "a newspaperman is obsessed with finding the facts in order to tell a lie, and a novelist is a galley-slave to his imagination so he can look for the truth." More central to Mailer's later, more complicated, fiction and reporting is another statement from the same novel, the remark by Charles Eitel, the failed and (in the 1950s) politically suspect Hollywood writer and director, musing that "the artist was always divided between his desire for power in the world and his desire for power over his work." This emphasis on power, on the capacity to change both public and private circumstances, is never far from the center of Mailer's consciousness.

Rather than using any formal means of distinguishing one example of Mailer from another, the reader recognizes that a problem of selectivity, of what to include and what to exclude, is always visible. At times, Mailer seems to concentrate too repetitiously for too long on the relatively trivial or excessively personal, as in the rather stereotyped and remote satire of Hollywood in The Deer Park, all the legalisms of the last third or so of The Executioner's Song, or the defense of his own part in literary squabbles at the beginning of The Prisoner of Sex. Frequently, as he recognized himself in The Presidential Papers, he lacks a sense of proportion, is not sure about "how to handicap the odds."

Mailer's considerable literary ambition and the popular success of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, published when he was just twenty-five, placed his own development as a writer in a highly public focus. In spite of all the claims (many of them not from Mailer himself) about the "new" voice of his generation, his first three novels were somewhat literary and derivative. The Naked and the Dead, the novel about the platoon fighting both the Japanese and its own army on a Pacific island during World War II, shows considerable allegiance to the fiction of Hemingway and Dos Passos, as well as deference to the ethnic mix visible in Hollywood films made during the war. Barbary Shore, probably the best of the three novels, taking place in a Brooklyn rooming house after the war, using characters to debate all the various perspectives of radical politics in the 1930s, and ending with no resolution for the young alienated writer, is reminiscent of James T. Farrell. And The Deer Park, depicting the Hollywood world of drugs, pimps, mate-swapping, and politics, contains echoes of Fitzgerald and Nathanael West without the force of originality of either, all seen at a great distance, as if the chronicle of events could shock with nothing of the feelings rendered. Although interesting, often competent, and (particularly Barbary Shore) full of excellent description, this fiction was more distinctive in aim than in achievement. Mailer's perspective, however, changed considerably in the middle and late 1950s, a change first visible in the 1957 essay The White Negro, a recognition of the clash of cultures and the violence endemic in American life. In that essay, as well as in the work that followed, Mailer began to associate imagination and creativity with the position of a sociological minority, a potentially healthy underside of American life. As he later, in The Presidential Papers, explained, he had not earlier acknowledged his own secret admiration for his violent characters in The Naked and the Dead, his own obsession with violence. From The White Negro on, although still disapproving strongly of the "inhuman" or abstract violence of technology, Mailer recognized the possibilities of creative change through violence, both in himself and in others. He also began to probe himself more consciously as a metaphor for the larger world he described.

Mailer regards his central characters, whether in the persona of himself in works like The Armies of the Night or Miami and the Siege of Chicago or through fictional personae in the novels An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?, or Ancient Evenings, as "existential" heroes who constantly test the possible edges of human experience. Always in conflict, within themselves and with others, they dare, like Rojack walking around the parapet of the terrace high above New York, possible destruction in order to live all the possibilities of the self. Through action, they create the self, as Rojack does through murder, varieties of sexual experience, escape, criminality, and understanding. The self-creation involves a good deal of fear, as well as overcoming fear, for the hero must break away from the safe and familiar, acknowledging violence and destruction within himself. In Why Are We in Vietnam?, the novel of Texans on a bear hunt in Alaska, a metaphor that coalesces all those attitudes, tests, totems, and taboos that explain the American presence in Vietnam, the young voice, D.J., must create himself by recognizing and overcoming his own fear of the bear. The most frequent action in Mailer's work, which overcomes stasis and safety, is sex, the direct relationship with another being. In Ancient Evenings sexuality extends to procreation and lineage, speculations about new means of explaining human continuity and change. Each sexual encounter is a victory over isolation and abstraction, and, as Mailer explains in The Prisoner of Sex, he objects to masturbation and contraception because, in different ways, they prevent the fullest exploration of direct physical relationship. Mailer has always implicitly thought of sex in these terms, ending The Deer Park with a God-like voice intoning "think of Sex as Time, and time as the connection of new circuits." Yet the full development of self-creation through sexual experience, the sense of the orgasm as "the inescapable existential moment," detailed variously and explicitly, is in the work that follows The White Negro.

Mailer's "existentialism" is not simply private self-definition. In the first place, he frequently argues that existentialism is rootless unless one hypothesizes death as an "existential continuation of life," so that how one dies, how one faces destruction, matters. In addition, and emphasized much more frequently, Mailer's "existential" values are also social, the public consequences of definitions at the edges of experience. Social conflict is always visible, men defining themselves through the active public and social metaphors of parties, prize-fights, and wars. War (and Mailer frequently distinguishes "good" wars from "bad") has the possibility, seldom actually achieved, of changing the consciousness of a sufficient number of people to alter the whole society. Mailer began his definition of "existential politics" in 1960, with his essay called "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," on the nomination of John Kennedy for president at the convention in Los Angeles. He called Kennedy an "existential" leader because he displayed the capacity to commit himself to the "new" when "the end is unknown," a contrast to the safety and the public predictability of the Eisenhower years, although Mailer doubted that Kennedy had the "imagination" to create a wholly beneficial revolution. Yet, for Mailer, the potentiality for change and revolution, for self-creation on a public scale, is always there, a human impulse that if repressed or thwarted causes "cancer" on either the individual or social level. In these terms, Mailer, through subsequent "reports" on protests, political conventions, and public events, propounds both a vision and an analysis of contemporary American society.

In rather undiscerning popular terms, Mailer is often accused of a monstrous ego. Yet, the persona of "Norman Mailer," as it develops through many of the "journalistic" works, is highly complicated and self-critical, a metaphor for all the possibilities in contemporary man that the author can visualize and understand. As he explains in The Armies of the Night, he can accept the ambivalences of all the personae he adopts, "warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter." But the one persona he finds "insupportable" is that of "the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn," the one with which he began, which would deny his possibility to change and create himself. The personae of his later fiction are also complicated and carefully structured voices: the violent explosions, sensitivities, challenges, and social concerns of Rojack in An American Dream (still, to some extent, literary, as one critic, Richard Poirier, has explained, "both a throwback to Christopher Marlowe and … a figure out of Dashiell Hammett"); the scatology, sensitivity, fear, bravery, and self-recognition of D.J. in Why Are We in Vietnam? These voices, rhetorical and linguistic creations of a point of view, effectively express much of Mailer's complexity, although they lack something of the arch self-criticism (though not the humor) and the multiplicity of the persona of Norman Mailer who enriches The Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon, and whose implicit and more self-abnegating presence created The Executioner's Song. As personae, creative and capacious as they are, Rojack and D.J. can sound slightly more insistent, missing something of the "Norman Mailer" acknowledged incapacity to represent immediately all of America.

More recent examples of Mailer's fiction extend the personae into different forms. Ancient Evenings, an ambitious novel on which he worked for more than a decade, magnifies Mailer's scope as cultural historian. Set in Egypt over two centuries more than a thousand years before Christ, the novel locates the historical genesis and implications of many of Mailer's ideas concerning sexuality, lineage, violence, public power, society, and religion. Critically regarded as either the most probing or most pretentious of Mailer's fictions, Ancient Evenings manifests the enormous intellectual risks which the persona confronts. A much more limited and comic side to Mailer is visible in Tough Guys Don't Dance, his contemporary extension of Dashiell Hammett's world. The form, the multiple killings and suicides, as well as their discovery by the "macho" narrator who could have but, in fact, did not commit them, leaves room for many characteristic digressions. In addition to the central charting of the "tough guy" lineage, Mailer includes pages on topics such as the geological and historical topography of Provincetown, the implications of different uses of adjectives in the prose of Hemingway and Updike, the horrors for an addict of giving up smoking, and the inverse relationship between cancer and schizophrenia—all done with a sharp infusion of the comic that fits both the style and substance of Mailer's personae.

Both Harlot's Ghost and Oswald's Tale are massive books that mythologize the not-so-distant American past—CIA shenanigans in the case of the former, the Kennedy assassination in the case of the latter—and both met with mixed receptions. To some, the two volumes constituted a virtual poetry of espionage, Melville meets John le Carré; to others, they were yawning door-stoppers full of digressions, unbelievable dialogue, and bad grammar. One can hardly doubt the lengths to which Mailer went in his research, however: for Oswald's Tale, he and business partner Lawrence Schiller travelled to the former Soviet Union and studied old files kept on Oswald during Oswald's two-and-a-half-year stay in the country. For The Gospel According to the Son, the author tackled no less a story than that of Jesus, which he tells in first person: thus the protagonist confesses that during his famous verbal battle with Satan in the wilderness, he felt ineffective, and it seemed that "my words were like straw."

As a writer, Mailer is variously talented. He is a superb journalist, always aware of the differences between what an observer sees directly and what he creates. He is an excellent literary critic, as in his attack on Kate Millett and his defenses of Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence in The Prisoner of Sex. He can describe pictorially and movingly, as in Of a Fire on the Moon, or select brilliantly to chronicle American life, as in most of The Executioner's Song. More than any of these, he is consciously, seriously, humorously, and often convincingly the heir to a tradition of American visionaries, the writer who can create, in terms of the imagination, a new consciousness for his time and his country. In spite of his prolixity, his repetition, his occasional tendency to simplify polarities (his arguments against "technology" can become a rant that denies his own understanding of science), and his occasional insistence on the literal applications of his own metaphors (as in parts of The Prisoner of Sex), Mailer has achieved something of his own revolutionary form in transforming the consciousness of others.

—James Gindin

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