- Category : Playwright
- Type : PSE
- Profile : 4/6 - Opportunistic / Role Model
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX The Four Ways 4
Norman Kingsley Mailer (January 31, 1923 – November 10, 2007) was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, playwright, film maker, actor and political candidate. His first novel was The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948. His best work was widely considered to be The Executioner's Song, which was published in 1979, and for which he won one of his two Pulitzer Prizes. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Mailer's book Armies of the Night was awarded the National Book Award.
Along with the likes of Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact-based journalism.
Mailer was also known for his essays, the most renowned of which was The White Negro. He was a major cultural commentator and critic, both through his novels, his journalism, his essays and his frequent media appearances.
In 1955, Mailer and three others founded The Village Voice, an arts and politics oriented weekly newspaper distributed in Greenwich Village.
Mailer was born to a well-known Jewish family in Long Branch, New Jersey. His father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was a South African-born accountant, and his mother, Fanny Schneider, ran a housekeeping and nursing agency. Mailer's sister, Barbara, was born in 1927.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, Mailer graduated from Boys' High School and entered Harvard University in 1939, when he was just 16 years old. As an undergraduate, he was a member of The Signet Society. At Harvard, he studied aeronautical engineering, and became interested in writing and published his first story at the age of 18, winning Story magazine's college contest in 1941. After graduating in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Hoping to defer from the war, Mailer argued that he was writing an “important literary work” which pertained to the war itself. This deferral was denied, and Mailer was forced to enter the Army. Having received training at Fort Bragg, Mailer was then stationed in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry. During his time in the Philippines, Mailer worked as a cook and saw little combat. He did, however, participate in a patrol on the island of Leyte. When asked about his war experiences, Mailer stated that “the army gave me but one lesson over and over again: when it came to taking care of myself, I had little to offer next to the practical sense of an illiterate sharecropper.” This lesson inspired Mailer to write his first novel, The Naked and the Dead.
In 1948, while continuing his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, a novel based on his military service in World War II. A New York Times best seller for 62 weeks, it was hailed by many as one of the best American wartime novels and named one of the "one hundred best novels in English language" by the Modern Library, although the book that made his reputation is rarely read today. The same newspaper described the book as:
a hard read today, a sprawling, cumbersome saga that reads like the fusion of literary ambition and severely limited artistic experience – as indeed it was. Its anachronistic use of "fug" and "fugging" in place of the real words now seems merely quaint, and the prose alternates between pedestrian and purple – little wonder that the young Mailer likened himself to Theodore Dreiser, arguably the worst prose stylist, none the less considered a major American novelist.
Barbary Shore (1951) was "mauled" by the critics. It was a surreal parable of Cold War left politics set in a Brooklyn rooming-house. His 1955 novel The Deer Park drew on his experiences working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1949–50. It was initially rejected by seven publishers due to its purportedly sexual content before being published by Putnam's. It was also not a success; at one point Mailer took out a full-page advertisement that defiantly quoted his many bad reviews.
Mailer wrote his fourth novel, An American Dream, as a serial in Esquire magazine over eight months (January to August 1964), publishing the first chapter only two months after he wrote it. In March 1965, Dial Press published a revised version. His editor was E. L. Doctorow. The novel received mixed reviews, but was a best seller. Joan Didion praised it in a review in National Review (April 20, 1965) and John W. Aldridge did the same in Life (March 19, 1965), while Elizabeth Hardwick panned it in Partisan Review (spring 1965).
In 1980, The Executioner's Song—Mailer's novelization of the life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore—won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Mailer spent a longer time writing Ancient Evenings—his novel of Egypt in the XX dynasty (about 1100 BCE.)—than any of his other books, working on it off and on from 1972 until 1983. It was also a bestseller, although reviews were generally negative.
Harlot's Ghost, Mailer's longest novel (1310 pages), appeared in 1991. It is an exploration of the unspoken dramas of the CIA from the end of World War II to 1965. He performed a huge amount of research for the novel, which is still on CIA reading lists. He ended the novel with the words "To be continued," and planned to write a sequel, titled Harlot's Grave, but other projects intervened and he never wrote it. Harlot's Ghost sold well.
His final novel, The Castle in the Forest, which focused on Hitler's childhood, reached number five on the Times best-seller list after publication in January 2007, and received stronger reviews than any of his books since The Executioner's Song. Castle was intended to be the first volume of a trilogy, but Mailer died several months after it was completed. The Castle in the Forest was awarded a Bad Sex in Fiction Award by the Literary Review magazine.
Mailer wrote over 40 books. He published 11 novels over a 59-year span.
The New Journalism
From the mid-1950s, Mailer became known for his counter-cultural essays. In 1955, he co-founded The Village Voice for which he wrote a column from January to April 1956. Mailer's famous essay "The White Negro" (1957) "analyzes and partly defends the moral radicalism of the outsider and hipster." It is one of the most anthologized, and controversial, essays of the postwar period. Mailer republished it in 1959 in a collection of essays entitled Advertisements for Myself.
In 1960, Mailer wrote Superman Comes to the Supermarket for Esquire magazine, an account of the emergence of John F. Kennedy during the Democratic party convention. The essay was an important breakthrough for the New Journalism of the nineteen sixties, but when the magazine's editors changed the title toSuperman Comes to the Supermart, Mailer was enraged, and would not write for Esquire for years. (The magazine later apologized, and subsequent references are to the original title.) One direct consequence of his anger was the publication of his long article, On the Steps of the Pentagon, a personal account of the massive October, 1967 anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., which Mailer sold to Harper's magazine. He later expanded the article to a book, The Armies of the Night (1968), awarded a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. His major New Journalism books also include Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968); Of a Fire on the Moon (1971); and The Prisoner of Sex (1971). Hallmarks of these works are a highly subjectivized style and a greater application of techniques from fiction-writing than common in journalism.
Mailer wrote a Playboy article about Elmo Henderson, a boxer who had defeated Muhammad Ali in 1972. In the 1970s Henderson filed a $1 million libel action against Mailer and Playboy. The magazine and Mailer lost the lawsuit.
The White Negro
"The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster" is a 9,000 word essay by Norman Mailer originally published in the 1957 issue of Dissent. This essay records the emerging trend of white appropriation of black culture, particularly with regards to jazz. These “white Negros” distanced themselves from white society and adopted black styles of clothing, music, language, and philosophy. Notions of the apocalypse, however, pervade this essay and define Mailer’s literary career up until 1980.
Norman Mailer’s first reflections upon the apocalypse appeared during the 1950s. The Cold War loomed large in American society as McCarthyism raged on Capitol Hill. The twenty-eight atomic detonations between 1946 and 1958 on Bikini Atoll, which many viewed as grandstanding on behalf of the United States, served to reaffirm the nuclear anxiety which Americans felt during the ‘age of conformity.’ Norman Mailer observed this anxiety in his controversial essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. Discussing the incalculable psychic scarring that the Second World War and the Cold War have had upon the collective American psyche, Mailer writes,
"For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality, could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked… a death by dues ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city."
The Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the Cold War led Mailer to reflect upon the lifestyles of African Americans in the African American and jazz cultures of the United States. Jazz was a reflection of what Mailer labeled the apocalyptic orgasm: living for instant gratification. Africans Americans, who have always lived on the fringes of America’s democratic society, Mailer argues, thrive in the post-war environment where the possibility of nuclear annihilation looms large in the American imagination. The “hipsters” African Americans to create meaning in their life through “orgasmically” surrendering to their primal urges and rejecting conformity as African Americans have historically. These individuals, therefore, are psychopathic: they embrace reality and reject the conformity of life in the 1950s, which tends to ignore the high probability of nuclear humiliation. In light of the Second World War, humanity stares into the abyss of its own nature searching for something with which to define itself; yet the “hipsters” who live orgasmically acquire the truth of life: this truth is not Democracy of Communism, but rather the intrinsic primal urges of humanity. The culture of conformity in the 1950s, therefore, is psychotic (legally insane): 1950s society refuses to realize the brutality of the world in which it exists—men and women continue working and living as if nuclear war were not frighteningly imminent. The hipster psychopaths are an accurate reflection of post-war life while the conventional suburban psychotics insanely ignore reality and continue the banality of their own existence.
However, Mailer does not subscribe to the philosophy of “hip.” Inherent in the philosophy of hip exists a strain of nihilism—doing what one wants whenever one wants given the looming threat of nuclear war. This nihilism, arguably, is embodied in the portrayal of Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song: this man lives as he wants, often stealing, and ultimately kills simply because he can. Artists, for Mailer, represent the only hope for post-war America. “God is in danger of dying,” he writes. God cannot save humanity from the Cold War, or from human nature itself. The Shits are Killing Us demonstrates that Mailer does not subscribe to nihilist principles. Mailer writes,
"There’s a great danger that the nihilism of Hip will destroy civilization. But it seems to me that the danger which is even more paramount—the danger which has brought on the Hip—is that civilization is so strong itself, so divorced from the senses, that we have come to the point where we can liquidate millions of people in concentration camps by orderly process."
Individuals, particularly “hipsters,” do not have to simply accept their apocalyptic fate. However, the politicians and policies of the United States offer no alternative to living apocalyptically: politicians encourage the Cold War by invading Vietnam and ignore the problems facing humanity by simply leaving earth and going to the moon. Artists, therefore, represent the only hope for post-war society. The goal of the artist, Mailer writes, is to “intensify, even, if necessary, exacerbate the moral consciousness of people.” Therefore, the responsibility for artists lies in creating a foundation upon which to construct a morality to awaken humanity to its fragile existence and guide it back from the brink of the apocalypse. In essence, artists must act as a new god for society. The themes of 'apocalypse' and morality pervade nearly all of Mailer's post-war work, and illuminate his beliefs regarding politics, war, and even women's liberation.
Work for film
In addition to his experimental fiction and nonfiction novels, Mailer produced a play version of The Deer Park (staged at the Theatre De Lys in Greenwich Village in 1967), and in the late 1960s directed a number of improvisational avant-garde films in a Warhol style, including Maidstone (1970), which includes a spontaneous and brutal brawl between Norman T. Kingsley, played by Mailer, and Kingsley's brother, played by Rip Torn. Mailer received a head injury when Torn struck him with a hammer. In 1987, he adapted and directed a film version of his novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, starring Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini, which has become a minor camp classic.
A number of Mailer's nonfiction works, such as The Armies of the Night and The Presidential Papers, are political. He covered the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1992, and 1996, although his account of the 1996 Democratic convention has never been published. In the early 1960s he was fixated on the figure of President John F. Kennedy, whom he regarded as an "existential hero." In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s his work mingled autobiography, social commentary, history, fiction, and poetry in a formally original way that influenced the development of New Journalism.
In September 1961 Mailer was one of the original twenty-nine prominent American sponsors of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee organization that was the same organization that John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald also became a member of in 1963. In December 1963 Mailer and several of the other sponsors left it. (some of the original twenty-nine sponsors of the group included Truman Capote, Robert Taber, James Baldwin, Robert F. Williams, Waldo Frank, Carleton Beals, Simone de Beauvoir, Robert Colodny, Donald Harrington, and Jean-Paul Sartre)
In October 1967, he was arrested for his involvement in an Anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the Pentagon sponsored by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
At the December 15, 1971, taping of The Dick Cavett Show, with Janet Flanner and Gore Vidal, Mailer, annoyed with a less-than-stellar review by Vidal of Prisoner of Sex, apparently headbutted Vidal and traded insults with him backstage. As the show began taping, a visibly belligerent Mailer, who admitted he had been drinking, goaded Vidal and Cavett into trading insults with him on air and continually referred to his "greater intellect". He openly taunted and mocked Vidal (who responded in kind), finally earning the ire of Flanner, who announced during the discussion that she was "becoming very, very bored", telling Mailer "You act as if you're the only people here." As Cavett made jokes comparing Mailer's intellect to his ego, Mailer stated "Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?", to which Cavett responded "Why don't you fold it 5 ways and put it where the moon don't shine?" A long laugh ensued, after which Mailer asked Cavett if he had come up with that line and Cavett replied "I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?". The headbutting and later on-air altercation was described by Mailer himself in his essay "Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots."
In 1980, Mailer spearheaded convicted killer Jack Abbott's successful bid for parole. In 1977, Abbott had read about Mailer's work on The Executioner's Song and wrote to Mailer, offering to enlighten the author about Abbott's time behind bars and the conditions he was experiencing. Mailer, impressed, helped to publish In the Belly of the Beast, a book on life in the prison system consisting of Abbott's letters to Mailer. Once paroled, Abbott committed a murder in New York City six weeks after his release, stabbing to death 22-year-old Richard Adan. Consequently, Mailer was subject to criticism for his role. In a 1992 interview with the Buffalo News, he conceded that his involvement was "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in."
The 1986 meeting of PEN in New York City featured key speeches by then-Secretary of State George Shultz and Mailer. The appearance of a government official was derided by many, and as Shultz ended his speech, the crowd seethed, with some calling to "read the protest" that had been circulated to criticize Shultz's appearance. Mailer, who was next to speak, responded by shouting to the crowd: "Up yours!"
In 1989, Mailer joined with a number of other prominent authors in publicly expressing support for colleague Salman Rushdie in the wake of the fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination issued by Iran's Islamic government for his having authored The Satanic Verses.
In 2003, in a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, just before the invasion of Iraq, Mailer said: "Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it."
From 1980 until his death in 2007, he contributed to Democratic Party candidacies for political office.
In 1969, at the suggestion of Gloria Steinem, his friend the political essayist Noel Parmentel and others, he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic Party primary for Mayor of New York City, allied with columnist Jimmy Breslin (who ran for City Council President), proposing the creation a 51st state through New York City secession. Although Mailer took stands on a wide range of issues, from opposing "compulsory fluoridation of the water supply" to advocating the release of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton, decentralization was the overriding issue of the campaign. Mailer "foresaw the city, its independence secured, splintering into townships and neighborhoods, with their own school systems, police departments, housing programs, and governing philosophies." Their slogan was "throw the rascals in". Mailer was endorsed by libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who "believed that 'smashing the urban government apparatus and fragmenting it into a myriad of constituent fragments' offered the only answer to the ills plaguing American cities," and called Mailer's campaign “the most refreshing libertarian political campaign in decades.” He came in fourth in a field of five. Looking back on the campaign, journalist and historian Theodore White called it "one of the most serious campaigns run in the United States in the last five years. . . . is campaign was considered and thoughtful, the beginning of an attempt to apply ideas to a political situation."
His biographical subjects included Pablo Picasso, Muhammad Ali, Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Marilyn Monroe.
Mailer's 1973 biography of Monroe (usually designated Marilyn: A Biography) was particularly controversial. The book's final chapter states that Monroe was murdered by agents of the FBI and CIA who resented her supposed affair with Robert F. Kennedy. In his own 1987 autobiography Timebends, the playwright Arthur Miller, a former husband to Monroe, wrote scathingly of Mailer: " was himself in drag, acting out his own Hollywood fantasies of fame and sex unlimited and power."
The book was also enormously successful, selling more copies than any of his works except The Naked and the Dead. It remained in print for decades, but was out of print in the United States as of 2009. It was the inspiration for the Emmy-nominated TV movie, Marilyn: The Untold Story, which aired in 1980.
Two later works co-written by Mailer presented imagined words and thoughts in Monroe's voice: the 1980 book Of Women and Their Elegance and the 1986 play Strawhead, which was produced off Broadway starring his daughter Kate Mailer.
Marriages and children
Norman Mailer was married six times and had nine children. He fathered eight children by his various wives and also raised and informally adopted Norris' son Matthew, from another marriage.
Norman's first marriage was in 1944, to Beatrice Silverman, whom he divorced in 1952. They had one child, Susan.
Mailer married his second wife, Adele Morales, in 1954. They had two daughters, Danielle and Elizabeth. On one occasion Mailer drunkenly stabbed her twice with a penknife, puncturing her pericardium and necessitating emergency surgery. His wife would not press charges, and he later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault, and was given a suspended sentence. While in the short term, Morales made a physical recovery, in 1997 she published a memoir of their marriage entitled The Last Party, which recounted her husband stabbing her at a party and the aftermath. This incident has been a focal point for feminist critics of Mailer, who point to themes of sexual violence in his work.
His third wife, whom he married in 1962, and divorced in 1963, was the British heiress and journalist Lady Jeanne Campbell (1929–2007), the only daughter of Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll and a granddaughter of the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. The couple had a daughter, Kate Mailer, who is an actress.
His fourth marriage, in 1963, was to Beverly Bentley, a former model turned actress. She was the mother of his producer son Michael Mailer and his actor son Stephen Mailer. They divorced in 1980.
His fifth wife was Carol Stevens, a jazz singer whom he married on November 7, 1980, and divorced in Haiti on November 8, 1980, thereby legitimating their daughter Maggie, born in 1971.
His sixth and last wife, whom he married in 1980, was Norris Church Mailer (née Barbara Davis, 1949–2010), an art teacher. They had one son together, John Buffalo Mailer, a writer and actor, and Mailer informally adopted Matthew Norris, her son by her first husband, Larry Norris. Living in Brooklyn, New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts with Mailer, Church worked as a model, wrote and painted.
Works with his children
In 2005, Mailer co-wrote a book with his youngest child, John Buffalo Mailer, titled The Big Empty.
Mailer appeared in an episode of Gilmore Girls titled "Norman Mailer, I'm Pregnant!" with his son Stephen Mailer.
According to his obituary in The Independent, his "relentless machismo seemed out of place in a man who was actually quite small – though perhaps that was where the aggression originated."
Death and legacy
Mailer died of acute renal failure on November 10, 2007, a month after undergoing lung surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, New York.
The papers of the two-time Pulitzer Prize author may be found at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.
In 2008, Carole Mallory, a former mistress, sold seven boxes of documents and photographs to Harvard University, Norman Mailer's Alma Mater. They contain extracts of her letters, books and journals.
In 2008, The Norman Mailer Center and The Norman Mailer Writers Colony, a non-profit organization for educational purposes, was established to honor Norman Mailer. Among its programs is the Norman Mailer Prize established in 2009.