Norman Mailer: Larger-than-life colossus of 20th century American letters

May 1, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

When Norman Mailer was 20 years old in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. A precocious student, he had just graduated from Harvard University. He had initially majored in engineering, but he took writing and literature courses as his electives. During his undergraduate days, he had published his first story, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” in Story magazines and had won its college writing contest.

Showing the brashness that would define his public persona over the next 60 years, Mailer asked for a deferment based on the fact that he was writing an “important literary work” about the war. 

The Army turned down his request and in doing so did both Mailer and American letters a great favor.

After basic training, Mahler was sent to the Philippines where, at first, he served as a typist. He then volunteered to go on reconnaissance patrols and eventually completed more than two dozen missions, during which time his unit engaged in several firefights with the enemy. When the war ended, he was sent to Japan. There, he wrote his wife Bea — they had been married just a month before he left for the service — almost daily and described his experiences in the Philippines.

Those letters became the basis for The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s first and most successful novel, which was published in 1948 and sold more than a million copies in its first year in print. The book is considered one of the best war novels of the 20th century and made Mailer’s name a household word.

Mailer’s life is a fascinating one to trace. His words, sentences, subjects, and ideas were powerful and commanded attention. So did his personality. He continued to show the brashness, egotism, and combativeness that was evident when he boldly asked to get out of military duty. (Later, he described his time in the Army as the “worst experience of my life, and the most important.”)

Mailer published two more novels during the 1950s, but novel-writing alone did not offer him the immediate forum that his ego grew to need. Mahler became one of the innovators of a form of journalism that employed deep reporting and literary techniques; it came to be called the New Journalism. Along with several other investors, he founded the Village Voice in 1955. His essay, “The White Negro,” described the hipster culture that stood against the conformity of the 1950s. The essay has been reprinted and anthologized many times and is seen as one of his breakthrough works.

Mailer lived a turbulent private and semi-public life. In 1960, he was convicted of stabbing his second wife, Adele, with a penknife and nearly killing her, but for this act, he received only a probationary sentence. In all, Mailer was married six times and had nine children.

In 1967, Mahler took part in a massive anti-war march on the Pentagon. He wrote a long piece about the march for Harper’s magazine, and that article was later expanded into a book titled Armies of the Night. That book won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 1968.

That same year, Mahler wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago, an account of the political conventions of that year. That book also brought him many accolades.

Mailer’s writing lost none of its power as he continued into the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979 he published The Executioner’s Song, a fictional account of the real-life execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore in Utah. For that book, he won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In addition to his life as a writer, Mailer was also briefly a screenwriter and filmmaker and an actor, and he once ran as a serious candidate for mayor of New York City. His most commercially successful book apart from The Naked and the Dead was a supposed biography of Marilyn Monroe. He did relatively little research for that book and admitted that much of it was speculation. Throughout his life, Mailer wrote a number of second-rate biographies and novels, especially when he needed money for alimony, child support, and taxes.

Still, Mailer’s style and approach to writing were gripping and powerful, and his ability to engage readers and hold their attention remained singular among his contemporaries until his death in 2007.

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