Norman Mailer, who won Pulitzer Prizes for two works that straddled fiction and nonfiction, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song, was born in Long Branch, NJ.
With his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, Mailer, along with Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity), formed a trio of WWII veterans who wrote sprawling fictional accounts that attempted to capture both their personal experiences and the disruptive impact of the conflict on American servicemen.
The three measured themselves against Ernest Hemingway’s achievement with A Farewell to Arms. But most critics agree that, despite massive sales, none matched the impact of that landmark WWI novel.
At this point, Jones’ account is best remembered indirectly, through the 1953 Best Picture Oscar-winning film adapted from it. Shaw, producing novels commercially successful if uneven in quality, has found a secure niche for his many superb short stories.
Mailer’s case for literary posterity is trickier. His ambition and bravado were every bit as immense as his talent. He was never afraid to dare greatly, even if he risked looking foolish—which he did, repeatedly, and with all too few signs of having learned from his experiences.
David Denby’s December critical reappraisal of Mailer in The New Yorker argued that the novelist never really got over the war, in which his military service forced a never-ending feedback loop with an aggressive stance against the postwar world:
“The enormous success of The Naked and the Dead left Mailer uneasy. He had no idea how he was going to live up to it. Seemingly on top of the world at twenty-five, he feared many things. In his novel, the Harvard-educated liberal allows himself to be trapped by power. Mailer, in his own eyes, needed to escape the traps not only of his soft middle-class Jewish background but also of postwar America--the desire for ‘security,’ the endless consumerism, and what he took to be the country's humiliating spiritual mediocrity. It's as if he were still in the jungle, pulling artillery through the night. He had made himself into a novelist in the Pacific, and now he brought the war home, fighting on two fronts—against what he disliked in himself and against those menaces of the nineteen-fifties, ‘conformity’ and ‘adjustment.’ He acted out his rebellion in a continual performance with phallus, fists, booze, and sustained ass-in-chair writing sessions—a pressure at times noble, at times foolish, and certainly rough on other people as well as on himself. He became an egotist of a peculiarly self-afflicting sort, both calculating and spontaneous, provoking many blows, all of them deserved, all of them welcomed. For the author of The Naked and the Dead, the truce never arrived.”
At his best, in person, Mailer could make self-deprecating jabs at his considerable ego and awe listeners with jeweled phrases that came effortlessly to hand—as I witnessed firsthand when I covered his appearance in a seminar at Columbia University’s Writing Division in the School of the Arts back in February 1981.
*He thought while writing The Naked and the Dead that it was "the greatest book since War and Peace and maybe even better," but now admitted wryly that his idea of the book "was higher than it deserved.”
*He chuckled at Truman Capote’s claim that he relied on his photographic memory in lieu of taking notes for In Cold Blood: “I love Truman Capote in 82 ways, but he's a terrible liar. I know he doesn't remember conversations we've had two or three days ago."
*He had used point of view in his own work either as an obtrusive ego, "a burning type of light," or an invisible, disembodied "voice coming over the hill."
At the same time, Mailer pointed out a reason for both his remarkable productivity starting in the 1960s and his prodigal misuse of this creative energy: “I made three movies in the Sixties—directing, writing, and starring in them—and they all failed. I lost $300,000. I've been in debt ever since."
As Mailer was telling the writing students this, he was only months away from a supporting role in yet another movie: philandering architect and murder victim Stanford White, in Milos Forman’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
One can’t resist thinking that Mailer identified with the intersecting creativity, lust and violence in this figure at the heart of one of the most notorious scandals in early 20th-century America. If he had never equaled Hemingway’s feat of fashioning a virtually new writing style, he had Papa beat in the number of wives (six versus four) and children (nine versus three).
(Knowing the wink-wink style of so much of the Gilmore Girls TV series, I can’t help thinking a similar spirit was at play when it titled one episode, “Norman Mailer, I’m Pregnant!”)
Besides a scandalous private life, another major factor that may ultimately lower his critical reputation could be the baggy monsters of novels that he cranked out starting with The Executioner's Song: Ancient Evenings, Harlot’s Ghost, and Oswald’s Tale.
Over 30 years ago, while interviewing for a copyediting job at a magazine with a reputation for publishing high quality, I was told by a senior editor just how far my authority would extend: “You’ll have to keep in mind who you’re dealing with when you make suggestions in a manuscript. Listen: Norman Mailer will make more from a single article here than you will with your entire yearly salary.”
How many editors, even ones with considerably higher reputations than I would have had starting out, shied away from battling with Mailer? They could go mano-a-mano line by line, chapter by chapter with a manuscript, or they could watch him take his wares to someone else willing to let him write whatever tripe he liked. Neither alternative was appealing.
But with the novelist dead 15 years now, The Mailer Wars are beginning in earnest now.
On one side you have broadsides like this from “One-Way Street” blogger Richard Prouty, who, after Mailer’s death in 2007, predicted that his influence would be “nil” and saw “his only truly original creation” being “journalism mixed with self-aggrandizement, a combination…that can be described as literature as performance art.”
On the other side are defenders like English and film professor Phillip Sipiora, who calls Mailer “arguably the foremost public intellectual of the second half of the twentieth century,” and Denby, who writes that it would be “naïve to pretend that he was not a great American writer.”
My own initial instinct, given the sheer quantity of bad, even idiotic, work Mailer produced over nearly six decades in the public eye, is to lean closer to Prouty than Denby or Sipiora.
But it might be more accurate to see him as a kind of American literary counterpart to the actor Richard Burton, another creative figure who wasted his overwhelming talent in scandal and never-ending substandard projects meant to satisfy his craving for fame and money.
An unblinkered assessment would find that, like Burton, Mailer could, at moments, with his energy focused tightly on work at hand, rank with the very best of his contemporaries.
The Armies of the Night may have the best chance of any of his works of continuing to be read and re-read. It masterfully balances opposites: fiction and nonfiction, comedy (his own larger-than-life persona, enlarged even further through referring to himself in the third person) and the deepest seriousness (the stakes of a government not called to account for its mishandling of the Vietnam War), and the yawning, increasingly unbridgeable divide between the student protesters and the working-class soldiers and marshals facing off against them in front of the Pentagon—a harbinger of today’s “woke” left and Trump voters.
And there is the sheer exhilaration of Mailer's high style in passages like this:
“Arrayed against them as hard-core troops: an elite! the Freud-ridden embers of Marxism, good old American anxiety strata—the urban middle-class with their proliferated monumental adenoidal resentments, their secret slavish love for the oncoming hegemony of the computer and the suburb, yes, they and their children, by the sheer ironies, the sheer ineptitude, the kinks of history, were now being compressed into more and more militant stands, their resistance to the war some hopeless melange, somehow firmed, of Pacifism and closet Communism. And their children—on a freak-out from the suburbs to a love-in on the Pentagon wall.”