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|Norman (Kingsley) Mailer (1923-2007)|
Innovator of the nonfiction novel, a towering figure in American literature for nearly 60 years. Norman Mailer developed in the 1960s and 1970s a form of journalism that combined actual events, autobiography, and political commentary with the richness of the novel. (See also Truman Capote and the classic "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood.) Mailer's works always stirred controversy – because of both their stylish nonconformity and his controversial views of American life. The poet Robert Lowell praised him as "the best journalist in America",but what he thought of Mailer's fiction was left open.
'"I decided the only explanation is that God and the Devil are very attentive to people at the summit. I don't know if they stir much in the average man's daily stew, no great sport for spooks, I would suppose, in a ranch house, but do you expect God or the Devil left Lenin and Hitler and Churchill alone? No. They bid for favors and exact revenge. That's why men with power sometimes act so silly."' (from An American Dream, 1965)
Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, but he was
raised in Brooklyn, New York. Every summer the family went back to Long
Branch, where Mailer's grandparents had a small summer hotel. Mailer's
father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was an accountant and businessman; he
lived in South Africa before immigrating to the United States. The
dominant figure in the family was Mailer's mother, the former Fanny
Schneider, who worked in a small trucking company. Her father was an
unofficial rabbi, who couldn't speak English very well.
"I thought Norman was perfect, a really lovely baby. He weighted about seven pounds at birth", Fanny recalled. Mailer was said to have insulted guests at his bar mitzvah by reading the excommunicated 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. (Norman Mailer: An American Aesthetic by Andrew Wilson, 2008, p. 233) In his youth Mailer constantly presented himself as "a poor Jewish boy from Brooklyn," but he did not celebrate Jewish holidays or talk to his non-Jewish friends about his family. It was not until 1983, when Mailer traveled to Vilna, Lithuania, wanting to look at where his family came from.
Mailer's literary talents were recognized and encouraged at school by his teachers, who let him write whatever he wanted. His first literary effort was a 250-page story called 'Invasion From Mars', which he penned at the age of nine in notebooks. However, it was not until he attended Harvard that he decided to become a writer. In 1939 he graduated from Boys High School and then studied at Harvard University, Cambridge (1939-43), receiving B.S. in aeronautical engineering. In 1941 Mailer's 'The Greatest Thing in the World' won Story magazine's college contest.
During World War II Mailer served as a sergeant in the United States Army. Originally he wanted to go to Europe and be in the first wave of invasion troops, but for his disappointment he was sent to the South Pacific. Mailer served in Leyte, Luzon, and Japan, observing what happened on the war scene. He saw a little bit of action but not as much as it was in The Naked and the Dead (1948). Most of the time in the Philippines Mailer felt tired.
In his letters to his first wife, Beatrice Silverman, he described patrols he was on during the war – Mailer did not want to carry notes with him. In 1946 he was discharged, and the next year he enrolled at the Sorbonne. The Naked and Dead was born in fifteen months, and published when Mailer was just 25. "Its success rips away my former identity," Mailer once said.
The Naked and The Dead drew upon the author's combat experiences in the Philippines. It is not so funny as Heller's Catch-22 or Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Schweik, but more realistic than Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front, and not so sentimental as Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. The story depicts a group of American soldiers who are stationed on the Japanese-held island in the Pacific. Flashbacks that illuminate their past mix with feverish combat scenes. On its appearance the work was hailed as one of the finest American novels of WW II, but also dismissed as obscene, plainly motivated by personal disgust with army life. In England, several publishers rejected it because of the obscenity of its language. "It is virtually a Kinsey Report on the sexual behavior of the GI. Its style is an almost pure Army billingsgate that will offend many readers, although in no sense is it exaggerated: Mr. Mailer's soldiers are real persons, speaking the vernacular of human bitterness and agony. It gives off a skyglow that is quite faithful to the spectrum of battle, and exposes the blood, if not always the guts, of war." (David Dempsey in The New York Times, May 9, 1948)
Mailer's subsequent novels did not receive similar respect. Barbary Shore (1951), which was set in a Brooklyn boarding house and depicted the conflict between a former radical and a federal agent, was labelled in Time Magazine as "paceless, tasteless, and graceless."
In the late 1940s Mailer worked in Hollywood as a
scriptwriter. He moved in 1951 to Greenwich Village in New York City.
Mailer's third novel, The Deer Park (1955),
was about the
corruption of values in Hollywood. Mailer had a contract with Rinehart
and Company. Three months before publication, Stanley Rinehart told
Miller that he would have to delete six lines of the fellatio scene. He
was "concerned about what his mother [mystery author Mary Roberts
Rinehart] would think, since she was on the board of directors." As a
result of Mailer's refusal, Rinehart broke the contract. Several other
publishers turned the novel down, and it was eventually published by
G.P. Putnam's Sons. The Deer Park rose to number six on the
Mailer felt he was an outlaw; he listened to jazz and smoked marijuana. In the thinly veiled story Mailer dealt with his relationship with Adele Morales, an artist whom he married in 1954. The following years in the authors life were more or less chaotic, and in 1960 he stabbed Adele at the end of an all-night party in Manhattan with "a dirty three-inch penknife." Mailer was given a suspended sentence because Adele refused to press charges. Her own own account of the circumstances she recorded much later in the book of memoirs, The Last Party (1997). Paramount Pictures planned to adopt it into a movie in the late 1960s with the Swedish director Bo Widerberg, whose Elvira Madigan was an international success, but eventually Widerberg made Victoria based on Knut Hamsun's novel.
One of the actresses who tried for a role in a stage
production of The Deer Park
was Edie Sedgwick, the superstar in Andy Warhol's
films. Mailer and the director Leo Garen turned her down. "She used so
much of herself with every line that we knew she'd be immolated after
three performances," Mailer recalled. As a director Mailer had learned
a lot from Warhol: "He made every director brave enough to make a slow
scene without trying to speed it up." Mailer once argued that Warhol's Kirchen (1965), starring Edie
Sedgwick and Roger Trudeau, records better than any other work the
spirit of the period.
From the mid-1950s Mailer started to gain fame as an
anti-establishment essayist. He had read Marx's Das Kapital and
later said that it helped him to become a better writer. However, he
did not believe that Communism would solve all problems, and he was never persecuted by HUAC but his father was. "The
Communists for some years now have been calling me a Trotskyist; the
Trotskyists call me a "so-called splinter Socialist"; the splinter
socialists call me an anarchist; the anarchists call me a
capitalist..." (Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso, 2008, pp. 184-186) In 1961 Mailer
wrote an open letter to Fidel Castro, saying "you are giving us hope".
In his notorious essay 'The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster' (1956) was originally published in Dissent and reprinted in Advertisements for Myself (1959), Mailer examined violence, hysteria, crimes and confusion in American society through the fashionable existentialist framework, which owes much to Jean Genet. Mailer defined the hipster as a philosophical psychopath, and urban adventurer, who has adopted elements from black culture and could be called "a White Negro." To become a hipster is a conscious choice for members of the intellectual élite. However, the black man knows the art of the primitive "in the cells of his existence", and is forced to accepts the moral wilderness of civilized life, condemned by "the Square". "But the Negro, not being privileged to gratify his self-esteem with the heady satisfaction of categorical condemnation, chose to move instead in that other direction where all situations are equally valid, and in the worst of perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash, bottle-break, what-have-you, the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom, an ethical differentiation between the good and the bad in every human activity from the go-getter pimp (as opposed to the lazy one) to the relatively dependable pusher or prostitute."
After the difficult, tumultuous period, Mailer realized that he could write well about people like himself – people without roots, such as Henry Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and Picasso. In the 1960s Mailer was listed among the New Journalists, who applied the techniques of the novel to depict real events and people. He co-founded and named the Village Voice, one of the earliest underground American newspapers. He was a columnist ("Big Bite") at Esquire (1962-63) and Commentary (1962-63), a member of the executive board (1968-73), and the president (1984-86) of PEN American Center. In 1969 he was an independent candidate for mayor of New York City. Mailer's campaign slogan was "No more bullshit." He came fourth with about 5 per cent of the vote.
The Presidential Papers (1963) established Mailer as one of the most vigorous essayists in America. He wanted to advise President Kennedy, but he did not like Lyndon Johnson's face. "Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the Gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision." (from The Presidential Papers, 1963) He used in The Armies of the Night (1968) the techniques of fiction, and studied his own reactions as a barometer of the events themselves. The work won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. In the same vein he wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) and Of a Fire on the Moon (1970). In Cannibals and Christians (1966) Mailer accused American writers of not being able to produce works that would "clarify a nation's vision of itself".
When Mailer started to cover the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions in the 1960s, he placed himself at the center of American political and cultural life and also reported his observations on the civil rights movement, political assassinations and other upheavals. Mailer published essays in popular and men's magazines, such as Esquire and Playboy, as well as in more intellectual journals like Dissent, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books. "It is not routine to bring off a long novel when your ambition is more than major, when you will settle for nothing less than an attempt to write a great novel, and when you are into your sixties and not all that well." (Norman Mailer in The New York Review of Books, December 17, 1998)
Mailer's outspoken style led him in the 1970s into collision course with feminist movement. In The Prisoner of Sex (1971) Mailer proposed that gender might determine the way a person perceives and orders reality. He was labelled as the quintessential male chauvinist pig in Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. Mailer wrote a biography of the life and career of Marilyn Monroe, and published a highly successful true life novel, The Executioner's Song (1979) – In Cold Blood in Mailer's style. The story about the life and death of a convicted killer Gary Gilmore was based on face to face interviews, documents, records of court proceeding, and Mailer's trips to Utah and Oregon. The Fight (1975) was an account of the legendary bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Mobutu's totalitarian Zaïre. Mailer's vision of boxing bears similarities to Hemingway's picture of bullfighting, both of them classed as creative art.
Mailer never met Marilyn Monroe, but was fascinated with her life and death for decades. Eventually he wrote two books about her, Marilyn (1973) and Of Women and Their Elegance (1980). Mailer's daughter Kate was cast in the role of Marilyn in his one-act play Strawhead (1986), which was produced at the Actors' Studio in New York City.
When the Italian director Sergio Leone started to work on his gangster film Once Upon a Time in America (1984), he asked Mailer to help with the screenplay. The film was based on the 1953 novel The Hoods by Harry Grey. Mailer barricaded himself in a Rome hotel room with several bottles of whisky, and spent there some three weeks, writing the script. "We could hear him singing, cursing and shouting for ice cubes from about ten blocks away!" Leone said later. Grey, a former Sing-Sing prisoner, met the author in New York, and was not happy with his adaptation of the book. "Mailer, at least to my eyes, the eyes of an old fan, is not a writer for the cinema", concluded Leone.
In the 1980s Mailer had become tired of politics. After visiting the Soviet Union in March 1983 he realized that it was not "the evil empire" but a "poor, third-world country". Although Mailer often compared the U.S. to the Roman empire, Ancient Evenings (1983), with its slight parallels to today's America, was set in the ancient Egypt (1290-1100 BC). It took 11 years to complete the ambitious novel. Anthony Burgess characterized it as "one of the great works of contemporary mythopoesis". "Is one human? Or merely alive? Like a blade of grass equal to all existence in the moment it is torn? Yes. If pain is fundament, then a blade of grass can know all there is." (from Ancient Evenings)
With Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), a thriller, Mailer returned to the movie business – he wrote the screenplay for the film and directed it. The protagonist, Tim Madden, is an unsuccessful writer addicted to bourbon and women. He awakens with a hangover. He remembers practically nothing of the night before and then he finds in the nearby woods the severed head of a blonde. "Horror films do not prepare us for the hours lost in searching after one clear thought. Waking from nightmares and sleeping in terror, I climbed at last onto one conclusion. Assuming I was no part of this deed – and how could I be certain of that? – I still had to ask: Who was?"
Mailer supported the Persian Gulf War for patriotic reasons in
1991, feeling that the U.S. was in a bad state and needed a war. Harlot's
Ghost, which the author himself considered one of his best
books, was a 1300 pages long chronicle of the CIA. While gathering
material, Mailer also found not previously known Russian documents for Oswald's
Tale (1995), his exhaustive biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mailer
concludes the case by referring to Dreiser and stating that "one would
like to have used 'An American Tragedy' as the title for this journey
through Oswald's beleaguered life".
The Gospel According to the Son (1997) was a relatively mild retelling of the Jesus story, compared to Nikos Kazantzákis novel The Last Temptations of Christ (1955) or Jose Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991). The book continued his series of portraits of well-known figures, starting from Monroe and Muhammad Ali to Gary Gilmore and Harvey Oswald, and implying thus more or less directly, that the story of Jesus runs parallel with non-stop obsession with the lives of celebrities and notorious characters. The Time of Our Time (1998) was an anthology of Mailer's fiction and non-fiction. "Yet what this volume makes clear, if it were not already quite apparent, is that Mr. Mailer's strength lies in non-fiction, not in fiction." (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, May 8, 1998) Mailer celebrated his 80th birthday in New York and published The Spooky Art (2003), a collection of writings about writing.
Mailer was awarded in 2005 the National Book Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. His final novel, The Castle in the Forest (2007), about the young Adolf Hitler, formed in a way a complementary pair to the The Gospel According to the Son. The story was narrated by a devil. Mailer died of renal failure on November 10, 2007, in Manhattan, at the age of 84. Mailer was married six times. Before his death, Mailer embarked on a series of conversations with his friend and literary executor Michael Lennon. "... I feel no attachment whatsoever to organized religion", Mailer said in their book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2008), which was published posthumously. "I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist. I see human beings as His most developed artworks."