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Norman Mailer: Novelist, Activist, and New Journalist

By Kristin Masters. Jul 26, 2018. 9:00 AM.

Topics: American Literature

On January 31, 1923, Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey. He'd grow to become one of the preeminent American authors of the 20th century, writing about 40 books and countless essays and stories. Mailer's work earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award, while his politics garnered some less positive criticism.

Mailer grew up in Brooklyn and, after graduating a few years early, enrolled at Harvard at the age of 16. He studied aeronautical engineering but soon discovered his interest in writing. He submitted his first story at the age of 18 and won Story magazine's college contest in 1941.

The Naked and the Dead and the Counter-Cultural Years

Following college, Mailer was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was sent to the Philippines. Mailer took part in several reconnaissance missions, and his experience gave him enough material for The Naked and the Dead (1948). The book was an immediate success, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 62 weeks. It's often hailed as one of the best American war novels of all time.

Mailer's next two novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955) weren't so successful. They received terrible reviews. At one point, Mailer took out a full-page newspaper ad to print all his negative reviews, a characteristic act of defiance. He certainly took criticism personally. Gore Vidal would later review one of Mailer's novels poorly. When both authors were guests on "The Dick Cavett Show" in December 1971, Mailer picked a fight with Vidal, headbutting him and hurling insults.


Mailer published his next novel, American Dream, serially in Esquire from January to August of 1964. It was republished by Dial Press, where E.L. Doctorow was Mailer's editor. This novel was better received by critics, but still didn't see the success of The Naked and the Dead.

Meanwhile in 1955, Mailer had helped found the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper that still circulates in New York City. Over the next several years, Mailer would prove a pivotal figure in the New Journalism movement, which also included authors like Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe. Mailer wrote seminal counter-cultural essays like "The White Negro" (1957) and "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" (1960) during this period. Several of his books, such as Armies of the Night (1968) and Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), furthered the transition to New Journalism.

The Executioner's Song and Mailer's Biographical Works

In 1979, Mailer published The Executioner's Song, a fictionalization of the life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore. In 1980, he won his first Pulitzer for the work. It wasn't his first biographical work, but it was his most critically acclaimed. Mailer's prior biography of Marilyn Monroe, published in 1973, had stirred up considerable controversy because Mailer alleged that FBI and CIA agents had murdered Monroe due to her affair with President John F. Kennedy. Elmo Henderson, a boxer who defeated Mohammed Ali, had also successfully sued Mailer and Playboy magazine in 1971 for a piece Mailer wrote about Henderson.

Ancient Evenings (1983) took Mailer nine years to research and write. Set around 1000 BCE in Egypt, the novel got panned. Mailer followed up with Harlot's Ghost in 1991his longest novel at 1,310 pages. It explores the exploits and drama of the CIA from the end of WWII to 1965. It was critically acclaimed and still remains on the CIA's reading list. Mailer planned a sequel but passed away before bringing that project to fruition.

Mailer's Politics

Mailer was always active in politics. He covered both the Republican and Democratic conventions for several years and idolized John F. Kennedy as an "existential hero." In 1967, Mailer was arrested for participating in an anti-Vietnam War protest at the Pentagon. The following year he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" along with many other celebrated literary figures. The participants pledged not to pay taxes until the war was over.

At the suggestion on Gloria Steinem and others, Mailer ran for mayor of New York City. As part of his platform, he proposed that the city secede and become the 51st state. He also opposed fluoridization of water and advocated the release of Black Panther party leader Huey Newton.

In 1980, Mailer spearheaded Jack Abbott's successful parole. Abbott had written to Mailer after reading The Executioner's Song and offered to share his experiences in prison. Mailer helped him publish In the Belly of the Beast, which included their correspondence. Only six weeks after his release, Abbott committed another murder. Mailer drew heavy criticism for his role in putting a violent man back on the streets, and he lamented having supported Abbott.

But the Abbott episode didn't deter Mailer from adopting and expressing other potentially unpopular viewpoints. In 1989 he stood with other authors in publicly supporting Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa against Rushdie. And in a 2003 speech to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, he stated that "Fascism is a more natural state than democracy....Democracy is a state of grace obtained 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."

Mailer's Legacy

Mailer remains an important figure in American literature, popular among collectors and scholars. His papers are at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. His former mistress Carole Mallory also sold seven boxes of papers, including correspondence with Mailer, to Harvard University.

Browse Books by Norman Mailer


Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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