"There is nothing safe about sex. There never will be." -- Norman Mailer
Norman Kingsley Mailer (January 31, 1923 — November 10, 2007) was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter and film director.
Along with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, John McPhee, and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of narrative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the essay onto the nonfiction novel. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once. In 1955, Mailer, together with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, first published The Village Voice, which began as an arts and politics oriented weekly newspaper distributed in Greenwich Village. In 2005, he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.
"A modern democracy is a tyranny whose borders are undefined; one discovers how far one can go only by traveling in a straight line until one is stopped.""Alimony is the curse of the writing class.""America is a hurricane, and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug White Protestants who live in the center, in the serene eye of the big wind.""Because there is very little honor left in American life, there is a certain built-in tendency to destroy masculinity in American men.""Culture's worth huge, huge risks. Without culture we're all totalitarian beasts.""Each day a few more lies eat into the seed with which we are born, little institutional lies from the print of newspapers, the shock waves of television, and the sentimental cheats of the movie screen.""Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit.""Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.""God like Us suffers the ambition to make a destiny more extraordinary than was conceived for Him, yes God is like Me, only more so.""Growth, in some curious way, I suspect, depends on being always in motion just a little bit, one way or another.""Hip is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle.""I don't think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for.""I had a quick grasp of the secret to sanity, it had become the ability to hold the maximum of impossible combinations in one's mind.""I hate everything which is not in myself.""I think it's bad to talk about one's present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.""I'm hostile to men, I'm hostile to women, I'm hostile to cats, to poor cockroaches, I'm afraid of horses.""If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.""In America all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell.""In America few people will trust you unless you are irreverent.""It's not a good idea to put your wife into a novel; not your latest wife anyway.""It's not the sentiments of men which make history but their actions.""Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.""Obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with an obsession you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer.""Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.""Revolutions are the periods of history when individuals count most.""Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment.""The difference between writing a book and being on television is the difference between conceiving a child and having a baby made in a test tube.""The final purpose of art is to intensify, even, if necessary, to exacerbate, the moral consciousness of people.""The function of socialism is to raise suffering to a higher level.""The highest prize in a world of men is the most beautiful woman available on your arm and living there in her heart loyal to you.""The horror of the Twentieth Century was the size of each new event, and the paucity of its reverberation.""The Irish are the only men who know how to cry for the dirty polluted blood of all the world.""The natural role of twentieth-century man is anxiety.""There are four stages in a marriage. First there's the affair, then the marriage, then children and finally the fourth stage, without which you cannot know a woman, the divorce.""There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.""There's a subterranean impetus towards pornography so powerful that half the business world is juiced by the sort of half sex that one finds in advertisements.""Tough guys don't dance. You had better believe it.""Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision. The more a man can achieve, the more he may be certain that the devil will inhabit a part of his creation.""We can never know for certain where our prayers are likely to go, nor from whom the answers will come. Just when we think we are at our nearest to God, we could be assisting the Devil.""What characterizes a member of a minority group is that he is forced to see himself as both exceptional and insignificant, marvelous and awful, good and evil.""When I read it, I don't wince, which is all I ever ask for a book I write.""With the pride of the artist, you must blow against the walls of every power that exists the small trumpet of your defiance.""Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing."
Norman Kingsley 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, he graduated from Boys' High School and entered Harvard University in 1939, where he studied aeronautical engineering. At Harvard, he became interested in writing and published his first story at the age of 18, winning Story Magazine's college contest in 1941. As an undergraduate, he was a member of The Signet Society. After graduating in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. In World War II, he served in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry. He was not involved in much combat and completed his service as a cook, but the experience provided enough material for The Naked and the Dead.
In 1948, while continuing his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, 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.
Barbary Shore (1951) 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.
In the tradition of Dickens and Dostoevsky, 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). Except for a brief period, the novel has never gone out of print.
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 B.C.E.) — 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 WWII 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.
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. Mailer's contributions to the New Journalism include major books such as The Armies of the Night (1968...awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award);Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968);Of a Fire on the Moon (1971); andThe 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.
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 October 1967, he was arrested for his involvement in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the Pentagon.
At the December 15, 1971, taping of The Dick Cavett Show, with Janet Flanner, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal during an altercation in which there were mutual insults and name calling between the two before both went on air. 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." The Wikipedia article about landmark episodes of the show states:
A 1971 interview with Norman Mailer was not going well. Mailer moved his chair away from the other guests (Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner), and Cavett joked that "perhaps you'd like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?" Mailer replied "I'll take the two chairs if you'll all accept finger-bowls." Mailer later said to Cavett "Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?", to which Cavett replied "Why don't you fold it five 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?".
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 New York City secession and creating a 51st state. Their slogan was "throw the rascals in". He came in fourth in a field of five. From 1980 until his death in 2007, he contributed to Democratic Party candidacies for political office.
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."
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."
His biographical subjects included Pablo Picasso, Muhammad Ali, Gary Gilmore and Lee Harvey Oswald, and Marilyn Monroe.
His 1973 Marilyn was particularly controversial.
In its final chapter he stated that Monroe was murdered by agents of the FBI and CIA who resented her supposed affair with Robert F. Kennedy. Despite its problems, the biography was enormously successful, selling more copies than any of his works except The Naked and the Dead. It stayed in print for decades, but was out of print in the United States.
(Two works he co-wrote presented imagined words and thoughts in Monroe's voice; these were the 1980 book Of Women and Their Elegance and the 1986 play Strawhead, which was produced off Broadway with his daughter, Kate Mailer, starring.)
Norman Mailer was married six times and had 9 children. He had eight biological children by his various wives and he also had informally adopted Norris' son from another marriage, Matthew.
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. In 1960, Mailer stabbed Adele with a penknife after a party, nearly killing her. He was involuntarily committed to Bellevue Hospital for 17 days; 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 outlined her perception of the incident and its 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, married in 1980, was Norris Church Mailer (née Barbara Davis), 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. Once living in New York with Mailer, Church worked as a model and during their years together, wrote and painted.
Works with children
In 2005, Mailer co-wrote a book with his youngest child, John Buffalo Mailer, entitled The Big Empty.
Mailer appeared in an episode of Gilmore Girls entitled "Norman Mailer, I'm Pregnant!" with his son Stephen Mailer.
Mailer died of acute renal failure on the morning of 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 sold seven boxes of documents and photographs to Harvard University, Norman Mailer's Alma Mater. They contain extracts of her letters, books and journals.
Mailer was well known for his famous quotes, e.g. "Culture is worth a little risk" (see link below to "Wikiquotes": Mailer quotes).
Mailer is mentioned in the GWAR song Vlad The Impaler on the album Scumdogs of the Universe, as well as in the 10cc song Somewhere In Hollywood on the album Sheet Music; also the Red Hot Chilli Peppers "Animal Bar" and the Talib Kweli song "Get By."
Mailer is featured in the upcoming documentary The American.
Norman Mailer by Michael K. Glenday. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer by Nigel Leigh. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Norman Mailer: Works and Days by J. Michael and Donna P. Lennon. Westport, MA: Sligo Press, 2000. Comprehensive, annotated primary and secondary bibliography with life chronology.
Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work, edited by Robert F. Lucid. Boston: Little, Brown. The first collection of essays on Mailer.
Norman Mailer by Philip Bufithis. New York: Ungar, 1978. Perhaps the most readable and reliable study of Mailer's early work.
Acts of Regeneration: Allegory and Archetype in the Works of Norman Mailer by Robert J. Begiebing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980. Fine discussion of Mailer's "heroic consciousness."
The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer by Barry H. Leeds. Bainbridge, WA: Pleasure Boat Studio, 2002.
Political Fiction and the American Self by John Whalen-Bridge. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Subtle examination of Mailer's dual aptitude of representing and resisting American mythologies.
Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, edited by J.Michael Lennon: Boston, G.K.Hall and Co., 1986.
Norman Mailer, by Richard Poirier. New York: Viking,1972. One of the best studies of Mailer's writing, tracking his career through the early Eighties.
Norman Mailer by Richard Jackson Foster. University of Minnesota Press, 1968. Pamphlet.
The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer by Barry H. Leeds, New York University Press,1969.
Norman Mailer Revisited by Robert Merrill. Twayne, 1992. Contains perhaps the best analysis of The Executioner's Song
Mailer: His Life and Times, edited by Peter Manso. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Highly readable, but controversial "oral" biography of Mailer created by cross-cutting interviews with friends, enemies, acquaintances, relatives, wives of Mailer and Mailer himself.
Conversations with Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Leo Braudy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972. Contains useful insights on Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer by Laura Adams. Athens: University of Ohio Press, 1976. Good discussion of early narrators.
Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis by John W. Aldridge. New York: David McKay, 1966. Contains Aldridge's important essay on An American Dream.
The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); ISBN 0-14-015102-8 (pbk). Contains "The White Negro."
The Norman Mailer Review, edited by Phillip Sipiora. New periodical co-sponsored by the University of South Florida and The Norman Mailer Society (www.normanmailersociety.com).
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture: Francis Irby Gwaltney http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=3034
Van A. Tyson http://www.atkinschronicle.com/vantyson.htm