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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Norman Mailer
(b. 1923)

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He entered Harvard at the age of sixteen. There he majored in aeronautical engineering but soon became fascinated by literature, especially the work of Steinbeck, Farrell, and Dos Passos. Active in Harvard literary groups, he won Story magazine’s College Award in 1941.

In 1944, drafted into the U.S. Army, he served as a rifleman with the 112th Cavalry out of San Antonio, Texas, an alien milieu for an unprepossessing Jewish boy from Brooklyn. He served for eighteen months in the Philippines and Japan, from which experience grew his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. An enormous popular and critical success, this book made Mailer a celebrity at the age of 25 and set in motion a complex series of public responses.

Controversy has dogged Mailer through his personal and professional life. The father of nine children, he has been married six times and has been at the center of numerous political storms. His sometimes bizarre behavior during his youth and early middle age (fistfights, arrests, above all the non-fatal stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales, in 1960) coupled with his involvement in political life (co-founding the Village Voice in 1956, running for Mayor of New York City in 1969, being arrested for civil disobedience during the 1967 March on the Pentagon) made him a convenient target for the media. Simultaneously his work and its critical reception proceeded through various stages.

The Armies of the Night (1968), for which Mailer won both the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters, recounts his vision of the March on the Pentagon. This book is paradigmatic of various lines of development in his life and work. In this “non-fiction novel,” subtitled History as a Novel: The Novel as History, Mailer’s fictional voice, his political activism, and his flamboyant public image converge.

After The Naked and the Dead, a powerful but derivative naturalistic novel, Mailer developed an existential fictional voice, peaking in An American Dream (1965). This controversial novel treats allegorically the protagonist’s murder of his wife, presenting a sophisticated and profoundly disturbing vision of the violence endemic in America.

Although Mailer has remained paradoxical and flamboyant, The Armies of the Night forced the literary establishment to take him seriously once again. In the thirty-plus years since this book, he has matured as an artist, producing a large body of important work and becoming a truly major figure in American letters. In 1979 he won his second Pulitzer Prize, for The Executioner’s Song, the “true-life novel” of the murderer Gary Gilmore, which led to further criticism of his obsession with (some say glamorizing of) American violence. The year 1991 saw the publication of the massive Harlot’s Ghost, steeped in Mailer’s obsessive themes of sexuality, violence, and existential choice.

If his work has not ceased to engender intense reactions, the former enfant terrible has unquestionably mellowed personally and grown into the role of senior statesman of American letters. Happily married to his sixth wife, Norris Church, Mailer seems to have found tranquillity. As president of PEN, an international organization of writers, he led the fight for freedom of expression. And in every arena of American life, he has left his distinctive and indelible mark.

Barry H. Leeds
Central Connecticut State University

In the Heath Anthology
from The Armies of the Night (1968)

Other Works
The Nakes and the Dead (1948)
Barbary Shore (1951)
The Deer Park (1955)
The White Negro (1958)
Advertisements for Myself (1959)
An American Dream (1965)
Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967)
The Armies of the Night (1968)
Of a Fire on the Moon (1970)
The Prisoner of Sex (1971)
Marilyn (1973)
Genius and Lust (1976)
Some Honorable Men (1976)
The Executioner's Song (1979)
Of Women and Their Elegance (1980)
Ancient Evenings (1983)
Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984)
Harlot's Ghost (1991)
Oswald: An American Mystery (1995)
The Gospel According to the Son (1997)

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Books and Writers
A substantive biography and complete list of works.

Featured Author: Norman Mailer
Compilation of Mailer's writings for The New York Times.

New York State Writers Institute
Provides a photograph, literary introduction, list of primary works, and a bibliography of secondary materials.

Norman Mailer His Life And Works
Biographical and literary introduction to Mailer.

Norman Mailer, Gary Gilmore, and the Untold Stories of the Law
Examines the story of Gilmore's conviction and execution through Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

Secondary Sources

Laura Adams, ed., Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?, 1974

Barry H. Leeds, The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer, 1969

J. Michael Lennon, ed., Conversations with Norman Mailer, 1988

J. Michael Lennon, ed., Norman Mailer: Works and Days, 2000

Robert Lucid, ed., Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work, 1971

Hilary Mills, Mailer: A Biography, 1982

Richard Poirier, Norman Mailer, 1972