Norman Mailer by the Decade: An Epistolary Slant
J. Michael Lennon
The literary production — quantity, quality and diversity — of Norman Mailer, like that of some other prolific writers, varied considerably over the course of a long life. He moved from genre to genre, rotating his crops, so to speak, from the 1940s to the 2000s, and published 40 major books over six decades. While he began and ended as a novelist, and by aspiration and achievement always described himself as one, only eleven of his books are novels. The other 29 run the gamut from nonfiction narrative (of several varieties, some of which he invented; this is the largest category), to plays, screenplays, poetry, essays of every stripe, short stories, biographies, interviews, sports reportage, literary criticism, and a book of line drawings, interspersed with poems. The only prose form he did not attempt was autobiography; he believed writing one would be a tombstone, the end of his literary career.
I’m currently editing Mailer’s letters and after six years of work am nearing completion. It occurred to me that it might be interesting if I gave a brief overview of Mailer’s literary output in each of the six decades, and punctuated my comments on each with a characteristic letter (or an excerpt) from the decade in question. Here goes.
Mailer had written a fair amount of juvenilia, mainly adventure stories, from the ages of 8–12, and then nothing much until he arrived at Harvard in September 1939. In each of his four years, he signed up for elective writing courses and wrote approximately sixty short stories or vignettes. He published three of these in the Harvard Advocate, and one of them, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” won a national college contest sponsored by Story Magazine, where it was published in September 1941. Buoyed by this achievement, and still at Harvard, he turned first to drama and wrote a play about his experience working in a mental institution, titled “The Naked and the Dead,” and then wrote a novel based on a hitchhiking trip he had taken, titled No Percentage. It has never been published, and shouldn’t be, Mailer felt. He started another novel, A Transit to Narcissus, based on the mental institution experience, which he finished shortly after graduation and before being inducted in the army in March 1944.
While he was in the service, a combat novella he wrote at Harvard, “A Calculus at Heaven,” was published in an anthology, but the most important work of the 1940s was, of course, The Naked and the Dead, which he wrote after his discharge in May 1946. Based on his experience during the Luzon campaign of early 1945, the novel was published in May 1948. Large slabs of it were taken wholesale from the letters he wrote home to his first wife Bea from the Philippines.
This was the toughest decade for Mailer as a writer. He was celebrated but felt disorientated and depleted; he didn’t know what to write about next. He started novels about a concentration camp and a labor union and both fizzled. While in Paris in 47–48, he had met an intellectual, Jean Malaquais, who had tutored him on Marxism and Russian history. Malaquais was one of the most important influences of his life and they remained lifelong friends. Mailer decided to re-cast his conversations with Malaquais into a complex dialogue between an FBI agent and a former Communist, set in a Brooklyn rooming house similar to the one where he had written NAD. The conversations comprised the greater part of the novel; they were half-brilliant and half-tedious and the resulting claustrophobic novel, Barbary Shore, was panned by almost all reviewers.
Mailer was depressed and worried about his future as a writer. He had lived in Hollywood and worked for Warner Brothers (1949–50) writing scripts for part of the period he wrote BS, and decided to write a novel about the movie business. The Deer Park was to be his comeback novel. After being turned down by seven publishers, it finally appeared in the fall of 1955, and received both very favorable and very negative reviews, a division that persisted, with a few exceptions, over his entire career. His writing program shifted radically after DP; he began writing a newspaper column for The Village Voice (which he named and co-founded), and writing essays for a variety of periodicals, mainstream and marginal. He also wrote several short stories and began work on a dramatic version of DP, a project that he labored on for over a dozen years.
He also started getting involved in public events and speaking put on political and social matters, slowly at first but by the end of the decade regularly and enthusiastically. He was creating the template for a new kind of public intellectual, not a conventional academic intellectual, but an independent, rambunctious and unpredictable Left Conservative, as he described himself. His essays, speeches, reviews, columns and short stories, including his manifesto for existentialism and the urban adventurer, “The White Negro,” were collected into a 1959 omnibus miscellany, Advertisements for Myself. The individual pieces were stitched together by italicized commentaries, a series of frank, edgy, self-reflective advertisements where readers could observe Mailer creating a new literary self, shaping and re-shaping himself as the collection progressed. It is the watershed book in his career, although at the time he felt it might be a terrible mistake.
AFM was not a best seller, and the reviews were mixed, but the intelligentsia loved it, young writers adored it and Mailer began to be seen as the house intellectual of the Beat Movement. He flirted with both the Beats and the New York literary establishment, but finally kept to his own territory, one that he enlarged as the 1960s progressed.
He began it with a book of poems and then shifted to essays on politics, The Presidential Papers. And then a novel, written as a serial, month by month in the manner of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, in Esquire, the hip magazine of the decade. An American Dream was the big comeback novel and the energy of new success liberated Mailer to try other narrative modes, as well as the dramatic version of The Deer Park: A Play, which ran for over four months on an off-Broadway stage. He also made three experimental movies in the 1960s, films that are now enjoying a revival.
In addition, he wrote a scatological novel, a real tour de force, Why Are We in Vietnam? and Cannibals and Christians (1966), another collection of essays, many of which dealt with the ongoing Vietnam War. The collection was dedicated to President Lyndon Johnson, the man, Mailer said, who had caused young people to cheer for him in public, over 10,000 people at University of California, Berkeley in April 1965 where he gave a rousing anti-war speech.
Mailer was now poised for a breakthrough and he went for it with vigor, writing in quick succession three nonfiction narratives on the divisive issues of the day, The Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), and Of a Fire on the Moon (1971). All three, and Why Are We In Vietnam?, were nominated for the National Book Award. AON won one and a Pulitzer to boot and people were now saying that an American event had not really occurred unless readers had the opportunity to observe Mailer observing the event. His books of this period became pillars of the New Journalism and established him as the most important literary figure in the country.
The 1960s was Norman Mailer’s decade, as he himself often said.
Mailer began the decade with two more nonfiction narratives written in the third person personal, The Prisoner of Sex (1971) and St. George and the Godfather (1972); the events were again seen through the refractive lens of his own sensibility. Like Henry Adams, Mailer wrote about himself in the third person, as if he were someone else. He had shifted the optics of journalism, but was restless and ready to move in a new direction in his relentless narrative experimentation.
By the mid-seventies and his account of the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, The Fight (1975), he was getting tired of himself, bored with his reactions: “His mind, he noticed, was beginning to spin it wheels.” There were at least three reasons for this: he was back, finally, to writing a novel, Ancient Evenings (1983); he had met his sixth wife, Norris Church Mailer, and settled down a wee bit; and three, the country had moved from a period of revolutionary expectation to one of post-apocalyptic dwindle. Yet The Fight is arguably the finest prizefight narrative ever written; it has never gone out of print. It was the end of the third person-personal narratives and it was the second (Marilyn  was the first) in a string of biographical studies that would continue until his death over thirty years later.
The causal links between connecting with Norris and the cessation of personal introspection (bordering on narcissism) have yet to be established. Mailer labored on the novel of ancient Egypt throughout the 70s, longer than for any other book. But the narrative he wrote at the end of the decade as a biographical excursion, The Executioner’s Song (1979), in collaboration with Lawrence Schiller, proved to be the third high peak of his career. It is, as Joan Didion said, “an absolutely astonishing book.” Christopher Ricks said of Mailer’s depiction of Gary Gilmore, the book’s murderer-protagonist, what Dr. Johnson said of another passionate killer, Othello: “We cannot but pity him.”
Mailer also wrote his longest piece of literary criticism in the 1970s, a study of Henry Miller, titled Genius and Lust (1976). Miller was a Mailer hero and a doppelgänger, as was, in a different way, Gary Gilmore.
The first book of the decade, in 1982, was Pieces and Pontifications, which looked back over the previous decade and contained some of Mailer’s finest personal essays, including “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots.”
Ancient Evenings was published the following year to great fanfare. But the reviews were mixed to poor. To this day it is Mailer’s best book for some (his wife Norris, for example), with many admirers. But many readers find it inaccessible and forbidding, the polar opposite of The Executioner’s Song. Both came from the same fertile brain, but from different lobes.
Mailer shifted gears for Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the book that followed AE. It is a murder mystery set in the gloom of a Provincetown winter, and has sold over a million copies. He tossed it off in two months and then turned to the longest novel of his career, Harlot’s Ghost (1310 pages). Except for a book consisting of his best interviews, he published no other book-length work in the 1980s after AE.
The decade began with the publication of Harlot’s Ghost, which appeared in October 1991. Mailer’s novel of the unspoken dramas of the CIA received mixed reviews, but was a best seller. It might be considered his most characteristic work, combining as it does exploration of his Alpha-Omega theory of personality (premised on the notion that we all contain two separate personalities, or selves) with the tumultuous events of the Cold War, while allowing him to sketch unforgettable portraits of some of the iconic figures of the period, from JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra to Fidel Castro, CIA Director Allen Dulles and spymaster James Jesus Angleton. Mailer ended the novel with the words “To be continued,” and planned to begin the sequel, Harlot’s Grave, immediately, but the Muse had other plans for him.
He was drawn to biography and published two in 1995, Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, and Oswald’s Tale (another collaboration with Schiller), and then a third in 1997, The Gospel According to the Son (1997), a retelling of the four Gospels in the words of a latter-day Jesus. The 1990s must be considered Mailer’s biographical decade. He ended it with a mastodonic anthology, The Time of Our Time (1998), which presented 130 excerpts from his work sequenced not in the order they were written or published, but according to the dates of the events depicted, from the mid 1940s to the end of the century. Mailer hinted that he wanted it to be measured by John Dos Passos’s masterwork, the three-volume U.S.A., which covers the first half of the 20th century.
Mailer began writing his final novel, The Castle in the Forest, in December 2000 in the third floor study of our condo in Provincetown. He had been reading about Hitler for over a year and wanted to commence away from the ringing telephone. The novel, published a week before his 84th birthday, was his eleventh best seller and received the strongest reviews of any book since ES. As in decades past, he took a break from the big work-in-progress to tackle other projects.
In 2003, he completed work on The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, gleanings and sorting from approximately 200 previously published sources, with about 50 pages of new material. It is another work of retrospection, a glance back over the traveled roads of craft, technique, and the book business. He followed it with his second book of poems, Modest Gifts (2003), which was interspersed with about 100 of his line drawings. He asked that no review copies be sent out, but it still sold over 2000 copies. Finally, he published Why Are We at War? (2005), which was cobbled together from several essays and interviews dealing with the Iraq War, about which he was deeply disturbed. In 2006, he and his son John published a series of incisive discussions on a variety of topics: politics, sex, God, boxing, morality, myth poker and bad conscience in America. It was titled The Big Empty.
But the big book of the decade was The Castle in the Forest. Mailer wrote about a figure that had haunted his childhood, taking Hitler to the age of 16. Part of its appeal lies in the solution he found to an old a point of view problem, the subjective-objective dilemma. He solved it by telling the story from the point of view of a mind-reading assistant to the Devil, thus combining omniscience with first-person testimonial, a brilliant technique.
His final book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, consisted of a series of ten conversations on his idiosyncratic religion, taped with me from 2003 to 2006. He died three weeks after it was published. His eyes lit up in the hospital when I showed him the excerpts in New York Times and Playboy.