The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer/Introduction

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The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer
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This is a critical study of all of Norman Mailer’s major work to date, organized around the thesis that there is a definite line of development to be traced between The Naked and the Dead (1948) and The Armies of the Night (1968). A study of two particular elements in the work, narrative voice and concern with social issues, reveals that Mailer has grown enormously in the sophistication of his thematic concerns and his effectiveness in presenting them to the reader. At the same time, questions are raised (and some answers hazarded) as to why Mailer has not been totally successful in achieving the degree of fictional control to write the massively significant work which he himself and his readers have expected of him.

The five novels are treated first, in chronological order. The Naked and the Dead and An American Dream (1964)[1] receive greatest attention because it is my contention that they represent the two significant poles in the development of Mailer’s fictional art at the time of this writing.

Two major themes loom large in all of Mailer’s fiction: that of social ills and that of the plight of the individual in contemporary society. Each of the novels proceeds simultaneously on two levels, social and individual. It will be shown that Mailer’s earliest work grows out of the tradition of social criticism of the thirties: that he is most clearly influenced in The Naked and the Dead (in both subject matter and mechanics) by Dos Passos, Farrell, and Steinbeck, with the significant distinction that Mailer invests less hope in the individual common man than do these writers.

By the time he wrote An American Dream, Mailer had shifted from a position of total despair at the plight of the individual, to one of very carefully qualified hope. The problem of individual alienation as presented in An American Dream is integrally connected to Mailer’s personal conception of American existentialism, as it is most clearly set forth in the essay “The White Negro” (1957).[2] It should be emphasized that this study deals with existentialism only as Mailer sees it. No attempt has been made to study or define the existentialism of other writers, European or American. Positions intermediate between those of despair and mitigated hope in regard to the human condition are evident in Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955). A comparison of the latter novel to the stage version of The Deer Park (produced 1967) provides a clearer view of the shift in the author’s developing vision.

As a perceptive and conscientious social critic in constant proximity to contemporary social issues in America, Mailer remains cynical and pessimistic in his fiction (although the most recent nonfiction works show some sense of possible hope for America’s future). The major line of development on this level lies in the aesthetic form by which the material is presented. After the clearly derivative The Naked and the Dead,[3] the increasingly original perceptions of America’s social ills presented by Mailer are paralleled by the progressive development of a highly personal narrative voice. Therefore, in tracing the two major thematic concerns throughout the fiction, this study deals as well with the changing narrative stance and the intricate metaphorical patterns which grow out of it. It is my contention that these reach their most effective fictional form in An American Dream.

Point of view has been, at Mailer’s own admission, a constant problem to him after The Naked and the Dead. (All four novels succeeding that have been written in the first person.) The second and third chapters, dealing with Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, discuss this problem and show how Mailer attempted to divorce himself from the direct influence of other novelists while still devoting himself to the two major themes introduced in The Naked and the Dead. References to essays and fictional fragments written between 1955 and 1964 further help to explore the problem of novelistic form and to introduce the emerging system of metaphor by which Mailer made his narrative voice a uniquely personal one. Comparison of the two versions of The Deer Park, through emphasizing the differences in conception of two major characters from the earlier version to the later, introduces the central thesis that Mailer’s later vision is conditioned by some hope for the individual.

Chapter 4, through a close critical reading of An American Dream, attempts to show that this novel is the direct result, formally, metaphorically, and thematically, of the linear development suggested in the earlier chapters. By showing how the elements of subject matter and artistic form are here united integrally in a more highly original fictional statement than Mailer has yet produced, the chapter places greater emphasis on the central thesis that a peculiarly American existentialism which governs the vision of An American Dream is the most significant thematic outgrowth of Mailer’s fictional development since The Naked and the Dead; and that in this existentialism is an implicit hope for the salvation of the individual.

Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) presents particular problems. Despite the fact that it has been well received by some reviewers, it seems to represent a retrogression rather than an advance in the artistic development which has hitherto been seen in Mailer’s fiction. Although it presents thematic concerns and metaphorical patterns similar to those of the earlier novels (especially An American Dream) and thus fits easily into a treatment of the canon, the fifth novel lacks the controlled integration of form and subject which make An American Dream effective.

The Armies of the Night (1968) and, less strikingly, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) represent a new prose form for Mailer, in which we are presented with the novelist in a new role: not as journalist, but as narrator/participant in a nonfiction novel. The significance of these books may be more clearly understood in terms of their development out of Mailer’s previous work, both fiction and nonfiction. These books do not pretend to be objectively rendered history. Structured like novels, they recount historical events through the subjective and metaphorically rich voice of the central character who experiences them: Mailer himself. Three lines of development converge here: Mailer’s fiction, his previous nonfiction works, and his flamboyant public image.

At the outset of his career, Mailer can be seen to fit neatly into the American literary continuum, in that The Naked and the Dead clearly grows out of the social novels of the thirties. Mailer’s concern with the shabbiness of the American dream, which is to inform all of his subsequent work, is introduced here. His parallel concern with the condition of the individual represents Mailer’s most significant departure from the influence of earlier writers: the hopeless alienation of the individual characters in The Naked and the Dead informs the blackness of Mailer’s vision of postwar America, and looks ahead to his more explicit concern in the works which follow with the problems confronting the individual in that society. Through the ambitious failure of Barbary Shore and the varying successes of the other novels, Mailer progressively refines both his understanding of what is wrong in American society, and his capacity to render these criticisms within the novel form through a credible and effective narrative character.

With Advertisements for Myself (1959), Mailer simultaneously begins to develop a parallel non-fiction prose voice, tied at many points to the metaphors and themes of his fiction and rooted in his sense of himself as a public personage. Much material pertinent to an understanding of Mailer’s novels which appears in Advertisements for Myself and the succeeding non-fiction books, The Presidential Papers (1963) and Cannibals and Christians (1966), is dealt with in the first five chapters of this study. Chapter 6 briefly treats Mailer’s poetry and begins to consider the problem of the man’s controversial public image as it bears upon his work and the critical reception of it. In Chapter 7 a study of the first three non-fiction works (with some emphasis on “The White Negro”) attempts to show that the personal essayistic style developed in these books forms a major part of the basis for Mailer’s step into a new form in The Armies of the Night. The final chapter, dealing primarily with The Armies of the Night and peripherally with Miami and the Siege of Chicago, ties together the central lines of development posited in this study, and shows that The Armies of the Night is no freak success artistically, but rather the logical culmination of Mailer’s personal concerns with the individual and American society, and his increasing control over narrative prose, as they have developed over two decades. The chapter closes with some guarded prognoses for Mailer’s future as an artist.

One final suggestion to the reader is in order. The popularly adverse reaction to An American Dream may prompt you to avoid the chapter dealing with that novel. But I cannot overemphasize my feeling that an openminded understanding of Mailer’s intentions in An American Dream is the key to an understanding of Mailer’s mind and art as they operate in the more warmly-received books which follow. Even a hurried or partial reading of this book should include the American Dream chapter.


  1. An American Dream was first published in serial form in the first eight issues (January through August) of Esquire in 1964. Since it is my intention to be as precise as possible in tracing the often rapid development of Mailer’s ideas, and since the novel was presented to a large reading audience in substantially final form in 1964, this is the date I use in referring to the novel in my text. An American Dream was subsequently published in hardcover by Dial Press in 1 965, and in paperback by Dell in 1966. Subsequent footnotes make this clear.
  2. Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, gives 1957 as tile year in which “The White Negro” was written, and it is therefore the date I use in my text. The essay was first published in 1958 by City Lights Book Shop in San Francisco. Since the most readily available text of “The White Negro” is in Advertisements for Myself, all references to the essay will be to that edition.
  3. The structure of which is strikingly similar to that of Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. Mailer himself admits this influence.