Norman Mailer (1924-2007)

Norman Mailer (1924-2007)

Norman Mailer came to public attention as the young author of a best-selling novel of 1948, The Naked and the Dead. It quickly became one of three war novels by Americans that any reader of that generation was likely to know; the others were James Jones’s From Here to Eternity and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. Mailer’s was the most complex in design and the most ambitious in what it aimed to say, not about the war but about American society as seen through the institutions of war. An antiwar book (in some broad sense), it was, more emphatically, anti-statist and anti-militarist.

In the years that followed, Mailer was not yet a public figure but his views were well known, and they were those of a revolutionary socialist—in the early McCarthy period a nonconformist position to the last degree. His second novel, Barbary Shore, came out of that moment. Written from a strange half-hallucinatory sobriety, in prose less layered and exhibitionist than that of his first novel, it opens with one of the great first sentences of American fiction: “Probably I was in the war.” The story tells of rebellion and mystic self-isolation, and it is a memorable and melancholic piece of work, closer to the later Melville than to the mainstream talents of the 1950s.

Mailer lived for several months in Hollywood, and his third novel, The Deer Park, set in Palm Springs, would deal satirically with the Blacklist. It was brushed off by its intended publisher, Rinehart, then irritably accepted, then rejected from a worked-up anxiety about the threat of obscenity prosecutions. Mailer “shopped” the book to six more publishers and received six rejections. By the time Putnam agreed to publish it, the novelist was in a deep depression, a crisis of self-trust overlaid by binges of drugs and alcohol. He rewrote the book in keyed-up intervals, and it became a modest best seller; but three years later, in his account of the episode in Advertisements for Myself, he was still not sure he had done the right thing; the reader was invited to compare the reprinted parallel texts of certain passages of the Rinehart and Putnam versions and judge which had the edge. His first completed draft was resonant and rounded, every sentence a work of aesthetic measure, while the rewritten version was nervy, skittish, an erased and scuffed-up reaction against the first, which bore the imprint (fatal to art) of an author winking at the reader to hear the effects of his tone. Mailer was an inspired talker. Now, in his writing, he was changing himself to accommodate the rhythms of the dialectician and improvisateur.

He had spoiled a mood of creation, and in consequence (maybe only half intending the consequence) he left behind part of the core of his earliest idea of himself. But by the mid-1950s, he had embarked on becoming something, if not more valuable, rarer than a respected novelist. Advertisements for Mysel...