Controversy At Its Best

Mother Fanny Schneider and father Isaac Barnett Mailer, welcomed Norman Kingsley Mailer into his world on January 31, 1923, in Long Branch New Jersey. The parents had no idea that over the next few year that they too, like much of the American Public would praise and criticize the work of their son. Whether applauded or condemned, if nothing else, the writings of Norman Mailer was controversial. The two Jewish Immigrants from Lithuania have much to be proud of – seventy five years of work to be exact.

At the tender age of nine, Mailer wrote Invasion From Mars, a 250-page-story that he kept in his notebooks. A few years later in 1939, he graduated from Boys High School and won entrance into Harvard University at the age of sixteen. Leaving Brooklyn, where he was raised, he headed off to Cambridge, Massachusetts for the next four years. During this time Mailer would study aeronautical engineering until he’d receive is B.S. of Science with honors. While at Harvard, Mailer participated in Story Magazine’s annual college writing contest for students. His story “Greatest Thing in the World,” won and became the impetus that would change his adolescent hobby into a life long career.

In 1944 Mailer was inducted into the U.S. Army where he served as a gunnery sargent in the South Pacific during World War II. In 1946, he was discharged and took up a few classes at the Sorbonne in Paris. Over a fifteen month period there, Mailer reflected on his experiences in Leyte, Luzon, and Japan during the war. His vivid memories of the war, were portrayed in The Naked and the Dead (1948), who’s “triumphant release made him an overnight international celebrity” at the age of twenty-five.

Mailer’s huge unexpected success from The Naked and the Dead, catapulted him into the public eye and set the bar higher than usual for his next novel. Living in Hollywood, he wrote about the McCarthy Era and social tension in his 1951 novel Barbary Shore. Unfortunately critic’s expectations hadn’t been met, and they chalked Mailer up to be nothing more than an “one book wonder.”

Distraught because of the bad reviews and divorce from his wife, Mailer left Hollywood. He soon settled down with actress Adele Morales in Greenwich Village and the two were later married.

Their marriage took a turn for the worst after Mailer sunk into a deep depression. His third book, The Deer Park also flopped and he became increasingly violent and turned to drugs and alcohol. Contrary to popular belief that Mailer habitually beat his wives, there is only one known and documented case. After an all night party in Manhattan Mailer, grew violent and stabbed his second wife Morales with a “dirty three-inch penknife.”

During the 1960’s Mailer found a new purpose and shifted his focus to depict the rising counter-culture. He became a “New Journalist” who used novel writing techniques to depict real events and people’s lives. In his 1968 Pulitzer Prize Winning novel, Armies of the Night, he reminisces over his participation in the historical demonstration at the Pentagon in 1967. He along with Noam Chomsky and a slew of other celebrities were arrested for their radical views and dissent for the Vietnam War.

“Any war that requires the suspension of reason as a necessity for support is a bad war.”

(Armies of the Night)

When asked whether she agreed with Mailer’s quote about war, Nassau Community College student Laura, simply said “NO.” In my opinion the quote paralles the Vietnam War with our current war in Iraq and I agree with Mailer, that if a war looses it’s original purpose, it shouldn’t continue to be fought. Laura and I, are just some of the many people who don’t know where to stand when it comes to Mailers views. In the 1960’s there were many people who didn’t agree with Mailer’s political views, but that didn’t stop him from his quest to speak his mind.

Mailer continued to write about the sexual revolution, social upheaval, drugs and violence, in the Village Voice, which he named and co-founded in 1955. He used it as a means to give the public an alternate view. Mailer was a modern day citizen journalist who gave the people the facts about racial tension and anti-war movements in his underground weekly magazine.

Opposed to conformity he spoke out against “The Man” in Esquire and Commentary magazines. He condemned his conformist peers by saying: “There is no greater impotence in all the world like knowing you are right and that the wave of the world is wrong, yet the wave crashes upon you.”

(Armies of the Night)

When asked about this quote and its application to the modern media, Nassau Community College Professor Amy King said, “There should be a lot more citizen journalists and fewer sell-outs.”

Much like citizen journalists, Mailer felt he was obligated to give truth to the people. He decided to take his political ambitions a step further and ran for the Mayor of New York City in 1969. Though he used the catchy slogan – “No More Bullshit”, Mailer’s campaign as Independent Candidate was unsuccessful, yet he stil managed to obtain 5% of the vote.

Practicing objectivity, Mailer covered both the Republican and Democratic Conventions as a journalist. In 1963 he wrote The Presidential Papers based on the Kennedy Administration.

Moving on from Politics, Mailer focused on a new subject of controversy_ The Feminist
Movement. In Prisioner of Sex (1971), he discussed female inferiority when dealing with reality. Author Kate Millett, labeled him a male chauvinist in her book, Sexual Politics. The critics agreed.

Following Prisoner of Sex, the critics thought the sun was setting or Mailer’s career, but he proved them wrong with yet another brilliant novel- The Executioner’s Song. Norman Mailer’s 1979 one thousand page “true life novel” depicted the life and death of Utah murderer Gary Gilmer. Gilmer was executed by firing squad on January 7, 1977 and Mailer’s telling of these events, won him his second Puliter Prize. It was later turned into a film staring Tommy Lee Jones.

Norman Mailer’s earlier experiences with screen and play writing for works such as, The Deer Park (1955), didn’t go so well. However with the success of The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s interest in the cinema was revived. In 1984, he wrote the detective story, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” and later directed the film version.

Later in his life, Mailer again experienced unease with the state of American politics so he sought for truth and visited the Soviet Union. He said that the Soviet Union wasn’t the “evil empire” America preached it to be, but instead a “poor, third world country.”

Bestselling Harlot’s Ghost was a tale of C.I.A. agent which grew out of Mailer’s research of the KGB during his stay in Russia. While also in Russia Mailer discovered previously unreleased documents and used them as background for Oswald’s Tale (1995). These never before seen secret documents help Mailer write about J.F.K.’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

As a retrospective of the events and people that helped shape American History, Mailer’s 1998 collection, The Time of Our Times paints a portrait of America through celebrites and major events. It is Mailer’s own collection of works where he touches on several controversial issues at once.

In his later years Mailer choose to stick to fiction, but still remained controversial.
Mailer profiled the lives of Jesus and a young Hitler in The Gospel According to the Son (1997) and Castle in the Forest (2002).

After Two Pulitzer Prizes, four feature films, over forty books, dozens of essays and poems, we can conclude that Norman Mailer had a lengthy career. He was always at the center of controversy for his writings on vast cultural taboo subjects. Whether he was respected or renounced for his writings he was always courageous. He sought for truth and to give the people alternative views. He loved writing and exercised his freedom of speech. Though he may have been labeled as controversial, Norman Mailer spoke his mind and gave the literary world six decades of some of the best writings it has ever seen.

–Brittney Werts


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