This Day In Literary History
On May 4th, 1948, The Naked and the Dead, the classic first novel by the legendary American writer Norman Mailer, was published.
Based on the author's experiences in the Pacific campaign during World War II, (he saw action in the Philippines as a member of the 112th Calvary Regiment) the novel paints a harrowing, horrifyingly realistic portrait of the war in the Pacific.
The Naked and the Dead opens with the Allied invasion of Anopopei, a fictional Japanese-occupied island in the Pacific. After his troops storm the beaches, General Cummings orders them to dig in and wait for reinforcements.
Having no idea how strong the Japanese forces are, the General wants more information before he gives the order to attack. So, a reconnaissance team led by Lieutenant Hearn is dispatched to explore a mountain behind enemy lines, searching for a possible secret route where a surprise attack could be launched.
The team's scout finds Japanese guards patrolling a mountain pass, but doesn't tell Lieutenant Hearn on orders from Sgt. Croft, a sadistic renegade out to usurp command of the reconnaissance team. Hearn is killed and Croft takes command, ordering the team to climb over the mountain.
Failing to do so, they retreat, suffering casualties as they head home. While General Cummings is away, a captain unwittingly launches an all-out attack on the enemy, during which the entire reconnaissance team is wiped out, their lives sacrificed unnecessarily.
The author uses flashbacks to thoroughly define all of the characters in this tragedy, exploring their lives before the war. Then, like a psychologist analyzing his patients, he makes them confront their fears and try to find a sense of purpose in the senseless chaos of war.
The reconnaissance team's struggle to reach the top of the mountain becomes a metaphor for their inner struggle to find meaning in the madness around them. This is done in a non-judgmental way.
War is seen as neither noble nor evil. It is depicted graphically and accurately. The reader must judge for himself, just as the viewer of a painting must judge for himself the artist's intentions.
Norman Mailer made a name for himself as a writer with his debut novel. Ironically, it would be most famous for the author's censorship battle with his publisher.
The novel pulls no punches in its descriptions of soldiers at war, including their colorful language. Mailer's original manuscript contained numerous uses of the word fuck and its variants.
His publishers, fearing legal trouble for both themselves and their booksellers, demanded that he cut all uses of the word fuck from his manuscript. Mailer did - and substituted the word fug instead, including it in variants, i.e., fugging, fugger, etc. The euphemism sounded exactly the same as the obscenity it replaced.
Ironically, just four years later, when writer James Jones published his classic World War II novel, From Here to Eternity, his frequent uses of the word fuck by soldiers at war were not censored by his publishers.
After The Naked and the Dead was published and became a hit, Norman Mailer was approached at a party by legendary writer Dorothy Parker (not actress Tallulah Bankhead, as some have claimed) who quipped, "So you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell fuck."
Mailer's euphemism would become famous again years later in 1964, when poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg founded the legendary counterculture folk-rock band The Fugs.
The Fugs famously attempted to encircle the Pentagon and perform an exorcism on it during a 1967 march of protest against the Vietnam War - an event which would be covered by Norman Mailer in his Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction book, The Armies of the Night (1968).
In 1958, ten years after it was first published, The Naked and the Dead was adapted as a classic feature film, starring Raymond Massey as General Cummings, Cliff Robertson as Lieutenant Hearn, and Aldo Ray as Sgt. Croft. It would be the last film made by RKO Radio Pictures before the studio's demise.
Quote Of The Day
"Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day." - Norman Mailer
Today's video features a documentary on Norman Mailer's classic first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Enjoy!