This Day In Literary History
On January 31st, 1923, the legendary American writer Norman Mailer was born in New York City. He enrolled at Harvard University in 1939 (at the age of 16) to study aeronautical engineering. During his freshman year, his first short story was published.
After Mailer graduated in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as a cook for the 112th Cavalry in the Philippines. Though he wouldn't see much combat during World War II, his experience in the Army would inspire him to write his classic debut novel.
The Naked and the Dead (1948), set during an Allied invasion of a fictional island in the South Pacific, was a breakthrough novel that painted an incredibly realistic, warts-and-all portrait of American soldiers at war. Not only were the horrors of war graphically depicted, so was the language of the men fighting it.
Mailer's original draft was peppered with numerous uses of the word fuck and its variants. Fearing legal repercussions, his publisher demanded that he censor the manuscript. Rather than cut out the word, Mailer famously substituted the word fug instead. It sounded exactly like the obscenity, though it wasn't an obscene word.
With his fourth novel, An American Dream (1964), Mailer paid tribute to the legendary writers of the past by publishing it first in a serialized format, over an eight month period, in Esquire magazine.
Featuring a poetic narrative rich in metaphor, the novel told the story of Stephen Rojack, a war hero and ex-congressman turned sensationalist talk show host. Estranged from his wife, a society woman, Rojack ends up murdering her in a drunken rage. He makes the crime appear to be a suicide.
From there, Rojack descends into a sleazy, surreal world of jazz clubs and bars, and gets mixed up in mafia intrigue while trying to avoid the suspicion that's closing in on him. He also begins to lose his mind. This nightmare is a metaphor for the so-called American dream.
An American Dream was famously blasted by feminist critic Kate Millett in her famous book Sexual Politics (1970), a groundbreaking study of the treatment of women in literature. Not only did she accuse Norman Mailer of misogyny, she leveled the same charge against Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence. Millett's book received mixed reviews.
Another of Mailer's memorable novels was The Executioner's Song (1979), a novelization of the true story of Gary Gilmore, the first man executed after a conservative Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
Gary Gilmore was a career criminal who robbed and murdered two people in two separate incidents on the same night in July of 1976. Convicted of both murders, Gilmore, who was 35 years old, declared to the court that he wanted to be executed rather than spend the rest of his life in prison.
Gilmore was sentenced to death, but the legal process entitled him to appeal the sentence as well as his conviction. When his court-appointed attorneys began working on an appeal, Gilmore fought them for his right to be executed. The attorneys continued to defy their client.
Gilmore would get his wish. Though his attorneys had won three stays of execution for him, their appeals were ultimately denied. Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in January of 1977. The Executioner's Song would win Norman Mailer a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1991, after not publishing a novel in seven years, Mailer returned in style with Harlot's Ghost, a whopping 1,300+ page epic. In it, senior CIA agent Harry Hubbard learns that his mentor, agent Hugh Montague, code named Harlot, is dead. He either committed suicide or was assassinated. Hubbard's wife then tells him that she's in love with another man.
Emotionally drained, Hubbard goes to Russia, where he rereads the manuscript of his autobiography, tentatively titled The Game. It's an incredibly detailed account of Hubbard's life in the CIA, beginning at the end of World War II. The manuscript ends in 1984, with the words "To be continued."
Although Harlot's Ghost received mixed reviews, some of Mailer's famous literary colleagues, including Salman Rushdie, Anthony Burgess, and Christopher Hitchens, declared it to be the best novel he'd written so far. He planned to write a sequel called Harlot's Grave, but other projects got in the way and he never wrote it.
Mailer's last novel, The Castle in the Forest, was published in 2007 - the year he died. It was based on the life of Adolf Hitler. In this novel, Dieter, a demon from Hell, is sent to guide the young Hitler on his path of destruction. Rather than being part Jewish, as historians believed, here Hitler is the product of incest.
In addition to his literary career, Norman Mailer was a political activist. He covered the Democratic and Republican political conventions of 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1992, and 1996. His account of the 1996 Democratic convention was the only one not published.
In 1969, Mailer ran for Mayor of New York City. The legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin was his biggest supporter. He lost the election. Some say it was because his platform included advocating the secession of New York City from New York State. Others believe it was because he advocated the release of Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party.
In 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, Mailer spoke at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He said the following:
Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.
A vocal advocate for freedom of speech, Mailer was a key witness in the famous 1965 censorship trial of William S. Burroughs' classic novel, Naked Lunch (1959), which had been banned in Boston.
The ban would be reversed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Mailer famously described Burroughs as “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.”
Norman Mailer died of kidney failure in November of 2007. He was 84 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing." - Norman Mailer
Today's video features the rare 1970s Swedish TV documentary, Norman Mailer's USA. Enjoy!