Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Challenge and Reward of Norman Mailer

Maggie McKinley

Norman Mailer, one of the most prolific American writers of the last century, is also one of the most complex. A multifaceted writer with innovative and sometimes contentious ideas, Mailer often defied traditional or easy categorization. In many respects, Mailer was unlike any other writer of his time, and I would venture to say there has not been another like him since. Over the course of his sixty-year career, he was a novelist, journalist, columnist, poet, short story writer, biographer, playwright, cultural critic, literary critic, public intellectual, politician, actor, and filmmaker. The subjects of his art were diverse, ranging from existentialism to technology to capital punishment to imperialism to feminism to race, from World War II to the Cold War to the Vietnam War, from Marilyn Monroe to Picasso to Hitler. He wrote in a variety of styles and genres, including hardboiled noir fiction, political allegory, spy thriller, ancient epic, creative nonfiction, and more; he often invented literary amalgamations that blurred generic lines. To read Norman Mailer’s collection of works is to observe the expansive possibilities of literature.

Mailer’s writing can be challenging: intellectually rigorous, deeply researched, and ambitious, his work pushes us to consider uncomfortable truths about American history, politics, norms, and identity. And Mailer’s life itself presents its own uncomfortable truths. As readers, we may (and even must) grapple with the infamy surrounding his life: his own violent mistakes, his blind spots, his public gaffes. This is something that Norman Mailer in Context confronts in many places, notably in chapters covering gender, race, and violence; I also contend with this in my afterword on reading Mailer after #MeToo. To effectively emphasize the relevance and impact of Mailer’s work today, it is also essential to incorporate his faults into our understanding of how he shaped and was shaped by culture and history.

Mailer himself, I believe, might agree. Though he had a reputation for being egotistical and stubborn, Mailer was not intractable when it came to honest self-reflection and appraisal. Some of his most famous works of nonfiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Armies of the Night (1968), find Mailer considering himself from a third-person perspective, rendering himself a character in the narrative of events, admitting to missteps. At the same time, he is able to look beyond himself, offering poignant and incisive commentary about a fractured country in a troubled time, which resonates deeply with our present moment.

This critical engagement with American life—its history, culture, politics, mythos, aspirations, and flaws—comprises much of Mailer’s most important contributions to American letters. The individual studies included in Norman Mailer in Context illuminate Mailer’s influence and his impact, each chapter providing essential background for issues, events, individuals, themes, and aesthetics in Mailer’s writing. As they address literary influence, philosophy, American politics and government, genre and style, gender and sexuality, race, religion, culture, history, and legacy, the thirty-four authors in this volume deftly parse the nuances of the vast catalog the Mailer has left us, enriching our understanding of what he has wrought.

As a result, this volume continues the conversations Mailer participated in and relished for much of his career. Throughout his life, Mailer remained devoted to the idea of growth—personal, intellectual, national—and felt that dialogue and argument were integral to this. “My mind is deeply dialectical,” he wrote in his “Lipton’s Journal” of the 1950s, an assertion that played out in his writing over the next five decades, as he sought to deepen his—and his readers’—understanding of dualities inherent in ourselves and the world around us. “Since the First World War, Americans have been leading a double life,” he wrote in his groundbreaking 1960 essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” “and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground.”

Mailer fought to unearth and expose that unseen history that simmered beneath, to seek truths even amid corruption and obfuscation, to understand complicated people, to ask hard questions. He fought for literary and artistic freedom, he fought his own demons, and he fought to inspire his country to live up to its potential, urging us all to ask more thoughtful and sophisticated questions. This intellectual curiosity is at the heart of Mailer’s work and worldview. “I’m interested,” he once said simply, “that we all get better at thinking.”

Norman Mailer in Context By Maggie McKinley
Norman Mailer in Context By Maggie McKinley

About The Author

Maggie McKinley

Maggie McKinley is Professor of English at Harper College. She is the author of Masculinity and the Paradox of Violence in American Fiction (2015) and Understanding Norman Mailer...

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