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Who is Norman Mailer?

Norman Mailer's "Marilyn," about Marilyn Monroe, helped launch a new genre of non-fiction novels.
Norman Mailer's literary talent surfaced at Harvard University.
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  • Written By: Garry Crystal
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  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2014
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Norman Mailer has been described as the best journalist in America. His prolific literary career has spanned 50 years, and at times his private life has overshadowed his literary efforts. Forever in search of the Great American Novel, Mailer's fictional output has had its fair share of both detractors and fans.

Born in 1923 in the tough borough of Brooklyn, New York, Norman Mailer would first show his literary talent at Harvard. In 1943, Mailer joined the army. Although he saw more combat with his supervisors than with the enemy, he used his experiences to become a best selling author. The Naked and the Dead is a fictionalized account of a Pacific battle. It was a huge success and turned Norman Mailer into a celebrity almost overnight.

Mailer's second book was not as well received. Barbary Shore, published in 1951, depicts the conflict between a federal agent and a former radical. The book flopped and the critics sharpened their knives. The rumors circulated that Norman Mailer was just a flash in the pan.

Mailer moved to Hollywood hoping to turn his book into a film. When this project failed to materialize, he turned to screenwriting and then to his third novel. The Deerpark was another fictionalized account, this time of his Hollywood experiences. The book was widely panned and several publishers rejected it. The rejection sent Mailer into a severe depression. He spent his nights smoking marijuana and drinking to cope with the failure.

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During this time, Mailer divorced his first wife. He soon married Adele Morales, an aspiring artist. Their turbulent relationship culminated in Mailer stabbing Morales with a penknife after an all-night party. She refused to press charges and Mailer received a suspended sentence. They soon divorced and Mailer moved on to the third of his six wives.

In the 1960s, it seemed as if Norman Mailer was everywhere. His self-confessional book, Advertisements for Myself, had been well received and he founded the Village Voice, a free underground newspaper. In 1969, Mailer ran unsuccessfully for the position of mayor of New York City.

Norman Mailer soon became one of the most powerful and influential political writers in America. He used his descriptive skills as a novelist to write about non-fiction world events. His non-fiction books covered public figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Lee Harvey Oswald, Pablo Picasso and convicted killer Gary Gilmore. In 1968, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for his non-fiction book, The Armies of the Night.

Mailer continued to be prolific. His books were sometimes chaotic and sometimes brilliant, many reaching over a thousand pages. They cover themes as diverse as sexual and political power, religion, the CIA and ancient Egypt.

Celebrity is something Norman Mailer can never escape. His outspoken opinions ensure that he is always in the public eye. His personal and literary life have gained him notoriety as well as critical acclaim. He has been variously described as the voice of a generation and as an opportunistic hack, but no one can dispute the power, insight and influence Norman Mailer has had and continues to have on the world of literature.

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