Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup
Search Collections

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer reads from his novel, The Castle
in the Forest
, following the panel discussion
"A Conversation With Norman Mailer," on
Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006, to wrap up the
2006 Flair Symposium.

In 2005, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin announced the acquisition of Norman Mailer's archive. The archive contains materials associated with every one of Mailer's literary projects, whether completed or not, from the mid-1930s to the present.

The more than 950 boxes of Mailer's archive will be available to researchers and the public in early 2008. The materials contain handwritten and typed manuscripts, galley proofs, screenplays, correspondence, research materials and notes, legal, business, and financial records, photographs, audio and video tapes, books, magazines, clippings, scrapbooks, electronic records, drawings, and awards that document the life, work, and family of Mailer from the early 1900s to the present.

The papers also contain extensive records of Mailer's literary production, with the bulk of the material consisting of drafts of Mailer's books, plays, screenplays, poems, speeches, and journal contributions, both published and unpublished.

Norman Mailer Timeline

1923

Born in Long Branch, New Jersey

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born on January 31, 1923, to Fanny and Barney Mailer in Brooklyn, New York. His Hebrew name, Nachem Malech, stood for Norman "King." Doted on by his mother and encouraged from the age of nine to fill notebooks with a chapter a day, Mailer nevertheless entered Harvard in 1939 as a declared engineering major.

A freshman English class, with a syllabus featuring the novels of James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck—all of them Depression-era writers whose works influenced Mailer's own—sparked Mailer's turn to creative writing as a career goal.

1939-1945

World War II

1941

Awarded Story magazine college fiction prize

Mailer was elected to the board of the Advocate, Harvard's student literary magazine, his sophomore year. On the "realist" rather than the "aesthetic" side of two competing editorial camps, Mailer became a frequent and popular contributor to the magazine, valued for the professional speed with which he could turn out prose to meet demand and deadline.

"The Greatest Thing in the World," the story of a young hobo who successfully cons three men in a pool game and gets away, bruised, but with the money, was the first story of Mailer's to be published in the Advocate.

When Mailer's short story won the prestigious Eighth Annual College Short Story Contest, the $100 prize money helped convince Mailer's family that he might indeed pursue a successful career as a writer rather than as an engineer. Winning the prize also called Mailer's writing to the attention of Ted Amussen at Rinehart and Co., who was to eventually publish The Naked and the Dead.

1943

Graduates cum laude from Harvard University

1944-1946

Serves in U.S. Army in Philippines and Japan

1948

Publication of The Naked and the Dead

Norman Mailer's first published novel, The Naked and the Dead, based on his experiences as a rifleman in the South Pacific, was published in 1948. Mailer was twenty-five, and the novel became an immediate best-seller, catapulting him into instant popular and critical fame.

By creating two story lines—one about enlisted men and one about officers— Mailer reflected the way in which World War II blended social groups that might otherwise have remained distinct. Class and personal power struggles between the men mirror similar political tensions at the national and international level. It is, ultimately, a novel about power and violence, two phenomena towards which Mailer, his biographer Mary Dearborn argues, felt a profound ambivalence.

In the 50th anniversary edition of the novel, published in 1998, Mailer looked back on his first novel as the work of an amateur that nevertheless succeeded because it told a fundamentally good story that came out when the public "was ready for a big war novel that gave some idea of what it had all been like." He also credits the novel's enduring appeal to a "touch of Tolstoyan compassion" that Mailer says he absorbed by reading from Anna Karenina most mornings that he worked on the novel.

1954

Brown v. Board of Education decision on school segregation

1955

Publication of The Deer Park

The Harvard College Class of 1943 Tenth Anniversary Report, 1953

Mailer's ten-year progress report to his classmates is factual and modest and reveals none of the anxiety to "get perfect" the new novel he reports he is working on. After the critical failure of his second novel, The Barbary Shore, Mailer needed another success and, after a number of publication delays (caused, in part, by Mailer's extensive revising) achieved a small measure of it with The Deer Park (1955). The novel, though it met with mixed reviews, is judged by one Mailer biographer to be "first-rate," "a hugely enjoyable and provocative book" that nevertheless failed Mailer because he had been aiming at greatness.

The Village Voice founded

By the mid-1950s, Mailer saw himself as an outlaw, opposed not just to conventionality in general, but to the strictures of an increasingly corporate culture industry. A brief experiment as a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1949-1950 led only to broken contracts. Barbary Shore was panned by the critics, and almost three years were dominated by Mailer's efforts to reach a compromise with various publishers over the sexual explicitness of The Deer Park, a novel that in the end garnered only a mixed critical response.

When Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher approached him about starting up an alternative weekly newspaper, Mailer eagerly joined in, and with his financial support The Village Voice began publication. Among other things, it became a place for Mailer to write without editorial interference—a situation that, while it lasted, nurtured the non-fiction style for which he would soon gain fame. Only nine months after the paper began, personality conflicts came to a head, and Mailer left the magazine.

1959

Publication of Advertisements for Myself

1960

John F. Kennedy elected President

Esquire sent Mailer to the 1960 Democratic Convention, where he first encountered John F. Kennedy, who claimed to be a fan of The Deer Park. In "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," Mailer perceptively analyzed Kennedy's cult of personality, his function as an "existential hero" who could satisfy a bored country's need for a mythic figure. "Superman" was a new kind of journalism, filled with egotism, opinions, irreverence, and irrelevancies. Some readers scratched their heads, while others, like newspaperman Pete Hamill, recognized that Mailer had "altered the form."

1961

First American soldier is killed in Vietnam

Mailer recognized early on that the Vietnam War was the defining event of the 1960s. Disenchantment with the war and later active resistance to it led to widespread questioning of Establishment values and rejection of conventionality in all its forms. This in turn spurred a revolution in American writing, popular music, and culture. In 1965, Mailer was among the first to speak out publicly against the Vietnam War, and his speeches and writings inspired antiwar activists. Never one to be pigeonholed, Mailer later distanced himself from the more radical fringe of the movement. Anti-war demonstrations were the subject of Armies of the Night, perhaps his best work of nonfiction. The novel Why Are We in Vietnam? examined the roots of the conflict in the American psyche, though on the surface it had nothing to do with the war.

1962

Cuban Missile Crisis

Marilyn Monroe commits suicide

1963

Publication of The Presidential Papers

The Presidential Papers, addressed to JFK and published as a group shortly before his assassination, were variations on a theme announced in "Superman Comes to the Supermarket." Mailer's intention was to instruct the president in the art of "existential politics." He maintained that existential politicians should be more like artists or writers than conventional politicians in recognizing the importance of myth-making and the American public's psychic needs.

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech during the Civil Rights March on the Capital

President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas

Norman Mailer had a longtanding interest in John F. Kennedy's persona, presidency, and assassination. In 1960, he undertook his first assignment in political reportage when Esquire magazine asked him to cover the 1960 Democratic National Convention. His celebrity preceded him, and Mailer not only gained unusual access to events at the convention itself, but was invited for an interview with Kennedy in Hyannisport after the nomination was secured. In the resulting article, Mailer transformed Kennedy into the "existential candidate," an embodiment of the hipster ideals Mailer had described in his famous essay, "The White Negro" (1957). Over the years, Kennedy has appeared in Mailer's writing on favorite topics such as the Cold War, the CIA, and the nature of the criminal mind.

Representative objects from the Ransom Center's collections demonstrate that responses to Kennedy's assassination in the years that followed may to be found throughout the cultural record, from popular magazines and postcards to experimental art. Thirty years after the event, Mailer's own study of the assassination, Oswald's Tale, introduced substantive new information about Lee Harvey Oswald's background and motivations.

1964

The Beatles arrive in America

Muhammad Ali defeats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight Championship

Norman Mailer greatly admired Muhammad Ali, stating that as "the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the twentieth century; he is the prince of mass man and the media."

Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing the use of military force in Vietnam

Free Speech movement begins at University of California-Berkeley

1965

Publication of An American Dream

Mailer received an unusually large advance of $125,000 for his novel, An American Dream, originally serialized in Esquire and published as a book in March 1965. His aggressive new agent Scott Meredith was largely responsible for this, and the deal ushered in an era of big-money sales for major American novelists. Mailer commented that An American Dream received the worst and best reviews of any novel he had written.

Like Mailer's journalism of the period, An American Dream was written on deadline and in haste, and reading it creates a sort of adrenalin rush. The principal character, Stephen Rojack, a professor obsessed with "existential psychology," is fundamentally a Mailer surrogate.

Malcolm X is assassinated

First large demonstrations against the Vietnam War at Berkeley

Jerry Rubin dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley and began organizing some of the earliest demonstrations against the war, leading up to the famous Vietnam Day rally in Berkeley on 21 May 1965.

Rubin invited Mailer, as a "spokesman for our generation," to speak at the Vietnam Day rally, which was attended by over 30,000 people. At the event, Mailer delivered a scathing attack on Lyndon Johnson and his policies. Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, another radical leader, regarded Mailer as something of a mentor who had given them "permission to insult a father figure." The Berkeley speech became an important document for the antiwar movement.

1966

National Organization for Women established

1967

Publication of Why Are We in Vietnam?

Narrated by a rowdy Texas teenager, D. J., on an Alaskan bear hunt, the novel Why Are We in Vietnam? has overtones of Faulkner's The Bear and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, not to mention other American classics. Although it obliquely explores the roots of the American machismo that led Lyndon Johnson and his Advisors into the Vietnam War, that event is not even mentioned until the very end of the novel. Mailer hadn't been able to use the word "fuck" in The Naked and the Dead, yet two decades later it was possible to find that expletive—and many others—on every page.

March on the Pentagon against the war in Vietnam

By 1967, resistance to the Vietnam War had reached a critical mass, culminating in October, when tens of thousands of protestors marched on the Pentagon. Among the demonstrators were Mailer, Robert Lowell, Noam Chomsky, and Dwight Macdonald. On 20 October, after a night of speeches by Mailer and others, demonstrators crossed law enforcement lines around the building and were arrested.

Willie Morris, the energetic young editor of Harper's (and a former editor of The Daily Texan), devoted the entire March 1968 issue of the magazine to Mailer's "Steps of the Pentagon," later published in book form as Armies of the Night. Morris's gamble in publishing what was then the longest essay ever to appear in a periodical paid off handsomely. The issue became a bestseller, and Mailer's insider's account of the highly charged 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon was widely acclaimed as one of his best pieces of writing.

1968

Publication of Armies of the Night

Mailer's account of the Pentagon demonstration, the events that led up to it, and his arrest bore the subtitle "history as a novel, the novel as history" and deliberately sought to blur the line between the genres by using interior monologues and other fictional techniques. It opens with the line, "From the outset, let us bring you news of our protagonist," and is written in the third person, with "Mailer" as the main character; this was the first time Mailer used this hallmark device. The Armies of the Night won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; Mailer is the only writer to win a Pulitzer for fiction and nonfiction.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy are assassinated

Richard M. Nixon elected President

1969

Woodstock Rock Festival

Apollo 11 moon landing

Candidate for New York City mayoral election

In the spring of 1969, Mailer decided to enter the Democratic New York City mayoral primaries in the hopes of fulfilling a longstanding dream of life as a politician. In addition to voicing the idea of New York City becoming the fifty-first state, Mailer had theories about giving individual New York neighborhoods local political power, and his campaign slogan became "No more Bullshit." Mailer was aligned with newspaper columnist James Breslin, who ran for New York City Council President. Mailer lost the race, coming in fourth of the five candidates with 41,136 votes.

In 1960 Mailer had just announced his first mayoral campaign when he stabbed his wife Adele. After that infamous event, he never joined the race.

1970

U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Campus demonstrations follow, with 4 killed at Kent State University

Kate Millet publishes Sexual Politics

Mailer's battle with high-profile feminists began in earnest with the 1970 publication of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, which soon became a bible of the movement. Millet launched an attack on what she considered the antifeminine, power-obsessed male patriarchy by quoting at length from Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, and Norman Mailer, who collectively, she claimed, best represented the reactionary, "counterrevolutionary" sexual attitudes that had enjoyed a resurgence between 1930 and 1960. Her strongest criticism was reserved for Mailer, whom she branded an "archconservative" and "prisoner of the virility cult" who saw "sexual belligerence in terms of actual warfare." Mailer fired back both in The Prisoner of Sex and in personal appearances, insisting that he was anything but "anti-women."

1971

Publication of Prisoner of Sex and Town Hall debate on feminism

The Prisoner of Sex is Mailer's response to Kate Millet's attack. Mailer divides his book into four parts: The Prizewinner, The Acolyte, The Advocate, and The Prisoner. "The Prizewinner" describes his first awareness of the feminist attack and the realization that he must react. As the "Acolyte," Mailer examines feminist programs and concludes that the concept of revolution has degenerated into nothing more than "scientific vanity, destroying every natural act of nature." Mailer's "Advocate" defends the works of D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. In "The Prisoner," Mailer theorizes that it has become more difficult for men to be heroes and for women to be feminized.

Willie Morris, the editor of Harper's, asked Mailer to write this piece in response to Millet's book. When Morris read it for the first time, he remarked, "This is going to cost me my job, but we have to publish it." The March magazine sold more copies on the newsstands than any other single issue. On March 4th Morris and his editorial team, already under pressure from the magazine's owners for their editorial politics, resigned.

When Mailer learned that the hard-cover version of his Harper's article would be published in late May of 1971, he set up a highly visible debate among the leading feminists to coincide with The Prisoner of Sex's appearance in bookstores. When the participants learned that a man, especially Mailer, was going to "moderate" the event, many, including Kate Millet and Gloria Steinem, refused to attend. Germaine Greer, who was about to publish The Female Eunuch in America, saw it as an opportunity to promote her book. After Greer's speech, which was met with thunderous applause, Mailer criticized it as "diaper Marxism." The next speaker, Jill Johnston, claimed, "all women are lesbians except those that don't know it yet." Two of Johnston's friends got up on the stage, and the threesome then rolled together on the floor.

1972

Watergate break-in

1973

Publication of Marilyn: A Biography

Mailer wrote Marilyn: A Biography to accompany various photographers' images of Monroe because he "felt some existential similarities with Marilyn Monroe." Not a straightforward biography, Marilyn is, according to Mailer, "a novel written in the form of a biography. . . . a species of novel ready to play by the rules of biography."

The book proved controversial when Maurice Zolotow, author of Marilyn Monroe (1960), and Fred Guiles, author of Norma Jean (1969), made allegations of plagiarism. In a copy of the book at the Ransom Center, someone has carefully noted every passage Mailer took from Guilles or from Zolotow. Guilles eventually backed down, but Zolotow announced that, in addition to plagiarism, he would sue Mailer for libel because Marilyn included several ad hominem criticisms of Zolotow's book. Mailer threatened to counter-sue for libel, insisting that the written permission he had received from Zolotow exonerated him from charges of plagiarism. Ultimately, both men dropped their cases.

Vietnam peace agreement signed

1974

Nixon resigns Presidency in aftermath of Watergate scandal

1979

Publication of The Executioner's Song

Mailer has a longstanding interest in society's outcasts, and when he briefly found himself in prison for stabbing his wife, he bonded with several other inmates and kept up with them. In the late 1970s, he was attracted to the possibilities in the story of Gary Gilmore, a drifter who killed two people and was ultimately executed by a Utah firing squad. This became the basis of The Executioner's Song. Mailer's controversial compassion for criminals has been counterbalanced by his defense of capital punishment in some cases.

Gilmore's case was widely publicized because of his refusal to appeal his death sentence and because it was the first time the death sentence had been imposed in many years. Both defenders and foes of capital punishment rightly regarded Gilmore's execution as a turning point.

Mailer was first drawn to the Gilmore case as the subject of a screenplay but then decided to write a "nonfiction novel" exploring the depths of criminal psychology, Gilmore's reasons for not fighting his execution, and his tortured relationship with his girlfriend Nicole, whom Mailer befriended and interviewed at length. The resulting book took eighteen months to write, won the Pulitzer Prize, and became a major bestseller. "The Literary Gods were good to me," Mailer told an interviewer. "They finally gave me a book that was asking to be written."

1983

Publication of Ancient Evenings

1990-91

Gulf War

1992

Publication of Harlot's Ghost Mailer's mid-1970s change of view towards the Central Intelligence Agency and, indeed, toward many aspects of government that had once repelled him, culminated in the 1991 novel Harlot's Ghost, in which his qualified admiration and approval of the agency are apparent. By 1984, Mailer had begun serious research for the book. His reading for it ranged from spy novels to the works of conspiracy theorists. The "Alpha" and "Omega" structure of the book reflects the character Kittredge's belief that each person is composed of two separate personalities. This dualistic view reflects Mailer's own philosophical underpinnings in Manichaeism. In geopolitical terms, the novel represents the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Harlot's Ghost was Mailer's first novel in over eight years; the consequently massive book tour resulted in a flourish of publicity, even as reviewers found fault with the novel's length and mocked the promise that it was "To be continued," as printed on the last page. Still, most found the opening section to have the concision of a well-written political thriller. Writing to Mailer about Harlot's Ghost, novelist Don DeLillo states that he considers it Mailer's most "adroit" book and praises, among other qualities, Mailer's skill in making "a welcoming object of a book out of all the rotten karma and bad medicine of the decades" it chronicles.

1995

Publication of Oswald's Tale

In 1993, Mailer spent several months in Minsk in the USSR doing original research on Oswald's stay there from 1959-1962. The resulting book, Oswald's Tale, details Oswald's life much more extensively than others that take on the subject of the Kennedy assassination. Mailer is concerned primarily with the person of Oswald, and a comparison may be drawn between this book and The Executioner's Song (1979) which likewise focuses heavily on the life story of murderer Gary Gilmore.

Like Mailer's other works, Oswald's Tale is truly about American culture itself. The Cold War, Kennedy's assassination, and the conspiracy theories that tie them together, had fascinated Mailer for years before he finally wrote this book. In it, Oswald's journey to Dallas becomes a backdrop against which to reconsider a pivotal moment in American history. And its argument—that Oswald believed he acted alone, even if larger forces were possibly involved—is also therapeutic. Mailer has said of this book, "the sudden death of a man as large in his possibilities as John Fitzgerald Kennedy is more tolerable if we can perceive his killer as tragic rather than absurd."

1999

Appears as Harry Houdini in Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2 film

2005

National Book Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Mailer papers acquired by the Ransom Center

2006

Ransom Center presents the exhibition "Norman Mailer Takes on America"

Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium, "The Sense of Our Time: Norman Mailer and America in Conflict"

2007

Publication of The Castle in the Forest

Norman Mailer attends Ransom Center's Fiftieth Anniversary Celebrations

Mailer passes away November 10 at the age of 84

 

Finding Aid
Additional information relating to Norman Mailer and his archive

The following Ransom Center collections also contain Mailer related materials and are described in archival inventories in the Ransom Center reading room or online:

Abeles, Joseph
Adams, Alice
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Chester, Alfred
Czermanski, Zdzislaw
DeLillo, Don
Fiske, Thomas. Collection of Norman Mailer.
Hardwick, Elizabeth
Hellman, Lillian
Jones, James
Kenner, Hugh
Lowell, Robert
Loomis, Hillary Mills. Collection of Norman Mailer.
Malmud, Bernard
Matthiessen, Peter
Playboy Enterprises. Norman Mailer Files.
Singer, Isaac B.
Weidman, Jerome

Robert Fulton, the Ransom Center's Curator of Academic Affairs, interviewed Norman Mailer, his son John Buffalo Mailer, and Norman Mailer's sister, Barbara Mailer Wasserman.

Listen to an interview with Mailer and his family

View photos from Norman Mailer's visit to the Ransom Center for 2006 Flair Symposium, The Sense of Our Time: Norman Mailer and America in Conflict

Read a Q&A with J. Michael Lennon, a Norman Mailer authority about Mailer, Flair, the Ransom Center's exhibition Norman Mailer Takes on America, and Mailer's archive

Give the Gift of Membership
Connect with the
Harry Ransom Center
Flickr YouTube RSS Tumblr Facebook Twitter