Writing in 1998, fifty years after the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer called his younger self an “amateur,” by which he intended something between self-deprecation and self-praise, leaning toward the latter. He had grown up in Brooklyn in a Jewish family that was modest in both means and manners. “The one personality he found absolutely insupportable,” he wrote in middle age, was “the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.” For much of his life, with mixed success, he did everything he could to put that personality behind him.

In September 1939, soon after Britain and France declared war on Germany, he went off to Harvard intending to study engineering, in part because of his boyhood interest in aviation but also to please his parents with the promise of a career. He stuck with the plan long enough to graduate in 1943 with an engineering degree, but along the way his ambitions shifted. In his sophomore year he wrote a gritty story that was published in Whit Burnett’s prestigious Story magazine about a boy conned and beaten up by pool hustlers. Mailer was en route to becoming Big Literary Man on Campus—a Hemingway wannabe who dropped into a boxer’s crouch and brandished his fists at anyone who displeased him. Six months out of college he was drafted and soon deployed to the Philippines, where he experienced “a couple of firefights and skirmishes” before serving in occupied Japan as a cook who, according to a friend, “never did learn to separate the yellows from the whites of the eggs.”

After returning from Japan and a short stint back in Brooklyn, Mailer resumed his sprint toward celebrity. He rented a shack on the dunes outside Provincetown with his first wife, Beatrice Silverman, whom he had met when she was a music student at Boston University and with whom he defied Harvard’s parietal rules with loud lovemaking in his dorm room. Intellectually and sexually adventurous, she introduced him to Freudian psychology and Marxist political theory, neither of which took up much space in the Harvard curriculum. In January 1944, a few weeks before his induction into the army, they married. “You love me,” he told her, “because I’m the only man you could ever ballast, all other men were ballast for you.”

In a series of remarkable letters to Bea written while he was in the army, from which his biographer and editor J. Michael Lennon includes a selection in the seventy-fifth-anniversary Library of America edition of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer described the “feeling of elation and excitement and awareness” of riding by night in an open army truck over trails vulnerable to ambush:

You know the thrill, love, of driving at night when there is only the singing of the tires and the lights of the vehicle cutting their brief swath through the vastness of the dark. When you add to that the animal awareness of danger and feel the solidness of the gun stock against your chest, it is really a heady experience. And of course all the men in the gloom of the van with the odd lights and glints on their helmets and faces and rifles, and the tension that holds them all as they peer into the night.

In another letter he describes his encounter with the corpse of an enemy soldier, its intestines protruding in “a thick white cluster like a coiled white garden hose” and “genitals…burnt away to tiny stumps.” “Here was a man,” he wrote to Bea, “and he wanted things, and the thought of his own death was always a little unbelievable to him. He had a childhood, a youth, and a young manhood, and there were all the dreams and all the memories. I wonder what he was like.”

Back from the war, in their snug bungalow on the Cape, Mailer drew on these letters for a novel about an assault on a fictional Japanese-held island called Anopopei. The result—the first big American novel to come out of World War II—may have been the work of an amateur, but any pro could have counted it as a hell of a performance.

Like many young writers, Mailer was in love with his own talent. He had an image-making mind and was loath to give up extravagant passages that should have been cut. When the Japanese break through the American perimeter, he compares the task of repelling them to “ejecting the rump of a fat man who had broken a hole through the stuffing of a couch and was now spluttering and wriggling his backside in an effort to escape.”

Sporadically overwritten, the book was also derivative—a pastiche of devices borrowed from writers who had impressed him in his college days. From John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. he appropriated the idea of “time-machine” segments—extended flashbacks into the lives of his characters before the war. From Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (“the biggest influence on Naked,” he later told The New York Times) he took the technique of breaking up the narrative with choral interludes in which characters step out of the story as if onto a stage to speak from a script. From James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan he got the ambition to make them sound authentically local: Roy Gallagher, an angry tough from South Boston; Julio Martinez, “small, slim and very handsome,” from San Antonio; “Red” Valsen, drained from years of riding flatcars to escape from coal mining in Montana. But all the “fugs” and “Ahms” and “gits” (“Ach” and “Ai” were reserved for Joey Goldstein from New York) tend to blur into a generic working-class patter. Early in the novel one soldier says to another, “You talk like something out of a comic book,” which an unfriendly critic might have said of the author himself. “BAA—ROWWMM” signifies mortar fire. “BEE-YOWWWW…BEE-YOWWWW” is the sound of ricocheted bullets spattering dirt.


But the juvenilities did little to diminish the power of the book. Mailer wrote about these men with a rare mixture of compassion and candor, as when he described Gallagher’s numbness at the news, delivered by the chaplain, that his wife has died in childbirth, and then his mute agony as, day after day, he receives letters from her reporting her preparations for the baby’s arrival. The writing is precise and graphic—a far cry from magazine platitudes about G.I. Joe, or what Mailer called “the smiling soldiers in the advertisements.” Men shit themselves out of fear, savor pornographic thoughts as aids to masturbation, find themselves stirred by the sight of other men’s bodies, fart in winning competition with the smells of the jungle, and torment defenseless prisoners before shooting them—bothered by “killing . . . far less than discovering some ants in their bedding.”

In fact the book was so raw that Little, Brown, the first publisher to which Mailer offered it, rejected it on the grounds of obscenity. Rinehart and Company made a better call. Published on May 4, 1948, The Naked and the Dead hit the top of The New York Times’s best-seller list and stayed there for three months, selling more than 200,000 copies in the first year and over three million since.

Writing some twenty years later in the midst of the Vietnam War, Diana Trilling recalled that to her generation (she was eighteen years older) Mailer seemed to speak with “the hot breath of the future.” He set the stage, and the standard, for decades of war writing to follow: James Jones on cruelties inflicted with impunity by officers upon enlisted men, J.D. Salinger on what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, Joseph Heller on the fine line between madness and sanity, to name a few. The themes of The Naked and the Dead—the inability of reason to constrain instinct; the vicissitudes of chance; the inscrutability of motive; the unknowability of other lives; the impulse to blame others, especially the “fuggin Yids,” for one’s suffering; the male fear of female sexuality as rapacious and unappeasable (the soldiers are haunted by thoughts of their women back home in the arms of other men)—stayed with Mailer for the rest of his writing life.

But the real distinction of the book was the propulsive force of the narrative, which follows a platoon through perilous terrain behind enemy lines on a mission that turns deadly for some and proves futile for all. Despite long stretches of enervating days and nights during which the men do little but search through memories for something to distract them from their dread, Mailer managed to sustain an atmosphere of unrelenting tension. Their senses, dulled by exhaustion, come alive in spikes of panic as the men move through the “dark and murmurous” jungle, straining to distinguish the sound of enemy footsteps from the hum of “the crickets and frogs and lizards thrumming the brush, the soughing of the trees.”

Although they patrol in groups or pairs, each man is radically alone, confined to a blinkered view of a war whose larger contours are invisible to him as he concentrates on his own survival. The landscape through which he makes his solitary way is both real and allegorical, as if he were not a particular person but a fragile, pitiable, yet somehow dignified representative of humankind.

In charge of these men is Major General Edward Cummings, “a tyrant with a velvet voice” who commands a force of six thousand facing—but rarely seeing—a slightly smaller Japanese force dug in a few miles east of where the Americans have come ashore. Cummings thinks back fondly to the last war, when, as a junior officer, he watched infantrymen advance through no-man’s-land toward the enemy trench:


The men move slowly now, leaning forward as if striding into the wind. He is fascinated by the sluggishness of it all, the lethargy with which they advance and fall. There seems no pattern to the attack, no volition to the men; they advance in every direction like floating leaves in a pool disturbed by a stone, and yet there is a cumulative movement forward. The ants in the final sense all go in one direction.

But in this new war, venturing out of the bivouac means entering the jungle equivalent of no-man’s-land, and the “ants” are less compliant. Platoon leaders file false patrol reports after nights spent sheltering in a ditch. Wounded men scratch and pull at their stitches in the hope of delaying their release from the field hospital.

To overcome the feigning and stalling, Cummings determines to turn his men into instruments of his will. He is Mailer’s Ahab. Like the mad captain of Moby-Dick, he has what Melville called “unsurrenderable wilfulness” in his “riveted glance.” One “could touch the surface of Cummings’s eyeballs,” Mailer writes, “and the eyes would not blink.”

So Cummings devises a plan. He will dispatch a reconnaissance platoon by sea to the south coast of Anopopei, from which it will make its way northward through the jungle and across a mountain range that bisects the length of the island like a spine. The platoon’s mission is to take and hold Botoi Bay, an inlet on the north shore, until a battalion of assault troops can land there to attack Japanese forces. Cummings boasts to himself of the “psychological soundness” of this plan, because once the attack force reaches the bay, the men will find that “their only security would be to drive ahead and meet their own troops.” With their backs to the sea, their fear of retreat will overcome their fear of advance.

Cummings is a connoisseur of fear. “I don’t care what kind of man you give me,” he explains to his favorite junior officer, Lieutenant Robert Hearn. “If I have him long enough, I’ll make him afraid.” Hearn is Starbuck to Cummings’s Ahab. (Lest we miss the point, Mailer makes Hearn a Harvard man who has written a senior thesis entitled “The Cosmic Urge in Herman Melville.”) The general explains to him that fear is the key not only to the war but to the postwar social order. Hitler—not the timid bureaucrats of the Allied democracies—is the best “interpreter of twentieth-century man” because he understands that people are driven not by a craving for solidarity or justice (as sentimental liberals would like to believe) but by hatred, terror, and awe. “You can consider the Army…a preview of the future,” Cummings says, because this “is going to be the reactionary’s century.” Germany will lose the war, but the concept of fascism has already proved “sound enough,” and the United States will inherit it and carry it to fruition.

Mailer found these prophecies all too persuasive. Two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he wrote to Bea that while “a good part of me approves anything which will shorten the war and get me home sooner,” the news filled him with dread. What had been a “pleasurable calculation in the physics I studied” has propelled humanity toward “the final victory of the machine.” Henceforth the world will be “controlled by a few men, politicians and technicians” who regard the masses as nothing more than grunts and fodder. He told Bea that he had met such men, for whom war was an abstraction in which human beings are incinerated by weapons fired from a hygienic distance, and that “the personification they give their machines nauseates me.”

When that letter was written, in August 1945, the roster of characters in Mailer’s planned novel had not yet fully taken form. Cummings would be the cold “technician” who regards war as an abstract game of charts and maps. But in a preview of Dr. Strangelove (Mailer was enthralled by Kubrick’s film when it appeared in 1964), Cummings surprises himself by becoming aroused by “the mass of the gun” when he fires a piece of ordnance—a pleasure he hasn’t felt since his cadet days at West Point:

Just before he fired he could see it all, the sharp detumescent roar of the gun, the long soaring plunge of the shell through the night sky, its downward whistle, and the moments of complete and primordial terror for the Japanese at the other end when it landed. An odd ecstasy stirred his limbs for a moment, was gone before he was quite aware of it.

This figure of the pallid technocrat who channels his obstructed libido into a kind of necrophilia was to reappear in many variations in Mailer’s subsequent writing. In a shabby bit of pop psychology, he associated Cummings with homosexuality, planting clues of another Melvillean model: just as Mr. Claggart in Billy Budd transmutes his self-contempt into hatred for the man he wants to love, Cummings comes to loathe Hearn.

By 1955, in an essay entitled “The Homosexual Villain,” Mailer disavowed what he called his “homosexual bias” and confessed that “I have been as guilty as any contemporary novelist in attributing unpleasant, ridiculous, or sinister connotations to the homosexual (or more accurately, bisexual) characters in my novels.” But he never quite delivered on the mea culpa. As Kate Millett put it in a memorable takedown in Sexual Politics (1970), Mailer remained “a prisoner of the virility cult”—though she conceded that he was “never incapable of analyzing” the cult to which he belonged.

Beginning in the early 1950s he did just that: he analyzed the cult in scores of essays, stories, and novels, often with caustic humor at his own expense. In “Great in the Hay” (1950), he turned the rivalry between a pair of Hollywood producers—Bert and Al, both bald, short, and nominally married—into a mock parable. Bert, eager to understand why so many women crave Al’s company in bed, hires a detective to find out. The sleuth proceeds to interview a sampling of Al’s lovers but comes away with nothing more than a “mish-mosh” of contradictory testimonials. He’s a “master of sexpertise,” says Hortense; he loves to spend money, says Georgia; he “lets me throw him around,” says Claudia Jane; he makes love “with purity and simplicity,” according to Fay, “which intensifies my hard-won religious conversion.” Meanwhile, hopelessly depressed despite the accolades, Al blows his brains out. Bert’s only reaction is regret at having failed to discover the secret of Al’s bedroom success.

At the other end of the decade, in “The Time of Her Time” (1959), Mailer produced a comic tour de force that was again somehow both frivolous and serious. A retired bullfighter renowned for his sexual stamina (this one’s for you, Papa Hemingway) exhausts himself over several nights trying to bring a Jewish college girl to her first orgasm. His failures provoke her to shame him, initially with words (“I hate inept men”), then with a finger in his anus that sends him off to the races again. After he manages at last to get her to the finish line by returning the favor of penetrating her “seat of all stubbornness, tight as a vise,” she gathers up her things and sneers at his reputation for priapic prowess: “Your whole life is a lie . . . and you do nothing but run away from the homosexual that is you.” Once she’s gone, her would-be conquistador reports that “like a real killer, she did not look back, and was out the door before I could rise to tell her that she was a hero fit for me.”

In these preposterous stories—the former a padded joke, the latter a rollicking farce—Mailer held up for scrutiny men who use women as props in a variety show starring themselves. Swaggering, proud, always randy, they are avatars of the author, whom the shrewd critic Richard Poirier once called a “worried copulator”—a cocksure advocate of the unregulated life who was simultaneously appalled by his unrestrained self.

Mailer reveled in his contradictions. In “The Time of Her Time” he savored the psychological victory of a young woman over a self-appointed “Village stickman.” A decade later, responding to Millett in the infamous The Prisoner of Sex (1971), he railed against feminism as an emasculating plot against men acting in accordance with their instincts. In the best book of his later years, The Executioner’s Song (1979), he portrayed a murderer insouciant about his cruelty yet desperate for his own execution. In An American Dream (1965), about a jealous husband who murders his wife for taunting him with her infidelities, he reprised with a mixture of shame and self-exoneration the most odious act of his own life—his 1960 attack on his second wife, Adele Morales, whom he almost killed in an alcoholic rage by stabbing her with a penknife.

With an unstable mixture of self-indulgence and self-awareness, Mailer celebrated men akin to himself for using women as equipment for recreation, but he also recoiled from such men. He was often glib, as when he wrote in a 1960 essay on JFK that “violence was locked with creativity.” But he could be bracingly honest too, as in The Armies of the Night (1968), where he acknowledged that the

modest everyday fellow of his daily round was servant to a wild man in himself: the gent did not appear so very often, sometimes so rarely as once a month, sometimes not even twice a year, and he sometimes came when Mailer was frightened and furious at the fear, sometimes he came just to get a breath of air. He was indispensable, however, and Mailer was even fond of him for the wild man was witty in his own wild way and absolutely fearless…. He would have been admirable, except that he was an absolute egomaniac, a Beast—no recognition existed of the existence of anything beyond the range of his reach.

Given Mailer’s irresolution about himself, it’s not surprising that his most incisive critics have often been divided among and within themselves in their judgments of him. Joan Didion greeted An American Dream as “the only serious New York novel since The Great Gatsby.” Elizabeth Hardwick, with equal conviction, deemed it “an intellectual and literary disaster, poorly written, morally foolish and intellectually empty.” Yet she suspected that the novel’s hero-villain was “only pretending, wretchedly hoping to be an evil spirit,” and she went on to muse that “perhaps Mailer’s mistake has been to think that he should be, in his writings, a new Lucifer. The odd thing is that his best gifts are often genial. These gifts are serious ones, always unexpected and original.”

A few months ago I dipped into the Harvard archive hoping to learn more about Mailer’s early years. Among the treasures is a trove of letters from his college friend Adeline Lubell, who, as a junior editor at Little, Brown, championed The Naked and the Dead, and who treated him for the rest of his life to equal measures of censure and affection. In a letter of June 5, 1952, there’s a wonderfully vivid sentence: “You carry the myth of yourself in your hand all the time and open your palm to look at it.” But a few lines later she thanks the incorrigible narcissist for his “sweetness” and “munificence” and for being a steadfast friend.

It is often remarked that The Naked and the Dead, published to huge acclaim when Mailer was twenty-five, “ruined” him (Caleb Crain’s word). It’s true that early success overfed his ravenous ego, but it’s also true that he recognized the corrosive effects of his fame. As the rave reviews rolled in, he wrote in his journal:

I feel trapped. My anonymity is lost, and the book I wrote to avoid having to expose my mediocre talents in harsher market places has ended in this psychological sense by betraying me…. I feel myself more empty than I ever have, and to fill the vacuum…I need praise.

Mailer saw in himself a man spiraling down into addiction. “Each good review gives fuel, each warm letter, but as time goes by, I need more and more for less and less effect.”

After the failed experiments Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), seeking to retrieve the taste of fame, he began to deflect his energies into what Crain calls his “metaliterary career”—actor; boxer; TV talk show chattermeister; political candidate; journalist reporting mainly on himself; champion of Jack Henry Abbott, another incarcerated murderer who, upon release, murdered again*; filmmaker; serial provocateur. There was a kind of antic mania in Mailer the self-publicist, who likened himself to “the publicity made actress who has to see her face and name more and more to believe in her reality, and of course loses the line between her own personality, and the one created for her by the papers.”

Seventy-five years on, reading the work that first made him famous is an exhilarating experience. When the older Mailer looked back and called his younger self an amateur, part of what he had in mind was the joy of a young man defying his limits. This was the joy he relished in Melville (he complained to Lubell that “none of the reviewers…have seen fit to see…the Melville influence”), who was just past thirty when he published Moby-Dick and brayed to the world of his own genius. With the same genial arrogance, Mailer proclaimed in Advertisements for Myself (1959) that “my present and future work…will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years.”

But already in The Naked and the Dead one finds the peculiar combination of bravado and diffidence that distinguished him throughout his career. Writing in the fiftieth-anniversary edition, he acknowledged a second literary master. He recalled that “most mornings before he commenced his own work,” he read Anna Karenina, which enlarged “the limited perceptions of a twenty-four-year-old” through “what he learned about compassion from Tolstoy.” What he learned was that “compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe”—that to feel pity or sorrow for the suffering of others is not to forgo judgment or excuse their cruelties. Tolstoy did not countenance Karenin’s callousness, or Vronsky’s vanity, or Anna’s adultery, yet he loved them all the same.

Mailer was an amalgam of those characters—vain, sometimes callous, chronically adulterous, and guilty of self-adulation, as if auditioning for the not-yet written role of Mickey Sabbath. But behind the macho posturing was an almost sheepish gentleness. An egotist of “curious disproportions” (his words), he harbored “endless blendings of virtue and corruption.” The Naked and the Dead remains a book of undiminished force because he loved its fallible warriors—who combined within themselves courage and cowardice, lying and truth-telling, selfishness and selflessness—with the same clear-eyed devotion that he lavished on himself.