American Literature Norman Mailer
Maggie McKinley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0222


Norman Mailer (b. 1923–d. 2007) was one of the most prolific American writers of the 20th century. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and raised in Brooklyn, Mailer attended Harvard University with the initial intent of becoming an aeronautical engineer. However, his writing classes at Harvard took him in a different direction and while he earned a degree in engineering, his career plans had shifted by the time of his graduation in 1943. Mailer was drafted into the army in 1944, and his experiences stationed in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry became the foundation for his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948). This novel, published to critical acclaim and commercial success, made Mailer a literary celebrity at a very young age, and he grappled with the ramifications of this early success for much of his life. Over the course of his ensuing career, which spanned nearly six decades, Mailer went on to publish over forty books, his works traversing a variety of genres across fiction and nonfiction. He was also a founder of the Village Voice in 1955, and his involvement in that publication ignited his career as a journalist and cultural critic. The 1960s and 1970s are often considered the height of Mailer’s creative output and renown: during this time, Mailer published three novels, a book of poetry, a play, a collection of short stories, and ten nonfiction books, and he also directed three experimental films. He regularly contributed to Esquire magazine, where he published “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” a prime example of the emerging style of New Journalism. He participated in the march on the Pentagon in 1967, covering the experience in The Armies of the Night (1968), which was awarded both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize again for The Executioner’s Song, his 1979 nonfiction novel about convicted killer and death row inmate Gary Gilmore. During these decades, Mailer also cemented his reputation as a public intellectual, not without controversy, speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War, running for mayor of New York in 1969, engaging in televised debates with his peers, covering political campaigns, and more. Mailer focused more pointedly on the novel and literary biography from the 1980s onward, but he continued to offer incisive cultural commentary. He wrote until his death, and his last novel, The Castle in the Forest (2007), was a New York Times bestseller.

General Overviews

The majority of general studies of Mailer address portions of his career, covering the works available up to the time the critical study was published. As a result, to achieve a full view of Mailer’s oeuvre, a combination of general studies is often necessary. The following is by no means an exhaustive list of such studies; selections were chosen to offer a sampling of early and late studies, defined by both clarity and comprehensiveness of coverage, and accessibility to both newer readers of Mailer and scholars looking for a broad understanding of his contributions. Leeds 1969, Solotaroff 1974, Merrill 1992, and Bufithis 1978 are considered pioneering works in the field of Mailer studies, but they are privy to only half of Mailer’s career or less. Glenday 1995, Leeds 2002, Wilson 2008, and Wenke 2014 are able to employ a wider scope, examining a number of Mailer’s later works as well. Thus far, McKinley 2017 is the only general critical study to address Mailer’s career in its entirety. Edited collections and monographs listed under Criticism can also provide useful overviews of specific periods in Mailer’s career, often through a narrower, thematically focused lens.

  • Adams, Laura. Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1976.

    Foundational study of Mailer’s early work that focuses on his development as a writer in the first three decades of his career. Useful for understanding the mechanism of existentialism as a theme in his writing, as well as his early experimentation with genre.

  • Bufithis, Philip H. Norman Mailer. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978.

    Early study of Mailer’s work that provides a critical analysis of his writing from the start of his career through the 1970s. Offers a clear and accessible introduction to the works published during the first half of Mailer’s career. Includes discussions of Mailer’s best-selling and acclaimed novels as well as less famous works like Genius and Lust (1976).

  • Glenday, Michael K. Norman Mailer. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-24122-4

    Critical study that analyzes Mailer’s novels from The Naked and the Dead through Harlot’s Ghost. Indebted to earlier foundational Mailer scholars, but one of the first and few authors to publish a general study that includes Mailer’s fiction of the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Leeds, Barry H. The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

    Written by one of the first and most influential Mailer scholars. Offers a cohesive analysis of Mailer’s work through the 1960s, identifying major themes that connect Mailer’s various publications from The Naked and the Dead through Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

  • Leeds, Barry H. The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer. Bainbridge Island, WA: Pleasure Boat Studios, 2002.

    Picks up where Leeds 1969 left off, examining the later decades of Mailer’s career. Analyzes Mailer’s writing and film from the 1970s and 1990s, moving from The Prisoner of Sex to Harlot’s Ghost. Also includes an interview with Mailer, a consideration of Mailer scholarship to that point, and Leeds’s own personal reflections on the role of Mailer in his life and work.

  • McKinley, Maggie. Understanding Norman Mailer. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv6sj74q

    Most recent general study of Mailer offers an introductory overview of his career from beginning to end. The book follows a chronological structure while highlighting a particular theme or genre focus in each chapter. A primer that may be especially helpful for readers new to Mailer.

  • Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1992.

    Expanded edition of Merrill’s 1978 book on Norman Mailer. Focuses primarily on works published within the first three decades of Mailer’s career, including The Naked and the Dead, The Deer Park, An American Dream, and The Armies of the Night, with additional commentary on Mailer’s nonfiction of the 1960s and 1970s. Revised edition includes analyses of The Executioner’s Song, Ancient Evenings, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

  • Solotaroff, Robert. Down Mailer’s Way. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

    Early study of Mailer’s work that offers a comprehensive overview of his contributions to the point of this publication. Contains particularly useful extended analyses of Mailer’s unique existential theory.

  • Wenke, Joseph. Mailer’s America. Stanford, CT: Trans Über, 2014.

    Reissue of Wenke’s original 1987 publication, with a new preface that considers Mailer’s impact and legacy. Analyzes Mailer’s work from The Naked and the Dead through Ancient Evenings, with a focus on Mailer’s reflections on American myth, history, and politics. Highlights recurring themes across Mailer’s work up to the 1980s, including totalitarianism, heroism, existentialism, political bureaucracy, Manichaeism, and more.

  • Wilson, Andrew. Norman Mailer: An American Aesthetic. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008.

    Focuses on ten of Mailer’s most notable works, centering analyses on Mailer’s treatment of speech and vernacular. Also considers Mailer’s work alongside that of his peers, and in the context of major literary and artistic movements.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.