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Norman Mailer’s Ripe Garbage

The making of a reactionary blockbuster
A zombie in army fatigues holds a gun.

Norman Mailer was characteristically aroused the first time he caught a whiff of death drifting from a nearby battlefield. “A curious smell,” he described in a February 1945 letter to his first wife Bea, whom he’d charged with preserving his correspondence as preliminary notes for the big war novel he’d conceived in basic training. “A smell of decay, not exactly sweet as the authors have it, but a good deal like feces leavened with ripe garbage.” Mailer’s tone is that of a gourmand encountering a rare vintage; his olfactory exemplar is Leo Tolstoy, who’d written evocatively in War and Peace about the “stench of rotting flesh” in military hospitals after the Battle of Friedland, the mere memory of which gives Nikolai Rostov, even weeks after the event, sensory hallucinations.

Mailer, however, didn’t share Rostov’s battlefield revulsion, even after the Jeep giving him a tour swerved down a dirt road and arrived at a field of putrefying Japanese corpses, “perhaps twenty or thirty . . . swollen to the dimensions of very obese men.” With a journalist’s eye for the lurid, Mailer rendered the scene in clinical detail in his correspondence, not omitting to mention a soldier’s spilled intestines (“like a doll whose stuffing had broken forth”), his scorched genitals (“they had burnt away to tiny stumps but his pubic hair still remained, like a tight clump of steel wool”), or the Army intelligence sergeant who fished around the bodies for a prized Japanese foot locker. Almost surprised at himself, Mailer noted that he was in fact “unmoved by anything I saw.” He even confessed to feeling a sense of “elation,”

for I had seen it at last. That elation was not too inimical to the elation of the youth when he walks back from his first trip to the brothel. It was disgusting and he probably made a fool of himself, but he has forgotten that. There is only the pleasure of the achievement.

It’s an unconventional simile—likening, in a letter to his “Schnoog,” his “Sweet Titty,” his “Darling Bea,” his first battlefield experience to a boy’s visit to a brothel—but we’re dealing, after all, with Norman Mailer, whose lifelong modus operandi was to seek out the thorniest, most morally troubling corners of the human experience and rush headlong into them for writing material.

Back as a Harvard undergraduate, he’d tried his hand at a variety of gonzo fictions using a similar methodology, including two separate short stories (“Love Is Where You Find It” and “Love-Buds”) about a pair of boys who hitchhike to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to visit a renowned red-light district that Mailer and a friend had patronized the summer after his freshman year. Later in college, he’d written two novels with vicariously visceral subject matter that actually attracted attention from New York publishers. One, A Transit to Narcissus—inspired by the eight days Mailer worked as a guard one summer at the Boston State Hospital, formerly called the “Lunatic Asylum”—focused on orderlies at an unnamed mental ward who become frightened of the pleasure they experience inflicting corporal punishment on inmates. A second, A Calculus at Heaven—inspired by the tough-guy fiction of Ernest Hemingway, to whom Mailer paid homage by keeping a bottle of gin on his dormitory mantel—focused on five outnumbered soldiers on a fictional island in the Pacific who calmly await their demise while indulging in a little existential chitter-chatter and smoking contemplative cigarettes. Neither of the novels ultimately sold, but they did ratify the soundness of Mailer’s sensationalist instincts, helping him land a high-powered agent at William Morris and an editorial contact at Rinehart & Company, the publisher who’d eventually bring out his debut novel The Naked and the Dead.

Norman Mailer’s letters reveal a megalomaniacally ambitious young man congenitally prone to embellishment, unsound theorizing, and self-aggrandizing roleplay.

As for the “achievement” Mailer mentions in his letter, in this case it simply amounted to not vomiting in front of the intelligence sergeant (a “hard cool little Scotchman”) who’d taken his cohort of lowly clerks and regimental office workers sightseeing. Contrary to the macho-warlord myth he later cultivated, that’s all Mailer was at this stage of the Pacific campaign: a typist and manual laborer in the Army’s 112th Cavalry Regiment, stationed on the Philippine island of Luzon some dozen miles behind the frontlines. The intelligence sergeant, however, was a grizzled veteran (“utterly unsentimental”), and Mailer, no stranger to the anxiety of influence, seized the opportunity to observe the man’s attitude toward the dead bodies with fascination, “secretly very pleased” that he could mimic his stoic nonchalance. “I knew the sergeant had been watching me carefully,” Mailer reported to Bea, “for it was my first time out, and many soldiers become sick at the sight. I was delighted to disappoint him.”

Considering his Harvard pedigree, Mailer could’ve angled for cushier placement than the 112th Cavalry, but the battlefield tour was the sort of gritty experience he’d longed for when he’d elected to wait for an enlistment notice rather than seek preferential placement in the intelligence services or officer corps, as was the standard move for Ivy League recruits. “As a writer,” he’d explained in a 1943 letter to his concerned parents, “I feel it necessary to enter [as] a private, to get the feel of the nation, to know what [servicemen] think about, rather than guessing.” Upon being drafted in January 1944, however, he’d suffered the bitter disappointment of being made into a regimental clerk, which he discovered was routine for any infantrymen found during the intake process to have “a good I.Q.” For the first few months of the Luzon campaign, Mailer seemed condemned to a decidedly unglamorous war—typing up intelligence reports, interpreting aerial photography, at one point building a camp shower for haughty Army officers. The tedium was “galling at times,” he wrote to Bea, with visceral experiences hard to come by. As he’d confess in his magisterially miscellaneous and self-mythologizing 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself, “I had gone into the Army with the idea that when I came out I would write the war novel of World War II.”

Now, on the Jeep ride, Mailer was finally gathering the kind of material he needed for what he’d taken to referring to in letters as his “ridge novel” or his “jungle novel.” The scene of the sergeant raiding corpses would be repurposed, with passages lifted directly from Mailer’s battlefield report to Bea (and tellingly embroidered upon), for The Naked and the Dead, which upon its publication in 1948 managed to exceed his outsized expectations for it and become a once-in-a-generation literary blockbuster, regarded in many quarters as the most grimly authentic account available of the ground-level drudgery of World War II. The novel spent eleven weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list, sixty-two weeks among its ranks, and catapulted Mailer to a level of prominence and punditry-cum-journalism-fueled bankability few writers in American history have enjoyed, before or since. Consider the fact that, in 1973, as a cash grab to meet various obligations owed to his, by this point, seven children and three ex-wives (four if you count common law), Mailer could write a volume of thinly researched and meanderingly horny musings about Marilyn Monroe entitled Marilyn: A Biography and sell a million copies within eighteen months. In Advertisements for Myself, Mailer would famously claim that the success of The Naked and the Dead acted as a “lobotomy” to his past; he’d offer this as something of a justification and excuse for his increasingly “anxious, gauche, [and] grim” public behavior, which by the late 1950s was already growing notorious even before going violently off the rails in the decade to follow. “My farewell to an average man’s experience was too abrupt,” Mailer explained. “I [became] a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality and status . . . I had been moved from the audience to the stage.”

This January, The Naked and the Dead was reissued in a Library of America edition featuring twenty-three letters Mailer wrote during its gestation, nine of them hitherto unpublished, most of them addressed to Bea from the front. The letters offer revealing new glimpses into the Norman Mailer origin story, presenting an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with Mailer before the spotlight, before the celebrity, before the lobotomy. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, considering that, as Harold Bloom once quipped, more than any of his actual published works, “[Mailer himself] is his own supreme fiction.”

Countering his own self-exculpatory account—as well as perspectives like David Denby’s recent New Yorker reappraisal, which casts Mailer’s World War II experience as a foundational trauma from which an impressionable Crown Heights boy never quite recovered—what the letters reveal is a megalomaniacally ambitious young man congenitally prone to embellishment, unsound theorizing, and self-aggrandizing role-play; a Mailer entirely consistent with the older Mailer who, in November 1960, would stab his second wife Adele Morales in the cardiac sac with a two-and-a-half-inch penknife only three years after publishing an essay in Dissent extolling the “courage” of a hypothetical pair of murderers who “beat in the brains” of a candy store owner (“the hoodlum is . . . daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly”); the Mailer who’d wage a lifetime campaign against contraception and non-procreative sex because they imperiled the “apocalyptic orgasm” which he argued was the highest calling in a man’s life; the Mailer whose always vociferously expressed political commitments could veer at any moment from incoherent Trotskyism (Barbary Shore, The Deer Park) to begrudging admiration for military-industrial totalitarianism (Harlot’s Ghost, The Castle in the Forest) to so-called “left conservatism” (Armies of the Night, The Prisoner of Sex) as it suited his contrarian needs. They reveal, in other words, a Mailer busy fashioning himself into one of the earliest inhabitants of postwar America’s spectacle-driven, phantasmagorically violent, ideologically muddled psychic terrain—a Mailer who’d succeed beyond his wildest imagination precisely thanks to his talent for mistaking his sensationalist energies for ideas, his compelling simulacra for the real thing, his style for substance.

The critic Diana Trilling, a close friend and sympathetic reader of Mailer’s, once made a suggestive claim about his debut novel: “The hot breath of the future,” she wrote in a 1962 essay for the magazine Encounter, “broods over the pages of The Naked and the Dead as foul and stifling as the surrounding jungle air.”

It’s a lovely bit of critical prose, and it’s tempting to read it as a disparaging allusion to Mailer’s violent proclivities, already embryonic in The Naked and the Dead. Trilling was of course familiar with the details surrounding the 1960 stabbing incident, which she tended to regard as an unfortunate “clinical situation” or “psychotic break.” Her husband Lionel, however, was fond of speculating—or so she told Peter Manso when interviewed for his gossipy 1985 oral history project Mailer: His Life and Times—that Adele’s stabbing may have been “a Dostoevskian ploy on Norman’s part,” which involved committing “a conscious bad act . . . [to test] the limits of evil in himself.” Lionel saw it, in other words, as another of Mailer’s deliberate visceral experiments, casting himself this time in the role of Raskolnikov. (The night of the stabbing, incidentally, Adele was heard telling a drunken Mailer that he “wasn’t as good a writer as Dostoevsky,” so Lionel’s speculations may not have been wholly metaphorical.)

In actuality, however, Trilling’s “hot breath of the future” line was intended as high praise for Mailer’s book, and it reflects a widely shared sentiment about its intellectual virtues—in particular its pessimistic assessment of individual agency in the face of modern military technology, and its attendant thesis that the Allied victory over fascism would prove hollow, laying a foundation for a new breed of military-industrial totalitarianism to run roughshod over American life. This was a subject Mailer was already opining on in an August 1945 letter to Bea, written two days after the bombing of Hiroshima: “This atom smashing business is going to herald the final victory of the machine . . . the end of such concepts as man’s will and mass determination of power. The world will be controlled by a few men, politicians and technicians.” This perception, Trilling claims, is what gives The Naked and the Dead its grand theme, “our always-increasing social fragmentation and our always-diminishing trust in individual possibility”—prescient subjects for an American author to problematize so early in the victorious afterglow of World War II.

Mailer’s sporadic prescience is one of the trickier parts of his oeuvre, and something that lends The Naked and the Dead a large share of its irrefutable staying power. No other novel of World War II goes to such lengths to capture the total helplessness of the individual soldier before the grinding gears of the military monolith. In the novel’s first half, we follow some dozen infantrymen in a reconnaissance platoon as they make an amphibious landing on a fictional South Pacific island called “Anopopei” and, after a series of deadly skirmishes with the Japanese, establish an entrenched front. Taking a cue from 1930s social realists such as James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos, Mailer makes his platoon into a symposium of American types—the Brooklyn Jews Goldstein and Roth, the coarse southerners Wilson and Ridges, the Catholic Gallagher, and the immigrant “Polack”—who bicker and moan, sweat and shiver as they suffer the caprices of the tropical elements and get shuttled back and forth along the lines. Through a series of grim vignettes, the narrator floats among the soldiers like an omniscient camera, and with an undeniable gift for mimicry Mailer captures their rowdy banter, their raucous frayed laughter in the face of danger, their shifting terrain of noble instincts mixed with bouts of cruel sadism that’s given sanction by the moral free-for-all of war.

Throughout The Naked and the Dead, the platoon is terrorized by two sinister commanding officers. General Cummings, whom we cut to periodically at regimental headquarters as he masterminds the Anopopei assault, is one of Mailer’s more credulity-straining creations, a reactionary prophet of the machine mentality given to long speeches about his secret admiration for Hitler and the Spenglerian patterns underlining global history (“Man’s deepest urge is omnipotence,” runs a typical Cummings line). His primary narrative function is to serve as a mouthpiece for Mailer’s thematic preoccupations via a series of testy dialogues with his aide-de-camp, a likeable but wanly optimistic liberal named Lieutenant Hearn. Cummings also happens to be a closeted gay man (something Mailer would apologize for in his 1955 essay “The Homosexual Villain”), and when his overtures toward Hearn are rebuffed, he devises a hopeless mission for the reconnaissance platoon, which involves scaling the mountainous backside of Anopopei to scout the possibilities of launching a sneak attack. Appointed to lead the doomed endeavor are Lieutenant Hearn and the sadistic Sergeant Croft, who shares Cummings’s fascist tendencies, only with a less articulate and more visionary bent, like a Texan Captain Ahab. It quickly becomes clear that the recon mission is hopeless—the base of the mountain is bristling with Japanese troops who kill Hearn in a firefight, its upper reaches unscalable—but Croft, for reasons only he can understand, drives his soldiers maniacally forward, determined to reach the summit no matter how many lives are endangered.

The mountain ascent is arguably the most compelling stretch of writing in Mailer’s fiction career, charting every backbreaking step, every tense confrontation of spirit as the platoon members see their wills and subjectivities gradually ground into dust in service of Croft’s deranged mission. The final holdout is spunky Red Valsen, whose submission, after a tense standoff urging Croft to turn around, encapsulates the dour, didactically social realist message of the book: “You kept fighting everything, and everything broke you down, until in the end you were just a little goddam bolt holding on and squealing when the machine went too fast.” Immediately after the showdown, the platoon is attacked by a nest of hornets and driven off the mountain; a climax delivered by way of absurdist slapstick. The platoon returns to camp to discover that the Japanese have been defeated in their absence, and that their sacrifices (three men dead, the remainder spiritually broken) have meant nothing in the grand scheme of the campaign.

There’s a danger this plot could read as tediously diagrammatic, but what holds the book together and propels it forward—The Naked and the Dead was a page-turning blockbuster, after all—is the keyed-up, manic intensity of Mailer’s prose style, something Alfred Kazin once characterized in speculative terms as his “excessive American fluency,” his “supermarket plentifulness,” his “almost Elizabethan hyperbole.” Was Mailer a good writer? It’s a question that broods over his legacy as much as his personality or his politics; it’s not uncommon for critics to classify his prose as somewhere between workmanlike and execrable. Even a defender like Diana Trilling described him ultimately as an “anti-artist,” capable of “so much imagination and such insufficient art.” This echoes the conflicted judgments of writers like James Baldwin and Elizabeth Hardwick, the latter of whom said Mailer’s work is “a spectacular mound of images” yet amounts to little more than “a ‘literature’ of remarks.” I’m particularly fond of Pauline Kael’s coinage to describe the long-winded soliloquizing that marks Mailer’s book-length nonfictions of the 1960s and early 1970s: “capework.” (In one characteristically purple passage from Marilyn: A Biography, for example, Mailer makes an anagram of Monroe’s name to establish their shared genius: “For a man with a cabalistic turn of mind, it was fair and engraved coincidence that the letters in Marilyn Monroe [if the ‘a’ were used twice and the ‘o’ but once] would spell his own name leaving only the ‘y’ for excess, a trifling discrepancy, no more calculated to upset the heavens than the most miniscule diffraction of the red shift.” Only Mailer in his cups, one presumes, understands what an “engraved coincidence” might actually mean.)

Yet consider the following excerpt from early on in The Naked and the Dead, when the platoon makes a dangerous nighttime trek through the jungle a few hours after arriving to Anopopei:

Once or twice a flare filtered a wan and delicate bluish light over them, the light almost lost in the dense foliage through which it had to pass. In the brief moment it lasted, they were caught at their guns in classic straining motions that had the form and beauty of a frieze. Their uniforms were twice blackened, by the water and the dark slime of the trail. And for the instant the light shone on them their faces stood out, white and contorted. Even the guns had a slender articulated beauty like an insect reared back on its wire haunches.

There’s a comic-strip flatness to the writing, it’s true, and a clotting reliance on adjectives, but in the stroboscopic energy of its attentiveness, the cinematic density of its visual data and rhythmic thickets of prose, there’s something undeniably arresting. Mailer was no virtuoso, but he possessed an assurance and keyboard-clacking bravado with his instrument that radiates on practically every page of the forty-eight books he published in his lifetime, whether bizarre stream-of-consciousness poetry collections like 1962’s Deaths for the Ladies or miscellanea gathered in self-consciously curated retrospectives like 2004’s Norman Mailer’s Letters on An American Dream, 1963–1969. To the same degree he was willing to live a life in extremis so long as it yielded workable writing material, he was also always prepared to launch himself into a solo, to push his narrating organ to its absolute limits even for the most insignificant occasions of public display. In his twilight years he liked to say he was driven by an inner “navigator,” and he charted his career’s course by going whichever direction the navigator perceived there to be “energy.” This translated into an aesthetic that, while lacking a certain quality of discrimination—in The Naked and the Dead, Mailer uses the word “gelid” four separate times—covered for it with verbal velocity and high-wire recklessness. At those sporadic moments when he’s at his crackling, self-advertising best—Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, The Executioner’s Song, extended stretches of The Naked and the Dead, smaller stretches of The Deer Park and Harlot’s Ghost—he does achieve something of the charisma of a whirling matador, nigh impossible to tear your eyes away from.

The problems tended to arise when Mailer mistook his talent for surfing the flows of the emerging postwar attention economy for having something grandly important to say. In a roundabout way, this returns us to the corpse-raiding scene from his February 1945 letter to Bea, which offers us a granular view of Mailer’s inner navigator at work. Whereas real life merely presented him a hard-ass sergeant digging around some corpses for a foot locker, in an early, memorable scene of The Naked and the Dead we witness one of the most sympathetic members of the reconnaissance platoon, a mild-mannered scout by the name of Julio Martinez, go so far as to smash open the skull of a Japanese cadaver to collect five gold teeth. The scene is a distillate of pure Mailer:

A discarded rifle was lying at his feet, and without thinking he picked it up, and smashed the butt of it against the cadaver’s mouth. It made a sound like an ax thudding into a wet rotten log. He lifted the rifle and smashed it down again. The teeth spattered loose . . . [Martinez] dropped them in his pocket. He was sweating terribly, and his anxiety seemed to course through his body with the pumping of his heart. He took a few deep breaths, and gradually it subsided. He was feeling a mixture of guilt and glee, and he thought of a time in his childhood when he had stolen a few pennies from his mother’s purse. “Goddam,” he said.

It’s a significant moment within Mailer’s oeuvre—one of the first rehearsals of what would become a definitive and reliably controversial Mailerian thesis, the assertion via projection that his own voyeuristic, often quasi-sexual thrill at the thought of committing violence bespeaks a primitive, universal urge. At one or another point of The Naked and the Dead, nearly every character—whether cruelly torturing a caterpillar like Buddy Wyman or mercilessly executing a Japanese POW like Sergeant Croft—experiences some version of Martinez’s ambiguous “mixture of guilt and glee” at smashing the cadaver’s skull. It could also just as easily occur to the wife-murdering Rojack of 1965’s An American Dream, the death-by-firing-squad-demanding Gary Gilmore of 1979’s The Executioner’s Song, or the Nefertiti-seducing Menenhetet of 1983’s Ancient Evenings, who discovers he can sire his own reincarnations by perishing at the exact moment of ejaculation. (“Our most conspicuous literary energy has generated its weirdest text,” remarked Harold Bloom of that late-period monstrosity. “Even the most avid enthusiasts of buggery . . . may flinch at confronting Mailer’s narrative exuberance in heaping up sodomistic rapes.”)

Mailer succeeded thanks to his talent for mistaking his sensationalist energies for ideas, his compelling simulacra for the real thing, his style for substance.

It makes you wonder: How might Martinez’s corpse-raiding episode have been rendered if Mailer navigated toward the quieter, more downbeat scene of straightforward pillaging he related in his letter to Bea? The moment certainly couldn’t serve, as it does in The Naked and the Dead, as a sensationalist parable about “the nearness of violence to creation, and the whiff of murder just beyond every embrace of love,” which is how Mailer characterized the two “terrible themes” that motivated his entire body of work in one of his self-advertisements from 1977. These are highly tendentious claims regarding the nature of humanity and our relationship to violence, lent the moral authority of the eyewitness by Mailer’s noisily advertised visceral methodology. To point out that such an approach is grounded in a species of charlatanism is not to litigate the morality of authors fictionally embroidering their experience but to draw attention to the sleight of hand by which Mailer swaps something that has the substantiality and ideological force of naturalism for a trollishly provocative, cinematically lurid fantasy, a maneuver he repeated over and over again across his career. In the “electronic landscape of celebrity, status and attention” in which he found himself, this proved to be a shortcut to virality, but his legacy, as the years pass, increasingly looks to be that of a shambolic and contradictory provocateur pundit, a sort of proto-influencer or Twitter exhibitionist, rather than the prescient intellectual he aspired to be and sometimes successfully postured as. Mailer’s metaphysical ideas about the workings of the world, to quote Harold Bloom again, “probably will not earn him a place as one of the major sages.”

It’s worth pointing out that Mailer did in fact manage to gather some visceral experience in World War II, albeit not of the lead-slamming and skull-smashing sort depicted in The Naked and the Dead. In April 1945, sick of the “humiliation” entailed by his regimental work, he requested a transfer to the 112th Cavalry’s reconnaissance unit, in which, over a span of three months, he’d make some twenty-five patrols in the region south of Manila, perhaps once or twice coming under fire from an unseen enemy. These were no doubt terrifying moments, but the experience that lingered with him the most was an exhausting mountain patrol he made in mid-May, in which his platoon, after a backbreaking ascent that required every ounce of Mailer’s strength, was attacked by a nest of hornets and driven down the mountainside in a panic. This proved to be one of his “fundamental experiences,” he would write in a letter to Bea, “so unpleasant that it lingers in the memory acute enough to seem real . . . I need to purge it.”

Years later, Mailer would marvel at the “confidence” of The Naked and the Dead: “It reads as if I did know something about war.” In a preface to 1998’s fiftieth-anniversary reprinting, included in the appendix of the new Library of America edition, Mailer attributed his accomplishment to the influence of Tolstoy, reminiscing that he’d consulted Anna Karenina nearly every morning while writing the book. Tolstoy’s “compassion,” he said, was his guiding light.

For that is the genius of the old man—Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful.

Another of Mailer’s characteristic misperceptions. The closer we examine his life and career, the more we’ll probably be inclined to feel the opposite.