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October 23, 2017

Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

On this day in 1948, Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead was published. A front-page editorial in the London Sunday Times found the language in the novel "incredibly foul and beastly" and lobbied to have the book "withdrawn from publication immediately." Most reviewers, however, agreed with the New York Times that, despite the swearing and being "virtually a Kinsey Report on the sexual behavior of the GI," the book ranked among the best war novels, and was "a commanding performance by a young man of 25 whose gifts are impressive and whose failures are a matter of reach rather than of grasp." The outrage and the praise combined to put the book on the best-seller lists (#51 on the Modern Library's Top 100), and to catapult Mailer to a celebrity status that he claimed to regret.

Mailer had a degree in aeronautical engineering from Harvard, but he enjoyed playing up his Brooklyn roots, even to his parents. He tells funny stories of his mother trying to get him to clean up his language, him trying to get her to say all of his favorite four-letter words, and him winning:
    Barbara [his sister], Bea [his first wife], and I were having dinner with my parents one night and my father was complaining about my dirty language at the dinner table. Next day when we were alone, my mother asked me to stop. I agreed if, just once, she would use the words herself, literally tell my father to fuck himself. At the table that evening I kept it up until I heard her sort of whisper, "Barney, go fuck yourself." But I knew my father hadn't heard her, so I said, "That's not good enough," and let out another string of profanity. My father looked at me and then turned to my mother: "Fan, I think the boy's lost his mind." That's when she shouted at him, "Barney, go fuck yourself!" He couldn't believe it. He blinked his eyes. "Why, Fan!" he said in a mild voice. My sister and I howled like demons.
In an introduction written for the fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer said that he was "still fond" of his first book, and that it still reminded him of Tolstoy. In an interview at age eighty, old Mailer was and was not the Mailer of old. Asked about the novel he was working on: "If I can bring it off -- the IF by now is in capital letters -- it will be the biggest thing I've ever done. But at my age you can't approach it with the confidence you once had. Illness can deter you, affliction can stop you, breakdowns can occur." Asked about his place in literary history: "I'll last or I won't last.... It's the one thing you really can't predict, because history takes turns. There are certain writers who are so great you can never throw them off. I'm not in that category...."

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