Norman Mailer Revisited

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Twayne Publishers, 1992 - Literary Criticism - 245 pages
It is easy to hold an opinion about Norman Mailer without having read a single sentence he has written. His tumultuous personal life and provocative opinions on contemporary social issues may at one time have made him, in his own words, the second most unpopular man in America, surpassed only by Richard Nixon. What is difficult is to hold an opinion about Mailer's writing that is not influenced by his image as a public figure. Robert Merrill's Norman Mailer Revisited, while acknowledging the unavoidable connection between Mailer's life and his works, screens out distracting gossip and biographical speculation to concentrate on a long overdue assessment of Mailer's aesthetic achievements. Critics assume "Mailer's books will not sustain detailed aesthetic consideration," Merrill writes, but it is "only by making these aesthetic distinctions" that we will "ever arrive at a just assessment of Mailer's importance as a writer?'
Three common assumptions about Mailer are that his ideas are more interesting than his art, his personality is more interesting than anything he has written, and his substantial literary gift has been squandered on works that fail precisely because Mailer is too little the conscious artist. By focusing on literary structure and narrative form rather than theme and the influence of Mailer's personal biography, Merrill provides a basis for distinguishing Mailer's most successful work from his frequent failures and for comparing Mailer's creative output with that of his contemporaries.
Merrill addresses the gamut of Mailer's literary intentions over the 40-odd years of his career: from trivial publicizing to serious contemplation of world-shaking issues. He recognizes Mailer's uneven accomplishment, ranging from almost unreadable pontification to well-shaped, considered works such as The Naked and the Dead, The Deer Park, Armies of the Night, and The Executioner's Song. Merrill speculates convincingly on the reasons Mailer was unable to find subjects to follow up his spectacular success in creating a "nonfiction novel": Armies of the Night, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1969, and on the limitations of the genre.
In assessing Mailer's entire fiction and nonfiction output, Merrill ultimately places him among the handful of writers who have most influenced both genres since World War II. Many critics agree on Mailer's importance as a cultural icon yet easily dismiss the possibility that he will influence future generations of writers and thinkers. Merrill argues that the literary and artistic merits of Mailer's work will survive his reputation as the "wild man of letters."

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