Norman Mailer’s Audacious Big Novel

Silly or serious?

Silly and serious?

The fight over American Dirt can seem either or both.

“Mexicans have been writing about the border and borderlands published in English since the 1800s. It is a bit insulting that someone thinks we need them to tell our story,” said one professor of Latinx literature [Campos]. I’m not sure that’s what the author, Jeanine Cummins, was trying to do. But she did respond to such criticism, saying, “I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive. I did the work. I did five years of research. The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue.” [Campos] I guess I see the professor’s point. Another professor weighed in: “An author has to have the authority to write a book. It does not mean they have to be Mexican. It means they have to have academic, literary or personal expertise to write it.” [Campos] Exactly so.


I just finished reading  The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, published long before the current blood sport of identity politics but when a brainy, talented Jewish boy could, just, storm the New York publishing world castle. How did Mailer write about war in the Pacific jungles? Where did “a tearful, bookish momma’s boy” [Lennon 17] from the Jersey shore and Brooklyn gain the academic, literary, and personal experience to write about war with authority?

The academic and literary experience are not the subject of this blog post. Mailer went to Harvard. His father was a compulsive gambler who frittered away savings and employment opportunities, but young Norman earned a scholarship and had the support of his successful Uncle David when he lost said scholarship later in his tenure. He earned his degree in engineering, though his decision to become a writer occurred early in his freshman year. (Switching majors was harder in those days.) By graduation, he had taken a full load of writing courses but only one in literature. He created his own voluminous literary syllabus, instead.

Mailer created his own independent study for “personal experience,” too. In the summer of 1941, he hit the road, in the great American tradition, hitchhiking into the South, sleeping under the stars, playing the hobo for two weeks. He took extensive notes in his journal, as he had been since his first year in Harvard. The next summer, he worked in the Boston State Hospital, also known as the asylum. He assuaged his (Jewish) mother’s fears by telling her the patients were mostly shell-shocked veterans. He was gathering material for his fiction, he said. [Lennon 49] When one violent patient was, well, violently beaten by hospital attendants, Mailer had seen and gathered enough. He quit after just eight days. But the brutal scene became the basis for his first stage drama and, decades later, a novel.

By fall of 1942, Stalingrad and Guadalcanal, Hitler and Hirohito, were on everyone’s lips. Mailer knew that his number would be called sooner or later (probably sooner). He felt a responsibility to serve but also a deep interest in material gathering. He began to conceive the idea of a great war book and understood that he would need to experience the war from the inside, not just from the print on a newspaper. “I was a little frightened of going to war, and a great deal ashamed of not going to war, and terrified of my audacity in writing so ambitious a novel,” Mailer wrote many years later. [Lennon 56] Elsewhere he wrote, “While worthy young men were wondering where they could be of aid to the war effort, and practical young men were deciding which branch of the service was the surest for landing a safe commission, I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific.” [Lennon 43]

It would be the Pacific.

On December 8, 1944, after eight months of training stateside, the twenty-one-year-old Mailer shipped out from San Francisco bound for the Philippines. The Japanese Navy had already been roundly beaten at Leyte Gulf, but the invasion of Luzon, the main island, had yet to begin. Mailer put ashore at Lingayen Gulf affixed to the 112th Cavalry (now Infantry) on January 27, 1945, more than two weeks after the original landing. Mailer never used the artillery training he had received. His engineering education was squandered but his literary talents were (sort of) put to use. He typed reports telephoned in from the outlying posts for Intelligence and Operations. Far from the actual operations on the ground, he was nevertheless able to follow how they worked in concert–the big picture, so to speak, or at least bigger than most grunts could see. It enabled him to write passages such as this in his big novel:

“Powerhouse will reach you at 2330,” the General said. “You will deploy them between Paragon Red George and Paragon Red Easy at the following coordinates: 017.37–439.56, and at 018.25–440.06. …As additional support, I am going to send you a reinforced platoon from Paragon Yellow Sugar. They’re to be used for pack train and lateral communication with Paragon White Baker or Cat.” [Mailer 112]

Unfortunately–or the converse–his typing skills were not up to the job. The 130-lb. Harvard grad was told to study manuals on the reading of aerial reconnaissance photographs. Before he could put the training to use, he was assigned to build showers for officers–until he was transferred to another unit in communications, rolling out telephone wire from headquarters to the outlying posts. The work took him beyond base camp into rice fields and bamboo forests and war-torn villages. He carried a carbine for encounters with the enemy and engaged in his first skirmishes. He shared it all (even the showers) with his wife of one year, Bea, in a steady stream of letters. In one he told her how his unit came across the remains of a Japanese unit. The smell was “a good deal like faeces leavened with ripe garbage.” The “ape-like charred bodies” reminded him of the victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire they had seen at the morgue in ’42. (More material gathering.) [Lennon 67] The experience would provide the basis for an important scene in the big war book he eventually wrote:

Another Japanese lay on his back a short distance away. He had a great hole in his intestines, which bunched out in a thick white cluster like the congested petals of a sea flower. The flesh of his belly was very red and his hands in their death throe had encircled the wound…. [Mailer 211]

Near the end of April, Mailer asked for a transfer to a reconnaissance platoon. He might have felt the need to gather the experience of actual combat. He might have felt a need to bolster his self-respect. He told Bea, “You’re doing something when you go out on patrol that you don’t do when you lay a mile of wire.” [Lennon 71] Over the next three months, he made twenty-five reconnaissance patrols across the Philippine countryside and into enemy territory. After his first encounter with the Japanese, while still laying wire, he had told Bea it was just a “little combat, nothing very tremendous, but still one of the three or four ‘first experiences’ a man has.” [Lennon 69] He had written what he felt was “not exactly fear–it was more, well, ‘awareness.’ But an awareness so acute that it approached pain and fear.” [Lennon 70] He drew on this emotional authority many times when writing about the characters in his war novel:

Croft’s mouth tightened. His hand felt for the bolt of the machine gun…. Croft swallowed once. Tiny charges seemed to pulse through his limbs and his head was as empty and shockingly aware as if it had been plunged into a pail of freezing water. [Mailer 148-149]

He drew, too, on the exhaustion he experienced climbing mountains and bushwhacking through jungles. To Bea, again: “You can never plumb the last agony of exertion, there seems always a worse one beneath it.” [Lennon 73] And in The Naked and the Dead:

They were merely envelopes of suffering. They had forgotten about the patrol, about the war, their past, they had even forgotten the earth they had just climbed. [Mailer 658]

Growing up in Brooklyn, a scrawny, brainy Jew among street-tough Irish kids, Mailer expected to be beat up almost any time he stepped outdoors. The situation, he said, made him “always terribly alert to the outside world. I took the inside world for granted. And I was free to indulge myself to….” [Lennon 17] Mailer carried this attitude into the Army, where he was always The Good Private, a “detached, quiet observer,” according to Mailer biographer, J. Michael Lennon. [Lennon 61] This did not mean he stayed aloof from his fellow men in arms. He chatted up as many of them as he could, always on the lookout for character, for background stories.

Over months, the personalities he met combined and converted and coalesced into a cast of characters for his novel. Fourteen enlisted men and three officers all became primary characters in his novel. Big book, indeed. Lennon tells us that the Southern “cracker” Wilson was based on Mailer’s closest army buddy, Fig, a white Southerner with no college but a passion for books. The fictional General Cummings was based on General Julian Cunningham, Red Valsen on the actual Red Matthiessen, fictional Julio Martinez on Ysidro Martinez, Roy Gallagher on, well, Roy Gallagher. Mailer really stretched when he made Isadore Feldman into the character of Joey Goldstein. Lennon says that Mailer’s Platoon Lieutenant Horton may have served as the model for the novel’s “titular hero,” Robert Hearn. His Platoon Sergeant Donald Mann certainly did as the model for its “secret hero” Sam Croft. “Obviously, he combined some characters and sculpted the personalities of others. But he began with real soldiers,” writes Lennon. [Lennon 76]

The Good Private could not maintain his detachment his entire tour of duty. In the spring of 1946, cooking now for the occupying troops in Japan, he lost his cool at a mess sergeant. The indignities of Army protocol had finally become  too much to bear. He called the head mess sergeant a “chickenshit son-of-a-bitch.” [Lennon 83] The next day he was forced to apologize by a superior and stripped of the sergeant stripes he had recently been awarded. The experience left him with a hatred deeper than any he had yet known–and one from which he  made fictional hay in his big war novel.

For almost an hour [after being made to lick up the General’s tossed cigarette, Hearn] lay face down on his cot, burning with shame and self-disgust and an impossible impotent anger. He was suffering an excruciating humiliation which mocked him in its very intensity. [Mailer 326]

Interestingly, one of the strangest scenes in the book–also the funniest and the book’s climax–actually happened to Mailer. Croft is leading the platoon up the slope of Mt. Anaka against their combined wills. He is driven against all reason to reach the crest of the mountain, like Ahab in his quest for the white leviathan. As he nears the summit, doubt creeps in, and even a fear that the achievement of his goal may leave him empty. He considers stopping short and turning back. But before he can decide, the decision is made for him. He kicks a hornets’ nest the size of a football, and the giant, tropical insects chase him and his men down the mountain they just had labored so strenuously to scale. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the scene. But it actually happened to Mailer’s platoon! (The only difference was that the hornets struck the middle of the file sending front half scrambling up the mountain and the rear half scrambling down.)

Also interesting, the war scene I liked best had no basis in Mailer’s personal experience: the amphibious landing on the island of Anopopei.

At 0400, a few minutes after  the false dawn had lapsed, the naval bombardment of Anopopei began. All the guns of the invasion fleet went off within two seconds of each other, and the night rocked and shuddered like a great log foundering on the surf. The ships snapped and rolled from the discharge, lashing the water furiously. For one instant the night was jagged and immense, demoniac in its convulsion.
Then, after the first salvos, the firing became irregular, and the storm almost subsided into darkness again. The great clanging noises of the guns became isolated once more, sounded like immense freight trains jerking and tugging up a grade. And afterward it was possible to hear the sighing wistful murmur of shells passing overhead. On Anopopei the few scattered campfires were snubbed out.
The first shells landed in the sea, throwing up remote playful spurts of water, but then a string of them snapped along the beach, and occasionally a shell which carried too far would light up a few hundred feet of brush. The line of the beach became defined and twinkled like a seaport seen from a great distance late at night. [Mailer 19]

Mailer probably gleaned the details he marshalled so brilliantly in discussions with soldiers who had made such landings. That’s what he did as a novelist.

It was his greatest strength–and his greatest weakness, according to The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. In his “mad pursuit of so-called experience,” those that he considered “literature-worthy” Mailer, in Brody’s view, missed his chance to plumb the material he knew best: Jewish Brooklyn in the 1930s. Instead, he wrote the big novel of the war and succeeded too well. “I think the book may be better than I am,” he said to his wife. [Lennon 5]

The book created a stir, but it wasn’t without its critics. Henry Luce’s Life complained that the book “seems to tell us is that such purposes as marrying and procreating and raising a family or mastering and art or a profession or building a business or beating Japan are without value to anybody now living.” [Lennon 109] The Times reviewer called it a “triumph of realism, but without the compassion which gives final authority in the realm of human conduct.” Its style, he said, “will offend many readers, although in no sense is it exaggerated: Mr. Mailer’s soldiers are real persons, speaking the vernacular of human bitterness and agony.” Marshalling all the martial metaphors at his disposal, he added, “For all its virtuosity, its deafening emotional cannonades, it is primarily a series of brilliant skirmishes; the central objective is never taken.”


So can a Jewish boy from Brooklyn write convincingly from the point of view of a Mexican-American sergeant, a Southern “cracker” private, a homosexual general, among many more? Mailer did so by relentlessly observing, gathering experience, and taking notes. He established his authority even while leaving the imprint of his burgeoning ego and his personal artistic intents all over the manuscript. Jeanine Cummins surely did much the same thing, though perhaps not as relentlessly as Mailer. She had the audacity to try to “upend the stereotypes in the national dialogue,” which is yet not as great as Mailer’s audacity to try to write the big novel of the biggest war of the twentieth century.


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