Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic

Carl Rollyson was Norman Mailer's first literary biographer to draw on unpublished letters and manuscripts as well as on interviews with the writer's friends and foes. Rollyson provides a full account of Mailer's college years, especially his fear of being drafted. Here are the sources of Mailer's mental crisis in the 1950s that led to the stabbing of his second wife, Adele. Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic gets at the sources of Mailer's obsession with violence while also portraying a major literary figure in the making, from his fabulous debut war novel, The Naked and the Dead to his final bid for literary fame, The Castle in the Forest, a brooding foray into 20th century evil via an account of Adolf Hitler's early life. A final chapter rounds out a penetrating account of Mailer's final two decades of productivity which yielded books as various as a controversial biography of Picasso and a philosophical dialogue on the nature of God.

Reviews of The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography, revised as Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic

"[In] this amply researched and sharp-eyed study there's nourishing fare for both his admirers and his detractors. Rollyson, biographer of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman and Martha Gellhorn, aptly does a good deal of jabbing and weaving himself in trying to catch a man who seems to have made flight from the gentility of his background an obsession, who has kept inventing himself perhaps because he has never quite found himself." --Publishers Weekly

"Rollyson is in fine fettle in this first literary biography of Norman Mailer. ... Copious notes, photographs, and a bibliography are included. Index not seen. Recommended for both lay readers and scholars."--Library Journal

THE LIVES OF NORMAN MAILER (reviewed on August 1, 1991)
 Literary biography of Mailer by the well-received author of Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Story of Martha Gellhorn (1990) and Lillian Hellman (1988). Rollyson (Art History and Literature/​Baruch) firmly engages the reader in a swift life of Mailer as if from 30 years hence rather than in the ``now'' vein of earlier biographies by Hilary Mills and Peter Manso. A touchstone event in Mailer's life took place in 1954 when Mailer's friend, editor John Maloney, stabbed his mistress in Greenwich Village, leaving Mailer aswim in Dostoevskian thought and envying Maloney: ``God, I wish I had the courage to stab a woman like that. That was a really gutsy act.'' What he envied, according to Rollyson, was the rebel act against received morality in which ``the shits are killing us''; when he later did stab his wife Adele, he found it morally indefensible. An oddly charming Brooklyn prodigy, Mailer went through childhood and early youth in a terribly professional way (building elaborate model planes), entered Harvard as a skinny little runt of 16, took up engineering, then was bitten by the James T. Farrell bug and began methodically engineering the short story and novel. In the army, he baldly interviewed troops for his future great war novel and, as at Harvard, tried to define himself against a larger entity--as he did in Ancient Evenings and is still doing in his current novel, Harlot's Ghost (see above). Mailer's life is all highlights, some of them abysmal, as with his abortive run for mayor of New York and later the Jack Abbott fiasco. On a literary level, Rollyson's best pages tie Mailer privately into the themes of Ancient Evenings, though his remark that Mailer hasn't had a major success since The Executioner's Song and at this late date may be past producing another triumph is unjust regarding both Ancient Evenings and Harlot's Ghost, which some already see as the high-water marks of Mailer's career. Mailer bounding larger than life--though the last word will be his in his long-promised autobiography, when and if.... --Kirkus Reviews

THE LIVES OF NORMAN MAILER is an aptly named book, for the subject of Carl Rollyson’s biography is a constantly changing, ever elusive figure whose individual and literary histories are a record of mutation, adaptation, and reinvention. As well known for his combative personal life as for his often controversial writing, Norman Mailer receives, in Rollyson’s work, the sort of careful and nonprejudiced examination he deserves but has often been denied.

When the young Mailer published THE NAKED AND THE DEAD in 1948, he was instantly catapulted into the position of being one of the most promising of postwar American writers. Promises can be ominous things, and Mailer was determined not to mire himself of his talent in rewriting the same novel for the rest of his career. Instead, he began to re-create himself even as he re-created his writings.

As Rollyson shows with telling effect and careful attention to detail, the changes in Mailer’s prose style, his choice of subject, and his approach to art are all paralleled in his personal life. The result of all these changes has been a man who appears to be a walking contradiction. Originally hailed as a novelist, Mailer’s greatest achievements have been in imaginative journalism, such as THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT, about the march on the Pentagon in 1968, and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, about murderer Gary Gilmore; a supporter of such progressives as John F. Kennedy, Mailer holds so many contradictory political views he must label himself a “left conservative.”

Nowhere are the controversies around Mailer thicker than in his relationship with women,k and the question of his talent. For years it has seemed that Mailer delighted in baiting the Women’s movement, provoking its members with outrageous comments about sex and equality. Rollyson’s examination of Mailer’s tangled views of creativity and sexuality is especially revealing in this context. As for Mailer and his talent, Rollyson clearly believes in them, and makes a balanced but persuasive case for both, in this lucid and very intelligently written account of the many lives of Norman Mailer.--Magill's Book Reviews