Norman Kingsley Mailer was born on 31 January, 1923, in Long Branch, New Jersey, but his family moved to the Jewish part of Brooklyn in 1927, where he grew up. His father Isaac Mailer was an accountant from South Africa; his mother Fanny Schneider Mailer came from a family of hotel owners. After high school and Harvard, he was drafted in 1944 and sent to the Philippines, where he served until 1946. His first major success was published in 1948: The Naked and the Dead, a novel that was partly about his own experiences during the war. This marked the start of a fruitful period in which he wrote several major works. Given his major literary success during these years, the nineteen-sixties have been described as “his finest decade” (Selected Letters 262); it was also the time that critics generally agreed on what to think of his books. This was followed by something of a decline in the nineteen-seventies, with only a few successes, such as Marilyn (1973) and The Executioner’s Song (1979). Around this time, too, however, critics began to engage more with his works and quite a few studies were published in the nineteen-seventies and eighties.
In terms of his political orientation, Mailer expressed discontent with the term ‘liberal’ in a letter to the editor of Playboy after being described as such for a debate with William Buckley (Selected Letters 306). Instead, he frequently referred to himself as a left conservative, positioning himself on neither the left or the right. He was also a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, which was evident for example from a 1967 letter to, among others, Gore Vidal and James Baldwin. Mailer urged them not to pay a tax that had recently been passed (Selected Letters 378), thereby opposing the war. In the 1968 presidential election, he initially supported Robert Kennedy (Selected Letters 386) but believed in neither major candidate that participated in the general election (Miami and the Siege of Chicago 237), considering instead to vote for Eldridge Cleaver. Like Vidal, Mailer tried to get into politics himself, running for mayor of New York City in 1969 on a platform in which they argued to make the city the fifty-first state after secession from the state of New York. Mailer, too, failed in his efforts, not even making it through the primary. He continued writing until his death on November 10, 2007, at the age of 84.