Showcasing the Harry Ransom Center’s recently acquired Norman Mailer archive, the exhibition Norman Mailer Takes on America spans the full range of Mailer’s career examined in the context of the cultural and historical events that sparked his imagination.
Below are a few items featured in the exhibition.
Souvenir booklet about Muhammad Ali, ca. 1972
A penned note on the cover reads, “Ali on Frazier: ‘He’s so ugly, his face should be donated to the bureau of wildlife.’”
Given Norman Mailer’s interest in such combative contests as thumbwrestling and head-butting, and his adulation of all things Hemingway, it is not surprising that he would also devote himself seriously to boxing. Indeed, some of his finest reportorial writing is dedicated to the sport. Mailer took seriously his own boxing training, which began in 1958 when Roger Donoghue, who had been a world middleweight contender in the late 1940s and early 1950s, agreed to give Mailer lessons and act as a sparring partner.
A snapshot of Norman Mailer in the army (Unidentified photographer.)
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer’s first published novel, based on his experiences as a rifleman in the South Pacific, was published in 1948 when Mailer was twenty-five and became an immediate best-seller, catapulting him into instant popular and critical fame.
By creating two story lines—one about enlisted men and one about officers— Mailer reflected the way in which World War II blended social groups that might otherwise have remained distinct. Class and personal power struggles between the men mirror similar political tensions at the national and international level. It is, ultimately, a novel about power and violence, two phenomena towards which Mailer, his biographer Mary Dearborn argues, felt a profound ambivalence.
Buttons from Mailer’s mayoral campaign
In the spring of 1969, Mailer decided to enter the Democratic New York City mayoral primaries in the hopes of fulfilling a longstanding dream of life as a politician. In addition to voicing the idea of New York City becoming the fifty-first state, Mailer had theories about giving individual New York neighborhoods local political power, and his campaign slogan became “No more Bullshit.” Mailer was aligned with newspaper columnist James Breslin, who ran for New York City Council President. Mailer lost the race, coming in fourth of the five candidates with 41,136 votes.
In 1960 Mailer had just announced his first mayoral campaign when he stabbed his wife Adele. After that infamous event, he never joined the race.