Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published almost fifty years ago to the month at the time of this essay. Many best sellers generate a flurry of excitement at their initial publication, but then drop quickly from the literary scene. The Naked and the Dead, however, was not only a best seller in the year of its publication, but also has consistently received positive critical acclaim and maintained popular interest up to the present day. It is recognized as one of the truly outstanding fictional books about World War II, and people still read and enjoy it today. This type of sustained success for a twentieth-century best seller is significant, and this paper is an attempt to explain why the book has been so successful. By looking at different aspects of the book, its author, and its place in the literary world, I hope to show how many different factors have contributed to the continued success and popularity of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.
The first, and perhaps most important, ingredient to the success of the novel is that it is a very well-written book. At its publication in 1948, reviews of the work came out in magazines and journals across the country. Magazines like The New Yorker, Time, and Publishers' Weekly all ran reviews of Norman Mailer's first novel. For the most part, the critical reviews of The Naked and the Dead were highly complimentary. The reviewers praised the book's high degree of realism, intense psychological emphasis, and faithful depiction of the horror and ugliness of modern war. Writing for Atlantic magazine in June of 1948, C.J. Rolo boldly describes the novel as "by far the most impressive piece of fiction to date about Americans in the Second World War." Other reviewers use phrases like "ruthlessly honest" and "cool and effortless narrative style." After about 1950, these frequent, highly complimentary reviews of The Naked and the Dead appeared more and more sporadically. Nevertheless, the novel maintained a good reputation in both the public and scholarly spheres. While reviews of the book in the popular press became less frequent, scholarly critiques and essays about the novel grew in number. All this attention and high praise contributed substantially to the popularity and success of the novel at its initial publication and over the subsequent years. Readers enjoy a well-written story about a subject of interest, and they often take their cues about books from professional critics. The positive reviews of The Naked and the Dead in most major magazines greatly fostered the popularity of the novel by alerting the reading public to its merits and significance.
Along with the favorable reviews, Norman Mailer's first novel also greatly benefited from an innovative ad campaign implemented by Rinehart and Company, Mailer's publisher at the time. Before the book was even published, the publisher placed weekly ads in the New York Times Book Review. These ads were visually graphic and eye-catching, showing a frazzled soldier with bullet holes and jagged lines all around him. In each ad, a few lines would describe a certain character from the book and inform the reader of the publication date. Interestingly, Mailer did not approve of these ads at all. In Peter Manso's book, Mailer: His Life and Times, it is reported that the young author was "infuriated by the prepub ads," and that he resented the "pandering"(113). He felt that they would turn off "classy readers." Nevertheless, others in the publishing industry believed that the ads would help generate interest and diminish the effects of an extremely high selling price of four dollars. Most other books at the time were selling for $2.95(118). Fortunately, the ad campaign was a success, and it did generate excitement and demand for the novel. The Naked and the Dead rocketed to the top of the best-seller list within weeks of its publication.
The aggressive ad campaign highlights another feature which contributed to the novel's great success in 1948. Norman Mailer was an unknown quantity prior to the publication of The Naked and the Dead. In all the reviews, much emphasis is put on the fact that Mailer is a new literary talent. As David Dempsey writes in the New York Times, the publication of Mailer's novel "bears witness to a new and significant talent among American novelists." On the back cover of the first edition, there is a large picture of Mailer accompanied by a short biography. It is almost as if the publisher is introducing the author to the public, trying to convince them of his qualifications. This focus on the emerging literary talent of Norman Mailer almost surely contributed to the success of the novel. The public would read the book in order to determine whether the new kid on the block, a Harvard graduate and war veteran, was really as good as the reviews claimed.
Norman Mailer's topic for his first novel, a battle for an island in the Pacific during World War II, stemmed directly from his own experience in the Army. By writing about war and its effects on men, Mailer intelligently took advantage of contemporary events and tapped into a societal need for information and details about the war. The book 80 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1975 names Mailer's effort as "the first outstanding postwar novel about World War II. Published in 1948, The Naked and the Dead came just three years after the end of World War II. This quick publishing made it one of the first serious books of fiction to come out after the war, and the public was hungry for non-propagandized knowledge about the war and its stark realities. This hunger translated into a high volume of book sales, as most people could find someone to relate to among the multitude of characters in the book. By reading the book, the public could experience the raw emotions associated with standing guard during rainy nights, marching through humid jungles, and being scared of whizzing bullets. The gritty style Mailer uses throughout the book allowed readers to easily access the harsh psychological realities of war. The publication of The Naked and the Dead so soon after the war filled a need in society, and this deft timing helped boost the popularity in the novel.
The above assertion that Mailer's novel was successful due in part to its conjunction with World War II can be strengthened by looking at the best seller list of 1948. The list bears out the contention that readers in 1948 were interested in the war, and that they were buying books which dealt with war in some way or another. On the fiction list, the number ten book is Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions. This novel, while not as highly acclaimed as Mailer's book, did receive attention and sold about 80,000 copies in 1948. The Naked and the Dead sold about 150,000 in the same time period. It is significant that two fiction books dealing with the war made it onto the best seller list in the same year. It explicitly shows that the public had a desire to know more about the Second World War.
This point can be seen even more clearly by examining the list of non-fiction bestsellers. Three of the top ten non-fiction bestsellers for 1948 were personal memoirs of the war. These included Dwight D. Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe(#1), Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm(#7), and Robert Sherwood's book entitled Roosevelt and Hopkins(#8). These books provide firsthand accounts of the war, and they sold very well. General Eisenhower's memoir even outsold Mailer's book, with a total of 239,265 copies sold during the year. It makes sense that readers interested in non-fiction books about the war might also purchase Mailer's fictional account.
Besides the obvious connection between The Naked and the Dead and non-fiction accounts of the war, other types of non-fiction best sellers also provide interesting clues to the popularity of Mailer's work. There were four books on the non-fiction bestseller list in 1948 which dealt with psychology or sexuality. Books like A Guide to Confident Living and the famous Kinsey report entitled Sexual Behavior of the Human Male sold in large numbers. People were extremely interested in the aspects of life revolving around sexuality and psychology. It is no coincidence that Mailer's novel includes large doses of sex and the examination of sexuality in the lives of the soldiers. Critic David Dempsey even refers to the novel as "virtually a Kinsey Report on the sexual behavior of the GI." The heavy psychological and sexual emphasis of The Naked and the Dead helped to make it popular for a postwar society very interested in human behavior.
So far in this essay, I have spent a great deal of time focusing on why this particular book was so popular at the time of its publication in 1948. The novel was an immediate success and stayed on the best seller lists for a period of about six months. By 1949, however, Norman Mailer's first novel no longer showed up on the top ten list. This fact begs the question of how the popularity of The Naked and the Dead has held up over the subsequent decades. The answer to this inquiry is fairly clear. As of 1981, Norman Mailer's war novel had sold 250,000 copies in hardback and about 3,000,000 copies in paperback. It has been published in numerous editions by a wide variety of publishers, and it has been translated into many foreign languages. Two companies, Buccaneer Books and Henry Holt and Co., still have the novel in print as of 1994. In 1958, ten years after its first publication, The Naked and the Dead was still popular enough to be produced as a movie, albeit a largely ignored movie. An audio version of the book has been produced, as well as a version in videocassette format. All of these statistics, from total copies sold to performances in other media, point to the conclusion that The Naked and the Dead did not disappear from the scene six months after its publication. Rather, it has maintained a steady popularity up to the present.
The reasons for such steady, sustained popularity are various and wide-ranging. One of the foremost reasons, however, is the continued interest of American in topics related to war. A novel about the United States at war, The Naked and the Dead often explores such topics as individualism versus determinism, the emergence of American fascism, and the quest for meaning in life. These questions, central to the critical success of the novel, appear again and again in American public life in the decades following World War II. They receive sustained attention because the U.S. continued to engage in military conflicts in far corners of the world. In the 1950's, American soldiers fought in the Korean War, and the 1960's and 70's were scarred by U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. Both of these military operations occurred in Asian countries, and both provided an opportunity for America to evaluate her role in the world. It is no accident that The Naked and the Dead, a novel about war against an Asian country, maintained a certain popularity and relevance in light of Korea and Vietnam. Even the most recent affair with Iraq generated a great deal of discussion of American military participation in foreign affairs. Although these wars did not cause The Naked and the Dead to climb back up the best seller list again, they forced readers to continue asking the same questions explored in Mailer's novel. This continued relevance of war-related issues was a key aspect of the steady sales and consistent popularity of the novel.
In addition to the rather obvious historical reasons for the sustained success of Mailer's first novel, there are some slightly more subtle reasons for its popularity over the years. One of the biggest criticisms of The Naked and the Dead at the time of its initial publication was Mailer's frequent use of obscene army dialogue. New York Times critic Orville Prescott writes that Mailer "has wallowed in a grotesque and excessive fidelity to the coarseness of their language." The obscenity issue even caused the book to be banned in Canada and Australia. Ironically, all the negative attention about the novel's profane language may have boosted its long term popularity. By being banned, the novel immediately assumed an air of mystery and forbidden pleasure. Some readers undoubtedly bought the book just to experience the shocking narrative. However, as the use of obscenity became more and more acceptable in the literary world, Mailer's use of the word "fug" in The Naked and the Dead no longer appeared controversial. In fact, the realistic dialogue and obscene sexual banter probably kept later generations of adolescent readers engaged in the novel. In this sense, Mailer's gritty style was ahead of his time.
I mentioned earlier in the essay that Mailer's public persona as a new, unknown author benefited the early popularity of the novel. In a surprising shift, the novel's later popularity has benefited from Mailer's now established, well-known place in American literature. In the decades since the publication of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer has become one of the most prominent and public American authors. Having written novels in every decade since the 40's, Mailer has also engaged in politics, edited The Village Voice, and cultivated a family full of numerous and divorced wives. His outspoken manner and prolific writings have made Mailer a fixture on the literary scene. The sustained visibility of Norman Mailer as a personality and as an author only benefits his early novels like The Naked and the Dead. If Mailer had disappeared from the literary scene after a decade or so, his novels might have been forgotten or ignored. Norman Mailer's long literary career, which continues up to the present day, keeps him and his novels a matter of public interest.
I hope this essay has shown why Norman Mailer's World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, became a bestseller in the first place, and why its reputation has held up over the fifty years since its initial publication. Unlike many other American bestsellers of the twentieth century, Mailer's novel is a work of quality literature which received both popular and critical acclaim. This double praise is a sometimes rare occurrence among the ranks of American bestsellers, and it speaks to the most fundamental ingredient of the novel's lasting success. At bottom, The Naked and the Dead is simply a fascinating, well-told story.