November 8, 2022
Proposal for a Ransom Center Fellowship
Project Title: Norman Mailer’s Short Fiction
This project will examine Norman Mailer’s short fiction, mostly from the 40s and 50s, as a proving ground for his mature voice. I argue that Mailer uses short fiction as a playground to experiment with narrative voice and style, to play with theories that he develops in his journal and essays, and to find a voice that reflects concerns present in his later writing, like a desire for individual growth, the authenticity of the senses above that of reason, the importance of courage and risk as the foundation of action, an antipathy for totalizing ideas and behaviors, and the writer as a reflection of an imperfect god in constant struggle with the forces that seek to undermine him. Each of Mailer’s stories is a battleground of sorts, where a crucial moment in a character’s life will lead to freedom or compromise, success or failure—what Mailer would later call the “existential moment,” or a crucial situation where a protagonist’s choice will determine the course of his life and growth. Mailer’s stories are defined by existential moments in the narrative (perhaps in a similar way that the epiphany is a chief characteristic of Joyce’s short fiction), but they also reflect Mailer’s own struggle as a writer to free himself from the success of his first novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) in order to continue to grow as an artist and human being.
In general, there are three phases of short fiction for Mailer, written in about three decades, between circa 1933 and 1965. The first phase contains his (pre-)college stories that illustrate coming-of-age themes, the second are stories reminiscent of Naked and center around World War II, and the third are stories of the psychic dangers present in domesticity and city life—and only through willful acts of rebellion could one remain true to oneself. His latter stories reflect Mailer’s own desire to become, as he puts it in Advertisements for Myself, a “psychic outlaw” who by fostering a connection with the primitive could resist the oppressive social forces that sought to produce over-analyzed and neutered men wrapped in plastic and controlled by technology.
I plan to write a monograph that situates Mailer’s short fiction historically with his development as a writer. It will argue that Mailer’s short fiction provides a crucial foundation to understand Mailer’s more mature work, beginning with “The White Negro” (1957) and Advertisements for Myself (1959). An examination of Mailer’s short fiction shows his development as a writer and solidifies his existential approach to life as any artist-rebel. To this date, there has been no book-length study on this important short work of Mailer’s.
Ransom Center Collection
Crucial to this research are the primary documents contained at the Harry Ransom Center, namely the manuscripts of the short stories, those that have been published and those that have not. I am not so much interested in the process of composition, though much of this will be interesting, but in the context of the short fiction and how it reflects the author’s own tribulations, like notes, journals, interviews, drafts, note cards, and fragments. This meta content might shed light on the importance of short fiction for Mailer, despite his famous dismissal of it in the introduction to The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (1967). I’d like to produce an authoritative account of just how many short stories Mailer wrote to be able to situate them thematically and historically within Mailer’s growth as a writer.
In addition to the published and unpublished manuscripts of the short stories (and , items of specific interest include: Post-war stories, writing journal, typed drafts, and note cards, 1946-1949; "The Greatest Thing in the World" (1941), typed short story used for film proposals, circa 1949-1950; “The Defense of the Compass," typed drafts and galley proofs, circa 1951; Short stories/writing: The Blood of the Blunt; The Bouquet of Victory; Bugger; Dr. Bulganoff and the Solitary Teste; Duet; Good to See You; Love-Buds; Mellie, Mellie, I Caught You; The One Night Stand; La Petite Bourgeoise; The Thalian Adventure; unidentified fragments, circa 1951; Journal, typed, 1952; Autobiographical sketch, typed draft and correspondence, 1952; Notebook on bullfighting, 1954 (perhaps some background on “The Time of Her Time”); Note cards and notebooks, circa 1956; The Necrophiliacs, typed draft fragment, circa 1956; Unrealized epic novel; Bellevue stay, handwritten and typed notes, circa 1960 Research files; “Sex and Censorship in Literature and the Arts," typed drafts, 1961; Untitled postscript to "The Time of Her Time," handwritten and typed drafts, 1961; “Mailer Slashes at U.S. Apathy,” newspaper article 1961; The Writer Speaks, typed interview transcript and correspondence, 1962; “Norman MailerThe Art of Fiction XXXII," typed draft, 1963; Speeches on existentialism, clipping, flyers, and audience questions, circa 1963; and drafts and notes about The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (1967).
Also of interest is Mailer’s correspondence that specifically addresses the short fiction—the majority of which does not seem to have been published. Also of interest are letters about his early-1950s struggles to publish The Deer Park, since this is the time of much of his short fiction writing in the 1950s. Again, the letters might offer additional insight into Mailer’s relationship with short fiction in general and his own story output.