Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:


The Naked and the Dead is an enormously long novel, washed up by the choppy waters of disillusionment, leaving nothing to the imagination.” That's what David Dempsey had to say in a review on the novel for The New York Times in 1948. Dempsey went on to say that The Naked and the Dead revealed a great new talent in American fiction, Norman Mailer, but that the book was “not great.” A half-century after the publication of The Naked and the Dead and two years after Mailer's death, it's clear that Dempsey was both right and wrong. He sniffed out the general talent, but whiffed on the specific work.

No matter. The special risk of criticism is to be wrong in print, wrong for eternity. It is hard to blame Mr. Dempsey. The Naked and the Dead was not written for him. It is a novel that had to wait another 20 years for the America it envisioned to come fully into view. The Boomers were the ones who discovered, in Vietnam, that national greatness takes a toll. They began to doubt themselves.

But that came later. The Greatest Generation was known for one thing, primarily. Certainty. Certainty of place, of purpose, of duty, and of destiny. I exaggerate, but not that much. They called World War II “The Good War.” Moral absolutism came cheap then. Who was going to argue with the boys who put down the Third Reich?

Mailer never argued. He just kept talking and showing, talking and showing.