Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published on May 4, 1948, to great commercial success, making the 25-year-old Mailer a celebrity. The book sold 200,000 copies in its first three months, over a million in its first year and spent 62 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. It is the only one of Mailer’s books to go to Number One on the list.
The novel was based on Mailer’s experiences during his Army service in the Philippines in World War II. He began planning it while still in the Army and completed it in a year and a half while living in Paris studying French.
The book is long, over 700 pages, and dense with detailed descriptions. Mailer was convinced that he had written the “Great American War Novel,” that the public had been waiting for. With typical bravado Mailer wrote in the Introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition in 1998 that “Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace.
Not all of the first reviewers agreed. It was given wide coverage and most reviews recognized the importance of the book and hailed Mailer as a bright new talent, but the praise was often tempered by criticism of the book’s lack of focus and its many undisciplined passages.
The New York Times’s reviewer, David Dempsey, for example, wrote “Even in its repetitiousness, wordiness, and overanalysis of motive, it is a commanding performance by a young man of 25 whose gifts are impressive and whose failures are a matter of reach rather than grasp.” He concluded that “The Naked and the Dead is not a great book, but indisputably it bears witness to a new and significant talent among American novelists.”
Mailer’s next two novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955) were critical and commercial failures. For good or bad, his first novel was the book that all of his others would be compared against over his long career.