Loughborough University
Jarvis_Mailer essay.pdf (176.66 kB)

Matters of grave importance: style in Norman Mailer's 'The Executioner's Song'

Download (176.66 kB)
posted on 2017-04-03, 08:42 authored by Brian JarvisBrian Jarvis
in lieu... the opening paragraph. Matters of grave importance: style in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song …to send my style through a circus of variations and postures, a fireworks of virtuosity… a quick-change artist, as if I can trap the Prince of Truth in the act of switching style. Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself At 8:07a.m on January 17th 1977, Gary Mark Gilmore was executed just outside the grounds of Utah State Prison. Less than six months earlier, on the morning of July 21st 1976, Gilmore had been arrested on the outskirts of Provo in Utah on suspicion of armed robbery and double homicide. Gilmore’s victims were Max Jensen, a gas station attendant in Orem and Ben Bushnell, a motel manager in Provo. In both incidents, Gilmore instructed his compliant victim to lie face down on the floor before shooting them in the head. The subsequent trial commenced on October 5th and was concluded in two days. Gilmore was convicted and sentenced to death. Given the opportunity to choose the mode of his execution, the condemned man elected to be shot by a firing squad. The date of the execution was set for 15th November 1976, but when Gilmore waived his right to appeal the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attempted to intervene. There had been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in the U.S for around a decade and opponents of capital punishment were deeply concerned that this might be overturned by the precedent of the Gilmore case. A number of judicial stays were issued right up to the eve of the execution when the legitimacy of Gilmore’s punishment was authoritatively determined by a Supreme Court ruling based on a majority of five to four. Five local police officers were recruited as executioners. With no recent experience of carrying out capital punishment, prison officials converted a space in a nearby disused cannery into a bespoke execution facility. The marksmen were positioned behind a makeshift curtain with small holes cut out through which to shoot. Their target was hooded and strapped to an office chair positioned in front of a dirty mattress and some sandbags. Asked for any last words, Gilmore responded bluntly: ‘Let’s do it’. Allegedly, this infamous phrase inspired the Nike slogan: ‘Just do it’. This may be the most conspicuous legacy of the Gilmore execution, but it is not the most momentous. As opponents of the death penalty feared, by insisting on his inalienable right to die, Gilmore re-opened the door to the death chamber in the U.S. Inadvertently, ‘let’s do it’ issued an imperative to the killing state which since 1977 has carried out over 1,400 legal homicides.



  • The Arts, English and Drama


  • English and Drama

Published in

Death Sentences: Literary Language and State Killing


102 - 133


JARVIS, B., 2017. Matters of grave importance: style in Norman Mailer's 'The Executioner's Song'. IN: Christ, B. and Morisi, E. (eds.) Death Sentences: Literary Language and State Killing. Cambridge: MHRA, Legenda, pp. 102-133.


© Modern Humanities Research Association


  • SMUR (Submitted Manuscript Under Review)

Publisher statement

This book chapter was published in the book Death Sentences: Literary Language and State Killing [© Modern Humanities Research Association]. The publisher's website is at http://www.mhra.org.uk/

Publication date




Book series

Studies In Comparative Literature;49


  • en

Usage metrics

    Loughborough Publications


    Ref. manager