Skip to comments.Pulitzer winner Norman Mailer dead at 84
Posted on 11/10/2007 9:47:43 PM PST by saganite
NEW YORK - Norman Mailer, the pugnacious prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country's literary conscience and provocateur with such books as "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song," has died at the age of 84.
Mailer died Saturday of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital, J. Michael Lennon, the author's literary executor and biographer, said.
"He was a great American voice," said a tearful Joan Didion, author of "The Year of Magical Thinking" and other works, struggling for words upon learning of Mailer's death.
From his classic debut novel to such masterworks of literary journalism as "The Armies of the Night," the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner always got credit for insight, passion and originality.
Some of his works were highly praised, some panned, but none was pronounced the Great American Novel that seemed to be his life quest from the time he soared to the top as a brash 25-year-old "enfant terrible."
Mailer built and nurtured an image over the years as bellicose, street-wise and high-living. He drank, fought, smoked pot, married six times and stabbed his second wife, almost fatally, during a drunken party.
He had nine children, made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New York City on a "left conservative" platform, produced five forgettable films, dabbled in journalism, flew gliders, challenged professional boxers, was banned from a Manhattan YWHA for reciting obscene poetry, feuded publicly with writer Gore Vidal and crusaded against women's liberation.
Mailer had numerous minor run-ins with the law, usually for being drunk or disorderly, but was also jailed briefly during the Pentagon protests in the late 1960s. While directing the film "Maidstone" in 1968, the self-described "old club fighter" punched actor Lane Smith, breaking his jaw, and bit actor Rip Torn's ear in another scuffle.
But as Newsweek reviewer Raymond Sokolov said in 1968, "In the end, it is the writing that will count."
Mailer, he wrote, possessed "a superb natural style that does not crack under the pressures he puts upon it, a talent for narrative and characters with real blood streams and nervous systems, a great openness and eagerness for experience, a sense of urgency about the need to test thought and character in the crucible of a difficult era."
Norman Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J. His father, Isaac, a South Africa-born accountant, and mother, Fanny, who ran a housekeeping and nursing agency, soon moved to Brooklyn.
Mailer earned an engineering science degree in 1943 from Harvard University, where he decided to become a writer, and was soon drafted into the Army. Sent to the Philippines as an infantryman, he saw enough of soldiering to provide a basis for his first book, "The Naked and the Dead," published in 1948 while he was a postgraduate student in Paris.
The book became a best seller, and Mailer returned home to find himself anointed the new Hemingway, Dos Passos and Melville.
Buoyed by instant literary celebrity, Mailer embraced the early 1950s counterculture, defining "hip" in his essay "The White Negro," allying himself with Beat Generation gurus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and writing social and political commentary for the Village Voice, which he helped found. He also churned out two more novels, "Barbary Shore" (1951) and "Deer Park" (1955), neither embraced kindly by readers or critics.
Mailer turned reporter to cover the 1960 Democratic Party convention for Esquire and later claimed, with typical hubris, that his piece, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," had made the difference in John F. Kennedy's razor-thin margin of victory over Republican Richard M. Nixon.
While Life magazine called his next book, "An American Dream" (1965), "the big comeback of Norman Mailer," the author-journalist was chronicling major events of the day: an anti-war march on Washington, the 1968 political conventions, the Ali-Patterson fight, an Apollo moon shot.
His 1968 account of the peace march on the Pentagon, "The Armies of the Night," won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was listed in the top 20 on a 1999 New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.
When he covered the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago for Harper's magazine, Mailer was torn between keeping to a tight deadline or joining the anti-war protests that led to a violent police crackdown. "I was in a moral quandary. I didn't know if I was being scared or being professional," he later testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.
Jorge Herralde, editor of Mailer's Spanish publishers, Anagrama, said Saturday that Mailer was a titan of literature who, like Kafka, was never awarded a Nobel prize. "He surely had too excessive a profile for that award," Herralde said.
Mailer's personal life was as turbulent as the times in which he lived. In 1960, at a party at his Brooklyn Heights home, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife. She declined to press charges, and it was not until 1997 that she revealed in her memoir how close she had come to dying.
His other wives were: Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley, Carol Stevens and Norris Church. He had five daughters, three sons and a stepson.
"He had such a compendious vision of what it meant to be alive. He had serious opinions on everything there was to have an opinion on, and everything he had was so original," friend William Kennedy, author of "Ironweed."
Mailer's suspicion of technology "insidious, debilitating and depressing" was so deep that while most writers used typewriters or computers, he wrote with a pen, some 1,500 words a day. In a 1971 magazine piece about the new women's liberation movement, Mailer equated the dehumanizing effect of technology with what he said was feminists' need to abolish the mystery, romance and "blind, goat-kicking lust" from sex.
Time magazine said the broadside should "earn him a permanent niche in their pantheon of male chauvinist pigs."
"He could do anything he wanted to do the movie business, writing, theater, politics," author Gay Talese said Saturday. "He never thought the boundaries were restricted. He'd go anywhere and try anything. He was a courageous person, a great person, fully confident, with a great sense of optimism."
In "Advertisements for Myself" (1959), Mailer promised to write the greatest novel yet, but later conceded he had not. Among other notable works: "Cannibals and Christians" (1966); "Why Are We in Vietnam?" (1967); and "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" (1968).
"The Executioner's Song" (1979), an epic account of the life and death of petty criminal Gary Gilmore, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. "Ancient Evenings" (1983), a novel of ancient Egypt that took 11 years to complete, was critically panned.
"Tough Guys Don't Dance" (1984) became a 1987 film. Some critics found "Harlot's Ghost" (1991), a novel about the CIA, surprisingly sympathetic, considering Mailer's left-leaning past. In 1997, he came out with "The Gospel According to the Son," a novel told from Jesus Christ's point of view. The following year, he marked his 75th birthday with the epic-length anthology "The Time of Our Time."
Mailer lived for decades in a Brooklyn Heights town house with a view of New York harbor and lower Manhattan from the rooftop "crow's nest," and kept a home in Provincetown, Mass., where he spent increasing time in his later years.
Despite heart surgery, hearing loss and arthritic knees that forced him to walk with canes, Mailer retained his enthusiasm for writing and in early 2007 released "The Castle in the Forest," a novel about Hitler's early years. "On God: An Uncommon Conversation," came out in the fall.
In 2005, Mailer received a gold medal for lifetime achievement at the National Book Awards, where he deplored what he called the "withering" of general interest in the "serious novel." Authors like himself, he said often, had become anachronisms as people focused on television and young writers aspired to screenwriting or journalism.
Lennon said arrangements for a private service and burial for family members and close friends would be announced next week, and a memorial service would be held in New York in the coming months.
Bump for later saganite, it is unseemly to speak ill of the dead.
Did the search etc etc.
Not however to speak the truth about the dead.
Norman Mailer was not worthy of washing John Dos Passos' jockstrap.
We aren’t Democrats saganite, I prefer to think that Conservatives wait to speak the truth when someone has went to meet their Creator, there is nothing to gain by being ugly even if it is in quotation marks.
Sorry you’re offended but I don’t find anything redeeming in what he wrote. No quotation marks in my posts here by the way.
Mailer’s personal life was as turbulent as the times in which he lived. In 1960, at a party at his Brooklyn Heights home, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife. She declined to press charges, and it was not until 1997 that she revealed in her memoir how close she had come to dying.
His other wives were: Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley, Carol Stevens and Norris Church.
His own quotations saganite, not yours, if you feel driven to look, check out the guy he whined to have paroled...
Look for Jack Abbot saganite, and Norman Mailer and see what you find..:(
He should have married Chuck Norris instead of Norris Church. Try stabbing Chuck!
I know the history there. Mailer got the guy paroled then he stabbed a waiter to death. Mailer was undoubtedly right though because he had good intentions. /s/
I rather like that he had rather admirable things to say about Texans.
I rather dislike that he had rather admirable things to say about Castro.
Convictions in life are rare things, those who have them are really blessed, those who do not, are constantly double minded...
Hitler had the strength of his convictions to guide him. So did Stalin and numerous other tyrants.
I tried to read a couple of his books, but when the plot took a detour into homosexual acts by the protaganist as though it was akin to brushing one’s teeth, I gave up.
Regardless, RIP Norman.
Factoids like that are “why” things can become unseemly.
Mailer had a long and rich history of shall we say “Stuff like that”, to drag it out when he is freshly departed seems..well...like having a pep rally for Hillary at Mailer’s funeral..it’s something Democrats would do..not “us”.
Mailer was merely a confused writer, not Tyrant of an entire country don’t confuse political convictions with personal ones.
Can’t follow you so I’ll just let it go.
Heh. That’s pretty much what I’ve read. I was quite impressed with “The Naked and the Dead”. I can see why you might call it cynical, with its obsession with “the shoddy motive” and the downbeat point of view, but I didn’t really see it that way. I do think it’s ironic that the movie based on the book reversed almost every incident and outcome to make it into an upbeat story. There is cause for cynicism!
I’ve always had a soft spot for “Of a Fire on the Moon”. This was serialized in Life magazine, or at least portions of it. Mailer by no means identified himself with the Apollo ethos, but he was impressed by it and gave it due respect. Plus, he assumed that it was going to prevail, and struggled to accommodate himself to it in his writing. Little did he realize that it could or would fade as rapidly as it arose, and this book remains as a record of that ascendant mood.
I was always quite impressed that he faithfully recorded the exact “first words” uttered by Aldrin and Armstrong after their landing. These were on a vinyl record insert in National Geographic, but I couldn’t make all of them out, and Mailer was virtually the only printed source for many years. Even NASA materials edit them down. The first words? ... “OK, engine stop. ACA out of detente. Modes control both auto. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm off. 413 is in.” Then came, “We copy you down, Eagle”.
Fair enough Saganite, keep in mind that everyone’s life is a mix of things to be proud of and things to be ashamed of, Mailer is no exception.
Why focus on a the man’s bad things right after he is passed on? Would you want people doing the same when you pass on?
IMO, Conservatives have more class then to do that sort of thing.
It’s a respect that decent people afford the recently departed, the Dems on the other hand turned the Wellstone funeral/memorial into a huge pep rally for electing Democrats in MN.
Mailer went off to world war II to print fashionable failure template of WWI on his war experiences. He produced “the naked and the dead”.
His work was akin to liberal reporters going to Iraq to impose the liberal viet nam template on their experiences rather than let their experiences speak for themselves.
I was impressed with “armies of the night” when I was in my 20’s. 30 years later the book looks like gibberish.
RIP. I will remember him fondly for that quote. The two books of his I read, The Naked and the Dead and Armies of the Night I found forgettable. The weakness of his writing is that he was so much of his time. And unnecessarily vulgar, too. But he worked hard, didn't he? I liked that he boxed. His moral vision was a little blurry, but he stuck up for some truths at great expenseokay, while punting on others, but I will pray for him.
Requiescat in pace.
I will not miss him, nor his liberally-inspired ‘hero-worship” by the NY “elites” ...
Perhaps now he will find out what the unnamed rich man discovered in the Lazarous story.
It’s been a very long time since I even tried to read any Mailer. The last one I finished was his about the moon launch. It had enough behind the scenes information about the NASA culture and launch event to finish, but his method of making it all secondary to HIM, (ie-Aquarius) was pathetic. Not Armstrong, not NASA, not the moon itself, the only story he really was telling was Mailer. And wasn’t the world lucky NASA was created to provide him a mirror where he could look at himself.
“Ancient Evenings” I tried to read. I made it through about 60 pages before casting it aside. Gibberish from a man who seemed like he was being paid by the word and intended to cash in.
A pre-People magazine “celebrity”. If he hadn’t been such a celebrity he might actually have lived up to the role he imagined for himself. The books might then have been about the stories, instead of just fuel for his ego. I can’t imagine time will be kind to his work or reputation.
There goes his biggest fan
He did a real smear job on Marilyn Monroe. He admitted to printing every cockamamie rumor about her to sell books.
“One was called SCUM, the Society for Cutting up Men, where they believed all men were incomplete or aborted females.”
I like blasts from the past like this. You know, this ought to be in every history textbook just to show that it’s not just white males that can be so unremittingly bigoted. And as far as Mailer is concerned, I really hate when people who possess such talent are usually morally lost and so their influence is that much a greater negative to society.
I wonder why no mention of this?
I made the mistake of picking up “Ancient Evenings” for my first Mailer book. I couldn’t get very far. As someone said above, it was too vulgar. I never picked up another Mailer.
Yup,Jack Abbott sure had a lot to give the world of literature.Of course he had trouble taking “no” for an answer...particularly from waiters.
I had the same reaction and threw the thing in the garbage.
True enough.But Mailer,unlike me (and,I assume,unlike you as well) played a pivotal role in securing the release from prison of a guy (Jack Abbott) who had already committed *one* murder and who,just a few weeks after his release,went on to murder again...this time a 22 year old kid who had the temerity to tell Abbott that he couldn't use the bathroom.
True GSC, he also said a bunch of stuff in 2003 or so about the Iraq War being “The last hurrah of the white male”.
I never cared for the man’s writings, nor his opinions, and when Abbot murdered that waiter, Mailer basically said “Oops, I guess I was wrong” that was about all he had to say about it.
That was 25 years ago, and I can still remember that “news” story even though I was quite young at the time, Mailer’s culpability was the first step in my own rejection of Liberalism. Even though I was maybe 10 or 11 at the time, I thought that was one of the most unfair and unjust things that I ever heard.
The more Mailer talked, the more I understood Liberalism.
For me, Mailer and his books and opinions WERE Liberalism encapsulated. He embodied “Them” for me while he thought he was advancing Liberal causes, instead he was planting seeds of liberalism’s repudiation.
The Pulitzer is as meaningless as the Nobel Peace Prize.
while i dislike mailer on a personal level, i do think he had a formidable
style of writing. executioner’s song is beautifully written, which in some
ways is a shame because the subject of the book, gary gilmore, is scum.
This is an absolutely dead-on, ruthlessly truthful assessment of Mailer and his literary accomplishments, if any.Have never been able to finish a single one of his books, though I have tried mightily, especially as a young man, feeling then that I needed to know his work. Later, Mr. Mailer wrote a piece for a magazine where I worked as an editor, for which he was paid $50,000 (a shocking amount, then and now). The literary lion had trouble delivering and had to be given a conference room at the magazine (Esquire) and an "assistant" to help him meet his deadline. The piece was a routine interview. The final result was such a horrific mish-mash that, once again, I couldn't finish it without much determined skimming. All in all, he seemed to have no special talent for either long-form works or routine culture pieces. So what was his talent anyway? Self-promotion, I guess.
Kimballs article is very good. Thank you for providing the link.
I don't know whether you noticed or not, but Kimball uses either "existential" or "existentialism" nineteen times to describe either Mailer or Mailer's work. He does not account for the source of Mailer's existentialism. I won't, either. But, I'll be interested in reading . . . from a library copy of some past biography . . . what happened to Mailer between his discharge from the army and his return from France.
Here's an unkind comment from one of Kimball's readers:
Face it, Boomers. Unlike Hemingway, or a real novelist, Mailer only looms large because the Boomers thought his "rebellion" was cool (i.e. Althouse). No one, not even the Boomers actually READ his stuff, and no one will now. He'll be forgotten in another generation, after the Boomers follow him to the dirt. -- David.
David, of course, is an idiot. Most Boomers were in their infancy or waiting to be born when Mailer became famous and celebrated. "The Greatest Generation" gave him his kickstart. By the time Boomers reached high school, about a dozen years later or so, Mailer was well entrenched in his ways and it was still "The Greatest Generation" which mostly kept Mailer's coffee cup filled with whatever he preferred to drink from it.
Aboard a troop ship carrying him to the Korean War, a WWII artilleryman passed the time reading Mailer's book. The book had been recommended to him by army buddies from the 148th Artillery Battalion which had, for a time, been attached to Mailer's unit, the 112th Cavalry Regimental Combat Team. The reader recognized incidents Mailer wrote about. They happened, mostly. And, he knew how Mailer came to know about them. As recently as yesterday, the artilleryman had nothing bad to say about Mailer or "that book."
David, of course, is also right. I, for example, have read only one of his novels, the first, bits of two others, and a few shorter things in a collected work. I've never been much of a fan. I'm fairly confident that most Americans over the last sixty years have read even less and have cared less. Mailer's influence, if there was any real influence, was minimal.
Kimball, of course, is not an idiot. How could he be? He uses words like "hagiographical" and "polyphiloprogenitive."
These two sentences from the second paragraph are wonderful. They put a fence around Mailer's life, according to Kimball, and point back to the question which really interests me.
Mailer epitomized a certain species of macho, adolescent radicalism that helped to inure the wider public to displays of violence, anti-American tirades, and sexual braggadocio. It didnt start out that way.
Kimball attributes it all, via a Norman Podhoretz quote, to being a nice Jewish boy who never really wanted to be nice. Fame and wealth broke his chains and set him free to play out his adolescent fancies. That might be true. It might also be a cheap and easy gloss. Seems like World War II doesn't deserve comment, except he was there. Kimball gives no value at all to the time Mailer spent in France after the war. He does not even mention it.
The few comments that I've heard or read from artillerymen and cavalrymen who served with Mailer describe him as "reclusive." He would come into their tents, listen quietly, barely make his presence known, and then quietly leave. A little while later they'd hear him typing. Only after "that book" was published did they know what he was typing. (You may remember from recent obits that Mailer is reputed to have had a technological phobia. He wrote everything in an unintelligible scrawl. During the war he used that typewriter to write letters home which included the notes for "that book.")
Not a picture of a macho, adolescent radical bent on corrupting the world around him, I think. From the same sparse sources I've read or heard, I think he was intimidated by and fascinated by the men who surrounded him at war. From a summary of an interview conducted by Glen Johnston (Univeristy North Texas - copied from 112th Cav list email):
[Mailer:] "The journey was uneventful, but it was the first time we had come
face to face with the Texans, who were the core of the unit. They
were tough men...We would watch as they would sit on the deck of the
ship honing their bayonets or knives. They would sit on the deck
honing their bayonets for hour after hour with a dull glaze over their
eyes. They were cold, hard men...A lot of them were sick--the Texans
who remained. Most all of them had jungle rot of one sort or another.
They spent hours painting sores with methiolate and things like that,
particularly on the boat. I remember that. Everybody had digestive
troubles and bowel troubles. Diarrhea was just prevalent. None of us
were that strong; we weren't in great shape. The Atabrine was taking
a lot out of us."
He went on to say that his time with the 112th was a humbling
experience because he truly wanted to be a good soldier.
"Unfortunately," he admitted, "almost everyone in my squad could do
things so much better than I could."
In the end, he seemed genuinely proud of his time with the 112th and
wanted me to pass on his best wishes to the Regiment at the next
reunion. I did so.
Sounds a lot like hero worship to me. I think Mailer wanted to be one of those tough, cold, hard Texans, and he knew he wasn't. Maybe that had a lot to do with Mailer's decision to place his life's work at the University of Texas at Austin. Maybe. Maybe at least in this way, he had finally become one of them.
"I understand one element of celebrity, which is the unreality of it," he said later. "At the age of 25 I went from being the kid next door ... to being called a major American writer -- that's a role you just don't fit at 25. ... I used to feel I was secretary to someone named Norman Mailer, (and) to meet him you had to meet me first." ( CNN.com )
So, what did Mailer do immediately after the war? He went to France on the G.I. Bill to study at the Sorbonne and he wrote "that book." Is this when Mailer came up nose-to-nose against the face of effete French existentialism and liked it so much he took it home with him? At the Sorbonne, was Mailer that macho, adolescent radical which Kimball mocks and Mailer's fellow vets seemingly would not have recognized? Or, did all that come with the fame that the book brought?
That's what I might want to learn from a biographer.
I'm reminded of a pair of fictional Texans created by another Texan, Larry McMurty, one of whom fits the imagined character of Mailer: Hud Bannion. (You may remember the movie, Hud. )
Homer to Hud: You don't care about people Hud. You don't give a damn about 'em. Oh, you got all that charm goin' for ya. And it makes the youngsters want to be like ya. That's the shame of it because you don't value anything. You don't respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself. And that makes you not fit to live with.
You'll remember from above David's pronouncement that "He'll be forgotten in another generation, after the Boomers follow him to the dirt."
Not likely. All he needed was one lasting book and it was probably the first one he wrote.
A little while ago a Guardian literary supplement published a Joel Rickett column in which he listed books that defined the decades. For the 40s, he chose these four:
1984, George Orwell
The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
The Outsider, Albert Camus
Whether or not Mailer survives to become a classic author will have nothing to do with Boomers or even The Greatest Generation that gave him his start. Maybe it will have something to do with whether or not the future sees Mailer and his work as funny or even comical. Maybe some future advanced creative writing instructor at some Ivy League school will keep him alive by holding seminars in his name. I surely don't know. Except for what I've listed, I didn't read him when he was alive and a lot of not reading him was for reasons Kimball gave in his article.
But, I've got to give Mailer his due. He was on a quest to and failed to write "The Great American Novel." He wasn't afraid to be laughed at and probably expected it and didn't care. He kept trying. Kept punching.
I think that's admirable. Very Texan. Reminds me of Texas Ranger Captain W.J. McDonald's famous creed, "No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin."
Was Mailer's life in the right? What do you think he'd say? :-)
I actually remember him talking about this on The Dick Cavett Show, I think. He said you could never really know.
OK, where to start.
If I can summarize your comment it goes something like this: Mailer was a tough guy wanna be who used other peoples experiences to write a war novel.
Thats pretty much what Kimball said.
As to whether hell be remembered, Ill leave that to future generations, but I cant finish his books and I read almost constantly.
Was Mailers life in the right? It seems to me that a man who is
>Inordinately obsessed with sex,
>Who stabs one of his many wives, nearly killing her
>Who manages to get a killer sprung who then kills again, and thinks its worth the cost (after all, Mailer wasn’t killed).
>And is totally in tune with the Liberal zeitgeist of anti-Americanism and participated in demonstrations that ended in our abandoning our Vietnamese allies which led to genocide in that part of the world...
No, that was not a life lived in the right.