Controversial, quarrelsome, Pulitzer winning author Norman Mailer died today of kidney failure at the age of 84.
Mailer was born Norman Kingsley on January 31, 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey. At the age of 9 the family moved to Brooklyn, where Mailer spent the rest of his childhood. He attended Harvard, where he started out as an aeronautical engineering major and wound up a literature major. Following graduation he was draughted and served in the United States Army. He ended his military career as a cook in occupied Japan; however, he did see some combat, the experience of which provided the basis for his first novel The Naked and the Dead. The novel followed an American platoon facing Japanese forces on an atoll in the Pacific. It was published in 1948 to universally great reviews.
Mailer would never match the critical reception for The Naked and the Dead, although he continued to write the rest of his life. Immediately following The Naked and the Dead, Mailer wrote two more novels, Barnaby Shore and The Deer Park. Neither saw the success of his first novel.
Following The Deer Park, Mailer would not write another novel for ten years, In 1955, he founded The Village Voice with friends Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher. He also entered the field of nonfiction with the essay The White Negro. First published in 1956 in the magazine Dissent, The White Negro addressed the phenomenon of European Americans adopting African American culture as their own. It was reprinted in his book Advertisements for Myself in 1959. Arguably, Mailer had a greater impact as a non-fiction writer than as novelist. Along with Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, he was one of the pioneers of the genre called creative nonfiction. Although factually accurate, creative nonfiction seeks to apply the the artistry of fiction to nonfiction.
Over the years Mailer would write several works of nonfiction, including both essays and books. Among his more important works were The Armies of the Night (a Pulitzer prize winner about the October 1967 rally against the Vietnam War in Washington DC), Of a Fire on the Moon (about the Apollo 11 lunar mission), and Oswald's Tale, essentially a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Perhaps his best known work was The Executioner's Song, which detailed the trial and subsequent execution of murderer Gary Gilmore.
Mailer did continue to write novels. In 1965, after an absence from the genre of ten years, he published the novel An American Dream, a work which came under harsh criticism from feminists for its portrayal of women. He would publish eight more works of fiction, including the Ancient Evenings, Harlot's Ghost, and his final work, The Castle in the Forest.
Mailer also worked in film. Several of his books provided the basis for motion pictures, including The Naked and the Dead and American Dream. He also wrote screenplays for the movies Beyond the Law and Maidstone. He tried his hand at directing with such films as Beyond the Law, Maidstone, and Tough Guys Don't Dance.
I cannot say that I have ever been a huge fan of Norman Mailer. And I must disagree with many who believe he was the most influential writer of his generation (I think that title belongs to either Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller instead). Still, I appreciated much of what he wrote, even if I disagreed with many of his sentiments (he was a public opponent of feminism). And I think there can be no doubt that he was very influential. The Naked and the Dead is often counted, quite rightly, as one of the greatest war novels of all time. And I think there can be little doubt that The Executioner's Song is one of the best works of nonfiction published in the last fifty years. Mailer was certainly a colourful character, with multiple marriages, run ins with the law, and outspoken, often controversial opinions, but in the end I think it is his writing that will be remembered.