Norman Mailer, arguably the most critical and influential literary figure of the 20th century, died today of renal failure. He was 84.
Throughout the course of his illustrious career, Mailer was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and won the National Book Award. His flair and demeanor cemented him as one of the most celebrated authors in America.
Norman Kingsley Mailer was born on January 31, 1923 in Long Branch, NJ and was raised in Brooklyn, NY. He attended the Boys’ School. Mr. Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1943 at the age of 20 and was soon drafted by the U.S. Army. Serving in the Philippines he would use his wartime experiences later in his writings.
Cocky and defiant, but equally talented, Mr. Mailer rose to prominence as part of the Greatest Generation, having graduated a prestigious institution and thrust full-force into the Pacific during the Second World War. Culling details and emotions from his time there, Mr. Mailer wrote his first–and some would say his finest–novel based on the events. The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948, and almost immediately shot the 25-year-old to literary stardom.
After a brief, mostly unsuccessful stint as a Hollywood screenwriter, Mr. Mailer returned to New York City. During the 1950s, he continued writing novels, although he didn’t immediately see the same success that his first novel had gained.
One of his subsequent novels, The Deer Park, was based on his writing experiences on the West Coast. It was repeatedly rejected by numerous publishers because of its extremely sexual content.
Apart from his literary success, Mr. Mailer saw the same problems that had plagued many writers during his time and from generations past. During his rise to celebrity status, Mr. Mailer discovered the power of alcohol, a mechanism that would, throughout the rest of his life, either bless him with a sort of inebriated, humorous charm, or curse him with tumultuous relationships and painful events.
One night in 1960, after a night of partying, Mr. Mailer stabbed his then-wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife. Although she fully recovered and refused to press charges, this incident would haunt him the rest of his life and would result in many plaguing him as a misogynist.
Mr. Mailer will be undoubtedly be remembered as a a literary icon for generations to come. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of his legacy is that he had played just as much a part in crafting his towering identity as did his novels and critics. Shortly after the release of The Naked and the Dead, Mr. Mailer had claimed that he was going to be one of the preeminent authors of his time, and that he was going to pen “the big one”- the great American novel. Through the subsequent commercial failures that followed Mailer into the 1960s, he firmly maintained his belief that he was an icon.
The kind of success that Mr. Mailer had once predicted seemed to have found him in the late 60s; his nonfiction account of the October 1967 anti-war march on the Pentigon, The Armies of the Night, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. In it, Mailer documented the events of that fall with creativity and precision, often glamorizing the march and, to no surprise, his own “heroic” contributions as a novelist and a historian.
Mr. Mailer won another Pulitzer prize in 1979 for The Executioner’s song, another mostly nonfiction account of the imprisonment and execution of convicted Utah murderer Gary Gilmore.
Among his most notable contributions to the literary community, apart from his novels, was his co-founding of The Village Voice, perhaps the most widely recognized alternative newspaper in the country. Mr. Mailer’s dabbling in journalism (he regularly contribued to The Voice, among other New York-based publications), along with his famous nonfiction-plus-some-creativity novels, put him at the forefront of what some called the “new journalism” movement, with the likes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.
Mr. Mailer had undergone lung surgery recently at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, NY.