Norman Mailer, Novelist -- and Journalist -- Dies at 84

Article excerpt

Norman Mailer, the macho 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" died Saturday. He was 84.

Mailer died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital, said J. Michael Lennon, who is also the author's biographer.

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 pugnacious, streetwise 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, 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 lib.

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 - later described by Mailer as "the most secure Jewish environment in America."

Mailer completed public schools, earned an engineering science degree in 1943 from Harvard, 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 Army life and combat to provide a basis for his first book, "The Naked and the Dead," published in 1948 while he was a post-graduate student in Paris on the G.I. Bill.

The book - noteworthy for Mailer's invention of the word "fug" as a substitute for the then-unacceptable four-letter original - was 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 leftist 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. He was described as the only person over 40 trusted by the flower generation.

Covering 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. …

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