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November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer, the Grand Old Man of the American literary scene, has died, aged 84. He was suffering from renal failure and died in New York City at the Mount Sinai Hospital.

Norman Mailer, the prolific writer whose public brawls and macho swagger often overshadowed his Pulitzer Prize-winning prose that challenged society's views of politics and sex, died early today. He was 84.   

Mailer died of renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, according to an e-mailed statement from J. Michael Lennon, the author's literary executor and official biographer. Mailer had been hospitalized last month for surgery to remove scar tissue on one of his lungs. He lived in Brooklyn, New York.       

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the maverick author was perhaps more famous for his self-aggrandizing public behavior and grandiose ambitions than for his writing talent. There were six marriages, the stabbing of his second wife, the alcohol-infused fights and the feuds with literary figures such as Gore Vidal, all from a slight, curly-haired man. He even ran two quixotic campaigns to become New York City's mayor.          

``You develop a perverse appetite for publicity,'' he once said, ``even though you hate it.''          


Mailer was a prolific, experimental writer who often examined the conflict between individual and collective power in politics and sex. His early novels, such as ``The Naked and the Dead,'' focused on individuals who violated social or political standards for self-knowledge, breaches he committed often in public life.          


While Mailer wanted to be remembered as a novelist, many critics found his nonfiction better. In the 1960s, Mailer was one of the pioneers of the ``New Journalism'' movement, comprised of non-fiction narratives from the writer's point of view that used literary devices such as dialogue and multiple viewpoints.                  

`Wasted' Talent

There were indeed accusations of wasted talent: at one point Mailer was paying more than $400,000 a year in alimony (back in the days when the $ was worth something) to assembled ex-wives and there was a sense that at least some of his output was simply dashed off to make those payments.

The Guardian only has a small piece, referring to his last book:

Norman Mailer, the American novelist, has died today, at age 84. The two-times Pulitzer prize winning author was a formidable and provocative presence in the literary world, often enraging readers with his strident views on US political life, and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Robert McCrum interviewed Mailer in February, finding him on fighting form ahead of the release of The Castle in the Forest, his first novel for a decade, which dealt with the childhood of Adolf Hitler and which he predicted people were "going to have a shit fit" over. He may have impressed and reviled people in equal measure, but Mailer was difficult to ignore. Add your thoughts and tributes below.

Some of Norman Mailer's quotes:

U.S. writer Norman Mailer, a towering presence on the U.S. literary scene for decades, has died.

Opinions poured out of Mailer. Following are some of this thoughts on the United States, men, women and himself:


"America is a hurricane, and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug White Protestants who live in the center, in the serene eye of the big wind."


-- From "Advertisements for Myself," a collection of essays, poems and observations.


"I've always felt that my relationship to the United States is analogous to a marriage. I love this country. I hate it. I get angry at it. I feel close to it. I'm charmed by it. I'm repelled by it. And it's a marriage that's gone on for let's say at least 50 years of my writing life, and in the course of that, what's happened? It's gotten worse. It's not what it used to be."


-- A 1998 interview for French television.


"Masculinity is not something given to you, something you're born with but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor. Because there is very little honor left in American life, there is a certain built-in tendency to destroy masculinity in American men."


-- A 1966 essay.

And a literary obituary:

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Norman Mailer has died aged 84.

The pugnacious New Jersey novelist, playwright, screen writer / director and polemicist was a dominating presence on the US literary scene for seven decades.

In more than 40 books, essays and journalism, Mailer provoked and enraged readers with his strident views on US political life, and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

He first book,                  The Naked and the Dead , is considered one of the finest novels about World War Two and made him a celebrity at age 25 when published in 1948.

Mailer's works were often filled with violence, sexual obsession and views that angered feminists. He later reconsidered many of his old positions but never surrendered his right to speak his mind.

Detractors considered him an intellectual bully and he feuded with fellow authors like Truman Capote, William Styron, Tom Wolfe and Norman Podhoretz.

Feminists like Germaine Greer and Kate Millett considered him the quintessential male chauvinist.

Some of the feuds even turned physical for the former college boxer, who stabbed one of his six wives at a party and also decked writer Gore Vidal.

His Pulitzer Prize-winning                  Armies of the Night , an account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon by anti-Vietnam War protesters, established him as a political spokesman for the Woodstock generation.

His second Pulitzer was for                  The Executioner's Song , a haunting 1979 account of the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

It's certainly true that Norman Mailer was controversial: some of his work was superb, other parts of it perhaps slightly run of the mill.


The ex-wife he stabbed is not all that enamoured of him:

But then given that catalogue....and being an ex-wife....who would expect her to be so?

November 10, 2007 in Books | Permalink


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