Norman Mailer

Pugnacious writer whose talent was too often obscured by the frantic circus of his personal life

Monday 12 November 2007 01:00 GMT

Norman Kingsley Mailer, writer: born Long Branch, New Jersey 31 January 1923; married 1944 Beatrice Silverman (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1951), 1954 Adele Morales (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1962), 1962 Lady Jeanne Campbell (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1963), 1963 Beverly Bentley (two son; marriage dissolved 1980), 1980 Carol Stevens (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980), 1980 Norris Church (one son, and one adopted son); died New York 10 November 2007.

Norman Mailer wanted to be the Hemingway of his generation, but it is not as a novelist that he will be remembered – even The Naked and the Dead, the Second World War story which made him famous at the age of 25, is rarely read today. Too often in the course of Mailer's career, celebrity triumphed over undeniable talent. His best work was fact-based, and often derived from journalistic commissions, though Mailer derided journalism on the grounds that the story already existed for the writer. A novelist, he argued, had a much greater task – "Having to make up the story and write well is equal to Pavarotti having to write his own music."

Mailer was born in New Jersey into a Jewish family and grew up in Brooklyn. Despite the parochialism of his childhood environs, he refused from the start to be corralled into any kind of ethnic literary ghetto, unlike other prominent Jewish writers of his time – Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth most prominently. He always acknowledged that he had "a Jewish temperament . . . a Jewish mind . . . in every way I consider myself Jewish", yet he set out with admirable energy to carve a canvas out of a larger world.

Mailer's expansive egotism had its roots in a doting mother who gave him unconditional love, yet his preoccupation with masculinity, especially his own, was a reaction against his father, a meek, mild-mannered accountant with a weakness for a furtive flutter. Mailer once remarked that the one personality he "found unsupportable [was] the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn", and much of the volatile behaviour of his adult life must surely be ascribed to his determination not to inhabit the stereotype.

Educated locally, he went to Harvard as a precocious 16-year-old, ostensibly to study aeronautical engineering – evidence of a rampant, almost omnivorous intelligence. But he had written his first novel at the age of 11, and at Harvard he began writing for The Harvard Advocate, then won a national short story competition. After graduating in 1943, he wrote two unpublished novels and was drafted into the Army in the following year. Shipped to the Pacific, he served in the Philippines as a rifleman with the 112th Regimental Combat Team, a Texas regiment, and his experiences formed the basis for his first and most famous novel, The Naked and the Dead, which was published in 1948, just as the demobbed and newly married Mailer was enrolling at the Sorbonne.

The book became an overnight sensation. For an American reading public now removed from the horrors of war that had not touched most of them anyway, Mailer's epic account of his infantry platoon was dramatic, life-like, and colourful. Though other war novels had and would appear (Gore Vidal's Williwaw, James Jones's From Here to Eternity), The Naked and the Dead was the de rigueur read about the war. Inevitably, a major motion picture followed its success.

Yet it is a hard read today, a sprawling, cumbersome saga that reads like the fusion of literary ambition and severely limited artistic experience – as indeed it was. Its anachronistic use of "fug" and "fugging" in place of the real words now seems merely quaint, and the prose alternates between pedestrian and purple – little wonder that the young Mailer likened himself to Theodore Dreiser, arguably the worst prose stylist none the less considered a major American novelist.

The novel follows a 14-man reconnaissance platoon of infantrymen sent as the advance party for a planned invasion of a Japanese-held island in the Philippines. The squad comprises an American-style melting pot of differing class and ethnic types: a Georgian "cracker" with venereal disease he thinks water will cure, a rough refugee from Montana's strip mines, two Jews (one obnoxious, one sensitive), a Boston Irishman, an Italian-American, even a Mexican-American conscious that he will never be fully accepted by his fellow soldiers.

Foremost is the curious trio of General Cummings, a proto-Fascist homosexual who sends the platoon on its mission; Lt Hearn, the platoon's Harvard-educated but self-doubting leader; and Sgt Croft, a pathological killer who murders a Japanese prisoner. The three represent what the critic Caleb Crain describes as the "unholy trinity – homosexual, reformer and psychopath – of American male animism", and figures like each of them recur throughout Mailer's fictional works. The conflicts between these three provide almost as much tension as combat with the Japanese, though already Mailer showed a willingness to experiment which is sometimes downright perverse – Lt Hearn, who seems as close to a protagonist as the book has, is shot dead halfway through its pages.

Flushed with the extraordinary success of his novel, wooed by Hollywood, the young Mailer returned to America, and promptly went off the rails for the next decade. His personal life was chaotic: he soon divorced his first wife and married Adele Morales, an actress. He lived hard, smoking lots of marijuana, drinking to excess, carousing in a Bohemian, Beat-inspired fashion in New York's Greenwich Village (having moved back from Hollywood in 1951). For a time an inveterate brawler, Mailer was constantly in fights, once even punching a sailor on the street for suggesting Mailer's dog showed homosexual tendencies.

This relentless machismo seemed out of place in a man who was actually quite small – though perhaps that was where the aggression originated. And Mailer's most notorious act of violence had nothing macho about it at all – at the end of an all-night drunken party in 1960 he stabbed his wife Adele twice with a penknife. Though she survived (and refused to press charges) few were surprised when the couple divorced shortly thereafter. In an event-filled life of almost existential self-creation, this was the one act Mailer was always to regret. It haunted his reputation, and haunted him.

In the frantic circus of his personal life, unsurprisingly Mailer's fictional talents did not prosper. His second published novel Barbary Shore (1951) was mauled by the critics – perhaps inevitably in the time-honoured tradition of second novels, though in this case the slaughter seemed deserved. Set in a Brooklyn boarding house it features a cast of only semi-believable characters: a Molly Bloom-derived landlady married to a Stalinist; a lesbian former Trotskyite; and the Mailer figure, an amnesiac writer and ex-GI. Action and character take second stage to a political preachiness that represented Mailer's left-wing views of the time, perhaps another contributor to the book's unpopularity, as America entered the McCarthy era.

The Deer Park (1955 ) followed and was also not a success; at one point Mailer took out a full-page advertisement that defiantly quoted his many bad reviews. In its fictionalised account of Hollywood's difficulties with the red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (Huac), the novel is as politicised as Barbary Shore – but also includes a fairly unconvincing account of Hollywood's inevitable corruption of true artistic values. Both novels are surreal accounts of America's darker undercurrents, with a violent sexuality that scared publishers (six turned down The Deer Park) and repelled women readers through the implication that men's abuse of women was both inevitable and accepted happily enough by women.

Mailer's more interesting and valuable writing of the 1950s came in a collection of writing published with characteristic if candid immodesty as Advertisements for Myself (1959). Here he developed a theory of alienation that clearly represented his own sense about his place in an American society that still seemed impossibly "straight". Among the stories, poems and essays of the book was an essay, "The White Negro: superficial reflections on the hipster", which became notorious. In it Mailer praised hipsterism, a prefigurement of cool influenced by the black American culture Mailer now revered. Yet what was hip to Mailer outraged many, since his advocacy included a tolerance of physical violence – rape and murder were argued, perversely if ingeniously, to have a certain logic, even beauty of their own.

More significantly, Mailer seemed enchanted by the figure he called the "philosophical psychopath", the kind of utterly disaffected individual whom readers of existentialism would have encountered in Camus's L'Etranger. This romanticisation of the "outlaw" and glamorised preoocupation of violence were enduring features of Mailer's obsession with manliness. He once said that it was "more important to be a man than to be a very good writer" – though the critics of Advertisements for Myself would have argued that the Mailer of the 1950s was having difficulty being either.

He was writing from an almost wholly alienated point of view, which contained a self-destructiveness (also present in his personal life) that few writers could have survived.

Yet this minority perspective from the fringe of the leaden, repressed 1950s became virtually mainstream in the social revolutions and political upheavals of the 1960s. Mailer not only covered these seismic events; on more than one occasion he was a leading participant in them.

He was still writing fiction, of course, including An American Dream (1965), the story of a former Congressman and war hero who murders his estranged wife. Written in serial form for Esquire magazine, the book has a dense poetic style which annoyed critics but entranced many readers – the novel was a mild bestseller – though its overt misogyny made Mailer even more unpopular with women. Less successful was Why are We in Vietnam? (1967), a novel about a hunt for grizzly bears in Alaska that was notable chiefly for not mentioning Vietnam even once in its pages. If a timely parable was meant, its significance was lost on critics and common readers alike.

But Mailer's best subjects were not now imagined ones: as Mailer himself ruefully admitted years later, "I'd never come up with a story of my own that was as good as the things that were happening all through the Sixties." His two books The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Siege of Miami and Chicago (1969) are perhaps his finest works. The former is an account of Mailer's participation in a march of 3,000 draft resisters on the Pentagon in the spring of 1967. Marching with the poet Robert Lowell and the essayist Dwight Macdonald, Mailer helped lead the protest, though he was arrested near the Pentagon itself when he tried to cross a line of military police. The significance of the demonstration was that it brought to the very bastion of the American defence establishment evidence of America's spiralling discontent about its continued military involvement in Vietnam.

Mailer's account of the march is often cited as a prime example of the New Journalism, in which novelistic techniques are employed to describe real people and actual events (Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was a pioneering example). The focus on the internal qualities of characters suited Mailer very well, particularly since the character he focused on was himself, a kind of egocentricity not disguised by Mailer's use of the third person to describe his own thoughts and actions. Yet as an example of personalised reporting the book is virtually nonpareil, and quite rightly won Mailer his first Pulitzer prize.

The Siege of Miami and Chicago reported on the Republican and Democrat presidential conventions of 1968. Less intensely personal (Mailer was present as a reporter at both conventions, not as a catalyst for activism) it none the less captured the surreal mix of business as usual and apocalyptic urgency that was true of that extraordinary year – Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, there were riots in almost every American city, the Tet Offensive forced Lyndon Johnson's retirement, and Richard Nixon became America's 37th president.

Buoyed by the commercial and critical success of both books, Mailer concentrated his energies on non-fiction, though more from financial necessity than artistic preference – the burdens of by-now multiple alimony payments and child support forced him to seek out the largest publishing advances on offer – and his commercial value was now highest as a writer of non-fiction. The resulting work did little for his reputation; an account of man's landing on the moon (Of a Fire on the Moon, 1969) and another on Muhammad Ali's comeback (The Fight, 1975) were rapidly executed and showed all too well the haste of their composition. An ill-conceived move into biography was also damaging – Mailer's life of Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn, 1973) drew charges of plagiarism and concluded with a risible theory of a right-wing conspiracy to murder the actress in order to frame Bobby Kennedy, a conclusion Mailer himself later disavowed.

Yet the second-rate calibre of some of these forays did not diminish Mailer's commitment to more serious work – or to the many other outlets for his astonishing energy. Already by the age of 50, he had run twice for mayor of New York (the first effort was aborted by his knifing of his wife; the second, when he ran with the columnist Jimmy Breslin in 1969, attracted more publicity than votes), co-founded the legendary New York newspaper The Village Voice, and written and directed several films. He had also taken part in countless interviews, appeared on numerous national television talk shows (including one where he head-butted Gore Vidal) and stood his ground in endless public debates.

He was a public figure who revelled in public performance, though he was discomfited to find that his sympathies for the new radical generation of the 1960s was not always reciprocated – particularly by a new breed of feminists who found his attitudes to women beneath contempt. Most notably, Kate Millet subjected Mailer, and especially his fictional treatment of women, to withering analysis in her controversial polemic Sexual Politics. Mailer responded unconvincingly in his counter-blast The Prisoner of Sex (1971), trying to defend himself by defending Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, two other targets of Millet's attack. But though doubtless his views were sometimes misrepresented, the failure of Mailer's fiction to portray women with either insight or sympathy (and his apparent relish in describing their abuse by men) meant much of this critical mud stuck. And there was always the damning evidence of his own conduct, fortified when, in addition to Adele Morales, his fourth wife, Beverly, also claimed he had physically abused her.

Yet amidst all this high-profile chaff Mailer could still write with great narrative power, especially about intelligent aberrant individuals who fit his fancied mould of "philosophical psychopaths". This was true of The Executioner's Song (1979), which also won the Pulitzer prize. The book is arguably Mailer's third non-fiction masterpiece, an intimate biographical account of a murderer, Gary Gilmore, who was the first man to be executed after the Supreme Court countenanced a new era of judicial retribution by allowing states to inflict the death penalty. In contrast to his weaker work of the time, The Executioner's Song is a beautiful, carefully written account of an intelligent man who throws away his life by taking someone else's. If there is a weakness to the book it is a moral one – the immersion in the murderer's psychopathology struck many as too sympathetic by half; like Truman Capote, who fell half in love with one of the duo of killers he portrayed in In Cold Blood, Mailer seems to side with his own murderer-subject.

This sympathy for psychopaths extended to a near-decade's preoccupation with Lee Harvey Oswald, which resulted in a sprawling but quite powerful novel Harlot's Ghost (1991), first of a projected trilogy about the CIA that never materialised, and then a non-fiction biographical probing of the same man. This latter book, Oswald's Tale (1995), is again a tale of a misfit and loner; Mailer was not trying to prove any conspiracy theory, but wanting to inhabit Oswald's soul. As a reviewer, Thomas Powers, wrote at the time, "I feel invited to place a sympathetic arm around the killer's shoulder, and I'm not about to do it." And in real life, Mailer's attraction to " intelligent outlaws" had tragic consequences, when his admiration for the writings of another convicted killer, Jack Abbot, overcame any natural wariness about the man himself. When Abbot was released on parole (something which Mailer had supported), he promptly stabbed a young Manhattan waiter to death after an inconsequential argument.

As he passed 60, Mailer's ambitions as a novelist came back to the fore, but the results did little to rebut the growing consensus that he was at his best as a writer of lengthy reportage. His fictional subjects were diverse, but his later work is uniformly characterised by a quite extraordinary ambition that seems to have swamped any sense of craft.

Ancient Evenings (1983) is a gargantuan story set in ancient Egypt, covering dynastic change, wars, and societal upheavals over the course of a century. The fruit of more than a decade's research, the novel takes bold risks in true Mailer fashion, beginning with its account of an Egyptian "soul" awaiting burial. But its mythopoetic prose, alternating with interjections of slapstick demotic Americanese, baffled more readers than it drew in. Even Mailer's greatest supporters had trouble finishing the novel. Benjamin De Mott, the New York Times reviewer, labelled it a "disaster".

Its negative reception did not deter Mailer from equally ambitious books, and The Gospel According to the Sun (1997) arrived shrouded in controversy and a prolonged serialisation in the New York Daily News. The novel recounts a fictional gospel in Jesus's own voice, and this hubris managed to offend both America's religious right and its literary establishment. Mailer's assertion that "I do not think of myself as Jesus Christ" may have reassured the pious, but did nothing to improve the book's critical reception – in The New Republic, the critic James Wood dismissed the writer as "a very late, very bad pseudo-epigraphist".

Inevitably slowing down, Mailer published only one more novel, The Castle in the Forest in 2007. It is a fictionalised biography of the young Adolf Hitler, told in old age by an SS officer, a minion of the Devil who had been assigned to oversee young Hitler's upbringing. Both this conceit and its presumption are, typically, enormous, but the countless aphoristic asides trivialise the grandeur of the ambition at work and serve to make a chilling subject bathetic. As the novelist Lionel Shriver, reviewing it, noted, " The characters are drawn like cartoons, except that would do a disservice to cartoons."

Yet there was something moving about the unabashed way in which Mailer ignored these knocks and kept writing, though unquestionably his work had declined since its non-fiction heyday. Personally, he mellowed considerably in old age, aided by a long and happy marriage to Norris Church, a southerner of great beauty who began writing quite competently herself. Mailer had fathered eight children (and adopted one) but was especially close to his youngest, John Buffalo, a playwright, journalist and director living in New York. Until the end, he remained engaging company, and as he aged his thoughtful intelligence became even more apparent as his former habit of gratuitous provocation went away – though his pugnacity (and old-fashioned prejudice) was never fully extinguished: responding to a particularly harsh review by the New York Times chief reviewer Michiko Kakutani, he called her "a one-woman kamikaze", adding with ungracious gusto that "what put the hair up her immortal Japanese ass is beyond me".

He remained quick-witted and spontaneously articulate, and was a memorable interviewee – as a moving conversation with Andrew O'Hagan for the Paris Review just a few months ago demonstrated. He was also candid and funny about his growing infirmities; in his last years he needed two sticks to hobble around, and he declared his short-term memory dead and gone. He looked back at the extraordinary activity of his life with an acceptance that was clear-eyed rather than mawkish. He could speak with the confident certainty that he had never stopped working, had never stopped trying, had never lost the self-motivating energy that kept him famous for almost 60 years, even if it had never made him the great novelist he always longed to be.

Andrew Rosenheim

It was a great paradox of Norman Mailer's life that the great macho man of American letters lived in a town famous for its drag queens, writes Philip Hoare. Since the mid-1960s, Mailer had inhabited the only brick house in Provincetown, a former whaling port at the tip of Cape Cod and now the best-known gay resort on the east coast.

But then, for most of his life, Mailer was an exile in his own land. As long ago as the 1960s, the critic Walter Allen declared of Mailer, "There are times when it seems he has ceased to be a novelist and has set himself up to be the voice of what might be called the permanent opposition in America."

It was a prediction which became progressively more true, and which was symbolised by his choice of refuge. "In Provincetown, geography runs out, and you are surrounded by the sea," he wrote in 1967. "The Pilgrims lost interest in scrub pine, mournful winds, and sand in the land. They moved on, left ghosts. Whaling captains settled in, left ghosts. In the winter the town is filled with spirits . . ."

In his earlier, brawling days, he'd turn up in one of the town's " straight" bars and invariably end up in alcohol-fuelled fights. Latterly, he was a rarer sight, seldom leaving his house on the beach, save perhaps to attend the summer parties thrown by the film director John Waters, "the Pope of Trash" – a somewhat unlikely friendship. One gay female friend of mine, an artist working in a local restaurant, was challenged by Mailer to an arm-wrestling match. The great feminist-baiter lost.

Yet Mailer was generally a benevolent presence as one of Provincetown's presiding literary spirits, often speaking at its Fine Arts Work Center. I saw him lecture there in July 2003. As contrarian as ever, railing against the war in Iraq, he made an impassioned plea for the political acceptance of "an existential God, as opposed to a fundamentalist one". It was as if he were experiencing a spiritual revelation even as he spoke. Afterwards, he sat in the backroom, slumped in his seat. He shook my hand, gruffly; an isolated, exhausted figure, perhaps, but by no means defeated.

About 15 years ago, writes Brian Viner, I was in New York to interview Quentin Crisp (in return for all his witty aperçus he politely asked that he be bought brunch, which seemed a fair exchange). As I set off to see him I mentioned my brunch date to an American friend. "Quentin Crisp?" she said. "I think I've heard of him. Isn't he kind of an English Norman Mailer?" I duly passed this on to Crisp, who stopped eating mid-muffin. "Oh, isn't that wonderful," he rasped. "I can't imagine what Mr Mailer might say if someone called him the Quentin Crisp of Brooklyn Heights."

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