Norman Mailer: Death of a titan

“The history of American literature in the 20th and early 21st century would be both
depleted and inaccurate, minus the inclusion of the work of Norman Mailer.”

- Toni Morrison

Norman Mailer one of the last surviving 20th-century literary lions is dead.

Yet the oft-times controversial and combative Mailer was far from a relic of a bygone era. Up until his death last week at age 84 he was still writing and publishing.

Earlier this year the prolific writer’s novel The Castle in the Forest, about the devil and Adolph Hitler, appeared to mixed reviews. A final nonfiction work, On God, A Conversation, arrived in bookstores last month.

Still, Mailer admitted that today’s generation is more interested in other media and technology than the elusive Great American Novel that both seduced and eluded his peers. That was more than evident at last year’s Norman Mailer Takes on America at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, an exhibit culled from more than two tons of books, manuscripts, letters, films, artifacts, and memorabilia that the writer sold to the HRC for $2.5 million. Assessing Mailer’s place in the literary canon may prove to be a more daunting task.

For starters, he is difficult to categorize. He wrote fiction, essays, nonfiction, history, plays, biographies, new journalism, and made films. His writing career began in Texas, not his native New Jersey. Fresh out of Harvard, he was drafted into the Army in 1942, serving with the 112th Cavalry out of San Antonio as an enlisted man.

Few connect Mailer with the World War II Greatest Generation. Yet his military service formed the nexus of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, published after the war in 1948 — along with James Jones’ From Here to Eternity the
alpha and omega of the WWII experience of GIs.

Mailer was the first actual famous writer that I ever met — and whom I later secretly hoped to emulate. As a medical corpsman in the Air Force stationed in Austin, I went to his “lecture” at UT in 1962, where he was promoting his book of essays, Advertisements for Myself.

He asked about my background while signing my paperback copy of The Naked and the Dead. When I mentioned San Antonio, he lit up.

“Any relation to Julio Martinez?”

An early chapter of Dead, focuses on
Julio Martinez, a Mexican American soldier from San Antonio. The real Martinez became Mailer’s buddy and was later fictionalized as a character in the novel. Amazingly, Dead records a Mexican American experience in wartime in a major piece of American lit. (Ken Burns take note.) When Martinez performs above and beyond the call of duty on the battlefield, Mailer with his own Jewish background identifies with the Tejano conscript:

“Martinez made sergeant. Little Mexican boys also breathe the American fables. If they cannot be aviators or financiers or officers they can still be heroes. No need to stumble over pebbles and search the Texas sky. Any man jack can be a hero. Only that doesn’t make you white Protestant, firm, and aloof.”

The novel’s success catapulted Mailer to the top of the postwar literary heap. However, it was not without controversy. His use of four-letter expletives, while accurate in soldier speak, was deemed unacceptable by his publisher. The result? The word “fug” entered our literary vocabulary.

Two lackluster and critically panned novels followed. Instead of being stymied, Mailer stopped writing fiction and turned to other forms. It led him to envision what became this country’s alternative press (even before the term existed) when he co-founded the altweekly Village Voice in 1955.

But his very public persona soon overtook Mailer’s ambition and sense of destiny. In 1960, he stabbed then-wife Adele Morales at a party, an incident often revisited in feminist critiques of his work. During his and fellow journalist Jimmy Breslin’s Quixotic 1969 run for mayor and council, a campaign button ironically was used to his opponent’s advantage: “I sleep better at night knowing that Norman Mailer is in the Mayor’s Office.”

It wasn’t until the mid-’60s that Mailer reemerged in the public eye. His involvement in the protests against the Vietnam War led to his masterful nonfiction The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History, which still resonates as one of the most powerful and groundbreaking books of our time. It earned him both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

He again struck literary paydirt in 1972 with The Executioners Song, about Utah murderer Gary Gilmore. It is regarded today as a more accurate rendering of the criminal code than Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Mailer’s take on Gilmore and the American penal system earned him a second Pulitzer.

But there were missteps. Mailer came to regret his pronouncement that Eldridge Cleaver (“Soul on Ice”) was the only candidate he would vote for for President in 1972. His well-intentioned but misguided essays “White Negro” and “Homosexual Outlaw” also came under fire. While meant to curry favor with blacks and gays, brother in arms and fellow writer James Baldwin denounced them as “slumming.”

Mailer championed prison felon John Henry Abbott, whose letters from prison to the famous writer became the bestselling In the Belly of the Beast. However, soon after his release from prison, Abbott killed an innocent waiter. “The bomb of Abbott has me reeling,” wrote a devastated Mailer, who had spearheaded Abbott’s release.

In Prisoner of Sex, his polemic, alpha-male response to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Mailer the six-time married writer and father of nine children again courted controversy with his macho posturing. The back-and-forth volley led to a showdown at New York City’s Town Hall, where feminists Diana Trilling, Germaine Greer, and Jill Johnston took on Mailer. Legendary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hegedus (The War Room) later documented the event in Town Bloody Hall.

Mailer’s own attempts at filmmaking (Beyond the Law and Wild 90) emerged out of the 1960s underground film movement: real time as reel time with little editing.

Pennebaker later told a Mailer biographer: “Norman was not trying to learn; he thought you just had to point the camera and not do any editing. He was amazed how it didn’t work for him as it did for Warhol.” (Mailer’s Hollywood moment came in 1987 when he adapted and directed the screen version of his noir novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance.)

In 2005, the octogenarian author was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “Novelists are rarely heroic,” he told his fellow writers and authors on accepting the award. “Nonetheless, the best do look to honor the profound demands of their profession by offering insights with which good readers can enrich themselves on the meaning of their lives.”

In that regard, Mailer’s legacy speaks for itself: He fought for his country, for the right to dissent, battled for minority rights, celebrated his victories, and accepted his defeats. He was a true chronicler of our times in both his fiction and nonfiction. He fought a clean and honorable fight.

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