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Norman Mailer  

Novelist, biographer, proponent of "new journalism," and political activist, Norman Mailer was an important force in American literature and culture
Last Updated: Jan 3, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Norman Mailer ( 1923-2007)


Fighting on Leyte, World War II


Brief Biography

Born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1923, Norman Mailer grew up in Brooklyn in a Jewish neighborhood.   He was proud of his Brooklyn roots and lived there for a number of years (with a comfortable summer home in Provincetown, which he made into his final, fulltime home, while retaining his apartment in Brooklyn).  His parents were immigrants, his mother from Lithuania and his father from South Africa. Mailer's sister, Barbara, was born in 1927.  Their mother doted on her children, especially Norman who was always her favorite.  Norman was a very good student in school, so much so that he entered Harvard University in 1939 when he was 16.  He majored in engineering but by the time of his second year, he spent most of his time reading literature and writing.   In 1941, while still an undergraduate, he won a magazine prize for the best short story writtten by an underclassman.   When he graduated from Harvard in 1943, he was  intent on a literary career.  He expected to be drafted into the Army.  That occured in the spring of 1944.  He was sent to the Philippines.  He briefly fought as a member of a rifle unit and was sent on patrol on the island of Leyte but he spent most of his time in the Army as a cook.  He disliked the Army's rigid social structure and overbearing officers but was honorably discharged in 1946.  Mailer spent almost two years writing his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead"  It was about a platoon fighting the Japanese on a Pacific atoll.   The book was highly praised- it remains his greatest success.  The hugh number of sales made him, if not wealthy, somewhat financially secure to continue writing full time.   His numerous children and wives, however, caused  financial strain at times.  His last wife, Norris Church Mailer, worked diligently to provide a stable homelife for Mailer and his children.    His second and third novels were not as well received which disturbed him greatly, but he kept writing.

Mailer went through a unsettled phase during the 1950's. He was often drunk or  stoned on marijuana. Despite this, he and two other friends founded "The Village Voice."  He viewed himself as "hip" and in 1957 wrote a famous essay entitled "The White Negro."   In 1960, much to his later embarrassment and dismay, he stabbed his second wife with a penknife during a drunken argument.  He was arrested but his wife refused to press charges.  He spent a few days under observation in Bellevue Hospital.   Not surprisingly, his second marriage ended in divorce a few years later.  All told, Mailer was married six times and had nine children.  While he may have been a difficult husband, he was a "traditional father" in the sense of earning money to care for his children  ( and paying alimony).  His written work was often done under duress-to earn money for the care of his children.  Articles written about the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions resulted in his book "Miami and the Siege of Chicago."  Articles in other periodicals resulted in his prize winning book "The Armies of the Night:  History as a Novel, the Novel as History."  This book was widely praised for the quality of its writing and for Mailer's gift of observation.  A tireless worker, he published a novel about ancient Egypt entitled "Ancient Evenings" in 1983.  "The Executioner's Song," an example of "new journalism," was about the execution of Gary Gilmore, a murderer who requested to be executed.  Mailer wrote the book with the help of Lawrence Schiller.  Mailer called the book "a true-life novel."  The book was highly praised, as was "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery."

During the 1990's Mailer's health slowly began to fail.  He became hard of hearing and suffered from angina.  Arthritis imparied his ability to walk and he had to use two canes.  He also mellowed a bit and could be seen at formal dinners.  He gave interviews and speeches about current events and about writing.  His poor health did not stop him from writing.  He published books about Picasso and Jesus.  His well received book about Marilyn Monroe was published in 1973.  In 2003 he published"The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing."    In his 80's, he wrote "Why Are We at War" and "On God" - an interview discussing the nature of God.  All told, he published over thirty five books and numerous essays.  Some of his many interviews can be found on Youtube.     Mailer was  unique--a force all his own, a man who was unfaithful to his many wives, an egomaniac ( as he described himself), both thoughtful and bombastic.  He died on November 19, 2007 of acute renal failure, working almost to the end-aided by his last wife, to whom he apologized  near the end of his life for being unfaithful and at times unkind to her.   He was eighty four years old at the time of his death.   His wife, Norris, twenty six years younger than he, died of a rare cancer in 2010 after a very brave ten year battle with the disease.  They are buried together in the Provincetown Cemetery.


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