Norman Mailer – The Great Intellectual Provocateur
Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, to a family of Isaac Mailer, an accountant, and Fanny Schneider, owner of a nursing agency – descendants of Russian immigrants.
His father was born in South Africa to a family of Lithuanian Jews, and his mother came to the US with his parents at the age of two , also from Lithuania (at that time – part of the Russian Empire)
Later they moved to Brooklyn, NYC. Norman, being a gifted boy, entered Harvard University aged only 16! He studied aeronautical engineering and graduated right before the breakout of World War II.
His attempts to avoid the draft by claiming he was working on a great novel supporting the war effort were immediately unsuccessful, and he was sent to the Philippines, where he saw some action, later using his experiences as the basis of his iconic novel The Naked and The Dead (1948)
The novel made him famous overnight. It stayed in NY Times bestseller list for 62 straight weeks, and was later voted into the list of 100 best books in English. It is also considered one of the best, if not the best, story about war, combat and the psychology of an individual soldier!
His later works were less commercially successful, but extremely well-received by critics. His The Armies of the Night, a description of an anti-Vietnam War march in Washington, where he was arrested by riot police in 1967, won him his first Pulitzer Prize. And his 1980 novel The Executioner's Song, telling about the life and the death of a murderer, brought him the second Pulitzer Prize. During his writing career, he wrote a total of 40 plus books and published 11 novellas.
Mailer was also famous for his provocative essays, the most talked about of which is the culturally, racially and politically charged The White Negro. Mailer was a pioneer of so called new (experimental) journalism, and as such no stranger to controversy, once even causing a backstage brawl with a political opponent who had trashed an essay of him, and then swearing at him while on air!
One of his experiments, a very creative re-telling of the story of a celebrity for Playboy magazine, ended in a libel lawsuit against Mailer and Playboy. Mailer lost the lawsuit and had to pay up...
Norman Mailer's personal life was as controversial as his journalism and writing. He was married six (!) times, ending all marriages with divorce and a lot of negative emotions. In the case of his second wife, he seriously wounded and nearly killed her with a pen knife and was convicted and sentenced to a suspended sentence. He also had nine children.
Mailer died on November 10, 2007, just a month after a lung surgery in New York.
"Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Dies at 84." New York Times
Christopher Beha, Does Mailer Matter? The Young Writer and the last literary celebrity Harper’s Magazine, 88.