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American Writer, Cultural Icon, Norman Mailer Dead at 84

  • David Hubler
  • Faith Lapidus

For nearly 60 years, Norman Mailer was one of America's most prolific and controversial authors. A colleague says Mailer died early Saturday at a hospital in New York City. He was 84.

Mailer was just 25 years old when he burst on the literary scene with his first novel, The Naked And The Dead. The World War II tale is universally recognized as one of the best war novels to emerge from that conflict. Published in 1948, it is all the more remarkable because Mailer wrote so realistically of combat, despite having seen little action during his two years as a U.S. Army rifleman in the Philippines at the end of the war.

Many critics saw flashes of Ernest Hemingway in the young Mailer's novel. A recurring theme in his writing, as in Hemingway's, was man testing his masculinity. Even as an author, Norman Mailer considered himself a battler, a fighter. He closely identified himself with boxing champions such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, just as Hemingway identified himself with hunters and bullfighters.

Mailer acknowledged that he modeled himself publicly after Hemingway, that he tried to become the all-around male symbol. But Hemingway observed that becoming a public figure clouds a writer's sharpness, and Mailer agreed.

"It's the dilemma because if you go out, you get battered in a varying degree of . . . Hemingway used to speak of it as getting dulled, that you dull the edge of your blade (lose your ability to write well). Then he used some continuing metaphor to the effect, 'Well, you take the blade and you put it on the grindstone and you keep writing.," he said.

With the publication of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer became a celebrity, and he basked in the attendant publicity. His second novel, Barbary Shore, was a critical and financial failure. Mailer had trouble finding a publisher for his third effort, The Deer Park, because it was considered too overtly sexual. Reviewers dismissed it and wondered whether mailer was a one-book author who would never again write anything as good as The Naked and The Dead. But today critics have reassessed The Deer Park, and many believe it to be Mailer's best work.

Mailer became the articulate voice of the 1960s with writing such as his novel Why Are We In Vietnam? and his eyewitness account of the 1968 presidential nominating conventions, "Miami and the Siege of Chicago." He won the prestigious National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Armies Of The Night - a personal account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon by anti-war activists. He was awarded a second Pulitzer in 1979 for The Executioner's Song, the true story of self-confessed murderer Gary Gilmore.

Always a supremely confident extrovert, Mailer at times seemed like a publicity-seeking clown. In 1968, for example, he ran for mayor of New York, campaigning to make the city a separate state. Yet even his harshest critics agreed that Mailer was brilliant, if not a genius. Raised in New York City, Mailer entered Harvard University at the unusually young age of 16. His plan was to become an engineer. But he began writing short stories, and when he won a collegiate literary prize, Norman Mailer knew that his true calling was as a writer.

In 1984, Mailer wrote his first mystery novel, Tough Guys Don't Dance. As the author readily admitted, he was again dealing with the Mailer theme of man testing himself.

"Well, I wanted to try something different with this one, which is, I always thought 'Why not have somebody as your detective who's really no braver than any of us?' because the one thing about 'tough guy' murder mysteries is we read them and the pleasure we got out of them is that we're in the hands of someone who really is macho [masculine] man, who really is in control of things. And I thought, 'What if you have a guy who is only half-macho and half-wrecked? And full of fear and spooked [tormented] and suffering from all sorts of low woes like bad memory, too much drinking?'"

In addition to his novels, creative nonfiction, short stories and essays, Mailer wrote, produced, directed and acted in several films. His first new novel in a decade was published earlier in 2007. The Castle in the Forest is a fictional chronicle of Adolf Hitler's boyhood, and explores themes of good and evil. In October, as he was recovering from surgery to remove scar tissue from around his lungs, On God: An Uncommon Conversation was released. In his final work, Norman Mailer offers his concept of the nature of God… showing that even at 84, the author's blade had not been dulled.

This audio report is voiced by Alex Villareal.