Today in Literary History – January 31, 1923 – Norman Mailer is born

Norman Mailer, the pugnacious American novelist, essayist and activist was born in New York on January 31, 1923. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he was a good student in school. He was enrolled in Harvard University at the age of 16, earning a degree in aeronautical engineering.

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Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948 and was an immediate success. It was number one on the New York Times Bestseller List and spent 62 weeks on the list. It was based on his experiences in World War II as a paratrooper in The Philippines.

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With Truman Capote

He wrote eleven more novels (some more successful than others) and was highly acclaimed for his essays and journalism. He was part of the generation of American writers, like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson (often known as practitioners of the “New Journalism” or in its longer forms the “nonfiction novel”) who blended fact and fiction and made themselves the centre of the story.

Mailer made no bones about loving the public limelight. (He even titled one collection of essays Advertisements for Myself.) He was ready to be interviewed about any subject or happy debate any opponent in any venue.

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With Muhammad Ali

In these appearances Mailer was often drunk or under the influence of various illegal drugs, and this seems to have freed him from whatever inhibitions he might have had. He was often violent (as in his famous headbutting of Gore Vidal in 1971) or at least ready to threaten violence.

He was married six times, and famously stabbed his second wife twice during a drunken party in 1960, nearly killing her.

Mailer was an embodiment of the old Hemingwayesque version of hyper-aggressive masculinity and a stout opponent of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the day. (Mailer even portrayed Hemingway on stage in a dramatic reading of his letters, telling The Washington Post “It’s as close as I’ll ever get to Hemingway.”)

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By the end of his life — he died in 2007 at the age of 84 — Mailer had become a bit of a caricature. Much of his work is out of fashion today, I think because it is overshadowed by his troublesome personality and bellicose persona.

 

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