On Norman Mailer, Reflective Pioneer Of Creative Non-Fiction 1923-2007

Norman Mailer, one of the most prolific writers of the Twentieth Century who co-founded The Village Voice in 1955, died on November 10th in New York City at age 84 from complications of renal failure.

Argue-ably one of the most controversial writers of his generation, he was said to have created what is now considered “New Journalism”, which covered such literary works as the non fiction novel, to the essay.

Gore Vidal, who argued incessantly with Mailer, was quoted as saying: “of all my contemporaries, I retain the greatest affection for him as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

Highly outspoken on almost all subjects, he was often loud and occasionally incoherent in his pronouncements, especially on talk shows. Described in the New York Times’ obituary as “belonging to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.”

Nachem Malek (Hebrew) was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, January 31, 1923 to Issac Mailer, a South-African immigrant and Fanny Schneider, who came from a working class “aristocratic” Jewish family who owned a grocery story. Her father was known as the unofficial town Rabbi. His mother was the dominant family figure and wore “the pants” in the family which eventually migrated to Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

At the age of 16, Mailer entered Harvard as a freshman, eventually majoring in Literature, influenced by such novels as John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath” – perhaps the origins of his liberal leanings. Graduating in 1943, his first major work was a thousand page novel about a mental hospital, which was never published. Drafted into the army, he saw little military action and ended his military career as a cook in occupied Japan.

Rising to public attention with “The Naked and The Dead”, about a platoon fighting the Japanese on a Pacific atoll. It was universally praised and led him onto a path of notoriety. It remains his most commercially successful work. He was quoted as saying about the book, “Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since ‘War and Peace.’ On the other hand, I also thought ‘I don’t know anything about writing. I’m virtually an impostor.’”

Among some of his earlier works is Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), commercial failures, he drifted through the fifties drunk and stoned, co-founding The Village Voice with friends Edwin Fancher and Daniel Wolf. This was a time when Greenwich Village became a magnet for poets and writers of all kinds in what can only be described as a New York Greenwich version of Existentialism, writing highly controversial essays such as “The White Negro.”

Although liberal talking, his notorious feud with the feminist movement, characterized by his debate with Germaine Greer in 1971, in which he declared himself an “enemy of birth control.” He was married six times, survived by eight children and ten grandchildren. He often perplexed the public who saw a colorful character who tended to put his foot in his mouth while his huge ears flapped.

Certainly one of the Twentieth Century’s most colorful personalities, gifted with the ability to articulate his huge ego in front of the world. A writer who wasn’t shy about displaying his human flaws. What an interesting movie his life will make.