Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Norman Mailer, who co-founded The Village Voice 52 years ago, and who, as a writer, was best known for his walloping roundhouses, arrogant, despairing egocentrism, and tough-guy panache—as well as for having penned some of the most powerful prose of the 20th century—died early Saturday. He was 84.

His kidneys failed in the early morning, less than a month after he underwent surgery to remove scar tissue from his lungs, his family said.

When Mailer founded the Voice in 1955 with his friends Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher, he had already published three novels, including The Naked and the Dead, a Tolstoy-esque debut novel set during World War II, which sold 200,000 copies in its first three months and instantly brought him a near-universal critical renown.

But it was at the Voice, in the handful of cultural and political articles he contributed in 1956, that Mailer first began to develop the outrageously sober-minded and superciliously self-effacing voice that would define his subsequent writing and make him one of the great stylists ­ and journalists ­ of his generation.

Having just finished his third novel, The Deer Park, a fictionalized account of Elia Kazan's run-ins with the McCarthy Congressional witch-hunts—and an utter flop, it turned out—Mailer put up $10,000 to launch the new weekly. He also came up with the name, The Village Voice. Though Mailer wanted the paper to be "outrageous" and "give a little speed to that moral and sexual revolution which is yet to come upon us," his partners, he said, were more interested in making it a successful, established venture.

Struggling to find his role at the fledgling paper, Mailer began his column four months later. "I will become an habitual assassin-and-lover columnist who will have something superficial or vicious or inaccurate to say about many of the things under the sun, and who knows but what some of the night," he closed his first effort.

He described his time as an assassin-and-lover columnist for the Voice as being filled with marijuana, sexual conquests, and the bohemian counter-culture in Greenwich Village. "Drawing upon hash, lush, Harlem, Spanish wife, Marxist culture, three novels, victory, disaster, and draw, the General looked over his terrain and found it a fair one, the Village a seed-ground for the opinions of America, a crossroads between the small town and the mass media," he later reflected in the introduction of his Village Voice columns in Advertisements for Myself. Four months later, however, he quit the paper—­a move he attributed to typographical errors in his column.

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born January 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J., the son of Isaac Barnett and Fanny Schneider. By the time Mailer was 9, they had moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Mailer entered Harvard University in the fall of 1939, intending to major in aeronautical engineering. But taken with the novels of James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos, he devoted himself to a literary career.

After graduating in 1943, Mailer married Bea Silverman in January, 1944, the first of what would be six marriages. In the spring, he was drafted and sent to the Philippines. Though he saw little combat, and spent most of his time in the Army as a cook in occupied Japan, one of his few combat patrols became the material for his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948.

One reviewer remarked that Mailer's first novel was virtually a Kinsey Report on the sexual behavior of the GI. His next two novels, too, explored themes of sexual repression and release—­themes that would recur throughout his novels and non-fiction.

During his debauchery in the 1950s, when hash, lush, and sexual conquests defined his Greenwich Village life, he wrote one of his most notorious essays, "The White Negro", published by Dissent in 1957. He argued that in the face of totalitarian violence and democratic conformity, the isolated courage of isolated people—epitomized by the black jazz musician—created a more authentic life with more authentic orgasms.

It also suggested that violence could be an existential act of courage: "the element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmarish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence for it sees every man and woman as moving individually through each moment of life forward into growth or backward into death."

In 1960, after an evening of heavy drinking and of pot smoking, Mailer returned to his flat on Perry Street and stabbed his "Spanish wife," Adele Morales, in the chest with a dirty pen-knife he had found on the street. Though she almost died, she refused to press charges.

Though Mailer saw himself primarily as a novelist, his status as one of the great American writers of the 20th century lies in his work as a journalist. He won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book award for The Armies of the Night, his non-fiction novel chronicling his observations of the 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon. Writing in the 3rd person, but referring to himself as "Mailer," the sole protagonist of the novel, he makes himself into a figure representative of his time.

In 1979, Mailer again won the Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner's Song, another non-fiction novel about Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer executed by the state of Utah in 1976. For the first time, Mailer affected a detached 3rd-person voice that Joan Didion called "ambitious to the point of vertigo."

Throughout his career, along with his obsession with sexuality, Mailer was preoccupied with the deadening, life-sapping effects of technology. This disdain extended even to the use of a key-and-lever typewriter, which he refused to use, and birth-control. (He fathered nine children with his six wives.)

But his great obsession, perhaps, was manhood, and the problem of being an authentic man in a culture and an era that saps his strength. He wrote about boxers, started his own drunken brawls, and reveled in defiant womanizing.

And yet, within his defiant bravado, his monomaniacal egocentrism, and raging counter-cultural prose, there is the despair and longing of a disillusioned idealist. "Defeat has left my nature divided, my sense of timing is eccentric, and I contain within myself the bitter exhaustions of an old man, and the cocky arguments of a bright boy," he wrote in 1961. "So I am everything but my proper age of thirty-six, and anger has brought me to the edge of the brutal."

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