Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Wire services reports say that Norman Mailer has died. He was 84. The cause was renal failure. Since 1948, when Mr. Mailer wrote "The Naked and the Dead," he has been one of the most and often the most controversial famous writers in American life, admired for his virtuosity of style and his range of interest, often criticized for being overbearing, chauvinistic and a bully. He won all the literary prized save for the Nobel, was married six times, and was jailed for attacking one wife. He invented new literary forums and wrote almost until his final breath.

NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY: Norman Mailer has been called one of the greatest writers of his generation and vilified as an egotistical buffoon who never lived up to the potential he showed in "The Naked and the Dead." His second novel "Barbary Shore" was panned by critics. Several publishers rejected his third novel "Deer Park" and, eventually, it met with mixed reviews. That was a pattern that would continue throughout his career. But as Mailer told Terry Gross in a 1991 interview on WHYY's "Fresh Air" he never let his critics get the best of him.

Mr. NORMAN MAILER: (Novelist): I'm the only major writer in America who has had more bad reviews than good reviews in the course of his writing life, so that gives me a certain pride in, you know, I feel and, well, you know, they keep taking their shot - their best shot and they can't do any God damn thing; they're not going to stop me.

NEARY: Mailer always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, but his private life often got as much attention as his writing. Married six times, he was once jailed briefly for stabbing his second wife. A political activist during the Vietnam War era, he also ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York in 1969. His feuds with fellow writers like William Styron, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal were infamous.

Biographer Mary Dearborn says Mailer was one of the first, true celebrity writers.

Ms. MARY DEARBORN (Biographer): This is somebody who aggressively sought out fame. He understood the politics of celebrities serve, really, before any other literary figure did. The one person comparable really is Hemingway who also had celebrity thrust upon him and then came to embrace it.

NEARY: Mailer always thought of himself as a novelist, but he also made his mark as an essayist and journalist. One of the cofounders of The Village Voice in New York, Mailer helped invent a new form: creative non-fiction, applying the narrative style of the novel to real events.

He used his own political activism as a source for his books "The Armies of the Night" about the 1967 march on Washington and "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" about the 1968 political conventions. Both books were well received, and "The Armies of the Night" won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Mailer won his second Pulitzer Prize for "The Executioner's Song" which he described as a true life novel about Gary Gilmore, the first man to be executed in the U.S. after the reinstatement of the death penalty.

Philip Sipiora, editor of the Mailer Review, says, ultimately, Mailer is best understood as a cultural commentator.

Mr. PHILIP SIPIORA (Editor, Mailer Review): He's always been at the center of a number of cultural storms and issues. He engaged the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. He's been a prolific sports commentator. He has also been a critic of contemporary fiction forms. So in that sense, he has been very influential in a cultural way.

NEARY: Conflict seemed to be at the core of Mailer's life and his work. Whether writing about war, murder or boxing, he was fascinated by the idea of violence. But if critics sometimes found his fascination excessive, Mailer never apologized for pursuing life with a vengeance. Everything, he told interviewer Terry Gross, was fodder for his writing.

Mr. MAILER: You know, if you're just bookish, there's a tendency to get terribly bitter about people who are physical. And my feeling always, from the beginning, was, if I want to be a novelist, I've got to be a novelist who can encompass all kinds of experience. My ambition was always don't, you know, don't ever narrow down the horizons of what you want to write about.

NEARY: Mailer, says Philip Sipiora, loved nothing more than a good fight.

Mr. SIPIORA: It's just in his nature, I think.

NEARY: And, says Sipiora, that fighting spirit never left Mailer. In the end, he was as tough and competitive as ever.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: