Born January 31, 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, Norman Mailer was an American literary figure best known for his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Executioner’s Song. He was also an anti-war activist and a _s_ocialist who credited Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for helping him to become a better writer.
Mailer was raised in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a South Africa-born accountant, and his mother managed a housekeeping service. Mailer enrolled at Harvard University in 1939 to study engineering, but soon found himself drawn to writing and journalism. At 18 he published his first story, for which he won a college literary contest.
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1943, Mailer was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Philippines during World War II. His experiences there inspired him to write his first major novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948).
Many of Mailer’s most famous works, including Why Are We in Vietnam? and Armies of the Night, concerned his connection to the 1960s anti-war movement. He won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Armies of the Night, which recounts his experiences at the Washington peace rallies of 1968 and his subsequent time in jail.
In 1968 Mailer ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City as an Independent. He also began his social activism at this time, joining some 448 writers and editors in publishing a full-page New York Post ad announcing their intention to withhold their income-tax payments as a means of protesting the Vietnam War.
In 1980 Mailer was working on The Executioner’s Song, a novel based on the execution (by the state of Utah) of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. While Mailer was busy with that project, another convicted killer, Jack Henry Abbott, contacted him, seeking help in publishing an account of his prison experiences. Mailer befriended Abbott and arranged to have his prison letters published as a memoir titled In the Belly of the Beast. Mailer also pleaded on Abbott’s behalf before the latter’s parole board and helped to win his release from prison in 1981. Six weeks after his release, Abbott stabbed and killed a Manhattan waiter.
Mailer himself was not a total stranger to violence. At a party in 1954, he had repeatedly stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a pair of scissors. For this, he spent 17 days in a psychiatric ward and received a probationary sentence.
Mailer’s friendship with Abbott would not be the last time in his life that he publicly supported a convicted murderer. In 1995 Mailer was a signatory to a New York Times ad voicing support for cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther. Other celebrity leftists who signed the letter included Noam Chomsky, Roger Ebert, Mike Farrell, Danny Glover, bell Hooks, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Charles Rangel, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West.
Mailer also lionized the former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as “the greatest hero of the [20th] century.”
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mailer described the fallen Twin Towers as having resembled “two huge buck teeth,” and he characterized the ruins at Ground Zero as “more beautiful than the buildings were.” “Everything wrong with America led to the point where the country built that tower of Babel [the World Trade Center], which consequently had to be destroyed,” he said in October 2001.
“What Americans refuse to recognize,” Mailer said in another post-9/11 interview, “is that large parts of the world, particularly the most backward nations, see us as cultural oppressors and aesthetic oppressors… Until America realizes the damage it is doing by insisting that that way of life, the huge profit-making way of life, is not necessarily a good fit for most countries, we are going to be in trouble.”
In an interview with Reuters, Mailer said, “America has an almost obscene infatuation with itself. Has there ever been a big powerful country that is as patriotic as America? And patriotic in the tiniest way, with so much flag waving?” He went on to say, “The right wing benefited so much from September 11 that, if I were still a conspiratorialist, I would believe they’d done it.”
In 2003 Mailer penned an article in The New York Review of Books, titled “The White Man Unburdened.” In that piece, Mailer wrote that the Bush administration had rushed to war in Iraq for a number of reasons, one of which was the administration’s desire to assuage the psychic pain that white males allegedly were feeling as a result of the recent social and economic gains made by women and nonwhite minorities:
“The key question remains—why did we go to war [in Iraq]? It is not yet answered…. The administration … was concerned only with how best to expedite the war…. We had to sell the war on false pretenses…. Any major excuse would do—nuclear threat, terrorist nests, weapons of mass destruction—we could always make the final claim that we were liberating the Iraqis….
“And there were other factors for using our military skills, minor but significant: these reasons return us to the ongoing malaise of the white American male. He had been taking a daily drubbing over the last thirty years. For better or worse, the women’s movement has had its breakthrough successes and the old, easy white male ego has withered in the glare. Even the consolation of rooting for his team on TV had been skewed. For many, there was now measurably less reward in watching sports than there used to be, a clear and declarable loss. The great white stars of yesteryear were for the most part gone, gone in football, in basketball, in boxing, and half gone in baseball. Black genius now prevailed in all these sports (and the Hispanics were coming up fast; even the Asians were beginning to make their mark)….
“Bush knew that a big victory in an easy war would work for the good white American male. If blacks and Hispanics were representative of their share of the population in the enlisted ranks, still they were not a majority, and the faces of the officer corps (as seen on the tube) suggested that the percentage of white men increased as one rose in rank to field and general officers….”
In 2004 Mailer lent his voice to the documentary film Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire, which maintains that “a radical fringe of the Republican Party has used the trauma of the 9/11 terror attacks to advance a pre-existing agenda to radically transform American foreign policy…” Other notable leftists who contributed to the film included Noam Chomsky, Cindy Sheehan, and Howard Zinn. The film was a project of the National Priorities Project, a social justice organization critical of the U.S. government’s military expenditures.
Over the course of his long career as a writer, Mailer penned more than 40 books as well as numerous essays and columns that appeared in such publications as The Village Voice and Dissent Magazine. Among his more notable books were The Presidential Papers (1963); An American Dream (1965); Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968); Of a Fire on the Moon (1971); The Prisoner of Sex (1971); Harlot’s Ghost (1991); The Gospel According to the Son (1997); and On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007).
Throughout his adult life, Mailer struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. He was married six times and had eight biological children as well as one adopted child.
Between 1980 and 2007, Mailer made occasional campaign contributions to political candidates, all of them Democrats. The recipients included Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Neil Abercrombie. In 2004 Mailer also donated money to MoveOn.org.
Mailer died of acute renal failure on November 10, 2007, at the age of 84.