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On This Day in History, January 27: ‘Nice Jewish Boy from Brooklyn’

Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, N.J., on Jan. 31, 1923. When he was 4 years old his parents moved to the Eastern Parkway section of Brooklyn. He attended P.S. 161 and graduated from Boys High School in 1939. He became seriously interested in writing as a 16-year-old freshman engineering major at Harvard University, where he completed his studies in 1943.

During World War II Mailer served as a rifleman in Leyte and Japan, which served as the basis for his first published novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), a naturalistic work often called by critics the finest novel of that war. Many books followed, including Barbary Shore (’51), which was begun in Hollywood, where Mailer put in a brief, unhappy stint as a script writer, and finished in rural retreat in Putney, Vt.

In 1951, Mailer left his first wife and moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan, where he helped to found the weekly newspaper Village Voice. For two years he wrote columns for the Voice.

Mailer went on to write approximately 40 books. The last, The Castle in the Forest, was released soon before his death in 2007. Though perhaps most celebrated for his novels [His two Pulitzers are for Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1979)], Mailer also wrote non-fiction, plays, essays, screenplays and poetry. His prolific pen was matched by an active political and social life.

In June 1968, Mailer ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic mayoral primary election in New York City on a secessionist ticket proposing that the city be made the 51st state and that each of its neighborhoods be given city-like autonomy.

In 1997, Mailer’s novel The Gospel According to the Son was published. He had no qualms about tackling the most towering figure in Western culture — Jesus of Nazareth — and most audaciously wrote a version of the Gospel that he relates in the first person. Mailer said: “I did first person instinctively. I felt it was right. In the third person, I couldn’t enter His head. It would limit me to writing reverentially or satirically, and there are enough reverence and satire books about Jesus already.” If this writing got him into hot water, and he expected both love and hate reactions to his “Gospel,” Mailer was always ready for a good fight.

Speaking of fights, Mailer took up one of his passions — boxing — when he was about 50. He said, “I was never a pro, nothing more than a mediocre amateur.” But he could go a few rounds.

 He wrote Of a Fire on the Moon (’71), about the first moon landing; The Prisoner of Sex (’71), a refutation of militant feminist philosophy; and Marilyn (’73), a biography of Marilyn Monroe, in which he described Monroe as “Every man’s love affair with America.”

In most of his works Mailer expresses bitterness toward society and a strong liberal philosophy. He also wrote, directed and appeared in three experimental films: Wild 90, Beyond the Law (both ’68) and Maidstone (’71).

Mailer had a house in Brooklyn Heights overlooking the East River. When it comes to Brooklyn, Mailer noted that it was the only “practical place I think of as home.” He also had a home in Provincetown, Mass., from which he took strolls, having to use one, sometimes two, canes to get around due to his arthritis.

Probably the best capsule biography and personality portrait of Mailer was written — in the third person — by the author himself in Armies of the Night: “[The] warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives [ultimately he married six times and had eight children], amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter … had … a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable — the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.”

Mailer died on Nov. 10, 2007.

January 31, 2012 - 10:14am


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