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Literary Giant Norman Mailer

Getty Images / Ulf Andersen

Literary Giant Norman Mailer

Author Norman Mailer, who would have celebrated his 92nd birthday Jan. 31, was a literary giant before his death and remains one long after. The acclaim began with his first novel, 1958's The Naked and the Dead, and continues today, more than seven years after his death at 84 in November 2007.

He wrote more than 30 books, with best-sellers in each of seven consecutive decades. He won a National Book Award in 1968 for The Armies of the Night, which contains fictional and nonfictional accounts of the 1967 anti-Vietnam War protests at the Pentagon. Armies also won a Pulitzer Prize, as did 1979's The Executioner's Song, a nonfiction work about the events surrounding the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore.

J. Michael Lennon was a graduate student at the University of Illinois when he met Mailer in the early 1970s. They remained friends until the end of Mailer's life. Lennon was Mailer's chosen biographer and Norman Mailer: A Double Life was published to acclaim in 2013. He also edited The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, which was released in 2014. Lennon spoke to about the author and his influence.

In 2011, you wrote an essay titled "Why Mailer Matters: Three Reasons." Could you sum up those reasons?

"Perhaps no career in American literature has been as brilliant, varied, controversial, public, productive, lengthy and misunderstood. Mailer was the key innovator in the new wave of participatory journalism that took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As chronicler of and commentator on many of the major events and figures during the last half of the 20th century, Mailer provided daring ideas and insights on everything from the space race to McCarthyism to the Cold War to Picasso, Hitler and Madonna. He was the most important public intellectual in the American literary world for over 30 years, establishing the creative writer as important a commentator as politicians, pundits and professors."

In that same essay, you called Mailer "the cultural spokesperson for a generation, probably two. … No American writer Christopher Hitchens (another left conservative) might be the closest has yet come close to replacing him." Four years later, with Hitchens dead, which writer is the closest we now have to a cultural spokesperson?

"There is none, although Don De Lillo's novels take on the same large cultural issues that Mailer wrestled with. Dave Eggers' novels do the same, and he may at some point become more of a public intellectual. Both were influenced by Mailer."

You've said that Mailer pioneered a new wave of "participatory journalism" in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That term seems to have a different meaning today. In a 2005 piece published in the Nieman Reports, television journalist Steve Safran notes that participatory journalism works well when a news organization works with its audience and has a "conversation" about the news. The final decision on what's news and what's not, however, remains in the control of the professionals. Knowing what you do about Mailer, how would he have felt about this? Would he be a fan of what some now call "citizen journalism" or "grass-roots journalism?"

"Mailer relished interactive discussion with a group, and for years was a participant in a New York City-based colloquium called 'The Theater of Ideas.' Serious debate was tonic for him, and he must have written a couple of hundred letters to the editors of various publications, taking issue on this or that. But the participatory journalism I referred to was something different (from) the 'grass-roots journalism' that you mention – although I am sure he would have endorsed this new phenomenon. Mailer believed in, and practiced, a form of journalism that took journalists out of the grandstand, put the writer on the stage of the story. He was (suspicious of) journalism that pretended to have no built-in biases or predispositions, and felt that the best journalists always reveal their views and backgrounds, opinions and experiential perspective – journalists like Joan Didion and Gore Vidal and George Orwell.

"He also felt that experts should be viewed with a bit of suspicion because their views are invariably arrayed on one or another of the several sides of deep-rooted academic or intellectual disagreement, although they don't always announce their deepest convictions. They also have difficulty transcending the jargon of their disciplines. So: He proposed that the U.S. send (Ernest) Hemingway or Saul Bellow or Edmund Wilson to Cuba to understand what was really going on there, and bring back reports on Castro's revolution free from the reigning anti-communism of that period that distorted the way people saw things.

"He felt, and in some cases proved, that the explanations of an educated observer – he favored novelists – could cast more light on an event like the Apollo 11 mission to the moon than those of journalists from a wire service who read the press releases, did some interviews, and then moved on to the next assignment. He was a digger, a ruminant. He buried himself in the technological, philosophical, political and spiritual aspects of the moon shot and wrote Of a Fire on the Moon, arguably the finest report on that incredible 1969 event.

"He encouraged Joyce Carol Oates to write about boxing, challenged many of his novelistic peers to take on major issues of the day, and from 1960 to the end of his life wrote a score of books on the major issues and events debated in the U.S. – the presidential elections, black power movement, feminism, technology, corporate hegemony, championship prize fights and so on. He won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for writing about the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of fall 1967. The book was titled The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel; the Novel as History, and it changed the optics of the media, redirected the way journalists saw and reported.

"He gave journalists the sanction to write about themselves observing events, observing the observer. If the journalists got involved in the events he or she wrote about, all the better. In sum, he pioneered a journalism of the kind practiced earlier by George Orwell: Get involved in the stories that you write about, and reveal the distortions in your own line of sight as fully as possible."

After Mailer's death, author Tom Robbins wrote an essay for the Village Voice remembering Mailer as more than a writer. He was "the feisty, irascible New Yorker who tried to carry a generation on his shoulders …," Robbins wrote. "Relentless radical, ultimate hipster, pugilist poseur, feminist scourge, outrageous rake. Think of him what you will, his like will not pass this way again." Was Mailer misunderstood during his lifetime? Is he better understood now?

"Mailer was fond of quoting Andre Gide's line: 'Please do not understand me too quickly.' He was a complex individual, and mainstream journalism prefers simple labels. Complexity is eschewed; nuances are munched liked peanuts by the media, as he once wrote.

"One of the reasons that I wrote my biography of Mailer was to show that Mailer was of two minds about almost everything, and each half of his psyche harbored a minority view within. He was always in motion, changing, growing, erring, failing and trying again. … If you look at my edition of his letters, just published, you will experience not only the bombastic, blustering Mailer of the media. You will encounter a searcher, always looking for better questions to ask about our common experience as Americans. He was also a terrific explainer of the writerly life. … It will be a long time before we fully take his measure. But there is no doubt that he deserves a seat at the same table as (Ralph Waldo) Emerson, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Will Rogers, Gore Vidal and other accomplished explainers of the American psyche."

On a more personal level, did Mailer have that aura/charisma that some politicians have, the kind that pulled you into his orbit and made you reluctant to leave? Could you share an anecdote that you feel showcases aspects of the "real" Mailer?

"There is not one that sums him up; there are a few hundred in my biography. But he did tell me not to write a hagiography. 'Show me at my worst,' he said, 'or no one will understand me at my best.'"

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."