It’s hard to imagine another city that could have contained Norman Mailer. In 1961, already world-famous for his 1948 World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, he moved into his Brooklyn Heights townhouse, which allowed him a sea-captain’s view of Lower Manhattan. He spent the rest of his life in this city and at his home in Provincetown, Mass.—it seems only the roiling Atlantic surf could offer him a measure of untamed inspiration equal to that of New York.
Like a true New Yorker, he went to work every morning. Up until shortly before his death at age 84 last week in Manhattan, he was using walking canes to climb the stairs to his writing studio. From his first novel at age 25 up to the 500-page novel he published in January of this year, the books kept coming, earning him two Pulitzers, a National Book Award and the awe of his peers.
The group he stirred up most were writers. There was simply no getting around Mailer—he built a stage of raw talent and cheeky buffoonery and then dared them to share it with him. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell wrote in a 1962 letter to Alfred Kazin, in Mailer’s work he always found ”a real mind and real energy that leaves me envious…”
Mailer’s scrappy intrusions into politics—he helped start The Village Voice in 1955; he ran for mayor of New York in 1969, on a platform arguing that the city should secede from Albany and become the 51st state; he was president of the liberal PEN American Center in the 1980’s, when he enraged members by inviting Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schulz, to speak at an event—were more than mere stunts; they were brilliant, anger-fueled thumbs in the eye of conventional thinking. (Indeed, 40 years later, the notion of the city seceding from the state has not lost a certain allure: After all, the city is currently flourishing while upstate is floundering and calling out for more public funds, most of which are paid for by taxes collected here in the city.)
Those coming to Mailer’s words—especially those he wrote about himself—inevitably think of Hemingway. But unlike Hemingway, Mailer never let the rage in his work and life extinguish his ebullient curiosity about what comes next. He aged gracefully, by all accounts a doting father to his eight children and a good husband.
Mailer’s complaint about Hemingway was that he never confronted the fact that “it is not enough to feel like a man, one must try to think like a man.” Hemingway, Mailer wrote, “has always been afraid to think” and as a result, “his words excite no thought in the best of my rebel generation. He’s no longer any help to us, he’s left us marooned in the nervous boredom of a world which finally he didn’t try hard enough to change.”
From his beginnings as a voluble Jewish kid from Long Branch, N.J., to his world fame and accolades and agonies, Norman Mailer was never afraid to think new thoughts. We will miss him.