Mailer was notorious for tussling with critics. Backstage at "The Dick Cavett Show" in the early 1970s, he head-butted Gore Vidal, who had written that Mailer's violent streak put him in the same league as mass murderer Charles Manson. (After the head-butting, Vidal quipped, "Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.")
Another time, Mailer knocked heads with columnist Jimmy Breslin, who joked that the impact probably cost the wild man of American literature two chapters of his next book.
Mailer's tough-guy approach also was reflected in a proposal offered during his quixotic 1969 run for New York mayor (with Breslin as his running mate) to ease urban tensions with armored jousts in Central Park. His unpredictable behavior prevented Mailer from being "filed away in any known literary category," critic Morris Dickstein said in 2006.
Vidal once observed that Mailer was a public writer who "wants to influence those who are alive at this time, but they will not notice him even when he is good. So each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells."
Mailer explained himself this way: "I shared with [Ernest Hemingway] the notion, arrived at slowly in my case, that even if one dulled one's talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than a very good writer, that probably I could not become a very good writer unless I learned first how to keep my nerve."
His early years
Mailer's abundance of nerve could be traced to beginnings in Long Branch, N.J., where the son of Jewish immigrants was born Jan. 31, 1923. "He was our king," his mother, Fanny Schneider Mailer, told biographer Peter Manso.
He was an exceptional student at P.S. 161 in Brooklyn, where his family moved when he was 4; at graduation, the principal announced that Norman had an IQ of 165, a school record. He entered Harvard University at 16 and earned a degree in engineering in 1943.
The young Mailer stuck with engineering even though as a freshman he discovered a love of modern American literature -- John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell. He revered Hemingway for his virility as much as for his literary style. In his sophomore year Mailer began to write Hemingway-esque short stories for the Harvard Advocate. One of those stories, "The Greatest Thing in the World," won Story magazine's college competition in 1941.
The following year Mailer spent the summer working at a mental hospital, accruing material that inspired his first novel, "A Transit to Narcissus." Written in a style that Mailer later described as "heavily tortured," it was rejected by more than 20 publishers, but the budding author was unshaken. When World War II commenced, he regarded it as an opportunity to be mined. While other young men contemplated which branch of the military to join, "I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific," Mailer wrote, "and the longer I thought, the less doubt there was in my mind. Europe was the place."
The Army, however, had other plans. Mailer was drafted and sent to the Pacific as the Philippines campaign was winding up. Initially assigned to intelligence in the 112th Armored Cavalry Regiment from San Antonio (where he absorbed the Texas drawl he often would affect in later years), he won a transfer to front-line duty as a rifleman but saw little combat. He served with the U.S. occupation army in Japan as a cook, was demoted for insubordination and left the military as a private.
When he returned home in 1946, he gathered the letters he had written to his wife of two years, Beatrice Silverman, a Boston University music major, and used them as notes for his war novel.
Set on a fictional Pacific island held by the Japanese during the war, "The Naked and the Dead" explored the theme that would run through much of his later work: the clash between a willful individual and established authority. The language was shocking for the 1940s, full of "fugs" and "fugging," the closest approximation of an obscenity his publisher would allow.
The book, written in 15 months in an unsentimental yet conventional style, was hailed by critics as a supremely accomplished debut, with Orville Prescott of the New York Times calling it "the most impressive novel about the Second World War that I have ever read." It remained on the New York Times' bestseller list for a year, holding the No. 1 spot for 11 straight weeks, and turned the 25-year-old first-time author into a sensation. Nearly 60 years later, it is still considered one of the best American war novels and Mailer's finest effort as a novelist.
His next novel, "Barbary Shore" (1951), was an agonized exploration of Cold War ideologies as seen through the characters of a liberal war veteran, an FBI agent and a former Soviet party official. It was savagely panned.