Norman Mailer Dies at 84

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer shown at a lecture entitled ‘The 20th Century on Trial’ at the New York Public Library on June 27, 2007.

by Glynn Wilson

It is hard to believe Norman Mailer is dead.

I just met him in September on a subway ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and I had planned on writing him a long letter after studying the Harper’s magazine article that became the Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night.

The article, The Steps of the Pentagon, and the book, deals with a protest march on the Pentagon in Washington Mailer was sent to cover as a journalist for Harper’s, edited at that time by Willie Morris of Mississippi, the youngest editor in the storied magazine’s history.

While other practitioners of “New Journalism” such as George Plimpton, Truman Capote (an Alabama native), Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese (who attended the University of Alabama) were pioneering the non-fiction novel, also referred to as “creative non-fiction” or “literary journalism,” Mailer uses the occasion of the protest march and his arrest and night spent in jail to do his own version of self-portrait, taking off on the Vietnam War. But since Morris had his doubts about the use of first person in the magazine, Mailer wrote the piece in the third person, referring to himself as the protagonist.

Now anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper or a magazine knows that there are few editors who will allow a writer to use first person to place himself in the story, since that flies in the face of the economic definition of objectivity used by American news organizations. But using the third person is even more rare, although Mailer, being the combative, controversial and outspoken character that he was, not only got away with it. He won a Pulitzer Prize as a result and has been praised for it by the likes of the New York Times, which says in the lead to his feature obituary today that Mailer “loomed over American letters longer and larger than any writer of his generation.”

NYT: Norman Mailer, Outspoken Novelist, Dies at 84

The Associated Press is also leading it’s AP A wire this morning with Mailer’s obit.

AP: Norman Mailer Dead at Age 84

And you can learn more from this free online encyclopedia entry on Mailer.

Wikipedia: Norman Mailer

Here’s my story on meeting him, which I never ran before now because I was not positively sure it was him. Now that I see the AP photo of him from earlier this year, however, there’s no doubt it was him.

On A Personal Encounter With Norman Mailer

After following Jill Simpson to Washington, D.C. to be there for her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in the political prosecution of Don Siegelman, I decided to make the four hour trek to New York and spend a few days there on my extended fall trip this year.

(You can read more about that trip from the September archives.)

The plan was to run into a former protégé of mine from my time in the master’s program at the University of Alabama in the mid-1990s who lives in Brooklyn. And the plan was to meet in person with Scott Horton of Harper’s magazine blog fame and Joe Conason at The Nation Institute to further cement my relationship with them on covering big stories out of the American South.

I crossed into Manhattan after sundown on Monday, Sept. 17, and got into Brooklyn in time for some food, beer (and a special Coney Island refreshment) before crashing for the night in a basement apartment in an old Jewish neighborhood not far from where Mailer was born and raised.

The next day, I called up Scott Horton and arranged to meet him at the Union Station Oyster Bar for an appetizer and a few glasses of wine. We talked about the Siegelman case, Jill Simpson and the funny state of Alabama, and then I got back on the subway for the 30 to 40 minute ride back to Brooklyn.

As I sat in the back of a subway car and looked out the window over the East River at the Statue of Liberty off in the distance, I noticed four old men just a few seats in front of me laughing and talking and having a good time. One of them looked exactly like the photograph on this page, and I began to study his face. Could it really be Norman Mailer?

I had started up a conversation with an attractive, exotic young woman and hated to interrupt it, but I just had to know for sure if I was riding the subway with Norman Mailer. So I asked her: “Do you think that could possibly be him?”

She had no idea who I was talking about, so I got out of my seat, approached the man, and asked: “Are you Norman Mailer?”

I immediately felt a little guilty, since I hate it when I see and hear stories about tourists approaching famous people and bugging them in public. He did not answer right away, but smiled and looked at his compatriots. I looked at them too and mouthed the words: “Is this him?” The one who made the most eye contact with me glanced at Mailer to make sure he was not looking and gave me a little wink and a nod in the affirmative.

I tried to get a conversation started by telling them that I was a visiting writer from Alabama who was a big fan of Mailer and Willie Morris, thinking that might get him to open up and talk to me.

In fact, I mentioned that I had recently taken a trip to Oxford, Mississippi where David Rae Morris had a show in a gallery there with many pictures of his dad Willie Morris.

(You can read my column on that trip here: Escaping Shadows: The South as a Backdrop for Art).

Instead of engaging me, Mailer started speaking Yiddish and making a joke with his buddies, probably about my Southern accent and knowing I would not be able to understand a word they were saying. I was still not 100 percent sure it was him, sitting there holding a walking cane and a folding chair.

I just stood there holding onto the silver pole in the subway car listening to them cut up, but when their jibberish slowed down and then took a long pause, I asked the man I thought was Mailer what he did.

“What do I do?” he said with a New York accent, looking right at my face good for the first time, almost angrily.

Then, looking down at the chair he was clutching in his old, wrinkled hands, then back up at me with a smile and a remarkable twinkle in his old blue eyes, he said, “Mostly I sit.”

“Sit?” I asked, joining in the fun. “Where do you like to sit? And what do you do while you are sitting?”

“I sit down on Broadway and watch the girls walk by,” he said, cracking up his friends.

It had been a beautiful fall day for sitting outside and watching people, so it made perfect sense.

The men kept on speaking in Yiddish and joking around and I figured I had interrupted their fun enough, so I said good night and went back to my seat in the back of the car by the exotic young woman.

When I got back to Alabama, I looked up Mailer in Wikipedia and in the Harper’s magazine archives and read “The Steps of the Pentagon.” It was then that I realized what Mailer had accomplished writing about himself in the third person.

Like Truman Capote or Hunter S. Thompson, I am more comfortable writing in first person, but the style of journalism is often the same. A writer who places himself in the action of the story goes beyond mere objective journalism and is able to construct a more readable and complete narrative coverage of events. And that is what this Web site is often dedicated to doing.

Le׳hitra׳ot, Norman Mailer. You were a great American character. You will be missed.