With the passing of Norman Mailer at 84, American literature has lost one of its major voices.
Mailer, who died Saturday morning at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan of renal failure, catapulted himself into the front ranks of American writers early, with his critically acclaimed and best-selling debut, the war novel "The Naked and the Dead" (1948). "The Armies of the Night" (1968), his account of the march on the Pentagon, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and he won another Pulitzer for "The Executioner's Song" (1979), his epic account of murderer Gary Gilmour.
Yet, despite these towering achievements, Mailer never quite achieved the title to which he aspired: Great American Novelist. His bids for that honor — huge novels such as "Ancient Evenings" (1983) and "Harlot's Ghost" (1991) — have great themes but lack the narrative drive, humor, and spontaneity of more modest efforts, such as "Marilyn" (1973) and "The Fight" (1975). Something in Mailer froze up when he deliberately set his sights on literary fame; his prose became elephantine and mannered.
Other writers might not have found this so difficult. After all, Mailer could have probed his family life and Jewish background. But it was precisely that persona, "the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn," that he was determined to jettison in his frantic muscle building efforts to emulate Hemingway and — even more importantly — Malraux. For Mailer had imbibed the Malraux myth of the writer as man of action, one who places himself at the center of world-shaking events.
However, in the late 1950s, despite his growing reputation as a public personality, Mailer still felt stymied by his devotion to earlier literary models. He needed a break from tradition to find his rhythm and natural register. He helped found the Village Voice in 1955. He tried short fiction, producing a few notable pieces, such as "The Man Who Studied Yoga" and "The Time of Her Time," but the short story form did not really suit his expansive sensibility. Then, out of desperation, Mailer decided to take control by interviewing himself, and making his quest to become a great writer the subject of his writing. He became his own narrator, experiencing a freedom from literary conventions that turned him, Tristram Shandy-like, into a comical yet cunning character the reader could side with. In "Advertisements for Myself" (1959), Mailer kept up a running commentary on excerpts he included from his own fiction and nonfiction, explaining its failures and touting its successes, providing alternative tables of contents that gave readers different ways of approaching his work. The book was wonderful theater.
"The Armies of the Night" led to the apotheosis of the Mailer persona: the swaggering writer swept up in the maelstrom of the march on the Pentagon, the unreliable narrator challenging the unreliability of history, the novelist once again sizing up the talent in the room (notably poet Robert Lowell), but in the guise of a participant in a newsworthy and nation-defining moment. Mailer was writing about war again, but this time he was central to the combat he described; indeed, he embodied the warring sides of the American mind. This masterpiece was the closest Mailer would come to fulfilling the ambition he had announced in "Advertisements for Myself": effecting "a revolution in the consciousness of our time."
But Mailer's inability to produce an incontestable masterpiece after "The Executioner's Song" hurt his reputation — as did continuing attacks from feminist critics. His fraught personal life, as well as his treatment of women in fiction, made certain readers dismiss him out of hand. He seemed a relic of a macho age.
It could be said that Mailer was the last Romantic. He invested figures as diverse as John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro with a magical aura akin to Thomas Carlyle's worshipful great man theory of history. Mailer liked to put on the gloves, to step in the ring with the likes of Muhammad Ali (the subject of one of Mailer's best books, "The Fight").
Critics often complained that Mailer spent entirely too much time on such public antics. They merely diverted him from writing better novels. But Mailer's life and work suggests otherwise.
In his own mind, he could not be a writer without also being so much more.
Mr. Rollyson is author of "The Lives of Norman Mailer."