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Norman Mailer’s published his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), at the age of twenty-five. “I felt like someone who had been dropped onto Mars,” he recalled of his sudden celebrity. Later works, including the bestselling An American Dream (1965) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song (1979), secured his universal renown.
Harper’s Magazine editor Willie Morris was unable for some time to get Mailer’s work approved by management. “They were scared to death of him,” Morris said. “I think they expected some kind of naked Bolshevik.” Mailer’s first article for Harper’s Magazine was about an anti-Vietnam demonstration at the Pentagon. “Norman went to the demonstrations,” said his editor, Midge Decter, “got himself arrested, and then a day or two later he called up Harper’s and said, ‘I’d like to do a piece on it.’ ” At ninety-five pages, “The Steps of the Pentagon” (March 1968) was the longest article the magazine had ever published, and comprised the first half of The Armies of Night (1968), which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
In 1969, Mailer declined to write a piece on the moon landing, claiming that he preferred to write in the tradition of “participatory journalism.” “How can I participate in a landing on the moon?” he asked. “God damnit, I really would like to go to the moon. I’d even get in shape.” He ended up writing the article for Life, which offered him a larger sum.
Mailer’s final article for Harper’s Magazine was an analysis of the women’s liberation movement. “The Prisoner of Sex” constituted virtually the entire March 1971 issue, which sold more copies than any previous. Morris and six other editors resigned at the beginning of March due to long-simmering disagreements with management; he wrote a letter to the press contending that the “article in our current issue by Norman Mailer has deeply disturbed the magazine’s owners,” which fueled interest in the piece. So did Mailer’s feud with Gore Vidal, whose critique of “Prisoner” in The New York Review of Books compared Mailer to Henry Miller and Charles Manson. “We all know that I stabbed my wife many years ago,” Mailer said to Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show, after head-butting him. “You were playing on that.”
Mailer co-founded The Village Voice in 1955, and unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York City in 1969. In 2007, he published his last novel and died at the age of 84.
Estimated acres of forest Henry David Thoreau burned down in 1844 trying to cook fish he had caught for dinner:
The bombardier beetle, which can fire liquid at its enemies from its rear end at up to 300 squirts per second, was being scrutinized in the hope of building a better airplane engine.
London Fire Brigade investigators blamed a building fire in South London on a bird that carried a lit cigarette to its rooftop nest. “Smokers,” said neighborhood baker Richard Scroggs. “What can you say?”
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”
© 2012 Harper’s Magazine. Photograph (detail): Cobwebs © Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos