What happened
Author Norman Mailer, who died over the weekend of kidney failure at 84, has been called one of America’s first true celebrity authors. Despite two Pulitzer Prizes and stacks of powerful novels, non-fiction works, and essays, critics disagreed even after his death about whether Mailer will be more remembered for his talent, his notorious bluster, or his sometimes controversial personal life.

What the commentators said
Mailer spent his life pursuing the “great American novel,” said David Wiegand in the San Francisco Chronicle. “The notion seemed to haunt him.” He certainly left behind some books that helped define his time, although he cranked out more than his share of flops. “The ‘big book’ remained his version of Gatsby's green light, something always beyond his reach on a far shore.” It may be that “the man himself” was “Mailer's best creation—the great American author.”

Actually, Mailer made contributions to every topic he touched, said Bart Barnes in The Washington Post (free registration). He “wrote compellingly about sex and violence, conflict and politics, and love and war as the tempests of his personal life complemented the turbulence of his prose.” He won two Pulitzer Prizes—for The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song—and, though critics were hot and cold on much of his work, “Orville Prescott of the New York Times praised The Naked and the Dead as ‘the most impressive novel about the second World War that I have ever read.’”

“Mailer was nothing if not ambitious, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (free registration). His first book, The Naked and the Dead, won him “enormous celebrity at the age of 25,” and he took plenty of stabs at topping it. But “it was nonfiction, not fiction, that would prove his most lasting contribution.” His The Armies of the Night—a “noisy, self-dramatizing” first-hand account of the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon—“became a founding document of what Tom Wolfe would call ‘the new journalism.’”