As one of the towering figures in American letters during the 20th Century, there were few topics that Norman Mailer didn't write about during his prolific career. Born in 1924, Mailer is credited with the birth and evolution of 'New Journalism,' a term used for narrative nonfiction in America. The author's first bestselling novel was 1948's 'The Naked and the Dead,' which made him a literary celebrity at a very young age. During the next several decades, Mailer would go on to publish 39 books (including 11 novels); and numerous plays, poems, magazine articles, and even screenplays. A staunch supporter of the radio and TV talk show circuit, he may have been interviewed more times than any writer in history. For his literary efforts, Mailer won most of the major literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize twice, the National Book Award once, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2005. Two years after receiving that last prize, the author passed away.
An ambitious and competitive student, Mailer precociously won admission to Harvard College at age 16. His tuition was paid by his rich uncle, a chocolate manufacturer who had invented the chocolate-covered cherry. As an undergraduate, Mailer initially wanted to become an aeronautical engineer, but he took the majority of his electives as writing courses, causing him to reconsider the trajectory of his life. In fact, Mailer published his first story, "The Greatest Thing in the World," at the age of 18, winning Story magazine's student fiction contest in 1941. He was also a member of Harvard’s Signet Society, a student organization for creative thinkers. Besides that, Mailer was a robust hobbyist athlete, choosing to spend his free time boxing and playing dormitory football. In 1943, he received his Bachelor of Science, with honors, in engineering.
During his lifetime, Mailer remained attached to his Harvard roots, and was especially known for returning for class reunions. In 1994, his alma mater added to Mailer's trophy case when it granted him a Signet Society Medal for Achievement in the Arts, an award that since 1937 has recognized former members of the Harvard Signet Society who have excelled in arts and letters careers. Mailer also served on the Board of Trustees and was frequently asked to give lectures on literary topics. In 1976, Mailer filled Sanders Theatre with his lecture entitled "From Poetry to Espionage." In his opening remarks, Mailer mentioned his infamous 1974 visit to Harvard, when he appeared at South House with a bottle of liquor. "It is my favorite theory that we are built upon not one personality but two." The same could be said for Mailer’s legendary literary legacy, which was first built upon Harvard’s campus, and then the rest of the world.