The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer
edited by J. Michael Lennon
Random House, 2014
Writers can write about violence, and they can also be violent themselves, but no writer made so much of violence as both a subject and an identity as Norman Mailer. His first book, The Naked and the Dead (1948), was inspired by his time in the Pacific theater of World War II. He would later recall that he entered the military specifically for its potential as novelistic material, and was disappointed by his assignment to the Pacific. “I was convinced,” he said, “that the great novel of that war would come out of Europe.” He also made reference to his experience of that war’s carnage being at a slight remove—that despite the misery, horror, and loss, the burgeoning writer couldn’t help but be pleased thinking of book he would write.
That book was a smash bestseller, catapulting the 25 year-old Mailer onto the national scene. Battle-hardened (not to mention Harvard-educated), he became an increasingly vocal and, yes, combative figure in a time when novelists were celebrities as prominent as movie stars. Perhaps vindicated by his first book’s success, he made no visible attempt to curb his appetite for confrontation and violence. He liked fights, no matter what the forum or who the participants. One of his best books is The Fight, his account of “The Rumble in the Jungle,” the 1974 heavyweight championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Once, when Gore Vidal gave him a bad review, Mailer sought him out at a party and knocked him down with a punch in the mouth. Vidal retaliated with one of his better lines: still sitting on the floor, he reportedly said, “Once again words fail Norman Mailer.”
As biting as that is (Vidal, another famously antagonistic litterateur, always was funnier than Mailer), it is not entirely accurate, as this new Selected Letters amply demonstrates. Its editor, J Michael Lennon, makes reference to just how voluminously Mailer wrote:
[Mailer] left us an extraordinary trove of letters, one of the largest in American life, and comprising as a complete a life record—in his own words—as we will ever have: at least forty-five thousand letters. […] Mailer’s outgoing correspondence contains twenty to twenty-five million words.
Keep in mind that this in addition to nearly forty books, some of which reach and exceed a thousand pages, including novels, plays, and book-length essays. These are astonishing figures, and they attest to Mailer’s apparently unceasing energy and “raging thirst,” in Lennon’s words, “for experience.”
This thirst, as one might expect, had a dark side. What these letters do more than anything is remind us of Mailer’s troubling personality: sometimes charming, sometimes appalling, and always deeply flawed. His books, despite their reflection of this character, often fare better, borne aloft by brilliant novelistic instincts for character and tone, perhaps especially in his long-form journalism. But those were often years in the making, the torrent of personal imperfections carefully channeled through art. In person, and in letters, he was less refined. Depending on what one already thinks of Mailer, the incidences of this lack of refinement can be either delightful or infuriating.
In the Fall of 1960, a period which ended in Mailer’s near-fatal stabbing of his second wife, Adele, (and began with a strikingly prescient letter to Truman Capote which opens: “I hate you for writing about murder. I thought that was my province”) there is a string of unhinged and, fortunately for Mailer, unsent letters which exhibit their author at his most bizarre and most debased.
To Jim Brosnan, a minor professional baseball player who gained fame as a sports writer:
This is to tell you that you may be a relief pitcher but your writing sure gave me relief. If this last sentence irritates you, why then Jim you’re a hitter, because you blocked your hip against a corny move, but if you relax with praise, why baby as a literary pitcher I’d ream (?) a hummer (?) [sic] halfway between your nose and your……….at compliments to yourself would have you taking the heart of a cheap strike. So, let’s hear from you, Jim. I can’t pitch worth a fuck, and you write like a dull whore with an honest streak, but if you ain’t afraid, which you is, come around when you get to the New York, and we’ll have a drink or two—you to beer and small martinis, me to………B, not Bourbon, but blended Bellows, if that’s not bragging too hard.
One of the drawbacks of this collection, and there are not too many (apart from their content), is that the letters of his correspondents are not included. This was undoubtedly done to save space and keep strict attention on Mailer himself, but seeing Brosnan’s initial letter or his response would have been helpful to determine if Mailer was, at this time, really as whacko, as lacking in self-reflection, as he seems. The evidence of the surrounding letters supports that thesis. He writes–or almost does–to Stephen Spender, attempting to castigate the poet for not acknowledging the receipt of one of Mailer’s magazine’s pieces, to John Cheever, calling him cowardly for “[keeping] the children from seeing the dead women” in “The Death of Justina,” and also pens a truly weird challenge to T.S. Eliot.
Prince Mailer the Norman of Principath to T.S. Lord King of Eliot, Impervious to Compassion, Blind by Pride, Timid as Temerity, Royal as a Royal Roach who has Earned his Place which is High. Spirit of denial and Quick Withdrawal I, hereby, as Norman, do challenge your inflexible taste by presenting the fruits of my orchard and war of my castle. Do answer. No answer is war, and one would detest that.
As with many of Mailer’s attempts at off-the-cuff, condescending humor, one understands what he means, but does not laugh, and so wonders why he said it. And perhaps he did, too. After all, he didn’t send these, but the remnants of the weirdness that pervades them makes appearances throughout the Selected Letters, which leaves one to wonder what Mailer’s principle of self-censorship was. Was he just self-aware enough to stay out of the psych ward (he stresses in his first letter post-stabbing that he was not psychotic, and that the near-murder of his wife was the result of him “getting very ugly for one time in [his] life”), or was it that overwhelming thirst for experience, which knew that if you alienate every person in your life, there won’t be too many new experiences?
The curse Mailer suffered (you might say self-inflicted) throughout his life was the overshadowing of his work by his personality, not to say his persona. A public face for a public figure is not a sin, nor is it even ill-advised, but Mailer is nowhere quite as off-putting as when he is fulfilling a professional obligation or, better yet, ensuring his own professional future. In the midst of the mad, unsent phase of Fall 1960, he managed to get a few out by post. He wrote to Murray Kempton, a well-established journalist, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., future court historian for the Kennedy administration, Allen Ginsberg (to declare William S. Burroughs a genius), attorney and congressional candidate John Saltonstall, Jr., the editors of Esquire, and, capping off the period, Jackie Kennedy. Some of these, particularly the more personal ones, show a more affable side to Mailer, but they are written in an unmistakably restrained tone.
Consider this letter, from 1985, to Saul Bellow, in which Mailer performs his duties as President of the American Chapter of PEN and welcomes Bellow to an upcoming conference:
I write this letter to tell you that I couldn’t be more delighted (and excited) that you are joining us. To promise a night in another city months away is an act of generosity only other writers can appreciate.
Would it be too harsh to say that this sounds like it came from a book-club leader with a self-published romance to his name? He goes on to apologize to Bellow for insisting that he share his evening with another writer. Though the two men were contemporaries, Bellow’s general abstention from politics (with the exceptions of To Jerusalem and Back and his participation in the late-1980’s ‘culture wars’) made him a more revered figured in the literary world—that impossible creature, a pure artist. Mailer obviously shared this reverence, which he barely is able to hide in every line of the letter.
I know that this is too harsh, and that it is too easy to be harsh when Norman Mailer is involved, given his many crimes and misdemeanors. This letter was written in what appears to be the cooling period of Mailer’s life, when the torrents turn placid in later years.
You can witness this slow transformation via the arbiter of all human wisdom, i.e., YouTube. There, you can see Mailer in ’68, going against Buckley, in ’72 against Vidal, or in Town Bloody Hall against 4 prominent feminists, always in his signature lean with his hand on his knee, talking out of the corner of his mouth in witheringly clipped tones. But by the eighties, you find Mailer chatting about his kids with Oprah, then in the nineties with Charlie Rose or Martin Amis discussing politics and literature in tones civil and thoughtful, then finally, in one of his last public appearances, at the New York Public Library, in which Mailer almost sounds like what he was a very thoughtful, very insecure man with a genuine desire to express himself properly.
This is essentially the character of this collection and, despite long, erudite meditations addressed to such figures as Diana Trilling and Lillian Hellman, which range the whole of his career, it is only in his sixties, seventies, and eighties that the man is able to produce letters which reflect the talent and strength of his published work, and even to extend unmitigated praise. To Don Delillo, then just beginning to gain national attention with 1988’s Libra, which concerns the Kennedy assassination:
Whether history will find you more wrong than right is hardly the point: what counts is that you brought life back to a place in our imagination that has been surviving all these years like scorched earth, that is, just about. It’s so rare when novel writing offers us this deep purpose and I swear, Don, I salute you for it.
This collection contains one thousand of Mailer’s forty-five thousand letters, and by the time most of them have gone by, it is a genuine relief to read passages like this one. Too much? Perhaps. But it is also, like its author and against all odds, welcome.
Jack Hanson‘s previous reviews & poetry for Open Letters can be found here.