“You have to be slightly innocent to be a novelist,” Martin Amis has observed. The remark comes to mind while reading The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer. Of course, innocence is not a word usually associated with Mailer, a writer often caricatured as a literary he-man and mythic brawler. Yet in his letters, Mailer’s innocence, his insistence that the world can be better than it is—along with his sometimes inflated notion of how he can make it better—emerges as essential to the work that would become his indelible contribution to America literature.
Mailer wrote more than 45,000 letters in his lifetime. His devoted biographer, J. Michael Lennon—brave man! —has read them all, and chosen 712 for the Selected Letters. The final volume comes in at over 800 pages, including Lennon’s detailed, informative notes. Lennon dedicates each section of the book to one decade, beginning in the l940s with Mailer’s letters home from Harvard and ending in the 2000s when the aging literary lion’s roar was increasingly marked by a fierce sense of irony.
Many readers will no doubt be surprised just how friendly Mailer was, how helpful he was to friends and strangers alike. He answered every reasonable letter he received. He gave advice to unknown and unpublished writers, and his letters to his peers—everyone from Henry Miller to Thomas Pynchon—seem to always end with the hope that they’ll soon get together for a drink.
Mailer, whose distaste for Richard Nixon was profound, even corresponded with jailed Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman after Mailer wrote a l976 profile of him. “I had a small touch of prison a couple of times,” Mailer writes to Ehrlichman. “Of course I never had a stretch. Anyway, if you feel like writing, or if there’s anything I can do, any books I can send you, whatever, let me know.”
Like I said, Mailer could be a friendly guy.
But that friendliness also explains the acrimoniousness of many of his feuds. When Mailer’s innocence was violated—when he felt betrayed—he could turn violent with his sentences and, in some cases, with his fists or his very hard cranium which he used to head butt Gore Vidal among others.
Mailer’s innocence arose from his fierce Jewish mother’s belief in her brilliant son. “I think I’ve come to comprehend at last why my mother never broke up with my father,” Mailer writes to a friend in l974. “It was as if it would interfere with the largest particular work of her life, which happened to be me.” Yes, Mailer was, as he readily admitted, something of a spoiled Jewish boy. Yet Fanny Mailer’s outsized confidence in her son served the budding author well, providing him with a striking sense of his own worth and destiny.
Mailer entered the Army in 1944 with the clear intention of emerging with enough material to write the great World War II novel, and his letters home were explicitly intended as notes towards a future masterpiece. “We just crouched there and waited,” Mailer writes to his first wife, Beatrice, describing a patrol that encounters a small group of Japanese soldiers. “I know I thought of nothing. Just that awareness and fear too now so that I was convinced I could not speak. The pressure against my throat seemed completely constricting. I looked at the shining short stretch of water I could see, and sweated in the sun, and was very conscious of how green and bright the land was.” You can hear Mailer’s debt to Hemingway in these letters to Beatrice which often end with the Hemingwayesque sign off, “I love thee.”
It’s also striking how many of the ideas that would obsess Mailer throughout the next six decades are already present in his young soldier’s mind.
A distrust of technology? Check: “This atom smashing business is going to herald the final victory of the machine.”
A fascination with dualities? Check again: “I suppose really the only main thing that excites my mind is paradox—there is something thrilling, dramatic, aesthetic, what have you about fundamental opposites in a basic interdependence.”
An obsession with courage? Absolutely: “Courage I would rank now in the hierarchy of art and love.”
A sense that God and the Devil are locked in a battle for men’s souls? You bet: “I never think of God as all good—I see a being who is excited by the fascinating dualities he has created and very often sits back to see how the play will come out while at other times he must be the author and director.”
Mailer’s high opinion of his literary destiny, of course, was confirmed when The Naked and the Dead received glowing reviews and remained on the bestseller list for over a year. But he was hit hard by the criticism that greeted his second novel, The Barbary Shore, and the mixed reviews of his next novel, The Deer Park.
“Writers are hungry for the fruit of the world,” he writes to a fellow novelist, “and when they don’t get it, things get tough.” Indeed they do. Mailer’s letters from the l950s are often angry and bitter. “There have been long months in this last year when I was convinced I was through as a writer,” he confides to his now ex-wife Beatrice, “and the emptiness of all other vocations, left me irritable, gloomy, and feeling quite hopeless in my distaste for myself.”
During this time, Mailer also displayed an unexpected humility in the company of his fellow literary stars. James Jones “has a sort of life-force which makes me feel like I’m back in adolescence, trading socks on the arm under a corner street lamp,” he reports after meeting Jones, whose From Here to Eternity rivaled The Naked and the Dead as the definitive novel of World War II. When Mailer reads William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, he writes, “I make the prediction that of all of us, he is the one writer of our generation who has the equipment to be a great writer, greater than Faulkner, possibly even within range of Proust … I felt like kissing him while I read the book.”
This is not to say that Mailer wasn’t capable of a fine, bitchy putdown. “He’s got such a little pretty talent,” Mailer says of Truman Capote. “One of these days he’ll fly like a butterfly right up his own asshole.”
But the letters from this period, it must be admitted, are something of a bummer when read all at once. Though there are highlights as well, including a lengthy letter to his close friend, the literary critic Diana Trilling, in which Mailer argues that style is born out of writers’ compensations for their weaknesses:
Faulkner writes his long sentences because he never really touches what he is about to say and so keeps chasing it; Hemingway writes short because he strangles in a dependent clause; Steinbeck digs into the earth because characters who hold martini glasses make him sweat; Proust spins his wrappings because a fag gets slapped if he says what he thinks.
That last phrase certainly hasn’t aged well. Nor do many of Mailer’s diatribes against ex-friends and enemies. “So I tell you this, Billy-boy,” he writes to William Styron in 1958. “You have got to learn to keep your mouth shut about my wife, for if you do not, and I hear of it again, I will invite you to a fight in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.”
But the bleakness of the Fifties—which climaxed in Mailer’s pot and booze-infested 1961 near-fatal stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales—eventually gave way to the exhilaration of the Sixties, a hugely productive time for Mailer.
And as the decades go by, it’s quite moving to follow the evolution of Mailer’s best, most generous, most gracious self. Two examples will suffice. In l988 he writes to Don DeLillo to praise his novel, Oswald:
What a terrific book. I have to tell you that I read it against the grain. I’ve got an awfully long novel going on the CIA, and of course it overlapped just enough that I kept saying, “this son of a bitch is playing my music,” but I was impressed, damned impressed, which I very rarely am … Wonderful virtuoso stuff all over the place, and, what is more, I think you’re fulfilling the task we’ve just about all forgotten, which is that we’re here to change the American obsessions— those black holes in space— into mantras that we can live with.”
And in l997, Mailer sends this to be read at a memorial for Allen Ginsberg:
How can you measure courage? … if I had been a Jewish homosexual with an insane mother, I would not have been as brave as Allen, I would not have broken through, I would not have become the greatest poet in America and have done it uphill all the way. No, Allen had the stuff out of which Paul Bunyans are made, and with it all, he cared so much about so many people that he gave life and honor to the most inconceivable contradiction of them all: he was wild; he was responsible. Of such incompatibles is compounded the mortar of his art work. May some of them prove immortal.
This is not to suggest that Mailer ever lost the intellectual toughness which was central to his work. “As for [Bill] Clinton, leave him to heaven,” Mailer writes. “His crime is not that he messed around in the White House … His real crime was to end Welfare ‘as we know it’ without ending Welfare as we don’t know it—that is, corporate Welfare. It’s a monstrosity in my mind, to save money by lecturing the poor and kissing the ass of the wealthy.”
A year before he died, Mailer took the time to write a bracingly honest critique to an unknown writer who had forwarded a copy of his unpublished novel: “…. you are much too bright for your own good and your real joy in writing is to show how brilliant you are. … These are harsh words, but you are bright enough and I would like to encourage you to take the art of novel writing more seriously than your enjoyment of yourself.”
This meticulously edited collection of letters is filled with similar insights, as well as the outrageous boasts and bitter screeds that characterized Mailer’s life.
“You know, I never had a monstrous ego,” Mailer confides to a friend in l987. “All I had in those days was a monstrous lack of ego which therefore required huge injections of actorly ego and misled people.” But really aren’t there worse qualities for a writer than a large ego? Mailer would argue, for example, that timidity does more harm to the novelist than donning a mask of extreme self-confidence.
It’s hard to imagine any American novelist today living as large, varied, and morally complex a life as Mailer’s. And among the emotions these letters may evoke in readers is nostalgia for a time when an American writer could imagine—somewhat innocently perhaps—that his words were an essential part of the national conversation.