- Selected Letters of Norman Mailer ed. by J. Michael Lennon
When Mary V. Dearborn’s unauthorized biography of Norman Mailer appeared in 1999, its subject didn’t read it—in fact, had refused the author’s request for an interview. Norman Mailer did, however, read its review in the New York Times of December 19 by Caleb Crain, entitled “Stormin’ Norman: How a Nice Jewish Boy from Brooklyn Grew Up to Be a You-Know-Who.” Crain lacerated Mailer rather than Dearborn’s biography, which he said appreciated the challenge of tackling “the man and his life [as] equal” in stature. The reviewer then proceeded to enumerate Mailer’s notorious public acts and reduce his literary themes to “American male animism,” an unholy trinity first presented in The Naked and the Dead (1948) as the homosexual (General Cummings), the reformer (Lieutenant Hearn), and the psychopath (Sergeant Croft). The main point of the review (and perhaps the biography) was that following his first book, Mailer detonated his literary life, essentially turning those efforts into a life full of (quoting from the 1959 Advertisements for Myself) “the violent and the orgiastic.” In a writing career, at least up to The Executioner’s Song (1979), the man became larger and more notable than his work.
When Mailer responded to the review the next day, he didn’t bother to reject the main points of Crain’s description of him. Rather, he took offense only to three rather minor points that were evidently in Dearborn’s book—namely, that 1) he’d been a Marxist without reading Marx; 2) that he had abandoned Buzz Farber, a longtime friend who had been imprisoned for selling illegal drugs; and 3) that he had shared his Provincetown home with the notorious Roy Cohn.
“Put everything in,” Mailer told his authorized biographer J. Michael Lennon, author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life (2013) and now editor of the Selected Letters, and that’s practically what Professor Lennon did in both cases. With the letters, however, he had to choose from over 45,000, the number much higher (twenty to twenty-five million words) than that for any other American writer because in 1958 Mailer stopped typing his own letters and started dictating them to a string of literary secretaries. The letters in the edition run from 1940 when Mailer was a student at Harvard to 2007, shortly [End Page 280] before his death in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They consist of more than six decades of American life and take its subject from the success of his first novel through the disappointing critical receptions (even though several were best sellers) of the fifties and sixties, culminating in the critical success of The Armies of the Night (1968), which won both the National Book Award and Mailer’s first Pulitzer Prize. This grand experiment in non-fiction led Mailer eventually to his greatest achievement in The Executioner’s Song (1979), a work in which the Mailer ego took a back seat to the story itself and one which continued a naturalistic tradition initiated in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and continued in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Meyer Levin’s Compulsion (1956) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966).
The 714 letters in the volume are edited both inconspicuously and comprehensively, information complemented only by the editor’s definitive biography. Their addressees consist of a literary, political, and cultural Who’s Who of the twentieth century. A literary naturalist first and last, Mailer told one correspondent at the end of the last century that modernism and its stepchild postmodernism had never held vast appeal for him. “I don’t think I’ve ever for a moment thought that John Barth, no matter how nice and decent a guy he is personally, can begin to stand on the same high dais as Dreiser.” [End Page 281]