Selected Letters of Norman Mailer
Edited by J. Michael Lennon.
Random House, 2014.
Hardcover, 867 pages, $40.

By any measure, Norman Mailer (1923–2007) is one of the most important writers of post-World War II America. Over seven decades, he produced powerful and provocative work, beginning with his debut war novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), a work inspired by U.S.A. (1937), the John Dos Passos trilogy that aimed to encompass both American history and the American character. Like Dos Passos, Mailer created an array of characters and a dramatic storyline that celebrate the diversity and expansiveness of his native land, while deploring its darker strains of racism and jingoism. With Advertisements for Myself (1959), he created an exuberant but also self-reflexive (if not always self-reflective) form of writing that presaged the confessional writing of the 1960s and introduced a new persona for the writer, who aimed to make himself the center of consciousness for his times. This intersection of the personal and political reached its apogee in The Armies of the Night (1968), Mailer’s alternately ribald and profound account of protest culture in the Vietnam era. And when that form of self-reflexive journalism became jejune, he scoured his own style and produced a stunning documentary nonfiction novel, The Executioner’s Song (1979), ostensibly an account of Gary Gilmore’s murderous criminality, but in factnothing less than an encyclopedic immersion in the values of American culture. It is a masterwork that rivals his first great achievement. Finally, in Oswald’s Tale (1995) and The Castle in the Forest (2007), Mailer continued, with undiminished vigor, to explore the roots of evil and its impact on the American psyche.

Mailer had other notable successes—especially his novels of the 1960s, An American Dream (1965) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), and one of the best books ever written about boxing, The Fight (1975)—but as he acknowledged, he never quite fulfilled his quest to write the great American novel, or any great novel. He wanted to be the American Tolstoy, but he never managed to meld his impressive analytical powers with his characters and plots. He ranked himself highly, but he never fooled himself into believing that he had realized his ambitions. When it came to the novel, he understood his shortcomings. But his efforts to excel in other arts as an actor, director, and playwright, while praiseworthy for a certain daring, also demeaned his talents. As his letters demonstrate, he had wildly delusory notions that his play The Deer Park, an adaptation of his 1955 novel of the same name, rivaled in power and significance the best work of Tennessee Williams. Similarly, he thought his 1960s off-the-cuff and chaotic movies, Beyond the Law, Wild 90, and Maidstone were significant contributions to world cinema. Even worse, he actually believed his direction in 1987 of Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984)—adapted from what surely is one of the worst novels written by a major author—was superb, and that he had found a new calling. Although he brought the movie in under budget and a day ahead of schedule, he was never given the opportunity to direct another film.

Perhaps more than any other major writer but Eugene O’Neill, Mailer produced some of the best and the worst examples of American art. His letters are frank about his own uncertainly as to where he stood in the literary pantheon. On bad days, even a brilliant novel like An American Dream could seem like dreck to him. His letters are engaging because when it came to his main occupations—writing novels or thinking about the novels he was going to write—he was utterly honest with himself. All pretense falls away when Mailer goes to work on himself. He is a superb self-critic and also a sensitive critic of his predecessors and contemporaries. It is profitable to read what Mailer has to say about Hemingway, Faulkner, and many other writers. And he is generous with writers who seek his help, offering advice when it is asked for and reading the work of others—although he often has to beg off because of his own demanding writing schedule.

Astonishingly, Mailer seems to have answered nearly every letter ever written to him. J. Michael Lennon estimates that as a result Mailer issued something like forty-five thousand letters. I say “issued” because Mailer did not write all these letters—not exactly. He dictated many of them and then made edits and additions that his secretaries typed up. Although Mailer produced many perfunctory letters (only 2 percent of the total is represented in Lennon’s volume), Mailer’s exquisite courtesy is striking. Of course he had the resources, the help that made it possible to respond, but his sense of duty, his obvious belief that every letter had to be answered, is both admirable and moving. He wrote a letter to me that is not in this collection, and I still remember avivid phrase he bestowed on me when he referred to all the books his friends had written and sent to him for his endorsement. These books were part of his “guilt impost pile,” he told me. Like his friends, I wanted him to endorse a book of mine. He never did, and I don’t know that he read my book. But that he responded at all and with such style impressed me. Consider that word “impost.” He was telling me he acknowledged a sense of obligation to me and to all his readers, friends or not. This is the mark of a gentleman, a title Mailer would not have abjured. He grew up reading about gentleman heroes and wanted to create his own, as well as to exemplify the creed of the gentleman. That he did not always live up to that creed—that indeed he could turn himself into a lout—only made the gentlemanly ideal all the more important as a standard he sought to uphold.

As one of Mailer’s biographers, I found one huge revelation in this volume. I have always wondered why he found it so difficult to write in the third person. Except for The Naked and the Dead, which Mailer could invent with all the unselfconsciousness and brio of a tyro (although he was already a published author of a few important stories), he almost always turned to the first person, a voice that was for him somehow more authentic. Why? Even in his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, he could assume omniscience only by making his narrator a devil, one of Satan’s minions. Some would say this difficulty was due to Mailer’s overwhelming narcissism and self regard; that may be part of the reason, but his letters reveal, I believe, another reason, one connected with Mailer’s wrestling with theological questions. Together with Lennon, in 2007 Mailer produced a book of conversations titled On God. Even more than those conversations, Mailer’s letters reveal a man who could not believe in an omniscient, all powerful God, but rather a man who endorsed a supreme being that was less than complete—superhuman, but nonetheless human in the sense that Mailer’s God was embattled, struggling against evil with no sure sense of victory. If even God, in Mailer’s conception of existence, could not command it all, how could Mailer, a mere mortal, pretend to do so by employing the third person? His creative powers shriveled when he tried to impersonate an all-knowing narrator. The very enterprise of creating such a voice seemed sacrilegious.

It is no wonder then that Mailer so valued the gift of the Gilmore story, with its built-in plot, with Larry Schiller’s extensive and brilliant interviews with all the characters involved in the story of a man who demanded his own execution and who believed in karma and so many of the theological propositions that fired Mailer’s own imagination. For once, God had spoken to Norman Mailer, and consequently Mailer stripped himself of all his mannerisms and became the unalloyed conduit for what the Gilmore story had to say about America. The Executioner’s Song is the one book about which Mailer never seemed to have doubts—at least not after it was completed. He began it with many doubts, as his letters show, but he emerged from writing it a reborn writer. No other story would again quite engage him in the same way—although he came close, especially in the first part of Oswald’s Tale, set in the Soviet Union. Because Mailer once again had access to the kind of documentary evidence that fuels The Executioner’s Song, Oswald’s Tale has a substantiality that towers over all of Mailer’s other work. He was as much a biographer as a novelist, as posterity will perhaps one day acknowledge.  

Carl Rollyson is the author of Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic.