The late literary lion’s archivist shares 70 years of his missives.
Before he died at age 84, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Norman Mailer (1923-2007) penned 44 books. He also spent that time adapting plays, writing poetry, producing films, and helping to launch “New Journalism” and the Village Voice. In the course of all that activity, the Brooklyn boy–turned–Harvard man also wrote complex, caustic and sometimes-moving letters to some 4,000 individuals. Lennon (Norman Mailer: A Double Life, 2013) presents 716 of those letters, decade by decade, in their naked forms and without much introduction. The recipients represent a cavalcade of contrasting personalities ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Monica Lewinsky. Most are directed at Mailer’s family, friends and colleagues and find the World War II veteran supremely absorbed in his own ideas. Mailer aficionados will no doubt enjoy the behind-the-scenes looks at the making of seminal works like The Naked and the Dead, as well as the writer’s ongoing sparring matches with editors and critics. Back in 1958, fellow scribe William Styron received this warning: “So I tell you this, Bill-boy. 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.” The legendary man of letters seems downright tame here, possessed of a certain kind of blue-collar charm that compliments his penchant for intellectualization. But one must also then consider that Mailer later stabbed the same woman he so steadfastly defended. She survived, but the author would go on to fulfill the prediction he made early on in life about becoming a serial groom. Apparently, Mailer hated writing letters and often found the exercise tortuous, but from Lennon’s collection, it appears that he loathed being disconnected even more.
An intriguing look at a particularly influential life of letters and a treat for Mailer fans.