Selected Letters of Norman Mailer edited by J. Michael Lennon
As I get older I can see that the prominent novelists of the second half of the twentieth century were like minor father figures to me. Updike, first of all, Bellow and Vonnegut, Roth and Styron, all were men of my father’s generation, roughly. When I was younger I wanted to know what they knew about life. Norman Mailer (1923-2007) was the greatest, I suppose, though not to me. Certainly he wanted to be the greatest of his generation. He crossed boundaries between fiction and non-fiction and barged in without being invited. He was a brawler, meaning that he felt slighted and unappreciated, and that he went around with a chip on his shoulder. He had famous televised debates with William Buckley and Gore Vidal and others. He was a fast-talking New Jersey/Brooklyn kid with big liberal ideas about the world. He had great appetites and did not like censorship or restrictions on human experience. In an interview with Buckley he said that the best world is one in which the criminals are very good criminals and the cops are very good cops. Life should be brilliant, extreme, unlimited. He took in life and wrote more than 40 books. No one else has ever won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and one for nonfiction.
Like his literary father, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer liked boxing. His book about the lead-up to the Foreman-Ali fight in 1974 has never been out of print. There were so many story lines around this fight, two African American men–citizens of a nation always and still struggling over race and religion, one a convert to Islam who had been disciplined for refusing to serve in the military, the other menacing and formidable–fighting in Africa. Mailer dug into the whole event and of course put himself in the center of it all. I read the book many years after its publication. For me it served to unite good writing and sports, an interest of mine now past.
Mailer comments on poetry throughout his letters but there wasn’t much poetry in him. There are hints in his letters that he regrets this. Late in his life–in his eighties–he submitted poems to Poetry magazine. The editor rejected them. I admire Mailer for the courage it took to submit the poems (few people ever accused Mailer of being a coward), and I admire the editors for their honesty in rejecting them. In a response to the rejection, Mailer wrote, graciously:
Just a line to thank you for your classy rejection letter which, I have to admit, made perfect sense to me…I find that old age has its own kind of maturity. I read the last issue of Poetry (which arrived after your rejection letter) with as much pleasure as any of the earlier ones… p. 707
On matters of faith, Mailer saw a battle between God and Satan:
I believe God exists. I believe He is good and that He is powerful…He’s opposed by Satan. I believe that war lies at the core of all our human psychology as well. I don’t pray because the central metaphor I have for God is that he is a worthy, heroic, and tired general and the last thing he needs is a few more complaints from his troops, which, of course, is what I believe we are…. p. 717
I noted the affection and kindness in these letters. There is courtesy that comes through in letters that does not come across in direct encounter. Mailer is respectful to his fellow writers, sensitive and thoughtful in the things he writes to strangers and acquaintances, making me nostalgic for a letter-writing world. He even extends an olive branch to Gore Vidal (p. 586). A great writer, at least great within his generation, who wanted also to be a man of action, Norman Mailer appears as a good and decent, and uninhibited, man in his letters.