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Norman Mailer: Letters on Writing

We publish here the first of three selections from the letters of Norman Mailer, with notes provided by Michael Lennon. The first letter was written to his parents when Mailer was still in the army and working on The Naked and the Dead. The second was written to his editor at Little, Brown while he was revising the book. Following these are letters to Max Gissen, the books editor at Time magazine, and Lillian Ross, of The New Yorker. All the letters are in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

—The Editors

To Fanny and I.B. Mailer

January 14, 1946

Dear Mother and Dad,

There’s still no mail come in from anyone. I know it’s nothing to do with all of you, for no one here has gotten mail. It’s just that this outfit used to get its mail from the 112th & since that’s gone home, it’s tied up for a while.

I’ve been going on walks,1 and beginning to do a little thinking on the novel. I don’t think I’ve ever told you much about it, but I plan it to be about a long reconnaissance patrol made by a platoon of men (about 30–40 soldiers). I have no real story to it as such yet, but I have my two or three main characters shaping up, and the smaller ones following, and what story I have will grow out of the men. It’s going to be a vehicle for some of the things I’ve learned in the Army about physical courage and mental courage, the enigmas of leadership, and of course, for I always get down to it in the end—some of the more obscure and frightening reaches of men’s souls. Plus a lot about this war & the men that fought in it as Americans as separate from other wars and other nations.

I’ll have the action take place on some nameless island in the Pacific, and the patrol is to find a route that a battalion could use for an attack on the rear of the Japanese positions. There’s a mountain range in the way, and the patrol does not get across although it comes close. It has a brilliant leader, a fanatic, but even he cannot carry a dozen or so sick and frightened men beyond their physical limits—there’s going to be a lot of diarrhea and jungle rot and jaundice in those men’s bowels and loins for that was what we suffered from—nor beyond their mental. These are ordinary men asked to perform an extraordinary job which was not foreseen to be so unique, and of course they fail, but I think I can set up a little epic in the process and draw a few subtle morals—the mountain will be symbolic in the sense of man’s vision, and polar with it, the fear of reaching the summit of that ambition to have the vision.

Have I made myself at all clear?

All my love, dears,
Norman

To Adeline Lubell,
Little, Brown and Co.2

49 Remsen Street, Brooklyn, NY
mid-October, 1946

Dear Adeline,

In many ways I agree with [Bernard] DeVoto’s criticism.3 Since I wrote that letter about the General [Edward Cummings] being an intellectual symbol, I’ve had a few uneasy moments. DeVoto’s point that mixing real and artificial characters between the same book covers is bad aesthetics, hits me where I’m vulnerable. I admit the general has not come to life, and I have every intention of making him real in the rewrite. DeVoto’s criticism there rang a bell for me; he put a vague personal objection into words. I don’t agree with him completely on the Lieutenant [Robert Hearn] who I think is more successful, but I admit it’s arguable.

On the profanity (here we go again) I am feeling weak and battered. If it’s that unanimous, I can see where I’ll be pruning it to the bone. I’ve insisted all along that it’s a pigment in the complete picture, and frankly I have no idea at all of how to go about a grander and nobler conception of the book which would eschew it completely. Frankly, I have to disagree here with Mr. DeVoto—I don’t think it’s at all essential to avoid profanity at all costs. I think despite all his honesty and his critical abilities which I admit freely, something like that still comes down to a question of taste. I have a hunch DeVoto would say the same things about the Studs Lonigan 4 trilogy [by James T. Farrell] which as far as I’m concerned was a very successful novel.

As for rewriting, I don’t know how the misconception started. Probably it grew out of the profanity issue. Actually, Adeline, when I started the book, it was with the attitude, that of course I would rewrite it. I’ve never changed my mind. I honestly wouldn’t be happy to see the book published without being rewritten. There are any number of things which I want to do to snap up the beginning. I know there are some dead places where I don’t do very much in a particular five or ten pages. I have every intention of reworking the book.

I know we’ll disagree on this, but I don’t see what virtues will be derived from slimming the book down. True, it’ll go faster, and probably will be more easy to sell, but in my innocence I still feel that the nature of a book determines its length, and not exterior criteria. (Stinky-pinky.) I’ve cut out a great many enrichments because of the bugaboo of length. One of the most obvious ones is the development of the characters. There are at least ten of them who could be presented in some depth and complexity if it wasn’t physically impossible. Also I could improve the whole set-up of the General part of the book by establishing some of the men on his staff instead of treating him in the vacuum I’ve given him so far. I wouldn’t be working in ignorance on this either, because I was a clerk in Intelligence, specifically, a clerk in S-2 of the 112th RCT, for quite a time before I became a rifleman. That whole business of lengthening it or shortening it is a moot business but I’m open to debate on it. The slim volume, I’d like to remind you, does not contain the apotheosis of the novel; nearly all the great ones are quite long, and to quote an author I do not particularly admire, Thomas Mann did say, “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.”5

Up to here, I’ve been on the defensive in this letter. I want to give my side an inning. I think that how good or poor the novel may be, it’s a damn sight better than a lot of novels which are being advertised right now. I don’t think it means anything to say it’s the best American novel written about the war so far, because there haven’t been any decent or even mediocre novels printed so far. I didn’t read [James] Aldridge’s last one,6 but I do remember his The Sea Eagle, if that was the name, about the Aussies on Crete, which was not a very good book, combining as it did the worst features of [Ernest] Hemingway and [Frederick] Prokosch.7

Perhaps this is a piece of complete naiveté, but I do feel that if publishers have any driving ethic other than becoming big business they have as great a moral debt to an author as an author has to them. A serious author is a rare phenomenon today, and he ought to be nurtured. No doubt I’m in for a bunch of bloody noses on that idea, but in my youth I still hold it.

As for all that talk about option-contracts,8 contracts and options, and so forth, I think I’ll know a little better what it’s all about if I have something to go on. I can’t afford to be interested in an option (I’m not talking abut an option contract) because the money is so small that it wouldn’t last at all. And while I have a little money now, I don’t have enough to finish the book. At the time I was in Boston, I was not facing my financial set-up quite so closely which, together with the other reasons I’ve given you, is why I’ve had to change my attitude on an option.

Anyway, let me hear from you Adeline. In our own dull way, we’re still pretty fond of you.

All the best,
Norman

To Max Gissen9

December 17, 1951

Dear Gissen,

I suppose one has to make a start at everything. In any case this is the first letter10 I’ve ever written to anyone associated with criticism or book reviewing. The reasons I imagine are fairly apparent to each of us.

There’s little doubt in my mind that you came off considerably better in our exchange last Thursday night, which is roughly equivalent to saying that you think better on your feet than I do. I wish I were a better speaker, for there was a point I wished to make which was more serious than mere Time -baiting.

After all, you and I do share some little common view. We are both interested primarily in fiction, we are concerned with improving taste, and we care about literary criticism. I think you will remember that a good part of your talk was concerned with precisely those things. Whether you will agree privately that your work fails to fill the prescription in certain important respects is something again.

I remember I asked you if your good relations with [ Time publisher Henry R.] Luce11 did not depend upon having no basic disagreements with him, and you answered that I had written a rotten book. Barbary Shore may be a rotten book—I belong to that small club which thinks otherwise—but I know you’re a man of sufficient intelligence to agree that your answer, while effective for the audience, did not follow the strictest rules of logic.

Also, my poor speculation about Max Lerner’s book on Marx12 never did get out of my mouth. I’m writing this letter to amuse you with it. I think something remarkable is going to occur. I have not seen the book, I know nothing about it, I presume you have not seen the book, and I have not the faintest idea of who will review it. Since the reviewer will certainly have respectable qualifications, and will be an individual with his own opinions, it would be rather remarkable if I should predict correctly.

May I put myself on record? Max Lerner will be treated as a rather pleasant dim-witted liberal who never has understood anything. Possibly the reviewer will find something sinister in the way certain liberals are perpetually attracted to the ideas of Marx. The body of the review, whether it begins or ends the piece, will say that Karl Marx had piles, that he was neurotic, that his view of the world was an ugly distortion, that his views on economy have been disproved time and again, and that the Soviet Union is not a perversion of Marxism but its logical product.

Time magazine has a very definite political viewpoint. I would hardly claim every line of every issue to be tendentious, but I would insist that virtually nothing goes into the magazine which is antithetical to its political viewpoint. I think the same may be said for the book section. Those books which do not exceed the magazine’s political limits are reviewed with considerable insight, and are criticized on the reviewer’s idea of their merits. But I did resent the notion you advanced in your talk that the publisher of Time allows you complete freedom.

Probably, he does. No doubt your own views are quite similar to Mr. Luce’s. At the cost of being doubly impudent (I’m quite aware this is the mechanical rudeness of the Left), may I wonder how long you would hold your job if your review ever praised radical books.

You can shrug this letter off by saying to yourself that I wrote a bad book, and am merely consumed with pique at the treatment given by Time . It is a way of looking at it, but I should detest myself if I were ever quite so simple. Suppose I had never written a book. The question would still be legitimate.

I am serious about criticism. The critic has a moral requirement. He may write about a book from any view whatever, but he owes it to his audience and to the book to separate the book’s ideas from his own, and to follow it with a warning that his reaction to the particular work must be seen within that context. Without such a demurrer, all integrity leaves criticism, and one is merely producing propaganda.

Norman

P.S. Since writing this, I’ve heard that Irving Howe13 is on your staff. He certainly would have the qualifications to review a book on Karl Marx. I wonder whether it will be given to him. If it should I am certain my speculation will prove ill-founded.

To Lillian Ross14

September 2, 1952

Dear Lillian,

What’s happened? Have you fallen in love. Why aren’t you back. I called up the New Yorker today to get your number since when I rang your place, the operator answered, asked what number, I said, Lexington 5-3469, she said no such number, I called the New Yorker, begged for your number, and the girl finally said BR9-8200, I said that’s the number of the New Yorker, and she said oh.

Anyway, I’m back from vacation, suntanned, fat and pretty, with a hole in my heel and piles in my bottom. The piles I got from not writing for two weeks, and the hole in my heel by trying sand-skiing on a sand dune, sitting on a plank. So I limp and qvetch and people say, what a poor gimp, so young.

You don’t deserve a letter. Just cause you can buy good post cards in Aspen, don’t think you can charm me. I know the secret of your personality. (The question which drives me frantic is What is Lillian Ross like anyway? Why don’t they ever ask that about me? I’m a mystery too.) It’s to receive and to give, and I don’t care how you protest. Don’t forget you’re not ground to purr. You don’t really think so, do you, Norrrrrman.

I read the Hemingway thing [ The Old Man and the Sea ] with a chip due mainly to Hemingway’s letter15 about it in Life . I know what it is about him I can’t stand. He is always saying in effect I am a man who happens incidentally to be a great writer. I know that all of you will be interested in my noble, strong, and beautiful attempts to exercise myself as a great man, and will be happy when I succeed except for professors, other writers, and assorted cocksuckers.

Anyway, I thought it was good and would have been better if it hadn’t been so full of shit. I thought the best thing about it was the conception of the story, but I just can’t bear his prose. It sets my teeth on edge. At least Hemingway’s prose of 1952 which has lost all of the simplicity it used to have. I think if he had written the story twenty years ago it would have been half as long and twice as good. Finally (and who will listen to me) I know that if I had gotten the idea and know as much about fishing as he did, I would have done it better, because it’s the sort of story that needs only to be written without affectation, and I never would have made the mistake of assuming that Norman Mailer as a fisherman is more interesting than the Cuban fisherman himself. I feel very nastily competitive, but it’s his own Goddamn fault. There’s a kind of strong child (like my daughter) whose will one feels always forced to combat, and the end of it is to be as childish as the child.

Anyway, let me know what you thought.

When are you coming back? I miss you.

Mickey Knox is back in town after a wild year in Europe of which he’s very proud. He does have a knack for getting in the most fantastic situations.

Am now reading Comparative Religion by Canon16 something or other. What are you reading.

Love,
Norman

—In the next issue we will publish Norman Mailer’s letters about his novel The Deer Park .

  1. 1

    Working as a cook at the US army base in Chosoi, Japan, Mailer had every other day off and planned his novel during off-duty walks. This overview of The Naked and the Dead is one of the earliest. Mailer’s letters to his parents studiously avoided all of the dangers and many of the miseries he personally faced in the army.

  2. 2

    A college friend of Mailer’s sister Barbara at Radcliffe, Adeline Lubell Naiman (b. 1927) was a junior editor at Little, Brown in 1946 when she heard about Mailer’s novel from his sister. In January 1946, even before he was discharged, she wrote to him asking to see a rough draft. In September, Mailer sent her 184 pages and she told her senior editors it would be “the finest American novel to come out of the war” (Little, Brown Trade Editorial Report, September 18, 1946, HRC).

  3. 3

    Because of the novel’s obscenity, opinion at Little, Brown was divided and in early October, an outsider, Bernard DeVoto, was asked for an opinion. His condescending six-page critique focuses heavily on the profanity of the manuscript, which he called “barely publishable” and “certain to be persecuted and suppressed in Massachusetts.” He did praise the depiction of the enlisted men, but found General Cummings and Lieutenant Hearn to be “stock—typed—made up.” Mailer improved their characterization dramatically in the final draft.

  4. 4

    Mailer read James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932–1935) in his freshman year at Harvard. “The characters were in an economic group just one notch below mine and it was thrilling to see how they lived,” he said. “They made me want to be a writer.”

  5. 5

    Mailer often quoted these lines from the opening of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924).

  6. 6

    Mailer refers here to Of Many Men (1946), which followed The Sea Eagle (1944), two of the many books of Australian writer James Aldridge (b. 1918).

  7. 7

    Prokosch was the author of a romantic-picaresque first novel, The Asiatics (1935), which follows a young man’s wanderings from Beirut to China.

  8. 8

    Little, Brown offered Mailer an option contract of $300 for The Naked and the Dead, which he rejected.

  9. 9

    Longtime (1947–1967) books editor at Time, Gissen (1909–1984) may have written the scathing review of Barbary Shore that appeared in Time following its publication in 1951.

  10. 10

    A close reader of reviews, Mailer wrote many letters to reviewers and/or their periodicals over the decades.

  11. 11

    Founding publisher of Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and other periodicals. Life attacked The Naked and the Dead in an August 16, 1948, editorial, calling the “Time Machine” episodes “just as ugly, arid, boring and uncomfortable as a jungle campaign.” In another Life editorial on April 16, 1951, The Naked and the Dead was called “insidious slime.” These attacks were the harbinger of more than fifty years of predominantly negative reviews of Mailer’s work by Luce publications.

  12. 12

    Lerner (1902–1992) was a prolific American newspaper columnist and author of several works of political theory and history. He wrote America as a Civilization (1957, 1961) and more than a score of other books. No book devoted entirely to Marx has been located.

  13. 13

    Founding editor of the leftist quarterly Dissent, Howe (1920–1993), a writer and political activist, asked Mailer in 1953 to serve on its editorial board, which he did for three decades. Mailer published several important essays in Dissent, including his most influential, “The White Negro” (1957). Howe was also a literary critic and wrote studies of Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner. Perhaps his most important work is Politics and the Novel (1957).

  14. 14

    A New Yorker writer who published a widely read profile of Ernest Hemingway in that magazine in 1950.

  15. 15

    Mailer may be referring to a letter accompanying Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea, which was published in its entirety in the September 1, 1952, issue of Life, and sold over five million copies.

  16. 16

    Mailer possibly refers to Comparative Religion (1931) by A.S. Geden.

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