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, 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 …

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