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Norman Mailer: ‘Deer Park’ Letters

We publish here the second of three selections from the letters of Norman Mailer, with notes provided by Michael Lennon. These letters, written while Mailer was working on his novel The Deer Park or just after he finished it, are addressed to three novelists he was close to at the time, William Styron, Vance Bourjaily, and James Jones. All the letters are in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

—The Editors

To William Styron1

February 26, 1953

Dear Bill,

You certainly deserve a fan letter. As a matter of fact I’ve been meaning to write ever since I read “Long March” about a month ago. I think it’s just terrific, how good I’m almost embarrassed to say, but as a modest estimate it’s certainly as good an eighty pages as any American has written since the war, and really I think it’s much more than that. You watch. It’s going to last and last and last. And some day people will consider it as being close to the level of something as marvelous as The Heart of Darkness, which by the way, for no reason I know, it reminded me of.

Barbara mentioned that you’re without a book at the moment. No solace I can offer, except that crap about waiting and patience which is all true, but no consolation at all.

I have only one humble criticism. I wonder if you realize how good you are. That tendency in you to invert your story and manner your prose just slightly, struck me—forgive the presumption—as coming possibly from a certain covert doubt of your strengths as a writer, and you’re too good to doubt yourself. Which I suppose is like saying, “You, neurotic—stop being neurotic!”

Anyway, I did want to write you these few things.

My best to you, Bill,

To William Styron

April 24, 1953

Dear Bill,

…I’ve come to one of those idiot decisions we all make I suppose now and again; floundering in my second draft, writing that precious first chapter over and over for what has now been a month. I’ve come to the conclusion since the results don’t warrant the work, that I’ve been p1aying games, and so starting Monday I’m going to try to blast this little old book. I’m going to write every day, and like Lot’s Wife I’m consigning myself to a pillar of salt if I dare to look back. Maybe after a hundred pages of the blitz I’ll find the book and it’ll get better and then I can go back and rewrite. It’s the way I did Naked, and the measure of my present sad state of morals is exactly that I look to the past for cues on how to handle the future. Anyway, today is letter-writing day in preparation for the big sprawl.

I got a big boot out of your letter. Not only for the compliments although I was truly pleased, but just I suppose because you felt like talking about those things with me. I think I probably agree with most of what you said, there’s really no need to tote it up item by item, although, I hope I didn’t give you the feeling that I thought you should write simple pound-pound stuff. The thing about The Long March (I still haven’t read Lie Down in Darkness2 mainly because I haven’t dared to with my own book in such sad shape—it would be too depressing) is that kind of extraordinary long narrative breath you have which really, I think, when you hit full stride and full power—do you want it at thirty or forty?—will have a certain majesty to it. As I get a little older I can accept things in other writers which I don’t have, and I think I could accept them a little faster if my own stuff would grow. I suppose this is all by way of preface to saying that we each approach our own work in very very different ways, and that when I wrote that I didn’t want to be “presumptuous” and then mentioned your “mannerisms,” I did it with no sense that I could show you what to do, but on the contrary admired the work so directly, including your full styles, that I just wanted it to be even better. This is getting to be a Mutual Admiration Society. Indeed, indeed.

At the moment what’s killing me in my work is that dilemma of point of view. I find that when I write in third person I’m so bound, so constipated, that I can’t seem to enter people’s heads—I write as if the damn thing were a play, scene, dialogue, entrance, exit, and of course it’s very wasteful. It takes forever to get to the point that way. First person is even worse. The moment I have a character in first person, I tighten up, my narrator becomes a stiff, haughty, cold young man whose relation to myself I’ve never been able to discover.

In a way I think I understand why. To write well in the third person, to be omniscient, one has to have a life-view, and if one is a serious writer, it has to be a life-view of some depth and some capacity for embracing entities, contradictory people, etc. etc. The thing which is so bad about the average third person novel is that the matter, the interpretation, is absolutely without life-view, it’s written the way everyone else sees it, and that irritating maddening business of pop, pop, pop, in and out of the minds we go, comes because there’s no mind directing it. I think that’s why writers like Maugham as they shrivel turn so naturally to the first person narrator—it’s the perfect substitute for a life-view. One’s form is given by the sole perceiver, although unhappily it’s the exact opposite of the expansive life-view of the major novelist. And it’s so binding as well. Anyway, these days, trying by an act of will (which I don’t disapprove of entirely) de me meler dans le monde [to be out in the world], I find that I actually sweat from the fear of getting loose in such a book and revealing my fundamental poverty of imagination, and so for this first month, I’ve been rushing virtually on alternate days from third person to first person and back again, disgusted in first person by the artificial barriers I set up on a book which shouldn’t have them. Do you ever suffer from this kind of thing?

Your invitation to meet you in Ravello had me drooling for a moment. But I don’t dare go right now. Maybe next winter for skiing. Will you still be there then? Once in a great while I’ll remember Europe with the kind of pang one remembers things like spring in sophomore year at college or that sort of thing. My best to you, Bill, and as you said, let’s write to each other whenever we’re in the mood. Actually, I got in the mood while writing the letter. (Hence my defense of the act of will.)


To William Styron

July 24, 1953

Dear Bill,

First of all, a belated congratulations on your marriage.3 There’ve been times in my life when I could not see how possibly one could give an honest set of good wishes for such an impossible institution, but at the moment, things with Adele being very good indeed, and this after two and a half years, I’m feeling optimistic about such matters as life, love, and the relations between men and women. In any case, do say hello from me to your wife whom I shall be delighted to meet whenever we get together again.

Adele and I have gone down to Mexico,4 and at the moment we’re staying at a weird sort of place a couple of miles out of Mexico City called the Turf Club which was built originally as a kind of country club for wealthy Mexicans, became used by them as boffing huts for their mistresses, degenerated into the beer can and fly stage, and is now being just so slightly regenerated. We live in a round little house with a balcony bedroom that is all windows, and there’s a fine view of a canyon and mountains on the other side. Since we had been traveling for six weeks without let-up, we’ve come apart slightly here, and though it’s our hope to work each of us for a couple of good hard months, I’m quite lethargic at the moment.

I wonder if you’ve ever been to Mexico, Bill? I suppose either way there’s no point describing it. I mention it only because I have the feeling that you might find it enormously stimulating. It’s a country of such violence and grandeur too, and its history is so bloody and so close to the tragic at times that I wish I found it more congenial. But I’ve something against the tropics—maybe the Philippines which I disliked the way every soldier dislikes where he is—and so I tend to see this as a place where I’ll not work and just quietly degenerate. How we wrap degeneration around ourselves.

Anyway, it’s very cheap here, and that might be of interest to you. There are towns (Vance [Bourjaily] was in one) where you can rent a pretty good house for $25 a month and under. The depressing thing to me about Mexico, with all its excitement, is of course the poverty. The Northern conscience seems to function best when the inequalities of wealth and poverty are not too glaring. Here, I find in myself two things which are new. The thought of having lots of money is appealing for the first time, and the thought of poverty is distasteful. Ignore it, isolate yourself from it. Gives a kind of insight into the Colonial British and how they could be so dreadful.

I’m at a funny place with my book. I gave up the draft I was pushing in third person, deciding finally that while objectively it might be a better book, I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to write it. And so now I’m back to my first draft which is in a curious shape. I’ve finally been able to see it, and I think all of it which is minor, (minor characters, minor themes, etc) is the best I’ve done, but the heart of the book, which I’ve finally boiled down to a key sixty pages is bad, slovenly, and what have you. So if I can write sixty new pages which are right, I’ve got a book. It’s maddening because if I can find what to do, I’ve got a novel in sixty days or so, and if I can’t, I suppose I can fritter away another year or more. It’s the old business of not knowing just what I want to say—there are so many half-formed things I feel about love and sex and the boundaries and demarcations of them, and other themes too, all very worth-while, but I don’t know where to grasp them, and I’ve got to make up a brand new sixty pages or eighty or whatever they’ll turn out to be. So as we always are before work, I’m scared stiff, especially since I can’t put it off any longer—all the reasons for not working are now gone.

  1. 1

    The author of the novels Lie Down in Darkness (1951), TheConfessions of Nat Turner (1967), Sophie’s Choice (1979), and a memoir, Darkness Visible (1990). His novella “The Long March” was published in the journal Discovery in February 1953 and as a book in 1956. Mailer and Styron fell out in 1956 and did not speak to one another for many years.

  2. 2

    Styron’s 1951 novel of Southern decadence and despair won the Rome Prize and launched his career.

  3. 3

    Styron married Rose Burgunder in Rome in May 1953; they remained married until his death in November 2006.

  4. 4

    Mailer and Adele traveled to Arkansas, Illinois, New Orleans, and Mexico from June to October 1953.

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