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Norman Mailer: Letters to Jack Abbott

We publish here the third of three selections from the letters of Norman Mailer, with notes provided by Michael Lennon. This group of letters spans three decades; the first four touch on Mailer’s relationship to Jewish writers or to his own Jewishness. We’ve included two letters to Jack Abbott, with whom Mailer conducted a long correspondence while Abbott was in a Utah state prison. All the letters by Norman Mailer published in this and preceding issues of The New York Review are in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

—The Editors

To Alfred Kazin1

May 26, 1959

Dear Alfred,

I want to thank you for your good paragraph on The Time of Her Time,2 especially since your letter made it clear that your defense of it is more a matter of professional duty than outright pleasure.

I loved your letter,3 which is a strong way to put it except that it gave me a pleasure it obviously did not give you: I had the feeling, well now we know what to talk to each other about, and I’m glad you laid it out so frankly. I got my laugh out of “the Rabbi of screwing, the Talmudist of fucking,” because more than once in the last year when I’ve been having an argument with some of my hip friends I have said to them something on the general order of, “Hush now, the Rabbi is speaking.” And of course the coldness and grimness you talk about in my work is probably the single most unattractive feature of what I manage to do, but shit, Alfred, you know as well as I do that one does not write away from such a large part of one’s temperament. One tries to write through it and maybe eventually out of it.

There is also the little matter of the real temper of the time. Even if I were capable of writing about sex with the warmth of Lawrence, there would still be the more abstract matter of whether one should. I am more or less obsessed with the idea that sex is close to dying in a new ice-age of the psyche, and I think the only way to change one’s readers and warm them—for yes, I am guilty of a messianic lust—is to make them set up camp on the ice for a while.

In a way this beggars my intent. Most of our good novels have been written about people who start with youth, some heat, and much innocence, and in this new book4 I would like to do the opposite, to begin with characters who are monsters of self-consciousness and try for the more difficult and perhaps impossible trip into a terrain where emotion becomes real again. Whether I can bring it off is of course another matter. But on the limited ground of “The Time of Her Time” I still wonder if you don’t tend to make Sergius a little too much of a direct spokesman for me—after all, I’m not over six feet, blonde, goy, and more anti-semitic than not.

There’s so much to talk about that I’d like to remind you of your suggestion last Christmas season that we have lunch. I’m usually not too alert in the middle of the day so if you’d rather, maybe you and Ann would like to come over for dinner some night, or we could go out, you and me, and have a few drinks downtown or uptown. Suppose I call you in a few days.


To Arnold Kemp5

April 26, 1965

Dear Arnold,

Just a comment on Herzog.6 What I meant when I said Bellow has no ideas7 was not that there were no ideas in Herzog to be pondered, but rather that these ideas were not Bellow’s own theses, but rather ideas he had picked up in his reading. His mind is very intelligent, very cultured, very cultivated. He’s read a million books and remembered them, but he is not an original thinker. It’s not that I’m that sure about anything, it’s that I go with the animal part of my brain when I’m encountering an idea I have not met before, and none of the ideas in Herzog were in that sense the least bit fresh. Just a thought, but I did want to send it on to you.

Best for now,

To Jack Abbott8

April 18, 1979

Dear Jack,

Well, I finished the book.9 It came in December to 1,969 pages of double-spaced manuscript, and I wasn’t that happy with a lot of the style so I went through it to make it as tight as I could and came out with 1,681 pages. How good it is I don’t know, but I think it’s fairly good at the worst, and very flat in style, for which I worked. Very noncommittal on the surface, for which I also worked. There’s something in Gilmore’s story that got to me. I felt that it might provide a datum for Americans, something that ideally millions of them could end up reading, and give them something in common to discuss and argue about. How you’ll react to it I can’t begin to imagine but I can promise you I’m curious as hell. I’m also going to put your name in the acknowledgements.10

The way it worked out, I have very little about Gilmore’s 12 years in jail head on. The book covers the nine months and the nine days from the time he leaves Marion on April 9 of ‘76 until he’s executed on January 17, 1977. And in that stretch, there are numerous echoes of his prison experience, and part of my understanding of that experience has come from your letters, and I think you’ll feel the echoes of some of the things you wrote to me in Gilmore. But I believed that he would share your sentiments. Since in his own way he’s a profoundly religious man with an unshakeable conviction of karma, he is also about as different from you as any two good convicts can be, and he’s considerably softer than you and gives much more parley to what you would consider the enemy.

Nonetheless, I do not think I could have come to understand him without the letters you’ve written to me…. As you know, I thought at one time, months ago, of putting some of your letters directly into the book, even incorporating some of your experience into Gilmore. But I came to the conclusion that I wanted nothing imaginary in Gilmore’s makeup. In other words, nothing I could not be certain he had felt would I put into his mouth or his experience. I go back to this idea I had that the book must be a datum, that if it was to exist as some piece of true evidence, true existence, it had to be more real than any book of its sort ever put together before. You will see when you read it. There’s no attempt to decorate, to amplify, to underline, to develop, to exaggerate, even to take the natural profit, that profit might a novelist always take. It is a terribly sober document, and twice sober because the elements of the story are so exceptional and painful and funny and occasionally noble, and occasionally sordid. I confess I’m impatient for you to read it and get your reactions, even though that’ll be many months.

In the meantime, we’ll correspond. That is, I think we’ll correspond. There’s an ideological gulf between us so profound that I do not know how long we can talk to one another as intellectuals. You see, I was a Marxist for a number of years, not as good or thorough, nor certainly so devoted a Marxist as yourself, although my friend [Jean] Malaquais is more than your match when it comes to Marxist culture, and I was his disciple for a period, and eventually turned away from his thought because I found it—and this word will infuriate you—unendurably arid. And in your thought I find his, except you underline what he could never quite bring himself to admit, which is that the logic leads to violence and violence, indeed, is the only outcome of the logic.

Now, I am not one of those people who say, “Oh, horrors! We’re talking of violence.” I know some violence is one of the fundamental emotions in all human behavior, one of the ineradicable ones, like sex and a passion for justice. But violence in the grip of an intellectual system is always frightening to me because I feel its logical outcome can be found in the acts of Julian nihilists in Paris in the early ‘60s and late ‘50s,11 who placed plastic bombs in mailboxes, and the mailboxes would blow up two hours later and kill anyone who was at the street corner, including, quite conceivably, the wife or children of one of their friends, since how the hell are you going to know who’s going to be in that area at that time?

Now, you can say in reply that the violence of which you speak is altogether different, and purposeful, and to a logical point, and I can only say to you in reply that my experience tells me that any intellectual system which is founded complacently upon the idea that violence is a special weapon available to it has to end in some aspect of that nihilism that believes that the destruction of systems is the brunt of future existence. And I have bogged down myself in what I consider the far greater horror of having to live with the world as it is, precisely what you would call, weak, intellectual bourgeoisie self-indulgence. Jewish, doubtless, since I am Jewish. And you would sneer at it.

And I would say to you that what I found most disturbing in all your thought is that what you like, you adopt and adapt immediately to your intellectual system. You need drugs in order to alleviate the soul-killing monotony of prison, so drugs are part of your system. But if I take drugs, then I’m just a weak fucking bourgeois intellectual, and soft. You speak of Cuba as having to suckle the dugs of the world in order to stay alive and I agree. But you do not take the next step and say that an animal which exists on wolf milk is likely to take on the qualities of the wolf. You give Cuba, in effect, more charity than you allow to those of us bourgeois intellectuals who struggle against the system even while living within it.

You ascribe virtues to China, or is it to Viet Nam that you do not allow the other. How is it that I know without even discussing it, that on the war between China and Viet Nam that took place, one or the other is obligatorily all right and the other all wrong? I wonder which one you would pick, in fact, I am curious, Jack. But what I do know is that you will not admit that one gang of geniuses, fools, fuckups, good soldiers, and corrupt ones, is facing another precise such gang, and that the angels and the demons are at war with the devils and the saints.

  1. 1

    Kazin’s first book, On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American literature between 1890 and 1940, established him as a leading literary critic. His three memoirs— A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and New York Jew (1978)—are documents of the Jewish immigrant experience and the postwar intellectual scene in New York.

  2. 2

    A short story of Mailer’s from his 1959 book Advertisements for Myself, it is about a sexual encounter between a swaggering young man, Sergius O’Shaughnessy, and a Jewish girl, Denise Gondelman, who has never reached orgasm. Sergius succeeds in bringing Denise to orgasm at the conclusion of the story. In the spring of 1959, Putnam’s, Mailer’s publisher, was considering the story for inclusion in his forthcoming collection Advertisements for Myself. Mailer wrote to fourteen literary critics and scholars (Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler, Richard Chase, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and others) asking for their opinion on the story, which Putnam’s publisher, Walter Minton, thought might be considered obscene and cause the book to be banned. Thirteen of the fourteen endorsed it for publication. Mailer’s Harvard professor Robert Gorham Davis declined to do so. The story was ultimately included in Advertisements for Myself, published on November 6, 1959.

  3. 3

    Kazin wrote to Mailer on May 21, 1959, in response to his request for an endorsement of “The Time of Her Time.” Kazin said he would “be glad to supply Putnam’s with a statement of its literary seriousness and power,” and found the story to be “quite wonderful,” although he said Mailer managed “to make sex joyless and even as grim as a surgical operation.” He continued, “But your characters make love with a stop-watch in hand. For this I should make love?” He added: “You are a deeply gifted writer, in some ways the most naturally talented novelist I know; but really, Norman, you take your own obsessions too seriously.”

  4. 4

    Mailer refers here to a long novel that he never finished. Mailer called it “a descendant of Moby-Dick ” and said it could be a thousand pages in length. At the conclusion of Advertisements for Myself, he predicted that “the book will be fired to its fuse by the rumor that once I pointed to the farthest fence and said that within ten years I would try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters.” “The Time of Her Time,” “Advertisements for Myself on the Way Out” (both appearing in Advertisements for Myself ), and a later short story, “The Last Night,” were to be part of this huge novel, in which some of the characters would be recycled (with slight name changes) from The Deer Park (1955). Mailer struggled with the “big novel,” as he called it, for over a decade before abandoning it. He wrote An American Dream (1965) in order to make enough money to be able to complete the “big novel.”

  5. 5

    A friend Mailer met in November 1960 when they were both being held in Bellevue Hospital in New York. Mailer was sent there for observation that month after stabbing his wife Adele with a penknife. Kemp (b. 1938), who grew up in Harlem, served a long prison term for armed robbery and later earned a graduate degree in English at Harvard and became a college professor. Mailer wrote to him when he was in prison and later gave a blurb to his 1972 novel, Eat of Me! I Am the Savior.

  6. 6

    The sixth novel of Saul Bellow (1915–2005), published in 1964, is notable for its extended passages of intellectual discussion, much of it in letters written by its eponym, Moses Herzog.

  7. 7

    Speaking at a March 10, 1965, press conference held in connection with the announcement of the winners of the National Book Award, Mailer said that Bellow “has no new ideas. He is like a dull college professor who has read too many books and has failed to grasp the essence of any of them. I have great admiration for Herzog as a book but I don’t think it’s intellectual.” He went on to say, “There is something Russian about Herzog in its depth of feeling. There are plenty of faults, but my heart was literally burning as I read.”

  8. 8

    Jack Henry Abbott (1944–2002) was a convict with whom Mailer began corresponding in 1977, while he was writing The Executioner’s Song. Abbott wrote eloquently about his perceptions of life in prison; these letters were collected and published, with Mailer’s help, in 1981 in a book entitled In the Belly of the Beast ; excerpts from the letters were published in The New York Review the previous year. Mailer supported Abbott’s bid for parole, which was granted in 1981; Abbott committed a murder six weeks later and was sent back to prison. He killed himself in 2002.

  9. 9

    Mailer is referring to The Executioner’s Song, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. It is an account of the case of Gary Gilmore, who murdered two people in Utah in 1976, and was the first person executed in the US after the reinstatement of the death penalty that year.

  10. 10

    The following appears in “An Afterword” to The Executioner’s Song : “To their assistance must be added the letters of Jack H. Abbott, a convict who has spent much of his life in Western prisons and sent me a series of exceptional letters, well worthy of being published, that delineate the code, the morals, the anguish, the philosophy, the pitfalls, the pride, and the search for inviolability in language I have not encountered in prison literature in recent years.”

  11. 11

    Algerian separatists who terrorized France during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, 1958–1969.

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