Norman Mailer: ‘Deer Park’ Letters

Estate of Diane Arbus
Norman Mailer, Brooklyn, 1963; photograph by Diane Arbus

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.…

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