Norman Mailer: Letters to Jack Abbott

Dominique Nabokov
Norman Mailer, 1982; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

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…

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