CCLaP Fridays: Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon


Selected Letters of Norman Mailer
Edited by J. Michael Lennon
Random House
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

Norman Mailer (1923 – 2007) was a titan of the Postwar literary scene. He crashed on to the landscape of American letters in 1948 with his Big Damn Book about a Big Damn War with The Naked and The Dead. Throughout his career, he wrestled with the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, exploding the Stoic Hero in 1965 with the controversial novel, An American Dream. Besides his novels, his personal reporting of events created the New Journalism of the Sixties. His pioneering non-fiction writing led to two Pulitzer Prizes. The first for The Armies of the Night, written in 1968, and the second for The Executioner’s Song, in 1979. In public appearances, Mailer was erudite, quick-witted, belligerent, pugnacious, and kind of a dick. His spats with Gore Vidal are the stuff of legend. He married six times and will be remembered for stabbing one of his wives with a pen knife. Was he a problematic public figure? You bet. Should you read his work? I would highly recommend it.

The publication of Selected Letters of Norman Mailer is a momentous occasion, not only for Mailer fans and scholars, but for those interested in the long-term development of this controversial writer. Edited by J. Michael Lennon, Mailer’s archivist and authorized biographer, culled a choice 3% from Mailer’s voluminous correspondence. Mailer was a compulsive letter writer. In this collection, we witness the budding friendships between Mailer, William Styron, and James Jones. He answers letters from aspiring writers and has prolonged arguments with his various publishers. His battle to get Rinehart and Company to include “fug” in The Naked and The Dead was a small triumph for the freedom of expression. While not the four-letter word, in 1948 the United States still wallowed in puritanism and repression when it came to arts and literature. Mailer poured his experiences of being a Marine stationed in the Philippines into creating a Big Important Novel. In addition to the letters, Lennon provides copious notes, identifies otherwise obscure historical figures, and offers ratings for all of Mailer’s published works.

While Mailer presented himself as an exemplar of Jewish-American machismo, through the letters we get a glimpse from another perspective. Like many writers, he constantly complained about money problems. He also wrote passionate letters to his several wives. We witness the birth of children and of literary works. The process of writing a novel or a make-work non-fiction piece comes with Mailer’s unending commentary. By turns acerbic, tender, bitchy, profane, and erudite, we see both private individual and public persona. He was an American public intellectual, back when we had those types. Mailer was a mainstream writer of tremendous importance. His sudden fame came at the cost of balancing the writing craft with public appearances. The question still remains about his literary worth. Will he be remembered ten, twenty, or 100 years into the future? Was he the next Herman Melville? Or was he yet another Ernest Hemingway derivative? Only time will tell. The publication of these letters can shed a light into determining his literary value for future generations.

Selected Letters of Norman Mailer captures the private personality of a larger-than-life author. It is an exploration of everything from military service, religious faith, masculinity, machismo, and Jewish identity.

Out of 10/9.0

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