The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer
Edited by J. Michael Lennon. Random House, 867 pp, hardcover
I’ve yet to see a selected or collected emails of some famous writer, but of course that day can’t be far off. Until then, collections of authors’ snail mail continue to appear.
Recent examples include Selected Letters of the establishment poet Anthony Hecht, Letters of the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, and the similarly titled Letters of Kurt Vonnegut. That’s quite a range.
For sheer rambunctiousness and fecundity, however, few can match Norman Mailer’s Selected Letters, as chosen by his latest biographer from an astonishing 45,000 pieces of correspondence.
The book follows the Harvard-educated wartime Marine veteran through four wives and nearly seven decades and about 40 books—novels such as The Naked and the Dead, reportage such as The Armies of the Night, plays such as The Deer Park, and of course studies of Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the prominent murderer Gary Gilmore, to name three examples of his New Journalism, a genre that he helped to make popular. Not to mention his failed adventures as a film director and political candidate.
The letters, which take him to within three months of his death in 2007, are remarkably consistent. His combative vigour is unmistakable whether he’s schmoozing with his literary contemporaries (William Styron, James Jones, John Cheever) or sucking up to celebrities even more famous than himself (Marlon Brando, Jackie Kennedy, Henry Kissinger).
In the ’60s and ’70s his list of new correspondents (Allen Ginsberg, Martin Luther King, and Eldridge Cleaver pop up) highlights his growing radical sympathies. By the 1990s he is trying to finagle an interview with Fidel Castro for Vanity Fair and giving Hillary Clinton unsolicited and no doubt unwanted political advice. Until his last years, when he settles in to feuding with the New York Times, his energy is so unflagging as to leave the reader feeling enervated—just plain tuckered out.
A collection as big as this one is bound to have a few surprises. In 1977, Mailer writes about “a fellow named Bob Rowbotham up in Canada who’s been a marijuana dealer for years and got caught by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police” on what Mailer calls a frame-up and was sentenced to 14 years. Mailer “went up to Canada a couple of times and got to like Bob who’s an engaging fellow and as puckish as Robin Hood (to which fact I testified in the Canadian courts), and for a while we all thought he’d get off”. This gossipy letter begins with the salutation “Dear John and Yoko.”