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Lennon’s introduction to the letters begins with a wondrously high note: the revelation that in 1981, at the age of fifty-seven, Mailer was planning to write his autobiography, but ultimately shied away from it on the ground, Lennon says, that it “would effectively end his career as a novelist, biographer, and chronicler of American life; a thoroughgoing autobiography would be his tombstone.” Mailer may well be best remembered as an author of essays and, above all, of a sort of literary journalism that is one of the enduring and fertile inventions of the time, but the novel was his touchstone of artistic experience and achievement, and the letters show, both in their substance and in their style, how he got sidetracked.One of the first hints comes from Lennon himself, who explains the enormity of his editorial task: Mailer, he says, wrote “at least forty-five thousand letters.” Many of them were, in effect, business letters; Mailer was nothing if not a dutiful correspondent, as well as a prudent one.He sought to cultivate his image, giving a performance at Carnegie Hall and making frequent television appearances.
Saul Bellow’s letters, for instance, yield more pure literary gold, because they seem tethered to his artistic and intellectual creation, continuous with his other writing.
If there were a concordance to Mailer’s correspondence, a word that would turn up high on the list would be “existential,” not owing to any special fealty to Jean-Paul Sartre but to Mailer’s own inclinations.
Malaquais and Mailer soon met again in the United States, and Mailer put in hard time studying “Capital,” and the result was an obsession (there’s an element of comedy to Mailer warning his sister Barbara, an aspiring writer, away from Henry Miller and pushing her toward “Marx, Engels, Trotsky, and tomes of economics”) but also a novel.
That novel, “Barbary Shore,” which received nearly unanimously hostile reviews, is a work of majestically involuted paranoia, playing like early Dostoyevsky among Brooklyn Communists; it’s a sort of high-voltage response to the day’s Mc Carthyite persecutions, but it hardly seems to touch the pavement where it’s set.
He wrote to the novelist Vance Bourjaily that “one can go after experience consciously, determinedly,” and wrote to the psychologist Robert Lindner (the author of the 1944 book “Rebel Without a Cause”) that he wanted to spend time interviewing prisoners: “Not necessarily to write a prison novel, but the feeling I have is that I’m running dry of personal experience and life experience, and that it’s time to fill the well again.” Meanwhile, Mailer had divorced and remarried, and was facing a literary crisis of having been famous and celebrated, and now suddenly seeming, in his early thirties, like a has-been.
That’s when Mailer co-founded the and started writing a column for it.In his novels, Mailer’s voice tended to drown out that of his characters.Though his novels have a hectic energy that seems to break the bounds of literary form and reach strange limbic depths, they also seem like dead ends, mere containers for those intermittent illuminations and shocks.great writers are also great talkers, but writing begins where talking ends: in silence.Norman Mailer is one of literature’s great talkers, and his voice—his speaking voice—is crucial to his work.In effect, Mailer’s letters attest not as much to his experience as to his experience of experience—his very notion of experience as something simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal, an adventuresome excursion into a world outside one’s familiar circle as well as a plunge within, toward the impenetrable core of the soul.It’s the ordinary that strikes him as inert and infertile.Since the realm of media was the realm of sex and power, he needed both to take part in events and to be a celebrity, not to melt into the event but to be it, to rival it.His ideas would, in effect, be both philosophy on the wing and the country’s most popular TV show.(Lennon says that it launched Mailer’s “20-year blizzard” of journalistic essays.) He started smoking marijuana (and worried that he was doing so to excess); he wrote the provocative essay “The White Negro,” and became something of a hip celebrity; he published “Advertisements for Myself,” an autobiographical portrait built out of the shards of his literary career.In November, 1960, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, went briefly into a mental institution, and then went on probation.