Image credit: Carl van Vechten, “Norman Mailer” (1948), Library of Congress
By Jason Zweig
5:00 pm ET Oct. 23, 2013
The recent publication of J. Michael Lennon’s biography, Norman Mailer, has reminded readers just how talented — and repugnant — the late novelist was.
Mailer also had a surprisingly soft side, as I can attest.
In the spring of 1977, I was a 17-year-old boy on a farm in northern New York State who spent every spare moment writing what I ardently believed was the Great American Novel.
The novel was about a 17-year-old boy on a farm in northern New York State who spent every spare moment writing.
Convinced that I was a literary genius, I found proof of that proposition frustratingly hard to come by. So I wrote a letter describing my desperate love of writing and summarizing my masterpiece-in-the-making. I sent versions of the same letter to several of the most eminent novelists in the U.S. — among them, Saul Bellow, William Styron and Norman Mailer — begging them to read my work.
This past weekend, while helping my mother re-organize her house, I found the letter I had written; it was in the bottom of the same drawer I had put it in for safekeeping 36 years ago.
Two things amaze me today.
First was the naive effrontery of my letter, which demanded that these great writers should drop whatever they were doing to read my immortal work. (I will not quote from either my letter or my novel, which I now realize was so bad I wouldn’t swab a public restroom with it.)
Second is the fact that Mailer — of all people — took the time to answer me. None of the other novelists wrote back, and I can’t blame them a bit.
I loved Mailer’s brilliant World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, and as a 17-year-old I knew nothing about his private life.
Megalomaniac and buffoon, misogynist and thug, Mailer was married six times and nearly killed one of his wives. His behavior was often so crude and brutal that later critics have decried him as little better than a caveman with a typewriter.
But just look at the letter that Mailer wrote to me.
This man who brayed and preened and brawled and spewed intellectual garbage across the public landscape nevertheless took the time to reach out to a little kid in the middle of nowhere with a gentle, almost loving grace. As I read it today, his response tells me that no matter how complicated we think human beings are, we still underestimate them.
Could the last line of his letter possibly be any better?
Could he have been more of a gentleman? Could anyone?
Source: WSJ.com, Speakeasy blog