John W. Aldridge, April 23, 1965

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NORMAN MAILER’s Letters
142 Columbia Heights
Brooklyn 1, New York
September 18, 1963

Dear Jack,[1]

I’ve held off sending you a batch of reviews, because there seemed no order to most of it. Just New York, dependably, whenever a review was done by someone who lived in New York, the review was bad. There is of course no vast mystery to this. The book was around in serial form for eight months and every literary mind in New York had an opportunity to test his message on every other literary mind, so the intellectual establishment was all bad. Philip Rahv bad, Elizabeth Hardwick in Partisan Review,[2] Stanley Edgar Hyman in The New Leader, so it will go. Only Richard Poirier in Commentary will be good, and that’s not out until June.[3] Also, grand surprise, National Review had a rave done by Joan Didion, who writes very nicely. At any rate, I’m getting together a batch of duplicates, and I’ll send them off with this letter to you. But could you send them back after you’ve glanced through them, for I think then I’ll be mailing the same set on to my daughter in Mexico. Finally, I decided to take out an ad in Partisan Review. Elizabeth Hardwick’s review was so bad that I decided to oppose it with yours. Originally I planned to use your entire review on two pages, but William Phillips[4] decided that was impossible because of the smallness of the print. And so he cut a couple of hundred words out. I just hope he did the job well. I wasn’t here at the time, I was in Alaska, giving—what else—a lecture. And so was unable to see the copy before the deadline. He’s conscientious, however, and so it should be all right. Although I must say cutting that piece of yours is not so easy.

The book received such violently opposed reviews that—forgive this weighted metaphor—it was as if the intellectual crust of the nation were suffering a seismographic fault. It was not just the virulence of the bad reviews, except they weren’t good on their own terms, and usually they are. The put-down was declarative rather than analytical; the weight of the indictment seemed to be placed by most New York intellectuals on the improbability of the plot, which is of course the given. That the narrative clichés were chosen precisely because I felt they had been despised so long that a novelistic magic had returned to them seems not to have occurred to Rahv and Co. And so the tone of their reviews is puzzled, irritable, full of loud statement and bad faith. Like an uncle displeased with a nephew and profoundly worried. But I go on too long. You’ve probably seen most of these reviews yourself, and the ones I send from the smaller papers will prove amusing I hope.

Beverly and I went off this week to Provincetown to pick a house. We’ll be there four months I think, and if you’re in Nantucket we’ll get a chance to visit, for we know a man in Harwichport with a power boat. And so could reach you in two and a half hours door to door. Or if you have a boat, come visit us. We could pick you up in Harwichport. Nantucket after all is a place where people go to work. Provincetown is for sport. Naturally I choose Provincetown for work. At any rate, say hello to Leslie and my regards to your four-year-old. The one-year-old is now somewhat less of a prick. I attribute this to the civilizing influence of his father.

P.S. I don’t think we have a chance of a snowball in hell, but I’m asking my agent to talk to Jack Warner about having you on for a technical advisor.

Best and all Jack,
Norman
This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.

Notes

  1. John W. Aldridge became friends with Mailer in 1951 shortly after Aldridge’s After the Lost Generation: A Study of Writers of Two Wars appeared earlier that year. It contains the first major appreciation of Mailer’s work; Mailer wrote an introduction to the 1985 reprint. Aldridge went on to write extensively about Mailer, including reviews of most of his books.
  2. Elizabeth Hardwick wrote a scolding review that appeared in Partisan Review in the spring 1965.
  3. Richard Poirier wrote a very warm review of the novel in Commentary, June 1965. In 1972 he published Norman Mailer, perhaps the most perceptive study of the first half of Mailer’s career.
  4. William Phillips was the longtime editor of Partisan Review.