Norman Mailer’s Letters on An American Dream, 1963–1969/Introduction

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This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.
Written by
J. Michael Lennon

Until he wrote An American Dream, his most evocative and lyrical novel, Norman Mailer did not invest his major fictional characters with his deepest concerns and beliefs: a desire to grow at all costs, a distrust of pure reason, a willingness to take risks, trust in the authority of the senses, faith in courage as the cardinal virtue, fear and loathing for the incipient totalitarianism of American life and, most importantly, a belief in an heroic but limited God locked in struggle with a powerful, wily Devil, conceivably with the fate of the universe in the balance. Stephen Richards Rojack, the novel’s protagonist, has these concerns and shares Mailer’s theological beliefs. Rojack is a war hero, former congressman, college professor, talk show host, celebrity intellectual and nascent alcoholic. Preternaturally alert to omens and portents and susceptible to every premonition, he hears voices, studies the phases of the moon, and waits for either cancer or madness to strike him. His wife Deborah taunts him with her infidelities and attacks his manhood in a variety of insidious ways, driving him to a physical attack that ends with her murder. Rojack then throws her body out of the apartment window ten stories down to the pavement on the east side of Manhattan. He claims that her fall was suicide, and the brunt of the story is devoted to his attempts to convince his and her friends, the police and Deborah's father, Barney Oswald Kelly, the “solicitor for the devil,” of his innocence. Narrated in an edgy, rococo style by Rojack, the novel shows Mailer at the height of his word power as he delineates the dread-filled inner life of his embattled hero. The air of the novel is haunted, swarming with demonic and divine presences, especially in the final chapter, when Rojack confronts Kelly in his penthouse apartment in the Waldorf Towers.

An American Dream was an advance in several ways for Mailer. First, his existential cosmology[1] of a warring universe is fully deployed; second, for the first time in Mailer’s work the narrator and the chief protagonist are one; third, all the spiritual dichotomies of the American urban landscape, Mailer’s own New York City, are presented. Finally, the novel demonstrated that Mailer had learned how to use his own experience indirectly and creatively. Many commentators[2] on the novel have noted that Rojack has much in common with his creator: both went to Harvard, served in WWII, ran for political office and appeared on talk shows where they discussed existentialism, courage, dread and the primitive. Several noted that Mailer had stabbed his second wife Adele with a penknife (she recovered fully), and that he had undoubtedly and brazenly drawn on this event in depicting Rojack’s murder of his wife. While not denying any of these similarities, Mailer responded by saying, "Rojack is still considerably different from me—he’s more elegant, more witty, more heroic, his physical strength is considerable, and at the same time he’s more corrupt than me. I wanted to create a man who was larger than myself yet somewhat less successful. That way, ideally, his psychic density, if I may use a private phrase, would be equal to mine—and so I could write from within his head with comfort.”[3] The novel was controversial from the time it was announced and generated a huge number of sharply divided reviews in literary journals and the mainstream press. It was an immediate best seller[4] and went through several printings in both hard and soft cover. It has been translated into several languages and except for one brief period has never gone out of print.

The story of how the novel came to be written begins in 1963, a very busy year for Mailer. He had a column on religion running every other month in Commentary and a column on general topics, “The Big Bite,” running monthly in Esquire.[5] Two of the columns in Esquire grew into major essays, and one of them was the first of several long narratives he was to write about major prizefights. “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” is an account of Sonny Liston’s first-round knockout of boxing champion Floyd Patterson on 25 September 1962.[6] Often reprinted and justly celebrated as a masterpiece of the “New Journalism,” the essay’s success encouraged Mailer and prompted his desire to write about the inevitable rematch of the two heavyweights. During the first half of the year he also assembled his sixth book, The Presidential Papers, a collection that was directed rhetorically to President Kennedy.

In January 1963 Mailer split with his third wife, Lady Jean Campbell, the granddaughter of British press magnate, Lord Beaverbrook. She had given birth to his fourth child, Kate, several months earlier. In March of 1963, Mailer met his fourth wife, Beverly Bentley, an actress who was in Hemingway’s entourage in Spain during “the dangerous summer” of 1959. Before meeting Mailer she had a relationship in New York with jazz musician Miles Davis. On 31 May, in his emerging role as a public intellectual, he gave a reading at Carnegie Hall that he called “an existential evening,” with comment on the FBI, Communism and J.F.K. He made a number of appearances at college campuses in 1963, including one at his alma mater, Harvard. He also published poems, essays, interviews, a futuristic short story and book reviews.

In the summer of 1963 Mailer and Beverly, now living together, took a long automobile trip. First they visited Mailer’s army buddy “Fig” Gwaltney in Arkansas and witnessed the ever-memorable autopsy of a cancer victim. From there they drove to Las Vegas where on 22 July they saw Sonny Liston defeat Floyd Patterson for the second time. Mailer had an open-ended arrangement with Esquire to write about the fight, which was somewhat less dramatic than the first match. After Las Vegas the couple drove to San Francisco where Mailer spent two weeks on the Beat scene with Don Carpenter, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and others. A half-dozen times during his rambles alone in the city, Mailer walked narrow ledges, testing his nerve and balance. On the way back, the couple stopped in Georgia for a couple of days to meet Beverly’s extended family. She was more than two months pregnant by the time they returned to New York in late August. They were married in Brooklyn in December, shortly after he obtained a quickie Mexican divorce from Jean Campbell. All of these experiences, refracted in subtle ways, would be used in An American Dream, which Mailer would begin in September of that year.

In early November The Presidential Papers was published, about three weeks before President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. The collection contained most of his columns, several poems, his September 1962 debate with William F. Buckley, Jr. on the role of the Right Wing, and other assorted prose including his now-celebrated account of the 1960 political conventions, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” also considered to be one of the foundation stones of the “New Journalism.” Although Mailer insisted then and now that he is first and foremost a novelist, the collection contained only one piece of fiction, “Truth and Being; Nothing and Time: A Broken Fragment from a Long Novel.” He had been working on this long novel, or “the big novel,” as he called it, off and on ever since his Hollywood novel, The Deer Park came out in 1955. In 1959 he had raised the stakes by announcing in Advertisements for Myself, his first collection of assorted writings, that within ten years he intended to “try to hit the longest ball ever to go up in the hurricane air of our American letters,” a novel that “Dostoevski and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read.”[7] In the fall of 1963, however, this big novel was nowhere near completion. Mailer was worried that he might never get back to it, and indeed he never did.

Competing with the desire to get back to the big novel was the desire, or the urgency, he felt to write about the fantastic events, upheavals and people of the period: the Beatles, Castro and the revolution in Cuba, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the civil rights movement, L.B.J. and the escalating war in Vietnam, Barry Goldwater and the Right Wing, Dr. Strangelove and American totalitarianism, the second Patterson-Liston fight and a new heavyweight named Cassius Clay, Khrushchev and the Cold War, the astronauts and the space program, the suicides of Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe and, before and after the assassination, the Kennedys. Another factor was Mailer’s need for a regular stream of income to pay for alimony, child support and education, his new apartment in Brooklyn Heights and summer rentals in Provincetown, Massachusetts.[8] Cranking out nonfiction on the current American scene was both exhilarating and a financial necessity. All told, Mailer published 34 separate pieces in 13 different journals and magazines in 1963—the beginning of a periodical blizzard that continued unabated through the decade before slowing in the mid-seventies.[9]

During their stay in Las Vegas, Mailer and Beverly went though some emotional somersaults. Their turbulent relationship, and his other experiences on the long cross-country drive, gave him the idea of a short novel focused on the evolving relationship of a man and woman, lovers, driving cross-country to Las Vegas to see the Patterson-Liston rematch. Back in New York in late summer, he began thinking seriously about this short novel and along the way had a brainstorm about how to publish it. In consultation with his long-time lawyer, cousin Cy Rembar, and his new agent, Scott Meredith, Mailer decided to write it first as a serial novel in a magazine in the manner of nineteenth and early twentieth century novelists: Balzac, Zola, Thackeray, Hardy, Melville, Twain, Henry James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Andre Gide, John O'Hara and J. P. Marquand. His primary models, however, were Dickens and Dostoyevsky, who unlike most of the other novelists named above did not complete their serial novels before the first installments appeared. There was no thought of having the entire manuscript in hand in the manner of Henry James. Recognizing his inability to remain sequestered in a long, deliberate effort on a big, Proustian novel while the country was transmogrifying, Mailer decided to put together a deal that would more or less force him to produce a short, dramatic novel in less than a year, and also bring in enough cash to pay his expenses for a couple of more years. Because he already had a column going at Esquire, it was the obvious choice for first publication. Sometime after his return from the cross-country trip, Mailer proposed to Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, that he write a novel in eight installments of 10,000 words apiece that would run in the magazine from January to August 1964.[10] Hayes accepted enthusiastically.

As Mailer explains in the first letter in this collection, he began working on the novel at about the same time in mid-September that he submitted his fourteenth “Big Bite” column to Esquire for the December 1963 issue (corroborated by his statement in his 16 October 1963 letter to Eiichi Yaminishi that he had “been working on the novel for the last month”). The Esquire containing his column would appear, as usual, two to three weeks before the cover date, in mid-November. The first half is devoted to the 28 August 1963 civil rights march on Washington, but then it shifts abruptly and Mailer announces that this will be his last column in the magazine. After commenting on earlier serial novelists, he concludes:

Well, all proportions kept (please realize that no comparison is intended to Dickens and Dostoevski) there is the desire to try this form. One wants to see if enough craft has been acquired to pull it off. Besides, it appears to be the only way to write the book now in mind without spending two or three years on successive drafts. But one would like to emphasize that there will be no attempt to write a major novel in the next months. The story that is going to appear each successive issue in Esquire will not have the huge proportions and extreme ambition of the big book described in Advertisements for Myself. No, that work is now to be put aside again. Instead I lay the professional bet in this fashion I will write eight installments of a novel sufficiently conventional to appear in a magazine. But it will be a good novel. I hope it will be a very good novel. If I fail, the first price to be paid is the large wound to one’s professional vanity—if I succeed, well, we may all know more.

See you next month in the middle of the magazine. One is tempted to call this novel An American Dream.[11]

Mailer’s royalty statement sent to him by Scott Meredith, January 25, 1965.

At the same time that Mailer was selling the serial idea to Esquire, Scott Meredith was looking for a publisher for the hard cover version that would follow. Because Mailer still had a contract with Putnam’s for “the big novel,” and was concerned that the pressure of writing a shorter novel for monthly serialization might affect its quality, he decided to try another publisher. He explained to the New York Times that he had felt at the time that An American Dream could “be very good, good, bad or very bad indeed, and there would be a lot more pressure on me if I were doing it for a pal [Walter Minton, Putnam’s president]. Let a stranger [Richard Baron of Dial Press] take a bath.”[12] Consequently, Mailer was released temporarily from his Putnam’s contract; Dial got the contract to publish the hardback version of An American Dream; and its subsidiary Dell got the paperback contract. As Mailer reveals in the second letter, the hard and soft cover versions would bring him $125,000. Later, the film rights would be sold to Warner Brothers for an additional $200,000, which, when added to the $20,000 he received from Esquire, brought the total income received for the novel from 1964 to 1966 to $345,000, a vast sum for any novel in the 1960s. Later editions augmented this total greatly.

Sometime in late summer or early autumn—the exact date is uncertain—Scott Meredith leaked word that Mailer’s new novel would focus on the relationship of “a man who takes a 21-year-old girl to La Vegas,” as noted in a snippet torn from a New York Post column in the Mailer Archive. Even as late as late as mid-October he was still hoping to incorporate an account of the second Patterson-Liston fight in Las Vegas, as revealed in the 16 October letter to Eiichi Yamanishi. Mailer recalled to me that he shifted narrative gears during the course of writing about the hero’s murder of his previous wife, Deborah, deciding that this account should be the powerful first chapter of An American Dream. The cross-country trip was not entirely discarded, however. Robert F. Lucid, who with Mailer’s mother “Fan” first organized Mailer’s papers into a working archive, found the manuscript of this narrative on the trip, and describes it as follows:

One fine thing came from examining pages from an unpublished essay Mailer had begun after he and his wife, Beverly Bentley, had driven out to Las Vegas to cover the second Patterson-Liston fight. The essay describes a long drive, a stopover with an old Army friend who was a doctor, and describes further the observing of an autopsy on the body of a man who had cancer but who went out fast from a burst appendix. The typescript is reworked in Mailer’s hand, changing the “we” who took the trip to “I”; changing it, that is, to an experience undergone by Steve Rojack, the hero of An American Dream. The epilogue in the novel as finally published was in fact the beginning of the novel as composed...[13]

In addition to using the autopsy in the epilogue, Mailer mined the long drive in several other ways: Cherry Melanie, Rojack’s lover, resembles Beverly in several ways: her blonde, all-American looks, her spunkiness, her southern background and her love affair with Shago Martin, who fights with Rojack in chapter seven of the novel. Like Miles Davis, Martin is a black, avant-garde jazz musician (a singer, not a trumpeter) with a complex, ironic style whose more adventurous riffs Rojack describes as “a clash of hysterias.” Mailer, in effect, admitted who his model for Cherry was when he used a photograph of Beverly as part of the striking dust jacket design he created for the Dial version of the novel. It seems likely that Mailer picked up some impressions from his visit with Beverly’s family in Georgia that he used in describing Cherry’s southern background. It is certain that the stop in Las Vegas provided him with material for the epilogue’s account of Rojack’s four-week stay in Vegas, “the jeweled city of the horizon” where he wins $24,000 at the dice tables and calls Cherry in Heaven from a phone booth in the desert. Mailer and Beverly, after one of their fights, drove out into the desert to discuss their future now that it was clear that she was pregnant. Finally, Mailer’s walks on ledges and edges in San Francisco (which he told my student, Helene Caprari, were attempts to fathom the emotions and perceptions of someone considering suicide) enabled him to depict the perverse “impulse to go out like an airplane in a long glide” felt by Rojack as he walks around the top of the balcony parapet of Kelly’s apartment in the final chapter of the novel.

Mailer’s new conception of the novel came in the wake of his decision to write about the murder of Deborah—an event originally conceived to precipitate the cross-country drive. Her full name is Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly. Modeled superficially on Mailer’s third wife, Lady Jean Campbell, Deborah has proven to be one of his most sharply drawn fictional characters. Her memorability was attested to when he selected the opening chapter of the novel for inclusion in an anthology titled This Is My Best,[14] as discussed in his 1969 letter to Whit Burnett, the final one of this edition. Narrative logic required the novel to follow Rojack though the aftermath of Deborah’s murder, though a 32-hour odyssey of violent threats and confrontations, interrogations, hallucinations, demonic and divine sexual encounters, psychic darts, early morning jazz, epiphanies of despair and a talismanic umbrella used in his half-victory over Barney Kelly. And then the denouement: a long automobile trip, an autopsy, and near-transcendence in a phone booth in Las Vegas. Thus was An American Dream conceived and executed.

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New York Post, April 18, 1965

The idea for an edition of Mailer’s letters on An American Dream came during the summer of 2002, which I spent reading the correspondence in the Mailer Archive in preparation for a selected edition of his letters. As I read through those from the mid-1960s, I saw the possibility of a much smaller selection of letters focused on the novel: its creative genesis, sale, writing, serial publication, revision, book publication, popular and critical reception and film adaptation, as well as the many aesthetic, financial and personal considerations surrounding it, as essayed by Mailer in a string of lively letters to family, friends, business associates and admirers. In the spring of 2003 the edition was further developed with the assistance of the ten students in my Norman Mailer seminar at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who helped winnow thousands of letters of the period down to the 76 presented here.

The seminar class also helped me articulate four reasons for this edition:

  1. collectively, the letters of this edition cohere into a rough narrative arc that follows the conception and execution of Mailer’s plan to write, under deadline pressure, a short opera of a novel in installments for a major magazine, followed by a revised book edition, as well as the reviews and the film version of the novel;
  2. the letters were written during an extremely turbulent time in American life, a watershed period that saw, among other events, the assassination of a president and a national black leader, the massive build-up of American troops in Vietnam, and a revolution in Cuba—while Mailer does not comment directly on all of these events, their weight can be felt in the heft of his epistolary style;
  3. they provide a rough picture of the busy daily life of a major writer with multiple interests and obligations; we see Mailer en famille and share his humor, his financial problems, his marriages and his pride at the birth of his first two sons, his worries about meeting deadlines and his unremitting professionalism; and
  4. the letters show Mailer at a culminating moment in his career, the big comeback after the limited successes of all his books after The Naked and the Dead in 1948.

Of the twelve major works that followed Dream through the 1970s, ten were extremely well received. These ten stand, along with Naked and The Time of Our Time, his massive 1998 retrospective anthology, as the twelve books of the forty-plus in the Mailer canon that have received the best reviews.[15] The ten are: Cannibals and Christians (1966), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), The Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), Existential Errands (1972), St. George and the Godfather (1972), The Fight (1975), Genius and Lust (1976) and The Executioner’s Song (1979). Five of these were nominated for the National Book Award (only Armies won), and two (Armies and The Executioner’s Song) won the Pulitzer Prize. This is not to say, of course, that the books after 1979 were lesser works, not when one considers such brilliant creations of Mailer’s later years as Ancient Evenings (1983), Harlot’s Ghost (1991), Oswald’s Tale (1995) and The Spooky Art (2003). But however we rate his books—and relying on the scores of reviewers is a dubious method at best—the fifteen years from An American Dream to The Executioner’s Song, from 1965 to 1979, are arguably the most sustained period of achievement in Mailer’s continuing career.

Notes

  1. Mailer's first extended explanation, in 1958, of his belief in an embattled God is still the best. See “Hip, Hell, and the Navigator: An Interview with Norman Mailer.” By Richard G. Stern and Robert F. Lucid. Western Review 23 (winter 1959), 101–9. Reprinted in Advertisements for Myself (Putnam’s 1959); and Conversations with Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon (University Press of Mississippi 1988). See also Laura Adams’ interview, “Existential Aesthetics: An Interview with Norman Mailer,” Partisan Review 42, No. 2 (1975), 197–214, also collected in Conversations with Norman Mailer. For an extended discussion of Mailer’s theological beliefs, see Lennon’s “Mailer's Cosmology” in Critical Essays on Norman Mailer (G.K. Hall 1986).
  2. The most important essays on An American Dream, as well as the most important reviews and interviews, are listed on An American Dream Expanded.
  3. Mailer, quoted in an interview with an unidentified interviewer, “Norman Mailer on An American Dream,” New York Post, 25 March 1965, 38; reprinted in Conversations with Norman Mailer. The other significant contemporaneous interview on the novel is Nancy Weber’s, “Norman Mailer’s ‘American Dream’: Superman Returns,” Books (New York Post), March 1965, 14–16.
  4. The novel rose to number eight on the New York Times bestseller list on 11 April 1965.
  5. “The Big Bite” commenced in Esquire in the November 1962 issue and ran through December 1963. “Responses and Reactions,” a series of columns devoted mainly to discussions of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, ran every other month from December 1962 to October 1963.
  6. “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” was the February 1963 “Big Bite” column in Esquire. Mailer’s title encapsulates two facts: the length of the column approximately 20,000 words and the number of minutes Floyd Patterson was on his feet before being knocked out in the first round by Sonny Liston: 2:06.
  7. Advertisements for Myself, 477.
  8. In “Mr. Mailer Interviews Himself,” he states: “I did An American Dream in installments because I was in debt and had to make a small fortune in a hurry. That didn’t make it a bad book. I think it’s my best book. I confess I still believe sentence for sentence An American Dream is one of the better books in the language.” New York Times Book Review, 17 December 1967, 40. Reprinted in Conversations with Norman Mailer. See the Word Count Comparison to see where Mailer added and subtracted words.
  9. See Norman Mailer's First Editions for a complete, annotated list of Mailer’s publications year by year, 1941-2018.
  10. The richest account of the circumstances surrounding the publication of the novel in Esquire is Carol Polsgrove's It Wasn't Pretty, But Didn’t We Have Fun: “Esquire” in the Sixties (W.W. Norton 1995). See also Hilary Mills, Mailer: A Biography (Empire Books 1982); and Peter Manso, Mailer: His Life and Times (Simon and Schuster 1985). See also the timeline of some of the key events in Mailer’s life and the life of the nation from 1962 to 1966.
  11. “The Big Bite,” Esquire, December 1963, 26. Never reprinted.
  12. Mailer, quoted in Lewis Nichols’s column, “In and Out of Books,” New York Times Book Review, 14 March 1965, 8.
  13. Robert F. Lucid, Introduction to Norman Mailer: A Comprehensive Bibliography by Laura Adams (Scarecrow Press 1974), xiv–xv.
  14. Whit Burnett, editor, This Is My Best: In The Third Quarter of the Century (Doubleday 1970). Mailer’s letter and the selection from chapter one of the novel are on pages 99–110 of Burnett’s collection.
  15. Over 400 reviews in 25 major periodicals of 27 of Mailer’s books from 1948–1998 are rated in Norman Mailer: Works and Days.