Whit Burnett, 1969

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NORMAN MAILER’s Letters

Dear Whit,[1]

Sometimes it seems useful to think of two kinds of novels—novels of manners, and modern explosive surrealistic novels in which the very notion of society, let alone manners, is bulldozed away in order to see what strange skeletons of fish and what buried treasure comes up in the ore. Out of my own work I suppose Why Are We in Vietnam? would most satisfy the latter category, and An American Dream might prove for some to be my most substantial attack on the problem of writing a novel of manners. They are hard novels to do well. Now that we are approaching the end of the seventh decade of the twentieth century they are becoming novels which are almost impossible to do well. The old totemistic force of manners, the old totemistic belief that breaching a manner inspired a curse has been all but lost in the avalanche of social deterioration which characterizes our era. Yet what can appear more attractive and sinister to us than a tea ceremony at the edge of a cliff. So I often think An American Dream is my best book. I tried for more in this novel than anywhere else and hence was living for a while with themes not easily accessible to literary criticism, not even to examination. The passage I choose now is not obligatorily the best thousand words in the work, but comes from the latter part of the first chapter and therefore offers few discomforts of orientation to the reader, and no demand on me for a synopsis of preceding events. Perhaps it may also serve to illumine the fine nerve of dread back of every good manner. Manner is the mandarin of mood, and in the shattering of every mood is an existential breath—does laughter or the murderous next ensue?

Yours,
Norman Mailer

Notes

  1. Mailer’s story “The Greatest Thing in the World” won Story magazine’s national college contest and was published there by Burnett in November 1941, marking the beginning of Mailer’s literary career. His undated letter (probably written in 1969) prefaces a selection from An American Dream describing the murder of Deborah by Rojack that was published in Burnett’s 1970 anthology, This is My Best: In the Third Quarter of the Century. Mailer’s letter is perhaps his most considered and perceptive comment on the novel.