A Gentleman of Letters

Perhaps more than any other major writer but Eugene O’Neill, Mailer produced some of the best and the worst examples of American art. His letters are frank about his own uncertainly as to where he stood in the literary pantheon. On bad days, even a brilliant novel like An American Dream could seem like dreck to him. His letters are engaging because when it came to his main occupations—writing novels or thinking about the novels he was going to write—he was utterly honest with himself. All pretense falls away when Mailer goes to work on himself. He is a superb self-critic and also a sensitive critic of his predecessors and contemporaries. It is profitable to read what Mailer has to say about Hemingway, Faulkner, and many other writers. And he is generous with writers who seek his help, offering advice when it is asked for and reading the work of others—although he often has to beg off because of his own demanding writing schedule.

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