J. Michael Lennon

Archivist, Biographer, Educator

Category: Did You Know Page 1 of 3

Seymour Krim

DID YOU KNOW? The first preface, foreword or introduction to the work of another writer that Mailer wrote was for Seymour Krim’s 1961 collection of essays, Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer (Excelsior Press). Krim, a Greenwich Village hipster who was sometimes described as a scaled-down version of Mailer, met Mailer in the early 1950s, and wrote several essays about him, including a wonderful, funny, tissue of complaints in New York (April 1969), “Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head.” Along with Allen Ginsberg and Noel Parmental, Jr., Krim was supposed to be one of Mailer’s press secretaries in his aborted campaign for mayor of New York on the Existential Party ticket. Prior to writing the foreword for Krim’s collection, Mailer had been averse to writing such pieces on the grounds that he was diluting his own work. But as time went on, he wrote dozens of them for various friends. Here is the foreword, in its entirety:

Krim in his odd honest garish sober grim surface is a child of our time. I think sometimes, as a matter of style, he is the child of our time, he is New York in the middle of the 20th Century, a city man, his prose as brilliant upon occasion as the electronic beauty of our lights, his shifts and shatterings of mood as screeching and true as the grinding of wheels in a subway train. He has the guts of New York, old Krim, and it is not so impossible that when the digital computer in the mind of new historians begins to tick over the psychic ash heaps and spiritual dumps of this insane, cruel, rapacious, avid, cancerous and alas—in the end—cowardly city, they will say if they have a sense of the past that yes, in the work of Seymour Krim lives one of the truest beats of how horrible, how jarring, how livid and how exciting was this city where the best of us burned and burned without a war, an underground, or a passion for the blood.

Norman Mailer
New York, September 1960

P-town

DID YOU KNOW? Mailer’s favorite journey was driving over the crest of a hill in Truro, Massachusetts, on his way to Provincetown, and first seeing “the Pilgrim Monument in all its subtle presence.” He believed Provincetown to be the most beautiful town on the East Coast of the U.S.

Publisher Relationships

DID YOU KNOW? Mailer’s books were published by several American publishers, but the most important were Rinehart (1948-54), Putnam’s (1955-67); New American Library (1968-72), Little, Brown (1971-83), and Random House, from 1984 until his death in 2007. Random House published eight of his books, and will publish his selected essays in fall 2013, and his selected letters in fall 2014.

The Hinge of Mailer’s Unwritten Trilogy: “The Last Night”

DID YOU KNOW? The last short story that Mailer wrote was “The Last Night,” published in the December 1963 Esquire. It is a sci-fi tale about the world ending after a devastating nuclear war. The president of the U. S. and the premier of the U. S. S. R. recognize that radioactive fallout has made the Earth almost inhabitable. They agree to a bold course of action: load the most advanced spaceship with 80 humans, all healthy and intelligent, representing the races and culture of the world, add some animals and computers containing some portion of the planet’s cultural heritage, and send it out into the universe. Because the best rockets of the time will be unable to propel the ship beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull, the leaders decide to explode the earth after the spaceship-ark has been launched in the hope that the massive detonation, which will destroy the planet, will propel the ship out into deepest space. The resident tells the premier that he believes that “man may have been mismated with earth,” and

We cannot suffer ourselves to sit here and be extinguished, not when the beauty that first gave speech to our tongues commands us to go out and find another world, another earth, where we may strive, where we may win, where we may find the right to live again.

In a plebiscite, the people of the earth vote favorably to destroy the planet. The story ends with “the spaceship, a silver minnow, streaming into the oceans of mystery, and the darkness beyond.” It was Mailer’s intention to use this ending as the hinge between the end of Ancient Evenings (some may recall that the novel ends with “the scream of the earth exploding”), and the unwritten sequel, “The Boat of Ra,” which would detail the spaceship’s voyage to distant galaxies. There is quite a bit more to the story, including the nature of the final novel of the trilogy, “Of Modern Times,” all detailed for the first time in Norman Mailer: A Double Life.

DID YOU KNOW: In the summer of 1955, Mailer purchased two standard poodles, Tibo, who looked like a black sheep, and Zsa Zsa. They produced 32 pups over 17 years. Zsa Zsa died first; Tibo is buried in the garden of the house Mailer and his then-wife Beverly Bentley lived at 565 Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA. Mailer said that Tibo made such a variety of intelligent sounds that he appeared about to speak. Partly because of Tibo, Mailer concluded that dogs have souls.

DID YOU KNOW? When asked by Vanity Fair to name the qualities he most admired in women, Norman Mailer said “Beauty, mystery, wit, and the inner superiority to be above political correctness.”

Berkeley Audience

DID YOU KNOW? Mailer’s largest live audience was approximately 10,000. On May 21, 1965, he spoke at a Teach-in at the University of California, Berkeley, which was organized by Jerry Rubin and others. He began his speech by noting that the citizenry’s “buried unvoiced faith that the nature of America” had over the past months “taken a pistol whipping.” The cause: the most advanced nation in the world was “shedding the blood and burning the flesh of Asian peasants it has never seen.” This was being done, officially, to keep the nations of the Far East from falling under the Communist yoke. The Communists could only flounder in the nations they conquered, he argued. The real reason for the Vietnam War, he continued, was that the president needed to get the country’s mind off the civil rights movement at home. His fear, he said, is that President Johnson, this “bully with an Air Force,” was “close to insanity” brought on by “his need for action.” He ended his one-hour speech by urging everyone to attach photos and drawings of Johnson’s face, on every surface, on walls and phone booths and billboards. “You, Lyndon Johnson, will see those pictures everywhere upside down, four inches high and forty feet high; you, Lyndon Baines Johnson, will be coming up for air everywhere upside down. Everywhere, upside down. Everywhere. Everywhere.”

Mailer’s speech was broadcast live on radio station KPFA. Later, portions of the speeches of Mailer and several others who spoke at the teach-in—including Dick Gregory, Mario Savio, Dr. Spock, and Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska—were transferred to two LP records and issued by Folkways (No. 5765). Mailer wrote to a friend after the teach-in and said that for the first time in his life he had received “a standing ovation which went on for many minutes.” It was most welcome, he said, because that at this stage of his career he was caught between “counter-waves,” of approval and disapproval, and “I am being bounced like a cork at the confluence.”

DID YOU KNOW? Asked to name his favorite word by the New York Times, Mailer said: “Improvisational.”

DID YOU KNOW? In 1983, Mailer’s screenplay for The Executioner’s Song (directed by his long-time collaborator, Lawrence Schiller) was nominated for an Emmy. Tommy Lee Jones, in a break-through role, won one for playing Gary Gilmore, who was executed by a firing squad in January 1977. He was the first person executed in the U.S. in the ten years.

DID YOU KNOW? In the Mailer Archive at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) of the University of Texas-Austin, there are 222 boxes of Mailer letters. They cover the years 1939-2005. According to Steve Mielke, who was the supervising archivist cataloging Mailer’s papers, the number of letters in each box averaged 187 letters, or a total of 41,514. This figure does not count the approximately 1500 letters located in others files—business records, literary files and so on. This brings the total number to 43,014.This total does not include the letters Mailer wrote in 2006 and 2007, another 1200 letters, approximately. Nor does it include perhaps 200 additional letters sent to Lennon by various correspondents, letters lacking carbon copies at the HRC (many of these were hand-written). Finally, Mailer was a signatory of, roughly, 100 letters signed with others, public letters published in magazines and newspapers over a half-century. Counting all these letters brings the total to 44,614. It would not be unreasonable to assume that there are at least another 486 undiscovered letters out there. Therefore, 45,000 letters is a fair estimated grand total.

In some years, Mailer wrote 1000 letters, in others 200, but on average about 650. Unless he was in the homestretch on a book, he wrote his letters in spurts of 50-100 every few week. From the late 1950s on, he dictated most of them (tapes of these are stored in the HRC). Lennon reports that the average letter is 500 words, which yields of total of 22,500,000 words.

Some comparisons: Horace Walpole, one of the greatest literary correspondents of all time, wrote more than 5,000; so far 48 volumes of his letters have been published. The editors of the Hemingway letters project state that they will publish all his known letters, approximately 6,000. Samuel Beckett wrote 15,000.  Queen Victoria wrote over 3,700 letters to her eldest daughter alone. Queen Elizabeth I wrote over 3,000.

The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon, will contain approximately 750 letters. It will be published by Random House in the fall of 2014.

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