Norman Mailer’s Library

Books arrived daily by mail, FedEx, or by hand on the doorstep— a half-dozen was not unusual. At social functions, airports, readings, while walking to dinner along the waterfront of Provincetown, or riding the A Train to Manhattan from Brooklyn, people pressed books into his hands. Not that Norman Mailer was short of books; his library, at four different locations, amounted to more than 7,000 volumes. His last wife, Norris Church, referred to them as Kudzu, the pernicious creeping vine that covers large swaths of the American South. As fast as she gave them away, they reappeared on every flat surface in their two homes. Norman, she said, spent $1,000 a month on books, and received a large number gratis from writers in search of a recommendation.

He resisted Norris’s efforts to shed them, to the extent that those deemed worthy of further examination were retained on the dining room table in his Provincetown house for a week or two, where he would read the opening pages of more than a few. That scarred table, large enough to seat twelve, was Mailer’s cockpit, the place where he conducted all his business, save writing his books. Every morning he sat there for a couple of hours, always facing a wall to avoid the fierce morning light from the harbour coming through the large oriel window. Eating his eggs, he read the New York Times and Boston Globe, and sorted through the mail. He also did two crosswords to “comb my mind”, as he put it, before climbing to his attic study, where he would work two shifts, eleven till two, then four till eight. More books were up there, mainly reference works for whatever project was underway, plus a score of dictionaries and thesauruses, some of them nearly clawed to pieces.

Mailer’s Provincetown library, January 18, 2008. Photo by Donna Pedro Lennon.

On most days during Mailer’s final three years, I arrived at his Provincetown home for coffee and talk at around ten. Invariably, the table was piled high with books, several days of mail, printouts of email messages (Norris received the latter; he never touched a computer), bound galleys and manuscripts, and copies of Vanity Fair, the Nation, Poetry, the American Conservative and Esquire, among other magazines. When the piles grew too high, they were moved to the oriel window shelf, eventually blocking the view. When this occurred, Norris and Norman’s assistant Dwayne shunted stuff to recycling, charity, or to the basement, where he had shelves built a few years before his death in 2007. Three or four times a year, I’d cull items there for his archive.

My wife and I catalogued the books in the three libraries: in Provincetown, about 1,000 volumes; in the Brooklyn Heights apartment overlooking the East River’s Buttermilk Channel, approximately 3,400; in his writing studio in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), another 1,500. About 1,200 reference books and numerous foreign editions of his forty-odd published books are part of his archive that went to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin in 2005. After his death, the rest of his library was donated to the Norman Mailer Center and is now in storage.

Mailer couldn’t live without books, but he was not interested in them as objects. When he needed some pages for a public reading, he often tore them out of the book rather than carry it. He gave me a first edition of his Advertisements for Myself (1959), with four chunks, totaling 106 pages, missing. The inscription, dated May 1995, reads: “For Mike, this working copy of Advertisements for Myself with sections removed. God knows what I tore them out for”. His copy of Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Lee and Marina (1977), dismembered when he went to Dallas with Larry Schiller to interview Marina Oswald, was later patched together with duct tape. The Idiot by Dostoevsky was similarly reconstructed. One of his favourites for public readings was a six-page description of an embalming from the opening chapter of Ancient Evenings (1983). Norris was furious when he ripped this section from her inscribed copy, and then lost it. Books cringed when they felt his hand. Dust jackets were a hindrance, he said, and were often shucked. He felt similarly about book marks. His barbarous method of marking his place was to fold a page twice diagonally so that it stuck out at the top. Limited editions were of limited interest. Unlike John Updike, who published scores of them, Mailer never initiated a single one, but went along cheerfully with about ten proposed by specialty presses—Targ, Lord John, Dolmen, Caliban, and Franklin Library. Over the course of a week in 1978, he signed 10,180 copies of Franklin’s leather-bound thirtieth-anniversary edition of The Naked and the Dead, for which he was paid $2 a book.

His disrespect for books as objects provides a clue to the nature of his library: it was assembled over the decades to meet his need for models, reference material, to replenish his toolbox of tropes and techniques, and to keep up with his contemporaries—in short, out of literary need. He didn’t collect first editions of his favourite authors, those he listed on seven published surveys. They were: Dos Passos (on all seven), Tolstoy (six), Spengler, Thomas Wolfe and Marx (five), Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Hemingway and James T. Farrell (four), as well as Malraux and Steinbeck on three occasions. Several other writers are listed twice, including Melville, Borges, and E. M. Forster, the only English author. There are many cheap used or paperback editions of his favourite authors, none of them worth much apart from the value of some inscribed copies—from Susan Sontag, Colin Wilson, William Manchester (The Last Lion, his biography of Churchill), and James Jones, who inscribed a copy of From Here to Eternity, “To my most feared friend, to my most beloved enemy”. Instead of inscribing The Unmaking of a Mayor, his 1966 account of his unsuccessful 1965 run for mayor of New York on the half-title page, William F. Buckley went to the index, knowing Mailer would look his name up. When he did, he would see two words: “Hi Norman”.

As a matter of principle, Mailer avoided reading his books after they were published; he changed his style for many of his books, sometimes radically—The Executioner’s Song (1979) is perhaps the best example—and he wanted to avoid being tempted by old narrative modes and gambits. But there were exceptions. When I brought copies belonging to friends of mine for him to sign, he would leaf through, reading a few pages here and there. I remember giving him a copy of An American Dream, the 1965 Andre Deutsch edition with a wonderfully garish jacket illustration, and he read for several minutes from chapter four. When he closed it he said that it depressed him: “I’ll never write that well again”. Another time, while signing a copy of The Executioner’s Song, he remarked that his style was changed by the prose of this narrative. “It was never the same”, he said, “flattened out, less lively.”

Perhaps the first thing one would have noticed about the Brooklyn library is the amount of poetry. Mailer said once that he loved poetry, but added, “I don’t approach it critically. To be a great critic of poetry would take a lifetime of work. I read it to replenish myself”. In addition to the anthologies of American verse he kept in the loo, perhaps half of the 300 poetry volumes in a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in the living room of his apartment are by American poets. It was the only one of the twenty-odd bookcases in the apartment devoted to one genre. Some of the volumes came from poet friends—James Dickey, Sandra Hochman, and Norman Rosten (the late poet laureate of Brooklyn, who signed his letters to Mailer “Norm II”)—but most reflect Mailer’s catholic tastes. There are volumes by poets as different as Wallace Stevens, John Berryman and Amy Lowell, as well as several by her cousin, Robert, whose poem, “For Norman Mailer” appears in his Notebook 1967-68. Lowell’s inscription, “For Norman, This brief though true return for your kind portrait. Cal”, refers to Mailer’s depiction of Lowell in The Armies of the Night (1968), which Lowell said was “the best, almost the only thing written about me as a living person”. There are seven Ezra Pound titles. Mailer visited Pound in Venice in 1970, and gave him a copy of Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters), his 1962 collection of gnomic, Pound-like gists and piths. Asked which of Mailer’s poems he liked, “the old eagle”, as Mailer described him, said, “All of them!”

Desk as Mailer left it. Photo by Donna Pedro Lennon.

There are fewer French poets than British, but a large number of French novelists. Mailer studied French in high school, college, and also at the Sorbonne, which he attended on the GI Bill in 1947-48. His written French was good enough to translate portions of Souvenirs Intimes, the memoir of Picasso’s first mistress, Fernand Olivier, for use in his 1995 biography Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, and he spoke it well enough to converse with French friends such as Jean Malaquais (translator of The Naked and the Dead into French, published in 1950 with an introduction by André Maurois), and Romain Gary. Malaquais, who Mailer said “had more influence on my mind than anyone I ever knew”, introduced him to the work of André Gide, whose 1924 collection of Socratic dialogues, Corydon, spurred Mailer to write two long philosophical self-interviews, “The Metaphysics of the Belly” and “The Political Economy of Time”, published in Cannibals and Christians (1966). His interest in French literature began in his senior year in college when he read André Malraux’s Man’s Fate (1933). Shortly after graduation from Harvard in 1943, told a friend, “I’d like to be another Malraux”. It could be argued that Mailer became the American equivalent of Malraux, the writer as engagé intellectual. Malraux was Minister of Culture under Charles de Gaulle, and in the early 1960s Mailer hoped to become a key advisor to President Kennedy, a cultural Cardinal Richelieu who would link the White House to the most exciting currents and actors on the American scene. He wanted a seat at the Camelot roundtable, an aspiration which was extinguished after he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife.

In a 1963 letter to Pierre Brodin, a French critic who asked about his interest in French literature, Mailer said that “the French novel has always been more congenial to me than the English”, and goes on to name his favourites. They include not only Proust, Flaubert and Joris-Karl Huysmans (Mailer adapted his Satanic 1891 Là-Bas into a screenplay, published in Playboy in 1976), but Georges Simenon, of whom he said, “He is never a great writer, but he is certainly a marvelous one, so natural, so effortless”. Mailer got hooked on Simenon during the war when he read Faubourg (Home Town in Stuart Gilbert’s 1944 translation), and over the years assembled a collection of over 200 of his novels. He numbered them so he could reread them in sequential order, which he continued to do until the end of his life.

Mailer mainly read translations of the French writers, but owned several in the original, including Proust’s Un amour de Swann and Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein by Marguerite Duras (1964). His all-time favourite French novel was Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. He used the novel’s protagonist, Julien Sorel, the ambitious young man from the provinces as a touchstone in in several of his essays, most memorably in a 1968 review of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, where he compares his erstwhile friend’s move from Brooklyn to Manhattan (“one of the longest journeys in the world”, wrote Podhoretz) to Sorel’s ascension to Paris from Verriѐres. In 1949, when Mailer and Malaquais were writing screenplays in Hollywood for Samuel Goldwyn, Mailer tried to convince Montgomery Clift to play Sorel in a film version of the novel that he would write. Clift was interested but was called away to another project.

Mailer may have been more influenced by French novelists than English ones, but he nevertheless admired the skills of the British. During a visit to London in the fall of 1961, he told an interviewer, “Sentence for sentence, the good British authors write better than we do. I’m thinking of people like Amis, Waugh, Graham Greene. Some are bad: I’ve never been able to read Joyce Cary”. He may have stumbled when reading the late and largely forgotten novel, The Fearful Wife (1947), the only Cary novel he owned. On the other hand, he owned most of Forster’s novels. Forster was not “one of the novelists I admire most. But I have learned a lot from him”. He was stunned when an important character in The Longest Journey, Gerald Dawes, was killed in a football game part way through the novel, causing the other characters to change in unforeseen ways. “It taught me”, Mailer wrote, that “character can dissolve in one stricken event and re-form in startling new fashion”. In a 1964 Paris Review interview Mailer said that “Forster gave my notion of personality a sufficient shock” that after The Naked and the Dead (1948) he stopped writing in the third person for over a decade. Forster, he said, “had a developed view of the world; I did not”.

His best-loved British novelist was Graham Greene; he once said that The End of the Affair (1951) was the best anatomy of a love affair he had ever read (the fact that Greene wrote to him to say that he was “moved and excited” by the “magnificent” Advertisements for Myself did no harm to their relationship). Besides Greene’s great early novels, Mailer owned three later works: Dr. Fischer of Geneva (1980), Monsignor Quixote (1982), and Greene’s nonfiction account of his long relationship with the Panamanian dictator, Omar Torrijos, Getting to Know the General (1984). He also owned the three-volume biography of Greene by Norman Sherry. Speaking on the BBC programme, Omnibus, in 1971, he praised Nineteen Eighty-Four for its “profoundly prophetic vision of a world filled with “dull, awful, profoundly picayune little wars…that would kill the world slowly.” Orwell admired Mailer’s work, and said in a 1949 letter that The Naked and the Dead was “awfully good, the best war book of the last war yet”, a comment that appeared on paperback copies of the novel for decades. Some of the other British books on the shelves are The Mill on the Floss, Women in Love (discussed at length in The Prisoner of Sex, 1971), The Good Soldier, Cyril Connelly’s The Missing Diplomats (1952), a nonfiction examination of the scandal surrounding the Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, which Mailer probably consulted for Harlot’s Ghost. The earliest book by a British writer is Charlotte Bronte’s final novel, Villette (1853), a Folio Society edition which shows no dog ears. There is nothing by Austen, Dickens, Trollope, or Hardy.

Dostoyevsky’s struggle to write The Idiot month by month as a serial while suffering from epileptic fits was on Mailer’s mind when he was under commensurate pressure during the eight-month span he published his 1964 serial novel, An American Dream in Esquire. Crime and Punishment is another obvious influence; Mailer’s protagonist, Stephen Rojack, like Raskolnikov, is an intellectual murderer interrogated by the police, and goes into spiritual exile, although Dostoyevsky’s man goes to Siberia, while Rojack goes to Guatemala and Yucatán. He read Henri Troyat’s 1965 biography, Tolstoy (translated from the French by Nancy Amphoux, 1967), shortly after his eightieth birthday and told me it was the finest biography he had ever read, superior to Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce.

Many of his large collection of books on Hitler and Nazi Germany are listed in a six-page bibliography appended to his last novel about Hitler’s youth, The Castle in the Forest (2007). Just as large is his collection of books about the Kennedy assassination, including two sets of the twenty-six-volume Warren Commission Report. He also owned several works by Freud, quite a number by Jung, and several books by Wilhelm Reich, including Character Analysis (1933), which he said was not a literary influence but valuable for “the idea that a man’s physical posture is his character”, which he memorably applied to Richard Nixon in St George and the Godfather (1972). He had all the books of psychologist Robert Lindner, including Rebel Without a Cause (1944) and Prescription for Rebellion (1952). Lindner and Mailer became friends in the early 1950s, and Lindner, who died suddenly in 1956, gave extensive feedback on Mailer’s unpublished 1954-55 marijuana journal, “Lipton’s” (tea was then slang for marijuana).

Another essay would be needed to comment on Mailer’s collection of Judaica, especially the work of Martin Buber on the Hasidic movement, and yet another on the large number of philosophical works, from Aristotle to Kierkegaard to the British positivist A. J. Ayer. One influential volume must be named: Walter Kaufmann’s 1956 anthology, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, which Mailer read during the seventeen days he was confined in Bellevue Hospital in New York City while awaiting a determination of his sanity after stabbing his wife. It is more than likely that he read the Nietzsche chapter, “Live Dangerously”, and the passage from which it comes: “For believe me, the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships to uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves”! One can imagine what resonance this must have had for the lonely reader in the violent ward of Bellevue.

Reprinted with permission from Times Literary Supplement, March 9, 2018