Mailer wrote some 45,000 letters, and this selection amounts to less than 2 percent of the whole. For comparative epistolary output from other 20th-century writers, Lennon notes that Willa Cather wrote 2,700, Elizabeth Bishop a few thousand, Hemingway 10,000. When Lennon began work on the project in 2002, he figured it would take a few years; he was soon overwhelmed. By way of accounting for such an extraordinary output, Gay Talese observes that no writer of Mailer’s generation was more accessible: He wrote, by a rough count, to 4,000 individuals, and his typical letter is long rather than short. If letters piled up while he was at work on a book (which was always), then he would answer them in gusts of whirlwind energy. It’s safe to guess that most of those who wrote to Mailer got back at least as much as they put out.
Richard Brody points to one of the persistent themes of Mailer’s letters – the way he measured himself “on the yardstick of the Great American Novel”:
He harbored the thought that his 1965 novel “An American Dream” was “probably the first novel to come along since ‘The Sun Also Rises’ which has anything really new in it.” In 1971, he wrote that “it’s necessary to reestablish the right of the novel to exist in these profoundly unnovelistic times”; that “in a sense one has to invent the idea of the novel all over again”; and that “anyway I’m sick to death of my special brand of journalism.” But he had to keep going, to support his family and to pay back taxes—and he also was uncertain about the novel as a genre, as he wrote, to [J. Michael] Lennon, in 1972:
I have come to a place where I think it is almost impossible to go on with a novel unless one can transcend the domination of actual events—invariably more extraordinary and interesting than fiction. So if this new novel is good enough, it may serve to underline how hard it is to write a novel today and how journalism when it becomes an existential species of non-fiction can generally be superior to the novel, superior even on metaphysical grounds—but this last I don’t dare go near.
The novel in question, which took Mailer ten years to write, was “Ancient Evenings.” In 1975, he wrote to the film director Peter Bogdanovich, “I am set to write the great American novel but keep finding ways to tackle myself on the two-yard line.”
And Dwight Garner notices a particularly compelling letter about the sources of certain writers’ greatness:
In a 1960 letter to Diana Trilling, he argued that many great writers are thus because of their built-in limitations, the way they are hobbled. “Faulkner writes his long sentence because he never really touches what he is about to say and so keeps chasing it; Hemingway writes short because he strangles in a dependent clause; Steinbeck digs into the earth because characters who hold martini glasses make him sweat; Proust spins his wrappings because” a gay man “gets slapped if he says what he thinks.”
Read one of the letters in the volume, from Mailer to Henry Miller, here.