Norman Mailer wrote a startling amount of letters in his 84 years. When the University of Texas released his archives in 2008 they needed over a thousand boxes to hold the 40,000 letters that dated from the early 1930s until 2005. In an excerpt from his memoir featured in the November issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott reveals one of those that changed his life dramatically. Wolcott had written an article for his college newspaper about a memorable argument between Mailer and Gore Vidal on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1971 and sent a copy of the piece to the legendary American author. Much to Wolcott's dismay, Mailer wrote back impressed and offered to recommend Wolcott for a writing job at The Village Voice. Wolcott abruptly took him up on his offer, dropped out of college, moved into a seedy Midtown motel and showed up at The Voice's offices after Mailer had sent this sterling recommendation:
I have taken the liberty of telling a young college kid, 19, to go and look you up for a job. His name is James Wolcott and he sent me a piece of reporting he did about the Cavett show I did with Vidal which I must say impressed me. Not only because it was kind to your aging ex-partner, but for the sharp recall of the quotes and the feeling Wolcott had for what the participants were up to and how they were feeling inside as the show went on. This is the long way of saying that I think this fellow has got talent which I don’t feel too often about young writers, and in fact it wouldn’t surprise me if he was the best I have sent your way since Lucian Truscott.
That's just an excerpt. The full letter and Wolcott's very worthwhile account of his moving to New York and launching what would become a very successful career as a columnist.
This got us thinking, though. What other writers had Mailer propped up early in their careers? Did he send around any other letters of recommendation or make any more stars? In our quick dive into the Mailer archive we didn't find any recommendations as straight-forward as Wolcott's, but the many glimpses at Mailer's prolific and often colorful advice to writers and readers alike are fascinating.
Karl Marx is difficult, wrote Mailer to Mark Linenthal and Alice Adams in 1949…
Marxism is a tool, it's a way of looking at things, and not a series of value-judgments, and if you want to learn it (a dreary process) you've got to read the source books, and study them. At least, study Capital" If you find it uncongenial, you will at least have had the pleasure of studying a genius, and the incalculable agony. It is hard. But every day after mole-like I've studied my twenty pages, I feel as if I've come out of a shower bath.
William Styron and James Jones are worth a look, Mailer told Charley and Jill Devlin in 1954…
Did you ever read Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron? It’s not a great novel, but it is one hell of a novel, and I think of all of us, he has the biggest talent, the only one say who could some day write a novel as great as Proust’s for example. Anyway, he’s in New York now, and is one hell of a great guy, and I’ve been a little bit on the writers’ circuit because [James] Jones has been in town too. Jones is something too. His great charm is a tremendous kind of animal magnetism which gives you the feeling that while you’re around him things are just going to happen, and indeed they often do.
Don Carpenter, British novelist and screenwriter, could use some new language, Mailer suggested in 1961…
I thought if I heard one more Englishman say, "I dig" that I would never dig again. I got so sick of "hip" and "square" as words that from now on they’re out. I mean let's start something new. Existentialism is the word we have to use now as in "That's very E - X, man, very E - X." Squares will now be called essentialists, as in "That's very E - S, man, straight 8." Which occurs to me is the first useful separation of the letters in sex that's been made for a long time.
Joan Didion inspires some rare but still tongue-in-cheek praise from Mailer to his frenemy William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1965…
What a marvelous girl Joan Didion must be. I think that’s one conservative I would like to meet. And who would ever have thought that the nicest [review of An American Dream] I am to read about myself four weeks after publication should come in the National Review. Well, this is the year of literary wonders. What do you think the odds would have been for a parlay of good reviews in National Review, Life, the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Paul Pickrel at Harper’s, and the Chicago Tribune. One hundred fifty million to one, or would we have picked it by light-years?
Anyway, I write you this letter in great envy. I think you are going finally to displace me as the most hated man in American life. And of course that position is bearable only if one is number one.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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