Last month saw the publication of The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer.
Mailer, of course, was a huge Miller fan. His “Genius and Lust” is a panoramic and laudatory (he called him a “genius”!) survey of Miller’s work. (Spoiler alert: half of the book is straight text from Miller’s books like “Cancer,” “Capricorn,” and “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.”)
The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, which includes a mere fraction of Mailer’s total correspondence (716 letters out of almost 50,000!) includes a 1976 letter to Miller that discusses everything from the temperaments of Hemingway and James to the art of criticism.
We’ll re-publish this letter in its full entire tomorrow (or maybe Wednesday)? but we want to first contextualize where Mailer’s coming from. Why? Because it’s fun — and free.
Bear with us.
We stumbled across this 1977 New York Times review of “Genius and Lust” by Frederick Crews, where the author references Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence.”
Writers, Bloom argues, are an insecure lot. Many crib from their predecessors and are terrified of being called out. And so authors like Mailer, who long cowered in Hemingway’s enormous shadow, tend to overcompensate.
After all, Hemingway is the quintessential macho Alpha male-writer, and Mailer, ever the aspiring macho Alpha make-writer, seemed to always be trying to out-macho-Alpha-male-writer Papa himself.
This edgy, insecure Mailer can be found in his aptly- and depressingly-titled book “Advertisements for Myself.”
And it makes sense, right? It always seems like super-macho dudes that seem compelled to rub their macho-ness in your face inevitably and secretly harbor some severe self-doubt issues.
The Dead Kennedys had a song about it, in fact.
Luckily for Mailer, he found release, catharsis, etc., at least according to Crews, by casting his lot with Henry.
Key to this development is a paradign-shifting twist surround the state of mid-20th century American literature that Miller must have surely relished. The twist is this: the passage of time wasn’t particularly kind to Hemingway’s “clipped, bittersweet” style; simultaneously, as the 50s turned into the messy 60s, modern fiction instead turned “loose, expansive, fantastic — in short, Milleresque.”
In what is perhaps the most striking excerpt in “Genius and Lust,” Mailer proclaims why he switched allegiance, abandoning his hero Hemingway for the guy from Brooklyn:
“The eye of every dream Hemingway ever had must have looked down the long vista of his future suicide—so he had a legitimate fear of chaos.
He never wrote about the river—he contented himself, better, he created a quintessentially American aesthetic by writing about the camp he set up each night by the side of the river—that was the night we made camp at the foot of the cliffs just after the place where the rapids were bad.
Miller is the other half of literature. He is without fear of his end, a literary athlete at ease in earth, air or water.
I am the river, he is always ready to say, I am the rapids and the placids, I’m the froth and the scum and twigs—what a roar as I go over the falls. Who gives a fart. Let others camp where they may. I am the river…”