Thursday, October 02, 2008

Incorrigibly yours, Norman

This week's issue of The New Yorker features a batch of Norman Mailer's letters. I've only dipped my toe in, but I'm already having a great time. Here are three (the first truncated by me, to save space) to William F. Buckley:
April 20, 1965

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. . . .

At the same time there’s no doubt in my mind that the newspapers misquoted you shamefully and the net result of that is to deepen one’s sense of an oncoming disaster; for I think humanly it could only drive you further into some of your own most charming surrealisms, such as bombing China’s atomic plants. Truly you amaze me, Bill. Did it ever occur to you as a good Christian that it is immoral to destroy somebody else’s property?

But listen, I think our public debating days are probably over—for a time at least. As wrestlers we are not both villains, and that excites no proper passions. Still, it may open something interesting—which is that the two of us have a long careful private discussion one night, because I think in all modesty there’s much in your thought which is innocent of its own implications, and there’s much surplus in mine which could profitably be sliced away by the powers of your logic. . . .

Incorrigibly yours,


October 18, 1965

Dear Bill-elect,

What the hell does emunctory mean? You have here gone too far, sir, even for Buckley. I even heard one Roman turn over distinctly in his grave as the word went by and whisper to his neighbor, “Does that ‘emunctory’ come from the Greek?” Anyway, you’re just an old fraud. You offered to pay a week’s wages not to have to hear anyone who talks more predictable nonsense on the subject of foreign policy than myself. Sailor Bill, I come close to loving you here. When the hell did you ever earn a week’s wages, you bleeding plutocrat. Of course if you were really indicating you were ready to give up one-fifty-second of your yearly income, then I will go look for such an intellectual and split the swag with him. . . .

Last, how is Patsy’s leg? I hope it’s back to everything original. Please give her my love, and let me know about dinner. We still have one to offer you. I expect you’ll find it easier after the election, but if you think we can plan anything before, fine, and fine again.



January, 1966

Dear Bill,

I send you the enclosed not because I love National Review so much, for I don’t—it’s not so good as it ought to be, and often it’s tiresome, especially when one knows in advance what your trusted old line contributors are going to say—but as a personal mark of respect to you. Your letter was the best letter I ever read by an editor asking for funds.

One request. Please keep my contribution in the secret crypts. It is not that I fear public opinion so much as ceaseless repetition. Repetition kills the soul and I would not wish to spend one hundred evenings in succession explaining to various outraged and somewhat stupid people in calm clear fashion my complex motives for giving a gift to a magazine for which I feel no affection and to an editor with whom on ninety of a hundred points I must rush to disagree. They would not understand that good writing is good writing, and occasionally carries the day.

If only more people could simultaneously disdain and respect each other with such flair, but then I suppose Mailers and Buckleys aren't hatched very often.

Sam Tanenhaus wrote a piece considering the relationship between the two titans when they died within a few months of each other.

(And for anyone interested, like I was..."emunctory": Serving to carry waste out of the body; excretory.)


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