These letters are part of a larger collection of correspondence between Mailer and critic John Aldridge between 1952-1983.
In total, thirty-two letters from Mailer illustrate their early relationship, spurned by a particularly heated, if epistolary, argument about Aldridge’s inexcusably vicious (according to Mailer) critique of the first draft of The Deer Park, three years before it was published; and trace their relationship over the course of three decades.
Pictured above are two early letters from the collection. Mailer initially mentions The Deer Park to Aldridge in the first letter, dated June 18, 1952, reporting that he has completed sixty pages. He describes the book as if it has a life of its own: “The book staggers me with its cheekiness; it’s fantastically ambitious, half as ambitious let us say as a Remembrance of Things Past, and since I’ve given no evidence so far of greater talent or more equipment, the result is merely that I rewrite and rewrite, strait-jacketed by more severe critical standards and no more on the ball.”
Toward the end of 1952, Mailer’s publisher John Selby approached Aldridge to review the book, hoping he would provide his “opinion on matters of taste, construction and similar considerations,” (December 11, 1952). Selby considers this a “great favor” and notes that Aldridge would be compensated. Aldridge agreed, and penned a harsh analysis. In his carbon letter to Selby explaining his reaction to the novel, Aldridge writes, “I think the trouble with The Deer Park is that…it has no morality at all, neither as great fiction nor as pornography” (January 4, 1953; p.1); “Mailer’s weakness of attitude in the material that is given is responsible, I believe, for large part of the purely technical failure of the book” (p. 3); and “In structure, the book badly needs going over, if, indeed you feel that there is anything left to salvage” (p.3).
Mailer’s vehement response to Aldridge’s review begins, “Sometimes you really and truly act like an idiot” (January 12, 1952 [ie 1953]). He proceeds to accuse Aldridge of writing “a whole set of gratuitous insults” which should have been addressed directly to him, and not his publishers. Mailer writes that Aldridge’s “long, condescending” analysis was no help to him; and that Aldridge did not act like a friend in writing it.
Aldridge responded in distress; Mailer asked Aldridge to drop the matter (February 6, 1953). The correspondence picks up in 1959, when Aldridge praises Advertisements for Myself (1959), and Mailer compliments Aldridge on “the particular lucidity of [his] critical style” (December 1, 1959).
In the mid-1960s, the correspondence continues in a markedly friendly tone, with each sending updates about their work and their families, indulging in mild literary gossip, and making arrangements to see each other.
In a postscript to his December 18, 1965 letter, Mailer responds to Aldridge’s suggestion that he write Mailer’s biography: “…of course we can talk about it, and seriously….I honestly don’t know at this instant whether I feel most honored, most delighted, or most aghast” (December 18, 1965). There are a number of exchanges on this subject; in one, Mailer responds to a suggestion Aldridge made about a “depository” for his archive:
One’s papers are worth a lot after one’s death, and so perhaps should be sold to the highest bidder, so the kids can afford to go to college in Cadillacs. I don’t know, these are all legal matters and business matters, and I don’t think we should get caught up in them, nor long correspondences. What I propose instead is that you get S&S or some publisher to bankroll a trip to New York or Provincetown for you and come to visit for a couple of days and we’ll really sit down and go into all the difficulties and get them out of the way. (September 26, 1966)
By 1968, Mailer and Aldridge had agreed to a five year time frame in which Aldridge would write the book. Mailer explains, “I’m willing to cooperate along the lines you suggested. I won’t open my files to any other author, nor do I cooperate with them in interviewing my friends. On this general premise I see no reason why we can’t proceed” (May 10, 1968). By 1975, however, Aldridge suggested that Robert Lucid would be a better candidate to prepare a Mailer-centered literary history (see carbon from June 22, 1975).
Mailer responds, “I didn’t see any reason why you couldn’t do a biography but always thought your main strength has always been for the collision of forces and values in the literary world, and God knows no one else can really do that” (July 31, 1975).
In 1983, Mailer and Aldridge discuss reviews of Mailer’s Ancient Evenings; Mailer describes his reaction to them: “The only trouble of course, is that the early reviews, while leaving my soul intact, certainly scourged my wallet, since the only hope to ever get any more from this book than the huge sums Little, Brown has already paid me was for it to become a runaway best-seller, and that won’t happen” (May 2, 1983). Mailer closes this letter expressing how he would like to talk to Aldridge further about the book. Mailer’s final letter is a testament to his respect of Aldridge as a writer, and is a touching coda to their correspondence from thirty years earlier. Aldridge had written Mailer, informing him that he thought that The Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night, and An American Dream were all out of print, in every edition. Mailer responded that he would be in touch with his publisher, and “If it turns out that any of them are indeed out of print, and there’s thought of a new introduction, who better than you could to write it? I’ll ask him to keep that very much in mind” (February 20, 1987).
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