Norman Kingsley Mailer, born in 1923 to immigrant parents, had written a fair amount of juvenilia, mainly adventure stories, from the ages of eight to twelve, then nothing more until he arrived at Harvard in September 1939. In each of his four college years, he signed up for elective writing courses, and he wrote, all told, approximately thirty short stories. He published three of these in the Harvard Advocate, and one of them, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” won a national college contest sponsored by Story Magazine, where it appeared in November 1941. A few months earlier, he had completed the manuscript of his first novel, “No Percentage.” Set in two places he knew well, Brooklyn and the Jersey Shore, the novel (still unpublished) ends with a hitchhiking trip to North Carolina, one that Mailer made in the summer of 1941. Just after the Pearl Harbor attack, he met Beatrice Silverman, a student at Boston University, who later became his first wife. In the summer of 1942, he worked for a week as an orderly at Boston Mental Hospital and wrote a play, titled “The Naked and the Dead,” about the sadistic treatment of the inmates. It has never been performed, but it created a lifelong interest in drama. In his senior year, he began another novel, A Transit to Narcissus (published in 1978), also inspired by his experience as an orderly, which he finished shortly before his March 1944 induction into the army. While he was in the service, a combat novella he wrote at Harvard, “A Calculus at Heaven,” was published in an anthology, but his most important work of the 1940s was The Naked and the Dead, which he wrote after his discharge in May 1946. Based on his experience during the Luzon campaign of early 1945, in the Philippines, the novel was critically acclaimed and became an immediate bestseller after its publication in May 1948. Slabs of it were taken wholesale from the hundreds of letters he wrote to Beatrice while overseas.
1. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
Grays Hall 11-12, Harvard College
February 18, 1940
I’m quite the busy boy now with tryouts for the Advocate & Red Book. I’ve dropped the Lampoon because 1) I can’t write humorously, 2) there is a $100 initiation fee. All of which brings me to the Advocate. I tried out last Friday and had a nice time, you know free beer, etc. For the Advocate you have to submit 3 pieces worthy of publication although not necessarily published for lack of space. You also have to sell 10 subscriptions and pay an initiation fee of $40.00. Now the Advocate is like a club, and has many fellows worth meeting. (One of them is Bruce Barton Jr., representative’s son.) If you think I should or should not go on with it let me know. It means spending at least $50—subscriptions bought personally—of which $40 would only be spent after getting in so the money would not be risked. If you feel it is not worth it from a money standpoint let me know immediately. (Let me know immediately, too if you think it is worth it.) Naturally it is up to you, and do as you see right. Of course it’s not a matter of buying your way in since you have to be good to be accepted & it is quite an honor. However if I know I can’t make it because the initiation fee is too high, I don’t want to put in any work on it. If you don’t understand fully what I’m talking about write your answer anyway with the necessary reservations. I’ll know what to do since of course I know just what the odds are.
Nothing much else right now.
Lots of love,
P.S. I’m sorry. The Advocate is the literary magazine.
P.P.S. Tell Babby to keep up the good work.
P.P.P.S. Hope the cold spell helps the [heating oil] business.
P.P.P.P.S. Was happy to hear about your anniversary party. Cake hasn’t come yet, but I’ll thank Aunt Nan for it anyway. Don’t undeceive her.
P.P.P.P.P.S. Fill in the financial blanks for the scholarship soon. I don’t want to delay forever.
P.P.P.P.P.P.S. If it means a sacrifice to you to pay the Advocate fee, you can tell me right now. Promise.
P.8. Might send the enclosed picture to S[outh] A[frica] as a twin to Uncle Alex. Fellow’s name is Waterous.
2. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
Claverly Hall, Harvard College
March 16, 1941
Sorry you thought I felt depressed about Physics. Futile is a better word. I studied a lot, for the test, and knew my stuff. I just can’t understand it. The rest is good news ↓.
I got a 100 in a Statics test last Tuesday. I handed in both scholarship & T.S.E. (job) blanks. (You have nothing to fill out for the Temporary Student Employment stuff.) I just finished a 3500 word story yesterday. Everybody has been enthusiastic about the long thing. The Advocate liked it immensely and said the “suspense was terrific.” I’ve got two stories accepted, and should get a third one too. (They won’t be published, you realize.) I happen to know, though, that they’re a bunch of snobs, and Brooklyn may go against me. Before I take out a subscription for you, I’m going to have a show-down with them. Don’t worry, I won’t jeopardize my chances.
I haven’t heard whether Aunt Nan is coming up yet. At present I’ll leave somewhere between Wednesday and Friday of week after next. I’m anxious to get home already.
[postscript on envelope] Mom: Will you try and get me two $1.10 tickets to Fantasia. Any night during vacation will do. But try early; understand it’s difficult to get seats.
3. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
postcard, April 9, 1941
Advocate initiation tonight. My play.
Definitely are going to print my story [“The Greatest Thing in the World”]. Magazine supposed to come out next week, but this is uncertain.
Will be unable to write again until Sunday. Have Physics exam Tues. so may not be able to make it a letter.
4. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
April 13, 1941
Am writing a letter to enclose the term bill.
The rest is good news.
Magazine with my story comes out next week some time.
My story may be the first one, and if it is, it will be the first time in several years that a debut has led off in the Advocate.
Got an A in Physics for my April Hour Grade. Only mark I got.
Story magazine runs an annual spring contest for college men’s short stories. Each college selects a story or two & sends it on to Story where the best one is awarded a prize and published. Out of 45 contributors at Harvard my big story was sent on with another fellow’s to the big judging. My chances of winning are of course slight, but I still feel good at winning the Harvard part.
[Robert Gorham] Davis liked my negro-shower room story very much and wants me to send it on to New Yorker.
It’s all happening too easy.
Also, I’ve now written the first 8,000 words of my novelette which has consumed 39 typewriter sheets with hand-writing. I wrote 2000 Friday night, 5000 Saturday, and 1000 in the last hour. That’s all for a few days though for I’ve got a Physics test Tues.
The Advocate initiation was fun. It’s a long story & I’ll tell you about it when I get home. I’m enclosing a playbill. Don’t worry about the bill; they’ll be only too glad to send it to you.
P.S. My back is o.k. So is my cough.
5. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
[postcard, mid-May, 1941]
Will borrow a tux.
Don’t worry about my drinking. I was kidding you a little.
No account of [Advocate] dinner in papers.
I got a letter from a Mr. Theodore S. Amussen, assistant editor in the firm of Farrar, Rinehart, Publishers. He said that Roy Larsen who was at [Advocate] dinner “was very much impressed” with my story. Amussen on his suggestion read it “and liked it very much indeed.” He asked me to send him any copy of a novel I may write because he “would be greatly interested in seeing more material” of mine. He can’t use short stories.
Will send the letter next week.
6. To Fanny Mailer
Scarboro Hotel, West End, New Jersey
[late July 1941]
I’m sorry I didn’t write yesterday, but I think Barbara explained.
I’ve written 14,000 words in the last two nights, and I intend to work through Thursday night till I finish sometime Friday morning. I’ll get a good night’s sleep Friday night, and when you see me Saturday, I’ll be all dimples and crinkles, instead of wrinkles.
Please don’t worry about me overworking, because I love it, and really feel very content and happy. The writing is going great guns, and I think the second part will be at least as good as the first. The third part will be excellent.
I’m getting a hair-cut this afternoon and I’ll look beautiful of course.
I haven’t heard anything, but I do hope you’re feeling much better. Ask Dad to drop us a line if he can, to tell us how you feel.
Oh, all my love honey,
7. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
Dunster Hall, G-52, Harvard College
February 8, 1942
I have a fair amount of news, and hope to make this a little longer than usual.
First I got an answer from Story. I’m sending it on to you, but you must send me a copy back immediately. I’m going to write Mr. [Whit] Burnett and ask him if he wants me to see him before Easter. From the letter, I know he won’t want to publish the book, but I’d like to talk to him about some short stories.
Thanks for the shirts Mom.
Have you given Osie [Radin] the story? I wish whoever has it would send it on to me (the subway thing) because I want to rewrite it, and I can’t do it unless I have it. If Osie hasn’t read it yet, please show it to her. What’s the story there?
The Phil exam was ferocious. I thought I knew my stuff before, but had to change my mind afterward. This seems to be the reaction with everybody that took the test.
When are [you] sending up my paintings. (prints.)
If it is possible to send me the license plate by this coming Friday, I would appreciate it as [Martin] Lubin and I have a big date fixed up. If it can’t be done let me know anyway.
I’m out of postcards, and I don’t have time to write to Aunt Nan, so would you please give her my excuses, and so forth.
Don’t think of myself as nineteen yet.
Thought Babbie’s stuff was swell. Wrote her a letter about it.
What did you think of my long story? You sounded unpleasantly silent on that score.
I love you all,
[Postscript on envelope] Due to rise in food prices, they are going to give us less food (smaller meals) for the same money. Therefore, don’t feel backward about sending me edibles.
8. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
[early April 1942]
Am out of envelopes, so am using this paper to fit into a haphazard envelope.
Stories came. Was a marvelous typing job with only 2 mistakes in ten pages. Wonderful, Ma.
The other story is in good shape, & there’d be no reason for you to slave thru another copy.
I’ve got bad news now, I’m afraid. The story about the printers was false, and spread by John Crockett. He had gone up to Vermont (where the printers are) during Easter vacation, and made up the magazine there. Since he hates me after a fight we had in [a] meeting, I doubt very much if the Negro story will be in this issue. I don’t know, but I doubt it. [Bruce] Barton was furious, & had taken away most of Crockett’s duties. I don’t know however what can be done about my story now. Almost certainly, it will be printed in the next issue.
Test in English this Friday. Have Barbara write, and you might try reading the Freud, folks. Thanks for the good criticisms, folks, & have Babbie write what she thinks.
9. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
April 12, 1942
There were a few people here during the week. I worked very hard, & only one notable story (rest trash) came out of it, but this story is the best I’ve ever written, I’m convinced. I’ll send it to you for typing as soon as I finish polishing it off.
Your idea, Mother, about a Utopia novel is very good honey, but there have been probably thirty or forty good novels about a Utopia already. Keep pitching, hon; it shows you have good ideas anyway.
Please send a check for this coming week’s allowance. I’ve worked it out with you on the finance end.
The enclosed letter is not to be shown to Barbara until her books come. As soon as she opens them, slip her the letter. I’m afraid they may not come till Tuesday, because I didn’t get the books till Friday night, & they were being sent parcel-post.
Went up to the hygiene building. As I told you, it’s nothing. Doctor said it was just fibrous tissue or a benign cyst & would be with me the rest of my life without any danger.
Got a scholarship blank out. Since I am unsure of the blank spaces, I wish Dad would fill it in, in very light pencil. Am sending it separately.
“Maybe Next Year” was rejected by the New Yorker. John Mosher, the movie critic, wrote the rejection slip. Here it is: “I don’t think [it’s] just the thing for us—not entirely clear as it shifts from one mind’s attitude to another—a complex ‘stream-of-consciousness’ effect which isn’t entirely successful—nor is much clear story or situation given.”
Tell Osie that John Mosher wrote the rejection slip. That means a lot since most stories only get a printed slip.
Dunno what happened with Story magazine yet. Can’t find any of the stories around.
10. To Fanny and I. B. Mailer
postcard, June 5, 1942
Have no envelopes. Hence this. My exams are over, & I got a C for the term in Engineering which is the only mark I know.
I got a job at the Boston State Hosp. for $15 per & room and board. Start work June 12. You mustn’t worry Mother, because the inmates are not dangerous. The whole place looks like a college campus, open & sunny, and the inmates are mainly only shell-shocked veterans.
I can’t get home because my play needs some rewriting for the Harvard Dramatic Soc. & I have to work hand in glove with the director. When I make the changes there’s a chance the play’ll be put on. Since I need a rough copy, I wish, Mother that you’d send me the second draft that you used to type out the copies from.
Also, Mother, I need about $10. Our board has stopped since the 31st, and it costs a $1.50 a day to eat decently now. I won’t be able to go another week unless you send the $10. You and Aunt Nan will get a big surprise from me soon. It’s unsigned, but you’ll like it.
Excerpted from Selected Letters of Norman Mailer by Norman Mailer. Copyright © 2014 by Norman Mailer. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.