Jack Abbott: From the Belly of the Beast
A Meeting of the Minds
Norman Mailer is one of the best-known authors in America. A Harvard graduate with a degree in engineering, Mailer is also a World War II veteran who served with the U.S. Army. His experiences during the war inspired him to write The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948. It became a bestseller and established Mailer as one of America's brightest new authors. He helped to put together the Village Voice in 1954 and for a time, even wrote a weekly column for the newspaper. Over the next decade, Mailer produced several more novels, none of which achieved the success of the Naked and the Dead. In 1968, he wrote Armies of the Night, a nonfiction book, which detailed the anti-Vietnam movement in America. The work became another bestseller, also winning the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer continued to write on controversial themes, never afraid to explore the unpopular or unusual aspects of American culture.
When Mailer decided to write his book, Gary Gilmore was already under a sentence of death for two murders. Unlike most other convicts, however, Gilmore wanted to die. He instructed his attorneys not to appeal his conviction and wanted to be executed as soon as possible. Since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia, the death penalty, as it existed then, was deemed unconstitutional. No one had been executed in the United States since 1972 when that historic decision forced the states to redefine their death penalty statutes. Mailer became fascinated with Gilmore's case and wanted to explore the aspects of his life and impending death by legal execution.
Mailer's correspondence with Jack Henry Abbott began while he was in the midst of writing The Executioner's Song, the title of the Gilmore story. The very first letter that Mailer received greatly impressed him. "Abbott's letter was intense, direct, unadorned, and detached, an unforgettable combination," Mailer wrote in his introduction to Abbott's book. After that first letter, Mailer received, on average, about two letters a week for the next three years. Together the letters exceeded 2,000 pages of text which addressed every facet of prison life and more. Abbott liked to ponder the philosophical insights of Marx, Russell and Hobbes. He enjoyed writing about Lenin and saw Marxism as an alternative to the American system of justice. "I do not believe I would have suffered greater injustices in any country in the world than I have here," Abbott wrote.
Mailer became captivated by the writing skills of his new pen pal and wondered how he could nurture this burgeoning talent. One thing was sure: Abbott could not be successful as a writer while he remained incarcerated. Something had to be done for him. "If he gets out," Mailer wrote, "we may yet have a new writer of the largest stature among us, for he has forged himself in a cauldron and still has half the world to discover."