JACK HENRY ABBOTT (1944 – 2002) was a notorious and famous serial criminal whose life improved, albeit temporarily, after he began writing to author NORMAN MAILER. Abbott offered to collaborate with Mailer on what would become Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Executioner’s Song, a fictionalized account of executed murderer Gary Gilmore. Mailer soon recognized Abbott’s writing talent and successfully advocated for his release from prison. Abbott soon became the darling of the New York Intelligentsia, including Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken and Jerry Kosinski. He attended New York parties celebrating his release. 1n 1982, Mailer wrote the introduction to Abbott’s first book, In the Belly of the Beast, a narrative of his personal experience as a prisoner and all the violence he saw and experienced. Abbott appeared on Good Morning, America, 60 Minutes and in the Rolling Stone and the New Republic. Abbott would ultimately commit suicide in prison, leaving a note that officials wouldn’t release.
In this deeply revealing archive, Abbott exchanges letters with Jewish playwright, critic and essayist LIONEL ABEL, offering a profound look into his feelings about his crimes, his relationship to Mailer and Abel, his study of philosophies, political systems, religions and his intense feelings about anti-Semitism. Abel slowly responded to Abbott offering comments on Abbott’s thoughts, complimenting his writing ability and intellect and offering to help get his writings published. Abbott and Abel communicated for a number of years and developed a warm relationship. In one letter, Abel wrote, “You are my Jack,” and tells him how much he cares for him. The relationship began to sour after Abbott edited their letters for publication and chose to make one of his victims a villain in a play that Abel had agreed to collaborate on. Abel wrote: “I would rather see you contrite than self-righteous.”
The archive includes approximately 120 pages of Abbott’s handwritten letters and one typewritten copy and six very detailed typewritten letters from Abel in response. A couple are copies. Most of Abbott’s letters have been transcribed. The archive also includes two letters from Abbott to his publisher with instructions for his book and his political and intellectual sentiments, hand edited copies of the drafts for his second book, My Return, which was published after Abbott’s final return to prison, and a copy of the book.
ABBOTT had spent most of his life behind bars. Before he turned 18, he had already spent nine years in reformatories. At 18, he was released only to be arrested six months later for writing bad checks. He was incarcerated at the Utah penitentiary and stabbed an inmate to death, injured another and received a longer prison sentence. He escaped in 1971, was arrested for bank robbery in Colorado and was given an additional 19-year-sentence to be served in federal prison after his state sentence was concluded. When Abbott came up for parole, Mailer wrote a letter on his behalf, stating he was fit for release and would guarantee him employment.
Abbott was released to a New York halfway house in early June 1981. He needed to stay out of trouble for six weeks at which point he would have been released from the halfway house and allowed to start his parole. But on the morning of July 18th, Abbott and two friends went into the Binibon Café in Manhattan. Abbott got into an argument with Richard Adan, 22-year-old son-in-law of the owner, stabbed and killed him. Adan not only worked at his family restaurant, he was an accomplished writer, actor and playwright. The next day, the New York Times, apparently unaware of Abbott’s latest crime, ran a glowing review of his book. Abbott ran after the murder. He was captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. Abbott’s life drew such attention that Saturday Night Life spoofed it and his intelligentsia supporters with the theme that for one to be a successful writer, he needs to first be a criminal.
AFTER HIS RETURN TO PRISON, ABBOTT began writing to Lionel Abel on October 1, 1984, with admiration for Abel’s superb writing ability and sharing his feelings about many topics. The two write with comments about each other’s intellectual sentiments and they slowly developed a warm relationship. On October 5, 1984, Abbott writes, comparing Judaism to Christianity. “...The Christians developed a concept of sin and of evil based on their prior cultural-historical condition of pagan life.” Abbott believed the Jews had a higher code of moral laws. “The Judean people – the Hebrews – in living the letter of the Torah, elevated their existence and so had a transcendent conception of inwardness (i.e., morality)...The Hebrews never knew a time in their history when they were pagan. They came into existence in virtual war against pagan society...”
[December 19, 1984] Writing about the politics of his situation brought on by the media, Abbott states, “I’m being pushed to the right. The right has made many gestures to help me. It’s a new political style, very treacherous and cynical. Harper’s, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly—all prominent liberal journals are under the command of this cynical kind of politics. There is a hidden alliance between these journals and the far Right...Both sides don’t quite know what to think of me. Yes, I was lynched. I never meant to kill that man (Richard Adan) – and they know it. There was no dispute over restrooms (as the media widely reported). He kicked me out of the place. And I was with Susan Roxas [a Barnard College student] and Veronique De Saint Andrew. I kept trying to return to get them and he threatened me with a knife. He lunged at me, finally, I stabbed him...Every journalist in New York City knows all this. Others deny it out of fear they too will be attacked...”
Deeply into politics, Abbott writes to Abel [December 25, 1984] “I just finished your book the Worlds of Collision. I have a confession to make: I knew nothing about you. I never even knew that you reviewed my book...I know very little about the American intelligentsia...I ignored American intellectuals because I felt they ignored American reality and I felt they were counter-revolutionary. I only lived to prepare for the armed struggle.
“But when I was a boy in the 1950s, I was intrigued by my perception of the [Greenwich] Village—I sort of identified with the ‘beatnicks.’ I associated Mailer with the late Village period in my juvenile mind. But he never interested me with his writings. Not seriously...”
“...I fought the dragons of delusion and read only Jewish writers of Jewish history...”
Abbott tells of the Jews he met in prison. “...I only met two I knew were Jews. At the time, I thought it was a religious denomination. I was a hospital orderly in Leavenworth when I met my first Jew. He had a heart condition...was in a 12-bed ward...He was an old man...very cynical about everyone...I was about 27 years old...He never discriminated: He was short with everyone...I loved old men like that. It shows spirit...He had a medal on a chain around his neck...diamond studded – in Leavenworth it could have gotten him killed. It was valuable. I asked him what it was...He looked at me as if I were joking...It was ‘a star of David.’ What does it mean? He replied: ‘A religious symbol.’ He rolled over in bed. He must have thought I was an idiot.”
Regarding the history of Jews, he wrote, “...I don’t think the Jews ever evolved traditions of warfare – I mean armed struggle, no martial traditions. Violence is irrational behavior, unexpected behavior, to them.”
[March 23, 1985] “There are hundreds of little ‘Nazi parties’ and organizations that are brought into existence by Zionists (the ADL is well known for this). They advertise their existence and disseminate anti-Semitic and racist literature and draw people to it. They evaluate the effect. It is a tactic called ‘drawing the opposition out into the open’...A large majority...learn how to be anti-Semitic for the first time...The effect is to plant anti-Semitic ideas.
“This is also done on the Left to manipulate the Leftist Marxist groups away from the concerns of the working-class movement in America and to quell any discussion of Zionism and Israel. The ACLU has been a perfect tool in deepening the racism schisms of America – not once has the ACLU ever defended or supported any white gentile who is in prison or arrested for revolutionary behavior. The ACLU, on the contrary, defends the rights of Nazi organizations and the genuine Ku Klux Klan. And of course, every minority against the white gentiles.”
“...Christianity is suppressing Judaism, has always tried to demonize it...Christianity cannot defeat nor assimilate Judaism because it is a lower spiritual force. Christianity attaches superstitions to Judaism merely out of ignorance...The anti-Semite is full of such superstitions about the Jews...”
Abbott believed that college professors maligned him in the media. “One professor (at Rutger’s) commented that prisons are becoming a challenge to the institutions of ‘learning,’ to the colleges...It is true, so far as the education of Black and other minorities go. They could dismiss the minority educations that occur in prisons today—but they could not so easily dismiss me...If you looked deeply into the reaction (for example) against me you encountered at the New Republic, you would see it is not as it appeared to you. They reject me for entirely different reasons they will not easily admit to you...”
Abbott then defends Bernard Goetz in what seems to be an indication of his defense of stabbing Richard Adan – not retreating in the face of an assault. Goetz shot four African American youths he claimed were mugging him on a New York subway. “...They (the media) took Bernard Goetz apart...judging him according to a criteria no one of flesh and blood can satisfy. The idea that a person should surrender his money to a thief or blind himself to retreat before the threat of assault, is perverse. It has not a thing to do with justice and (in fact) is an insidious attack on justice and humanity...These people in the media who attacked him are Zionists, here to emasculate the Jewish male. Keeping him down to a ‘Nice Jewish Boy.’”
“...I tell you all this, Lionel, because I’m convinced you know I’m sincere and honest. Some like Mailer would pee his pants and run and burn the letter...”
[April 3, 1985] “...As you know from my book, I believe in a grass-roots revolution through-out the Islamic world. I do not believe Israel can have a negotiated lasting peace with feudal, Islamic (religious) governments. But the Israeli leadership wants to keep the Arab feudal status quo intact. This is their reasoning for being in Lebanon. It’s counter-productive. Islam has to be transformed as a religion before there can be peace...People’s war is the answer in the Islamic world to peace for Israel...”
“I am certain the Jews are of crucial importance to western civilization. Crucial. They are such a cultural shock to me, I’m sure I went crazy on the subject many times. Had I known (say) 15 or 20 years ago about the Jews, it would have changed everything. I could have done work that would have shaken the world – that’s how greatly it enlightens me...
“I’ve been told to write about the Jews, well—Mailer once told me this. (Of course, writing for the public I would be much more careful than in letters to you or other friends, where I do say some silly things)...”
[April 7, 1985] “...I have seen what collective, repressed guilt can do—and it is terrifying. I’ve seen it occur in prisons, among guards. It’s one of the reasons they would not let me out of prison. Though I was guiltless, they filled records with lies about me...”
[September 11, 1985] He offers a defense of killing Richard Adan as he planned to write in his play. “In the play, he (Adan) would not talk to me except to tell me (order me) to keep moving and advanced on me threateningly when I tried to return to the café. My friends were in the café...I saw him pick up a knife but never actually saw the knife except for an instant, the last time he tried to stop me from returning...They never got my knife, either and Susan Roxas (a friend who was in the café with him) testified I threw it at the site of the stabbing before I started running...”
Abbott plans a lawsuit against writer Dotson Rader. “...Parade Magazine had his address but won’t release it. I don’t like what he says about Tennessee Williams, either and I’d love to strike back at Rader. He also lies about Mailer and Gore Vidal all the time—He hardly knows Vidal! I think he has only been in the same room with him (in a crowd) yet that is his opportunity to lie and slander the man. He needs to be sued.”
“...By the way, except for the few matches about my trial, the play is only a direct reading of passages out of my book, word-for-word...It is more an exhibition than a play...”
ABEL begins writing and responding to Abbott on October 24, 1985, calling Abbott’s letters “interesting and provocative...I must thank you for your kind words about my piece in The New Republic.” Responding to a statement made in Abbott’s letter, Abel writes, “Are Jews less likely to resort to violence than non-Jews? I do not think so. They are more likely in some situations to try to achieve their ends by persuasion...On the other hand, in the Mideast, the Jews have shown a zest for fighting equal to that of any of the more martial states known to us...
“Your letters...indicate that you have a capacity for reflection...When I was in Paris in 1962, the translator of Jean Genet, Bernard Frenctman, told me that Genet had been working on a play which he was going to entitle The Prison. This play, Frenchtman said, would be his Genet’s masterpiece. Well Genet never wrote it. So that masterpiece remains unwritten. I suggest it may be written by you...Perhaps you would prefer to write a novel about prison life. This indeed might be the right medium for the expression of your thoughts...Choose a form which would require you to work regularly and consistently. I feel you should have a big project, not a small one, and that if you find yourself working on the same project every week you will also find the days of each week more closely connected to one another. Jack Abbott, you have nothing to lose by being bold. I urge you to be ambitious and think big. We may all profit from your efforts.”
Abel became fond of Abbott. [November 15, 1984] “...Because of my book’s publication, I’ve had to write letters to lots of people. But you are the only person I enjoy writing to...”
[December 16, 1984] “All your projects are interesting...You say you want to destroy Marx and Nietzsche. Marx has already been destroyed (I believe the Chinese, who are now turning to capitalist methods of modernizing their empire). Nietzsche cannot be destroyed being himself a destroyer. I must say I like this remark of his: ‘A man should not be a problem but the solution to a problem.’ I think of this every time I am in trouble or on the brink of pitying myself (my health is not good and has not been good for a year).
“...You can be the solution to the problem facing many people who want to read a good book and cannot find one. Can I help by speculating on workable genres?...The most interesting new novel from Paris is entitled Neropolis...about Rome in Nero’s time (which in a certain way is projected as our own, for there are many analogies and homologies between us and the Roman Empire)...People are afraid of you, Jack...The reason for this fear...is that they know the political right wing will seize on anything they might do for you. I enlisted a scandal when I suggested that you be sent books to review...Write something splendid as I know you can and I’ll help get it published...
“P.S. It bothers me that you say you were ‘lynched.’ You were attacked but who hasn’t been? Writers are attacked every day, and often without having offended. Don’t forget, in the minds of those who tried to help you—I am thinking of Norman Mailer—what you did, however unluckily motivated – has weakened the cause for clemency...”
[February 5, 1985] Abel and Abbott’s relationship continues to build. “I am not offended with you, I am not angry with you, I look forward to hearing from you, I worry about you, I think about you, I speculate about your future, I wonder about when I will be able to see you, and I find your letters absolutely fascinating. Whatever gave you the idea that I was sore at you...? The only thing I could tax myself with is the failure to answer your last letter more promptly. Yes, maybe I have neglected you. But I had many excuses all of them excellent. I have had a great deal of correspondence since the publication of my book; my health [is] not good and I have been trying to put the finishing touches on a play about Rosa Luxemburg about which I would love to have your opinion. I shall send you a draft...No more complaints, Jack. As far as I am concerned, you are my Jack, and shall always be that...
“I don’t understand what you can have against Gershom Scholem. He was a friend first of all, and I have the greatest admiration for his biography of Sabbatai Zevi...And Scholem’s erudition is equal to that of the best German Biblical scholars...I am writing a play about Sabbatai Zevi and I would like your permission to use in it a phrase you used about me...I want someone to say of him what you said of me when you wrote me that I am ‘full of mischief and happiness...’
“So much of your letter is about religion! But now tell me this: Have you been converted to Judaism? Are you a practicing Jew? Do you pray at Marion? And how can you find a Minion among the inmates? Do you have a Talus? Tsitses? A Yarmulke? Let me know. I’ll send you anything you might need...
Abbott was raised a Mormon, but converted to Judaism while in prison.
“I think an intellectual memoir would probably be the best form in which to take up the many ideas you expressed in your letters to me. Certainly you could talk about the slave revolts and what they meant to you when you read Moses Finley. And you could certainly make whatever criticisms you want to make—and you claim they can be devastating – about Marx and Nietzsche...All this, Jack, could be quite fascinating, and I for one am expecting you to bring something like that off and to be fascinated by it and to speak to others...A significant work will help your situation and finally, God willing, get you out of jail...I don’t want you to become a Rabbi...Don’t join the religious establishment. From the way you have started out in life you have to remain in the ranks of those, like myself, who have staved off any kind of complacency by remaining in the wrong.”
[March 16, 1985] “[Your] letter...came at a moment when I was most concerned about you. I had seen some news flashes on NBC about Marion [Federal Penitentiary]; I fancied that I even saw a shot of you – but in general, the report on Marion was alarming. And you write nothing about your problems there. You hide the troubles of the day or hour behind ideas. I am struck by your resolve to keep your cool, also your dignity You have my admiration...But is there any chance that you may be transferred to some other institution?
“...If there are typed pages of your writings, send them on to me. I might make some suggestions about their publication...Your remarks on Sabbatai Zevi are, of course, interesting, and also on the Transfer Agreement, which, as it happens I have not read...I do want to take up some of the notions you formed on reading it, notions I cannot accept...You often rush to conclusions, often to dangerous conclusions. You’ve a liking for them, and I think you have done just this with respect to the relations of the Nazis and Zionists. This matter is very complicated, but I mean to pursue it at whatever length because of its importance...
“Years ago, in Paris I used to attend meetings of the College Philosophique; it was headed by my friend Jean Wahl. In fact, I gave several lectures there, too...The college was a real forum...One night Wahl gave the floor to a Jewish scholar...He said something I could not accept. The Jews, he said, were God’s metaphysical instrument for bringing redemption to the world. When he finished, I took the floor. If the Jews are God’s instrument, I said, then He had better get a better one, for the Jews have not brought redemption to the world, nor are they likely to bring it. Moreover, I said, if you view the Jews in this way, are you not dangerously close to the anti-Semites, even the Nazis, who attributed the troubles of the world to the Jews...The audience agreed with me.”
[September 5, 1984] “...I have heard that the play based on your book – I am assuming the script is not by you – has already won five awards. Now that means something. Evidently you are not too pleased with this treatment of your life. What you say against it may be quite in order...You should realize that in the theatre the author of a play never has the last word...First, the director takes over his script, and then the actors determine what it will mean to audiences...Don’t be too hard on the people who put the play on. They did have to tailor it to the public’s taste. Otherwise, why do it?”
[April 9, 1986] “It is a long time since I have written you, and of course, as was to be expected, a number of things happened in the interval: an offer to publish your play. That’s the important thing. And then, you decided, without consulting me, to edit your letters to me, also my letters to you. In addition, you want to dedicate the whole book, containing my preface, our correspondence and your play – to Norman Mailer, ‘Uncle Norman.’
“On that last matter, I must register disapproval. It is not that I am against Norman. I’ll remind you that I defended him in one of my letters to you against charges of insensitivity and lack of understanding made by you. But whatever Norman is to you, he is not a personal friend of mine. Nor can I regard him as an ‘uncle.’ I should say he is more like a nephew since he so vividly recalls to me the ‘nephew of Rameau...’ I most certainly will not even metaphorically say ‘uncle’ to Norman Mailer. If you have a pipe, you can put that in it and smoke it!
“Also I do not consent to the editing job you have done on your letters, and I don’t understand why you wanted to do this. When you write letters, they are no longer letters; they become calculated essays in self advertisement, public relations puffs. Now why should you take all that spontaneous out of your correspondence? What are you afraid of? In any case...the letters have to stand as written or the whole publishing venture is off. I won’t go through with it.
“...I have to make still another point you may not like to hear. I recommended your play for publication because I thought it a brilliant piece of writing. But there was something I did not like about the play. Morally, I can’t approve it. I can’t approve your effort to make your victim, the young man you killed, the villain of the drama. You insist on your own moral superiority to him; I would rather see you contrite than self-righteous.
“So Jack, with all my liking for you, we have many disagreements. I hope you will take my criticism as genuine...I think the publishing venture a good one and I intend to begin writing a preface...as soon as I hear that you are willing to publish our letters as unedited. I simply won’t feel right about doing a preface, which will have to touch on our relations, if you don’t yield on this point.
“...Remember this: a quarrel is often a sign that a friendship is becoming more and, not less, genuine.”
The Abbott letters are very readable. Most have transcriptions. The Abel letters are type written signed and contain his corrections. A couple of letters are photo copies. All in all an excellent archive of a person and his story which, for a time, stole the hearts of the New York Intellegentsia.
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