J. Michael Lennon

Archivist, Biographer, Educator

Mailer’s Last Days

Coming Soon from Etruscan Press.

Looking for Joan Didion: Norman Mailer’s Opposite

When I was a young professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield back in the 70s, I felt the same ardent longing described by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, namely, the desire to have intense, candid, one-on-one conversations with the authors of books that knocked me out. I harbored this feeling in regard to two writers in particular:  Joan Didion and Norman Mailer. In 1968, they each published a book that would thereafter be seen as their signature work, Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of essays on the “atomization” of contemporary life, of things falling apart, set largely in California and other warm climes (her writer husband, John Gregory Dunne, once observed that “Joan never writes about a place that isn’t hot”), and Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, an arresting account  of his participation in the tumultuous anti-war protests in Washington, D.C. in fall 1967, told oddly, but unforgettably in the third person, as if “Norman Mailer,” the protestor arrested for crossing a picket line at the Pentagon, was a character in a novel. In the romantic American line, Didion and Mailer deployed aspects of their prickly and passionate personalities in these books as prisms to portray a nation in turmoil, while also challenging long-established, respected, (if somewhat stale) modes of “objective” writing. Both books implicitly made the claim that the character and involvement of the writer was an indispensable element in how events were depicted, characters revealed, stories told. Like two earlier romantics, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Didion and Mailer were polar opposites: she, restrained, reclusive and sardonic and possessed of a icepick rhetoric that recalls Emily’s poems; he, brash, self-involved and as fond of his long-winded operatic voice as was Walt. Both were profoundly influenced by Hemingway, and shared an appetite for characters who believed that “salvation lay in doomed and extreme commitments,” as Didion once put it.

Remembering James Jones

This month marks the 100th birthday of one of the most brilliant American writers of the mid-20th century,  novelist James Jones, who died in 1977. Author of eight novels, a collection of short stories and several works of nonfiction, he is best remembered for his WWII trilogy, From Here to Eternity (1951), The Thin Red Line (1962), and Whistle (1978). Eternity won the National Book Award in 1952,and was made into a memorable film that won eight Oscars. But his 1958 novel, Some Came Running, a 1266-page portrait of postwar America (1946-49) moving into corrupt commercial overdrive, stands near the trilogy in imaginative scope and insight into the American condition. Jones always referred to it as his greatest achievement. His nonfiction work, WWII (1975), in which he analyzes the war from an enlisted man’s point of view, is also one of his enduring works. Upper class historians, Jones  wrote from a viewpoint of idealism and economic security. The results are distorted, “and this is not to say the ideals are not eminently admirable. But they had almost no effect on your proletarian infantry soldier.” Jones was a grunt soldier. He was wounded at Guadalcanal, and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. 

Mailer on Henry Miller

In August of 1977, when visiting Mailer in Provincetown, I asked him to sign a copy of his new book, Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Writings of Henry Miller (Grove Press, October, 1976). He did, and because I usually use unsigned or paperback editions of Mailer’s work for reference, this signed edition has been untouched all these years. I recently found Mailer’s hand-written note, described below, laid in this copy. It was written in green pencil on the blank side of one page of a xerox copy of an essay by Mark Kram in Sports Illustrated (September 2, 1974), “The Fight’s Lone Arranger.” The piece is a profile of Don King, the promoter who was principally responsible for convincing George Foreman and Muhammad Ali to hold their October 1974  heavyweight championship bout in Zaire. Mailer underlined two passages in the essay, both of which describe King’s violent criminal background, for use in his planned account of the match, The Fight (Little, Brown, July 1975).  Paraphrases of the passages show up there (pp. 115-17). 

Lennon & Mooney on Working Together

A Conversation with Unexpected Turns

Two longstanding faculty members come together for publication. J. Michael Lennon, co-founder of our creative writing program, archivist, biographer and master of non-fiction, paired with Robert Mooney, wordsmith connoisseur, fiction genius and creator of time-shifting worlds? It feels improbable.

But in the fall of 2022, we shall all bear witness to this brilliant duo’s efforts as Etruscan Press releases Lennon’s book, edited by Mooney. And from the Zoom conversations we’ve had, it sounds like our two mentors will not disappoint. 

A Mistake 10,000 Miles Long

Robert Stone’s best work was inspired by the Vietnam War.

In interviews two decades apart (1985 and 2006) Robert Stone recalled what happened after finishing a difficult section at the end of his second novel, Dog Soldiers (1974), while working in the basement of a university library. He staggered out of his carrel, crying and talking to himself, and “ran right into the security guard. He almost went for his gun because it’s the middle of the night, and I looked completely demented. You can get very, very affected”. Stone (1937–2015) equated his passionate immersion in the lives of his characters with that of Charles Dickens.

Mike and Susan Mailer at the 92Y

Susan Mailer and Norman Mailer’s authorized biographer, J. Michael Lennon, will explore her story, but also that of the five years she spent writing her memoir. They will discuss how her psychoanalytic training aided her comprehension of her father’s complex personality, and how delving into her past turned out to be a second analysis for her. They will examine the similarities and differences between the act of writing and practicing analysis. And also, how becoming a writer has helped her maintain a continuing dialogue with her father, after his death in 2007.

The virtual event is on Sunday, November 15 at 7pm EST.

Mike Interviews Vicki Mayk

In Growing Up on the Gridiron, Vicki Mayk tells the story of Owen Thomas, his family, teammates, friends, and coaches and explores the health concern he helped to illuminate. It’s also the story of Dr. Ann McKee, the Boston University-based neuropathologist who bucked conventional wisdom and the football establishment, as she studied Owen’s brain and its larger significance.

Crafted Confession

Re-reading Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy planned to write a three-volume autobiography late in her life, but only finished the first, How I Grew (1987), before she died at the age of seventy-seven in 1989. It was politely received, as due the “First Lady of American Letters … our Joan of Arc”, as Norman Mailer referred to her, but the praise was generally tepid, largely because it was a twice-told tale. McCarthy had covered roughly the same years of her life in an earlier book, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Published in 1957, it is considered by some to be the best of her two dozen books, including eight novels and several volumes of essays, reportage and criticism. Its superiority derives not only from the passionate sense of justice that imbues the depiction of her ghastly Cinderella childhood, but also the singular circumstances of its composition.

Gallery: Book Release Party

From the book release party of Susan Mailer‘s In Another Place. Photos by Elizabeth Rainer (erainer [at] gmail [dot] com).

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