The Ambitions and Insecurities of Literary Giant Norman Mailer
. . . But the rest of the session raised some serious issues about keeping the proper distance with a subject who was a part of your life, as J. Michael Lennon dealt with before starting a biography of Norman Mailer. Lennon knew the writer for decades and became friendly with his children. He was even included in some of the letters Mailer wrote, and which Lennon edited and used as sources for his book. In his case, Lennon became a character in the story at times, and he wrestled with how much of himself to include, finally coming to the conclusion, “You can’t leave yourself out of certain junctures” when the biographer’s life overlaps with the subjects.
Norman Mailer was the most famous writer of his generation. People who never read a word that he wrote knew who he was, whether because of his fame as a novelist or journalist, or his notoriety because of his many marriages and affairs, his rivalries with other writers (Gore Vidal, especially), his appearances on television, his campaign for mayor of New York City, his prominence as the leading public intellectual of his time.
J. Michael Lennon was authorized by Mailer and the Mailer estate to write his biography, and as such, had access to family and friends, and to unpublished documents, notably Mailer’s letters (Lennon has edited the letters for publication by Random House, Mailer’s longtime publisher). He has interviewed more than 80 people for this biography, but most important of all, he knew Mailer for decades before the latter’s death in 2007.
Norman Mailer: A Double Life reflects Mailer’s dual identities: journalist and activist, devoted family man and notorious philanderer, intellectual and fighter, writer and public figure. Mailer himself said he had two sides “and the observer is paramount.” Readers of Lennon’s biography may find this self-assessment to be debatable.
Mailer was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song). His first book, The Naked and the Dead, was an enormous best-seller, and Mailer would have ten more bestsellers, both fiction and non-fiction. He knew many of the most famous writers of his generation — Capote, Didion, Styron, James Jones, Lillian Hellman, Bellow, Vidal, Tom Wolfe — and quarreled with several of them. He was married six times, had nine children, and had numerous affairs. He stabbed his second wife, and later championed a convict writer (Jack Henry Abbot) who, on his release from prison, stabbed an innocent man to death. Mailer co-founded The Village Voice and wrote a column for that paper in the late 1950s. He ran for mayor of New York City in 1969 (with Jimmy Breslin as his running mate), a campaign that was as entertaining as it was quixotic. He was a prominent opponent of the War in Vietnam, and bete noire of the women’s movement. He was one of the leading voices of the New Journalism of the 1960s. He obsessed about the Kennedy assassination and the suicides of Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway, and wrote often about all three of these iconic figures. He was perhaps the most provocative chronicler of the second half of the twentieth century, both as journalist and novelist.
Lennon shows Mailer’s self-conscious effort to create an identity for himself, one that evolved constantly, based on an idiosyncratic amalgam of Marx, Freud, Wilhelm Reich, and dollops of whatever he gathered from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Lawrence and Stendhal, among others. Few people have ever tried on as many personas as Mailer — fighter, lover, philosopher, novelist, journalist, biographer politician, Jew, American. Whether you admired him or loathed him, he was remarkable and unique. His was an astonishing life.
Table of Contents
- Prologue: The Riptides of Fame, June 1948
- Chapter 1: Long Branch and Brooklyn
- Chapter 2: Harvard
- Chapter 3: The Army
- Chapter 4: Paris and Hollywood: Prominent and Empty
- Chapter 5: The Deer Park
- Chapter 6: General Marijuana and the Navigator
- Chapter 7: A Felonious Assault and An American Dream
- Chapter 8: Third Person Personal: Armies and After
- Chapter 9: Politician to Prisoner
- Chapter 10: The Turn to Biography
- Chapter 11: Death Wishes: Gilmore and Abbott
- Chapter 12: Pharaohs and Tough Guys
- Chapter 13: An Unfinished Cathedral: Harlot’s Ghost
- Chapter 14: A Merry Life and a Married One
- Chapter 15: Old Freighter, Uncertain Sea
Mike explains the importance of showing the “inner life” in biographies. From an appearance in 2011.
New York, N.Y., November 2008 – An authorized biography of Norman Mailer has been acquired by Simon & Schuster, it was announced today. The book is being written by J. Michael Lennon, a longtime friend of Mailer’s and a professor at Wilkes University. Personally chosen by Mailer as his official biographer, Lennon will have the cooperation of the Mailer estate, and base the book in part on his extensive interviews with Mailer over the past several years, as well as access to Mailer’s unpublished works and letters at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas.
Lennon is the late Mailer’s archivist and has written/edited several books about him, including Norman Mailer: Works and Days, Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, Conversations with Norman Mailer, Norman Mailer’s Letters on An American Dream, 1963-69, and most recently, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, co-authored with Mailer. He is the current president of The Norman Mailer Society and past president of The James Jones Literary Society. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Playboy, Provincetown Arts, New York, Modern Fiction Studies, New England Review, Narrative and Journal of Modern Literature, among others.
Lennon commented: “I met Norman in 1972 and we became good friends over the years. I have been collecting material for this biography almost from the beginning of our relationship. Beginning in 2003, Norman did a series of in-depth interviews with me on his life and work with the clear sense that the historical record had to be preserved. These interviews, along with others with his widow Norris and other family and friends will be essential to my effort. Norman Mailer lived a fantastically full and dramatic life, and a productive one. He was the chief interpreter of the last half of the American century, and his major works, including THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF, THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, changed the rhythms of American prose. No career in our literature has been as brilliant, varied, public, prolific and controversial.”
World rights to the book were acquired by Simon & Schuster Executive Vice President and Publisher David Rosenthal from John Taylor “Ike” Williams of Kneerim & Williams. The book will be edited by VP and Senior Editor Bob Bender. Rosenthal said: “With his interviews with Mailer, his close friends and family members, and access to the Mailer Archive, Mike Lennon is the very best person to undertake this biography. It is a monumental life that will get the book it deserves.”
Simon & Schuster, a part of the CBS Corporation, is a global leader in the field of general interest publishing, dedicated to providing the best in fiction and nonfiction for consumers of all ages, across all printed, electronic, and audio formats. Its divisions include Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, Simon & Schuster Audio, Simon & Schuster Digital, and international companies in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.