J. Michael Lennon, vice president emeritus for academic affairs, professor emeritus of English and co-founder of the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes University, is garnering significant praise and international media attention for his new biography of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer. Released Oct. 15 by Simon & Schuster, Norman Mailer: A Double Life is described by The Washington Post as “a great wallop of a book.”
In the two weeks following the book’s release, more than 50 print and online stories and 20 reviews have appeared about the biography, including the Oct. 20 cover story of the New York Times Book Review by Graydon Carter, who says, “There’s not a paragraph in this enormous book that doesn’t contain a nugget of something you should have known or wish you had known.” Lennon has conducted 10 broadcast interviews in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baton Rouge, including national broadcasts on National Public Radio, MSNBC and The Jewish Channel TV.
In his New York Times book review, Carter says, “Lennon has it all, and he has it down. And despite being his subject’s literary executor, he has not sanded the corners of a career and life, each of which has plenty of texture and lots of sharp edges.” The following week, Lennon’s biography received the New York Times Editor’s Choice pick.
In what Publishers Weekly refers to as a “meticulous authorized biography,” the book reflects Mailer’s dual identities: journalist and activist, devoted family man and notorious philanderer, intellectual and fighter, writer and public figure. The Miami Herald describes Lennon’s depiction of Mailer as “an extraordinarily complex personality who thrived on turbulence.”
As Mailer’s authorized biographer, Lennon was given access to thousands of letters, interviews and other materials. Integrating the streams of material became the most difficult part of the biography project for Lennon.
Included in the plethora of papers were over 45,000 letters written to and by Mailer, unpublished journals and interviews with Mailer, his friends and family. One of Lennon’s chief challenges was ensuring that Mailer and his private life were accorded as much exposition and analysis as the public man. The Wall Street Journal says that Lennon “marshals an impressive amount of research and deploys it deftly.”
Lennon describes how he got to know the late author. “In 1971, right after he got into a tussle with Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show, I wrote him a letter of support, and also passed on some of my theories about his recent nonfiction books, which were changing the way major events were reported,” Lennon says. Mailer was one of the leading voices of the New Journalism during the 1960s. This literary genre is a writing technique that combines fictional story telling with reportage.
After corresponding, Lennon and Mailer met in fall 1972 at Western Illinois University. Mailer had presented a reading from his account of the 1972 elections. “We talked late into the night at a local bar,” recalls Lennon, who chairs the Mailer Review board. “And every summer after that, my family and I visited him in Maine or Provincetown, Mass.” Over time, they grew closer as Lennon began editing books by and about Mailer. In 1986, after reading Lennon’s book, Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, Mailer asked him to serve as one of his literary executors.
Mailer described his relationship with Lennon in the preface of a bio-bibliography Norman Mailer: Works and Days, written by Lennon and his wife, Donna Pedro Lennon. “Sometimes I think Mike Lennon and I were as designed for each other as some species of American Yin and Yang, as hot dogs, perhaps, and mustard. His talents, his discipline, and his ambition form a compliment to all the slacks, voids, and indolences of my nature,” Mailer wrote. Book reviews confirm that Lennon was the perfect person to pen this biography. The Huffington Post says the biography is “a massive brilliant book that needs attention because knowing of Mailer’s life and work may tell us something about ourselves.” Adds the Washington Post, Lennon “is the reporter’s eye, not the judge’s, and he captures the entirety of a man who embodied his era like no other.”
Mailer won Pulitzer Prizes for The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song. His first book, The Naked and the Dead, was an enormous bestseller, and Mailer would have 10 more bestsellers from the 44 books he published. He also was co-founder of The Village Voice.
Mailer, who died in 2007 at 84, was the founding chair of the Wilkes Graduate Creative Writing Program advisory board. He was the keynote speaker at the June 2004 writing conference that kicked off the program. His wife, Norris Church Mailer, succeeded him on the advisory board and remained involved with the program until her death in November 2010. The Mailer family established a scholarship in her name.
For further information, please visit www.wilkes.edu/lennon.