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Norman Mailer: A Double Life

Norman Mailer: A Double Life

by J. Michael Lennon

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From the biographer who knew Norman Mailer for decades comes the definitive, authorized portrait of the eminent novelist, journalist, and controversial public figure, based on extensive interviews and unpublished letters.

Norman Mailer was one of the giants of American letters and one of the most celebrated public figures of his time. He was a novelist,


From the biographer who knew Norman Mailer for decades comes the definitive, authorized portrait of the eminent novelist, journalist, and controversial public figure, based on extensive interviews and unpublished letters.

Norman Mailer was one of the giants of American letters and one of the most celebrated public figures of his time. He was a novelist, journalist, biographer, and filmmaker; a provocateur and passionate observer of his times; and a husband, father, and serial philanderer.

Perhaps nothing characterized Mailer more than his unbounded ambition. He wanted not merely to be the greatest writer of his generation, but a writer great enough to be compared to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. As Michael Lennon describes, he even had presidential ambitions, although he settled for running for mayor of New York City. He championed personal freedom and civil liberties, calling himself a “left conservative,” and yet he was Enemy #1 of the Women’s Movement. He was as pugnacious in real life as in print, engaging in famous feuds and fights. Although he considered himself first and foremost a novelist, his greatest literary contribution may have been in journalism, where he used his novelistic gifts in tandem with self-revelation to explore the American psyche. In that regard, the subtitle of his Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning Armies of the Night is telling: “History as a Novel, the Novel as History.” He would return to certain subjects obsessively: John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, sex, technology, and the intricate relationship of fame and identity. Michael Lennon’s definitive biography captures Mailer in all his sharp complexities and shows us how he self-consciously invented and reinvented himself throughout his lifetime.

Michael Lennon knew Mailer for thirty-five years, and in writing this biography, he has had the cooperation of Mailer’s late widow, Norris Church, his ex-wives, and all of his children, as well as his sister, Barbara. He also had access to Mailer’s vast, unpublished correspondence and papers, and he interviewed dozens of people who knew Mailer. Norman Mailer: A Double Life gives us the man in full, a remarkable and unique figure in the context of his times.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Graydon Carter
…J. Michael Lennon's sweeping full-scale biography…is a mighty undertaking befitting Mailer's lifetime of protean output…Lennon is a fluid writer, and he's done his homework. 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 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.
Publishers Weekly
In this meticulous authorized biography, Lennon offers a comprehensive and unflinching look at the life of the controversial American novelist, journalist, and filmmaker who dissected the zeitgeist from the 1950s until his death in 2007. Lennon, a personal friend and the literary executor of Mailer’s estate, had access to a trove of unpublished letters and interviews. The result, written in a measured and sometimes dry style, stresses the extremes of ugliness and compassion that defined the author’s life and work. Made famous by the publication of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer had a manic energy for writing and a roving intellect, thrusting himself into the center of current events and exploring topics such as Vietnam War protests and the history of the C.I.A. The prolific Mailer was also a public celebrity who made frequent television appearances and even ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York City. Though Lennon doesn’t hide Mailer’s dark side—his belligerent narcissism, infidelities, public drunkenness, and violence—he tries to balance these flaws by emphasizing Mailer’s passion for challenging received ideas, his sense of humor, and his moral seriousness as an opponent of power. While it’s difficult not to find Mailer the man repugnant, Lennon’s almost clinical perspective shows the author’s restless innovation, which was indispensable for understanding the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century. Agent: Ike Williams, Kneerim, Williams & Bloom. (Oct.)
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“In the hands of this superb biographer, Norman Mailer comes vividly to life—irresistible, brilliant, formidable, hungry for fame, and endlessly fascinating. Lennon’s great achievement lies in matching Mailer’s energy and talent with his own. This is surely one of the best biographies ever written of an American writer.”
Colum McCann
“Lennon captures Mailer brilliantly—in all his guises and disguises. At the heart of Mailer’s writing was a selfishness to live as many lives as possible, coupled with a deep and elusive empathy. He kept slipping into new times, and geographies, losing himself there. The only things worth doing were the things that might break a heart—and indeed he broke many. Lennon looks at a literary life with great compassion and comprehensive accuracy. A biography for scholars and readers alike.”
Deirdre Bair
“Norman Mailer lived a big, brash, bawdy, belligerent life, and J. Michael Lennon has captured every moment of it.”
William Kennedy
"Mailer comes alive on every page, often in his own words, compulsive in his self-overcoming, in his ‘Napoleonic’ battling with peers and critics to become America’s number-one writer, and in his often self-destructive dealings with the world he wanted to analyze (and did) and conquer (not quite). This biography is brisk and electric, a vigorous panorama of the ‘singular, unprecedented and irreplaceable’ life that Norman Mailer lived."
Gay Talese
“I knew Mailer for more than a half-century; he was the most prolific and wide-ranging literary intellect of my lifetime. Thanks to Lennon’s biography, I am learning a lot that I never knew.”
The Washington Post - David Kirby
“Lennon brings Mailer thoroughly alive in this great wallop of a book. His is the reporter’s eye, not the judge’s, and he captures the entirety of a man who embodied his era like no other.”
The New Yorker - Louis Menand
“[Lennon] adds many details and corrects some canards. He is especially good on the late, lion-in-winter years. . . .Lennon’s over-all argument seems right: ‘Mailer’s desire for fame, and his distaste for it, never abated over his long career.’”
The Wall Street Journal - Blake Bailey
“[Lennon] marshals an impressive amount of research and deploys it deftly. . . . As for Mailer’s exhaustingly various
oeuvre, Mr. Lennon knows it about as well as anyone alive.”
The Huffington Post - Dan Agin
"A massive brilliant book that needs attention because knowing of Mailer's life and work may tell us something about ourselves.”
The Christian Science Monitor - Peter Tonguette
The raw material that made up Mailer’s busy, teeming life might have given lesser biographers fits (or even suggested that a multi-volume approach was in order), but Lennon is able to keep pace – and so are we. . . . This enthralling book captures something of Mailer’s insatiable, ever-surprising interest in the world in which he lived."
The Plain Dealer - Daniel Dyer
"Mailer had invited Lennon to be his biographer, and this richly detailed, revealing and very frank volume is the happy result. . . . Masterful."
Men's Journal - Lee Siegel
“A swashbuckling literary adventure story."
Salon.com - Allen Barra
"Huge and satisfying. . . . An extraordinary biography of an extraordinary life."
Financial Times - Randy Boyagoda
"Lennon has done a very fine job of chronicling most every possible dimension of a sprawling, brawling, daredevil-cum-car wreck of a singularly great American writer’s life."
The Star Tribune (Minneapolis) - Carl Rollyson
"Likely to be the standard biography for this generation."
The San Francisco Chronicle - Kevin Canfield
"A perceptive biography, one with a keen understanding of [Mailer's] work, his mind and his darkest impulses."
Kirkus Reviews
Appropriately sprawling biography of the larger-than-life writer, brawler, provocateur and bon vivant. Norman Mailer (1923–2007), writes archivist and authorized biographer Lennon, grew up in a reasonably happy family, with a strong mother and dapper father, who, as Mailer wrote, "had the gift of speaking to each woman as if she was the most important woman he'd ever spoken to." Mailer himself was fairly obsessed with women, though his quest was often thwarted--as he recalled, particularly at Harvard, where he served something of an apprenticeship. Mailer came into adulthood with a noticeable chip on his shoulder and some well-aired grievances, and he kept the pattern up throughout a long and productive life. As Advertisements for Myself (1959) proclaimed, for instance, he maintained running feuds and rivalries with all manner of writers--and, as Lennon reveals, even took Ernest Hemingway by the horns, occasioning an apology from Papa some years later. He also battled editors and critics from the start, though Hemingway helpfully instructed on the matter of reviews, "Try for Christ sake not to worry about it so much. All that is poison." Lennon ably reveals the always-contentious Mailer but also a man who could be generous and very smart. Lennon is also a shrewd literary critic, commenting on the origins and fortunes of Mailer's works, notably his study of Marilyn Monroe, which laid bare "his narcissism, born of early spectacular success." Mailer possessed an outsized ego well before then, of course, but the point remains: Though he seems to be little read now, Mailer was of central importance in postwar American writing, as he would have been glad to tell you. Detailed and anecdotal without being gossipy (a yarn concerning a nicotine-addicted cat notwithstanding) and a must-read for students and admirers of Mailer's work.
The Sunday Times (London) - John Carey
"A gripping read. . . . You end up feeling that to have read this huge book is as good as to have met [Mailer] in the flesh. Perhaps better."
Library Journal
★ 11/01/2013
Lennon is an old friend of American writer Norman Mailer (1927–2007), who lived near the author during his final years in Provincetown, MA, and who worked on several projects with him, including On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007) and Conversations with Norman Mailer (1988). This biography has Mailer's blessing, and Lennon has taken Mailer's advice—"put everything in"—to heart. Drawing on more than 45,000 letters, conversations with Mailer himself, and interviews with family, friends, and lovers, Lennon presents an exhaustive, fascinating, and fair-minded account of his subject's life and work. He portrays Mailer as a dual-natured personality: a passive observer and an activist, a family man and a philanderer, a generous friend and someone who could hold a grudge, and a man at home with presidents and prizefighters. While Lennon treats readers to accounts of Mailer's celebrity and his relations with stars such as Muhammad Ali and Madonna, he also explores the writer's seamier side, including his stabbing of Adele Morales, his second wife, and his support of Jack Abbott, who committed murder after being paroled. Lennon discusses all of Mailer's works from conception to reception, tracing his artistic development and chronicling his stormy relationships with hostile critics. VERDICT Written with the cooperation of Mailer's family, this thoroughly researched biography promises to be definitive. Essential for anyone with a serious interest in Mailer and his work.—William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.70(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.20(d)

Meet the Author

J. Michael Lennon is Emeritus Vice President for Academic Affairs and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. In addition to being chair of the editorial board of The Mailer Review, he has written or edited several books about and with Mailer.

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