A Conversation With Norman Mailer Scholar J. Michael Lennon
J. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer's archivist and Emeritus Vice President and Ermitus Profesor of English at Wilkes University, recently spoke with the Ransom Center about Mailer and the upcoming Fleur Cowles Flair symposium, The Sense of Our Time: Norman Mailer and America in Conflict.
Tell us about the upcoming Flair conference.
The thing that impresses me about the Flair conference is that it very much parallels the scope of [Mailer's] massive anthology that came in '98, called The Time of Our Time, and anyone who looks at the table of contents of The Time of Our Time will see that it's all about postwar America and the upheavals of postwar America. And so the Cold War and the Kennedy assassination, the CIA, the Cuban invasion, the missile crisis, Vietnam, civil rights, the rise of New Journalism, the countercultural explosion, the '60s and the '70s, feminism—all the things that are going to be discussed at the Flair conference really are reflected in the contents of that anthology.
Mailer is so well known for expressing his views on major issues in the second half of the twentieth century. Is there a topic he never wrote about that you would like to hear him take on?
I always wanted him to write about baseball—I love baseball. And he never has. He talked about it years ago, of covering a World Series, but when the Brooklyn Dodgers left Brooklyn and went to Los Angeles, he said, "That's it, I'm never going to another baseball game." And he didn't go to one for about 30 years. Now he watches the Red Sox, and I think he likes them more than any other team. I'd also like to see what his take is on immigration. His family were immigrants, and everybody in America ultimately is an immigrant, except for Native Americans. And it's such a huge, divisive issue. It's the perfect kind of issue for him to write about. I think if he were younger, he would be tempted to write about it because he was married to a Peruvian, Adele Morales, and his daughters are very proud of their heritage. And I think he has a feel for that. He spent a lot of time in Mexico. He went down there in the '50s and '60s, and of course he also served with the Texas outfit in World War II and served with a lot of Hispanic Americans. But right now, he's 83, going on 84, and I don't think he's ready to take that kind of research on.
What are your thoughts on the Mailer exhibition?
I think the exhibition is by far the most impressive exhibition of the life and work of Norman Mailer ever mounted. I've put on some exhibitions myself at various places that I've taught, and I've seen other exhibitions that Random House has put on, but I've never seen anything of this scope and this care, this great care that's been involved in the selection of the materials and how they all support each other. The mixture of the visual and the written is really judiciously done. It's a credit to the Ransom Center that people are going to be able to move back and forth between Flair sessions and then take a break and get out and be really stunned by what they see at the exhibition.
Was there one Mailer work that hooked you and drove you to study him?
When I was a young man and just about to start my doctoral work, and having just got out of the Navy at the height of the Vietnam War, I read Advertisements for Myself. And I can remember vividly sitting where I sat on the park bench in Newport, Rhode Island, reading it, and just being extremely impressed with the honesty, the edginess, the candor, the kind of sardonic humor of all those advertisements that held the book together.
He was sort of conducting his own analysis out loud while he was arguing with the way the country was going at the same time. And so, it convinced me of the power of that kind of nonfiction writing, very open, very candid, very self-critical, critical of others around him. Feeling that he wasn't doing all that he could have done, and neither was the country.
Lennon has published widely on Mailer, including (with Donna Pedro Lennon), Norman Mailer: Works and Days (2000), and edited several of Mailer's works, including Pontifications (1982), Conversations with Norman Mailer (1988) and The Spooky Art (2005). Currently, he is editing Mailer's letters, to be published by Random House in 2007, and is the president of The Norman Mailer Society.