On Tuesday, Sept. 17, Norman Mailer’s official biographer, J. Michael Lennon commenced the first in a series of lectures as a part of the hybrid Irish and Africana cultural studies program. J.M. Lennon is an emeritus professor of English at Wilkes University, as well as the father of University professor Joseph Lennon, who is also the head of the Irish Studies program.
Crystal Lucky, associate professor of English and director of the Africana studies program, introduced the lecture, highlighting the unique fusion of the departments, connected through their diaspora cultures. Lucky and Lennon devised this series through conversations inspired by the Irish Arts Center in New York, which they began to refer to affectionately as “the black and the green.” This semester will be devoted to interdisciplinary literature surrounding these two cultures.
“In short, I’m really excited about these offerings,” Lucky says. Lennon spoke after, introducing his father, and explained that one of their aims is to “move away from whiteness” concerning the Irish, as both Ireland and Africa are “marked by trauma and endurance.” J. M. Lennon’s wife, who was present at the lecture, edited, transcribed, and collected her husband’s notes while he wrote Mailer’s biography.
Lennon says that this biography of Mailer, which is called “Norman Mailer: A Double Life,” and comes out next month with Simon and Schuster, has been “a lifelong passion” for his father, and that the work is one of “high polish and scholarship.”
Lennon notes that his father was a good friend of Mailer’s and that he “studied him in the quiet hours,” becoming “the archivist of his life.” The two even wrote a book together, called “On God: An Uncommon Conversation.” Mailer died in the month the book was published.
J.M. Lennon began his reading by focusing on the part of his book that looks at Mailer in 1960, as he was preparing to meet and interview then-presidential-candidate John F. Kennedy. Lennon “didn’t know much about politics and political writing” at that time, according to J.M. Lennon. He goes on to say that Mailer noticed certain qualities in Kennedy, such as “his sharp wit and self-assurance.” Mailer especially admired the Irish, and felt that particular style and elegance in Kennedy, who was Irish-American. About the Irish, he said, “they have what the Jews don’t have…and the Jews have what the Irish don’t have.”
J.M. Lennon read a passage that recalls Mailer realizing that for the first time he wrote with “deliberate political intention and wanted to get [Kennedy] elected.” He composed a 13,000-word essay after his interview with Kennedy at the family compound in Hyannisport, on Cape Cod, called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” The essay was published Oct. 18, a few weeks before the 1960 election.
“There was a moral sense in his piece,” J.M. Lennon notes. Jackie O. even wrote a four-page letter to Mailer after the essay was published, thanking him for the profile, saying she “’didn’t know American politics could be written about that way.’”
J.M. Lennon then read from the section of his book that features 1974, and the Heavyweight Championship known as the “Rumble in the Jungle” where Muhammad Ali was victorious. Mailer wrote about Ali for LIFE magazine, and was “unable to resist a ringside seat” at that infamous championship. J.M. Lennon says that Mailer observed Ali’s training and “sensed Africa in the streets of Kinshasa, Zaire.”
J.M. Lennon quotes Mailer’s description of the fight, saying Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactic was genius, or “balance on the edge of impossibility.” Mailer remarked that, “art defeated power” on that day.
J.M. Lennon wrapped his reading by answering questions, and explaining that, “Mailer sanctioned everything for his biography.”
“He said, ‘tell it all’ and ‘put it all in,’” J.M. Lennon says. When asked about the time Mailer stabbed his wife, J.M. Lennon perceives that that was “drunken and cowardly” and that Mailer was a “womanizer, but also a family man.”
“Mailer said to include every blunder, every mistake,” J.M. Lennon says. “It’s hard to write a biography if you hate the person. There’s residual admiration.”
He goes on to describe the biographer as a “stage manager” and says that, while writing, he wanted to take himself out of the telling of Mailer’s life, so as to let the man’s writing and life speak for themselves.
J.M. Lennon’s book chronicles a dynamic man and a fearless writer, in three hundred sixty degrees.
The next event of this series will be held on Oct. 8, when award-winning novelist Colum McCann will discuss Frederick Douglass and read from his new book, “Transatlantic.”