It seems fitting that weighty new biographies of Norman Mailer and J. D. Salinger are appearing almost simultaneously this fall. Each left an indelible mark on 20th-century American letters, yet there the similarities end.
For most of his career, Salinger was an unpublished recluse, out of sight if not out of literary favor. Mailer was the anti-Salinger: prolific, almost to a fault; a relentless publicity seeker who gave hundreds of interviews, ran for mayor of New York, made movies, and courted celebrities (the Kennedys, Muhammad Ali) avidly; an intellectual drawn to the hot-button issues of his time (censorship, sexual liberation, the antiwar movement, feminism); and a guerrilla warrior against convention and conformity. Salinger, he once waggishly commented, was “the greatest mind who never left prep school.”
If the public Mailer was a force to be reckoned with, his private life was a three-ring circus with more high-wire acts than Ringling Bros. An incorrigible womanizer and serial adulterer, he married six times, sired nine children, drank heavily, brawled often, and wrote furiously, if not always artfully, to stay out of debt. In the Gospel According to Norman, attractive women were meant to be bedded and a proper literary dust-up ended with a punch in the nose.
His life story is well chronicled, the subject of several previous biographies and dozens of pieces of self-portraiture that helped define the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s. Is there really that much more to say about Norman Kingsley Mailer? J. Michael Lennon certainly thinks so — his new biography, “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” (Simon & Schuster), clocking in at more than 900 pages.
Lennon’s central thesis is that Mailer, who died in 2007 at 84, long struggled with dual, and dueling, aspects of his personality: observer and activist, rebel and establishment figure, philanderer and family man, saint and psychopath, rationalist and transcendentalist.
Mailer would hardly object. His close cooperation included many hours of interviews and access to his personal papers and letters, nearly 45,000 in all. If Lennon pulls few punches in chronicling Mailer’s many flaws, he also celebrates such triumphs as “The Armies of the Night” and “The Executioner’s Song,” works that will be read and admired for decades to come.
In the 1940s, Mailer fell in love with Provincetown, making it his primary home during his later years. In 2003, I interviewed Mailer at his house on Commercial Street. Asked what made P-town so special, he replied that, aside from its beauty, it was a place where artists, writers, gays, and commercial fishermen could happily coexist. “It’s never been a judgmental town,” he mused, adding, “I’m absolutely removed from being judgmental until you get to the highest places in the country. And then I’m very judgmental.”
Vintage Mailer. In judging his subject, Lennon rightfully lets it all hang out. With Mailer, after all, size always did matter.