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J. Michael Lennon (left) and Norman Mailer.
J. Michael Lennon (left) and Norman Mailer./Handout

The two sides of Mailer

J. Michael Lennon, a mild-mannered retired English professor, will forever be linked to the combative Norman Mailer. His 900-page biography, “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” (Simon & Schuster), was published this past fall to wide acclaim, and Lennon is now in the throes of editing 50,000 of Mailer’s letters for a book to be published in the fall of 2014. It was a letter, after all, that first joined Lennon’s life to Mailer’s.

A student of Mailer’s work for 40 years, Lennon wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Armies of the Night,” about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, and it remains his favorite Mailer nonfiction book. In 1971, after watching Mailer’s raucous exchange with Gore Vidal on “The Dick Cavett Show,” Lennon wrote Mailer a letter of encouragement. Mailer responded, beginning a long correspondence between the two. (After the debacle, Mailer vowed never to drink again before going on TV.)

The following year Lennon and Mailer met at a bar when Mailer stopped in Illinois on a book tour. After that, Lennon and his family visited with the Mailers in Provincetown during summers. Mailer accepted Lennon’s offer to put together a collection of his essays and interviews. A second collection followed in 1986, when Mailer asked Lennon to be one of his literary executors.

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In the late 1990s, Lennon and his wife, Donna, moved to Provincetown to be close to Mailer; Lennon continued interviewing him. At the time, University of Pennsylvania professor Robert F. Lucid was working on an authorized biography of Mailer. Lennon was his understudy, stepping in after Lucid died in 2006, a year before Mailer’s death. By that time, Lennon had read the 25 million words that make up Mailer’s correspondence.

One of the pleasant surprises in Mailer’s letters is how generous he was to aspiring novelists. “If you wrote him a serious letter, you got one back,” Lennon explained in an e-mail. “And he read their work, gave shrewd advice, provided blurbs, sent the best stuff to his agent and editors. This was done quietly, assiduously, for decades, in person sometimes, but usually by letter. I would say that he wrote several thousand such letters . . . This was the other side of his narcissism. He was of two minds on everything, but the blustery side gets all the attention.” Indeed.

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‘Moby-Dick’ marathon

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s 18th annual marathon reading of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” kicks off Saturday at noon. All 160 reading slots have been booked. The festivities will begin Friday with the opening of an exhibit featuring artworks inspired by the classic novel and a talk by Gene Scheer, librettist of the “Moby-Dick” opera. Close readers of “Moby-Dick” are invited to “Stump the Scholars” on Saturday. The schedule of events is at www.whalingmuseum.org. The reading, expected to last 25 hours, will be live streamed.

Coming out

■  “A Year of Miracles: Daily Devotions and Reflectionsby Marianne Williamson (HarperOne)

■  “Financially Fearless: The LearnVest Program for Taking Control of Your Money” by Alexa Von Tobel (Crown)

■  “The Death Trade” by Jack Higgins (Putnam)

Pick of the Week

Darwin Ellis of Books on the Common in Ridgefield, Conn., recommends “Let Him Go” by Larry Watson (Milkweed): “This moving novel of loss and of two women with competing claims on a small boy is set in the West of the 1950s when justice was spotty and sometimes very personal.”

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Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.