The private thoughts of a public man: the ambitions and insecurities of literary giant Norman Mailer

J. Michael Lennon, author of “Norman Mailer: A Double Life,” spoke to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about the ambitions and insecurities of the literary giant.

Norman Mailer had quite a public persona. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning American fiction and nonfiction novelist, a journalist, a political candidate and a celebrity with a macho reputation.

But, according to J. Michael Lennon, a long-time friend of the larger-than-life writer, his archivist and literary executor, it all comes back to one point: Mailer was a man of great ambition who felt he had something to say about America.

“He felt he understood it, in ways that only … let’s say the son of immigrant New Yorkers could understand it, somebody who had been in the service of course — that was a great revelation for him, serving with guys from Texas in the Philippines when he was overseas,” said Lennon.

“He felt he saw it from all sides, from the South and the North from native-born Texans and the immigrant Irish and Italians and Jews in New York.”

After spending decades working with Mailer on his books and writing and editing several books about the literary giant, Lennon set out to compose a comprehensive biography, one that set the records straight about who the man really was.

“I wanted to capture his inner life. The biographies that had been written before — there were four of them — were all valuable,” said Lennon. “They presented some good material but they really didn’t have any access to what was on mailer’s mind, what he was thinking about what he was dreaming about what he was writing in his journals and his letters. He very much felt that himself.”

Equipped with the unique perspective gained from family vacations, interviews and professional ventures, Lennon write “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” to interpret the private Mailer.

According to Lennon, Mailer’s literary aspiration was to become one of the greatest writers in America, but he always felt tension between fiction and nonfiction.

“The novel was always the main event; it was always the highest art form … but he found that his journalism was more popular than his fiction and he found it easier to write. He said the story was there, but he found that his nonfiction was wining Pulitzer Prizes.”

Overtime, “the forms began to grow into each other. The novel had a lot of historical figures in them and his journalism had a lot fictional technique.”

But, Lennon said, his ambition and success did not come without insecurity. In fact, he almost gave up writing before he co-founded the Village Voice and in Lennon’s opinion, “that changed everything.”