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A MAN OF MANY LETTERS

At 84, prolific author Norman Mailer shows no quit. The Mailer Review, a new literary journal edited by a USF professor, takes a closer look at the man and his work.
Published Oct. 16, 2007|Updated Oct. 16, 2007

At 84, Norman Mailer is still in the fight.

Mailer, one of the towering figures of 20th century American literature, has written more than 40 books, garnering two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. He has been a film director and an actor, a journalist and political activist, a candidate for mayor of New York. He is married to his sixth wife and is the father of nine children.

Last week, Mailer had surgery for a collapsed lung. Today, his latest book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, will be published by Random House. Michael Lennon, the book's co-writer and Mailer's literary executor, says he expects the author will be back at work on a planned series of novels about Hitler (the first was this year's The Castle in the Forest) "as soon as he's back on his feet."

One of the protean figures of American culture, the outspoken Mailer has at various times ticked off feminists and the military, conservatives and liberals, not to mention the literary establishment.

He also is a figure of fascination for scholars, and now his life and work are the focus of a new literary journal, the Mailer Review, co-sponsored by the University of South Florida and the Norman Mailer Society.

All about Mailer

The journal's editor is Phillip Sipiora, a professor in the English department at USF. After the first copy of the journal's inaugural issue arrived in Tampa last week, Sipiora compared its creation to giving birth.

It's a handsome baby. The 265-page journal features two previously unpublished pieces by Mailer, articles by noted Mailer scholars Morris Dickstein and the late Robert Lucid, intriguing images from Mailer's archives, a reminiscence by his sister and an interview with the photojournalist he worked with on The Executioner's Song, book reviews and an entertaining piece by novelist William Kennedy titled "Norman Mailer as Occasional Commentator in a Self-Interview and Memoir."

"Phil is a very imaginative editor," Lennon says. It's somewhat unusual for a literary journal to be devoted entirely to the study of a single living author, he says: "I don't know of anything quite this ambitious on a living writer."

Sipiora, a founding member of the Norman Mailer Society when it formed in 2003, says he began thinking about starting a journal soon after that. In 2006, he received a promise of financial support for the publication from Hunt Hawkins, chairman of USF's English department.

The next step, he says, was conferring about the project with Lennon, a professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania whose professional and personal relationship with Mailer goes back 35 years.

Lennon encouraged Sipiora and helped him gain Mailer's approval of the journal (although the author has no financial or editorial connection to it). The Mailer Society voted unanimously to support the journal and made Sipiora the founding editor.

He estimates the inaugural issue represents "thousands of hours" of work. Mailer, who lives in Provincetown, Mass., was scheduled to speak at USF in September to mark its publication, but the trip was vetoed by his doctors. "We're still hoping to reschedule," Sipiora says.

A varied resource

Mailer's body of work is an especially rich source for study, Sipiora says, because it is so eclectic. Mailer made a huge splash with his first book, The Naked and the Dead, a World War II novel published in 1948, when he was 25.

But Mailer never limited himself to fiction. He was in the vanguard in the 1960s of what was called new journalism, a form that combined traditional reporting with novelistic techniques of description and character development.

Both of Mailer's Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to books that he called "nonfiction novels": The Armies of the Night (1968), a masterfully experimental report on the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon (it also won a National Book Award); and The Executioner's Song (1979), a riveting account of the execution by firing squad of murderer Gary Gilmore.

Mailer has written biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso and Lee Harvey Oswald, collections of essays, screenplays and plays, reams of magazine journalism and novels about Jesus, Hitler and the CIA.

Lennon has been working for the last five years on a collection of Mailer's letters, which he says is almost ready to go to the publisher. The process required winnowing through Mailer's archives at the University of Texas at Austin, which consist of some 45,000 documents. "He kept everything," Lennon says, estimating they total about 20-million words; the collection will gather about 700 letters.

Mailer's new book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, was scheduled to be published in January. It was speeded up, Lennon says, because "God is a very hot topic in publishing right now."

The book is a series of dialogues with Lennon in which Mailer addresses a wide range of religious subjects, including the Ten Commandments, intelligent design, atheism, reincarnation and whether technology was devised by the devil.

"There's always something new with Norman," Lennon says. "He's not settling into a groove. He's always listening for the sound of a train whistle over the hill."

Contact Colette Bancroft at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

The inside scoop

The inaugural issue of the Mailer Review features a wide range of items about Norman Mailer, including letters, photographs and notes such as the time line and plot chart for his novel Harlot's Ghost, above.

FAST FACTS

On God: An UncommonConversation

By Norman Mailer

Random House, 224 pages, $26.95

The Mailer Review

For information on the review, call (813) 974-9488 or (813) 974-9465, or e-mail sipiora@cas.usf.edu.

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