Thomas Mallon 1951-
American novelist, nonfiction writer, critic, biographer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Mallon's career through 2002.
Mallon has attracted popular and critical attention for his novels of historical fiction, such as Aurora 7 (1991) and Dewey Defeats Truman (1997), works which construct fictional narratives around actual historical figures and events. His plots typically focus on characters on the periphery of milestone events. For example, Henry and Clara (1994) follows the couple sitting next to President Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated. Mallon uses these characters to portray the true emotional and social impact of such landmark occasions. An accomplished critic and editor, Mallon has also published nonfiction works on a wide range of subjects, including Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism (1989), which explores the effects of plagiarism, and In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing (2001), which discusses the craft of writing.
Mallon was born on November 2, 1951, in Glen Cove, New York, to Arthur Vincent, a salesman, and Caroline Mallon, a homemaker. He received his B.A. from Brown University in 1973 and attended graduate school at Harvard University, earning his M.A. in 1974 and Ph.D. in 1978. He would later revisit his experiences at Harvard for his first novel, Arts and Sciences: A Seventies Seduction (1988). While interviewing for teaching positions in 1979, Mallon met biographer Phyllis Rose at Wesleyan University. They discussed a writing project Mallon had planned and Rose introduced him to a publisher, resulting in A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (1984). Mallon eventually accepted a professorship at Vassar, teaching English from 1979 to 1991. He also lived in England for a year as a visiting scholar at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge University. Mallon left academia in 1991 and became the literary editor at Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ). His essays and reviews have appeared in GQ, Harper's, New Yorker, American Scholar, Yale Review, Architectural Digest, New York Times Book Review, and Washington Post Book World. In 1986 Mallon was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship and in 1994 received the Ingram Merrill Award for outstanding work as a writer. In 1998 he served as chairman of the fiction judges for the National Book Awards.
Mallon's first novel, Arts and Sciences, draws on autobiographical elements of Mallon's own life. The plot follows Artie Dunne, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, as he tries to succeed at college and falls in love with a sophisticated classmate, Angela Downing. Aurora 7 depicts events in the lives of a variety of people on May 24, 1962, the day astronaut Scott Carpenter performed the dangerous feat of orbiting the earth three times. That morning, a young boy named Gregory Noonan—who is fascinated by Carpenter's mission—vanishes from his school. His parents must deal with Gregory's disappearance along with other pressures like his father's business troubles and his mother's difficulty with living up to the early 1960s ideal of domesticity. Henry and Clara is a fictional portrait of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the couple who sat in the theater box with President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln the night Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth. In Mallon's account, Henry and Clara's lives are blighted by their presence at the assassination, but they confront other challenges as well. Brought up as stepbrother and stepsister in a wealthy family in upstate New York, they encounter parental opposition to their love affair. Henry is moody and temperamental as a boy and these aspects of his character become more pronounced after his experiences as a soldier in the Civil War and the night at Ford's Theater, where he suffers a near-fatal knife wound at the hands of Booth. Henry must also endure questions about his conduct that night and whether he could have saved the President.
The plot of Dewey Defeats Truman unfolds in presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey's hometown of Owosso, Michigan, during the summer of 1948, when the heavily favored Dewey campaigned against Harry Truman for the presidency. Beguiled by the “certainty” of Dewey's election, the residents of Owosso make preparations for an onslaught of tourists and the reflected glory of their claims to their famous native son. Several subplots advance the narrative as well. In one, a young would-be writer named Anne Macmurray must choose between two suitors—a well-meaning union organizer or a wealthy, arrogant Republican. In another, an elderly resident named Horace Sinclair offers opposition to the town's tourist trappings because they will expose secrets from another era. The novel Two Moons (2000) is a somber meditation on science, mortality, and political power. The story features a love affair between a Civil War widow, Cynthia May, and a younger astronomer, Hugh Allison, whose dreams go beyond the mere charting of stars. Cynthia and Hugh work together at the United States Naval Observatory, paradoxically located in the swampy Foggy Bottom section of Washington, D.C. With the discovery of two moons in orbit around Mars, they hope to receive funding for a better facility and to be located beyond the reach of Foggy Bottom's mosquito population. Their work draws the attention of Republican power-broker Roscoe Conkling, whose attempts to help Hugh are motivated not by an interest in science, but rather by an attraction to Cynthia.
Mallon has also published a number of essay collections and nonfiction works. His first published work, Edmund Blunden (1983), creates a biographical portrait of the English World War I poet. A Book of One's Own surveys the work of more than one hundred diarists throughout history, including Samuel Pepys, Leonardo da Vinci, Virginia Woolf, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Mallon divides the writers into several different categories such as confessors, travelers, and apologists, using these to further examine the character of the authors. Stolen Words explores examples of plagiarism in academia, the sciences, and entertainment ranging from the seventeenth century to the 1980s. Mallon's 1993 book of essays, Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles, offers his take on certain distinctly American “spectacle” events, including a New York bank robbery trial, a rocket mission to study the Aurora Borealis, the Sundance Film Festival, and a vigil before an execution at the San Quentin penitentiary. In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing presents a selection of essays and reviews that deal with the art of writing and the works of such modern authors as Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, and Siegfried Sassoon. In 2002 Mallon published Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, a nonfiction work that focuses on Ruth Paine, a woman who befriended Lee Harvey Oswald, the eventual assassin of President Kennedy. Using interviews and documented facts, Mallon creates a narrative portrait of the relationship between Ruth, Lee, and Lee's wife, Marina, as well as of Ruth's role in the criminal investigations after Kennedy's murder.
Much of the critical discussion of Mallon's work has included debate over the validity of the genre of historical fiction, with several critics arguing that it is inappropriate for such authors as Mallon to speculate on the emotions and inner thoughts of historical figures. For example, some have debated whether Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy should be considered a work of fiction or nonfiction because of Mallon's inclusion of conversations and events that deviate from the historical record. Other reviewers, however, have praised Mallon's narratives, noting that his fiction provides an emotional perspective to the objective details of history. Algis Valiunas has remarked, “Mallon's recurrent theme is the way men and events that will go down in history alter the trajectory of ordinary people's lives, as the gravitational field of a star or planet bends a passing beam of light.” Scholars have also commended Mallon for his ability to blend extensive historical research into the plots of his novels. James Kaufmann has stated, “When it comes to period detail, Mallon has perfect pitch.” Some reviewers have faulted Mallon's fiction for being overly nostalgic, but others have complimented his straightforward prose style and lack of pretense. Mallon's nonfiction works, particularly Stolen Words, have also received critical praise. Jon Saari has noted that, “At its best [Stolen Words] melds scholarship and detective fiction, assembling the evidence and showing the human drama that accompanies the act of plagiarism.”
Edmund Blunden (biography) 1983
A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (nonfiction) 1984
Arts and Sciences: A Seventies Seduction (novel) 1988
Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism (nonfiction) 1989
Aurora 7 (novel) 1991
Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles (essays) 1993
Henry and Clara (novel) 1994
Dewey Defeats Truman (novel) 1997
Two Moons (novel) 2000
In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing (essay and criticism) 2001
Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy (nonfiction) 2002
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SOURCE: Cole, William. “Lighter-Than-Air Craft.” Saturday Review 10 (November-December 1984): 90.
[In the following excerpt, Cole argues that Mallon's study of diarists throughout history in A Book of One's Own is a “book cried out to be written.”]
This book cried out to be written, and the call was answered by Thomas Mallon in A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries. For him, the word “diary” embraces journals, day-books, commonplace books and, in some cases, writers' notebooks. Of the diarists quoted, Pepys is tops. He was quite a terrible fellow, groping the servant girls, mean to his wife, licking the boots of his superiors. But, in his copious diary, he really dove in and showed the steaming London life of the 1660s. He embodied the total diarist, giving the trivia of daily life as well as first-hand accounts of the great events. Also represented are the rambunctious Boswell; the Goncourt brothers, “brutal, bored, and unshockable,” who took Parisian society apart, and, more up-to-date, George Templeton Strong, who wrote four million words about his beloved New York City in the mid-nineteenth century.
Among my favorites is The Journal of a Disappointed Man by the pseudonymous W. N. P. Barbellion, a sickly man early in this century, who lived only for his diary. When he had a guest, he would inevitably pull a volume of his diary and, after...
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SOURCE: D'Evelyn, Thomas. Review of A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries, by Thomas Mallon. Christian Science Monitor 77, no. 11 (7 December 1984): B15.
[In the following review, D'Evelyn discusses Mallon's examination of the different styles of diarists and diaries in A Book of One's Own.]
Since most of us at one time or another, if not continuously, keep a diary, [A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries] will have wide appeal. Much more than an anthology of pages from published diaries, it is a nicely written account of, as it says in the subtitle, people and their diaries. Mallon has analyzed the people of the title into seven unambiguous types, and the diary writers among us will want to know where they fit in.
One kind of diary antedates the diary proper. The commonplace book is really a blank book used to record things worth recording. Ben Jonson's Discoveries, now considered to be one of the first works of literary criticism in English, is so seamlessly written that it is often taken to be personal effusions, when in fact it is almost all translated and quoted from other writers.
The diarist, on the other hand, must write his own diary. Furthermore, he must not think about anyone reading it. Mr. Mallon opens his introduction by confessing (the Confessor is one type of diarist) that “there are about thirty of them...
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SOURCE: McCartney, George. Review of A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 18, no. 4 (April 1985): 46-7.
[In the following review, McCartney praises Mallon for presenting his subject matter in A Book of One's Own without trying to ascribe a grand theory to the overall work.]
What's the point of keeping a diary? Oscar Wilde knew. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train,” he had Gwendolyn Fairfax declare in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Gwendolyn makes her brief appearance in Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries for what her remark tells us of the diary's evolution. Mallon elaborates:
Having been brought to life partly by the dour Puritans of the seventeenth century as a place in which the faithful might privately expiate their sins, the diary had become, by the late nineteenth century, more typically the place in which they could savor them. … By unburdening one's soul on paper, one could have one's sins and remember them, too. Confession was still good for the soul, but now it could be a positive delight to the eyes as well.
“Pepys would have been pleased,” Mallon adds, no doubt recalling some passages from the master diarist he has cited earlier, especially the one in which...
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SOURCE: Dunlap, John R. Review of Arts and Sciences: A Seventies Seduction, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 21, no. 5 (May 1988): 46.
[In the following review, Dunlap offers a positive assessment of Arts and Sciences, calling the novel “tightly plotted, witty, good humored, full of good sentiment, [and] utterly unsentimental.”]
Several years ago—in fact, the very year (1973) in which the plot of Thomas Mallon's first novel begins to unfold—Tom Wolfe wrote an essay on “The New Journalism,” wherein occurs a passing retrospective on Wolfe's five years in graduate school. Wolfe, doubtful of his ability to convey “the remotest idea” of the horrifying experience and groping through half a long paragraph for an appropriate metaphor, finally likens graduate school to “being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run, with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic overboil, and George McGovern sitting beside you and telling you his philosophy of government.”
Just so. But in the same paragraph Wolfe denies the possibility of what half the students he met in graduate school swore they would do: write a novel about it. No way—the topic “defied literary exploitation.” Such a novel couldn't happen; it would have to be a study “of...
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SOURCE: Kenner, Hugh. “Stop, Thieves!” American Spectator 23, no. 2 (February 1990): 39-41.
[In the following review, Kenner argues that Mallon neglects to address several pertinent issues in Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, but notes that Mallon did an admirable job with the subject despite such omissions.]
Writer? “A reader moved to emulation.”
Jorge Luis Borges dreamed of a Universal Library from which every thinkable book could be shown to have been plagiarized; it would simply contain, printed and bound, all possible sequencings of characters, not forgetting some hundreds of pages of just “z.” Though his Library of Babel is a good deal too big for practicable production, one might still argue that the English language contains, potentially, all that can be said in English, including the sentence you are reading now. Still, did any written language, pre-1922, contain “Mkgnao,” James Joyce's transcription of what a hungry cat said? (She also said “Mrkgnao” and even “Mrkrgnao,” though the closest her owner could comes was “Miaow.” Cats are fluent in Cat; humans aren't.)
Cats aside, though, what can be said about plagiarism? We've all read books very like books we've read before. That's especially true if we keep up with...
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SOURCE: Danson, Lawrence. “You Said It.” Nation 250, no. 6 (12 February 1990): 208-10.
[In the following review, Danson notes that Mallon offers a very concrete and objective opinion of plagiarism in Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism.]
Plagiarism! The word strikes terror in the fainting authorial soul. If you've ever been a victim—ever seen your own well-wrought words come back to you in alienated majesty signed with someone else's name—you'll know why the word “violation,” more commonly used to describe another form of self-dispossession, is no exaggeration. And if you've ever looked carefully at your own words, as I've just looked at my preceding two sentences, and found three unacknowledged quotations (from sources, I assure you, Reader, safely dead), you'll know why plagiarism haunts the writer's imagination. It troubles the mind with metaphysical speculation: How do words come to be owned? How can the impalpable be stolen? Why would anyone risk it? How can anyone avoid it? Who says it's a crime at all?
Thomas Mallon in Stolen Words is undaunted by the psychological and philosophical problems that cluster around the idea of plagiarism. On the question of authorial mine-and-thine he's a strict constructionist, a reasonable man but still a law-and-order type who doesn't want to hear any excuses for, say, Coleridge's depredations...
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SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, by Thomas Mallon. Antioch Review 48, no. 2 (spring 1990): 255.
[In the following review, Saari evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, commenting that the work presents “the human drama that accompanies the act of plagiarism.”]
Plagiarism is a crime whose punishment is not always clear in Mallon's study [Stolen Words], which turns up some fascinating evidence of what constitutes this crime. Plagiarism, he points out, often has no clear legal context for righting wrongs and doling out justice. Academic departments, professional associations, and university presses move guardedly in questions of plagiarism, preferring discretion to open investigation and indirect solutions to direct confrontation and punishment. Courts want smoking words, not similarities of texts.
Mallon looks at the evidence concerning Laurence Sterne's theft from Burton and Coleridge's borrowings from Schelling, and the effect on their respective reputations provides a context for his case studies involving Charles Reade, Joseph Epstein, Jayme Sokolow, and Anita Clay Kornfeld's charges against Earl Hamner. Reade, a Victorian novelist of some renown, was an advocate of international copyright reform who stole from the works of others...
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SOURCE: Silverblatt, Michael. “Children of a Laser God.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 February 1991): 11.
[In the following review, Silverblatt criticizes Mallon for not investing enough in his characters in Aurora 7.]
On May 24, 1962, 11-year-old Gregory Noonan leaves his fourth-grade classroom and takes the railroad to Manhattan in order to join the crowd in Grand Central Station watching Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7 space flight on the huge monitors. The boy is space-mad, loony for the Mercury project, a would-be moon traveler. Shy, smart and uncommunicative (he already has trouble receiving kisses or saying “I love you” to close relatives), Gregory has veered out of the orbit of his understanding parents; he seems to have received an otherworldly call to outer space.
With audacious cunning, Thomas Mallon implies that God Himself has lured Gregory away from his home and into darkest Manhattan, much as He has lured Scott Carpenter into the heavens. What's more, God has been planning this strategy for several weeks, with noticeably dark intentions.
Aurora 7 is a book, then, that risks interpreting the heavenly design for a single day, revealing bits and pieces of the divine plan. Mallon even gives the reader the opportunity to try omniscience and omnipotence on for size. “What would it feel like to be God?” is a question the book answers...
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SOURCE: Dunlap, John R. Review of Aurora 7, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 24, no. 5 (May 1991): 51.
[In the following review, Dunlap examines how Mallon created the narrative structure of Aurora 7 and asserts that the novel is ultimately about the power of fate.]
On Thursday, May 24, 1962, at 7:45 a.m. EST, the second U.S. manned orbital space flight was undertaken when the Aurora 7 was launched from Cape Canaveral with astronaut Malcolm Scott Carpenter aboard. Although the flight made the intended three orbits within the anticipated five hours, Carpenter flubbed his retrofire maneuver during re-entry and overshot the expected landing position by nearly 300 miles. For about an hour, sixty-five million television viewers were held in suspense, until Walter Cronkite announced that Scott Carpenter had been located bobbing on a life raft beside his floating spacecraft northeast of the Virgin Islands. Carpenter, safe and in good health, was picked up by a helicopter dispatched from the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid; Cronkite and his audience were mightily relieved; and the American space program had again inched forward without, as yet, serious mishap.
In a sense, the foregoing is what Thomas Mallon's second novel, Aurora 7, is about. The space mission is the occasion for the novel's setting and pacing, the means of its unity and motivation, the...
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SOURCE: Drew, Bettina. “Gazing Clearly at ‘American Spectacles.’” Chicago Tribune Books (24 January 1993): 3, 7.
[In the following review, Drew comments that, although the prose in Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles is fair-minded and objective, Mallon's nationalism can be overwhelming and needlessly enthusiastic.]
Thomas Mallon's variegated collection of essays on American “spectacles,” [Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles,] outcome of his urge to cover the post-Challenger launching of the space shuttle Discovery, takes readers on a pleasantly idiosyncratic cross-country tour. Critic, novelist and literary editor of Gentlemen's Quarterly, Mallon leapfrogs across the 50 states to report on locales as wide-ranging and uniquely American as the Twentieth International Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma; Poker Flat, the world's only non-government rocket range, in Alaska; the 50-year commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attack in Hawaii; a New York courtroom; and Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
A self-styled “silent spectator of the mighty scene of things,” Mallon has a roving eye that looks closely, and description is the mode of most of these essays. The quality of those descriptions is important, for many of these leisurely but suspenseful pieces are about waiting: for a rocket to launch, for a jury verdict on a robbery,...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
SOURCE: Rocca, Francis X. Review of Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 26, no. 7 (July 1993): 64-5.
[In the following review, Rocca praises Mallon for his skillful use of descriptive detail in Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles.]
Readers of TAS already know the work of Thomas Mallon; eight of the twelve pieces in this collection [Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles] were originally published here. Ranging in length from four to forty-two pages, and in setting from Florida to Alaska, they amount to an eclectic survey of our country in the last decade, from the viewpoint of a perspicacious and sympathetic American spectator.
He is a spectator who notes the odd and telling details: that reporters at the U.N. use manual typewriters (or did, as late as 1989), that Secret Service agents pay cash for their lunch aboard Air Force Two. Mallon's eye for this sort of thing can lead him into the realm of the absurd, for which he also has a taste. After an execution in San Quentin's gas chamber, cyanide gas is let into the atmosphere and sulfuric acid into San Francisco Bay. Authorities have considered stopping the executions for environmental reasons.
Mallon savors the ironies, and is more than merely amused by them. Thankful for the security that diplomats have brought to...
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SOURCE: Pappas, Theodore. “Henry and Clara's Cruel Fate.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 August 1994): 5.
[In the following review, Pappas asserts that Mallon is faithful to both historical and literary concerns in Henry and Clara.]
Murder and mystery, an abusive and jealous husband, the savage killing of his wife, an attempted suicide, hints of insanity, the rich and famous in the national spotlight—one might think that the subject is not the forgotten tragic lives of the engaged couple who attended Ford's Theatre with President and Mrs. Lincoln on April 14, 1865, but rather the O. J. Simpson trial. And, in fact, the comparison is not altogether unjust. Both stories involve multiple murders that shocked the nation, received international attention and left muckrakers and scandalmongers giddy for months.
A former professor of English at Vassar College and the current literary editor of Gentlemen's Ouarterly, Thomas Mallon is perhaps best known as an essayist, in particular for A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (1984) and Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism (1989), both solid works of scholarship. He branched out into historical fiction in 1991 with Aurora 7, a novel set against the backdrop of the nearly fatal space flight of Scott Carpenter in 1962, and he continues in this genre with Henry and Clara....
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SOURCE: Goodman, Walter. “Looking Backward.” New Leader 79, no. 9 (16 December 1996): 26-8.
[In the following review, Goodman compliments Mallon's “engaging” prose style in Dewey Defeats Truman.]
Thomas Mallon's engaging new novel [Dewey Defeats Truman] brings memories of Sherwood Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters, of Booth Tarkington and John Updike and J. D. Salinger and other chroniclers of growing up or growing old in small-town America. Not that there is anything imitative here. Mallon demonstrates that well after Main Street has given way to shopping malls, looking backward can still yield home truths.
The title, of course, is borrowed from the Chicago Tribune's premature ejaculation on November 3, 1948. And the Thomas E. Dewey-Harry S. Truman campaign serves as the occasion for a story that runs from the nominations of June to the November vote.
The place is Owosso, Michigan, population 16,000—which readers may be pardoned for not remembering was the birthplace of the dimly remembered Dewey, and in 1948 still home to his mother. One hometowner reminisces that as a lad the candidate “used to charge his mother a quarter to mow the lawn.”
Mallon, who says he was lured on by the “historical tragicomedy” of Owosso's fate, concedes in an author's note that he has taken liberties with history. Naturally. Yet they are...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Triumph without Victory.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 January 1997): 2.
[In the following review, Eder argues that Mallon is most successful in his description of individual details in Dewey Defeats Truman.]
On the school picnic, one imagines, Thomas Mallon's sandwiches would be cucumber and sardine instead of peanut butter and jelly. On the museum trip, he would be found in the basement examining the air-duct moldings. On the treasure hunt, he would come back, not with the Walt Disney video hidden by the teachers, but with somebody's lost and badly missed pocket diary.
Mallon did, in fact, produce a splendidly antic book some years ago about diaries and how and why people keep them, as well as another about plagiarists and several novels. Although these last are not major works, each has some major minor memorable moments. If he were a wind-up toy, he would run in an engaging curve backward.
His Dewey Defeats Truman is a subjunctive novel, subjunctive denoting a contrary-to-fact condition. This is not remarkable in itself: A number of fictions have been written on such premises as, for example, Great Britain defeated and occupied by Germany in the Second World War.
What gives Dewey its genially antic twist is that it is conceived in the future subjunctive. It depicts a small-town world adjusting itself...
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SOURCE: Mallon, Thomas, and Michael Coffey. “Thomas Mallon: Picturing History and Seeing Stars.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 3 (20 January 1997): 380-81.
[In the following interview, Mallon discusses the major influences on his work and why he favors writing historical fiction.]
On the landing between the first and second floors of Thomas Mallon's condominium in Westport, Conn., there stands a black telescope the size of a boy. It is directed toward an upper window and the firmament beyond. “I haven't used it much yet,” admits Mallon, giving PW a tour of the house he shares with designer and longtime partner Bill Bodenschatz, “but I've always been interested in astronomy. With this, I can do what the real enthusiasts do: see through the galaxy.”
A slight 5'7” with delicate features, an impish grin and owlish, oversized eyeglasses, Mallon has the look of the eternal student for whom astronomy might be a natural passion. In fact, it is more than that.
“The two things that most influenced my imagination growing up were the Catholic Church and Project Mercury,” he says. “And when I wanted to write about my childhood, I knew that those elements—the religious dimension and the space program—had to be there, because they were what made things happen in my mind.”
Although prefigured in the very title of his first novel, Arts...
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SOURCE: Mitgang, Herbert. “Master of Detail.” Chicago Tribune Books (26 January 1997): 1, 6.
[In the following review, Mitgang compliments Mallon's use of historical detail in Dewey Defeats Truman.]
It takes a vivid imagination to turn the most famous presidential headline in modern newspaper history—“Dewey Defeats Truman”—into a work of fiction. Did the Chicago Daily Tribune editor develop an Excedrin headache the morning after that Page 1 banner appeared below the masthead, prematurely and incorrectly, when President Harry Truman was re-elected in November 1948?
The reader won't find the answer in Thomas Mallon's new novel [Dewey Defeats Truman]. Surprisingly, this isn't a newspaper or political novel, as the clever, attention-grabbing title suggests. Instead, it's a charming, small-town story about a group of decent characters whose lives intersect in the Midwestern tradition of Booth Tarkington, Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser, but without any underlying American Tragedy.
The town is a real one: Owosso, in central Michigan. It's the actual birthplace of Thomas E. Dewey, the one-time Republican governor of New York (his opponents called him the little man on the wedding cake) who lost to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt in '44 and Truman in '48. The story takes place in the months before and after the first postwar presidential...
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SOURCE: Mandelson, Edward. “The President That Never Was.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4921 (25 July 1997): 22.
[In the following review, Mandelson lauds the comedic elements in Dewey Defeats Truman, but notes that the novel is “lighter” than Henry and Clara.]
Thomas Mallon's fourth novel takes its title from the Chicago Tribune's 1948 election-night headline trumpeting the victory of the candidate favoured for president by the Tribune and virtually every other American newspaper. Exactly as all the opinion polls had predicted, the early returns showed that stiff-necked Thomas Dewey, the Republican Governor of New York, had trounced Harry Truman, the “accidental president”, a plain-spoken former haberdasher, who had inherited the office from Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. The only thing wrong with the Tribune's headline was the fact that, when all the votes had been counted the next morning, Truman defeated Dewey.
Dewey Defeats Truman is a romantic comedy of reversals set in Dewey's home town of Owosso, Michigan, in the months before the election. The title telegraphs the triumph of the underdog in everything from love to politics, but among the book's many pleasures is the discovery that the underdog is not as easy to identify as one first imagines. Anne Macmurray, just out of college, has come to Owosso to find material for the novel that...
(The entire section is 639 words.)
SOURCE: Parry, Sally E. Review of Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 3 (fall 1997): 246-47.
[In the following review, Parry discusses Mallon's perception and portrayal of historical events in Dewey Defeats Truman.]
Many people remember the hubris of Republicans in the fall of 1948 when they convinced, or thought they convinced, everyone that Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York, would be the next president of the United States. The shock of those Republicans—and of the Chicago Tribune in particular for printing up the premature headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”—is the impetus for Thomas Mallon's new novel [Dewey Defeats Truman].
Mallon sets his narrative in Owosso, Michigan, Dewey's real hometown, during the 1948 campaign, and uses the town's attempts at capitalizing on this status as a way to explore not only class and political issues but also issues of sexuality and death, including the impact of the recently ended war on those whose lives have been permanently altered by it.
Owosso is a small town in search of a transcendent moment, which the residents assume will come when Dewey is elected president. The town's “biggest industry is death” in the form of a casket manufacturer, and the local boosters would like to change the town's image to something more related to the future. To this...
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SOURCE: Weber, Katharine. “Starry-Eyed.” Washington Post Book World (9 April 2000): 3.
[In the following review, Weber offers a positive assessment of Two Moons, commenting that “Mallon has a fabulous eye for the people at the edge of the historical picture.”]
It is a time when scientific discoveries and technological innovations are the stuff of daily headlines. Never before has mankind known so much about the natural world and our relationship to it. The more scientific information we accumulate, however, the more we embrace the paranormal, the otherworldly, the spiritual.
In this innovative time, many powerful people, while respecting and even celebrating the scientific discoveries of the day, see no conflict in being dependent on personal astrologers for daily guidance. In Washington, despite (or as a consequence of) the booming peacetime economy, corruption in government thrives. Every day, politicians are cosily helping the rich get richer while the needs of ordinary citizens are overlooked. There is surprising complacency among some politicians about the morality of displaying the Confederate flag.
Welcome to 1877, the year the moons of Mars were discovered. In Two Moons, Thomas Mallon's elegant fifth novel, in the murk and fog of malaria-infested Foggy Bottom, lonely 35-year-old Civil War widow Cynthia May seeks work at the Naval...
(The entire section is 779 words.)
SOURCE: Morrice, Polly. “Observing Washington.” National Review 52, no. 9 (22 May 2000): 72-3.
[In the following review, Morrice argues that fans of Mallon's previous work will be pleased with Two Moons, noting Mallon's continuing use of “unfailingly graceful prose.”]
Toward the end of Thomas Mallon's 1994 novel Henry and Clara, the heroine Clara Rathbone reflects on a phenomenon of post-Civil War Washington, D.C.: the influx of female clerks who toil in government offices. For the beleaguered Clara, whose husband is sliding toward insanity, these women lead seductive lives; she envies their “impoverishment and freedom and [imagines] herself as one of them.”
Just such a woman is the central character of Two Moons, Mallon's absorbing new work of historical fiction. At 35, Cynthia May has been on her own for years, living precariously in Washington boardinghouses. As the story opens, in the spring of 1877, she seeks to better her current wages by landing a position at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
As Cynthia fills out her application forms, her life's tragedies unfold: a husband killed at Chickamauga, a child who succumbed to diphtheria. The damage wrought by the Civil War feels irreparable to Cynthia, who considers “Reconstruction,” and the fact that President Rutherford B. Hayes has just declared it completed, a laughable irony. She...
(The entire section is 1017 words.)
SOURCE: Mallon, Thomas, and Bill Kauffman. “Moonstruck: A Chat with Novelist Thomas Mallon.” American Enterprise 11, no. 4 (June 2000): 41-3.
[In the following interview, Mallon discusses politics, why he writes historical fiction, and why he focuses on bystanders to historical events.]
Fresh from The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne composed a campaign hagiography for presidential candidate Franklin Pierce, his old Bowdoin classmate. So it ought not startle us that Thomas Mallon—who has emerged in the last decade as one of the finer American novelists—earlier “assisted” Dan Quayle in the writing of his mortal memoir Standing Firm.
Mallon published his first novel, Arts and Sciences, in 1988, but he has really hit his stride with three consecutive historical novels: Henry and Clara, Dewey Defeats Truman, and the just-published Two Moons. His new novel combines Mallon's signature thematic concerns—political history, astronomy, and the mysteries of sublunary romance. Set in the Washington, D.C., of 1877, when civil service reform was in the air and two newly discovered orbs—the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos—were in the sky, Two Moons revivifies one of the gargantuan rascals of Gilded Age America, Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.
I chatted with Thomas Mallon in Washington in his room at the...
(The entire section is 2454 words.)
SOURCE: Valiunas, Algis. “Improving on History.” American Spectator 33, no. 5 (June 2000): 68-70.
[In the following review, Valiunas discusses the current popularity of historical fiction and notes how Mallon's Two Moons differs from other works within the genre.]
Even in the age of democracy, those men whose names win so much as a line in the history books are a precious few; so who speaks for the rest of us? It has been the traditional prerogative of the historical novelist, who portrays real men in imaginary circumstances and imaginary men in real circumstances, to assert the significance of those whom history cut out of the picture, to render momentous events from the viewpoint of men too small to deserve the historian's notice. Stendhal, Hugo, Thackeray, Tolstoy all wrote of crucial battles in the Napoleonic Wars, and they made sure to tell that part of the tale which historians almost invariably leave out. The novel was bent on capturing the sensation, thought, and emotion that ordinary men experience in the face of death, and that their loved ones endure as they wait for their men to return victorious or defeated, alive or done for. The novelist's favored method was a sort of defiant complication, a refusal to limit himself to the people and occurrences that command the historian's attention. Incomprehensible tumult was the defining feature of the greatest events, and the historian in...
(The entire section is 2809 words.)
SOURCE: Schmuhl, Robert. “Thomas Mallon Considers the Works of Some Literary Contemporaries and Predecessors.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 January 2001): 1, 4.
[In the following review, Schmuhl discusses Mallon's approach to literary criticism in In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing.]
In the second paragraph of In Fact, Thomas Mallon regurgitates a sentence of professorial, publish-or-perish prose representative of the so-called scholarship coming out of literature departments nowadays. Gagging phrases that refer to “the ontic vacancy of raw diversity,” “a plurality of multiplicative inverses” and “orderly and sequential monogenesis” might mean something to their perpetrator, but Mallon objects, later deciding to forfeit his tenured position at Vassar College to write for what he (and others before him) approvingly call “the common reader.”
This collection of literary essays, composed from 1978 to 2000 for a dozen publications, is a sustained declaration of independence from the insomnia-curing word-processing of contemporary academic criticism. With a savvy and scope reminiscent of Edmund Wilson's approach to books and authors, Mallon provides astute analysis of individual works within the broader context of a writer's career or the genre being considered.
Recipient of the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence in...
(The entire section is 692 words.)
SOURCE: Potemra, Michael. “American Beauty.” National Review 54, no. 1 (28 January 2002): 59-60.
[In the following excerpt, Potemra examines Mallon's characterization of Ruth Paine in Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy.]
So you're at a party, and you meet a young couple. The husband is, rather obviously, a tough case. He's angry at the world—thinks everybody is either stupid, or out to get him, or both. But he and his wife speak Russian, and you want to improve your skills in that language, so you decide to get involved in the young couple's life. You make some calls and get the guy a job in a warehouse; and you give his wife a room in your suburban home in return for help with the housework, and with your Russian.
It's the kind of thing nice people do, every day, in America: reach out to their neighbors in a practical way. We usually don't hear about these everyday decencies; we certainly would never have heard of this one, but for the fact that the young husband in this case used his warehouse job as an opportunity to assassinate the president of the United States. On Friday, November 22, 1963, the Dallas police came to the residence of Ruth Paine and her youthful tenant, Marina Oswald, bringing with them a spotlight that showed America one of its most remarkable, but also representative, characters.
Ruth Paine, Texas housewife, is now the...
(The entire section is 938 words.)
Allen, Brooke. “Painted into History.” New Criterion 13, no. 3 (November 1994): 78-80.
Allen praises Mallon's prose style in Henry and Clara, but expresses discomfort with Mallon's fictionalization of real people.
Friedman, Roger Davis. “Academia Nuts.” Chicago Tribune Books (20 March 1988): 5.
Friedman lauds the humor in Arts and Sciences, but argues that the novel encompasses an extremely limited world.
Kaufmann, James. “A Boy and the Space Race in 1962.” Chicago Tribune Books (3 February 1991): 7.
Kaufmann compliments Mallon for his mastery of period detail in Aurora 7, though notes that “it is hard at moments to locate the book's emotional heart.”
Malone, Michael. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 85, no. 3 (July 1997): 135-41.
Malone discusses how Mallon brings life to historical events in Dewey Defeats Truman.
Mosle, Sara. “Russian Lessons.” New York Times Book Review (3 February 2002): section 7, p. 9.
Mosle compliments Mallon's portrayal of Ruth Paine in Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, but argues that Mallon occasionally lapses into conspiracy theory and the work “too often has the feel of a magazine story...
(The entire section is 259 words.)