Thomas Mallon Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”