William Cole (review date November-December 1984)

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SOURCE: Cole, William. “Lighter-Than-Air Craft.” Saturday Review 10 (November-December 1984): 90.

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[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 “inquiring with an oily voice, ‘A little of 1912?’ as if he were trying wine,” read excerpts. Some attention is given to the narcissistic Anaïs Nin, some to the erotic masterpiece My Secret Life, which Mallon calls an “epic with thousands of climaxes,” and some to a volume new to me, the Daybooks of the photographer Edward Weston. However, I was disappointed by how little the author says about two pets of mine: Kilvert's Diary and the Journals of Arnold Bennett, nor is there enough of that interesting contemporary diarist, Ned Rorem.

Here is something from wicked Evelyn Waugh's diary. He writes of his pal, Randolph Churchill, who had just been operated on, only to learn that his lung had not been malignant: “… it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.”

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 7 December 1984)

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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 now”—thirty volumes of his own diary. But he further confesses that, though he has counted them in a rough way, he has not read them, at least not systematically. The diarist writes to write, not to be read.

The diary is a modern form of self-revelation. We reveal ourselves to ourselves in our diaries. Recent students of writing stress the reflexive aspect of all writing, but diarists don't need scholarship to be embarrassed by what they have written.

Mallon's categories, as if following the logic implied by this analysis of writing, progress from objective to subjective, chroniclers to prisoners. Virginia Woolf on the one hand; on the other, Anne Frank.

Mallon writes: “To be human is to feel guilty.” Funny, moving, unfailingly interesting, Mallon moves away from Pepys and Boswell, whom anybody I call friend has fellow-feeling for, to the world of Go Ask Alice, the horrifying confessional diary of a '70s teenager which a Long Island School Board sued to have removed from the school library. They lost the case but taught us all something about innocence.

The logic of Mallon's book is irreversible. Given the premise that the individual should find his own case interesting in itself, the diary, as a form of experience, will end in a cul-de-sac. As some of us failed diarists have discovered to our chagrin, it takes art to write a decent diary. Bored with ourselves, we turn to snatches of conversation we overhear, or, as Athol Fugard reveals in his Notebooks for July of 1970, to marine biology.

George McCartney (review date April 1985)

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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 Pepys uses a bit of Spanish to cover his philandering tracks. “Yo did take her … sobra mi genu and did poner mi mano sub her jupes and toca su thigh.” Sensational indeed.

Of course, diaries are kept for as many reasons as there are diarists, and Mallon's object is to take us on a tour, stopping to muse over this author and that, questioning motives and occasions in what he describes as his “ruminatingly undisciplined” way. The itinerary wanders but never flags. Mallon turns out to be that best of all tour guides; he brings us to the landmarks, great and small, says a few helpful words, and steps aside to let us look for ourselves. And what variety there is.

Anais Nin burbles about “this quest for the self” and the need to “alchemize events” and locks her innumerable volumes in a Brooklyn bank vault not only to secure them for the admirers she never doubts will swell posterity's ranks, but also and more importantly to immortalize herself. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Ellen Weeton, a very different sort of woman, turns to her diary for solace when her brutal husband dismisses her from his house and deprives her of her daughter. Writing a journal becomes her only way of addressing her girl from the impoverished, solitary existence into which she's been forced. But it doesn't keep her from making her peace with the God who “appears to have specially deprived me of all those things on which I could have set my affections. Thy will be done: I see Thy mercies and Thy Graciousness in this, and am thankful.”

The hypochondriacal, phobic recluse, Arthur Crew Inman, writes ten million words, “fanatically” provides for their future stipulating they are to be published uncut, and then shoots himself to death in 1963. Besides his life, his 150 typed volumes include his interviews with the strangers he hired at seventy-five cents an hour to tell him their stories while he listened behind a black curtain. At the other end of the scale, weighing in with a sixty-three page effort, William Tayler, a London footman, decides to keep a diary for the year beginning January 1, 1837. He does so to improve his handwriting. Twelve months later to the day, he writes his final entry: “I have at last finished the task which I have been heartily sick of long agoe and I think it will be a long time before I begin another of the kind.” But he's had enough time to give us a few telling glimpses of his betters. His Lady, it seems, is one who knows how to put on a good appearance for those who count. “When I took lunch away,” Tayler records, not without irony one must suppose, “she was reading a novel with the Bible laying by her, ready to take up if any body came in.”

Lord Byron thinks of his journal as a “relief.” When he's weary, out it comes and “down goes everything; but I can't read it over,” he confesses. “God knows what contradictions it may contain. If I am sincere with myself (but I fear one lies more to one's self than to anyone else), every page should confute, refute, and utterly abjure its predecessor.” About deception, no one was more honest. If Byron lets his diary flow where it will, Stendhal can't let his alone, reading it over and over, annotating his entries and then annotating his annotations.

Some complain that keeping the damn thing is as irksome as it's futile, but they go on writing. Others can't wait to let go their daily screed. George Templeton Strong, a nineteenth-century New Yorker, remarks in his one evening, “I'll be hanged if I am not in a humor for shedding ink tonight—feel as if I could scribble, scribble, scribble to the extent of a quart bottle full.” One wonders how many quarts he shed before he finished his life-time chronicle of four million words. Then there's Harold Nicolson, for whom keeping a diary was a routine to which he attached about as much emotion as brushing his teeth, or so he claimed.

As Mallon takes us through this amazing variety, he resists what has become the common temptation of academics in recent years. He doesn't try to bind it all together with some grand theory. He's not out to forge an aesthetic of diaries. But he does see one common feature in all his selections. “I don't believe one can write to oneself for many words more than get used in a note tacked to the refrigerator, saying ‘Buy Bread.’ Before another sentence is added it becomes a psychological impossibility; the words have to start going someplace.” He cites Leon Edel's observation regarding Edmund Wilson, “After a while, you're always writing for a public,” only to amend it. “A while is probably no more than a sentence. The idea that it can be longer than that is a diarist's convenient fiction, an illusion that may keep him writing, but which, in his deeper recesses, he knows is false.”

Anyone who has ever kept a diary, however intermittent, however short-lived, knows Mallon is right. There is an essential ambivalence to the project. It begins as a private affair between you and your book conducted cosily out of sight and left behind in a locked drawer, yet how you long for an audience after a while! A discreet and sympathetic audience, to be sure, comprising those perceptive enough to take you at your own measure and honorable enough not to blab about those little quirks and failings you were brave and honest enough to share with them. Of course, even then there are limits. Stendhal, who kept his diary under lock, admitted at one point that he was writing for three or four like-minded friends only to add this warning to them a few paragraphs later: “Don't go any farther, you bastards.” Mallon's selections are nothing if not telling.

To keep a diary is to conceal and reveal ourselves at once. The diary creates a private world in which we can let loose all those thoughts and feelings we ordinarily buckle-up when away from our secluded studies for fear of public collisions. But at the same time, by putting our shame, pride, anger, and doubt on paper, we risk being discovered. In fact, Mallon argues, we're “counting on it.” In the many diaries he's read and the one he keeps himself, he finds there's always a “you” turning up, a person addressed. The diarist may not give conscious thought to it, but he cannot help but talk to someone else when he writes. Language is like that; it connects us to others whether we will it or not. Mallon has no idea who his “you” is, but he knows he or she is there. “Sometimes when I'm writing on the right-hand leaf of a notebook I catch sight of a spelling or grammatical mistake I made on the left one the night before, and I correct it. For ‘you’?” This is just the kind of unforced observation that makes this book hum, especially when Mallon draws out its implications with conversational ease. He lets matters speak for themselves; he has no use for the kind of self-congratulatory exaggeration that mars so many literary studies today. “Your ‘you’ may be even less palpable than mine, but someday,” he assures us, “like the one you love, he'll come along.” It may be your great-great-granddaughter or the fellow who buys her house and then discovers your diary left behind in the garage, but “someone will be reading and you'll be talking. And if you're talking, it means you're alive.”

The diarist may be squeamish about those pages on which he didn't spare himself, but he certainly craves an audience for those others from which his style suddenly and inexplicably has lifted his thought in effortless ascent to skim the treetops of his days, circling over a gaudy fact here, swooping to a delicious conclusion there, soaring once more to the sky's own view under which the rag-tag clutter of daily life comes wonderfully into focus if only for a moment, its patterns obvious, its problems as small and as manageable as the toy houses and toy cars left so far below. Writing, even the relatively shapeless writing of a diary, is a performance meant to display our mastery over the disparate facts of our existence. And what's a performance without an audience?

Mallon's favorite diarist understood this and made no secret about it. Suffering from disseminated sclerosis that would cut him off at thirty, Bruce Frederick Cummings, writing as W. N. P. Barbellion, published The Journal of a Disappointed Man just months before he died, determined to have his diary become his monument. But even before publication, he didn't hold back. When he invites a friend to dinner, he tells us that he will “with some show of deliberation select a volume to read to him, drawing it from its division with lavish punctiliousness, and inquiring with an oily voice, ‘A little of 1912?’ as if we were trying wines.”

Diaries like vintage wines, meant to be shared—that's just what Mallon has done with a good deal of wit and even more understanding.

John R. Dunlap (review date May 1988)

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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 frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it.”

Well, scratch that literary judgment. With Arts and Sciences Thomas Mallon has described to a tee the indescribable, demonstrating that he is a can-do, take-charge kind of guy, despite a close biographical and physical resemblance between himself and the central character, Arthur V. Dunne. Artie is a neurasthenic twit who—short, bespectacled, and weighing all of 113 pounds—comes off as a cross between Woody Allen and Freddie Bartholomew.

Actually, Artie's a pretty neat kid. The trouble is, at age 21 and into the first month of his first semester at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Artie still is … well, a kid. You see, he has entered a graduate English program for an awfully naive reason: he truly loves literature. I mean, he reads books because he wants to! He is therefore alone and lonely in Comus Hall, a graduate residence populated by borderline psychopaths of the sort one with greater academic experience than Artie's would naturally expect to find in such quarters—including, for example, the inevitable lifer M.S. candidate who, in 1973, still plugs away at a dissertation begun during the Truman Administration.

Then there's graduate school itself, gray and desiccated and not too damn friendly, a place where it is “impolitic” not to attend certain parties and where departmental politics are “a substitute for sex and family.” Amid such chilly circumstances, and still just a kid (a nice Catholic boy, by the way—if not precisely Catholic in orthodox detail, at least residually Catholic in the appurtenances of whispered Hail Marys, a simple decency, and a prodigiously nagging conscience), Artie begins to feel himself coming unhinged.

The lodestar of Artie's budding climacteric, so to speak (what the hell, it's a novel about life in graduate school, a place where people talk funny) is a fellow graduate student named Angela Downing. She is a beautiful Briton, with cornsilk hair and long legs and freckles. She is also totally self-possessed and brilliant: Artie knows of her brilliance “from hearing her speak in the seminar in seventeenth-century poetry they were both in. Why couldn't he be more like her? So percipient, so unvexed, so tall.”

About a head taller than Artie, in fact, and seven years older. Angela has come to Harvard from England to relieve the boredom she feels after the collapse of her marriage “to a gas pump” (she means “oil executive”—Angela has a way with words), and she catches Artie's admiring gaze during a particularly excruciating session of their English Symposium. The topic is Alexander Pope; Artie, who cut his literary teeth on Keats, has little patience with Pope's “neo-classical fortune cookies” served up in “those awful ten-syllable corsets.” He is struggling to keep such thoughts to himself when a note penned by Angela arrives from across the room:

Of the twelve men who this stuffy
          room fill,
Two I'd like to screw, three I'd like
          to kill.

Artie turns crimson, and looks up to see Angela lazily smiling at him.

Within a few weeks they are frequently sharing Angela's “forty-nine feet square” bed in Angela's posh apartment (she's rich too, this nerd's dream-girl), after cutting a deal to share the burden of the reading list for the spring M.A. exams. But Artie's newfound sexual prowess doesn't help much with the “disaster demons” now inside him—those intermittent, barely controllable urges he feels to wreak petty destruction on his surroundings: Suppose I just ripped up that Herbert manuscript

At the student clinic, he has taken the story of his demons to Mrs. Crangel, a fortyish counseling psychologist “comfortable inside her own skin” and gifted with an ironic sense of the inexactness of her science. Mrs. Crangel speculates that Artie's nightmare demons “are really just little substitutes for big questions, real ones, that you're afraid to ask.” By the time he starts jumping into the sack with Angela, Artie is visiting Mrs. Crangel at the clinic regularly, and we get our first hint of what's really going on between Artie and Angela when Angela, out of character, betrays a touch of jealousy about this other woman in whom Artie confides.

A second hint comes later, when the normally unvexed Angela gives into a brief fit of genuine rage. The thought has already occurred to Artie (months before, at about Thanksgiving time) that he knows Angela chiefly by her tastes. She hates American literature, loves medieval literature and American television, hates Harvard, loves pulling pranks on bloodless professors and their student toadies; but she has told Artie nothing of her history, so that Artie briefly wonders to himself whether Angela might be nothing more than “a collection of arbitrary tastes, all promulgated with stylish absolutism.” Late in the second semester, however, when Angela suddenly asks Artie what sort of person he thinks she is and Artie responds that he has no idea, Angela shouts: “Well, why don't you make some fucking effort to find out!”

Now, Mrs. Crangel has already referred jauntily to Angela as a “bitch,” an observation which makes Artie wince but has not clicked with him. Mrs. Crangel thus knows something Artie still has to learn: that female bitchiness is directly proportionate to male obtuseness. Artie is still too hung-up, too self-centered, too preoccupied with his books, and, for all his literary acumen, just too fundamentally stupid to respond to the hints. So Angela dumps him and takes up with another gas pump. Bewildered, Artie turns all his energy to a fierce bout of final preparation for the M.A. exams.

Arts and Sciences is neatly bracketed, fore and aft, with two appearances by another important character, Artie's best friend from his undergraduate years at Brown University, Joseph Abbott Manningham, Jr., who goes by the nickname Shane. Shane (remember the movie? the impeccably crafted 1953 George Stevens western, with Alan Ladd as the archetypal drifter and Brandon de Wilde as the 11-year-old boy who adores him?) is a druggie and a drifter, left over from the counterculture of the sixties and not much interested in the “yuppie stirrings” of the seventies. He loves old movies and hard work. Artie (Shane calls him “Urn Man”) is in awe of Shane's worldly wisdom and seeks out Shane's advice whenever possible. “As for your own chick, this Downing job,” Shane writes from California, “I don't know, Urn Man. She sounds like a potential dragon lady. I'd advise you to keep your little ceramic ass covered.”

But after acing the M.A. exams, after nine months of unremitting anguish and toil, Artie feels a strange confidence that pulls him enough out of himself to see things anew—to see, for instance, the fear he had never noticed before in Shane's eyes, or the tender need behind Angela's imperious talent and superficial buoyancy. Artie, much less disposed now to cover his ass, may have another chance with Angela. And, as we leave him to enjoy his first glow of adult achievement, we are given to know that Artie's chances with Angela will depend very seriously on whether he will be man enough to love his Keats more than his professional success.

Which places something of a burden on Artie's creator as well. Thomas Mallon's first novel—tightly plotted, witty, good humored, full of good sentiment, utterly unsentimental—puts him in debt to his readers. He owes them a sequel.

Hugh Kenner (review date February 1990)

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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.”

—Saul Bellow

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 political commentary. Yet do Tom Wicker's columns plagiarize Ellen Goodman's? Not at all, though they do write from a common center and could spell one another during sick leaves. We'd have plagiarism should Tom on a lazy afternoon turn to something of Ellen's for sentence structure and sequence, changing a few words now and then to keep things Wickerized. (And how much would he need to change before we'd swung beyond the orbit of proof?)

I'm teasing you with the unthinkable just to suggest how slippery Thomas Mallon's subject is [in Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism]. Generalizations on plagiarism he's found “more perilously porous than those of most others.” The best Sam Johnson's great Dictionary of 1755 could manage was “Theft; literary adoption of the thoughts or works of another.” Thinking “works” might be a misprint for “words,” I checked Mallon's quotation back to the source. No, “works” is correct. Johnson was shrewd in seeing how words, even sequences of words, may be Public Domain.

That was especially true in the eighteenth century, when writers were vying to shape a common idiom. Earlier, Shakespeare had aimed differently:

No, this my hand may rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green, one red. …

And, unforgettably idiosyncratic, that glowing “incarnadine” is surely stamped as his word? Well, Longfellow did venture to use it in 1845, and in 1872 it even turns up in somebody's History of Columbus, Ohio. But when epigones borrow it we still sense Shakespeare's weight. Plagiarism? Better, quasi-allusion.

The eighteenth century, however, eschewed gorgeous words like that, words that might carry some individual's stamp. “I find this word but once,” wrote Johnson of “incarnadine,” proceeding (as was his duty) to cite Shakespeare, with whose canon he sometimes felt stuck. For from Dryden's time through Johnson's what they were aiming at was an idiom of interchangeable parts, shaped toward maximum general effectiveness. A modern instance: Did the B-707 plagiarize the DC-8? Most of us can't tell them apart save by noting that the latter sports fewer windows more widely spaced. Both were shaped to get 100-plus passengers economically airborne on four jet engines. By necessity, the two designs converged. Likewise, translations of Homer into rhymed couplets were meant to get any English dabbler airborne, and when someone arrived at an especially neat phrasing it got taken up by his successors with no talk of plagiary.

Moreover, Pope's Odyssey was only partly by Pope; so common was the idiom, the great poet felt secure in subcontracting it. (Imagine Eliot subcontracting chunks of Murder in the Cathedral!) And, in that age of censorship, Who had Written the Anonymous What was the buzzing coffee-house topic. (Johnson even doubted if Swift had written A Tale of a Tub.)

All of which I go into because I fear Mr. Mallon scamps it. The eighteenth century, he'll have us know, was the age that discovered Literary Property. As it did. For it was the century when capitalism's printers were coming into dominance (and from them stemmed the concept of verbal “property”). But it was also the century that sought to regularize not only spelling but idiom (and, yes, how print does regularize). That meant, not only could you no longer spell your name five different ways, you could not, either, write “the multitudinous seas incarnadine.” You might write, oh, “With crimson lustre tint the pallid flood.” (And, Eureka!—a rhyme for “blood!”)

Anybody at all might feel free to use “crimson lustre,” anybody else “pallid flood.” Let those phrases not be joined by “tint” and there'd be no problem. Or let “tint” join them, and lo—perhaps—your line! Canonized!

But alas, there's Sterne, lifting paragraphs from Robert Burton; alas, too, there's Coleridge a generation later, lifting from Schelling and Schlegel. Sterne—it's an outside chance—might have assumed his lifts would be spotted and dubbed witty allusions. Coleridge, though—well, Coleridge. What knowledge, what commonality, can a writer assume? Also, at what moment in time?

T. S. Eliot once said he'd appended the Notes to The Waste Land to spike the guns of such critics as had earlier accused him of plagiarism. And there's heavy irony when Eliot diligently refers “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne” to Antony and Cleopatra, II.i.190, while omitting to ascribe “Those are pearls that were his eyes” to anyone (for, come on, readers must know something, if only a tag from The Tempest). It's even funnier when Eliot refers “A noise of horns and motors” to “A noise of horns and hunting,” from Day's Parliament of Bees, which he can feel sure not one reader in a thousand has heard of, even though Day does afford glimpses of a lady's “naked skin.” And it's a weakness in the web Thomas Mallon weaves that he never mentions The Waste Land.

Mallon is at his strongest with a clear-cut academic case, about a man named Jayme (“Jay”) Aaron Sokolow, now forty-four, who concurred with an outside reviewer's judgment that what Texas Tech (Lubbock)'s History Department needed was “a good New York Jew” and proceeded to crash his way tenurewards with the aid of an unpublished dissertation by a man at Amherst named Nissenbaum. Thus:

Nissenbaum: “But, for all that, it would be misleading to see the Nicholses as a kind of nineteenth-century anticipation of Masters and Johnson. … Their attitudes were … rooted in the very spirit they appeared to reject.”

Sokolow: “Yet it would be completely misleading to see Thomas and his wife Mary as nineteenth-century critics of Victorian sexuality who glorified sexual intercourse. Their defense of sexuality was rooted in the very spirit which it appeared to reject.”

Nissenbaum even had the disheartening experience of being three times asked, by three university presses, to appraise what Sokolow had plagiarized from him. Each time he told them the facts. Each time they, yes, rejected the Sokolow typescript, but asserted no reason and also took no action. Standard procedure for several years, says Mallon, was to “reply to words [Sokolow] had stolen with words that were minced.”

Sokolow stole from more people than Nissenbaum. One of his techniques was to supply one footnote, suggesting a general indebtedness, then lift from a published source whole bunches of unascribed words. He seems to have assumed no one would notice. He was right. Lubbock folk who knew a published source by heart didn't notice. For people haven't time to read incoming hirees' dissertations. There is (and there's got to be) a presumption of trust. That's what Sokolow (correctly) presumed on.

And even when a publication (The Eighteenth Century) felt driven to apology for a plagiarism-ridden Sokolow piece, it “of course” did not “condone such practices” but it never once named Sokolow.

Fear of lawsuits? Likely. (“Why didn't the cobra bite the lawyer? Professional courtesy.” No, that's not from Mallon.) Fear of just egg-on-the-face? Surely. And Sokolow's Lubbock record now contains no negative vote about tenure. He simply said he'd resign. As he did. And by '83 “he was working at the National Endowment for the Humanities” … “monitoring the grants awarded to university professors for the pursuit of their research.”

I've been stung myself by the general-indebtedness footnote that proceeds to subsume whole paragraphs of barely altered lifts. With lawyers grimacing all around this kraal, I'll name no instances, though I've two in mind. They employ, both, the everyone-knows-this presumption, that what someone (e.g., myself) labored to establish is, since my labors, safely in the public domain, though with traces of my wording somehow gummed all over it.

I hope I've not sounded negative about Mallon. He's done admirably with a topic that, as he says, is nigh impossible to pin down. Sterne's “plagiaries,” recognized, become allusions, like the tags in The Waste Land. Coleridge's copious lifts from German philosophers? Well, did STC assume, likewise, a reader who'd spot their provenance and nod approvingly? In Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel, Norman Fruman thinks not. He charges Coleridge with just cutting corners—stealing. Other Coleridgeans think otherwise. They adduce either allusion, or else an unconscious precision of verbal memory, that overrode what STC meant for paraphrase.

Recently, Apple Computer has been dragging Microsoft through the courts, claiming that the “look and feel” of sundry Apple programs is infringed. Look and feel! Does a deluxe Holiday Inn like the one near JFK airport infringe on the Conrad Hilton “look and feel”? It's arguable; though at Hilton, as far as I know, they've not thought to summon the lawyers. They may rest serene in the conviction that any fool can tell a Holiday Inn from a Hilton. On the other hand, though, Anita Kornfield thought the look and feel of her novel Vintage had been snatched by CBS for the TV series Falcon Crest, and the court said no, it hadn't. The only thing TV's Falcon Crest had plagiarized, it seemed, was TV. As Falcon Crest's creator, Earl Hamner, put it, “TV is very imitative of itself.”

As, at bottom, let's face it, is all storytelling. Robert A. Heinlein, for instance, once stated that there are only four plots:

(1) Boy Meets Girl.

(2) The Little Tailor

(3) The Man Who Learned Better

(4) “If This Goes On …”

Use any of those—Romeo and Juliet, Beowulf, Candide, 1984—and (in theory) expect a Look and Feel suit. Does it really happen? No way.

What does really happen is a lot of flak when a Jacob Epstein in Wild Oats (1979) lifts not a plot but just sentences from a novel by Martin Amis. (Amis: “I could feel, gradually playing on my features, a look of queasy hope.” Epstein: “He could feel, playing across his face, a look of queasy hope.” Eight words in twelve identical.) Epstein blamed careless note-consulting. He then rose to Executive Story Editorship of TV's L.A. Law, a domain of safety where there's no such thing as plagiarism, because (see above) there's nothing but.

If I were Martin Amis I'd feel violated, yes. Then I'd note that Epstein's novel contains a teacher who feels violated by plagiarized term papers. Those come (at $5.50 a page) from outfits that advertise in the likes of the New York Times Book Review, not to mention Rolling Stone. He decides not to turn the perpetrators in (“Who the hell am I to set myself up as some moral paragon?”), and Martin Amis likewise didn't sue. He may have reflected that bearers of noted names can feel special pressures. Remember Charles van Doren cheating on The $64,000 Question?

Yet since Homer the richness of literature has lain in allusiveness: in its evocations of what Eliot called “that vanished mind of which our mind is a continuation.” Pound used “incarnadine” twice, splendidly, in his 52nd Canto, and did Shakespeare's heirs exist and bring suit they'd but demean themselves and their ancestor. But that is literature. On the other hand, there's, well—oh, …

New York Times, 6 June, 1980:

Stanford University said today it had learned that its teaching assistant's handbook section on plagiarism had been plagiarized by the University of Oregon. Stanford issued a release saying Oregon officials had conceded that the plagiarism section and other parts of its handbook were identical with the Stanford guidebook. Oregon officials apologized and said they would revise their guidebook.

Question: Why revise it? No human need feel violated. Humans don't write guidebooks, committees do. If it's adequately legalistic, leave it alone. Would Texas take Utah to the Supreme Court should their statutes against murder prove almost identically worded? I'd feel nervous if they weren't. But then, I'm not a committee.

Lawrence Danson (review date 12 February 1990)

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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 of German philosophers: “Coleridge's psychology is indeed fascinating, but perhaps not so much as our unwillingness to bring the police into the pantheon.” Not for Mallon the anxieties that turn plagiarism from a crime into a common fate, or the postmodernism that turns it into a cocky aesthetic.

Mallon writes about the “Ravages of Plagiarism” in a style he accurately describes as “loquacious, parenthetical, deliberately (and sometimes presumptuously) ‘friendly.’” He examines several major cases, from the eighteenth century to the present, and weaves in and around them a wealth of quaint and curious lore. The book abounds in pleasures, not least of which is Schadenfreude. How weirdly compelling to read again about Jacob Epstein, whose parents run Random House and The New York Review of Books. His first novel, Wild Oats, published in 1979, sowed some fifty seedlings (I speak, as Mallon does, metaphorically; our metaphor is drawn from agriculture) previously planted by Martin Amis, son of Kingsley, in his novel The Rachel Papers (1973). It's a case that made everyone an expert. Did Epstein know what he was doing? What compulsion—to shame himself, to shame his parents, to die in public—could have provoked the disaster? Martin Amis, who brought the irrefutable, unrefuted accusation, was more forgiving than Mallon. So was Darryl Pinckney, writing in The Village Voice, who acknowledged Epstein's—what: mistake? theft? homage?—but still claimed, “He is not a criminal, he is a writer. He wrote Wild Oats. It is his.” To which Mallon, witty but unforgiving, replies with, “Question: If the police enter the house of a suspected thief and find fifty-three stolen objects amid, say, two thousand legitimately purchased by the occupant, should they not proceed to arrest him?”

But there's the problem. Does Mallon really think Epstein should have gone to jail? (In fact, as Mallon reveals in a chapter ending made in irony heaven, Epstein went to Hollywood to become executive story editor for L.A. Law.) Mallon has much to say about the unhappy psychology of the plagiarist and even something about the fungible quality of language itself, but when all's done he's unwilling to stand dithering in dubiety. That means he's unable to explore the dangerous borderline where pathology abuts the everyday, and where Jacob Epstein is not only a hypocrite lecteur but every word-hoarder's semblable and frère.

Mallon is hardest on Coleridge and his scholarly defenders. He allies himself solidly with Norman Fruman, whose Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel (1971) makes the prosecution's case. What more is there to say after Fruman has shown how much of Coleridge is actually Schlegel or Schelling? For less positive scholars, there's plenty left, not all of it pretty but much of it impressive; and in Coleridge's relation with Wordsworth there's still an intricate puzzle of influence and influenced. Mallon's reductive approach to the tangle of Coleridge's life and works—he thinks the plagiarisms were done literally to feed a junkie's habit—has the defect of its own clarity.

Coleridge and Jacob Epstein are the literary upper crust, the white-collar criminals in plagiarism's annals. When Mallon turns to the academic world he descends to the case of Jayme Aaron Sokolow, formerly of the Texas Tech history department. Mallon's claim throughout his book, that our hesitancy to prosecute the plagiarist doubly victimizes the victim, is strongly supported in this sorry case. Sokolow ripped off the distinguished historian Stephen Nissenbaum. Since Nissenbaum was the acknowledged expert in their closely shared field, publishers repeatedly sent Sokolow's manuscript to Nissenbaum for evaluation. And Nissenbaum understandably got more and more fed up as the publishers, informed of the plagiarism, politely sent the manuscript back to Sokolow, who resubmitted it around the scholarly circuit until he finally got it published. In the meantime, Sokolow's colleagues at Texas Tech had found him out; denied tenure, he had to get a new job. Mallon reports that he now works for the National Endowment for the Humanities; he “has been program officer in the Education Division for some projects for which Nissenbaum has been on the advisory board—a ‘resource person’ for Sokolow, one might say.”

With his patient investigative reporting of the Sokolow case Mallon demonstrates several things. One is that some plagiarists really are crooks. Another is that academics and publishers are terrified of being sued. And why not? No matter how positive you are that you've caught a word-thief you still may want to avoid the courtroom, where your every word may be taken down and used in evidence against you, where the power of the irrevocable word turns a bright arena into a place of dark mystery, where everyone feels guilty until proven innocent. Moral indignation wilts at the prospect of a libel suit. Mallon worries that the law's propensity to victimize good Samaritans protects the plagiarist from exposure; he might worry just as much that it lets whisper campaigns about alleged plagiarism blight the careers of good people who have no adequate forum in which to vindicate themselves. Mallon shows that it's up to the academic bodies, like the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association, to maintain their own reasonable forums where charges of academic fraud can be adjudicated. In the matter of Nissenbaum v. Sokolow the accuser may now be said to have had his day in court. But most academics know of other cases where a cloud of accusation covers both parties, with no hope of its being adequately dissipated.

Of course, they order these things better in Hollywood, where everyone goes to court. Mallon's final chapter is about the case of Anita Clay Kornfeld v. CBS, Inc., Lorimar Productions, Inc., and Earl Hamner. It should have been the sexiest chapter, pitting Hamner, the creator of Falcon Crest (and the model for his own winsome character John-Boy in The Waltons), against an honest, hard-working novelist who thinks the media big boys stole her idea. But precisely because there was a judge—by Mallon's showing, a fair-minded and intelligent judge—and also because an “entertainment package” hasn't got the same ideological claim to singularity that a scholarly book has, the chapter is something of an anticlimax. It also undercuts Mallon's most strongly held position. All along he's been a defender of victim's rights, and it's clear that here too he sympathizes with Kornfeld. But the judge ruled against her, and Mallon's incitement to call in the cops ends with a false arrest.

Mallon's discursiveness yields many pleasures and a few annoyances. A chapter about the Victorian author Charles Reade is done in scholar-tells-all style: At the New York Public Library, “one waits for the slips to travel through the pneumatic tubes to the stacks, and then, just minutes later, the pink number matching one's ticket lights up on the board in the South Hall.” But for all the detailed instructions about how to get to the N.Y.P.L. Newspaper Annex or how to use the London Library, it still amounts to an overstretched account of a minor scandal brilliantly recounted in one paragraph by William S. Walsh, Mallon's (scrupulously acknowledged) source. I would be grateful to Mallon if he had done nothing more than bring Walsh's Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1892) to my attention. Walsh's entry for “Plagiarism and Plagiarists” begins by asking, “Is plagiarism a crime?” and replies, “For ourselves we confess that we hold it only a venial offense—unless, of course, it is found out.” Among the exhibits in Walsh's rogues' gallery is Lord Lytton (“Owen Meredith”): “On the whole,” Walsh writes, “Lord Lytton went too far. That would be the verdict of the most lenient minds. Plagiarism is not always a virtue.” It's a great line, whoever said it first.

Jon Saari (review date spring 1990)

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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 throughout his life, the most blatant being from Mme. Reybaud's novel Mlle. de Malepeire. Epstein lifted whole chunks of Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers for his Wild Oats, an Americanized version of the British coming-of-age novel. The case of Sokolow shows the inability of academic culture to act decisively on evidence of the scholar's plagiarism. Kornfeld's case against Hamner for plagiarizing her novel Vintage in the television show Dynasty did not convince a California judge, who believed the John Boy defense without knowing who John Boy was. At its best the book melds scholarship and detective fiction, assembling the evidence and showing the human drama that accompanies the act of plagiarism.

Michael Silverblatt (review date 3 February 1991)

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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 obliquely, as Mallon builds a model community controlled by a sometimes moody Almighty, a clockwork laboratory.

James Joyce said that the artist should be like a god, up above the world, paring his fingernails. Mallon seats the reader next to that lofty throne, giving a bird's-eye view of life in early-'60s suburbia.

Melwyn Park, where the Noonans live, is a pastel-colored place where “pale yellow metal cupboards” have “boomerang handles,” where the mother, Mary Noonan, listens to an “aqua colored Admiral radio” in her kitchen, which boasts a “sunburst clock with its satellite numbers.” A world of Futura and kitsch, lovingly recreated.

Mallon constructs the Thursday, May 24, of the Aurora 7 launch out of transcripts of CBS' flight coverage (featuring a very worried Walter Cronkite) and running excerpts from the Air-Ground Communication NASA log. There are brightly colored bits of Life Magazine, and New York Times “think pieces” about the need for wives who bolster their husbands, thereby avoiding the dreaded problem of passive sons (“Mary knew what he was talking about …”). All this punctuated with perky Irving Berlin lyrics insistently announcing “It's A Lovely Day Today.”

Melwyn, N.Y., is just a speck on the cosmic ocean, so Mallon also enters into the minds of historical and fictional characters: into the mind of John F. Kennedy, who wonders what he will do when he finishes being President; into the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald, who on this very day is in the Soviet Union applying for re-entry into the United States. Women who are unwittingly taking Thalidomide during pregnancy are met, along with a cast including a singled-out taxi driver, a confused priest and an acerbic female novelist. A peep backwards at May 24, 1862, offers the sight of another 11-year-old, yearning to sneak off and join the Confederate Army as a drummer boy.

Eerily, the future is revealed. We are told that Gregory's dad, Jim, will die of cancer; that the fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Linley, will get divorced and go to law school. Stray bits, effluvia, are recorded in the heavenly archive:

Twenty-five years from tonight, at the Crown Space Center of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Charles Williams, custodian, will finish vacuuming the last gallery on his rounds. He will miss a green M&M, dropped by an 11-year-old boy who was in the gallery with his parents, between 3:30 and 4:00. After Williams shuts the lights, it will lie until morning, still and undisturbed, near the heavy pedestal on which rests the Aurora 7.

There is Providence in the fall of a sparrow, of course, but this is the first book I know of to keep track of missing M&M's.

In fact, the stylistic forerunner of this kind of model-railroad clockwork style is the “Wandering Rocks” section of Joyce's Ulysses, another Catholic book. But Joyce makes the mechanical contraption one brilliant chapter of a work whose intentions are richer, vaster.

Unlike Joyce, Thomas Mallon has written a book that is compassionate, but which makes no real imaginative investment in its characters. As a result, the suffering the book depicts in the course of its tour through time and space seems foreshortened and somewhat facetious—as if the punishments of a whimsical God were somehow less real, or less felt, and as if the human victims of these punishments were really toys.

While this may be Aurora 7's Catholic vision (the catechism is quoted, and a good deal of Catholic imagery is invoked), it is also, oddly, the vision behind Thomas Mallon's earlier study, A Book of One's Own, a brilliant panoptic survey of people's published diaries. Here, too, Mallon provides a far-reaching overview—he has read widely and well; he writes wittily. But, again, his taste is for the stoic. He disapproves of self-absorption, with the result that as a writer Mallon seems more urbane than poetic.

This facetiousness mars an original work by a promising novelist and literary critic. Although the book closes with an ambiguous tribute to God's mercy, Aurora 7 is more of an anomaly, a tender but chilly novel which asks the Eternal One a rather peculiar but familiar question: “Where were You in '62?”

John R. Dunlap (review date May 1991)

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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 mirror of its point of view and thematic musings. In Aurora 7 Mallon has cooked up a neat gimmick that is all the neater for not being the least gimmicky.

Aurora 7 is mostly about a bright eleven-year-old boy teetering on the edge of puberty and obsessed with the space program; our story finds young Gregory Noonan suspended between a sullen rejection of the world and a grateful acceptance. If, like his school psychologist, we were to treat Gregory as “a case,” we might anticipate that “Gregger,” as his father calls him, would eventually (perhaps by the age of nineteen) find some kind of middle ground.

But Gregory's impatience with ambiguity runs deep. Jim and Mary Noonan, his parents, are a “moderately religious” and eminently decent couple in their forties, vaguely worried about (and soon to be panicked by) the spooky world their only child seems to be moving into. Although Gregory attends public school and therefore is instructed in the faith only on Wednesday afternoons, his mind is thoroughly Catholic, with a preference for neatness and order. So his early adolescent crisis will have to be short, and its resolution decisive.

In fact, Gregory's crisis (Does his father love him? Something is calling Gregory away—why won't the grown-ups quit tugging back on him?) has been troubling him only a few weeks, and Aurora 7 centers chiefly on the resolution, which occurs in just over the four hours and fifty-five minutes of Scott Carpenter's flight. In mind and heart, Gregory is up in “the captive freedom of orbit” with Carpenter. Under his shirt, he has hidden a small portable radio connected to an earphone, so that he can follow the space mission minute by minute while attending his fifth-grade class at Melvyn Park School in a suburb of New York City.

Well before school is out, on impulse (something on which the fastidious Gregory otherwise never acts), he bolts from the schoolyard on his bike, pedals furiously to the local railroad station, and catches a commuter train to ride the twenty-five miles to Grand Central Terminal. Earlier that morning, he had seen on television the crowds at Grand Central, who themselves were watching the space mission on a huge screen under the vaulted ceiling of the Terminal. That's where Gregory suddenly knows he has to be, and that's where we sense that he is going to collide with his destiny.

That destiny will involve several other characters whom we get to know through intermittent sketches. At St. Agnes Parish in the city, Tommy Shanahan is a 29-year-old Catholic priest who, five months before the convening of the Second Vatican Council, is already taken with “modern problems”: to wit, a romantic fascination with what is just beginning to be called the “Third World,” and a propensity for attaching religious significance to his own restless vanity and horniness.

In counterpoint to the self-involved Father Shanahan, Eddie Rodwicki and Herbert Johnson evince an unassuming dignity. Rodwicki is a New York City cabbie who loves his work for its “unpredictability”; he has a strong wife, three kids, and the startling ability to analyze character with instant and devastating precision.

Johnson, a porter at Grand Central Terminal, appears briefly in Gregory's field of vision as an anonymous “Negro man with friendly yellow teeth.” Within a few deft pages, though, moving backward and forward in time, Mallon dissolves the anonymity, giving an intimate portrait of a man who “escaped” Georgia for Harlem a quarter of a century before, who is warmed by the sound of a Georgia lady's voice, and whose son will, in a few more years, die in Southeast Asia.

There is also Elizabeth Wheatley, professional writer and proto-feminist, whose face “is an uncanny feat of simultaneous animation and fixity.” Elizabeth, cynical about space missions and stony in her pursuit of ambition, will turn out to be softer than she pretends.

But Tony DiPretorio, a CBS production crewman and “one of the church” (i.e., a prolific homosexual half out of the closet in 1962), will be a good deal coarser in a few more decades and hugely fretful about his health. Among several other minor characters is Joanne Kalkowski, a 22-year-old file clerk who is “slightly cracked”; in the coming years, after her father dies, she will spend some time in a state mental institution and be released to join a class of Americans whom social activists will call “the homeless.”

Mallon plays freely with the sense of history his 1991 readers will bring to bear on these 1962 characters. Like Scott Carpenter (or for that matter, like a library patron browsing through decades-old copies of newsmagazines), we get a heaven's-eye view of the world, which makes ordinary hindsight feel like providential foresight. We are given to know, for example, that, in May 1962, while (a) John F. Kennedy is thinking about the newspaper he may start up in 1969 when he retires to Massachusetts after his second term in office, (b) Lee Harvey Oswald has just returned from the Soviet Union greatly annoyed with Soviet authorities for the lowly treatment accorded an American defector of his obvious importance.

Older readers, by the way, will remember that the year Scott Carpenter almost lost his life was a bumper year for deaths of all manner of other celebrities: William Faulkner, Isak Dinesen, e. e. cummings, Robinson Jeffers; Niels Bohr and Arthur Compton; Mickey Cochrane and Bobo Newsom; Arthur Vining Davis and Enrico Mattei; Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Trevelyan; George Sokolsky and C. Wright Mills; Bernard Hubbard and Auguste Piccard; Ernie Kovacs, Hoot Gibson, Charles Laughton, Marilyn Monroe, Thomas Mitchell; Adolf Eichmann and Eleanor Roosevelt. The carnage is recorded in the 1963 Britannica Book of the Year, one of the sources acknowledged by Mallon in his preface.

With Aurora 7, Thomas Mallon has taken us on a flight of keen sensibility and relentless intelligence. When we touch down, perhaps a little giddy from the heights at which Mallon likes to romp, it becomes apparent that Aurora 7 is, finally, a novel about Providence, but not exactly the Providence that plays dice. It is a novel about the Providence some of us know—and all of us at least remember—as the God of Abraham: cranky, jealous, fond of spectacle, prone to snits.

Bettina Drew (review date 24 January 1993)

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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, for a court to rule on an execution, for the outcome of a Rhode Island Senate race. And amid this anticipation, Mallon provides deft thumbnail character sketches.

Mary Farrell, the voice of the Poker Flat Research Range, is “a grown-up version of the girl boys let into their tree houses, a lithe, friendly, alert young woman who sits behind her console in a cowboy hat.” Teddy Kennedy's son Patrick, starting his political life, is “the print of a negative that's already been dipped too often.” And, as a campaigner, Teddy himself, “his complexion alarmingly red … proceeds to mispronounce the name of the gubernatorial candidate … but goes on to give such a hammy, forceful presentation—a lunch-bucket speech at the top of his lungs, [a] body-slamming performance— … that he almost makes you feel this is a real event.”

Probably the most memorable piece here is “They Chute Horses,” a look at a rodeo competition that was chosen for Best American Sports Writing 1992. The Twentieth International Finals Rodeo, is held not in an outdoor pen but in a convention center connected by skywalk to an adjoining hotel, and dirt with a lower sandy layer has been trucked in to absorb the smell. Mallon, a somewhat mystified observer, captures both the event's anachronistic nature and its modern-day aspects, as he discusses rodeo salaries, sexism, humor, religion and whether, as the protesters outside the arena contend, the animals are mistreated. They are, and yet Mallon explains the cowboys' obliviousness to the mistreatment, the attitude that man and animal are equal participants, both capable of inflicting injury.

But that notion and the sport itself depend, as Mallon puts it, “on a sense of cultural disappearance.” Rodeo gains poignancy, even in the eyes of its fans, because it is an embattled and fading pastime, and Mallon rightly concludes the piece with the announcer's own adieu: “Good night, God bless you and remember, as long as there's a sunset, there'll be a West.”

Whatever his subject, Mallon tries to be fair-minded, even when judging people he doesn't particularly like. He can portray Dan Quayle on his home turf in Indiana, for example, with real complexity. And one suspects more condescension than he reveals toward the anti-death penalty demonstrators protesting the impending execution of Robert Alton Harris outside San Quentin. A man who likes words, Mallon is disgusted by the empty rhetoric he finds rampant inside the United Nations; he has a healthy writer's suspicion of the “politically correct,” and if he's a little snide toward the trendy, arty movie people at the Sundance festival, he does such a nice job of simply quoting their absurdities that one has to forgive him.

But Mallon is, by his own admission, politically conservative, and on occasion this leads him to an overblown romanticism and nationalism. His thought at the end of the Pearl Harbor piece that his father would join him in “marvelling at the world's growing resemblance to the envisioned one for which he was asked to fight” seems hopelessly optimistic, and some of the attitudes expressed in the essay on the launching of the shuttle Discovery are pretty hard to take.

The piece begins as an interesting tour of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center but leads into this overwritten glorification of conquest: “[I]f we are afraid to seize the next place, it will no doubt be our fate to die from a graver sickness, failure of nerve. As a nation we will shrink to Holland, and as a species we will be the passenger pigeon.”

Swept up in boyish enthusiasm, Mallon writes that “ego and nationalism are not unworthy propellants” for the space program. And while he knows that only governments can provide the vision and cash necessary for a space program, he feels that we should go at least in part because “God is not likely to forgive us” if we fail to use the know-how granted us “to repay whatever visits he may have made here.”

Readers still believing in the separation of church and state and feeling we may have more pressing obligations here at home may find such statements, so boldly placed in the book's first essay, dampening their desire to venture further into Rockets and Rodeos. But that would be a loss, for the moments of excess usually occur in conclusion, and whatever he wants to believe, Mallon is honest enough to understand that “the Kennedy Space Center ought to be a wildly romantic place, but it isn't” and that the can-do little civilian rocket club at Poker Flat is far more memorable.

Thomas Mallon is a sharper-than-usual observer of the American scene, and Rockets and Rodeos is the kind of solid, eyewitness reporting that can help us understand, piece by piece, this large and complicated country.

Francis X. Rocca (review date July 1993)

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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 his East Side New York neighborhood, he allows that “if the U.N. has failed in its aim to make the world safe, it can at least be credited with having done that for Turtle Bay.” This is the gentle lead-in to a disillusioning tour of the Old World Order's most grandiose symbol.

The delusions and deceptions of others can exasperate this good-natured author, and they do on the campaign trail. “The way tonight's speakers go on about the Pell Grants,” he reports from Rhode Island, “one would almost think they were golden guineas extracted from the velvet bag of the senator's personal fortune.” Of an animal-rights activist protesting a rodeo he quips: “one feels that if, as the song goes, he could talk to the animals, he'd bore them to death.”

But Mallon is hardly ever hostile, and when he is, it's not ugly but entertaining. His review of an experimental movie is worthy of John Simon at his most vitriolic:

This is the kind of movie that grips you by the eyelids and won't let go until you've fallen asleep. Helen can't act, and Ben can barely breathe. We have somehow been trapped in a seventy-two-minute Warhol film set in San Diego and possessed of what it thinks is a political consciousness. The production values have a willful, ascetic shoddiness: this is the kind of movie in which you can't make out the dialogue, but in which the movement of a piece of silverware is deafening. As for the scenery, one wishes the actors would chew it.

But Mallon generally avoids such easy targets. His assessment of another movie (a “superb, repellent” treatment of the Leopold and Loeb thrill killing) is at once balanced and strongly felt, and he picks the director as “somebody to watch our for in every sense of the term.”

Along with his fairness and sense of detail, Mallon's kind disposition makes for characterizations that are humane and sometimes memorable. Most enjoyable are the portraits of the principals at a Manhattan criminal trial. The querulous, nitpicking prosecutor; the polished, charming, angry activist of a defense lawyer; and the dreadlocked, Koran-toting defendant himself, who never says a word but laughs from time to time—all gradually emerge from a patient account of the inefficient proceedings. The star turns out to be the hammy, merciful, and commonsensical judge; by the time he passes sentence he has grown on the reader in a way that is rare outside of fiction.

The courtroom piece is the longest in the book, but there are others that read more slowly. Mallon's description of a fair in Owosso, Michigan, evokes the poignant tensions of small-town life in the late twentieth century but suffers from a lack of focus. His account of a rocket launching never takes off, weighed down not only by technical data but by minutiae of the technicians' clothing, diet, and chit-chat.

Yet one is inclined to forgive Mallon for going on about space, since he is obviously a man in love. His novel Aurora 7 was an affectionate look—through the eyes of a rocket-intoxicated youngster—at the early days of NASA. Here, in a sometimes stirring piece on the space shuttle, he all but declares it America's Manifest Destiny to colonize Mars. One even suspects that his sympathy for Dan Quayle, whom he shadows at a golf tournament and a Fourth-of-July parade, is clinched by Quayle's advocacy of the space program.

If occasional overthoroughness is Mallon's vice, it is only the complement of the virtue of thoughtfulness. On a visit to Pearl Harbor, Mallon considers the theory that FDR let the Japanese attack so that the U.S. would join the war, and compares it to the endless speculation on the Kennedy assassination:

The “investigators” of each “conspiracy” claim to be engaged in useful historical revisionism, but what they are doing might better be characterized as historical previsionism. For the Pearl Harbor contingent it is always 7:54 A.M. on that Sunday morning, a minute before the Japanese planes come through the clouds, and for the JFK gumshoes the Hertz sign in Dealey Plaza says 12:29, not 12:30. … The buff can keep scanning the skies or peering over at the grassy knoll happy in the knowledge that this awful, sublime moment doesn't yet have to be over.

After such a passage, the reader is apt to pause and ponder the suggestive truth of what he's read. Yet this writer's most distinctive trait is not thoughtfulness but tenderness. He thinks back fondly to the days when Hollywood movies left audiences in tears, and he likes to end his pieces on an emotional note, if not always a sad one. Sometimes he lapses into sentimentality, but his intention is to leave the reader both moved and reflective. The book closes at an auction of the late Rex Harrison's personal effects, where Mallon muses: “In life, possessions give their owner status. In death, it's more like the reverse, the owner's celebrity, if he had it, electrifying the object with a personal history.” It is a sound idea, and one both sad and oddly heartening.

Theodore Pappas (review date 21 August 1994)

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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.

Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris hailed from socially prominent families in Albany, N.Y. Henry's father, the mayor of Albany, died 10 days before the death of Clara's mother, which left her father, Ira Harris, an Albany judge and later U.S. senator from New York, with four children to raise. Brought together by their mutual bereavement, Ira Harris and Pauline Rathbone married three years later, meaning Henry and Clara were raised, from the ages of 11 and 13 respectively, as stepbrother and stepsister.

Though the children were encouraged to treat one another as family—“Think of Henry as your cousin,” Pauline instructs Clara—a normal sibling relationship proved impossible for Henry and Clara to maintain. Both kids were bright, sarcastic and playfully rebellious, taking pride in their ability to skewer others with their wit, and their fondness for one another soon outgrew the platonic.

“From the moment she saw [Henry] six years ago, on the church steps after his father's funeral,” Mallon says of Clara, “she had wanted him to notice her.” And Henry did.

But there was a dark side to Henry's character that darkened with the passing years. His broodiness, contrariness and emotional volatility were variously attributed to his displeasure with his mother's remarriage, to his running feud with his stepfather and to that wonderful 19th Century catchall—dyspepsia. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Clara prayed that military service and battle experience in particular would change Henry for the better, “purge him of all that aggression he has inside,” and that after the war she and Henry could buck convention and marry and start the family she so desired.

But war is seldom salubrious, and in this case Henry experienced some of the worst abattoirs of the Civil War, including Antietam, Fredericksburg and the infamous “Crater” of Petersburg, where he was shot through the chest and left for dead for 68 hours. Henry struggled to retain consciousness until medical help arrived so that fellow Union soldiers would not mistakenly bury him alive.

The second experience that haunted Henry for life was that fateful night at Ford's Theatre. Considering that Clara had become a close friend of Mary Lincoln's and that Clara's father, Senator Harris, was a frequent visitor to the White House, it is not surprising that Clara and Henry were invited to join the Lincolns that evening. But it is interesting to note that 14 other persons—including Gen. Grant and his wife, Julia, who had grown to detest the increasingly demented First Lady—had been asked before them but had declined the invitation for one reason or another.

Regarding the specifics of the assassination, Mallon's narrative is faithful to the firsthand accounts. John Wilkes Booth entered the President's box shortly before 10 p.m., shot Lincoln in the head at close range and then struggled with Henry and thrust a dagger at his chest, which Henry deflected to his arm.

“The knife went from [Henry's] elbow nearly to the shoulder, inside—cutting an artery, nerves & veins,” Clara recalled in a letter that Mallon quotes in full. “He bled so profusely as to make him very weak. My whole clothing as I sat in the box was saturated literally with blood, [as were] my hands & face. … Poor Mrs. Lincoln all through that dreadful night would look at me in horror & scream, Oh! my husband's blood … which it was not, though I did not know it at the time. The president's wound did not bleed externally at all—The brain was instantly suffused.”

Lincoln, of course, died hours later, but in actuality three other lives were lost that night. Mary Lincoln never emotionally recovered from the shooting, wore nothing but widow's black for the next 17 years and lived in and out of mental institutions both in Illinois and in Europe until her death in 1882. Clara's chances for a peaceful marriage also perished that evening, for the tragedy only aggravated Henry's precarious mental state.

Victimized by this accidental role in history, Henry would forever be known as the man at Ford's Theatre who failed to save Lincoln's life. Like the vultures and scavengers of the news media today, on each anniversary of that bloody Good Friday reporters swarmed Henry with questions about the assassination—never letting his grief and guilt subside.

He heard snickers in every comment, saw sneers in every glance. “I understand his distress,” wrote Clara in a letter. While in Europe, “in every hotel we're in, as soon as people get wind of our presence, we feel ourselves become objects of morbid scrutiny. … Whenever we were in the dining room, we began to feel like zoo animals. Henry … imagines that the whispering is more pointed and malicious than it can possibly be.”

Henry and Clara were married in 1867 and had three children, one of whom was ironically born on Feb. 12, Lincoln's birthday, and even became a Republican congressman from Illinois. Henry's reclusiveness and instability, however, never abated. He could not hold a job, grew intolerable to be around, took to boozing and gambling and occasionally whore-mongering, and eventually uprooted the family and relocated to Germany. Here Henry devolved fully into a world of delusion and insanity, passing the days reading recondite history, reenacting the Civil War and obsessively reliving that night at Ford's Theatre.

Convinced that Clara had been a Desdemona—unfaithful in their marriage and on the night of the assassination by paying more attention to the Lincolns than to his own medical state—Henry shot and stabbed her to death in a boarding house in Hanover on Christmas Eve morning of 1883 and then turned the knife on himself. For the third time in his life, he survived his wounds, and for the second time the name Henry Rathbone was associated with murder and became fodder for newshounds, guttersnipes and socialites alike.

He lived the rest of his days in Germany, at the Hildesheim Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and died there in 1911. Regarding Mallon's take on the denouement—Henry's shocking confession right before he kills Clara—this awaits the reader of this riveting tale.

Henry and Clara is Mallon's most polished gem to date, and as such it demonstrates not only his mastery of prose and plot but also his ability to serve faithfully two deities at once—in this case, the gods of both history and literature. The only disappointing feature of this book is that the very brief “Author's Notes and Acknowledgments” section explains little of the exhaustive research and obsession with historical detail that went into this book.

The reader wanting to know more about this genre and its philosophical underpinnings—from Sir Walter Scott to Georg Lukacs—or simply more about the facts and fiction of this story would do well to consult Mallon's fine essay “Writing Historical Fiction” in the autumn 1992 issue of the American Scholar. And if Mallon's audience cares neither for his philosophy nor for his fiction, it an always wait for the movie. A television miniseries based on Henry and Clara is already in the works.

Walter Goodman (review date 16 December 1996)

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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 camouflaged with a lot of period-setting name-dropping: Raintree County; Born Yesterday; the Louis-Walcott fight; the arrival of the Polaroid camera; Carol Landis' suicide; General Pershing's death; H. V. Kaltenborn; Whittaker Chambers.

The novel is thoroughly persuasive about the era, particularly as experienced by the characters in their teens and 20s who are about to slip or burst into brave new America. Nor does Mallon neglect the changes that would soon play havoc with small-town life, the 1950s famously being the decade of automobiles, highways and ranch houses. (Readers who, like several of the characters and your reviewer, cast their first vote in 1948, should have their own special memories stirred.)

At the center of the tale is a pleasantly old-fashioned triangle. Anne Macmurray, described early as “the dishy girl from Abner's Bookstore,” has to choose between Jack Riley, a War veteran, United Auto Workers organizer and Truman supporter, and the town's golden-haired lad, the pushy Peter Cox, a Dewey man who is running for State Senator. Peter, from a rich, socially elevated if brittle family, has been around; he's a fast worker with the ladies. Jack has been around, too, but in shabbier precincts.

The enlightened and otherwise admirable Anne is taken with The Naked and the Dead and proves it by telling somebody, “Fug you!” But Jane Austen seems to have had more influence on her. She is liberated, within reason. She is making her own way and trying to write a novel entitled The Time Being. She views Owosso at a novelist's remove as “exactly the sort of town artists fled from,” but finds herself caught up in the community excitement over the native son, whom she privately ridicules.

Anne is sexually venturesome yet not promiscuous, self-controlled yet willing at the right moment to go all the way, as they used to say when going part way was more common than it has become. “She was stroking his hair, pulling on his ears, and not doing anything to stop his hands.” (That's about as hot as the sex scenes get.)

There is no shortage in Mallon's Owosso of boosters and eccentrics who are living out their own dramas. Seventeen-year-old Billy Grimes, a natural-born go-getter (with a little inspiration from Dale Carnegie), who is sure to make a fortune in go-get-it postwar America, has a crush on beautiful Margaret Feller, who falls for Billy's best friend, Tim Herrick, a visionary or maybe just an unhappy youth, who decides one night to disappear from the world. Margaret, like Anne, has romantic longings, but of a more adolescent sort: “If he kissed her again, she would break the sound barrier, fly involuntarily over that threshold they were always hinting at in Girl's Health, the one past which she wouldn't be able to control herself.”

Tim's mother, Jane, the strangest yet a strangely understandable character in a book rich in provincial characters, ignores Tim and the rest of the world in her grief for her older son Arnie, killed in the War. She seeks consolation in numerology. Tim finds affectionate attention from a high school science teacher, Peter Sherwood, a homosexual several decades too early, who also grieves privately for Arnie. Their small circle is completed when he tells Jane, “We're alone in this town, and this is a hard place to be alone.”

And then there is crotchety Horace Sinclair, a Spanish-American War cavalryman, whose long-kept secret involving a suicide a half century ago is threatened by a promoter who plans to dig up the town's waterfront and turn it into Dewey Walk in honor of the man everyone expects to be the first President from Owosso. This pitchman's descendants are no doubt now building theme parks.

With a sympathetic eye for hometown oddities and an easy narrative way, Mallon moves these folks more or less smoothly among one another as the Presidential campaign heats up. His Owossoians keep revealing surprising and generally likable qualities. Even cocky Peter Cox is wryly aware of his own superficiality. (Anne is perfect from start to end, intelligent, emotionally open and never more appealing than when she is confused by her own feelings.)

The author, a sometime English professor and now a magazine editor, has written three novels that, to my loss, escaped my attention. He has a light touch, knowing yet not judgmental, exactly right for a tale about young people looking hopefully ahead to a spacious tomorrow even as they try to locate themselves in the narrow confine of their day's Owosso, which may be heaven or just a trap: Jack dreaming about a home; Tim dreaming of escape, by plane or bottle; Peter plotting politics; Billy figuring out a million schemes for making a fortune; Anne awaiting marvels yet unknown.

Though Mallon is careful not to come down too heavily on the matter, for all its easy charm his book has an undercurrent of early death and irretrievable loss. Owosso, after all, was once the coffin capital of the region, and powerful memories are buried in products of the Owosso casket company. Jane's love for her killed son has turned into an obsession with all the soldiers and sailors shipped home for burial or reburial in the old town cemetery.

Even Anne, uninfatuated with death, is touched by Owosso's elegiac appeal. In a passage that reflects the book's spirit, she finds herself in the cemetery:

She looked away for a second, back toward all the rows of headstones, newly carved or weatherbeaten: the men and women mated for life and now eternity; the babies of another time, dead the year they were born; long-lived maiden aunts buried with their parents, the dates so strangely aligned it took a visitor a few seconds to sort out the blood ties; the boys who'd gone down into the ground, for a second time, as Jane Herrick listened to “Taps”; the dozens of men who, right in this town, had built the caskets they lay in.

At moments the story slows and seems slight, but it is sustained by the telling, by the author's success in evoking Owosso and by his abiding sympathy for the town and its residents. “There's nothing wrong with this place,” Anne says, even though it is impossible to imagine her staying there for long. Anne excepted, there are no heroes here, and nobody who approaches villainy. You can't even work up much annoyance for Al Jackson, the salesman on the verge of becoming one of the developers who already in 1948 were conspiring in the destruction of communities everywhere.

It gives nothing away to report that despite its premonition of Owosso's decline, Dewey Defeats Truman ends with a batch of happy endings. One of them, of course, was the election.

Richard Eder (review date 5 January 1997)

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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 for an event it was certain would come to pass. In this case it is Owosso, Mich., living for months in anticipation of the certain victory of its native son, Thomas Dewey, in the 1948 presidential election.

It was not just Dewey's hometown that was sure of the victory but most of the rest of the country as well. Dewey himself campaigned with the portly dignity of an incumbent, while Truman screeched and kicked like an outsider. This probably contributed to the upset, particularly since, when draped over the short, mustached, button-eyed Republican (“moist, canine eyes,” Mallon writes), portly dignity sagged like an out-sized suit.

The Chicago Tribune's premature post-election headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” gives Mallon his title. What he is after, though, is not Owosso's morning after, which takes up an offhand few pages at the end. The key to his amiable story is not shock, even among Owosso's staunchest Republicans (some of whom loyally grew Dewey mustaches), but the sensation of awaking confusedly from an agreeable hallucination.

Dewey Defeats Truman, in fact, is about history taking a short break to dream itself differently. It is the alternate reality before reality sets in. Living out their assorted affairs and preoccupations, the characters have less than fictional weight. Regarded as fiction, in fact, Mallon's book is rather thin and more than a little arranged.

His personages think of themselves as real, of course. We, knowing what lies ahead on the second Wednesday of that November, take them as figures more akin to those in a musical comedy than a novel; a musical less sunny than Oklahoma and not as shadowed as Carousel.

The triangle that jangles throughout Owosso's wrong-way victory processional consists of Anne Macmurray and her rival suitors, Peter Cox and Jack Riley. Anne is a sprightly young woman who works in the local bookstore. She came to live in Owosso because she thinks it must be more “real” than Chicago or New York and thus ideal material for the great American novel she writes at night, a sentence or two at a time.

Peter, bumptious, rich and a junior at the local law firm, came to Owosso because it has a state Senate seat open. He has secured the Republican nomination and is campaigning dutifully for Dewey, enthusiastically for himself and, with growing passion, for Anne.

Jack, far too neatly his counterpart, unless you hold onto the musical comedy notion, is a union organizer and Democratic campaign worker. He is handsome, good in bed, idealistic and personally modest—and for most of the book Anne favors him while trying to suppress her yen for Peter. He, the apparent conservative, is the wild tiger, it turns out; Jack, the radical by Owosso standards, is a domestic puss.

The rivalrous romance moves along agreeably but somewhat dutifully; it doesn't seem to be what Mallon is most interested in. As the preelection months wheel around like a revolving stage, the portrait of the town unscrolls, peaceable, provincial but forbearing. Like other “town” stories—Thornton Wilder's Grovers Corners, Llareggub in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk WoodDewey advances the stories of four or five characters more or less simultaneously.

There is the comic scheme to set up a Dewey memorial promenade along the town's river, featuring such things as the chair used by the candidate when he was at law school and a papier-mache model of Dewey, as a New York prosecutor, leading a Mafia chieftain off to jail. There is the fierce opposition voiced by Col. Sinclair, an old widower who spends the day reading the classics and making his meals off the two roasted chickens he buys each week from a neighbor.

Sinclair, a curmudgeon of taste and integrity, defends the river against the shoddy plans of the Chamber of Commerce. He has a second reason, spelled out in one of several stagy subplots. Another subplot, touching peripherally on Sinclair's secret, concerns the passionate attachment of the teenage daughter of one of the town's leading citizens to the moody, troubled Tim Herrick. Their story, closer to melodrama than to drama, ends reasonably happily after a series of incidents that include a disappearance and the stealing of a small plane.

In contrast, there is a lovely, complex portrait of Tim's mother, Jane, who obsessively mourns her oldest son, killed in a brutal incident toward the end of the Second World War: the massacre by the Germans of 85 American prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge.

Glimpsed at first as a brooding eccentric, Jane is revealed gradually as the book's most winning character. She has made herself a military expert, tracking virtually the minute-by-minute history of her dead son's unit. Mourning is an activity of initiative and imagination; it is a celebration of memory and a subversion of the optimistic blandness of mid-century Owosso and America.

A prime bland example is the local paper. In its obituaries people do not die—they are “taken by death.” It made one feel, Mallon writes, that “all the dead in Oak Hill Cemetery were victims of a technical knockout, defeated perhaps, but crossing the bar like good sports.” Jane refuses to subscribe because she can't stand the thump when the delivery boy throws it against her door “like a German grenade in the Ardennes.” Besides, “she had been troubled by the sense that whatever copy Billy threw was the wrong one.”

That is a haunting line; it is what Mallon does best. He is not a master of story or of the vectors of human movements and encounters. He writes the movements to notice the odd way a shoulder is held or an arm is swung, delineators of the quiet individual counter-eddies in the larger currents of history. Currents that, in the case of Owosso, are flowing blithely uphill.

Thomas Mallon and Michael Coffey (interview date 20 January 1997)

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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 and Sciences (1988), Mallon didn't get to his childhood and the confluence of writing, religion and the larger universe until his second, Aurora 7 (1991), a well-received coming-of-age tale about 11-year-old Gregory Noonan fleeing his suburban school for Grand Central Station on May 24, 1962, the day that astronaut Scott Carpenter endured a near-disastrous splashdown after orbiting earth. The metaphor of a man viewing our planet from on high and suffering difficult reentry proved effective in charting the emotional journey of a sensitive boy dealing with the trauma of a distant, baffled father.

“That kind of governing, central metaphor,” says Mallon over a brunch of muffins, chicken curry and strong black coffee, “relates to what I think fiction should be: it should be about something, it should go someplace, not necessarily make an argument, but do more than render a series of moments.”

Indeed Mallon has gone places in his fiction. In Henry and Clara (1994) he went to the presidential box at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was shot, and told the story not only of that night but also of what happened to the young couple, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, who shared the evening with the president and first lady. Their lives, although ending in spectacular tragedy 30 years later, were all but lost to history until Mallon saved them, in a sense, through fiction.

And in his new novel, Dewey Defeats Truman, just out from Pantheon, Mallon journeys to a place and time—Owosso, Mich. (Thomas E. Dewey's hometown), in the summer and fall of 1948—when all eyes, certainly in Owosso, were on the presidential race that ended in Truman's famous upset.

In Dewey, Mallon tells of the small town's preparations for the seemingly inevitable triumph of its favorite son. But against the backdrop of this civic pride (complete with town council plans for a “Dewey Walk” to attract tourists), Mallon plays out various affairs of the heart: the bookish and beautiful Anne Macmurray's engagement to union organizer (and Truman disciple) Jack Riley; her wooing by the dashing, carpetbagging Republican Peter Cox; the obsessive mourning of Jane Herrick for her son Arnie, lost in WWII; and the silent suffering of Frank Sherwood, a closeted homosexual also mourning for Arnie, with whom he was in love.

“These last three novels,” says Mallon, “Aurora 7, Henry and Clara and Dewey, are really all about bystanders. These are all people who are in some ways connected to the accidents of history. They are going to be acted upon by events, and in some ways I do think that is probably one more very big metaphor for the human condition: we are all bystanders to the plan. I do think there is some graspable divine truth that is out there, and it's what governs us, and it is beyond our control. In that sense, the books may all be about the same thing.”

Mallon grew up in Stewart Manor, N.Y., on Long Island. His father was a salesman and his mother kept the home. He was the baby of the family, with one sibling, an older sister. At Brown University, he wrote his senior thesis on Mary McCarthy, whose essays, rather than fiction, made the young Mallon want to be writer.

“Mary McCarthy is my household god of writing,” says Mallon, pointing to a small bookcase in his study packed with McCarthy's books. “The sheer intelligence of the writing, so crystal clear and severe. She is a real moralist, and I think to some extent I am too, though I like to think I'm a more forgiving moralist.”

But it was the McCarthy style that attracted Mallon more than anything else. He recalls seeing the famous interview she did with Dick Cavett.

“It was the one where she said that every word Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ But Cavett also asked her what style was, and she said it had nothing to do with ornament, decoration, all the things one usually thinks of as style. Instead, she said style was lucidity, perspicuousness, in some ways the absence of what we call style.”

And although Mallon is reluctant to say how the McCarthy style shows up in his own writing, it is clear to his readers, who see but a surface of fact and detail moving with the insistent, forward beat of history without flourishes, his text not a medium or a reflection of the author's identity but simply the story itself. It is a style that makes Mallon most comfortable, and writing historical fiction is the great enabler.

“I think the main thing that has led me to write historical fiction is that it is such a relief from the self,” Mallon says frankly. “It is like getting out of the house: there are times when it is absolutely necessary, and I think I would go mad if I tried to make fiction straight out of my own life. I did it once: Arts and Sciences is a very typical first novel, a comedy about graduate school, a comic rendition of myself in my 20s, but I couldn't do it again.”

The graduate school experience that Mallon wrote about (telling the story of Artie Dunne in Arts and Sciences) was Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on the little-known English WWI poet Edmund Blunden. He credits the time in Cambridge with allowing him to have the belief that truths are indeed graspable.

EVERY VISION A METHOD OF COPING

“One of the things I loved about Harvard,” he says, “and there weren't many, was that we emerged from there absolutely immaculate of critical theory—and anything that would be useful in getting us a job, I might add. And the study we had done was really governed by the spirit of Matthew Arnold and the Arnoldian notion that literature does have to do with truth and sweetness and light, and that it does somehow push back the brush so that you can approach the truth. Every vision that we have—whether religious vision or ethical system—is some kind of grand coping mechanism. And to some extent just by thinking about what that ultimate truth might be and positing some kind of reason for something to have happened, it allows you to manufacture a truth that you can take up residence in for a while.”

Then, one feels compelled to ask, what is the truth of Dewey Defeats Truman, a title taken from the most famously not-true headline in American history?

“It may be that things often turn out better by not turning out the way they are supposed to,” says Mallon, after long pondering. “It may be the benign flipside of Henry and Clara—which posited the great human truth that we are all in the wrong place at the wrong time, to a certain extent. But in Dewey, what seems wrong might be right. Anne, the heroine, goes off with Mr. Wrong, with Peter Cox, in the end, the one she is not supposed to go off with. She is supposed to go off with the earnest working-class hero, Jack. But Cox reaches toward something deeper in her heart, and to some extent that is the truth of the election, too. I think if you ask even most Republicans they probably have a sneaking suspicion that history worked out better by having the underdog win an upset victory, and that Truman was a pretty good president, all things considered.”

There is also the matter of Frank Sherwood, the young high-school teacher (of astronomy!) in Owosso, and his evolution throughout the book.

“It is clear in the end,” says Mallon, “that Frank is going to go off to New York and be a gay man in a way that is much easier than it would be for him in a small town in the 1940s, and in a way by confessing his love for Jane Herrick's dead son he revitalizes her. At the end of the book where she is dancing across the bridge with her son's ghost, having been given the photo of Frank and Arnie embracing—it is my half-sentence trip into magical realism, and probably as far into it as I will ever go—but she has been filled with life again. When she gets to other side of the bridge, she will come back to the world.”

Despite what Mallon might say about his disdain for the personal in fiction, he seems to be not only writing entertaining and informative novels but also, unwittingly or not, confronting personal issues. In his laudatory review of Henry and Clara in the New Yorker, John Updike gently chided Mallon for the “winsome autobiographical traces” evident in his early work, while congratulating him for finding a way in later books to remove the traces without abandoning the themes.

“You are going to be present in whatever you write,” concedes Mallon, “but I think what Updike was getting at, and I think he was probably right, is that the less directly I have written about myself the more I have gotten into history, the more authentically I've been able to write about myself, or my own feelings. The whole question of sexual identity, for example, is more directly addressed in Dewey than in any other book, even though I don't want to much write about my own life, sexual or otherwise. But in some ways, that question is dealt with more interestingly here than in some of the other things I've done.”

And Mallon has indeed done some other things. Out on the job market in the late 1970s, he interviewed at Wesleyan. The biographer Phyllis Rose was one of the interviewers, and though he did not get the job, Rose recalled Mallon's talk of the book he was working on, a study of diaries. She mentioned the project to her editor, James Raimes, then at Oxford University Press—“probably the single nicest thing another writer ever did for me,” says Mallon—and Raimes, after moving to Ticknor & Fields, published A Book of One's Own in 1984, Mallon's first book. It was met with warm praise.

Eventually, Mallon got a post on the English Department faculty at Vassar (coming full circle back to Mary McCarthy's stomping ground) in 1979. Mary Evans, who agented his first novel and has been his agent ever since, subsequently landed nonfiction and novels at Ticknor & Fields, where Mallon stayed through Stolen Words (1989), a study of plagiarism, Rocket and Rodeos (1993), a collection of essays, and all three novels up through Henry and Clara, which came out just as editor John Herman (his last there, after Katrina Kenison and Fran Kiernan) was fired and Houghton Mifflin closed down the venerable Ticknor imprint. Mallon found some time then to assist one of history's more curious bystanders, Dan Quayle, write his book Standing Firm, which did a turn on the best-seller list. “I'm not technically a Republican,” says Mallon, “though I haven't voted for many Democrats lately.”

But the reception of Henry and Clara made it clear that Mallon had arrived, “one of the most interesting American novelists at work,” as Updike put it. Knopf publishing group president Sonny Mehta offered a two-book contract to Mallon, who had left Vassar after some 12 years to become literary editor at GQ magazine, and assigned editor Dan Frank at Pantheon to Mallon. “And Sonny said something that was music to my ears,” says Mallon: “give us the novel first.” The second book under contract will be a study of letters.

But Mallon is already at work on the research for another novel, tentatively titled Two Moons. It is an historical novel, set in Washington, D.C., in the 1870s, and involves an observatory in Foggy Bottom and the discovery of the two moons of Mars amidst intrigue and illness arising from the malarial Potomac. Surely, big plans are in store for the telescope on Mallon's stair landing, and some distant celestial body will soon play in its mirrors, sharp and clear.

Herbert Mitgang (review date 26 January 1997)

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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 election. Dewey's mother is still living in Owosso; she's one of the minor characters hovering in the background. But Dewey Defeats Truman is more fictional than historical.

Owosso is not wild about Harry, but it is tremendously excited about its favorite-son candidate, a sure-fire winner, according to all the predictions. (There are harbingers here of pollsters and exit polls to come.) Never mind that by 1948, Tom Dewey had been gone from Owosso 30 years and had made his name as a district attorney in New York. Until now, Owosso had been known for the fine caskets it assembled. But Owosso promises to come to life when a Dewey Walk will be built along its riverfront; after the election, President Dewey is going to bring the town fame, tourists and fortune.

The characters range in age from an ambitious young newspaper boy, who flips copies of the Owosso Argus-Press against people's doors, to a Spanish-American War veteran who charged up San Juan Hill—or at least a hill near it. The most interesting characters form a love and political triangle: Peter Cox is a stuffy, handsome, well-to-do Republican running for Congress; Jack Riley is a virile, beer-drinking union organizer who is a Democrat in predominantly Republican Owosso; and both love Anne Macmurray, the dream girl who works in the town's bookstore. After a good deal of fierce handholding, it's up to her to choose between them. After stacking the cards one way in the romance, Mallon pulls an ace of diamonds rather than a jack of hearts from his fictional deck.

In a separate incident that the author fashions into a melodramatic turning point, the reader learns that Owosso harbors the secret of a long-ago homosexual relationship. Even if true to what once actually occurred, the incident seems out of character with the winsome mood that runs through most of Dewey Defeats Truman.

What makes Mallon's novel especially appealing is its atmosphere and authenticity. You are transported to the streets and moods of Owosso. Some of the more-sophisticated townspeople are following the news from faraway Washington, where Whittaker Chambers is testifying against Alger Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In distant New York, Kennedy Airport is still called Idlewild. Lighting up a Lucky Strike, you're not yet concerned that cigarettes will be harmful to your health; after all, the ads say that there's not a cough in a carload.

In the town's bookstore, Macmurray recommends Sinclair Lewis' new novel, Kingsblood Royal. She snickers at the use of the daring three-letter word “fug” in Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. She stands by helplessly as the local police confiscate Ross Lockridge's Raintree County because they consider the book too dirty for Owosso's Ivory Soap-clean minds.

As he demonstrated in Henry and Clara—his brilliantly imaginative novel about the future life of the couple that was present in the state box with the Lincolns at Ford's Theater on the night of April 14, 1865—Mallon is a master of detail about a place and a time. In a note at the end of the novel, he acknowledges his debt to those who helped him learn all about Owosso's history. Mallon also says that he dug deeply into the Dewey archives at the University of Rochester. To his credit as a novelist, the historical research is seamlessly integrated into the story.

Waiting for the election results, a crowd at the bar of the City Club in Owosso hears a radio announcer report from Chicago: “… and yes, I've just been handed the first edition of the world's greatest newspaper for November third, 1948, and the headline, ladies and gentlemen, is a brief three words that say it all: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

Later, after the real results of the election are known, Mallon writes: “To the traveler passing through, the Dewey story would soon be like that of the tornado, a piece of old-timers' lore, something to be acquired through a little interested questioning, while Owosso remained the perfectly ordinary place it had so recently celebrated itself for being.”

Yet Mallon leaves the reader with the impression that, if you look behind the half-closed shutters of their lives, Owosso's (that is, Mallon's) characters are worth knowing. They're not simply small-town hicks being parodied by a smart-aleck author. In their singular way, they're stalwart Midwesterners seeking something bigger for themselves and their country. Perhaps that's why, in Dewey Defeats Truman, they know in their hearts that the Dewey Walk is only a fantasy.

Edward Mandelson (review date 25 July 1997)

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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 she half-knows she will never write. Her rival suitors are Peter Cox, an ambitious Republican lawyer too rich and handsome for anyone's good, and Jack Riley, a virtuous Democratic union organizer, skilled with his fists but too honourable to use them except in matters of chivalric honour.

Around this gentle romance, and soon entangled with it, are many darker stories. The widowed Jane Herrick is obsessed with her dead older son Arnie, killed in the war, and with every other dead soldier she reads about, while her sullen younger son Tim plots a spectacular escape from her and Owosso. Arnie's high-school teacher, Frank Sherwood, endures sexual isolation that cannot be broken in an innocent Midwest town. And, while local business leaders drum up support for a plan to pave over the bank of the Shiawassee River with a triumphant monument to Dewey, Horace Sinclair, a childless widower, sickens with fear that the work will unearth a wooden box he and some friends, many decades earlier, had secretly buried there for a generous but shaming purpose.

Peter Cox begins as a successful Lothario eager to leave behind old conquests and small towns, but his mother's cocktail-soaked cynicism over her failed marriage makes him curious about marriages that endure. As he surreptitiously probes Sinclair's devotion to his wife's memory and his puzzling anxiety to leave the river-bank unspoiled, Cox discovers more complex and compelling relations than he had imagined could exist between past and future, between the dead and the living, between vows and fulfillments. “You can't get rid of the past, Mr Cox”, Sinclair tells him. “The past is not a matter of time. It's a place. Somewhere just out of reach.” Owosso itself, with all its post-war excitement over social and technological novelty, tangibly encloses the past as the site (in fact as well as in the novel) of one the nation's largest coffin factories.

Mallon's previous novel, Henry and Clara, was a harrowing psychological tragedy in which memories of another president, the assassinated Lincoln, drove the local action of the plot. Dewey Defeats Truman is clearly a lighter work. But, as Mallon knows, comedy can be deeper than tragedy. Jane Herrick's political chatter, her son observes, “made you think that Dewey could raise the dead”. The bloodless Dewey, who, thinks Anne Macmurray when she sees a blow-up photograph of him, “almost looks alive”, can do nothing of the kind. But the exhilarating closing pages make clear that this small-town pastoral has been, from the start, a profound comedy, not merely of reversals, but of renewal and resurrection.

Sally E. Parry (review date fall 1997)

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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 end, many of the townspeople feel that Dewey's visiting the town prior to the election would be a sign of great things. The local politicians, including the president of Citizens for the Future, encourage Mrs. Dewey to invite her son back to his hometown, offering to hold a parade in his honor as well as to create a Dewey Walk along the riverbank. The Walk would be a permanent exhibit of the achievements of Dewey's life, including his years as district attorney and governor, soft-pedaling the fact that most of his major activities took place far from his hometown.

The disparate voices of the novel—Republicans, Democrats, union members, disaffected adolescents, women mourning their war dead—are set against each other in such a way that they call into question our notions of history. The characters expect the historical moment of the presidential election to make a difference in their lives and the life of the town and while all of the characters are transformed in some way, neither Dewey's expected win nor his loss has the impact that they anticipated. The townspeople grow and change despite, rather than because of, their brush with history.

Katharine Weber (review date 9 April 2000)

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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 Observatory and finds, instead, purpose.

She must take a test of her skill with logarithms to see if she is suited for work as a human “calculator,” working with data gathered by astronomers. “Her columns grew longer, and if she squinted at them, the confetti of inkings began to resemble a skyful of stars. She had time to let her mind wander. The Magi's search for Bethlehem; the music of Milton's crystal spheres; the prognostications of the D Street astrologer in whose parlor Cynthia had lately spent a dollar she could not afford: they could all be reduced to these numbers. There was actually no need to squint and pretend that the digits were the stars. They were, by themselves, wildly alive, fact and symbol of the vast, cool distances in which one located the light of different worlds.”

Hugh Allison, the young astronomer who conducts the examination, strikes Cynthia as “less a preoccupied intellect than a fellow of feeling and mischief.” She wins the job, of course. Assigned to work out calculations concerning the Transit of Venus, soon enough Cynthia has fallen in love with Hugh. She agrees to join Hugh in his extraordinary mischief—a grandiose scheme to obtain a kind of astral immortality involving the illicit projection of a lighted image into the heavens.

In order to obtain the rare equipment for this caper, Cynthia allows herself to be drawn into the orbit of the powerful and corrupt Roscoe Conkling, “The War God,” the powerful and corrupt senator from New York (one of several genuine historical figures in the novel) whom she first glimpses on her astrologer's doorstep. “Cynthia opened the door. Roscoe Conkling—who had spent an active amatory life hoping never to be surprised by a second woman in any room where he had arranged to meet but one—drew back, though only for a moment.”

Thomas Mallon's last novel was Dewey Defeats Truman, the story of a love triangle that takes place in Owosso, Mich., Thomas E. Dewey's birthplace, in the 1940s. His best-known novel might be Henry and Clara, published in 1994, a brilliant fictional treatment of the young couple who shared President Lincoln's box that fateful April night in Ford's Theater.

Mallon has a fabulous eye for the people at the edge of the historical picture. In Two Moons he brings together a prodigious amount of well-researched period detail and an imaginative deployment of authentic characters who inhabit the past with sufficient comfort to keep them, for the most part, genuinely present as individuals in that time and place. The poisonous Washington atmosphere of hateful Reconstruction politics, tinged by the specter of malaria, practically seeps from the pages of the book.

Perhaps Hugh Allison is a bit stiff in his passions—both for Cynthia and for astral immortality—which seem more cerebral than heartfelt. But he is, after all, a scientist, and you know how they can be, with their heads in the stars. Ultimately, we do believe this story as it plays out to its bittersweet end. The lovely little romantic gesture on the final page, even if you saw it coming, is quite moving.

As was true for Steven Millhauser's eccentric and brilliant Martin Dressler, Two Moons is a novel about a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American. You could call Thomas Mallon either a dreamy scholar or a scholarly dreamer. Either way, his fiction is as lucent as moonlight.

Polly Morrice (review date 22 May 2000)

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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 can neither fathom nor emulate the lightheartedness of those who missed the cataclysm.

Thanks to a marked facility with numbers, Cynthia easily wins the coveted post of “computer”—one who translates the telescopic observations of the astronomers into mathematical notation. The work, at which she is unerringly accurate, inspires an unwonted sense of hope. Perhaps she might gain “some imaginative perspective from which she could regard herself as the denizen of some faraway star instead of the overheated little District of Columbia.”

That perspective is soon provided by one of the observatory's astronomers. Hugh Allison is handsome, carelessly charming, and too young to have suffered in the war. His superiors regard him as somewhat unsound, and he is clearly bored by the nightly work at the observatory: tracking comets, observing double stars, even making discoveries (such as that of the two moons of Mars) that will earn the astronomers public attention and congressional largesse. Hugh's true desire is to send a signal to other life that may exist in the universe. The notion, familiar enough to modern readers, would be outlandish for Hugh's 19th-century fellows. He confides only in Cynthia, with whom he gradually begins an affair.

Given the difference in their ages, both the scientists at the observatory and Cynthia's fellow boarders regard the couple as mismatched; even Cynthia thinks of herself as too old for Hugh, or for anyone. Yet she retains enough of her beauty to attract the attentions of Roscoe Conkling, a powerful senator from New York, whose path she crosses in an astrologer's studio.

While Cynthia and Hugh are fictional characters, Conkling is drawn from life. He was a crony of Ulysses S. Grant's, a leader of the “Stalwart” faction of the Republican party, and the ruler of the New York Custom House, a font of money and patronage for the Republican machine. In Mallon's imaginative recreation, Conkling alternatively besieges Cynthia and plots his next move in a high-stakes political battle.

On both fronts, romantic and political, he faces stiff opposition. Although Conkling helped put Hayes in the White House, the ungrateful new president has taken two unpalatable steps: He has moved to reform the Custom House, source of Conkling's power, and to lift sanctions against the defeated South.

As for Cynthia, she ignores Conkling's amorous missives until Hugh falls seriously ill with malaria, an affliction attributed to the “miasmic” night air around the observatory. The sicker Hugh becomes, the more fervently he pursues his vision of projecting his image into space, using a powerful machine he must import from France. Desperate to help him, Cynthia finally turns to Conkling, who has the power to cancel the insurmountable duty his Custom House will levy on Hugh's device.

The story culminates with the unavoidable collision of Conkling, Cynthia, and Hugh, and with the playing out of the two men's dreams of immortality. In a sense, Hugh's desire for a sort of eternal life and Conkling's lust for endless power are two sides of the same coin. Cynthia's longings, by contrast, are far more modest. She wants marriage to Hugh, another child, and a bank account that draws 8 percent interest—goals that prove the most illusory of all.

Creating a character who wants to shine a light through the cosmos is one of several risks Mallon takes in this novel—and pulls off. He also succeeds in enlivening an episode that textbooks sometimes scurry past: the contested Hayes—Tilden election of 1876 and its aftermath. And then there is Roscoe Conkling.

As portrayed here, the so-called War God of the Norsemen is choleric and manipulative, but he is also faithful to his convictions, in his own way. He cheats on his wife, but, as a leader in the party that devised Reconstruction, he is the first to shake hands with a black senator from Mississippi. Each year he reads all of Shakespeare, “not just so he might quote him, but to find himself in the pages.” They don't make politicians like Roscoe Conkling anymore, and Mallon understandably revels in this historical found object, whose only flaw as a character is his tendency to overwhelm the other actors in the story.

Those who know Mallon's previous books (he is the author of four other novels and four works of nonfiction) will find familiar pleasures here, while new readers will be happy to discover his unfailingly graceful prose, his gift for melding historical research seamlessly into a story, and, as in Henry and Clara, his ability to write convincingly from a woman's point of view. In Two Moons, Mallon also captures a Washington that is still a muddy southern town, full of unfinished monuments but as suffused with gossip as it is today.

Two Moons may not be the last novel to include a search for extraterrestrial life, but it will certainly be one of the most interesting.

Thomas Mallon and Bill Kauffman (interview date June 2000)

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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 Jefferson Hotel. He was just beginning his book tour, but already missing his home in Connecticut.

[Kauffman]: Is there anyone in today's politics who is even remotely as outsized and flamboyant as the leonine dandy from Utica, Roscoe Conkling?

[Mallon]: There's such a premium on blandness today. You're not allowed to have outsized characteristics. Very few people are allowed to be eccentric in politics. The media will let somebody go as far as Alan Simpson.

One of the things that's so awful about Clinton is that we have all sorts of evidence about what a big, juicy creature of appetites he is, but he's always presenting himself in this awful cowl of socially acceptable, politically correct demeanor.

One thing that diminishes politicians today is that they don't use the language as well as nineteenth-century politicians used it. If you read the ordinary correspondence of nineteenth-century politicians, they can be writing about a post office appointment in Troy, New York, but the letter has a much more natural use of language.

The ordinary person uses language less well now than the ordinary person did 100 years ago. And it diminishes you in a very fundamental way. You rely on everything else—television, computer—for your own perceptions, and you're not called upon to interpret things.

People generally are becoming less like themselves as the years go by, or less like what they could be because they don't use language with the subtlety and vigor that they used to.

Civil service reform is certainly an undervisited subject in American fiction.

People say, “When is your novel set?” and I tell them, “In the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes”—they practically start snoring. But the Hayes administration was a thrill a minute.

Civil service reform, which sounds so dry, does have its gripping aspects, because so much depended on the outcome. Conkling's entire machine is built on his ability to control the Customs House in New York. Civil service is coming in at the same time that Washington is becoming a modern city: it's going to change the way people live.

You give the anti-reformers a very fair shake. Roscoe Conkling decries the “rancid, canting, self-righteousness” of the reformers, whose “real object is office and plunder.” We are in the midst of the John McCain moment. Any parallels?

(Laughing) You think campaign-finance reform is an issue now, go back then!

Reformers often fall into self-righteousness because they have such certainty that they're standing on the moral high ground. I'll give you a parallel.

Conkling refuses to apologize for being at the gears of this powerful Republican Party machine. His view is, “I'm a Republican; we kept the Union together. I was part of this massive effort which saved the country, and now I'm being pecked to death over niceties by people who have done much less good ultimately than I and my kind did.”

Today, you see certain mainstream Republicans who think, “All we did was force the Soviet's hand and win the Cold War and completely redo the world, and we're listening to all of this nonsense.” What nobody points out in the current debate is that this terrible, atrocious system that we're living with now is the reform system.

Is there anybody who would seriously argue that the reformed nominating system that we've had in place for the last 30 years has given us better candidates for President than the old conventions driven by the party elders used to give?

My fear is that if I wrote an historical novel some figure from that period would time-travel to the present, read the book, and snigger, “Oh, no, this is all wrong. That's not how it was.” If ever you had such a fear, obviously you've conquered it.

It's easy to catch mistakes in the idiom, just in the process of revision. But what you might fall into more easily is having somebody's psychology or ethics be more modern than they would be.

Yes, for instance there's a tendency today to give the hero—almost always the heroine—contemporary racial attitudes.

Right. She's so much in advance of her time. If only everybody else could be as enlightened. She's showing the way. My friend Richard Bausch, a novelist, says that every character today must represent the highest aspirations of his victim group—whether it's historical or not.

It's one thing to show a fictional character engaging in base behavior. But what are the ethics of depicting an actual figure, Senator Conkling, acting despicably towards a woman who exists only in your imagination?

Somebody once asked me, “Don't you fear the dead?” They asked me this vis-à-vis Major Rathbone, who was in Henry and Clara, and who I have being momentarily complicit in the Lincoln assassination. That novel hinges on Henry Rathbone's actually seeing Booth come into the box, and, however momentarily, making a conscious decision not to stop him.

That's probably a terrible libel on the dead. With Conkling, I think I'm true to the tenor of his private life. He was a big womanizer. Julia, the long-suffering Mrs. Conkling, was always up in Utica, and there were a lot of women, most famously Kate Chase Sprague, who was the Chief Justice's daughter. If anything, I have toned Conkling down. Conkling is just one of these day-glow figures. He had everything he needed: the looks of a Kennedy, the eloquence of Mario Cuomo, and the ethics of Al D'Amato.

If Conkling were purely a moustache-twirling villain, he wouldn't be very interesting. Conkling had these lapses into statesmanship every so often. The day Senator Bruce, the black senator from Mississippi, was sworn in, and his colleagues were trying to hide behind their newspapers, Conkling strode across the floor and shook his hand and shamed them into welcoming him into the Senate. Senator Bruce named his first child Roscoe Conkling Bruce.

Unfortunately, the other most famous namesake for Roscoe Conkling is Fatty Arbuckle, the actor. His father suspected that Fatty was actually the product of an affair, and he was such a rabid Democrat that he thought the worst thing he could do to curse this bastard child was to give him Roscoe Conkling's name.

So you've not been haunted by the ghost of the astronomy popularizer Simon Newcomb, the Carl Sagan of his day, who in Two Moons comes off as a vain, self-absorbed, pompous grasper?

Newcomb was a great showboat. And he did attempt to grab credit for the discovery of the two moons of Mars from Asaph Hall, the real discoverer.

It's very modern in a way: When the reporters got wind of the discovery and came out to the Naval Observatory to talk about it, the one name on their Rolodex, or whatever they had instead of a Rolodex, was Simon Newcomb. And he framed his account in a way that reflected more credit on himself than he was entitled to.

There's obviously an unslaked thirst among American readers and viewers for books and movies about the American past, yet comparatively few are written or produced.

There is something of a revival of historical fiction going on. You have to credit the irascible Gore Vidal, who rescued the genre from a white-elephant place in literature.

I have a theory that this revival also has to do with the communications revolution. The past is about the only place to which you can get away any longer. Everybody is instantly, totally accessible to everybody else at every given moment. We could get Katmandu on the phone in 10 seconds. People take their cell phones up Mt. Everest. The past is starting to look imaginatively attractive to novelists now, the way geographical distance or different life circumstances might have been earlier.

I think that novelists are going to be concentrating more on the past then they used to. The allegorical possibilities are always there. The challenge is to not have a lead foot on that particular pedal: Let the allegorical connections arise by themselves without pushing and nudging and winking too much.

Your novels tend to be about bystanders, people whose lives briefly touch those of great men. Why do the bystanders interest you more than the Deweys or the Lincolns?

I remember when I was 12, when Kennedy was killed, there was a photograph of the assassination, not the gory Zapruder film but a photograph taken from the front by an Associated Press photographer. It's taken the moment of the first shot. You can actually see Kennedy reaching up to his throat.

The people on the sidewalk fascinated me because they were still smiling. They didn't realize what had happened. I would think about those minor characters.

You ghosted Dan Quayle's memoir, Standing Firm, did you not? The acknowledgements say “Tom Mallon. … provided a great deal of help,” which is celebrity author-speak for “He wrote it.”

I'm just going to say I did a lot of work on the book, and leave it go at that. Dan Quayle is an extremely nice guy, and he remains a good friend and was unfailingly courteous to me whenever I did anything on the book.

Did you learn anything from Quayle that you later put to use in your historical fiction? I mean, working side-by-side with the Vice President of the United States …

It's a fair question but I'm just going to duck it.

I gather that you are gay. Quayle identified himself with the family-values Right. Was that ever an issue?

No. I voted for George Bush twice, which means I voted for Dan Quayle twice. I am not a social-issues Republican. I'm not even a registered Republican. I'm attracted to a lot of conservative positions, but on most social issue questions I would be much more libertarian than Dan Quayle.

On the other hand, I write for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker, and I disagree with far more of their editorial positions than I do with the positions of Dan Quayle.

Can you imagine writing a novel with Quayle as a character?

(Pause) I wouldn't, because he's a figure of the present and I just write about the past.

Have your politics ever been a disadvantage in the world of New York publishing?

I honestly can't say so. My politics are very mainstream conservative with a libertarian streak. As the years go on, I find Barry Goldwater more and more attractive.

What's odd is that what are fairly mainstream positions in the rest of the country are somewhat unusual in New York. If you think of supposed “literary novelists” who are also somewhat conservative, it's me and Mark Helprin—that's the shooting match. But my interest in politics and history trumps ideology in a lot of ways. If I had been asked to work on a book with a Democratic Vice President, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if I would have said yes.

This gets back to the whole question of the paucity of historical fiction. I don't think the average American writer gets out enough. You have this superabundance of academic novels by novelists who spend their daytime teaching writing. We were much better off when we had more newspapermen who were novelists. They saw more and they were more engaged in their times.

You've said that as a boy the two greatest influences on your imagination were “the Catholic Church and Project Mercury.” Do they remain so as an adult?

More specifically, it was the Baltimore Catechism and Project Mercury. Certainly astronomy always comes into my books, and I'm still a passionate believer in manned space travel.

It's colossally crazy that we reached the year 2000 having gone nowhere in the previous 30 years. We should have been to Mars and back several times now.

Are you for or against the colonization or possibly even terraforming of Mars?

For it. Completely.

An Earth imperialist!

Speciesism! As far as the Baltimore Catechism goes, I suppose “lapsed Catholic” is the right description.

You're not a church-goer?

I'm not a church-goer, no, which is a very different matter from being a believer.

So you're a believer?

I'm spiritually ill-developed. My interest in astronomy is probably some kind of spiritual displacement.

Your last two novels feature astronomers or astronomy buffs, another group largely absent from fiction. Why so few novels about scientists?

From the demand side, it frightens readers off. I remember talking about trigonometry in a radio interview. I felt like seizing the microphone to tell anyone who was listening, “There's really not a lot of math in this novel!”

A lot of it also gets displaced into science fiction. Maybe to some novelists it is tainted by that.

My scientific knowledge is really rudimentary. I entered Brown in the fall of 1969, just after Ira Magaziner had largely rewritten the curriculum and made everything Pass/Fail, with no distribution requirements.

I should have been forced to take science. I would have been a lot better off for it. I remember when Magaziner came to the White House in '93 and put the health plan together. I told a friend, “Stock up on aspirin and gauze.”

As I take my leave of Mallon, we talk astronomy. He has a four-inch Celestron telescope, which is far too small to offer a glimpse of the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. But perhaps they are better imagined anyway.

Having given Rutherford B. Hayes his due, Mallon says that in his next novel the characters will glance off a President even more deserving of rehabilitation: Calvin Coolidge.

Algis Valiunas (review date June 2000)

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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 his magisterial smugness could never hope accurately to describe, let alone to explain, them. (Of course, Hugo and Tolstoy had explanations of their own that outdid those of most historians for grandiose aspirations to omniscience.)

The historiography of our time owes a lot to the colossal nineteenth-century novelists, above all the belief that previous writers of history overlooked countless small lives every bit as significant as those of the great and powerful: Hence the proliferation of monographs on such topics as religious mania among cheese-makers in sixteenth-century Provence. (I'm not sure if I've just made that up or if I've indeed seen a book like that mentioned somewhere, perhaps in the New York Times Book Review.) And from the novelists who claim that their fictions tell more of the truth than histories do, modern historians of the most fashionable sort have derived the notion that history is just another fiction.

There are no Hugos or Tolstoys among current historical novelists (Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the nearest thing going), but in America there exists a terrific appetite for the historical novel. Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Gore Vidal's Burr and Lincoln and 1876 have topped the best-seller lists and incited purportedly serious critics to admiring riot. In fact, there is little enough to admire: These novelists traffic in threadbare goods that still pass for rare treasures at the intellectual bazaar. In their novels every man of any eminence is mad with ambition or lust; the high are brought low, and the low elevated, and not in the manner of the Sermon on the Mount; history as the once potent vision of America's moral grandeur is discredited as the patter of carnival barkers. While in some cases that could be a good thing, even then it tends to be pap that replaces pap, and the new is almost always less savory and substantial than the old. History debunked can still be bunk.

Thomas Mallon, whose newest book is Two Moons, writes historical novels of a different sort. The most obvious difference is that he has no ideological ax to grind. That he has contributed a number of essays to The American Spectator surely suggests a certain disposition, but the only feature of his fiction that might hint at his political orientation is the absence of any explicit political orientation. He is after something more than Doctorow and Vidal's game of scoring points with the right people and showing contempt for the wrong ones. Pushing fifty, with nine books to his credit—five novels and four works of non-fiction, including well-received studies of plagiarism and of diaries—Mallon is a writer of an unusual, perhaps even extraordinary, turn of mind, which takes history as its starting point but lives by the truth as the imagination sees it.

Mallon's recurrent theme is the way the 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. Aurora 7 (1991) tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy from Westchester County, Gregory Noonan, who can think of nothing but the orbital flight that astronaut Scott Carpenter is making on May 24, 1962. On a television at school Gregory sees the crowd that is watching coverage of the event on a large television screen at Grand Central Station, and he heads off on a mission of his own, determined to join the excitement. Mallon interweaves Gregory's adventure with the exchanges between Carpenter and Mercury Control as well as the meanderings around New York of a cab driver going about his business, a young Puerto Rican man looking for work, a wayward priest in pursuit of a lovely young woman, and a Mary McCarthy-like writer who despises the whole outer space business.

Their various peregrinations turn out to have a providential coherence. Carpenter's spacecraft splashes down hundreds of miles off target, and for forty-five minutes his peril is on everybody's mind. When Walter Cronkite announces that Carpenter has been found, Gregory joyously walks out of Grand Central and onto Forty-second Street, “with no idea where he's going but with perfect certainty he's headed in the right direction.” Confused by the traffic signals, he steps into the path of a speeding cab—the speeding cab, driven by the now familiar cabbie, Nowicki; the priest with lust in his heart shouts out a warning, the Puerto Rican man kicks at the cab, and the lady writer grabs the boy by the collar just in time. The cab grazes Gregory and knocks him down; somebody asks, “Is he all right?” and the boy answers, “He's fine. … The rescue planes just found him.” “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” Charles Dickens begins David Copperfield. Gregory's mind is so full of Carpenter's heroism that there is no room for his own life.

The mind of Mallon, on the other hand, has a born novelist's capaciousness, with room for everyone. Not only does Mallon make the reader feel the reality of every life the novel depicts, he also undertakes to penetrate the heavenly reality behind the human. In the manner of a late Tolstoy story like “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” the clockwork plot bespeaks a guiding divinity Who makes the world run just so, although Mallon does not exactly share Tolstoy's faith in the perfection of the arrangement:

He had intended for some weeks to send this one of His field's lilies, this one of His sparrows, whom His eye is always on, to his death, under the wheels of Checker cab number 7D22, just as He had planned to let Carpenter skip off the earth's atmosphere and keep orbiting until he suffocated. But His moods change. Five days from now the papers will report that twelve-year-old Kevin Shickley, Jr., while chasing a squirrel near Shamokin, Pennsylvania, has fallen down a 550-foot mineshaft to his death. “Mercy” is not a word expounded upon by the Baltimore Catechism, and as such is not an idea that Gregory Noonan ever pondered before falling asleep and into his dreams tonight. But he did say his prayers before going to bed, and he did make the customary petition that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

None too pleased with a God Who can kill one child and spare another on an apparent whim, Mallon exercises the human privilege of casting an ironic eye on the deity responsible for the world's cruelty, and tempts the reader to forget that it was God Who made the novelist and not the novelist who made God. This summation is not quite worthy of Mallon's elaborate meditation on history, fate, mortality, and the cosmic ambitions of men; Dostoevsky did not let Ivan Karamazov, who renounced God for permitting innocent children to suffer, have the last word. For Mallon, simple piety, the belief in God's ultimate goodness, rests on something less than the whole story, which it is the novelist's responsibility to tell. Mallon tells the story well enough to rattle, if not to dislodge, the pious reader.

Henry and Clara (1994) plunges deeper still into dark waters. Henry Rathbone loves Clara Harris, and Clara loves Henry, but there is a hitch: Although they are not related by blood, they are stepbrother and stepsister, and his mother and her father are not keen on the romance. But when the American Civil War breaks out, Henry declares that unless their respective parents allow them to marry, he will spend the war in England—an intolerable embarrassment to the family, for Clara's father is the Republican senator from New York, Ira Harris. (These are real people, Mallonized.) The elders' capitulation moves Clara to rejoicing: “Maybe this war is a blessing—God forgive me for saying it—but if it's what brought them around …” The war, to which Henry goes off, makes her feel differently soon enough: “Her own deepest feelings were being pressed into service by the Abraham Lincolns, distracted toward an object unnatural to them. Everyone's nature was being snatched from itself, displaced, by the man directing this war.” As for Henry, he is wounded in battle, and has a vision of Hell itself. He returns from war a troubled soul.

But the worst comes after the war is won, for it is Henry and Clara who accompany the Lincolns to see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on Good Friday, 1865. After shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth slashes Henry's arm with a knife, and he almost dies from loss of blood. The assassination is recounted from Clara's point of view, and, as the president lies dying, she has the “strange feeling that she had been painted into history, inserted into a tableau. … It was a terrible feeling, though at moments exhilarating—this sense that she would forever be as she was now, arrested, like the play across the street, which would never move beyond the second scene of act 3.” That night proves to be the defining moment of Henry and Clara's lives; Henry, in particular, finds himself returning to it ceaselessly, and becomes an obsessive student of history, as the need to understand why things happen as they do torments him like an infected wound. Once he understands, he tells himself, his mind will be at rest.

Understanding and rest never come. Increasingly unable to distinguish past from present, Henry at last goes violently out of his mind. Eighteen years after the fateful event, Henry tells Clara that he saw Booth standing at the door to the presidential box for several seconds, that their eyes met, and that he deliberately did nothing to stop the assassin, because he wanted to avenge all the soldiers whom Lincoln had sent to their deaths. Henry then proceeds to shoot Clara dead and to hack himself repeatedly, though not fatally, with a knife. In Aurora 7 Mallon grants the reader the pleasure of seeing tragedy—tragedies—averted, by God's Own mercy; it is a questionable pleasure, for the book ends with the reminder that there is no shortage of other tales to tell that have a sad and bitter end. In Henry and Clara Mallon tells one of those tales: Death breeds death, in a man who cannot come to terms with the tragedy—tragedies—into which history thrusts him.

Mallon is a haunted man—haunted by history, but most of all by the thought of death, from which, as one sees in the splendid novel Two Moons, there is no getting away. Cynthia May has suffered loss upon loss, and she broods upon them all: her husband of three months killed in the Civil War, her young daughter dead of diphtheria, her father and mother gone in due course. Alone, poor, sorrowing, her beauty fading, she nevertheless refuses to give up hope, as she “struggl[es] back to something like life.” Her skill with numbers gets her a job at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.—the year is 1877—and her not yet vanished beauty attracts the notice of the astronomer Hugh Allison, who is several years younger than she. Hugh takes little interest in the work he is supposed to be doing, but is ablaze with a project that he is convinced will gain him immortality, after a fashion, and the only fashion he cares about: He wants to soar beyond the reach of time itself, climbing up inside the unfinished Washington Monument and using an aplanatic-mirror projector to send an image of his own face into the infinite depths of space. To the unschooled reader, the physics involved may be elusive, but the poetry of the notion is captivating—as it is to Cynthia, who falls in love with the dreamer and his dream.

There are complications. Hugh comes down with malaria—a common affliction, in the marshy precincts of Foggy Bottom—and consequently with Bright's disease, a fatal kidney ailment. If he hopes to cheat death, as he puts it, he doesn't have much time. But the projector he needs for his scheme must be imported from France, and the customs duty is more than he can pay. Cynthia comes to her lover's aid. She is being hotly pursued by Roscoe Conkling, Republican senator from New York, whom she bumped into at an astrologer's parlor (and who, unlike Hugh and Cynthia, is a figure from history); “this law-making satyr,” as Cynthia thinks of him, presides over a patronage empire, and his boys run the Customs House in New York City. At first Cynthia attempts simply to charm Conkling into waiving the customs duty, but it soon becomes clear that he has no intention of delivering the goods to Cynthia until she has delivered the goods to him.

In the losses that memory cannot shake free of, and as the prospect that looms ever larger moment by moment, death is the supreme adversary, against whose strength Mallon's characters measure their own. And they are persons of sufficient strength that the contest never lacks interest, though it is no secret who is going to come out the winner. Mallon might be understood to suggest that the heroic struggle against death, however doomed to failure, can be considered a sort of triumph, in a certain light at any rate. Yet while Mallon does place his hero and heroine in a flattering light, Two Moons is by no means a work of simple moral uplift from the Endure Indeed Prevail School. Fog, mud, miasma besiege the Observatory; swampbottom is the native habitat from which Hugh and Cynthia hope to raise themselves, clean out of this world. Their aspirations to the sublime never quite disentangle themselves from the trammels of the ordinary, even of the sordid. Triumph, if triumph it is, cannot be had without tragic loss. If you want something remarkable, you pay, perhaps with a cherished part of your own integrity.

Elegantly constructed, intensely pondered, marvelously alive, Mallon's novels constitute an impressive body of work; they are good enough that one does not feel foolish in hoping he might have a truly great novel in him: one for the history books. At his best, like Hugo and Tolstoy, he sees human beings not only in the light of history, but in the light of eternity; a life of no apparent consequence can seize the imagination and open up the entire world. Here are Cynthia's thoughts prompted by a murdered pencil seller whom she has read about in the newspaper:

Did his humble life mean more, or less, when contemplated against the heavenly immensity she had just seen? Was he not exalted, and leveled, to the same degree of mystery, wondrous and infinitesimal, as a Ulysses Grant? She was conscious of a new peacefulness within herself, a swelling of what she'd begun to feel with The Principles of Trigonometry. The Earth seemed nothing more than a streetcar doing a wide endless loop of the celestial city. John May, in his hasty grave in Tennessee, and Sally, inside her mean box in the Presbyterians' cemetery, were actually sitting with her, fellow passengers, just across some narrow aisle separating life and death. They were all on the same wheeled mote, ineffably whirling with Herr Winnecke's comet.

Lives lost to history ignite in the novelist's mind, and light up inexhaustible spiritual vistas. One feels lucky to be whirling along on the same planet as Thomas Mallon.

Robert Schmuhl (review date 21 January 2001)

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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 Reviewing and author of such highly regarded novels as Dewey Defeats Truman and Henry and Clara, Mallon leads readers through an assortment of books with a steady, clear eye for what works and what doesn't. Although more inclined to praise than to criticize, his writing reflects not only his academic roots (minus the unreadable scholarship) but also a craftsman's knowledge and empathy. Except in rare instances—David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars is pretty much beyond redemption, we're told—Mallon explains how a particular work might be stronger or better with attention to this or that.

For example, in discussing Dutch, Edmund Morris' book about Ronald Reagan, Mallon marches through more than eight pages of compliments for Morris and his subject before this sentence appears: “Morris's biography, one of the most absorbing, and certainly the strangest, I have ever read, is subverted by an ongoing narrative fiasco, the author's decision to construct a fictional persona who can follow Reagan, as if they were both characters in a novel, through every phase of our hero's life.”

For the next couple of pages, Morris justly gets cuffed around, but regret exceeds venom. Mallon fears readers will “impeach and discard Dutch” without recognizing its considerable merits. At the end, reasoned balance reigns:

The book constantly overreaches, puffing out its own dry ice, prowling after every irony, foreshadowing and frisson. And yet, if Dutch can be hugely ridiculous, it is also absolutely essential, a work designed perhaps to be as strange as its subject.

Striking phrasing and acute perception are hallmarks of these essays. In a review about a volume of photographs capturing American political figures, Mallon returns to Reagan, noting that he “made himself seem fully present to the camera, shaking your hand with his eye, while all the time a part of him, probably the best and most interesting part, was somewhere else.”

About journalist-turned-political-novelist Ward Just, Mallon observes:

Like a dedicated legislator who will never reach the presidency, Just will probably never snag any of the big literary prizes. What he will leave, like that legislator, is a record, a body of work whose accomplishments are obscured by the manner—“fastidious as to detail, realistic in approach”—in which it was compiled.

Mallon quotes one sentence from Robert Stone's Damascus Gate and remarks:

Up until the last verb phrase, it's pure best-seller-ese; from there to the end it's the customized craft of real writing. This stylistic mix of the earthly and the divine is perfectly in keeping with the novel's crazy toss of characters and concerns.

Mallon discusses fiction, poetry, biographies, memoirs and other nonfictional narratives with equal aplomb. Such a wide range, however, doesn't mean an absence of definite preferences.

Whatever the work, Mallon favors “sense over sensibility,” reflective efforts of the head rather than effusive emotions from the heart. Echoing a belief of the late Mary McCarthy, a strong influence on Mallon's criticism and fiction, he asserts, “I would rather end the day having had one clear thought than one strong feeling.”

Michael Potemra (review date 28 January 2002)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938

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 heroine of one of the best nonfiction works of recent years: Thomas Mallon's Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy. Mallon details how, armed with her Quaker faith and a guileless, quirky sense of humor, Mrs. Paine navigated her way through the consequences of her young friend's act of madness. The early investigations—Dallas police, FBI, Warren Commission—were just the beginning; Mrs. Paine would also eventually become fodder for the kooky Jim Garrison probe, and for the conspiracy theorists and their numerous Internet sites. Mallon discusses all of this, often in highly amusing detail; but what really makes his book a delight is the fact that at the very heart of it is a human being who is as alive in the book's pages as the best characters are in great works of fiction.

As left-wing, WASPy Yankees, Ruth Paine and her husband Michael (a great-great grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a descendant of a singer of the Declaration of Independence) were certainly anomalous in the suburbs of Dallas. But in circumstances as somber as a presidential assassination, Ruth's eccentricities would probably have stood out even on New York's Park Avenue or Philadelphia's Main Line: “Girlish exuberance and nervous, high laughter dart in and out of her manner and conversation, even when the prevailing mood is grave. … [She wants] to assist, explain, and conciliate … with almost anyone, in whatever circumstances, including the adversarial and bizarre.”

Ruth is a cross between Candide and a Quaker Scarlett O'Hara: a spunky innocent trapped in truly insane events. This spirit comes through quite clearly in many of her statements and writings quoted by Mallon. In one passage, she has just spent a very long day testifying before the grand jury of the Garrison inquiry, to help out with what she had so far believed to be a very serious investigation. At day's end, she finds herself in Garrison's office:

Garrison had a can of Metrecal. Do you remember Metrecal? Does anyone remember Metrecal? There he was drinking his Metrecal, and I was starving, and nobody was talking about feeding me anything. I'd gotten up at four in the morning or something. And Garrison began explaining, with chalk in hand and a chalkboard, how the CIA was training people out in the parish, out in the swamps, or whatever … I was definitely feeling, “I'm surrounded by some very strange people here. What is going on? What is going on here? … Can't I go home?”

Ruth wanted to go home, much as James Joyce wanted to awake from the nightmare called history. But she played her part, and did so with a basic goodness rooted in her religious faith. Mallon calls the core of her Quaker belief an “active peacefulness,” which is a pretty good phrase for the life of prayer in any religion. This is from an essay she wrote in 1953 about Quaker meetings:

There I discover and extend a contact with that which I call God. There, occasionally, spontaneous poetry flows through me, without beginning or end; the beauty of life sings in my heart. Sometimes I will see a new direction to my life, or discover an answer to a problem … I reach out from within me to the people around … All these things happen elsewhere, but they happen more in Meeting.

This sense of religion as a heightening and deepening of ordinary life is very much in the American grain; indeed, her description of Quaker services is reminiscent of that by another very bright, very good American seeking peace in the midst of awful historical events: her fellow Quaker Whittaker Chambers, in his autobiography, Witness.

Like the heroic Chambers, Ruth Paine is an inspiring example of the goodness and warmth of the American heart. Mallon makes the Rochefoucauldian observation that goodness is unsettling, that we would rather “wrestle” with the problem of evil—after all, it reminds us that there are some people worse than ourselves—than face the reality of goodness in others, which reminds us how often we fall short. But in this book, he has given us a lively antidote: the story of a woman who is good, and also highly entertaining; indeed, lovable.

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