Mailer, Hemingway, and the Art of the/at the Conference


Jim and I got off the plane and out of the SRQ airport, and were thrust into the unfamiliar world of Sarasota in November.  That was the only word we muster, anyway – “November … November” – we said it over and over again, staring at palm and palmetto.  It was 86 degrees and we had arrived at the Norman Mailer conference – four days of warm weather and navigating panel discussions was ahead, and we had never seen Sarasota, Florida.

Naturally, we went downtown at the first opportunity – we were among the first to arrive – and what do two book-hounds like us do?  We find a bookstore, of course.  A. Parker’s Books/Book Bazaar was once two stores that pooled their resources to become one mega-mom-and-pop right off of Main St. in the downtown.  Upon first look, it was a simple, welcoming single storefront entrance among a line of others, but once we stepped inside, it was clear that were had been thrust into a truly independent retailer.  As sudden thunderstorms raged outside, Jim navigated the poetry section.  Meanwhile, I was lost amidst bargains on Gardner, Proust, Miller, and yes, Chandler.  But of course, I also found material to feed the subjects that line the floor of my subconscious (including a rare-find – a book by Chautauqua favorite and infamous fraud, Grey Owl – the acclaimed “Canadian/Native American” bestselling author who, after his death, was discovered to be a complete British imposter).  Yes, Bazaar had it all – from $1-2 mass markets to a room of what I call “don’t touch that’s”.


Bazaar Books - the Poetry section (left) and hardcover fiction (right)

Sunny Sarasota. This didn't last longer than the first full day.

Jim Warner outside of cigar bar, post-bookhunt.

After finding some real treasures, we charged into the Mailer conference, our colors flying high for all to see.  Our ship was not one to be missed, and with handshakes, the appropriate old jokes, and greetings all around, we had pulled into port.  Upon registration, conference goers were even handed a free (yes FREE!) copy of the new Mailer Review.  Volume Four of this excellent scholarly journal is loaded with research, readings, and reaction to Norman and his parallels to Hemingway, and Wilkes University is well represented within.  As program patriarch and official Mailer biographer, Mike Lennon, confessed to me in an e-mail, “is a superlative issue and your contributions have burnished it.”

THE MAILER REIVEW, VOL. 4 - Includes articles by Wilkes representatives: Bill Lowenburg, J. Michael Lennon, Ross Klavan, Matthew Hinton, Maureen Hooker, and John Bowers

The first full morning on the campus of USF Sarasota-Manatee inspired this video post (the off-camera voice is camera-operator, Wilkes CW program Assistant Director, poet, and confidante, Jim Warner):

**CORRECTION (because, yes, I admit my wrongs): Ernest Hemingway’s speech, mentioned in the video, was actually for winning the Nobel, NOT the Pulitzer.

Of course, there were many panel discussions to attend, and so came the difficult choices: “What to go to?  Who to question?  Should I hear more about World War II writing/writers, or should I opt for the critiques of Mailer and Hemingway as they appeared in Playboy magazine?”  In the end, I chose the panel with the Playboy paper (not for the machismo factor, you perverts).  Other discussion highlights include a review of the two literary lions as boxers (Hemingway’s reputation as a boxer is dubious, I learned), the types and uses of guns (and other weaponry, but mainly guns) in the novels of each, a sneak peek at Mike’s forthcoming official biography of Norman, and of course, a full viewing of Ken Vose’s “Papa” – a (mostly) one-man play in which Hemingway relates the story of his own life just before his suicide.  Here’s a brief clip of my colleague, friend, and “agent,” Ken as he plugs the film during one of our post-rehearsal chats back in Wilkes-Barre (also on the table for discussion, “truth” versus “legacy”):

It bears mentioning Ken’s play is fantastic – it was taped using four cameras during a live presentation (the connection between Jordan Rhodes– the actor playing Hemingway – and the audience is palpable) – and copies are available for purchase here.  If you use twenty bucks to support some great art this year, or if you know a Hemingway fan, I recommend “Papa”.

John Hemingway (grandson to Ernest, son of Gregory, and author of Strange Tribe – about growing up a “Hemingway”) gave a speech the next day, and of course attended the screening.  He was a nice fellow, and offered up some hereto unknown (by me, at least) stories on the conflicts of a “macho” legacy and his family.

Wilkes CW Program Director Bonnie Culver, and Asst. Director Jim Warner

Everybody Shuffle: The view from the Lido room

But I didn’t just go to the Mailer conference (suffering a four-hour layover in Charlotte, cancelling a small number of classes, etc.) to listen to scholarly talk about an existential hipster (A man who, in my estimation, would probably just as soon climb a mountain or parachute out of a plane or go sailing than discuss his theories on getting “out there” and “experiencing!” for four days, even if we enjoy talking about his work for that long).  My attendance this year was as a presenter/actor/editor for the Wilkes CW program Reader’s Theatre.  A conference favorite (see my post about last year’s conference in Washington), the Reader’s Theatre presented the voices of both Mailer and Hemingway as they mused on four fully-charged topics:  Writing, Boxing, Bullfighting, and Women.

The section “On Bullfighting” will be available soon, with the preface that we edited, layered, intertwined the writings of both men to try to convey a dramatic sort of conversation – a conversation which, sadly, never occurred (ever, as, again sadly, the two writers never met) but is fun to think about nonetheless.  Ross Klavan’s perfect Chicago accent made him a shoe-in actor to portray Hemingway.  Norman’s youngest son, John Buffalo Mailer, was in the audience, as was John Hemingway and most (if not all) of the conference-goers.  Our presentation and questions came close to an hour total.

And what kind of scholar would I be if I couldn’t recommend the texts that we used to sculpt the presentation in its entirety?  After the festivities of the conference (we had a nice dinner and cocktail hour), John Buffalo asked me for a copy of the script.  In my enthusiasm for the material, I simply handed him mine – a difficult task, if only because it required properly organizing it all again (*all of the pages were caught up in the Gulf Coast breezes and flurried around John Buffalo while he was on the phone; he helped me gather all of the strays, which made their way into brambles, bushes, and almost-swampland, and was gracious enough to let me find their “order” again).
Anyway, organized by topic, here are the books from which we drew all of our quotations, contemplations, and imposed conversations between Norman and Ernest:


–          Paris Review #193 – Mailer

–          Paris Review #21 – Hemingway

–          The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing – Mailer


–          Paris Review #32 – Mailer

–          Existential Errands – Mailer

–          “Papa” – Hemingway (from the Ken Vose script)


–          Death in the Afternoon/Mano a mano – Hemingway

–          [Missing Source] – Mailer


–          “Mano A Mano” – Hemingway

–          Prisoner of Sex – Mailer

In all, the conference was a great success.  We concluded by a discussion with John Buffalo Mailer (a closing conversation on the joint book with his father, entitled The Big Empty, and even touching on what Norman would have made of the recent political game and election – remember, the midterms were a mere two days before the conference), and I hope that the crowd of scholars took home a feeling for how one can present an accessible Mailer to a younger audience.

THE BIG EMPTY - a conversation between Norman and his youngest son, John Buffalo

I look forward to next year’s Mailer conference, to be held in Austin, Texas – the subject: Mailer and (who else?) James Jones.  The Jonesians (James Jones Society) will be there.  Let’s hope we can give them a good show, as well.


One Response to “Mailer, Hemingway, and the Art of the/at the Conference”

  1. Bill Says:

    Great stuff, Matt. Seems like the level of testosterone was palpable at the conference without going overboard.

    Most importantly, why do you think Hemingway is seemingly frowned upon by literary academia – even scoffed at? Just curious. This may be something you’d like to address in your blog in full.

    Much love – and see you soon.

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