The Letters of Norman Mailer Reveal a Turbulent Male Ego, and Not Much More.
"I don't believe anyone has ever understood my relation to being a Jew," Norman Mailer wrote in 1985. And it is true that, of all the great Jewish writers who emerged to dominate American literature in the postwar era, Mailer is the one whose Jewishness seems least central to his work. Malamud, Bellow, and Roth were all obsessed with what it meant to be Jewish, returning to the question in book after book; but Mailer was much more obsessed with what it meant to be American and what it meant to be a man. Of course, these themes are hardly absent from Bellow and Roth, either, but for Mailer, the big questions had to do with what was happening here and nowfrom the Pacific war in The Naked and the Dead, his sensational, best-selling debut, to the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, the CIA, and the sexual revolution. He was less nostalgic than his Jewish peers, less keen to romanticize his childhood or ponder his roots. Yet his background was quite similar to theirs: a parochial childhood in a Jewish neighborhoodin Mailer's case, Brooklynwhich left him with a fierce desire to break out into the wider world. For Mailer, that ambition led to a place at Harvard, followed by enlistment in the Army during World War II.
The subject of Jewishness comes up remarkably seldom in the big new book of his Selected Letters (edited by Mailer's authorized biographer and archivist, J. Michael Lennon), which brings together some 700 letters out of the tens of thousands that Mailer left behind. Yet when it does arise, Mailer turns out to have a theory about itnaturally, since having theories, often wild and foolish, sometimes brilliant, was one of his favorite activities. "Norm Podhoretz once said, in the days when he was more interesting, that the people who best personified the manners of each culture they lived in were almost always Jews," Mailer writes, "because once Jews went in that direction, they picked up not only the manner but the rationale behind the manner, because they had to discover the rationale first in order to make the manner work." On this principle, Mailer's hyper-Americannesshis insistence on going wherever the national unconscious seemed to be most troubled and activewas itself the manifestation of his Jewishness. It is because he was born Jewish that he had to figure out how to be American.
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