From the time he was in South Pacific tents, the journalism and novels bled into and out of one another, but my generation was more turned on by the journalism. When Mailer was tied down by fact and his own experience, it made the work more alive. We were electrified by the journalist insisting on his own experience in The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago—trying to breathe the hot air in Miami and saying it was like making love to a 300-pound woman who decided to get on top. It was a lot harder to follow the thread in the long novels. Why Are We In Vietnam was short but a stunt. I tried to read Harlot’s Ghost but wondered how well-informed it actually was about the intelligence business. In one of his best books, The Spooky Art, Mailer himself dismissed The Naked and the Dead as being derivative and mimetic. Dos Passos and Faulkner were among his youthful influences as he struggled to birth the big book and become like Steinbeck and Hemingway. And even in The Castle in the Forest, which was dignified by Mailer’s old-man religion and packed with the smells of infancy and shit and mud, the story didn’t get past Hitler’s adolescence—the author couldn’t get his story to arc. Meantime, Podhoretz actually became a historical figure: He shaped the history of our time more than Mailer did.
Jewlicious.com is judgmental of Mailer for abandoning his Jewish identity; and there is a shadow of a truth there. He wrote his books by developing a persona outside himself. The devil in The Castle in the Forest. The American street/barracks/cot argot of The Naked and The Dead. “There are two kinds of ways for novelists who have some talent to go,” he said in my interview with him for The Observer. “One is to use their experience as their private gold mine, and they search more and more deeply into that gold mine. That is one way to be a serious novelist. Another way was to use your personal experience as a springboard to go quite a distance into the outside world. That was my preference. … But I have never wanted to write about the near things. My personal experiences are crystals to beam my imagination into far off places.” On Charlie Rose he said that personal writing is confusing because ego and all the personal craziness comes in.
I wish he had tried to integrate those experiences more, the personal life of being a rabbi’s grandson, then an American celebrity with all the women and children. He emulated Tolstoy, but Tolstoy seems to have injected more of himself and his life into his novels. He said he never went to Israel because he knew he’d have to write a book about it. So he turned away from vital material. Mailer wanted to wrestle more with history than with himself.
In that realm, no one can question Mailer’s brilliance. In an interview in The American Conservative, he explained what it meant to be a left-wing conservative: dubious of human nature, hateful toward totalitarianism, in America, too. “We are a Christian nation. The Judeo in Judeo-Christian is essentially a grace note. … And the idea, if you really are a Christian … was that you were not supposed to be all that rich. God didn’t want it. Jesus certainly didn’t. You were not supposed to pile up a lot of money. You were supposed to spend your life in reasonably altruistic acts. … If there is not a new seriousness in American affairs, the country is going to go down the drain.” Grand in his dismissal of masturbation—it limited engagement, grand in his dismissal of birth control—like a cabalist, he spoke of the astral body in sex, he was also grand in his dismissal of post-Holocaust Jewish consciousness. He told The Conservative that Israel should have been accepted by the Arabs, but after it wasn’t, Israel’s response had diminished Jewish character. He told Nextbook that the great Jewish tradition of thinking had been crunched down to one question, Is it good for the Jews:
“If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it’s that they developed the mind more than other people did. It was extremely important for them to develop that mind. And [now] to deaden it and stultify it, to flood it with cheap religious patriotism, I consider that part of the disaster that Hitler visited upon us.”
Mailer was more American than Jewish. He was granted a passport out of his Harvard/Brooklyn petri dish by two great democratic experiences, Army service in World War II and the celebrity that followed from that. He made his own choices in Jewish and American history, and he didn’t look back.