His New York Jewish Public Self Was American Triumph

The subject was old age. Norman Mailer said there was a grace in aging. He didn’t feel as angry or self-involved as he once did; he wasn’t wrapped up in his disappointments. He had set out to be a “major historical figure,” like the literary matinee idols of his youth, Steinbeck and Hemingway. That hadn’t happened. He accepted that he was a writer.

It was shortly after his 84th, and last, birthday, in January, and he was having dinner in the Upper East Side apartment of author-activist-patron Jean Stein. Even hobbling around on two steel canes, wearing high black Uggs that his skinny crooked legs vanished into, Mailer radiated a sense of fullness. His famous Brooklyn-British baritone was richer than ever, the eyes bluer. He spoke of his former friend Norman Podhoretz, how much he had enjoyed him in the 70’s, and someone said, “You’re 84, why don’t you reach out to Podhoretz now and rediscover that affection in one another?”

It was the one unpleasant moment. “No. No. It would be no use. Because I would have to bring up the Iraq war. I can’t forgive him for it.” And then in turn he would have to talk about Podhoretz’s attachment to Israel. The overture wouldn’t help anyone. …

Mailer’s Jewishness was a doorway to the world. He gave his talents to mankind and felt no special obligation to the people from whom he came. He wasn’t a self-denier, he knew the marvels of being Jewish—“My Jewishness was a great asset in my work, because it gave me a certain sensitivity to the world. It is not easy to be a Jew without thinking about the world a great deal of the time, given the classic situation of Jews in history,” he said in an interview I did for The Observer. But he was a universalist, and saw all people as having special qualities. That dinner at Ms. Stein’s, we had talked about the cabala and its insights into the unconscious, but Mailer had waved it away. He was impatient with cabalist obscurities. The same spiritual wisdom was possessed by “Christians … and Muhammeddans.”

Mailer’s Jewish life upsets some Jews. On jewlicious.com, they are already attacking him for never having visited Israel, and for straying away from his spiritual roots. Maybe someone will count up the Christian wives and the Jewish ones, and give us a bottom line.

But Jewish history is filled with assimilation, especially by literary stars from Spinoza to Heine to Nathanael West. Assimilation is older than any other Jewish social dream, older than Zionism, communism, or, today, neoconservatism. Mailer said once that being a bookish Brooklyn kid felt like a limitation to him (in very much the way that V.S. Naipaul once told the 92nd Street Y that staying in Trinidad felt like a curb on his imagination), and certainly he rebelled against it. Mailer wanted—like the Zionists—to be a man of action, and for a while, the writing was dwarfed by the extravagant life: the marriages, offspring and fights (on the Town Hall stage with feminists, and on the Hamptons turf with Rip Torn).

There was a lot that was Jewishy about the book that made him a celebrity: The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948. Mailer did not experience much combat in the South Pacific; but in one World War II reminiscence (sorry, no citation; my books are packed for a move), I read that Mailer the young reporter used to pop into other guys’ tents and ask questions, listen to the stories. In the novel, Mailer’s ego is parceled out, like cabalist shards of the godhead. Goldstein the Jew from Brooklyn is a smaller character than the book’s hero, Lieutenant Hearn, a gentile who went to Harvard.

The mixing of Jewish and gentile American personae took place again in the book described as a sequel to The Naked and the Dead, An American Dream. You remember, the one that begins with the violent, exploitative sex (all right: the rape scene) with the maid on the balcony, where Rojack, a half-Jew, goes back and forth between two holes.

Mailer wasn’t apologetic about this half-Jewness. He was granted tremendous freedom by his early success to speak to Americans, and could channel American voices. In The Spooky Art, he wrote that it is necessary for a writer to put on airs, but also to take them off. His accent seemed more 02138 and SW10 than Brooklyn Heights. The obits say he once married English nobility. That is also an American experience: He tried things on and saw what fit. He was ambitious and enlarged himself. In his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, he enlarged himself so much that he wrote about Hitler from a Black-Forest-lithographic-metaphysical perspective, Hitler the handiwork of centuries of efforts by the devil.

Charles McGrath wrote in The Times that Mailer never wrote the great American novel, and this must be conceded, though he died trying. He told Charlie Rose earlier this year that he waited three years to write the sequel to The Castle in the Forest. But “I know enough about being 84 to know that if you’re a ping-pong ball you can roll off the table at any second.” Maybe he felt that he had wasted some of his literary juice in all the pugilistic-action-figure stuff. And he rolled off the table before he could finish the Hitler’s-rise book.

His New York Jewish Public Self Was American Triumph