The Letters of Norman Mailer Reveal a Turbulent Male Ego, and Not Much More

By Kirsch, Adam | Tablet Magazine, December 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Letters of Norman Mailer Reveal a Turbulent Male Ego, and Not Much More


Kirsch, Adam, Tablet Magazine


"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. …

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