Norman Mailer Wanted to Write the Great American Novel. And a Regular Column on Hasidism in “Commentary”

The novelist, journalist, and playwright Norman Mailer wrote more than twenty books, won two Pulitzer Prizes, married six times, and may have been as famous for his pugnacious interviews as for his written works. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey and raised in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights, Mailer had a fairly traditional, and not particularly unusual, Jewish childhood. Jesse Tisch, reviewing a recent biography, explores Mailer’s complicated and often contradictory attitudes toward his people and religion:

To be Jewish, of course, is to have a past—not to be, so to speak, the author of your own story. But Mailer needed freedom, personal and literary. He wanted to write great American novels, not a sequel to [Henry Roth’s immigrant classic] Call It Sleep.

In a 1960 letter to [the literary critic] Diana Trilling, he gave himself the blank past he seemed to need. He had “no past to protect,” he claimed, “no emotional memory.” As he told Trilling, “being a major novelist is not a natural activity for a Jew.” Being “major” required ruthlessness. From then on, he strove to remain both ruthless and rootless. To continue writing—“to defend my gift”—he needed to be American. He could imagine if he failed: “the decline in my reputation would have gutted my liver.”

Yet at other times, Mailer seemed to sing a very different tune:

Writers hiding their Jewishness don’t analyze ḥasidic texts for Commentary, as Mailer did in 1962. “I thought, ‘We have this great Jewish tradition, and I’m alienated from it,’” he later recalled. As the story goes, Mailer pitched a column about Martin Buber’s ḥasidic tales. Skeptical, Norman Podhoretz declined, but after much hectoring, he relented, handing Mailer his column.

It wasn’t Mailer’s first Jewish writing. In The Naked and the Dead, [Mailer’s much-praised account of his World War II experiences], we have anxious, gloomy Goldstein, who refuses to drink army beer (“What if it should poison me?”), and Roth, his Jewish-atheist counterpart, both of whom suffer the crude anti-Semitism of their unit. Yet Mailer insisted he wouldn’t write a Jewish novel. “Oh, Lord, there is absolutely no need,” he sometimes said. The Jews had Isaac Bashevis Singer. “There are too many good Jewish writers around,” Mailer told Martin Amis in 1991. If he couldn’t compete, he wouldn’t dabble.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish literature, Commentary, Diana Trilling, Henry Roth, Norman Podhoretz

Universities Are in Thrall to a Constituency That Sees Israel as an Affront to Its Identity

Commenting on the hearings of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday about anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the dismaying testimony of three university presidents, Jonah Goldberg writes:

If some retrograde poltroon called for lynching black people or, heck, if they simply used the wrong adjective to describe black people, the all-seeing panopticon would spot it and deploy whatever resources were required to deal with the problem. If the spark of intolerance flickered even for a moment and offended the transgendered, the Muslim, the neurodivergent, or whomever, the fire-suppression systems would rain down the retardant foams of justice and enlightenment. But calls for liquidating the Jews? Those reside outside the sensory spectrum of the system.

It’s ironic that the term colorblind is “problematic” for these institutions such that the monitoring systems will spot any hint of it, in or out of the classroom (or admissions!). But actual intolerance for Jews is lathered with a kind of stealth paint that renders the same systems Jew-blind.

I can understand the predicament. The receptors on the Islamophobia sensors have been set to 11 for so long, a constituency has built up around it. This constituency—which is multi-ethnic, non-denominational, and well entrenched among students, administrators, and faculty alike—sees Israel and the non-Israeli Jews who tolerate its existence as an affront to their worldview and Muslim “identity.” . . . Blaming the Jews for all manner of evils, including the shortcomings of the people who scapegoat Jews, is protected because, at minimum, it’s a “personal truth,” and for some just the plain truth. But taking offense at such things is evidence of a mulish inability to understand the “context.”

Shocking as all that is, Goldberg goes on to argue, the anti-Semitism is merely a “symptom” of the insidious ideology that has taken over much of the universities as well as an important segment of the hard left. And Jews make the easiest targets.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, University