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.