Big Old Jews

Once upon a time, literary giants bestrode the Earth

Last year, critics got all adrenalized by a book of short stories by a young Jewish writer named Nathan Englander. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was a strong, sturdy debut, but what got people riled up as much as Englander's impressive emotional range and command of craft was the promise that he could become the Big New Jew.

For readers with memories that go back a few decades, a Big New Jew would bring relief for that unbearable urge called nostalgia—for a time in the 1940s and 1950s when American literary culture seemed to emanate from a single center. That center was New York City, more specifically the intellectual ferment surrounding The Partisan Review, Commentary, and a loose band of Jewish writers who, because they applied themselves to literature with the patience and concentration that their forebears applied to the Talmud, because of their street-kid exuberance and savvy, because of their nearness to the suffering of the Holocaust, and because of their marginalization from the Anglo establishment, seemed perfect exemplars of what it meant to be modern American artists.

The Big Old Jews were a daunting group: among fiction writers, you've got Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Isaac Singer, Norman Mailer, and a little later Cynthia Ozick, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and E.L. Doctorow; among critics, there were Lionel Trilling, Harold Rosenberg, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag and Leslie Fiedler. Two Nobel Prizes sprang from this group, plus numerous Pulitzers and National Book Awards.

But at least half of them are gone now, and, anyway, by the late 1960s, "the red-hot vacuum" (Ted Solotaroff's phrase) of mass culture's buzz, clang, yack and spin had begun to suck out the center of this group's dominion, leaving them fragmented and America with a cultural discourse that's spread all over the place: a theory-weary academy, cable babblers, Oprah, United Colors of Benetton.

As the new century opens, Roth and Bellow have new novels, and Mary V. Dearborn's biography of Mailer is out. The best parts of the biography take us back to those heady days after the big war when Greenwich Village apartments were filled with on-the-make artists spilling their whiskey and sodas while spouting Freud and Kafka, when postwar prosperity and its deluded forms of patriotic idealism butted heads with Cold War nuclear terror, existential alienation and "the absurd," and when the Big Jews, in European-style novels of ideas like Bellow's Dangling Man and Mailer's Barbary Shore, attempted to patch together some coherence out of Modernism's tattered coat.

Out of all the Big Jews, Mailer was the one most out there, using drugs to sharpen his already edgy perceptions, practicing Reichian psychology (the orgasm as psychic panacea), creating an original (and sometimes off-the-charts weird) radical Leftism that gave ideological ballast to the 1960s revolution, and living his ideas to the hilt: a few years after his infamous "The White Negro" essay—which, among other things, lauded the existential bravery of killers—Mailer stabbed his second wife at a party.

This incident (for which his wife refused to press charges) unfortunately inflames the point. Mailer lived his ideas, as dangerous as some of them were, out of a conviction that this was an American writer's duty. The writer, with a Hemingway-like psychic and physical courage, needed to live in the marrow of a monstrous, plague-ridden culture so bent on killing the spirit through bureaucracy, technology, mass media, plastic, pharmaceuticals and the general disdain capitalism held for the redeeming human qualities of sex and the imagination that extreme countermeasures, in life and literature, were necessary.

In Mailer's case, that meant all manner of radicality. He demonstrated and got arrested, ran for mayor of New York City in 1969 (finishing a respectable fourth, despite a Dadaist campaign), made "existential" and sometimes pornographic experimental films, helped found The Village Voice (the OC Weekly wouldn't be here without him), and, as Dearborn convincingly argues, revolutionized journalism, making it New, with "Superman Comes to Supermarket."

Mailer's ego was such, however, that his great dream was to hit "the longest home run in the history of American letters," as he put it, to pen the Big Novel he kept promising (but never delivered), but his best work is still the great nonfiction prose of Advertisements for Myself, Cannibals and Christians, and Armies of the Night, where the swirling energies of his personality served as a vortex through which the larger convulsive energies of postwar America thrillingly entered and were transformed.

Dearborn, conventionally liberal, isn't comfortable with the vital Mailerian metaphysics outlined in those books—a wholly un-P.C. Manichean spiritual vision that sees God in breakthrough sex and spontaneous acts of will, and the devil in repression, cancer and the smell of badly digested shit—so the biography never gets sufficiently inside its subject. The book is certainly "professional" and does some good readings of Why Are We in Vietnam?, among others, but it's finally tepid: Dearborn doesn't seem to realize what she's got on her hands, namely a man whose life not only touches on almost every major cultural change in postwar America but also signifies an American spirit so monstrous and sublime that maybe its symbol ought to be Mailer's God and devil fighting it out in the toxic mists of a burgeoning mushroom cloud.

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