Chasing the Ghost of Norman Mailer

Raising a Son in the Shadow of Literary Fame

Tough Guys Don’t Smile: Norman Mailer, seen here in 2007, is the subject of a new biography by J. Michael Lennon.
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Tough Guys Don’t Smile: Norman Mailer, seen here in 2007, is the subject of a new biography by J. Michael Lennon.

By Joshua Furst

Published January 28, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.

● Norman Mailer, A Double Life
By J. Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, 960 pages, $40

While reading the first chapter of “Norman Mailer, A Double Life,” the exhaustive (and exhausting) new biography of the great man by J. Michael Lennon, I discovered that during his formative years, from the age of nine through his admittance to Harvard at 16, Mailer lived in an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, seven blocks from where I reside now.

I couldn’t resist taking a look, so one rainy Saturday morning a few weeks ago, my very pregnant wife and I strolled over to the address on Crown Street and stared at the four-story brick apartment building where Mailer built his model airplanes, watched his mother run the oil service and delivery company that his father, an unrepentant gambler, couldn’t manage, and studied his Torah portion in preparation for the bar mitzvah at which he’d praise not only Moses and Maimonides, but also Baruch Spinoza and Karl Marx.

We took a few photos. The building looked remarkably similar to my own and I thrilled, briefly, at the thought that the footprints of Mailer and his generation of bold, scrappy, intellectually fearless Jews might linger in the sidewalks, their accents and attitudes cracking on the wind, unseen influences from the past that, by virtue of geography, might seep out of the streets and into my unborn son.

But the psychic distance from the Brooklyn (and by extension, the Judaism) of Mailer’s childhood to the Brooklyn of today is infinitely wider than Eastern Parkway. The building on Crown Street is now full of Lubavitchers, and after a while, their children began staring out of the windows at us, wondering who these strange people taking photos of their front courtyard were. Feeling like intruders, we left.

I am a creature of the messy, pluralistic postmodern America in which cultural affiliation is more fetishistic choice than identity and obligation. Neither the Lubavitcher children nor my own will have to face the questions of assimilation, or be burdened by the pressure and cultural confusion and need to prove themselves that the children of recent immigrants like Mailer did. None of them will see in themselves the now mildewed cliché of the New York Jew, one version of which Mailer, with his whip-crack voice and feisty, take-no-guff way of attacking existence, embodied. In that 1936 bar mitzvah speech, Mailer made a proclamation that in its precociousness and grandiosity, might be seen as a mission statement:

“Yes, my friends! From now on I become a Jew, but not a MAYOFIS JEW, with a bent back to receive innocently the inhuman Nazis. I become a Jew to uphold the ideals and strengths of Judaism, and the rights of my country.”

He abandoned the faith by the time he graduated from college, claiming in a letter to his mother that “neither Barbara [his first wife] nor I feel very strongly about being Jews — I am neither proud nor ashamed.” But looking at what he accomplished in his life and the sometimes incisive, sometimes foolhardy, always brave way he attacked the ideas of his day, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t defending his own ideal vision of America.

Not only did his back not bend to receive the Nazis, it didn’t bend to any authority other than his own ferocious intelligence and personal mythomania. He rushed headlong into the great issues of his time and wrote about them fiercely, often recklessly, with more intelligence than anyone of his era.



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