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Norman Mailer and the Modernist Turn


Jerry Schuchalter

This study is a comprehensive scholarly treatment of Norman Mailer’s entire œuvre, including not only his fiction and non-fiction, but also his correspondence, his early journal articles and his interviews. It outlines Mailer’s Entwicklungsgeschichte, illuminating the lines of continuity and discontinuity in his literary achievement and shows Mailer’s work to be firmly ensconced in the tradition of Modernism and inspired by the Pound-Eliot axis. It argues that Mailer’s literary opus is intertwined with his worldview, which, despite its inconsistencies and contradictions, contains a systematic structure.
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Chapter 7: “The Non-Jewish Jew”


Mailer’s sometimes mentor and would-be existential hero Ernest Hemingway began his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) with a famous description of Robert Cohn. Cohn, according to the narrator Jake Barnes, was the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton, yet that was a title not worth boasting about. He used to go to the gym every day, yet he didn’t like boxing. He was an excellent boxer, yet he got his nose flattened by the first serious fighter he ever faced. He graduated from Princeton, yet he also ended up being damaged by the anti-Semitism he experienced there for the first time in his life.416 He also wrote a novel that was well received, yet it wasn’t very good. Cohn was wealthy, successful, and privileged, yet he wasn’t happy. He was also restless.417

Here we have a classical stereotype of the modern Jew, as presented by Jews and Gentiles alike. Cohn is the wandering Jew, Ahasverus in modern garb, who is compelled to travel all over the world to atone for which unnamed crime, to do which untold penance. Of course, this reveals a great deal about the narrator Jake Barnes, who has managed to create a broken world, where none of the pieces fit, where for every boon there is also a bane. Lady Brett Ashley, the other major character in the novel, is also a creature of contradictions. She is curvaceous, yet wears her hair short like a man. She has a high and noble...

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