Commentary Magazine

Judging Mailer

To the Editor:

In his review of Morris Dickstein’s Gates of Eden [Books in Review, July], Joseph Epstein attacks Dick-stein for inflated critical judgments and offers as an example his praise of Norman Mailer. There follows this sentence: “‘Our genius’ (in Irving Howe’s phrase), Mailer (in Dickstein’s) ‘helped show the way.’” The implication here is clearly that I wrote as an unqualified admirer of Mailer, and it is false. Mr. Epstein didn’t even have to look up the essay of mine from which the phrase is taken (“The New York Intellectuals,” in Decline of the New) in order to know this, since in his book Dickstein immediately adds, accurately, that I call Mailer “our genius” (the quotation marks are in my original text) “half ruefully.”

But if Mr. Epstein had troubled to look up my essay, he’d have seen that I then proceed to a long paragraph attacking Mailer for his relation to “the new sensibility” of the late 60′s, and conclude by saying that Mailer “has come to represent values in deep opposition to liberal humaneness and rational discourse.” That’s at least half rueful, I’d say.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that I still don’t regard Mailer as “our genius.” . . .

Irving Howf
New York City



Joseph Epstein writes:

The reason I did not trouble to look up Irving Howe’s essay is that I already knew his views upon Norman Mailer. In my review I was quoting Dickstein quoting Howe. Mr. Howe apparently believes that I was up to mischief in attempting to impute opinions to him that he does not hold. I wish to assure him that nothing of the kind was on my mind—and to assure him, further, that if I wished to attack him I would do so frontally. In his letter I think he is making a molehill out of a mothball.

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