A Fear of Dying: Norman Mailer's An American Dream

From Project Mailer
Written by
Brom Weber



Despite the prevailing negative vehemence with which Norman Mailer’s An American Dream has been greeted by reviewers, it is qualitatively the most substantial of his four novels, a salutary contribution to contemporary American literature, and a repudiation of the sociological truism that early success inevitably rots artistic talent. How paradoxical then, if seriously conceived, is Mailer’s alleged intention, reportedly embodied in a recent London Observer interview, to abandon the United States because of the novel’s harsh reception! A man delighting as much in physical and literary battling as Mailer ought to welcome sparring partners without worrying about such matters as envy, pique, brutality, and misunderstanding. He surely knows that a forceful essayist and fictionist will garner retaliation; instead of fleeing, he should welcome all occasions for additional tests of his courage. This idea, at least, is a major motif in An American Dream, whose central character (Stephen Richards Rojack) transcends his disgust for American life, its persistent manhandling of him, by developing heightened sensuous and muscular powers. Yet, it is apparent in the novel’s conclusion, which finds the transcendent Rojack heading for Guatemala and Yucatan as Sergius O’Shaugnessy in The Deer Park earlier sought sanctuary in Mexico, that Mailer does not foresee the possibility of reconciliation with American life as presently constituted.

The attitude toward society revealed in An American Dream cannot be viewed in simplistic fashion as irreconcilable alienation. Such an evaluation of Mailer was made in Marcus Klein’s After Alienation, which appeared before An American Dream. Even without the testimony of this last novel, however, it should have been apparent from pieces in The Presidential Papers, as well as from sections of Advertisements for Myself, that Mailer was protesting aspects of American culture but not repudiating its future. For Mailer the promise of America reposes wholly in the individual, not at all in the society in which he is enmeshed. That society has tended to de-invidualize the individual, to reduce his sanctity and importance, while ensconcing him in ever-increasing material splendor. All of Mailer’s fiction beginning with The Naked and the Dead has emphasized the dangers to man from this de-individuation. But whereas in The Naked and the Dead and Barbary Shore Mailer was still hopeful about social reform, in The Deer Park and An American Dream the only meaningful reform envisioned is the transformation of the individual.

No less than a radical metamorphosis is initiated in An American Dream. Mailer has confessed that he is “humorless”; he rarely displays an ironic bent. Yet the title of his new novel is an ironic comment on the tenuousness of the official American dream, that hyper-conglomerate of success, salesmanship, health, and wealth which produces row on row of mannequins. Scratch the glossy surface of a contented mannequin and it bleeds a different kind of American dream, “a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.” An outpouring of this passion provides the plot and texture of the novel and suggests the positive and negative dimensions of a new individualism.

Stephen Richards Rojack has reached the heights of the official dream at the book’s opening. A man of action and intellect, physically brave, sexually attractive, photogenic, he is a professor of psychology at a New York City university, host of a television interview show, amateur boxer, husband of the wealthy, beautiful daughter of a financial tycoon, author of a popular book on the psychology and forms of execution. Nor is that all, for earlier he has been awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for valor in World War II and elected a congressman at the age of twenty-six. Who could ask for anything more? Rojack! Now aged forty-four, he confesses on page 8: “I had come to the end of a very long street. Call it an avenue. For I had come to decide I was finally a failure.”

Rojack is not the anti-heroic failure who populates the novels of such contemporaries as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. Instead, Mailer’s protagonist isa conventional nineteenth-century hero, another sign of the essential traditionalism of Mailer’s novelistic powers whether in An American Dream or his earlier works of fiction. Like the typical romantic hero, Rojack seeks to free himself from society and its stultifications; he has been tainted by society, however, and his spirit is also corrupt by virtue of his humanity. Heroic aspirations and human limitations foreshadow agony and tragedy, and such is Rojack’s fate. Mailer’s major character, then, is a tough rather than a sentimental creation, the toughness consisting of his fortitude and his persistent effort to revivify his cauterized sensibilities, and with their aid to respond to the stimuli and mysteries omnipresent for the man escaping from urban, technological culture. Mailer has written a disturbing existential novel; it is by no means accidental that the “existential psychology” of his hero revolves around “the thesis that magic, dread, and the perception of death [are] the roots of motivation.”

Many readers may be more sickened by Rojack in process of existential metamorphosis than by the condition from which Mailer extricates him. This ironic fate has haunted Gregor Samsa of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” whose conversion to a giant insect tends to make him more repulsive to some than the petty bourgeois job and family he has sloughed off. However, the engaged contemporary novelist finds it difficult to construct a major character whose fight from society purifies him of all its negative qualities. Furthermore, such a writer cannot easily conceive of the disappearance of those negative qualities which have not been induced by social conditioning, for which the character himself may be held responsible. Should the novelist undertake to disregard his understanding of the interrelationship of man and society, he will also be discounting the similar insights provided by social and individual depth psychology and assuring that his fiction will be trivial and irrelevant. Finally, the more impregnable, sacrosanct, and virtuous the condition of the entity against which the existential hero struggles, the more of a repugnant outcast does the latter seem to be. Measured by the Judeo-Christian code as refined by modern Western civilization, he is Antichrist, a heretical criminal; in his own judgment, however, he is a saint inaugurating the far ranging transvaluation of values urged by Nietzsche. The closest parallel to the world of Mailer’s existential hero is medieval Europe, where priests were permitted to bray in church, plague was a seasonal visitor, strong odors were ubiquitous, witches rode broomsticks, the Dance of Death was an endless festival, God and the Devil fought obdurately and incessantly for man’s soul, and the onlooking prize could not readily differentiate between the two competing champions.

With extraordinary bravado and a good deal of success, Mailer has converted New York upper-middle class life of the 1960’s into a latterday medieval nightmare. Sensory details are presented with vivid and frightening realism; there is no carefully stitched social background such as that of the army in The Naked and the Dead which at least provided a social organization within which one might function even as one resisted it. Retching, fornication, sexual experiment, beatings, exotic olfactory stimuli, telephone conversation with the dead, autopsy of a cancer victim, inner voices: these are in the foreground. Man is alone with his body and the supernatural.

As Rojack relates his story, sparing neither himself nor his auditors, the events are relatively unimportant. The plot, in fact, is banal; it can be found in any sensational American newspaper complete with photographs, in the pages of “detective” pulps in the crime paperbacks that clutter news-stands and bookstores. What Mailer set out to achieve was an increasing intensity of psychological and sensory perception by whose glow one could measure the extent to which his protagonist had escaped the banal and become aware of himself. If not read with equal perceptiveness, the novel will seem to be merely a piece of sensationalist hack-work produced to titillate a decadent audience.

This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.

Stripped to its barest outlines, for example, Rojack’s murder of his wife in the first chapter and its salutary effects upon him are palpably horrid violations of prevailing morality. Mailer’s seeming unawareness of these implications may be construed as a symptom of irresponsibility so sordid and diabolic as to place the book outside the realm of tolerable art. But there are sufficient details imbedded in Rojack’s first-person recital before and after the murder to provide a tolerable perspective for the act and its aftermath, one which places later developments into a context with significant meaning.

Rojack is a failure because he is heavily in debt, his marriage of eight years has been ruined by mutual betrayal and cruelty, he has interviewed and written about people who have acted decisively but has been unable to do so himself, and he has permitted himself to be hidden behind a make-believe identity in order to advance in politics. The looming symptom of his failure is the tortured relationship he persists in enduring with his wife, from whom he has been separated for a year. Alternately attracted and repelled by her, admiring her strength and resenting her subjugation of his masculine ego, hoping that she will loan him money for a senatorial campaign and hating her because she recklessly incurs debts charged to him, he yet is unable to cut himself away decisively and finally. For the past year they have quarreled and been intimate, tormented each other with accounts of lovers and affairs.

Rojack’s worldly success is incapable of preserving him from a despair so vast that he is brought to the verge of suicide. The idea of death has haunted him since he killed four German soldiers on the battlefield. A fear of dying mingled with a yearning for release from the agony of terror coursed through him then beneath a cold, bright moon before he executed the enemy. Now, years later, the moon again kindles his awareness of death: “‘Yes,’ said the moon, ’you haven’t done your work, but you’ve lived your life, and you are dead with it!” But Rojack, despite his wish for annihilation, refuses to destroy himself, cries: “ “Let me be not all dead.” And in fright turns for sustenance to the love of his wife: “When she loved me . . . her strength seemed then to pass to mine and I was alive with wit, I had vitality, I could depend on stamina, I possessed my style...I had to see her. I had a physical need to see her as direct as an addict’s panic waiting for his drug.”

At his wife’s apartment, her contemptuous rejection of his love deprives him of reason. An intended slap becomes a blow which enrages her; they have fought before, she had once half-bitten through one of his ears, but this time she uses her great strength in an effort to maim his genitalia. Equally enraged, he begins choking her; she appeals for release, but the act of violence has become a symbol of his striving for freedom from failure, despair, and hatred so that he inexorably strangles his wife to death.

The decision to strangle his wife despite her plea and the reasonable urgings of his mind embodies Rojack’s assumption of individual freedom and its lonely responsibilities. On the immediate level, however, the murder is a reassertion of his sexuality Far from feeling conventional remorse, therefore, he is flushed with passion and engages in a sexual bout with his wife’s German maid, who is unaware of the murder. But this proves to be lust, not the love which is creative, although later in the novel he encounters this love and loses it because of his continued appetite for violence.

Although several reviewers have cited the above sequence as a manifestation of the novel’s incredible absurdity, few of them have given it the modicum of attention required to discern the underlying sense. Not much more effort than I have expended above is necessary to discover that An American Dream is a unified construction held together by visible themes, symbolic images, and the expanding consciousness of the narrator. The novel undeniably presents a highly personal vision of the mode of behavior proper for mid-twentieth century man-one which a reviewer need not affirm-but it has an internal logic that invests it with a dignity and aesthetic force that should be acknowledged.

Earlier I described An American Dream as existential. Those familiar with the writings of such Europeans as Kierkegard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, and Tillich will detect the existential substratum beneath Rojack’s use of terms such as “dread, “failure,” and “Being,” his pondering of suicide and murder, his need to demonstrate courage in trials that under other circumstances would be foolish, exhibitionist posturings. I do not mean to imply that existentialism is all that underlies the novel, for Rojack—as one might expect from a professor of psychology—has obviously read Freud, Marcuse, Reich, and Fromm among others. Unlike Camus, Koestler, and other novelists of ideas, however, Mailer does not permit his intellectual hero to provide systematic elucidations of his ideas. This results in some obscurity for the uninitiated, but to have explained the lacunae would have violated a novelistic structure designed to dramatize the death of rationalism. In most novels, events build up to a concluding climax. In An American Dream, on the contrary, the climatic moment occurs at the beginning; the processes, concepts and values of reason are literally and symbolically destroyed at that stage. Thereafter only the psychic growth of Rojack is consequential; his perceptions must create a world where before there was merely arid thought disguising nothingness.

The viability of the novel, then, depends upon the manner in which Rojack recounts his observations, reflections, and experiences. And this is where the style of of An American Dream becomes all-important. No amount of preliminary knowledge existentialist thought or even of ideas already delineated in Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers could sustain the novel were its prose flat, uninspired, without psychological and poetic ramifications. It must be confessed that most of Mailer’s earlier fiction would not encourage one to believe him capable of rising significantly above the merely serviceable, often stereotyped, awkward, and plodding language of The Naked and the Dead and Barbary Shore. Glimmerings of a fresh voice had begun to appear in The Deer Park, it is true, but not until the appearance of “The Time of Her Time” in Advertisements for Myself did that voice assume recognizably individual character. Even after that there was reasonable doubt about its longevity; Mailer’s critical statements about contemporary American writers and some of his expository prose were rich in texture, yet the poetry in Deaths for the Ladies and Other Disasters was embarrassingly crude, both musically and imagistically. Furthermore, “Advertisements for Myself on the Way Out,” the prologue to a novel in progress which appeared in Advertisements for Myself and which Mailer heralded as a major opus, appeared a stylistic regression in its reliance upon an expository monologue and dialogue similar to that in Barbary Shore.

I think it proper to suggest that Norman Mailer now ranks among the most interesting prose stylists in contemporary American literature as the result of his achievement in An American Dream. It has taken a long time for the Hemingway dominated novelists, of whom Mailer was among the most distinguished with The Naked and the Dead, to turn away from parodying Hemingway’s plain style as the master himself did. An awful fear of the baroque paralyzed all but a few such as Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, and William Faulkner, even though there was ample precedent for the baroque’s boldly opulent effect in Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. For Mailer the baroque impulse offers a liberating direction enabling him to move from relatively unrevealing physical action and conventional speech to an unlocking, and frequently a crystallization, of the imprisoned emotional physiological states which are his prime concern. The devices Mailer employs include similes, interjections that break up a sentence, series of clauses that break up a sentence, series of clauses that circle up and out in the Faulknerian manner, sharp vernacular phrases and rhythms, vividly varied speech patterns, and colorful descriptions of objects. An American Dream brings Mailer into the ranks of the lyrical novelists, those who are bridging the gap between poetry and prose.

Such novelists are frequently accused of writing purple passages. When highly charged poetic prose is torn out of the context in which it functions admirably—particularly when it is imbedded in the prose of a reviewer or critic—it does take on an overwrought and ridiculous character. Some brief samples of Mailer’s prose are in order, however, regardless of the risk. A description of the Negro jazz musician whom Rojack beats up and throws down the stairs:

Now, as he stood inside Cherry’s door, he was wearing a small black felt hat with a narrow brim, his gray flannel suit had narrow pants, he wore short boots of some new and extraordinary cut (red-wine suede with buttons of mother-of-pearl) and a red velvet waistcoat to match. A shirt of pink silk took light from the vest, even as a crystal glass picks up an echo in the color of the wine, and his tie was narrow, black knit, with a small pin. With his left hand he held a furled umbrella, taut as a sword in its case, and he kept it at an angle to his body, which returned-since his body was tall and slim—some perfect recollection of a lord of Harlem standing on his street corner.

Rojack observes his lover in her sleep:

She had a different set of features for each station of her dream. She was so sound asleep. Masks of greed and cruelty came into focus in her face, became intense, broke apart from their own force. A soft child’s face unfolded beneath. One was watching a film which gathered into a minute that metamorphosis of the weeks when the hard envelope of a bud cracks away, and the flower opens. Then, abruptly, the flower wilted. A new bud, hard, all horn at the point, came through the dying leaves, as vulgar egomania passed through the hardness of its spike, sensual features thrusting at me through sleep, pitiless calculation of a female with velvet to sell, she drew cupidity out of her limbs, whore’s lore, her expression steeped into a cream of past thieveries, swallowed on the edge of curdling, turned sour, a sour mask now of disappointments, bitcheries, mean self-pity, yes, the mask was harsh again, it came to its crust, cracked, and in her sleep a sweet blonde girl of seventeen smiled back at me, skin almost luminous, a golden child, pure Georgia peach, a cheer leader, sweet fruit, national creation.

Rojack is in an elevator taking him to the penthouse apartment of his murdered wife’s father, embodiment of the Devil:

While we ascended, I felt the air burning from the shaft and some rich exhaust went out of my lungs as if I had fallen asleep in a room with a fire and awakened from a long sensual dream to discover that the fire had consumed the oxygen and my satyr’s heaven was compounded of suffocation. Up we went, rocketing the stories of the Waldorf, while the umbrella in my hand quivered like a dowsing rod, as if here, here, we had just passed some absolute of evil to the left, and there to the right an unknown concentrate, crypts of claustrophobia, abysses of open space, now through a distillate of from a long sensual dream to discover that the fire rod, as if here, here, we had just passed some absolute of evil to the left, and there to the right an unknown concentrate, crypts of claustrophobia, abysses of open space, now through a distillate of gloom—what depression surrounded the rich—and some compass of direction went awry in my mind; I had the physical impression we were moving through a tunnel rather than rising in a shaft; once again I felt something begin to go out of the very light of my mind, as if the colors which lit the stage of my dreams would be more modest now, something vital was ready to go away forever even as once, not thirty hours ago, I had lost some other part of myself, it had streamed away on a voyage on that instant when I had been too fearful to jump, something had quit me forever, that ability of my soul to die in its place, take failure, go down to the moon, launched out on that instant when I had been too fearful to jump, something had quit me forever, that ability of my soul to die in its place, take failure, go down honorably. Now something else was preparing to leave, some certainty of love was passing away, some knowledge it was the reward for which to live-that voice which I could no longer deny spoke again through the medium of the umbrella.


I have deliberately avoided referring to Mailer’s public role, that which he has sought and that which has been thrust upon him by virtue of private behavior that has been brought to public attention, because it has no bearing on the quality of An American Dream. There is an advantage in being able to approach the work of a contemporary without being informed about his escapades, marriages, and political judgments, without having been at a party where he beat up another guest and was in turn tossed out into the gutter. An American Dream demands such innocence because Mailer has so systematically cultivated a public personality, has so insistently involved himself in public affairs, that up-to-date knowledge of his public involvements will prejudice judgment of his novel. I doubt, for example, that some of the conservative implications of Rojack’s explorations of the possibilities of freedom, courage, and violence will be apparent to those irritated with his self-advertisement, his cocky, intimate discussions of friends or ex-friends such as James Baldwin, Vance Bourjaily, and Calder Willingham, his posing for an Esquire photograph in a boxing ring. For Rojack comes to regret his total renunciation of reason and discipline, his mistaking of aggressive violence for courage, his imprudent neglect of love. And yet, to deny expression to the seething underground American dream for fear of the consequences is to die without having exhausted possibility: “In some, madness must come in with breath, mill through the blood and be breathed out again. In some it goes up to the mind. Some take the madness and stop it with discipline. Madness is locked beneath. It goes into tissues, is swallowed by the cells. The cells go mad. Cancer is their flag. Cancer is the growth of madness denied.”