An American Dream Expanded/Trotter Letter, March 14, 1965
- 1847 Cassamia Place
- March 14, 1965
It has become the fashion for conservative book reviewers, as well as those all-too-numerous people who prefer their culture in neat, easily digested packages, to teh-teh loudly over every new book by Norman Mailer and say, with solemn tones of ponderous righteousness, “Why doesn’t the poor bastard give up? Everybody knows The Naked and the Dead was the only good thing he’ll ever write? And why must he go mucking-about trying to do messy things like existential political articles? They’re so uncomfortable to read.”
An American Dream Expanded.
Fortunately for America’s artistic consciousness, Mailer has refused to allow himself to quietly expire after writing one fine novel which won the approbation of all sorts of people and critics, and continues to write as he damn well pleases without caring how many people he makes uncomfortable. The trouble with American culture is that too many people like Dan Wallace consume its products. His snotty and condescending review in this Sunday’s Observer is a prime example of what happens in our society when the “respectable” people gang-up on the visionary outlaw and conspire to pole-axe him everytime he opens his mouth until he either becomes so rattled that he writes meaningless far-out drivel, or accepts their terms of surrender and writes neat, safe, impeccable little novels. Either way is artistic death for the artist, and cultural sedation for the timorous society that murders him.
Mailer is one of the few, incredibly few, writers or artists of any kind in our whole land who is willing to stake his reputation, his career, even his very sanity, on the once-revered principle that the artist is the standard-bearer, the vatic spokesman, the prophet...he is courageous enough to make an ass out of himself half the time, in order to say something important the other half. Mailer has more courage, more integrity, and more passion than any number of sweet, oh-so-precious writers like Salinger and Updike, who never show public concern over any issue. We live in a neurotic anti-emotional age, and our society prefers to hear truths or ideas whispered discreetly rather than shouted passionately. Anyone who commits himself publically with any degree of passion whatever, offends our sense of propriety. No, Mailer’s style is not impeccable, nor are his ideas always profound—the ideas of Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Freud, Sartre, were not always profound either. Genius has rough edges- that means, you’re likely to get splinters in your mind from contemplating what it has to say. Aren’t those splinters nasty, though? Don’t they make you uncomfortable? Oh, that's tooooo bad, here’s the least Updike story in the New Yorker—see the pretty metaphors? Aren’t they glittery and spotless and impressive? See the new Salinger collection—aren’t all those nice stories nice? Maybe they all do seem like an endless re-write of the same yearn, but they’re all so cleverly literary!
Carp away, damn you all. Mailer will survive all the back-alley ambushes laid for him by people like Wallace and the reviewers of Time. In a literary world where most of the champions are featherweights with glass-jaws, it's a dangerous life being one of the few real pro heavyweights. Everything he publishes is important, and a novel with the daring and vigor of An American Dream cannot be dismissed with pathetic references to Ian Fleming (my Lord...) or accusations of pretension and bad taste. The bad taste lies not with a man like Mailer, but with the middle-brow public that consumes television and the books of Wouk, Michener and Harold Robbins. This nation has two choices, right now, (not twenty years from now): it can wake up and drop its frontiersman hatred of intellectual attainment and “kulcher” and be willing to dare, to live more vividly, to stop being afraid of sex, life, death or hell’s very passions; or it can muddle through on its own momentum for perhaps another half-century before the rot sets in for good. The neo-Renaissance could happen here, or we could miss our trolley utterly. It’s a hard job waking up 200 million consciousnesses, but Mailer and a few others are throwing buckets of ice water into our faces as hard as they can. If the doom comes, we’ll have only our own bad tastes to blame.
In the beginning, Mister Wallace, Sartre’s books were full of pretension, so.....
- Yours sincerely,
- William R. Trotter