Mythic Mailer in An American Dream

From Project Mailer

Written by
Jill Hampton

Norman Mailer‘s book An American Dream has been acclaimed by many critics, including the author himself, as possibly his finest novel. On the other hand, many scholars have attacked it for its unrealistic plotline and unbelievable characters. Reviews of the book were decidedly mixed. Life magazine called it “by conventional standards . . . a grotesquely implausible book, full of horrific occurrences and characters who appear to be uniformly insane.”[3] On the positive side, Joan Didion claimed “An American Dream is one more instance in which Mailer is going to laugh last, for it is a remarkable book.”[4] Mailer scholar J. Michael Lennon writes that “The book’s defenders, with few exceptions, [have] tended to see the novel as myth, fantasy, or allegory.”[5]

In support of interpreting An American Dream as a myth, I begin by citing Joseph L. Blotner’s description of mythic exegesis of literature:

When meaningful, coherent, and illuminating parallels are discerned, the work may be interpreted in terms of the myth. Often what appears fragmentary or only partly disclosed in the work may be revealed as complete and explicit through the myth . . .. It is not an interior approach asserting that myth was present at the conception and execution of the work; it rather asserts that myth may be brought to the work at its reading.[6]

I believe that bringing a mythic perspective to An American Dream is the best way to understand it because myth forms the structural and thematical core of the book. Myths often appear to have unrealistic plots and incredible characters because they deal with the universal and the extreme. In this paper I will attempt to demonstrate this mythic relationship in three ways. I will begin by establishing that myth and Mailer’s particular cosmology underlie and inform the romantic nature of this novel. Next, I intend to discuss how the mythic elements Mailer uses in this work contribute to the evolving myth of America. In conclusion, I will show how the novel’s particularly American hero, Stephen Rojack, and his ultimate feat—his walk upon the parapet, relate to specific ancient and modern myths. In addition, I will note that although Mailer does not use only one myth to tell his story (he borrows from many myths), his protagonist Stephen Rojack follows the basic quest-myth or monomyth as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Before I begin, the mythic aspects of the plot should be noted. An American Dream follows Rojack through a violence ridden thirty-two hours as he searches for a way back to internal and external harmony. The novel’s action takes place during the roughly one day-and-a-half following Rojack’s murder of his wife. Mailer makes Rojack a rather ironic hero at the start. He is a former WWII war hero who has become a man of some stature in his community. Through his accomplishments while attaining the status of congressman, professor, and television celebrity, Rojack has attained the materialistic success associated with the American dream. He has plenty of money, friends, and possessions. However, at a party, Rojack, age forty-four, suddenly comes face to face with his lack of authentic heroic status and the futility of his existence. Through the voice of the moon, he hears the call of the true voice of nature which leads to a higher existence, but an existence that demands his sacrifice of the trappings of the American dream as he has accepted it. To add to Rojack’s difficulties and confusion, the voice of the moon is dualistic. At one point, its message appears to encourage his suicide (his own inner voice tells him that his life is a fraud); at another point, its words seem to promise him unlimited spiritual fulfillment. Rojack hearkens to this second call which beckons him towards a quest—the pursuit of an alternative American dream—the unlimited opportunity to live an Edenic existence which transcends the innate corruption of human nature.

Rojack’s wife Deborah is the first obstacle in his path. He realizes that his marriage to her has a Faustian taint. She is the Mephistopheles to his Faust. Sensing that her destruction is necessary for him to start down his new path, he strangles her for the same reasons the ancient heroes slew their dragons, then throws her body over the balcony in order to make it look like a suicide. Rojack describes her murder as opening the door to a new world for himself: “I had a view of what was on the other side of the door, and heaven was there.”[7] Challenges of mythic proportions begin immediately after the murder. Down on the street, Deborah’s body has become partially wedged beneath the front tire of a gangster’s car. The gangster, Eddie Ganucci, is wanted by the police. He has the opportunity to walk away in the confusion, but, superstitiously in fear of a curse, refuses to leave a dead woman’s body. Both Ganucci and Rojack voluntarily go down to the police headquarters where they are individually questioned about their alleged crimes.

The precinct offices are an institutional place where, the detective Leznicki tells Rojack, “‘Nobody ever tells truth . . . It’s impossible. Even the molecules in the air are full of lies.’”[8] Ironically, Rojack, who has just begun his quest for authenticity, must face his first big crisis—the incriminating moral judgement of the prevailing social order of his time—by lying about his actions. He is tempted to give in to the voices of the police who accuse him of murder, thus ignoring his own inner voice which encourages him in his battle. He explains his temptation to put himself at the mercy of the police, “Because there was a vast cowardice in me which was ready to make any peace at all.”[9] Rojack’s courage rallies when he glimpses the beautiful blond girl across the room with Ganucci. He sees Cherry as a sign from God to persevere in his quest.

Rojack’s relationship with Cherry is both sexual and spiritual. Sexuality figures prominently in the plot and in the myth. The sexual battle which Rojack describes as a struggle between the Devil and God, or non-creative versus creative power begins shortly after Rojack murders Deborah. Rojack sodomizes Deborah’s maid, Ruta, an act of non-creative sex. After leaving the police station, Rojack goes to hear Cherry sing and falls in love with her. Their lovemaking results in a pregnancy, a result with obvious creative implications.

After Rojack impregnates Cherry, he engages in the ritualistic aspect of this mythic plot by journeying uptown to visit Deborah’s father, Barney Kelly. His trip echoes that of the few mythic heroes who descended into the shadowland of Hades. While he is with Kelly, who describes himself as a “solicitor for the Devil,”[10] Rojack realizes that, in atonement for Deborah’s murder, he must walk the parapet on Kelly’s balcony thirty floors above the city. This ritualistic act expresses Rojack’s dilemma over the existential nature of good and evil. He completes one circuit of the parapet and jumps down to safety as Kelly reaches to knock him off. Intuitively, he knows that he needs to walk the parapet again for Cherry’s sake, yet he does not. Consequently, he returns to Harlem to discover her dead and with her their future child. His failure to completely fulfill the demands of the ritual echoes the failure of the Grail heroes, especially that of Parzival. Alone, Rojack heads for the proverbial West. The book ends as he leaves first for Las Vegas, and then down into the primitive depths of South America where the aboriginal American dream may still exist.

Mailer describes Rojack’s journey in both fantastic and realistic terms. Critics have argued strenuously which is which. It is important while studying An American Dream to remember that Mailer is primarily writing a myth. Myth is the unifying principle underlying the romantic aspects of this novel. In this section of my paper I will show how both romance and realism contribute to the myth.

Ironically, most critics who are unhappy with the book mention its lack of realism. In some ways, Mailer uses the mythic aspects of An American Dream to explore his own concept of reality. Mailer basically thinks in mythic terms; he is a mythic realist.[11] When asked about the basis of reality in this particular novel, Mailer replied:

There wasn’t a single phenomenon in that book that I consider dream-like or fanciful or fantastical. To me, it was a realistic book, but a realistic book at that place where extraordinary things are happening. I believe the experience of extraordinary people in extraordinary situations is not like our ordinary realistic experience at all.[12]

To Mailer, intensifying the realistic action deepens the mythic dimension of his work. However, myth does not function easily in realistic genres. Ernst Cassirer writes that myth itself is “incoherent, capricious, irrational.”[13] Laura Adams states that “one of the mistakes many critics made in first reviewing it [An American Dream] was to take it too literally.”[14] Merrill agrees with Adams: “to read An American Dream as a realistic novel is to misread it altogether.”[15] Such critics misunderstand how myth structures the book and deepens its universality.

Mailer puts mythic form into his novel in order to add universal significance to Rojack’s quest. In both primitive and advanced societies, myth has addressed the human need to acquire a sense of meaning from a seemingly formless and chaotic existence. Joseph Campbell describes the inherent purpose of myth: “Getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there is the principal function of mythology.”[16] Campbell’s conception of getting in tune with the universe is not a scientific and rational process; thus myth necessarily appeals to our non-rational side. Mailer has long been concerned with the overly rational, scientific aspect of American culture. In some ways, An American Dream is a mythic weapon Mailer uses in his personal battle with our overly technological society. This use of his novel echoes Rojack’s use of myth as a weapon against the evils of his society.

The most astute critics realize that Mailer is writing his myth in the tradition of the 19th-century American romantics, who were also concerned with the mixed blessings of scientific advancement. John Aldridge discusses An American Dream as working in

the tradition of the prose romance, in which fantasy and fact, witchcraft and melodrama, myth, allegory, and realism combine to produce what Richard Chase has called “a profound poetry of disorder.”[17]

Mailer’s characters are believable, although their actions are not always compatible with realism. However, Mailer believes that the characters in An American Dream are credible and that his plot is plausible. It is Mailer’s melding of realism and romance that fuels the critical controversy. Ultimately, it is not the realistic Mailer, who produced The Naked and the Dead or The Executioner’s Song, who is writing An American Dream, but the romantic Mailer, echoing the romantics of the American Renaissance. Using elements of this genre, Mailer feels free to indulge himself by developing his own cosmology while giving his mythic work a particularly 20th-century flavor. Aldridge insists:

The book’s antecedents were not the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen but the romances of Cooper, Melville, and Hawthorne, and one of Mailer’s contributions was to rehabilitate the form of the romance and adapt it to the literary needs of the immediate present.[17]

Mailer’s complicated interlacing of fantasy and reality is a product of the 19th-century American romance as defined by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.[18]

Mailer presents his mythic truths by using elements of romance supported by mythic structure. The mythic truths of the work—getting in tune with the universe and listening to one’s inner voice—support the mythic structure of Rojack’s quest (although Mailer truncates this form when Rojack fails to return from South America). Romance, in its looseness and freedom, is more like classical myth than the novel, which pretends to be real, although Mailer puts elements of both into An American Dream.

One of the improbable elements of romance Mailer uses is Rojack’s arsenal. In his battle, the hero Rojack does not use a real bow and arrow as weapons; he uses “psychic darts.” When he is sitting in the bar listening to Cherry sing, he discusses his weapons:

My brain had developed into a small manufactory of psychic particles, pellets, rockets the length of a pin, planets the size of your eye’s pupil when the iris closes down. I had even some artillery, a battery of bombs smaller than seeds of caviar but ready to be shot across the room.[19]

When his psychical weapons hit their targets, he raises his mental shield to block retaliation.

Rojack’s battles occur on physical plains also. He strangles Deborah and beats up Cherry’s former boyfriend. The mythic hero’s spiritual unity must be accomplished through exertion of both powers. He is one of a long list of such heroes who have sought union with the cosmos through adventure. From Ovid’s Orpheus through Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival to George Lucas’s Luke Skywalker, these heroes have ventured towards their goals. Threats from dragons, women, gods, or their own failed courage have imperiled their lives, and, thus, their transcendent pursuit of a higher consciousness. They must learn to trust in themselves in order to accomplish their quests. Only in their dreams do the subconscious voices become clear and are they able to tune into themselves in order to return to their mythic roots, their wellspring.

Stories that concern mythic heroes on quests battling psychic darts, dragons, devils, and talking moons set themselves up for incredulous critics. Many of the critics who argue that An American Dream is not a realistic novel believe that it is an allegory. Myth is often intertwined with allegory. According to Frye, all myths incorporate some allegory because in our attempt to explain myth, we allegorize.[20] However, allegory is a direct comparison which dominates the structure of the work and is intentionally moralistic. Frye maintains: “Genuine allegory is a structural element in literature: it has to be there, and cannot be added by critical interpretation alone.”[21]

Both myth and allegory employ metaphor. Allegory itself is often defined as an extended metaphor.[22] Metaphor is used extensively throughout Mailer’s work. Stanley Gutman emphasizes that “Mailer’s essential medium is metaphor.”[23] One consequence of this aspect of Mailer’s work, especially in An American Dream, is that it could be incorrectly or incompletely interpreted as an allegory. Some scholars, such as Adams and Robert Begiebing, believe that the novel is an allegory, filled with complex yet reductive metaphors. Myth is naturally metaphorical, but Mailer is not trying to be purely metaphorical, and especially not purely allegorical. In an interview with Adams, he denies that such was his motive or his technique: “I don’t believe a metaphorical novel has any right to exist until it exists on its ground floor. You know I never start with my characters as symbols.”[14] Instead, Mailer intensifies his realistic plot to develop the mythic aspect of his narrative, and thus, the metaphorical strength of his characters. The characters are not allegorical personifications, but Mailer’s idea of real human beings engaged in a very real battle between good and evil. In extraordinary situations one is forced to delve deep within himself, calling forth a stronger, more aware person in the process. In Mailer’s private cosmology, it is universally important for each individual to emerge from the crucible of the subconscious for the better.

A look at Mailer’s cosmology helps to explain the basic thematic patterns of his work, especially the mythic patterns in An American Dream. Mailer is often considered as having a personality which dominates and overshadows his writing or as “bursting with a passion too big for his pen.”[24] His own personal quest transcends didacticism and emerges in the dialectic in his work. Although Mailer’s philosophy seems intertwined with the mythology in An American Dream, we must be careful not to confuse the two. Chase discusses this potential problem:

[I]t is bad strategy to try to make dogma out of myth, for the same reason that it is bad strategy to make philosophy out of myth . . . Myth is only art. And we do not think of studying art primarily as dogma or philosophy.[25]

Chase further states that “poetry is the indispensable substructure of myth.”[26] In this context, Frye agrees that “every poet has his private mythology.”[27] Lennon, in an essay delineating Mailer’s cosmology, agrees that it purposefully pervades his poetics. To begin with, “in several ways Mailer still must be considered an existentialist.”[28] However, Mailer believes in God, albeit an “embattled God.”[29] whose destiny is linked with ours: “I’m an existentialist who believes there is a God and a Devil at war with one another.”[30] Our individual contribution to good or evil has a direct effect on the ultimate outcome of this cosmic battle. Unfortunately, in our existential void, we cannot be sure which choices are good and which are evil. Mailer discusses this dilemma:

that moment we’re feeling most saintly, we may in fact be evil. And that moment we think we’re most evil and finally corrupt, we may, in fact, in the eyes of God, be saintly.[31]

The most important part of Mailer’s cosmology is the awareness that there is a choice, that the choice has an effect, and that we must choose the best we can.

Lennon further discusses Mailer’s beliefs about the importance of choice. There is “an extraordinary emphasis on man’s free will, his ability to rough-hew not only his own destiny but to affect God’s as well.”[32] The existential nature of the choices tends towards the absurd and can lead to inaction. But, the resultant void would ensure the Devil’s ultimate victory. In An American Dream, Mailer uses the mythic quest to raise awareness and to develop this existential dialectic. “Why write,” Mailer asks in an interview with Lennon, “if you are not going to change consciousness?.”[33] Lennon summarizes Mailer’s private mythology on choice:

Choice for Mailer is the forward edge of the quest, existential because it is a foray of unknown strategic value in the war between God and the Devil, yet absolutely necessary because the alternative is entropy.[34]

In the scene where Kelly is telling Rojack his philosophy on life, he alludes to this concept:

it’s not easy to get to the very top. Because you have to be ready to deal with One or the Other, and that’s too much for the average good man on his way. Sooner or later, he decides to be mediocre, and put up with the middle.[35]

In Mailer’s eyes, America is riddled with people who settle for mediocrity. A hero is someone like Rojack who chooses to make the journey to the top, and then begins.

Understanding the mixed genres that comprise the book also helps us to transcend the contemporary morality of 20th-century New York City. Deborah is not Rojack’s first victim. He earned a Distinguished Service Cross because he singlehandedly killed four Nazis. In war, the enemy is easy to spot and their annihilation is socially acceptable. In contemporary society the scent of evil is often disguised, forcing the individual to ignore its presence or to take an action perhaps contrary to social mores. But what is the moral consequence or difference if the destruction of evil is the result? Before Rojack kills Deborah he describes himself as someone without a center. Earlier in the evening he had attended a party, and like many mythic heroes, he hears the voice of nature, in this story the moon, calling to him. Because Rojack is at a point of vulnerability in his life, he feels a “void,” he can understand the voice, and it changes him forever. He says,

For the moon spoke back to me. By which I do not mean that I heard voices, or Luna and I indulged in the whimsy of a dialogue, no truly, it was worse than that. Something in the deep of that full moon, some tender and not so innocent radiance traveled fast as the thought of lightening across our night sky, out from the depths of the dead in those caverns of the moon, out and a leap through space and into me. And suddenly I understood the moon. Believe it if you will. The only true journey of knowledge is from the depth of one being to the heart of another and I was nothing but open raw depths at that instant alone on the balcony.[36]

With this emptiness, Rojack begins his quest for renewal—the pursuit of knowledge and the giving of love—by going to see Deborah. In the mythic character archetypes of “male-female polarity"—"hero-devil-god and woman-destroyer-preserver"[37]—Deborah is a destroyer. She attempts to occupy his newly voided center and, Rojack, in his mystically heightened state, senses her malevolence. In the struggle that occurs during their meeting, Rojack describes her action: she tried to find my root and mangle me.”[38] Her desire is to destroy his creativity and selfhood. When he realizes this he kills her. His rational mind tries to stop him, but the inner voice, the voice that responded to the moon, pushes him on. “I could feel a series of orders whip like tracers of light from my head to my arm, I was ready to obey, I was trying to stop.”[7] But he does not stop. He describes himself as “floating. I was as far into myself as I had ever been and universes wheeled in a dream.”[7]

Murder is often necessary in myth because the destruction of evil and the growth of good are the most important things to be depicted. However, Rojack’s murder of his wife, Deborah, understandably troubles readers. In defense of Rojack’s action, Tanner insists that “When he [Rojack] murders Deborah, he is breaking free not just from a destructive woman, but from the picture of reality imposed by her world.”[39] Begiebing describes Deborah in explicitly mythic images. He defends Mailer against the accusations of sexism in this book:

Deborah, his wife, is the dragon-guardian at the threshold to that other land. She is the “Great Bitch,” maimer and castrator, a figure mythical heroes have faced as long as their quests have been recorded. Once we see Deborah as a mythological figure in a visionary world, we will not be marooned on the literal issue of Mailer’s sexist portrayal of women . . .[40]

Was Deborah so evil that her murder was not a act of greater evil on the part of Rojack? Or was Deborah a victim of evil and Rojack’s act less than heroic—indeed, pathological? Deborah’s father, Barney Kelly, describes Deborah’s conception. While having sex with Deborah’s mother, he claims: ’"I took a dive deep down into a vow, I said in my mind; “Satan, if it takes your pitchfork up my gut, let me blast a child into this bitch!’"[41] Deborah’s birth was a result of that satanic vow. Cursed from the beginning, Deborah, at age fifteen, again falls victim to her satanic father. He enters an incestuous relationship with her. Kelly describes his initial lust for her: “I felt an awful desire to go to her room: my teeth were literally grinding, my belly was a pit of snakes. It was as if the Devil had come into the room at that instant and was all over me . . .”[42] Because the story is narrated only through Rojack’s perspective, we never really know how complicitious Deborah actually was. But we do know that her conception and upbringing contributed to whatever degree she was evil.

Shortly after he kills Deborah, Rojack himself discusses his own confusion over the essence of Deborah’s nature and his own:

She was evil, I would decide, and then think next that goodness could come on a visit to evil only in the disguise of evil: yes, evil would know that goodness had come only by the power of its force. I might be the one who was therefore evil, and Deborah was trapped with me. Or was I blind?[43]

Rojack might not be blind, but he could certainly be temporarily insane. He constantly hearkens to the voice and light of the moon. Although the moon symbolizes many things, as I note in this paper, one relevant interpretation regarding Rojack would be insanity. Is he, literally, a loonie? From almost any standpoint, the murder of one’s wife is not an admirable feat. In the large majority of male/female disputes, the man holds a decided physical advantage. Through his superior strength and visionary lunacy, Rojack kills Deborah and hides the truth.

If Deborah’s murder was a heroic achievement, then Rojack would openly acknowledge his accomplishment. Heroes do not lie when asked if they slew the dragon, killed the cyclops, or answered the riddle. Does Rojack lie to save himself from the possibly immoral verdict of a morally decadent 20th-century New York City society? Or does Rojack’s deception reflect his internal ambivalence about his action? As a result of Deborah’s murder and his ensuing presence, Rojack becomes more human and less heroic, more complex and less heroic. His increased humanity reflects both the changing nature of the modern mythic hero and the requirements of a romance blended with realism.

When Rojack enters that phase of life that sparks his heroic quest, he has been smothered by his own materialistic success and enveloped by his relationship with Deborah. A successful marriage is based on love. Rojack feels that their marriage was held together by hooks: “After Deborah had gotten her hooks into me, eight years ago she had clinched the hooks and they had given birth to other hooks. Living with her I was murderous; attempting to separate, suicide came into me.”[44] As the first step towards his goal, he must kill the dragon—Deborah—menacing his path. Lennon elaborates on the possible justification of such an egocentric action:

If society stifles an individual, smothers him in conformity, then be cannot act in any moral way. Stultified by the homogenization of technological society, man’s first impulse should be to escape—escape first, assertion of self first, change first—then morality, then self-discipline, then harmony, community, love.[45]

This freedom to act as an individual is a uniquely Western, and, more emphatically, American idea. Joseph Campbell discusses the difference between the Eastern mythologies and those of Europe. In the European myths, the emphasis was on an individual’s own “potentiality,”[46] while in the East, the emphasis was on the individual’s role as part of the social order. In the European tradition, the individual, like Mailer with Rojack, must act outside the prevailing social mores in order to attain heroic status. Campbell writes: “Now there’s the individual experience—refuting the values of the whole system.”[47] By murdering Deborah, Rojack disregards contemporary social morality and substitutes his personal vision or values. He accepts responsibility for himself, thus taking the path to freedom.

The American Dream as American Myth

Freedom is an integral part of the American dream. Mailer’s use of setting, plot, theme, and protagonist supports the mythic aspect of the American dream. What is the American dream and how does it pertain to myth? David Madden admits that a concise, conclusive definition of the American dream is “elusive,” but he ventures to declare:

there are two major American Dream myths: the Old Testament idea of a paradise hopelessly lost, followed by endless nightmare suffering; and the New Testament idea of a paradise that a new American Adam will eventually regain.[48]

Maxwell Geismar argues that “The American Dream has been our ruling myth, as a culture and in the literature which both reveals and helps to shape our culture.”[49] However, according to Robert Heilman, the word “dream" itself has many connotations. There is the dream which is an end in itself; the dream that is analogous to idea; the dream as vision; the dream as illusion; and the dream as obligation.[50] He concludes that the American dream is a vision with a dualistic nature.[51] The dual aspects of the American dream include the idealistic ability to leave the corruption of the old world behind, combined with the limitless, democratic rise to “material or political or spiritual" success.[52]

This utopian aspect of the American dream, the belief that “Weakness and flaws are construed to be outside in circumstances, not within; in the world around, in other people, not in the human nature that one shares,”[51] has driven Rojack to his attainment of the materialistic American dream. At forty-four he discovers that this dream is, in reality, a nightmare, a spiritual wasteland. The corruption within the human spirit has led him up this false trail and left him without a center. At the time of his epiphany he says: “I was nothing but open raw depths at that instant alone on the balcony.”[53] In order to succeed at the real American dream—to find spiritual fulfillment in a free atmosphere—he must plunge down within himself into those open depths, the realm of his subconscious which speaks most clearly in the dream. An American Dream concerns this juxtaposition: this sense of the corrupt American values system and the personal, humanistic dream synonymous with the freedom to pursue inner fulfillment. Inner fulfillment is accomplished through the unification of the subconscious and conscious selves. Only through this spiritual delving into the dreamworld of the subconscious will Rojack find the courage and knowledge necessary to aspire to the edenic American dream.

New York City, considered by many to contain the essence of America, is the paradise lost, the urban wasteland in the novel. Rojack is the hero who recognizes its disguised corruption and sets out to conquer it through a personal quest of self-redemption. He is the American Adam who sees the battleground, recognizes the venom of the Kellys and their consorts, knows that cosmic paradise is far off and assumes responsibility for the battle to attain it. Mailer’s hero believes in the “possibility of redemption, resurrection, recreation out of the mature wisdom gained in Adam’s fall.”[54] Philip Bufithis states it another way: “He has been launched into the world by a power greater than himself, and it is his purpose to help actualize that power through the exertions of his own creative will.”[55]) Like the great mythic heroes before him, Rojack is prepared to delve deeply within himself to find the strength to do battle with cosmic powers.

Rojack is particularly American in his pursuits. This country was settled by people who had dreams of personal autonomy and fulfillment and would push further West, often destroying whoever got in their way, whether it was native Indians, Asian laborers, or black slaves. This violence manifested the original sin brought over from Europe, an unrelenting pursuit of material success—the false American dream—-which turned this country into a nightmare for many. Rojack is a realistic epitome of this nightmarish success story. In order to begin his pursuit of spiritual success, he commits murder. Ironically, this act again perpetuates the original, inherent evil of mankind in his new journey just as the pioneers brought with them their flawed human natures as well as their noble dreams to settle this land. Deborah’s murder haunts Rojack’s parapet ritual and results in its partial failure just as the violence in American prevents the country from attaining its potential spiritual success. Mailer’s love and concern for his country are evident in most of his work, but they are especially dominant in An American Dream.

The specific American dream to which Mailer refers in the title of his book is ambiguous, although it certainly suggests mythic significance. The relationship between dreams and myth is important to note. Dreams and myth have long been interactive. Kenelm Burridge describes this relationship:

Myths and dreams are interdependent in the sense, first, that much of the content of dreams tends to become articulate in myth, and myths, or parts of myths, are retold in dreams. Secondly, though myths and dreams are intimately related to truth the relationships are not of the same kind. Myths contain truths, dreams are avenues for perceiving the truths which are later embodied in myths.[56]

According to Andrew Gordon, dreams “are not detached from the rest of our mental life, but on the contrary are psychical acts of the deepest significance, because they put us in touch with the shadow land of the unconscious.”[57] Carl Jung defines this common dream world as the collective unconscious, “a sphere of unconscious mythology whose primordial images are the common heritage of mankind.”[58] When the dreams are filled with an imagery common to all human beings, they become archetypal. Thus, Jung’s primordial images are called archetypes, each “a figure—-be it a demon, a human being, or a process—that constantly recurs in the course of history and appears wherever creative fantasy is freely expressed.”[59] Myth has pervaded literature since man could fantasize.

No one knows exactly where myth originates. The aesthetic beauty of the ancient Greek and Roman myths attests to human beings’ desire to create meaning and harmony in our existence. This need arises from our deepest emotions.[60] Different degrees of emotion lead to multiple levels of myth. Chase categorizes them in three ways: folktales and folklore, legends, and “the myth proper, an explanation or dramatization of nature or society.”[61] A modem myth would most easily incorporate this last category because the word “modern" implies a break from the past, whereas folktales and legends are often ties to the past.

How does a modern myth develop? Joseph Campbell describes the evolution of myth:

The material of myth is the material of our life, the material of our body, and the material of our environment, and a living, vital mythology deals with these in terms that are appropriate to the nature of knowledge of the time.[62]

An American Dream is a dramatization of 20th-century New York City. This intensely urban conglomerate takes on mythic dimensions as the setting for Mailer’s mythic dialectic: the existential strengths of good and evil. Chase addresses the need for mythic literature to encompass this dialectic: “the creative artist must recapture a certain magical quality, a richness of imagery, a deeper sense of primeval forces, a larger order of aesthetic experience.”[63] In An American Dream>, Mailer develops a modern myth which incorporates all these elements.

By placing Rojack in New York City, Mailer puts his hero in a well-known urban area. This setting creates an antithetical environment from which Rojack can flee towards the ultimate spatial end, the jungles of South America. Tony Tanner emphasizes Mailer’s incorporation of metaphor in the settings:

Although the novel takes place in contemporary America, through the use of metaphor it opens on to every kind of presocial reality—the Jungle, the forest, the desert, the swamp, the ocean-bed. This metaphorical activity in the writing is so insistent that it provides a dimension of experience as real as that provided by the very detailed documentation of settings and scenes in contemporary New York.[64]

The setting in which Rojack conducts his battle delineates the quality of his materialistic life, successful by contemporary New York City standards. New York City is often considered by New Yorkers, at least,(and Mailer is one) to contain the essence of America. In An American Dream, this essence is corrupt, so that Rojack is forced to flee the city and head West just as the pilgrims fled west from the stifling decadence of old Europe to the promise of the new land, America. In this country, New England has come to represent the old world. When Rojack heads West, he is seeking spiritual renewal in the innocence of our youngest region in terms of European settlement of the continent. In Missouri, a state from which 19th-century pilgrimages often started, he visits an old friend, a doctor, who invites him to observe an autopsy. The corpse is rotten and the gangrenous odor overwhelms Rojack. His description of the smell ominously echoes the rotten health of the country. The man had been suffering from cancer, to Rojack a disease synonymous with evil, but he had died from a secondary infection:

the smell which steamed up from the incision was so extreme it called for the bite of one’s jaws not to retch up out of one’s own cavity. I remember I breathed it into the top of the lung, and drew not further. Pinched it off at the windpipe. . . . my friend apologized for the smell . . . . I must not judge from this what a body is like, he went on to say, because healthy bodies have a decent odor in death . . .[65]

Rojack does judge the foulness of the country as he moves further West only to end up, ironically, in the city which is the image of Western corruption and materialistic dreams—Las Vegas. It is also ironic that it is at the gaming tables where Rojack makes the money necessary to abandon his old life and to continue his search for the spiritual American dream. Failing to find it in this country, he then delves into the jungles of South America to rediscover the aboriginal innocence that once marked North America.

Rojack begins his quest for this innocence at a cocktail party in a ritzy part of the city, where he ends up vomiting over the apartment balcony, a sure sign that his life is making him sick. His retching seems to be a form of self-purging, getting sick in order to get well. After his spell of vomiting, Rojack must go down into the city to begin his adventure even as he goes down into the unconscious to explore himself. Several scholars, including Philip Bufithis and Tony Tanner, have noted how often Rojack “plunges" downward in the book. Bufithis describes the advent of his odyssey: “Rojack must plunge into an ordeal of mythological import";[66] while Tanner writes: “the hero of the book, Stephen Rojack, is twice very close to a literal plunge from lighted rooms in high buildings to dark streets below.”[67] Leaving the party after plunging down ten flights of stairs, Rojack emerges in the cold March air.

Mailer’s choice of March in establishing his setting is also indicative of the mythic import of the novel. Spring is a time of rebirth, and rebirth, especially the rebirth of a hero, is a major mythic theme.[37] Moreover, Rojack is literally exposed to the elements of nature because he has forgotten his overcoat. Shivering, he goes to Deborah’s apartment, which is also on a floor high above the street, “a small duplex suspended some hundred or more feet above the East River Drive.”[68] After he kills Deborah, he runs down another ten flights of stairs to the street where her body landed. It is significant that his dealings with evil are almost always on the top floors of up-scale buildings. The descent into hell, paradoxically, here becomes an ascent into the world where the Barney Kellys live.

It is outside, under the light of the moon, that Rojack first sees Cherry. This setting and the locale of their lovemaking, far away from Rojack’s normal world, are significant to the rebirth myths. The moon has long been a symbol of women’s fertility. The bar where Rojack discovers Cherry singing is “the rear of a large basement loft,”[69] a setting appropriate to Cherry’s stature as creative love in the story. To enter the basement Rojack must descend, just as he must dive within himself for growth. Creativity comes from the soul, from deep within human nature. Rebirth is creative. Phoebus Apollo is a mythic figure who is reborn each day as the sun rises. Rojack arrives at this club at dawn, the time of day when Phoebus is preparing for the rebirth of the sun, or himself, as he readies his chariot to draw the sun across the sky. Rojack emphasizes his rebirth while listening to Cherry sing: “Well, if Deborah’s dying had given me a new life, I must be all of eight hours old by now.”[70] This sense of rebirth again dominates as Rojack descends to the “lower" east side to Cherry’s apartment where they make love. This descent again echoes the image of going down, plunging into the subconscious where Rojack experiences his spiritual rebirth through creative love.

Rojack describes Cherry’s tenement as full of unfiltered smells and sounds, not isolated by the artificial protection wealth ensures. Similarly, their lovemaking is unprotected by birth control devices. Mailer’s novels have always overflowed with his particular brand of sexuality, and An American Dream is no exception. Whether the sexual act is potentially impregnating or sodomistic, loving or violent, has great bearing on its meaning in relation to the theme of this novel. Tanner discusses Mailer’s use of sexuality in An American Dream:

For just as one kind of intercourse is procreative, and the other kind quite the reverse, so Rojack cannot be sure whether he has broken through to some of the true mysteries of creativity after the sterile world of politics; or whether he has unwittingly aligned himself with the Satanic forces of waste.[71]

Rojack’s mental confusion during this act parallels his uncertainty about the meaning of Deborah’s murder. In murdering Deborah was he choosing spiritual creativity or spiritual death for himself? His choice concerning his relationship with Cherry is clearer. While making love with Cherry, Rojack describes himself making a choice: a choice to love, to know what life is really about, to find the answer to his quest. “It was as if my voice had reached to its roots; and, ’Yes,’ I said, of course I do, I want love,’.”[72] They make love twice. After the second time, Rojack says: “ . . . now I understood that love was not a gift but a vow.”[73] Rojack vows to continue his quest. Cherry’s love gives him the strength to continue.

The other woman in the book with whom Rojack has sex is Ruta, Deborah’s German maid. Sex with Ruta has the opposite purpose and result. After he murders Deborah, he is shattered by the violence of his actions and engages in what Bufithis calls a “demonic bout of sodomy" with Ruta.[74] Rojack is torn by “conflict between creative and destructive power.”[75] He alternately has intercourse with her and sodomizes her. Rojack relates: “So that was how I finally made love to her, a minute for one, a minute for the other, a raid on the Devil and a trip back to the Lord.”[76] At first, Ruta struggles with Rojack, but Rojack continues his act of buggary. Suddenly he senses that Ruta is a Nazi. When he accuses her of it, she confesses, while begging him not to stop his sexual assault. Rojack’s continuation of his assault on Ruta echoes his assault on the Nazi soldiers which made him a war hero. Rojack seems to be wanting to aspire to heroic stature of a different kind in his sexual conquest of a Nazi.

Leigh explains the sex in An American Dream in mythic terms: “InAn American Dream orgiastic sex plunges Rojack into epistemological and ontological depths and communion with the mysterious forces to which the individual is exposed.”[77] Sexuality for Mailer has always featured heavily weighted mystic overtones. The possibility for procreativity influences the degree of goodness inherent in the sexual act. The more likely the act is to be procreative, the more moral it is. The women in the novel provide three different ways for Rojack to succeed in his quest. Leigh describes them best:

Killing Deborah cancels Rojack’s social contract with the “dream" world of capitalist success, status and priviledge. Buggering Ruta is a technique for absorbing her vast reservoir of energy, cunning and guile into his own body. Genital release with Cherry represents the perfect harmonious coupling.[77]

The perfect sexual harmony is directly related to the cosmic harmony Rojack is seeking. Loving Cherry, expressed sexually, is only part of Rojack’s quest. Listening to and trusting in himself as he pursues knowledge is the other goal in his adventure. The culmination of Rojack’s quest is his walk on the parapet.

Rojack and the Parapet

When our hero Rojack begins to feel the disquieting effects of the consciousness of new awareness, he initiates his quest. In a quest-myth, the apparent goal might be to slay a dragon or kill the minotaur; the overarching goal is, as Campbell describes it, “[g]etting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there.”[62] Rojack’s journey on the parapet echoes the myth of Parzival and the Holy Grail. Parzival’s quest is to find the Grail and become its keeper. The Grail stands for a unity of self with the universe. Mailer is concerned with this lack of unity, man’s separation from nature. Tanner correlates this concern with Rojack’s walk upon the parapet:

If a man becomes aware of those dimensions of nature and super-nature from which he feels that the rest of society has resolutely closed itself off, where does that leave him standing? By analogy we might say on an edge as precarious as the parapet round a balcony.[39]

In pursuit of a sense of wholeness, Rojack performs the ritualistic walk on the parapet which gives him the strength to journey onward despite failure. He gains the courage to descend again into the often nightmarish world of the subconscious where anything is possible, morality is intensely subjective, and the “conquering heroic self awakes.”[1] This heroic self must acquire a new consciousness, which Begiebing calls “the heroic consciousness.”[78] Begiebing elaborates on his definition:

In general, the consciousness Mailer and his heroes seek would integrate conscious and unconscious life, awaken metaphorical vision, and regenerate the resources of divine energy in human beings.[78]

How Rojack seeks to acquire this heroic consciousness controls the action in the book. The action culminates in Rojack’s walk upon the parapet. His attempt to walk the parapet, buffeted by nature and lured, or taunted, by the moon, takes on the appearance of ritual in the mythic aspects of the novel. Rojack feels that his successful walk upon the parapet, high above the city, is somehow essential to his life. Cassirer’s scholarship on ritual and myth contributes to our understanding of the importance of Rojack’s walk on the parapet. The ritual in a society explains and precedes the evolution of the myth and is as important as the myth itself. Cassirer states: “in order to understand myth we must begin with the study of rites.”[79] Seen along one dimension, the walk on the parapet is an open clue from Mailer that this novel has mythic aspects. More importantly, the walk on the parapet is the climax of the book. The courage to complete the ritual is the courage to confront one’s own existence. Frye writes: “in human life a ritual seems to be something of a voluntary effort (hence the magical element in it) to recapture a lost rapport with the natural cycle.”[80] Continually, when Rojack is on the parapet, he feels the force of nature, both positive and negative. The moon, a mythic symbol of nature’s cyclical rhythm, appears to give him strength. Rojack’s courage is faltering, when he hears an inner voice:

But something else said, “Look at the moon, look up at the moon.” A silvery whale, it slipped up from the clouds and was clear, coming to surface in a midnight sea, and I felt its pale call, princess of the dead, I would never be free of her, and then the most quiet of the voices saying, “You murdered. So you are in her cage. Now, earn your release. Go around the parapet again,” and this thought was so clear that I kept going . . . each step I took, something good was coming in, I could do this, I knew I could do it now.[81]

The power of the moon puts Rojack in touch with his inner self and enables him to see what he must do to further pursue wholeness. He must atone for the violence of Deborah’s death and for the uselessness of his former life with a show of courage and confidence in himself. This self-trust or listening to one’s depths is a cornerstone of many mythic quests. Rojack, a very human mythic American hero, has the perspicacity to glimpse the necessary deed for atonement, yet in the end lacks the wisdom and the strength to accomplish it. His descent from the parapet echoes the failure of Orpheus, whose beloved wife Eurydice died from a snakebite. According to Ovid, Orpheus, inconsolable, ventures to the underworld and begs Pluto and Persephone for the return of his beloved. The king and queen of Hades allow Eurydice to leave only if Orpheus leads the way out of the underworld without looking back to see Eurydice. Just as Luke Skywalker, in another modem myth—the movie Star Wars—must finally trust the intangible Force to acquire the strength to save himself and those he loves, so Orpheus must trust the powerful gods.

However, Orpheus cannot resist one quick look backward to check on her, and as he watches, she disappears, forever this time, back into the void. Rojack tries to muster the courage to walk the parapet again, an act he intuitively knows is essential to Cherry’s well being. But like Orpheus, he will fail and, as a result, lose Cherry forever. Just as the voice in Star Wars comes clearly to Luke, so the voice seems emphatic to Rojack. “The message came clear, ’Walk the parapet,’ it said. ’Walk the parapet or Cherry is dead.’ But I had more fear for myself than for Cherry. I did not want to walk that parapet.”[82] Rojack succeeds in walking the parapet once, but succumbs to the temptation to verbally attack Kelly and so forgets to walk it the second time. “’The first trip was done for you,” said the voice, “but the second was for Cherry’.”[83] The true hero, like Mailer’s embattled god, is imperfect and sometimes fails. Campbell describes another mythic hero who sometimes failed: “Parzival fails in the Grail adventure,[sic) he fails because he’s doing what he’s been told to do instead of what his heart tells him to do.”[84] Our fates are intertwined. Cherry dies when Rojack cannot sustain the courage to walk the parapet once more. His personal quest is only partially successful because he ignores his inner voice—the voice in his dream, the voice of his subconscious—and thus he does not complete the ritualistic demands of the myth.

Allan J. Wagenheim has noted the similarities between the Orpheus myth and An American Dream. He describes the elevator ride to the top floor of the Waldorf as a recurrent echo of the descent into Hades.[85] The comparison is blatant, despite the ironic reversal of direction. As Rojack pauses on his way to Kelly’s apartment, he is paralyzed by pain. He describes the pain as causing a hallucination that “left me staring at the lobby of the Waldorf. But for a moment I had died and was in the antechamber of Hell.”[86] More images of hell surface as Rojack journeys in the elevator. He feels “the air burning from the shaft," where “fire had consumed the oxygen,” and “the absolute of evil" was present.[87] Later, Rojack’s description of Kelly’s apartment contains obvious mythic allusions to animism, nymphs and serpents. The room held a screen of “a tapestry of women in Elizabethan dress talking to a deer while a squire was in the act of encountering a nude maid who grew out of the trunk of a tree,” a “harpsichord giving off the high patina of a snake,” “ormolu cupids,” and “Golden mermaids.”{sfn|Mailer|1964|p=234}} Mailer is setting us up for a mythic encounter between Rojack and Kelly.

In Barney Kelly, Mailer attempts to show us absolute evil which encourages and stimulates the potential evil in those around him. When Kelly greets Rojack who, in the past thirty-some hours has been through that subconscious crucible, he greets him with a hug, like an equal. Rojack describes his embrace as containing “some deep authority of feeling.”[88] The satanic Kelly recognizes and salutes the newly won strength in Rojack. However, Kelly’s mistress in this hell, Bess, whose name when pronounced sounds suspiciously like the hiss of a snake, warns Rojack that “’Barney’s up to mangling you tonight"’.[89] The father’s desires echo those of his dead daughter—a wish to destroy Rojack’s manhood and creativity. When Kelly’s actions draw Rojack away from the parapet, his evil is encouraging the inherent evil—not listening to one’s inner voice, that mystical Godhead—within us. Rojack begins a violent assault on Kelly, but stops himself as he realizes that destroying Kelly, unlike destroying Deborah, is not part of his personal quest.

After leaving Kelly, Rojack continues his quest. Like the eternal American cowboy he heads West, delving deeper into himself, knowing that “the only true journey, of knowledge is from the depth of one being to the heart of another.”[36] In search of this knowledge, his Grail, he ventures South into the primitive origins of America. Like other heroes in myth—Wolfram’s Parzival, Ovid’s Orpheus, and Lucas’s Luke Skywalker-Mailer’s Rojack has dealt with the necessity of violence, the lure of sexuality, the importance of ritual, and the despair of failure. Failure is rife in the desert of New York City. Campbell describes the reason: “it’s the problem of the Waste Land—people living life inauthentically, living not their life but the life that’s put on them by society.”[90] Rojack’s tenacity and courage endure as he continues his journey towards authenticity. Bufithis places the mythic center of the novel squarely on Rojack’s shoulders: “the cosmos can improve if Rojack acts bravely. Such is the mythical meaning Mailer attributes to Rojack.”[55] In An American Dream, Mailer, through Rojack, has reached new mythical heights.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Frye 1957, p. 684.
  2. Lennon 1988, p. 102.
  3. Aldridge 1965, p. 12.
  4. Didion 1965, p. 39.
  5. Lennon 1986, p. 9.
  6. Blotner 1956, p. 548.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Mailer 1987, p. 31.
  8. Mailer 1987, p. 83.
  9. Mailer 1987, p. 87.
  10. Mailer 1987, p. 236.
  11. Adams 1988, p. 211.
  12. Adams 1988, p. 211-212.
  13. Mailer 1987, p. 18.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Adams 1988, p. 210.
  15. Merrill 1978, p. 69.
  16. Campbell 1990, pp. 1-2.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Aldidge 1966, p. 161.
  18. Hawethorne 1961, p. vii.
  19. Mailer 1987, p. 97.
  20. Frye 1957, p. 341.
  21. Frye 1957, p. 54.
  22. Holman 1980, p. 10.
  23. Gutman 1975, p. 129.
  24. Aldridge 1965.
  25. Chase 1949, p. 109-110.
  26. Chase 1949, p. 109.
  27. Archetypes 1989, p. 680.
  28. Lennon 1986, p. 145.
  29. Adams 1988, p. 216.
  30. Adams 1988, p. 213.
  31. Adams 1988, p. 214-215.
  32. Lennon 1986, p. 147.
  33. Lennon 1986, transcripts, 3.
  34. Lennon 1986, p. 149.
  35. Lennon 1986, p. 246.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Mailer 1987, p. 11.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Friedman 1975, p. 309.
  38. Mailer 1987, p. 30.
  39. 39.0 39.1 Tanner 1971, p. 359.
  40. Begiebing 1980, p. 62.
  41. Mailer 1987, p. 240.
  42. Mailer 1987, p. 250.
  43. Mailer 1987, p. 32.
  44. Mailer 1987, p. 9.
  45. Lennon 1986, p. 149-150.
  46. Campbell 1990, p. 212.
  47. Campbell 1990, p. 213.
  48. Madden 1970, p. xxxix.
  49. Geismar 1970, p. 45.
  50. Heilman, p. 4-5.
  51. 51.0 51.1 Heilman, p. 9.
  52. Heilman, p. 8.
  53. Heilman, p. 11.
  54. Madden 1970, p. xii.
  55. 55.0 55.1 Bufithis 1978, p. 68.
  56. Burridge 1972, p. 129.
  57. Gordon 1977, p. 100.
  58. Jung 1989, p. 664.
  59. Jung 1989, p. 665.
  60. Cassier 1946, p. 24.
  61. Chase 1949, p. 36.
  62. 62.0 62.1 Campbell 1990, p. 1.
  63. Chase 1949, p. 110.
  64. Tanner 1971, p. 358.
  65. Mailer 1987, p. 165-266.
  66. Bufithis 1978, p. 71.
  67. Tanner 1971, p. 356.
  68. Mailer 1987, p. 21.
  69. Mailer 1987, p. 93.
  70. Mailer & 19875, p. 93.
  71. Tanner 1971, p. 360.
  72. Mailer 1987, p. 128.
  73. Mailer 1987, p. 165.
  74. Bufithis 1978, p. 65.
  75. Bufithis 1978, p. 66.
  76. Mailer 1987, p. 45.
  77. 77.0 77.1 Leigh 1990, p. 105.
  78. 78.0 78.1 Begiebing 1980, p. 1.
  79. Cassirer 1946, p. 24.
  80. Frye 1957, p. 682.
  81. Mailer 1987, p. 259.
  82. Mailer 1987, p. 255.
  83. Mailer 1987, p. 261.
  84. Campbell 1990, p. 214.
  85. Wagenheim 1968, p. 61.
  86. Mailer 1987, p. 206.
  87. Mailer 1987, p. 208.
  88. Mailer 1987, p. 216.
  89. Mailer 1987, p. 222.
  90. Campbell 1964, p. 251.

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