Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer's Mythmaking in an American Dream and "The White Negro"

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer's Mythmaking in an American Dream and "The White Negro"

Article excerpt


Norman Mailer is very concerned with the American "identity," not just with the shape and soul of the country as a whole, but also with the individual identity of "the" American. He searches for the characteristics he thinks of as essential to the real American identity. One of the most central and long-lasting myths in American society is that of the "American Dream" the idea that anyone, anywhere, is capable of becoming successful.

In his 1965 novel, An American Dream, Mailer deconstructs the outlived interpretation of this all-American phenomenon and, at the same time, constructs his own, new and much more individual and existentially-rooted vision. He gives his own idiosyncratic view on the American "soul" and thus creates his own American myth.

This process from deconstruction to construction is narrated in the protagonist's metaphorical quest for personal redemption. I argue that the different pieces of the puzzle are held together by the topos of myth. The characteristics of what is generally regarded as mythical will be used to underline and substantiate the argument in an attempt to make Mailer's vision on the American identity more accessible. Not only the hero-genesis of Mailer's protagonist in Dream can be explained on the basis of mythology, but Mailer's claim for a new "American Dream" is underlined by the topos of mythology. For general background information about myth and how myth operates in American society, I shall refer to Richard Slotkin's theory outlined in his book Regeneration through Violence.

On a primary level the protagonist of the novel, Stephen Richards Rojack, is depicted as a mythical hero in the classical tradition, facing personal ordeals in the search for salvation. The series of confrontations the hero encounters on his odyssey serves as key elements for the interpretation of the protagonist in Mailer's novel. On a secondary level, I shall scrutinize the writer's deconstruction of the canonical version of the American Dream, where he is pointing at the most important elements of critique. At the same time, I shall analyze the new, existential American Dream as constructed in the novel.

These different levels will be discussed in turn and in relation to each other. At the same time, I will analyze how the vision apparent in Dream originates in Mailer's earlier essay "The White Negro" Mailer's search for an apt view of the American identity was already present in this 1957 essay, as Mailer tries to distil the essence of what was needed to thrive in American society into a comprehensible existential philosophy. In Dream, Mailer applies his findings of "White Negro," but, at the same time, adds more creative nuance.


In Regeneration, Slotkin delineated three basic elements necessary for myth. In order to be considered a myth, a narrative needs to comprise of a hero, a mythological world and a narrative that elaborates the relationship between the hero and the world he lives in. Moreover, Slotkin discusses several types of mythological forms present in mythology. These different forms are to be understood as different possible ways in which a writer can narrate the relationship between the hero of the myth and the world in which the myth is situated. Therefore these forms are to be considered different possible instantiations of the third basic element of myth, the narrative. In Slotkin's opinion the heroic quest "is the most important archetype in American cultural mythology":

   The quest involves a departure of the hero from his commonDay
   world to seek the power of the gods in the underworld, the
   eternal kingdom of death and dreams from which all men
   emerge; his motive is provided by the threat of some natural or
   human calamity which will overtake his people unless the power
   of the gods can be borrowed or the gods themselves be reconciled
   with the people. … 
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