An American Dream: American Existentialism

By Laist, Randy | The Mailer Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

An American Dream: American Existentialism


Laist, Randy, The Mailer Review


The 1950s was a decade of anguish for Norman Mailer, who has often discussed the identity crisis he suffered following the runaway success of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead.' Mailer's meteoric emergence as the author of an astonishing bestseller thrust Mailer into a public position from which there was no obvious next move. If he kept writing WWII novels, he might have developed into a self-parodist. If he experimented with new forms, he might be derided as an upstart. If he stopped writing books altogether, he would be a one-hit-wonder. The two novels Mailer produced during this decade, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), both testify to the strain of this crisis. They are haunted parables of inertia and surveillance. Their protagonists have only the most provisional sense of who they are and drift through their stories with their moral compasses spinning arbitrarily from north to south and back again. If The Naked and the Dead bears the common first-novel sign of wearing its influences too openly, the same can easily be said of the two following novels. While The Naked and the Dead refers to Dos Passos, Barbary Shore unselfconsciously pays homage to European novelists, particularly Camus and Koestler, while The Deer Park is drenched in the style of Californian writers, particularly Hammett and West. Throughout these novels, one senses that Mailer is still casting about for a style. By his next work of fiction, An American Dream (1965), we have the Norman Mailer we recognize, as if he had risen up from some literary ooze into his most recognizable form, up to his most characteristic literary devices; recklessly pitting God against the Devil, interlarding his social, sexual, and literary lives into one another, and writing every sentence as if it were his last. In the stylistic transition from the sophomore novels to An American Dream, we observe Mailer in the act of creating himself.

Mailer himself was self-conscious of this evolution in his writerly identity. The turning point in Advertisements forMyself (1958) is chapter three (of five), "Births," in which Mailer describes the fundamental rearrangement of the self-understanding that he experienced between the proofs of The Deer Park and his extensive revisions: "I turned within my psyche I can almost believe, for I felt something shift to murder in me" (234). This distinctly Mailerian conversion is informed by his identification with the new street culture of hipsterism. Among those contemporary commentators who read Advertisements as the lamentations of a failed novelist, a representative voice is Charles I. Glicksburg, who writes,

   What Mailer never comes to grips with is the fundamental question
   of how Hip provides a viable aesthetic for the writer of fiction
   ... Mailer's negative and confused 'theology' will not serve to
   promote his career as a novelist, for Hip has no direct bearing on
   the problem the writer faces when he settles down to the task of
   composing fiction. There is no such mythical creature as a Hip
   novelist. (33)

Hip, Glicksburg explains, is a way of life, not a way of art. Glicksburg's prim practitioner "settling down to the task of composing fiction" is distancing himself from the press of existence in order to reflect abstractedly upon it. But in his formulation of hip as "an American existentialism," Mailer proposes a code according to which the acts of living and of writing are mutually constitutive. Advertisements is both an argument and a demonstration of the thesis that expression and experience "have an umbilical relationship" (Advertisements 379). The hip novel will be a natural extension of the hip existence.

Mailer underwrites his romantic conception of the writer with a style of existentialism that foregrounds the antirationalist stance of Heidegger and Sartre. Robert Denoon Cumming has criticized Mailer for loosening the term "existentialism" from its philosophical constraints, using it carelessly as a term for "romantic activism" (8), and thereby obscuring the true complexities of this branch of philosophy. …

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