Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When An American Dream was first published, it was harshly criticized by many critics who, expecting the realism of Mailer’s earlier novels, lambasted it for the absurdity of its plot and the pop-art pretentiousness of its style. More recently, however, its genre has been determined to be, as one critic puts it, “romance, allegory, satire, dream vision.” The problem of the novel is that it attempts to combine both the conventions of fantasy and the conventions of realism; it hovers uneasily in a realm between fantasy and fact, in which objective and subjective reality cannot be distinguished. Consequently, there are those who misread it at first as pure realism and thus dismiss it as a “dirty” book in which Rojack is only a vulgar alter ego of Mailer himself.

Critics have pointed out the autobiographical similarities between Rojack and Mailer, both in philosophical point of view and in certain events (for example, Mailer stabbed his wife but did not kill her), and thus the book has contributed strongly to the polarization of the literary community about the works of Mailer. On one hand, there are those who see him as a posturing pop-art phenomenon, combating his own insecurity with efforts to become a cultural presence and force, manufacturing books which bolster his own ego and present his own adolescent fantasies and philosophies. On the other hand, there are those who see Mailer as one of the most profound novelists of the twentieth century, a man who, like Hemingway, has an uncanny ability to cut through hypocrisy and social conventions to present a genuine vision of the plight of modern humankind. An American Dream is at the very center of this debate, embodying all the virtues and the vices of Mailer’s art and thought.