An American Dream (novel)

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An American Dream
First edition cover
Author Norman Mailer
Cover artist Paul Bacon[1]
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Dial Press
Publication date
March 15, 1965[2]
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 270

An American Dream (1965) is Norman Mailer's fourth novel, published by Dial Press. Mailer wrote it in serialized form for Esquire, consciously attempting to resurrect the methodology used by Charles Dickens and other earlier novelists, with Mailer writing each chapter against monthly deadlines. The book is written in a poetic style heavy with metaphor that creates unique and hypnotizing narrative and dialogue. The novel's action takes place over 32 hours in the life of its protagonist Stephen Rojack.[3] Rojack is a decorated war-hero, a former congressman, a talk-show host, a university professor, and is an embodiment of the American Dream.


In an alcoholic rage, Rojack murders his estranged wife, a high society woman, and descends into a lurid underworld of Manhattan jazz clubs, bars, and Mafia intrigue after meeting Cherry Melanie, a night-club singer and the girlfriend of a highly placed mobster. Rojack feels liberated by the violence and imagines himself receiving messages from the moon, perceiving voices that command him to deny his guilt. He makes the death appear as a suicide, and maintains his innocence no matter how intense the scrutiny or severe the consequences. In the course of the next twenty four hours, Rojack sets his will against the New York City Police Department, the intimidation of an erratic black entertainer who draws a knife on him, and the gathered political clout of his dead wife's father, Barney Oswald Kelly, who suggests that higher political affairs have an interest in Rojack's fate.

Chapter summaries[edit]

The Harbors of the Moon[edit]

Rojack vomits over the balcony at a party and considers suicide. He leaves the party and calls his estranged wife Deborah, going over there at her invitation. The maid, Ruta, lets him in, and he notices that Deborah has been drinking. She belittles him in his time of need, and he strangles her on the floor.

A Runner from the Gaming Room[edit]

Rojack goes to Ruta's room and has sex with her. He returns to Deborah's room, cleans her up, and throws her over the balcony making her death appear as a suicide. He calls down to Ruta that Mrs. Rojack has killed herself.

A Messenger from the Maniac[edit]

Rojack asks Ruta to tell the cops nothing about their encounter, and he runs to the street and sees Cherry Melanie, a night club singer, for the first time. He sees Deborah's body, smashed and hit by a car and meets Detective Roberts. They go back upstairs, and Rojack fabricates a story about Deborah having cancer as the cause of her suicide. They want to take Rojack downtown, and they meet Lt. Leznicki on the way out. Leznicki and O'Brien badger him on the way to the dept where they continue to lean on him. Rojeck learns that one of the cars in the pile-up caused by Deborah was Eddie Ganucci, a mob boss wanted on a subpoena. He sees Cherry again and is drawn to her. Turns out Deborah had cancer, and they release Rojack. He walks to where Cherry sings, in a club in Greenwich Village.

Green Circles of Exhaustion[edit]

Rojack drinks and listens to Cherry sing. He has a wave of nausea and vomits in the bathroom. He joins Cherry and her "friends" for a drink, verbally sparing with her "date" Romeo. She and Rojack flirt and kiss; Rojack gets a call from Roberts who warns him to get out of there. He has an encounter with Tony, who orders Cherry to sing another set. She sings a hymn, and Tony fires her. She leaves with Rojack, and they get breakfast. She invites him to a "special place".

A Catenary of Manners[edit]

They go to her sister's old apartment. Rojack discovers that Cherry's sister is dead. They have sex, and Rojack decides he wants to love her. He returns to his apartment in the afternoon and talks with Arthur who informs Rojack that his show has been cancelled. Next, he speaks with Dr. Tharchman who tells Rojack that he must take leave from the college. Next, to Bettina Gigot who sounds nuts, but probably gives a hint about a secret between Deborah and her father and her daughter. Rojack then meets Roberts at the police station who presents him with three pieces of evidence that seem to implicate Rojack, so Roberts presses him for a confession. Rojack refuses and is cleared of wrong-doing. Rojack goes to Cherry and they make love.

A Vision in the Dessert[edit]

Rojack and Cherry talk. First a bit about Rojack's TV show. Then, Cherry tells her story: her dead parents; her brother's incest; her "Daddy Warbucks" who turns out to be Kelly; her escape from Vegas; her relationships; her two abortions: one with Kelly and one with Shago; her finally having an vaginal orgasm with Rojack; and her premonition of death soon after. Shago appears at the chapter's end and tells Rojack to leave.

A Votive Is Prepared[edit]

Rojack and Shago fight, with the former getting the upper hand by throwing Shago down the stairs.

At the Lion and the Serpent[edit]

Rojack goes to the Waldorf Tower to confront Kelly. Rojack talks with Ruta and Deirdre before eating with Kelly. Rojack confesses to the murder of Deborah, then walks the parapet around the roof of the building, hitting Kelly with Shago's umbrella before escaping. He returns to Cherry's only to find out from Roberts, the police detective, she has been killed.

At the Harbors of the Moon Again (Epilogue)[edit]

Rojack travels to Las Vegas where he wins big at the tables, paying off all his debts. He imagines speaking with Cherry in Heaven before he heads south to Guatemala and the Yucatan.


The style of An American Dream seemed to grow organically from Mailer's "Big Bite" columns for Esquire: his voice, explains Rollyson, is a "supple first-person" persona "punctuated with feisty asides and comic exaggerations".[4] Andrew Gordon points out that the events of the novel unfold at a quick pace, compared to Mailer's prior works: "before we are five pages into the novel, Rojack has killed four Germans in a grotesque and graphically violent scene. By the end of thirty pages, Rojack has murdered his wife".[5] Gordon finds that Mailer tempers the shock of AAD's violence by using a combination of flashback sequences; playful, heavily stylized language; and an abundance of mythical, fairy tale imagery to evoke an exaggerated, dreamlike psychological fantasy.[6]

While Kaufmann likens Mailer's narrative to a medieval allegory in its emphasis on magic and metaphysics, Rollyson suggests it embodies an Elizabethan baroqueness and shows Mailer as his best as a novelist.[7][4] Kaufmann avers that Mailer borrowed his guiding principle from Marx: "quantity changes quality".[7] Mailer blends modern America with Rojack's dream visions, making his narrative akin to the magician's stage show: "novelist as magician who writes a book filled with effects without any causes".[8] Even though Mailer himself said he had the intention of writing a realistic novel, his style suggests otherwise: it's like something out of Chaucer or Dante, or out of American romance, or that the events are created by Rojack and do not represent literal occurrences that readers come to expect in a novel.[9] Still, argues Merrill, one cannot dismiss Mailer's serious intentions.[9]

Barry H. Leeds, in his Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer, suggests two primary structural patterns: one is Rojack's pilgrimage from "damnation and madness to salvation and sanity"; the other is the geometrical sexual connections shared by the characters.[10]


Dearborn calls Rojack the "quintessential Mailer hero" as he exemplifies many of the traits and accomplishments Mailer himself would have liked: he's a war hero, a successful politician, a television personality, and a professor of "existential psychology".[11] Mailer commented in a later New York Post interview: "I wanted a man who was very much of my generation and generally of my type".[12] Similarly, too, Rojack begins to feel that his reality is being created by the public and that he has become just a shell, a mere actor, which creates a crisis of identity and precipitates his actions.[13] Like Mailer's Hipster, Rojack does not begin to live until he has experienced death — so his murder of Deborah frees him from his hollow public life and initiates his transformation.[14] It's only through the lowest and most severe forms of physical transgression that Rojack, like Mailer's Hipster is able to begin his journey toward psychic redemption.[15] Rojack's journey, then, reflects a seminal theme for Mailer: the importance of growth by confronting serious existential situations with courage.[16] In a 1963 letter, Mailer defines what he means by "existentialism": "that character can dissolve in one stricken event and re-form in startling new fashion".[17]

Likewise, states Dearborn, Rojack believes that in killing Deborah, he has cured himself of cancer,[18] a theme that becomes explicit in the novel's epilogue: "Cancer is the growth of madness denied".[19] In a later interview with High Times, Mailer elaborates further: "A lot of people get cancer because they were too responsible with their lives. They led lives that were more responsible then they wanted to be. They lived their lives for others more than for themselves. Denied themselves certain fundamental things, whatever they were. . . . Cancer is a revolution of the cells".[20] Leeds adds that, for Mailer, cancer represents moral failure and is a significant theme in much of Mailer's work.[21]

It is not easy to accept or to excuse Rojack's ability to escape punishment for his transgression: a murderous taboo. Often characters cannot so easily get away with murder unless it stems from revenge.[22] Murderer's gambit, whose success requires the approval of the reader, can be applied as a way for the "novelist to gamble with the reader's empathy in the hopes of either winning greater sympathy or . . . greater interest in the character's situation".[23] Yet, there must contain more strategical tactics in order to win over the "jury". In an example, when Rojack murders his wife, he compares it to the killing of the Germans. The juxtaposition poses a question: what is the difference between killing a person in wartime and killing a person in society?[24] Mailer also hints that the narrative is "framed" by a dream cloud through the use of the novel's name An American Dream and the allusion of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz".[25]

AAD was controversial for its portrayal and treatment of women, and was critiqued by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics.[26][27] Millett sees Rojack as another incarnation of a Mailer protagonist who becomes heroic through the linking of sex and violence.[28] Mailer, she argues, attempts to use existentialism to excuse Rojack's misogynistic exploration — his "sexistentialist project".[29] Rojack's victims are women and a black man, appropriate objects of the white male's "dominant wrath".[30] Millett chastises Rojack - and, by proxy, Mailer - for what she assesses to be the feigned pretense of radically progressive beliefs that belie his defiant sense of white male privilege, likening him to an old southern Confederate, pretending nobility while in actuality lashing out at the encroachment of true progress: "Rojack belongs to the oldest ruling class in the world, and like one of Faulkner's ancient retainers of a lost cause, he is making his stand on the preservation of a social hierarchy that sees itself as threatened with extinction. His partial Jewish ancestry and his 'liberal' views to the contrary, Rojack is the last surviving white man as conquering hero".[31]

Millett criticizes Mailer for being almost wholly unique among prominent authors in championing a character who is a murderer, while allowing the offender to escape any accountability for his crimes:

The humanist convictions which underlie Crime and Punishment (the original and still the greatest study in what it is like to commit murder), may all go by the board. Both Dostoyevsky and Dreiser, in An American Tragedy gradually created in their murderers an acceptance of responsibility for the violation of life which their actions constituted, and both transcend their crimes through atonement. Rojack has some singularity in being one of the first literary characters to get away with murder; he is surely the first hero as homicide to rejoice in his crime and never really lose his creator's support.[32]

Mailer responded to the criticisms of Millett and other feminists in The Prisoner of Sex.[33]

Judith Fetterly criticizes the treatment of women at the hand of Mailer's male characters by pointing out that each female character must meet a violent death in order for Mailer's hero to be "free".[34] Although power might lay in the masculine hands of those in government and big business, women have a mystical power over men.[35] This power enacts a control over Rojack and only when Rojack rids himself of Deborah does he feel in possession of himself.[36]

American culture, Justin Shaw states, has a tradition in which society expects men to achieve the "self-made mode of masculinity".[37] Betty Friedan writes in The Feminine Mystique that men, in other words, were not enemies but "fellow victims" of society's expected and assigned gender roles.[38] His wife's recognition of himself in the existing world is shown to have been the link to his masculinity which left him "a void where his sense of masculinity resided" when she tells him that she no longer loves him.[39] Rojack then begins his search for an active subject role, a masculine role.

Maggie McKinley argues that Mailer uses "violence as a literary device that facilitates an analysis of his philosophies surrounding existential freedoms, social oppression, and gendered relationships".[40] Rojack's violence is not just a result of his masculinity, but it comes from his chasing the "sexual freedom that is often denied by a repressive or 'cancerous' society".[41] Violence provides a center for Rojack's "construction of a liberated masculinity":[42] "Rojack seems able to discuss manhood only through the language of violence", specifically addressing his view that masculinity revolves around either the repression of or embrace of violence.[43]

Robert Merrill posits that AAD seems to suggest violence "is not an intolerable aberration but an extreme example of life's essential irrationality".[44]


An American Dream was first published as an eight-part serial in Esquire, January–August 1964.[45] Mailer announced the serial in his final "Big Bite" column, making clear that his serial will distinguish itself from other authors because it would not be finished before the serial began. Mailer writes: "It's been a long time since anything of this sort has been tried by an author who takes himself seriously"; Mailer cited Dickens and Dostoyevsky as inspiration.[46] While the serialization proved a challenge for Mailer — the effort, states Mailer, "has me more or less pissing blood"[47] — it was a success, increasing Esquire's circulation to 900,000 during the serial's first month.[48]

Mailer rewrote forty percent of the scenes for the novel's release in book form.[49] Dial Press published the book in hardcover, and Dell the paperback. The novel was edited for book publication by E. L. Doctorow.[11]


AAD sold well and spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, reaching as high as number eight in April 1965.[50][51]

The reviews for An American Dream were polarized, with very few mixed, and for years the conventional wisdom was that the novel was one of Mailer's lesser works of fiction.[52] While critics like Granville Hicks, Philip Rahv, Roger Shattuck, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Tom Wolfe called AAD a failure,[53] the novel has its strong defenders, notably in the writings of critics Leo Bersani, Richard Rhodes, Paul Pickrel, Richard Poirier, and Barry H. Leeds.[54]

Writing one of the first and most positive reviews in Life, John Aldridge states that AAD "transcends the conventional limits of blasphemy to expose the struggle toward psychic redemption which is the daily warfare of our hidden outlaw selves".[55] Joan Didion writing in Vogue called AAD "the only serious New York novel since The Great Gatsby".[56] Conrad Knickerbocker writes in the New York Times that Mailer "is one of the few really interesting writers anywhere",[57] and that AAD "defines the American style by presenting the most extreme of our realities — murder, love and spirit strangulated, the corruption of power and the powerful, the sacrifice of self to image, all of it mixmastered in booze and heat-and-serve sex, giving off the smell of burning rubber to the sound of sirens".[58] Since 1965, AAD has been defended by Mailer's most serious critics, some of which call it one of his best novels.[44] Tony Tanner posits that a few critics likely found An American Dream to be "outrageous" due to their perception of it as a simple narrative and not as the surrealist work that it is. Tanner hailed Leo Bersani's review of AAD as a "brilliant comment on the novel as a whole" because Bersani recognized the purposeful "exuberance" that Mailer used and was not turned off by it.[59]

Stanley Edgar Hyman describes AAD as a dreadful novel and says it's the worst that he has read in years.[60] He calls the novel pretentious — "it's awfulness is really indescribable" — and focuses his critique on what he sees as the flaws in the plot, images, and the tropes.[61]

Film adaptation[edit]

It was adapted for film in 1966 starring Stuart Whitman as Stephen Rojack, Eleanor Parker as his wife, and Janet Leigh as Cherry McMahon. Johnny Mandel (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics) were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "A Time for Love". The film is also known as See You in Hell, Darling.



  1. ^ Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
  2. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 348.
  3. ^ Lennon 1988, p. 103.
  4. ^ a b Rollyson 1991, p. 163.
  5. ^ Gordon 1980, p. 132.
  6. ^ Gordon 1980, p. 132–134.
  7. ^ a b Kaufmann 2007, p. 199.
  8. ^ Kaufmann 2007, p. 201.
  9. ^ a b Merrill 1978, p. 69.
  10. ^ Leeds 2002, pp. 76–77.
  11. ^ a b Dearborn 1999, p. 204.
  12. ^ Lennon 1988, p. 101.
  13. ^ Knickerbocker 1965, p. 36.
  14. ^ Gordon 1980, p. 135.
  15. ^ Merrill 1978, p. 70.
  16. ^ Merrill 1978, p. 71.
  17. ^ Lennon 2014, p. 313.
  18. ^ Dearborn 1999, p. 205.
  19. ^ Mailer 1965, p. 267.
  20. ^ Mailer 1979, pp. 43–44.
  21. ^ Leeds 2002, p. 75.
  22. ^ Whalen-Bridge 2002, p. 78.
  23. ^ Whalen-Bridge 2002, p. 77.
  24. ^ Whalen-Bridge 2002, p. 79.
  25. ^ Whalen-Bridge 2002, p. 80.
  26. ^ Millett 2016, pp. 314–335.
  27. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 432.
  28. ^ Millett 2016, p. 316.
  29. ^ Shaw 2014, p. 46.
  30. ^ Millett 2016, p. 319.
  31. ^ Millett 2016, p. 10-15.
  32. ^ Millet 2016, p. 314.
  33. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 436.
  34. ^ Fetterly 1986, p. 158.
  35. ^ Fetterly 1986, p. 168.
  36. ^ Fetterly 1986, p. 172.
  37. ^ Shaw 2014, p. 54.
  38. ^ Shaw 2014, p. 60.
  39. ^ Shaw 2014, p. 51.
  40. ^ McKinley 2012, p. 160.
  41. ^ McKinley 2015, p. 101.
  42. ^ McKinley 2015, p. 100.
  43. ^ McKinley 2015, p. 102.
  44. ^ a b Merrill 1978, p. 68.
  45. ^ Lennon 2015.
  46. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 333.
  47. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 334.
  48. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 339.
  49. ^ Knickerbocker 1965, p. 39.
  50. ^ Lennon 2008, p. 271.
  51. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 351.
  52. ^ Lennon 2013, pp. 349–350.
  53. ^ Merrill 1978, p. 67.
  54. ^ Lennon 2013, p. 350.
  55. ^ Aldridge 1965, p. 12.
  56. ^ Didion 1965, p. 330.
  57. ^ Knickerbocker 1965, p. 1.
  58. ^ Knickerbocker 1965, p. 38.
  59. ^ Tanner 1974, p. 130.
  60. ^ Hyman 1965, p. 104.
  61. ^ Hyman 1965, pp. 104, passim.


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