Study Guide

An American Dream

By Norman Mailer

An American Dream Introduction

If you want to find out why Norman Mailer is one of the most controversial writers of all-time, then look no further than An American Dream.

Published in 1965, Mailer's fourth novel is anything but conventional. Even the writing process was unusual: Mailer wrote one chapter per month, releasing it in serialized form in the pages of Esquire. Although Mailer was inspired by the serialized literature popularized of writers like Charles Dickens, his predecessors typically wrote the whole novel beforehand—not a little bit every time they tore a page off their calendar.

If you think the writing process is unusual, though, then just wait until you see what actually happens in this book. The novel follows Stephen Rojack, a former congressman who currently hosts a talk show. Although his life seems amazing from the outside, there are some serious issues bubbling beneath the surface—his often-hostile relationship with his wife Deborah high among them. When Rojack tries to solve his marital problems in the most awful way (seriously), we realize just how far this former hero has fallen.

When all is said and done, An American Dream isn't for everyone. In fact, feminist scholar Kate Millett used An American Dream as a prominent example of literary misogyny in her famous book Sexual Politics. If you can look past the icky stuff, however, you'll come to find that there's a lot worth reading in An American Dream. It might not be the most heart-warming read in the world (okay, it definitely isn't), but sometimes the most difficult books are also the most worthwhile. And hey—you won't know if you don't read it.

What is An American Dream About and Why Should I Care?

Are you someone who just lets their feelings out, sharing them freely with the world? If you are, then An American Dream will constantly reaffirm just how right you are to do so. But if you're someone who prefers to keep their cards close to their chest, emotionally-speaking, then An American Dream is nothing short of a cautionary tale when it comes to you and your ways.

See, every character in the novel tries to repress something about themselves. Rojack is trying to hide the fact that he's unhappy despite all of his success; Deborah is shoving down the anger she feels toward her father; and Detective Roberts is trying to hold back all of the anger he feels from working as a police officer.

Here's a spoiler for you, though: They all fail. We won't ruin how for you here (though we'll totally get into it later on in this learning guide), but suffice it to say they do so miserably. Like, their pictures could illustrate the "failure" entry in a dictionary.

Basically, repression is like shaking up a can of soda and putting it back in the pack. It doesn't matter if you completely forget about it—that thing's going to explode as soon as you open it. And the same goes for repressed feelings. So if there's anything you should take away from An American Dream, it's that you should always be honest with yourself. It might not solve all of your problems, but it'll certainly keep things from exploding when you least expect it.

An American Dream Resources

Websites

The Norman Mailer Society
Essentially, this website is like the greatest Tumblr blog dedicated to Norman Mailer—and that is by no means a bad thing.

The Phases of the Moon
Hey, we don't know—maybe reading An American Dream made you want to plan your life in accordance to the phases of the moon, just like Rojack. Stranger things have happened.

Movie or TV Productions

An American Dream (a.k.a. See You In Hell Darling)
This loose adaptation of the novel bombed so hard at the box office that they retitled it See You In Hell Darling for its subsequent rerelease. Ouch.

Articles and Interviews

Norman Mailer, The Art of Fiction No. 193
This is actually Mailer's second sit-down with The Paris Review's legendary "Art of Fiction" series, but the previous interview took place before he wrote An American Dream.

Mailer and Vidal: The Big Schmooze
This interview represents Mailer and Gore Vidal burying the hatchet after their well-known feud on The Dick Cavett Show. Think of these two as the literary Biggie and Tupac.

Riding the Whirlwind with Mailer
This interview touches on Mailer's passion for film, including the way that this love for cinema shaped his writing style.

Video

Mailer on William Buckley's Firing Line
If nothing else, this interview with legendary conservative William Buckley is worth watching on the sole basis of the two men's glorious accents.

Dukes Up
Check out Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal's famous fight on Dick Cavett's legendary talk show. Hold onto your hats…

An American Dream as Performed by Legos
Do you really need an explanation for this one?

Audio

The Literary Legacy of Mailer
This radio piece, released shortly after Mailer's death, touches on the major criticisms and controversies that surrounded his career.

An Interview with Norman Mailer
This 1991 interview gets to the heart of Mailer's feelings about his own work, as well as his motivations for becoming an author in the first place.

Images

A Full Moon
This is a picture of a full moon. We sincerely hope it doesn't make you want to murder someone.

Manhattan in 1965
This is what Manhattan looked like in 1965, the year that An American Dream was released.