Monday, December 23, 2013

When Competent Critics Set Out to List the Main Characters in Mailer's AN AMERICAN DREAM

When Competent Critics Never Identify the Same Main Characters

          When smart people list the main characters of Norman Mailer’s AN AMERICAN DREAM and don’t come up with the same names, what’s wrong? Are the best critics incompetent? No. 

It’s simple. In the book version of AN AMERICAN DREAM you can’t tell who the main characters are because, having carefully designed a hierarchy of characters in the Esquire serialization, Mailer by a couple of small cuts removed the passages which made clear when Rojack was confronting equals and when he was confronting inferiors. I laid this out in the BULLETIN OF RESEARCH IN THE HUMANITIES (Winter 1981), with illustrations from Mailer’s paste-up of the serial text—in a Woolworth ledger I was allowed to carry off from the Vault for a few months. I refined it slightly in the 1984 FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS. I remember the chapter version especially well because it took me all one day to type it perfectly and it was the last long piece I ever put on a typewriter. Critics find it hard to believe that writers can damage books by cutting or adding or rearranging a few dozen words. So do biographers. Here is part of a footnote in the 2013 NORMAN MAILER: A DOUBLE LIFE, by J. Michael Lennon (p. 832):

NM’s chronology problem is carefully examined in Hershel Parker’s “Mailer’s Revision of An American Dream” . . . . He argues strenuously that the assassination “wrecked” the novel’s time scheme, but few have even noticed the problem.

Yes, but the greater damage was to the hierarchy of characters.  When good critics make wildly different lists of the main characters in a novel, maybe something is wrong with the novel. And in this instance, Mailer had it right in the serial version.

I have a note by Mailer on a ridiculous suck-up newspaper article headed “MAILER BATTLES ACADEMIC CHUTZPAH”--by a journalist who, as I said in FT&VI, like Mailer’s Romeo had “more pressure in his eyes than ideas: “To Hershel—may his ideas prevail to the sticking point, Norman.”

Now, there’s a man who can pull his own AN AMERICAN DREAM and MACBETH together spontaneously!  Sooner or later, my ideas will prevail to the sticking point: don’t critics want to agree on who the main characters in a book really are? I can wait.

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