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The American Norman Mailer

- Abstract

Some future literary historian will doubtless be able to name the precise moment at which the big change in American literature occurred, and to give the reasons why it occurred at all. When, and from what combination of causes, did ambitious young men cease trying to write the Great American Novel and set about trying to re-write the Great American Novel? To the 20′s generation, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Walden, James’s novels, The Red Badge of Courage were all inspirations of one or another kind and degree of intensity. By what historical process did the same works and writers become what they so often are to writers today: sacred ancestral presences, established rituals to be gone through again and again, challenges to greatness, often veritable models?

The tendency began, I suspect, among certain surviving members of the 20′s generation itself-writers who had lived to see the closing of European horizons by fascism and war, to be affected at home by the nostalgic spirit of The Flowering of New England and the vast body of criticism and scholarship stemming from it. Faulkner was perhaps the chief of these. In “The Old Man” and “The Bear” such ancestral themes as the big hunt, the open boat, the River God, the primitive initiation assumed a ritualistic air, although there was enough of the original Faulkner in those tales to make them masterpieces of a kind. Similarly with Hemingway’s belated contribution to the same tendency, The Old Man and the Sea, of which a French critic has observed that it is “classique, trop classique,” while maintaining, as I do, that the story has enough of the “vrai Hemingway” in it to keep it alive. Indeed, such narratives represented a genuine mutation in the works of Faulkner and Hemingway, and they have become, in turn, an influence on the younger writers.

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