The article is based in part on one of the Ewing Lectures given by Mr. Kazin at U.C.L.A.

When Truman Capote explained, on the publication of In Cold Blood, that the book was really a “nonfiction novel,” it was natural to take his description of his meticulously factual and extraordinarily industrious record of research as the alibi of a novelist whose last novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, had been slight, and who was just now evidently between novels. Capote clearly hungered to remain in the league of novelists, so many of whom are unprofitable to everyone, even if he was now the author of a best-selling true thriller whose success was being arranged through every possible exploitation of American publicity. And all these things were true. Capote is a novelist, novelists tend often enough to be stuck in novels, discouraged by the many discourtesies to current fiction. Clearly Capote wanted to keep his professional standing but to rise above the novelist’s usual battle for survival. In Cold Blood, before one read it, seemed by the very nature of the American literary market to be another wow, a trick, a slick transposition from one realm to another, like the inevitable musical to be made out of the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

Still, what struck me most in Capote’s labeling of his own book was his honoring the profession of novelist. Novels may be expendable, but novelist is still our great instance of original genius. What interested me most about the book after two readings—first in The New Yorker and then as a book—was that though it was journalism and all its secrets were out on first reading, it had the ingenuity but not the total ambition of fiction, it was fiction except for its ambition to be documentary. In Cold Blood brought to a focus for me a problem not so much of genres as of truth and transmutation in contemporary writing, of fact and its “treatment” as we so easily say nowadays. There is a lot of “treatment” behind the vast amount of social fact that we must properly call political journalism—writing about collective experiences, the public domain, that has a palpable design on us. There is also a good deal of nonfiction, dedicated only to information, that gets its inevitable treatment in a book we call a “novel” only because the author calls it that. But that is as it should be, even if the novel is not. In the world of imagination, everything is named and judged by the author’s claim of sovereignty.

The imagination’s claim of its own authority is important because, as poor Andrei Sinyavsky said in his marvelous polemic against “socialist realism,” a work of literature can be anything the author likes but should not be eclectic. George Painter has been able to document essentials in Proust’s life from his great novel. Proust so openly drew from “life” that he wanted the model for Madame de Guermantes—whom he named to Jean Cocteau—to read his book and presumably to recognize herself. Nevertheless, A la Recherche du temps perdu is a novel, as the Book of Job is not a play, Leaves of Grass is not scripture, and The Interpretation of Dreams is not an autobiography. Any good writer deserves—he will demand—to be judged by the genre he thinks he is writing in. Genre is a specific application of the law of writing that Henry James appealed to when admitting in his notebook that the end of The Portrait of a Lady leaves the heroine in mid-air; he added—“The whole of anything is never told: you can only take what groups together.”

In Cold Blood is ultimately a fiction in the form of fact. But how many great novels of crime and punishment are expressly based on fact! The Possessed is based on the Nechayev case, An American Tragedy on the Chester Gillette case. What, to leave other considerations aside for the moment, makes In Cold Blood formally a work of “record” rather than of “invention”? Because it says it is a documentary, external, with victims and murderers appearing under their own names, as their attested identities, in an actual or as we now say a “real” Kansas town.

Why, then, did Capote also attempt to honor his book as in some special sense a “novel”? Why bring up fiction at all? Because Capote depended on records but was not content to make a work of record. He wanted, wholly and exclusively, to make a work of art, he needed to do this because of a certain intimacy between himself and what the reader quickly sees as “his” characters. He wanted, ultimately, not the specificity of fiction, which must be content to be itself alone, but to make an emblematic human situation for our time that would relieve it of mere factuality. Through his feeling for both the Clutter family and their murderers, he was able to range them against each other in a way that would document the central theme in his own fiction—the loss of home and the fall of innocence.


Fiction, not fact, is Capote’s natural aim as a writer; in In Cold Blood he practices it as a union of Art and Sympathy. His book, like other nonfiction novels in our day, is a resonantly sexy work, transparent in its affections to a degree that further explains why it could not have been a novel in any formal sense—abstractly loving to daughter Nancy Clutter, respectfully amazed by Father Clutter, helplessly sorry for always ailing Mother Clutter. None of these Capote knew, but he became extremely involved with the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, whom he interviewed endlessly for his book and came to know only as we know people who fascinate us. Capote so unconsciously made himself responsible for them that Kenneth Tynan drew blood when he entered into the spirit of the book shrewdly enough to denounce Capote for not doing enough to save his friends Perry and Dick.

This personal relationship to characters whom Capote assiduously attended in jail, by the force of his attention symbolically protected when they were in the death house, whom he interviewed within an inch of their lives—literally so, up to the scaffold—is one of the many hypertrophied emotions on Capote’s part that keeps the book “true” even when it most becomes a “novel.” Capote also feels himself intensely related to Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who more than any other cop on the case brought the murderers in. He is always sympathetic to Nancy Clutter, who laid out her best dress for the morrow just before she got murdered.

Nancy is the fragile incarnation of all that might have been who gets our most facile sympathy. But despite his interest in Mr. Clutter’s old-fashioned rigidity and his sense of Mrs. Clutter as in part the victim of the stiff-necked culture all around her, the actively passionate relationship, repelled because they are murderers, irresistible because they are such lonelies, is with “Perry and Dick.” Almost to the end one feels that they might have been saved and their souls repaired—and this not only because Capote is always with them to write his book, but because of what he feels for them, which explains the success of his book.

This felt concern for actual persons makes the book too personal for fiction. The emotion pervading In Cold Blood is by no means all horror. There is an emotional keenness to stunted youth, to Perry’s grotesquely dwarfish legs, to a subtler imbalance in Dick’s outwardly normal masculinity—his mechanical destructiveness. Before he has seen them, on the way to “rob” the Clutters, Dick can already say—“Let’s count on eight, or even twelve. The only sure thing is every one of them has got to go. Aint’s that what I promised you, honey—plenty of hair on them-those walls?” But despite the interest of this companionship, the crime retains its sufficient horror in our minds only because the crime, this crime, is central to our sense of life today.

We may all have passing dreams of killing, But here are two who killed, killed for the sake of killing, yet with an incestuous sentimentality in the last comforts they offered their victims that establishes their cringing viciousness. And the crime, like the great mass crimes of our time, is on record. The fascination of Capote’s book, the seeming truthfulness of it all, is that it brings us close, very close, to the victims, to the murderers, to the crime itself. It all becomes a primal scene, reconstituted with all the suspense of a thriller and all the elegant selectivities of Capote’s style. This he presents to us as a model we can hold, study, understand. The artfulness of the book gets us to realize and possess and dominate this murder as a case of the seemingly motiveless malignity behind so many crimes in our time. An ambition of the book is to give us this mental control over the greatest example in human nature of the uncontrolled.

Technically, this is accomplished by a four-part structure that takes us from the seemingly meaningless crime to the hanging of the murderers in the corner of a warehouse. The book is designed as a suspense story—Why did Perry and Dick ever seek out the Clutters at all?—to which the author alone provides the answer. This comes only in Part III, when the book is more than half over. Each of the four sections is divided into scenes. There are eighty-six in the book as a whole: some are only a few lines long, some of course go on for pages.


Each of these scenes is a focusing, movie fashion, designed to put us visually as close as possible now to the Clutters, now to Perry and Dick, until the unreasonable juncture between them is explained in Part III. Until then, we are shifted to many different times and places in which we see Perry and Dick suspended, as it were, in a world without meaning, for we are not yet up to the explanation that Capote has reserved in order to keep up novelistic interest. Yet the explanation—in jail a pal had put them on to the Clutters and the supposed wealth lying in the house—is actually, when it comes, meant to anchor the book all the more firmly in the world of fact. It was the unbelievable squareness of all the Clutters that aroused and fascinated the murderers.

Capote’s book raises many questions about its presumption as a whole, but many of the little scenes in it are as vivid as single shots in a movie can be—and that makes us wonder about the meaning of so much easy expert coverage. One of the best bits is when the jurors, looking at photographs of the torn bodies and tortured faces of the Clutters, for the first time come into possession of the horror, find themselves focusing on it in the very courtroom where the boyishness and diffidence of the defendants and the boringly longwinded protocol of a trial have in a sense kept up the jurors’ distance from the crime.

There is indeed a continuing unreality about the murder of the four Clutters that Capote all through his book labored to eliminate by touch after touch of precious fact. But though he is understandably proud of every harrowing or grotesque detail he can dredge up—Perry unbelievably tries to buy for a face mask black stockings from a nun, remembers that after the attack on Mr. Clutter he handed a knife to Dick and said, “Finish him. You’ll feel better”—the labor after so many facts emphasizes the unreality it is meant to abolish. But this a nonfiction novel must by its very nature preserve as a mystery of iniquity. The essence of the book lies in our being made witness to a crime we cannot and perhaps should not understand. There is in us, as well as in the townspeople, “a shallow horror sensation that cold springs of personal fear swiftly deepened.”

The shallow horror is in the nature of the material. What can be reconstructed as fact from actual events may take the form of a cinematic “treatment” and easily use many shifts of time and place. But it makes our sympathies more narrow and helpless than a real novel does. The “shallow horror sensation” that is also Capote’s aim will be induced by identifying us with “real” people we think we know better than we do—victims and murderers both.

The reason for the nonfiction novel is that it points to events that cannot ever be discharged by a writer’s imagination, assimilated by us as tragedy. Capote worked so long on this case because it cannot ever be “resolved,” like Raskolnikov’s murder of the old pawnbrokeress or Billy Budd’s murder of Claggart. The crime is not “personal,” as even Gatsby could have admitted about his murderer’s mistake in killing him. The Clutters were there just for their murderers to murder them.

The event is inscrutable though in the public light, just one of many murders in our time by people who did not know their victims. As in so many political crimes against innocent strangers, many witnesses and documents are needed to reconstruct the facts. But the truth is missing, for there is no sense to the crime. In any good bourgeois novel, a single murderer has a single victim; the relationship between them can be intimate and intense. The resolution of the murderer’s private guilt must in some way be morally expressible.

In the mass murders that have so deeply affected the imagination of our time, murderers and victims remain in every retrospect forever strange to each other. Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, the murder by policemen in a Detroit motel of three Negroes just because they have been found with white women, the killing of parents and children on a Kansas farm by two not abnormally rootless American boys of whom we know enough to know that we don’t know them, but who nevertheless talk about killing as sexual “scoring”; the recorded dropping of Viet Cong prisoners on villages from American helicopters; the public confessions and executions of so-called enemies of the state in Russia and China—these are all horrors taking place in the public space that is now the domain of “our” reality.

The news of these things is so instantly and widely disseminated that it understandably frustrates and shames the novelist brought up on the consistency that art must have, on the moral expressiveness of an individual action, on Chekhov’s edict that if a gun is mentioned in Act One it must go off in Act Three.

What we are dealing with here is not the pressure of “reality” on fiction, an old and delightful subject, but the shape that political crimes and happenings are taking in a middle-class culture, ours, which for the first time is dividing on a wide scale, which is showing the disturbance of profoundest disaffection exactly among those intellectuals who bear the sense of tradition. One sees on every hand how many cherished personal images of history are being destroyed by the runaway century. But if middle-class writers are struggling to find a form and language for this, so-called minority writers brought up on collective experiences of oppression—who have been all too sufficiently named as Negro, coolie, black, African—have always thought of themselves as creatures of history. They have often created single works of literature without caring a hang about literature, as did Malcolm X in the extraordinary recital of his life to the editor friend who then wrote it.

James Baldwin cares desperately for literary distinction, but in Notes of a Native Son he describes himself on August 3, 1943, a preacher’s alienated son, following his father’s coffin through Harlem streets that were thick with smashed plate glass after a riot. To place the son’s disturbed and confused emotions within the atmosphere left by the father’s death and the riot is bleak yet a matter of course. Baldwin has never been really concerned with the politics of overcoming so much hatred. As a writer he is obsessed by sex and family as Strindberg was. But for the same reason that in his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin made everybody white just to show that he could, so in Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time he canceled the complicated codes for love difficulties that he uses in his novels and simplified himself into an enragé very powerfully indeed.

Of course the character who calls himself “James Baldwin” in his nonfiction novels is more professionally outraged, more an emotional missionary, than the actual Jimmy Baldwin, a very literary mind indeed. But there is in Notes of a Native Son an instinctive association with the 1943 riot, the streets of smashed plate glass, that stems from the necessary fascination of the Negro with the public sources of his fate. The emphasis is on heat, fire, anger, the sense of being hemmed in and suffocated; the words are tensed into images that lacerate and burn.

In East Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm Little grew up, Negroes weren’t allowed into town after dark. When Malcolm was four, the family’s home was set afire by two white men; white policemen and firemen stood watching as the house burned down to the ground. Malcolm’s father, a freelance Baptist preacher and a follower of Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, was murdered by white men; his mother broke down and spent the next twenty-six years in the state asylum. Malcolm and the other younger children became wards of the state.

He eventually went to a suburb of Boston to live with a tough older sister; as a crude country kid he excitedly entered into the big-city world of jazz, drugs, and hustling that he observed as a shoeshine boy at Roseland State Ballroom in Boston. He helped to rob a jeweler, was sent to prison, learned to write, was converted by his brother to the Black Muslim movement. There he found for the first time expression of his strong natural devoutness in what he thought of as a liberating universal religion of all the dark and oppressed peoples. But he was forced out of the movement by the leader’s jealousy and was murdered while speaking to his followers from the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

In Malcolm’s literal recital of his life to Alex Haley—he was a naturally gifted speaker as well as a religious agitator too busy to write—the power and freedom he displays come from his austere sense of fact and his ability to read other people’s souls. The book is an astonishing example in our time of autobiography as a religious pilgrimage, of a man seeking his way up from his personal darkness to some personal light. Everything is rooted in the Negro’s tie to history through his oppression. All love relationships are sparse, treated as gifts, but are not elaborated. There is not much room in Malcolm’s book for love, he found himself only as a leader, and he expected to become a sacrifice.

No doubt someone will make a novel of Malcolm’s life, as William Styron has made a novel of Nat Turner’s insurrection. Turner lived as a slave, was hanged as the murdering leader of a slave revolt, and left twenty pages of so-called confession, taken down by the court appointed counsel who hated him. Styron is an elegantly accomplished novelist who wants only to be a novelist, a Virginian who feels himself intensely involved with the Negro struggle and wanted to write a historical novel bearing on our present crisis. The relevance would not violate the integrity of fiction! Indeed Styron’s strong feelings did not override his novel, which far from being declamatory turns Nat Turner into an extraordinarily sensitive and dreamy autodidact who once petted with another slave boy but died a virgin, organized an insurrection but could kill no one but the white woman he loved and could possess only by standing guard over her corpse with a sword.

Styron’s book is full of sensitive landscapes that could apply to any Southern boy’s growing up. Perhaps they do not make the connection between servitude and insurrection that must have existed in Nat Turner for him to organize the most impressive—the only significant—slave revolt in American history. Styron wanted to dispel the strangeness of the “Negro”—especially in bondage—by showing him to be a human being as complicated as oneself. But though many Southern white writers were deeply moved by this Nat Turner, the book was violently attacked by Negro militants. Styron’s Turner was too complicated for the times. But of course Nat Turner is the name of someone who actually lived, a “real person”—so there is no end to the possible use we can make of him.

Our relationship to things of public record is never as sharp and finished as it can be to a wholly invented character or deed. What is invented in someone’s mind will always keep its neutrality in another mind as a “creative” act. What has actually happened and been recorded, this has been participated in and glossed by so many people that we are confronted with rival myths, partisan fragments of fact in many minds at once. Nat Turner having existed, we shall never agree about him. Norman Mailer’s version of the march on the Pentagon is scornfully rejected by people who marched with him. Eichmann, the organizer of many gas chambers, on trial in Jerusalem, provoked so many conflicting versions of his character and responsibility that even many who had suffered together at his hands came into conflict over the truth of events that they had lived through side by side.

No doubt this is an argument for the authority of fiction over reality. But in fact art and mass killings have no necessary connection with each other. Nothing is more commonplace than the fictionalizing of experience. But experience does not always take the form of fiction to those who are suffering. The “structuring,” to use a more neutral word than “fictionalizing,” may come later, or from other people. Oscar Lewis wrote a whole series of books—The Children of Sánchez and La Vida are the best known—in which, having taped the detailed monologues of those usually illiterate people who live below the level of anything we know as poverty, he transcribed them, translated them, obviously selected from them, inevitably heightened them.

Lewis had a conscious rivalry with belles-lettres, and often stated his belief that the real culture of poverty, his specialty, was beyond the ken of even the grimmest naturalistic novels. (Although James Agee had a similar wish to confront middle-class readers with the lives of powerless tenant farmers, the moving force behind Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a poet’s discovery of documentary.) Lewis could have echoed Whitman, and boastfully: “Through me, many long dumb voices,/ Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,/ Voices of the diseas’d and despairing….” Should an anthropologist so plainly put the emphasis on “me“? Lewis insisted that his “material” was not to be duplicated elsewhere, that he was working out a wholly new literary domain. The transmutation of laborious research into “a new kind of book” inevitably gives the writer a certain inflation of himself.

This sense of oneself as pioneer is very important to the nonfiction novel. Norman Mailer would not have attempted his literary march on the Pentagon, would not have vicariously gone to the moon, if he had thought any other writer capable of it. Mailer will always be the leading character in every book of reportage he writes (obviously his next book should be a revision of Carlyle’s The French Revolution, with himself playing Thomas Carlyle). Just as positively as Mailer, if not as histrionically, social scientists and political philosophers now feel themselves to be in complete control of materials that admittedly have been opened by their literary curiosity.

The raw material in all these cases is an interview or document that has to be interpreted by a skillful writer. Capote conducted hundreds of interviews without taking a note on the spot. But “clumsy life at her stupid work,” as Henry James so disdainfully said, is not exactly what we get in Capote’s highly polished pages. John Hersey directly quotes many participants and witnesses in The Algiers Motel Incident. But in all these cases, as in Styron’s use of Nat Turner’s twenty-page confession, the raw files, as they say in the FBI, are spliced and are invariably retouched by being properly Englished. The author whose name is on the cover and who can tell us what the mystery is all about is always in charge.

The motives can be revolutionary or religious, not superficially literary vanity. Oscar Lewis was driven not only by the scientific motives that he had learned as a practiced field worker in India, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, but by strong literary abilities set in motion by his need to force his readers to confront material that would liberate, agitate, revolutionize. Hannah Arendt’s book puts Eichmann on trial before the whole Western tradition, is an attempt to enlarge the terms in which the Jews have thought of the Holocaust, and herself pronounces the death sentence on Eichmann in the court of moral philosophy, not of Israel.

Mailer has been saying for years that the really repressed material is in our social thinking, not in the individual psyche—that the struggle in America (and America is always his central character) is whether this fat overgrown self-indulgent society will have the vision to confront its secret fears and festering injustices. Capote in his murder book is saying, rather less directly, that murderers are loose all over the place. Notice the attention he gives to the bodies and most intimate physical habits of all his protagonists. There is the connection between Mr. Clutter, who disdained evil and complexity, and the outsider, vagabond, pervert who revenges himself on the square. As surely as the Nazis revenged themselves on the Jews for creating a model universe into which total angries can never fit.

Oscar Lewis deals in La Vida with sexual sensations that have never been so tangibly described by women in middle-class fiction for the reason that these women have much more to live for. The lack of money among Lewis’s people is as nothing compared with their lack of general human satisfaction. At the same time the absolute domination by the family seems to fill up the vacuum created by emotional scarcity. We have here something like the bondage we have seen in Malcolm and James Baldwin. But in Lewis’s books these people are now talking to us as real people, even if their book names shield their real ones. This was Lewis’s pride as a social liberator whose manifesto took the form of social anthropology. We are involved with whole families whom we never see in Mexico. And if our middle-class souls protest that we never seem to get out of these low dark rooms and alleyways, Lewis would respond that ours is in literature an era marked by the return of the repressed, the painful, the unacceptable, the frightful.

Revolution or therapy? For purposes of the nonfiction novel, the horrible fact is a sensation—Artaud’s prescription for the theater of cruelty that we visualize and act out what we are most afraid of. Harold Rosenberg properly wrote of the Eichmann trial that it was a purging of emotion. Hannah Arendt quotes an SS man in Russia—“there was, gushing from the earth, a spring of blood like a fountain. Such a thing I had never seen before.” These details do not fit into the intended consistency of fiction. In our often apocalyptic new art of reportage, they are intended to shock. That is why the famous numbness of a generation sated with horrors is in fact a political guilt. Kurt Vonnegut says in Slaughter-House Five, his novel about the destruction of Dresden, that World War II certainly made everyone very tough. Albert Guerard says that novelists of this war are still working off a guilt of complicity.

But the guilt is also a pervasive emotion about human nature that has filled the air since the war. Often enough in this new literature of exposure the truly horrible fact comes in as the survivor’s judgment on himself. In Counting My Steps, Jakov Lind’s account of his adventures under the Nazi occupation, he describes the police driving Jews out of their houses in Amsterdam while he scurries for safety to the apartment of a married woman, also a refugee. “A few minutes after the last shouting had died away, afraid of special punishment, all of them went, one by one. We had been eating silently for nearly fifteen minutes when from outside came the sound of pots and pans being dragged over cobblestones, the crying of a child, the barking of a dog, the shouting of a loudspeaker, march music, and the tenor of a high-flying bomber…. We sat and ate our lunch…. I went to her bed, she opened her gown, my fly.” He makes love for the first time in his life. “A key turned in at the door…. Gunther kissed his wife, said ‘They will soon be here. Let’s go….’ I had passed the test and survived. All that was left now was to beat the police to it as well.”

We say about a book like Lind’s—he is quite a writer; and to ourselves we add, “With experiences like that, how can you miss?” And it is true that such books are made out of a hardness that has burned away everything but the ability to write. Literary power is still our ideal, and we are jealous of the power that discovers itself in extreme experiences. We locate imaginative authority in the minority man, the shuffling refugee, the kook, the deviant, the mad poet, the criminal. Genius, says Sartre about Genet, is not a gift but a way out one invents in desperate cases.

In Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time the directness with which Conroy describes his own desperate case is honest to the point of cruelty, but he never lets us forget that nothing is invented. His early life was first one of intense loss, then of strangeness to everything. Although the book is written in novelistic scenes, with dialogue, the book remains a memoir, never becomes a novel, because it is so wholly a case history. All relationships in the book refer back to the author, and are never there for the sake of the “story.” All the skill in the writing goes into transcending his situation.

Sadness crept over me—a sadness I didn’t question, a sadness so profound that I understood it could not have come from life, or any source within my conceptual universe in which I was less than a speck, sadness that was not emotion but the awareness of vast emptinesses.

Subject—“the situation,” the accident, the raid, the murder—is so primary in these novelized special cases that the only force equivalent to it is the writer’s mobilization of himself. The world and the battered author, the revolutionary demonstration and the ego, the crime and the reporter, the moon and me! These are the sometimes chilling polarities that in Norman Mailer’s highly literary descriptions of the march on the Pentagon, the 1960 and 1968 national conventions, the first landing of American know-how on the moon, move us out of the concentrated humanity of the novel into the “world” itself—politics, technology, spiritual bitterness—as the great contemporary story. Mailer’s writing treads other people down—writing, among many other things, is his gladiatorial ground, and there will always be a supply of fresh Christians. But it also has that special personal urgency, that quest for salvation through demonstration that is to be effected by subjecting oneself to harsh materials. The center of his reportage is the idea of the “world” now, undifferentiated and terrible, rushing off to its mad rendezvous with the outermost spaces of blind progress.

Mailer’s reportage responds excitedly to great public demonstrations, conventions, crowds, coordinations of technical skill. He has carried over from his fiction many sensory equivalents for the sound and weight of crowds, for physical tension, anxiety, conflict, for the many different kinds of happenings that his mind can register as he watches Jack Kennedy arriving in Los Angeles in 1960, senses the Florida cracker’s feeling that he has made it as the Saturn booster goes up from its Florida pad in 1969. Mailer has both lived and written his life with the greatest possible appetite for the power and satisfaction open to successful Americans since 1945; but his reportage has become steadily more baleful and apocalyptic—not least because his subjects soon lose their interest for everybody but himself.

One aim of his highly colored style has been to find new images for energy, for savoring the last possible tingle of orgasm, for life among the managers, for the technical power and thrust (sex as thought, thought as sex) inseparable from the experience of (self-representative) American males. But a new reason for so much style is to keep the zing in his subjects. Mailer has been the hungriest child at the American feast, directly in the line of those realistic novelists for whom John O’Hara spoke when he said that the development of the United States during the first half of the twentieth century was the greatest possible subject for a novelist.

But clearly Mailer’s reportage, which represents his dilemma as a novelist who has too many “ideas,” now also represents the dilemma of the booster. Of a Fire on the Moon is a book of such brilliance, and of such sadness in trying to keep different things together, that like a rocket indeed it has been set off by forces that at every moment threaten to explode it. Proust says somewhere that he did not take notes; they were fantasies. But in Mailer it is precisely with his fantasies, the greatest of which is that he can bring to some portentous world-historical consummation the battle in himself between so many Rotarian loves and so many Spenglerian despairs, that he has written his moon book. It is not exactly a book about the journey of the Apollo 11, not exactly a book about “the Wasp,” all those dumb other reporters, the computer age…. It is a book about the allegory that is involved in trying to write instant history.

Of course we all have a sense these days of being ridden down by history, and want to do something about it. Never has there been such a concerted consciousness, in the name of history, of how little history is leaving our minds and our souls. Never have there been so many techniques for distributing facts and dramatizing them. Real history, partisan history, and commercial history are so thick a part of contemporary writing that it is as if History had come back to revenge itself on its upstart rival, Fiction—not without Fiction’s own techniques, as one can see nowhere better than in Mailer’s allegory of himself as history. The effort sprouts more coils around Mailer himself than the serpents did around Laocoön and his sons. With one breath he must say yes! serpents are of the essence and I can take anything! with the next make a mighty heave to get the damned things off him, two Americans to the moon, and the book to the publisher.

Such ambition, such imagination, such wrath, such sadness, such cleverness, so many ideas! The flames licking Saturn-Apollo on its way had nothing on this. It is as if Mailer were sketching the possibilities of one brilliant novel after another. The dreaming, longing, simulating—of masterpieces—give the reader the sense that Mailer was really dreaming of other books all the time he was writing this one. The giveaway at crucial passages of philosophizing—and that was another reason for taking on the assignment; it was like inviting Hamlet to give a lecture on Monarchs I Have Known—is that with the whole universe to travel up and down on his typewriter, Mailer cannot help fudging the world-historical bit; he is not always clear to himself, and damn well knows it. Rather than dramatize the American contradictions that are eating him up, he tries to keep them all in eloquent bursts that stagger you with ideas, but that leave you uneasy. The performance is not of the moon but of the effort to talk about it.

Journalism will no more diminish than will the “communications industry,” but the new art-journalism, journalism as a private form, has already had its day. It went through a whole cycle in the Sixties, and no longer astonishes. Issues died on it as fast as last week’s issue of Time, and whereas the professional reporter can still depend on a bored downgrading of human nature, Mailer depended for his best “pieces” on the revolutionary élan that he identified with creative vitality. The historial blues are more a problem to the novelist-as-reporter than to the novelist or reporter as such. Mailer in Of a Fire on the Moon describes the lifting of the Saturn-Apollo in language born in the envy of Moby Dick and manifest destiny—language that somehow suggests there may yet be political hope in so much mechanical energy. Some transformation of minds may yet take place in outer space!

But the possibility of doom is just as strong in Mailer’s own moon trip as is his enthusiasm for a technical wizardry of which, in the end, he knows less than he does about doom. With so many agonies of contradiction in himself, not the brilliant novelist’s lesser rhetoric will do—that just passes out symbols, like party hats, to surprise—but the patience and depth of fiction itself, dramatic imagination, the world reconstructed in that personal sense of time which space centers know not of but which is our treasure, imaginatively speaking. Despite all our rapture about them now, the great nineteenth-century novels were not and certainly are not the “world.” The world is a world, dumb as nature, not a novel. The world as our common experience is one that only the journalist feels entirely able to set down. It is a confidence that those who stick to fiction do not feel, for if the “world” is not an experience held in common, still less is it a concept on which all can agree. It is not even as close as we think. As Patrick White, the Australian novelist, says in one of his books—“Why is the world which seems so near so hard to get hold of?”

This Issue

April 8, 1971