Mailer, Doctorow, Roth. A Cross-Generational Reading of the American Berserk


Of all American paradoxes, none is greater than this: that the typical American cherishes free speech but is almost mortally offended by public protest, which he regards as at best lacking in taste and at worst an outright crime. A nation founded on dissent, America is exquisitely uncomfortable with ill-mannered disagreement. More than freedom itself, an American is likely to value moral insularity and absolution: he wants to live his life free from ethical challenge. He seeks suburban anesthesia, a life of commercial abundance untroubled by the pain inflicted elsewhere to maintain it, whether through military aggression or the global exploitation of labor. The American hopes to be reminded that he is good and blameless — and quickly condemns his critics as envious or mad or driven by dark agendas. As by an unwritten law, he denounces protest as an offense against his amour propre. This condemnation, ipso facto, makes a figurative criminal of the protester, who, when her efforts are scorned, finds herself not trying to persuade, but acting in a spirit of resentment and self-vindication. She sees any act by her countryman that does not challenge the social system as intolerable evidence of complicity and collaboration. The spirit of compromise vanishes, and the protester risks falling into the attitude described by Philip Roth as “the American berserk.” My address examines this process of polarization through three indispensable American novels of protest: Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night; E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel; and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.


protest; radicalism; liberalism; conscience; literature; Norman Mailer; E. L. Doctorow; Philip Roth

DOCTOROW, E. L. The Book of Daniel. New York, Random House, 2007.

MAILER, Norman. The Armies of the Night: History As a Novel; the Novel As History. Plume, 1994.

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MIŁOSZ, CZESŁAW. The Captive Mind. Trans. Jane Zielonko. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

NIEBUHR, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. Louisville, Westminster John Knox P, 1932.

ROTH, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Vintage International, 1997.

SIMON, Paul. Lyrics, 1964-2011. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2011.

SONMEZ, Felicia. “Trump Suggests That Protesting Should Be Illegal.” The Washington Post. (Accessed 17 November 2018).

WRIGHT, Jennifer. It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History. Macmillan, 2015.

Published : 2020-08-16

MattesonJ. (2020). Mailer, Doctorow, Roth. A Cross-Generational Reading of the American Berserk. Review of International American Studies, 13(1), 53-74.

John Matteson
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York  United States

John T. Matteson is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He has an A.B. in history from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. He also holds a J.D. from Harvard and has practiced as a litigation attorney in California and North Carolina. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times; The Harvard Theological Review; New England Quarterly; Nineteenth-Century Prose; Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies; and other publications. His first book, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, was awarded the Pulitzer in 2008. His more recent book The Lives of Margaret Fuller has been awarded the Ann M. Sperber Prize for Best Biography of a Journalist. Professor Matteson's annotated edition of Alcott's Little Women, published by W. W. Norton in 2015, reached #1 on Amazon's list of best-selling works of children's literary criticism. Professor Matteson is a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society and a former Fellow of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, where he formerly served as deputy director. He has received the Distinguished Faculty Award of the John Jay College Alumni Association and the Dean's Award for Distinguished Achievement by a Ph.D. Alumnus of the Columbia University School of Arts and Sciences. His new book, His new a book, A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, is currently in print..

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