The Hot Breath of the Future: The Naked and the Dead
‘Probably still the best novel about Americans at war, 1941–1945’.1 So wrote critic Alfred Kazin in 1974 about his subject, Mailer’s first published novel, The Naked and the Dead. Set on the Pacific island of Anopopei — a fictional setting, though Mailer himself saw action on the Philippine islands of Luzon and Leyte in 1945 — the novel inaugurates some of Mailer’s most enduring themes. In its main characters, particularly the American commander, Major General Edward Cummings, and his junior officers Lieutenant Hearn and Sergeant Croft, the reader is forced to consider the pathology of power in a military context as Hearn and Croft lead a reconnaissance platoon on their trek towards Mount Anaka. The novel was a considerable popular and critical success for the young author, and Kazin’s judgement of it remains secure today. Power, and its relationship to violence in both the individual and the state, leads to Mailer’s first dramatisation of totalitarianism in American life, with Cummings finding in Hitler the ‘interpreter of twentieth century man’.2 The novel’s concerns thus extend beyond ‘Americans at war, 1941–1945’ to address Mailer’s fear that with Truman’s election in 1945 the United States would emerge from ‘the backwaters of history’ (321) to inherit its full share in the fascist dream.
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