PRINT May 1985


James Dean: American Icon

Why settle for mystery (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause) when for a few dollars more you can have mystification—this book? Like Prince with his ejaculating guitar at the climax of Purple Rain, David Dalton doesn’t so much write purple prose as squirt it: “It was the home where Jimmy was never quite at home; the orphan abandoned by his mother, deserted by his father, and, like Oedipus. . . .” “The constellation of these infirmities was to become, however, the stigmata of his star. He was, like Cain. . . . ”

It’s a grand tradition. Not long after lincoln was shot, a book skipping over the Great Emancipator’s possible illegitimacy and tracing his ancestry back to the Pharaohs was published; it takes Dalton only a few pages to suggest that Dean’s mother (who died when he was nine) sported the “Nefertiti hairstyle of another era.” (I don’t see it, but numerous confirming references tying Dean to Egyptian mythology follow, and you’ve got to admit that “of another era” is a priceless touch.) Not that Dalton isn’t up-to-the-minute; like lots of other now biographers he refers to his subject by the diminutive, thus infantilizing Dean and freeing him from all responsibility for his own life. This makes perfect sense: as Dalton ultimately concludes, the greatness of James Dean was that he “proved that growing up was impossible.” Dalton has proved you can not grow up and still get a book contract.

Greil Marcus


James Dean: American Icon, text by David Dalton; photo editor, Ron Cayen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 285 pages, 250 black and white and 16 color photographs.