Citizen Mailer

In his finest work, Norman Mailer applied subjective journalism to the powerful, and to himself

Early in Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, the poet Robert Lowell tells Mailer that he thinks of him as “the finest journalist in America.” One writer’s compliment is plainly another’s backhanded insult. Mailer had a lifelong ambivalence about his reportorial, as opposed to his novelistic, work, considering fiction to be a higher calling. “There are days,” Mailer responds, tartly, “when I think of myself as being the best writer in America.”

A year after Mailer’s death in November 2007, at eighty-four, maybe we can begin to be grateful that he worked both sides of the yard. He was always an interesting and ambitious novelist, yet Mailer’s loyalties were divided between his fictive imagination and his fascination with the way society works. At his best, the two merged, and the results made for some of the most extraordinary writing of the postwar era.

When Mailer died, commentators lined up to bemoan the dearth of serious writers who, like Mailer, were willing to match their own egos, their own perceptions and sensibilities, against large contemporary events. We suffer from no shortage of gutsy reporters eager to cover trouble spots around the world. But rarely does that kind of journalistic impulse coexist with a personally distinct literary style, an ability to use one’s own point of view as an entry into the reality of a subject. For Mailer, that subjectivity was not just a stylistic trait but a kind of ethical tenet, the door into a larger—he would call it novelistic—truth.

Mailer brought this approach to its peak in The Armies of the Night. His journalistic mock epic of the 1967 March on the Pentagon first appeared in Harper’s, occupying the cover and taking up practically the entire issue, and came out in book form in the spring of 1968. By that time, the so-called New Journalism was in full bloom; Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Truman Capote, and others had already done significant work, bringing highly individual styles and sensibilities to a form that had stubbornly held to its conventions of objectivity.

The Armies of the Night stood out from all their work in some important ways. Most New Journalism focused on a subculture—motorcycle gangs, hippies, Hollywood celebrity—and, by rendering it vividly, attempted to make inductive points about the larger culture. Mailer had a different approach. He got as close as he could to the gears of power, and then used his own sensibilities as a set of coordinates by which to measure the dimensions of people and events on the national stage: presidents and astronauts, championship fights and political conventions.

He had shown this predilection before writing Armies. There was his Esquire article about John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic convention, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” and “In the Red Light,” a piece on the 1964 Republican convention. There was also the audacious interstitial writing, addressed directly to Kennedy, the new president of the United States, in one of his most interesting and neglected books, The Presidential Papers. But in Armies, Mailer upped the ante by placing himself at the center of the narrative, turning himself into a self-dramatizing (in the purest sense of the phrase) protagonist. He gave his consciousness not just eyes but a face.

The book presents Mailer as a reluctant participant in a mass protest against the Vietnam War that took place in October 1967. A cast of extraordinary characters populates the stage—Robert Lowell, Dwight Macdonald, Paul Goodman, Ed DeGrazia—along with a secondary crew of protesters, marshals, homegrown Nazis, police, court bailiffs, and Mailer’s fourth wife back in New York City. The author also manages to cram a lot of action into the short span of the narrative. He delivers a drunken speech on the eve of the march, attends a party full of liberal academics, consorts with Lowell, Macdonald, William Sloane Coffin Jr., and other notables gathered for the march, participates in the protest itself, gets arrested, and spends the night in jail.

The publication of the first part of the book in Harper’s created a sensation. A month later, the book’s second part, a shorter and more formal account of the planning and execution of the march, was published in Commentary. They were combined in the finished volume, to which Mailer appended his subtitle, History as a Novel, the Novel as History. It was immediately and almost universally recognized as a “triumph,” to use Dwight Macdonald’s word, and went on to win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Mailer’s most significant discovery in Armies was the technique of writing about himself in the third person, as if he were a character in a novel. “Norman Mailer,” the character, is treated as a mock-heroic protagonist making his way through a complex network of competing interests and sensibilities during that weekend in Washington. Because we get a vivid sense of him early on, we gladly accept the topspin he puts on his perceptions as he serves them up.

He earns a powerful narrative leverage, starting with the very first sentence. “From the outset,” he writes, “let us bring you news of your protagonist.” This lone sentence is followed by an extended excerpt from Time’s snarky report on Mailer’s pre-protest monologue at the Ambassador Theater.

It is a shrewd and effective opening gambit. There is a clearly stated “us” and “you,” so an immediate dramatic relation is set up between the narrative voice and the reader. The voice is bringing us “news”—we love news!—and it is about “your” protagonist, drawing us into a subliminal complicity. Within a page we learn that the “us” who is bringing the news is, in fact, our protagonist himself, a man of many parts, apparently, perhaps containing Whitmanesque multitudes.

The Time excerpt is studded with value judgments masquerading as straight reporting: the upcoming march is referred to as “Saturday’s capers,” and Dwight Macdonald, who shared the stage with Mailer, is “the bearded literary critic.” When the excerpt is done, Mailer quits this curtain-raiser with a single sentence, “Now we may leave Time in order to find out what happened.” We are hooked. And we have been introduced to the book’s underlying principle: the notion that a reporter who is willing to characterize events without first characterizing himself or herself is inherently suspect. One can’t approach the truth without first turning an eye on one’s own subjectivity.

The second chapter, the book’s official beginning, puts this principle into practice immediately. “On a day somewhat early in September,” the narrative begins, “the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up. This was not characteristic of Mailer. Like most people whose nerves are sufficiently sensitive to keep them well-covered with flesh, he detested the telephone. Taken in excess, it drove some psychic equivalent of static into the privacies of the brain.”

Since we know that we are hearing this from Mailer himself, we are, again, complicit in the narrative; a game is in progress, and we are being shown the rules. We are going to get our events via a mind that is nothing if not subjective, and yet paradoxically objective about its own subjectivity. We will get descriptions of action (he picks up the ringing phone), background context for the action (it was not characteristic), observations delivered from an unexpected angle with a Mark-of-Zorro flourish (the oversensitive nerves with their sheathing of flesh), and an insistence on sharp detail in metaphor (the static being driven into “the privacies of the brain”). The author will juggle these ingredients in quick succession, always with huge linguistic gusto.

Mailer’s prose obsessively amends its own perceptions, makes parenthetical observations, qualifies, anticipates, demurs, constantly tries to stand outside itself. He was, in fact, a species of performance artist, discovering metaphors en route and mingling them with dazzling audacity. Here he is, riffing on his discomfort at a party thrown by some liberal backers of the march: “The architecture of his personality bore resemblance to some provincial cathedral which warring orders of the church might have designed separately over several centuries . . . . Boldness, attacks of shyness, rude assertion, and circumlocutions tortured as arthritic fingers working at lace, all took their turn with him, and these shuttlings of mood became most pronounced in their resemblance to the banging and shunting of freight cars when he was with liberal academics.” If your sensibilities are ruffled by a mixed metaphor, comic grandiosity, or long sentences, steer clear of Mailer.

Through it all, Mailer is crucially aware not just of his own motivations, but of how they might play to the public. “Mailer,” he writes, “had the most developed sense of image; if not, he would have been a figure of deficiency, for people had been regarding him by his public image since he was twenty-five years old. He had, in fact, learned to live in the sarcophagus of his image—at night, in his sleep, he might dart out, and paint improvements on the sarcophagus. During the day, while he was helpless, newspapermen and other assorted bravos of the media and literary world would carve ugly pictures on the living tomb of his legend.”

One would be tempted to find a new name for this point of view—first person third, perhaps—and think of it as a technical innovation, but for two facts. Mailer winks at the first of these facts upon awakening in his hotel, the Hay-Adams, on the morning of the march, then never mentions it again. “One may wonder,” he writes, “if the Adams in the name of his hotel bore any relation to Henry.” Yes, one may, but nobody need wonder afterward where Mailer got the idea of writing about himself in the third person. By alluding to the author of The Education of Henry Adams, Mailer tips his hat, and his hand, to his fellow Harvard alumnus and consummate insider/outsider. The Education, published in 1918, may lack Mailer’s bravado and sheer joy in language, but it does use the same first-person-third technique to locate its author in an ambiguous social and historical position. (Adams’s book, by the way, also won a Pulitzer, presented posthumously in 1919.)

The other fact is that innovations, if they are indeed innovations, typically spawn techniques useful to succeeding practitioners of the form. But the technique of The Armies of the Night is so completely suffused with Mailer’s personality, his peculiar mix of ego and charm, of self-regard and self-deprecation, his intelligence and occasional clumsiness, that subsequent attempts by other writers to use the first person third have inevitably read as embarrassing, inadvertent homages.

Mailer recognized early on, before a lot of writers, that politics—most of contemporary public life, in fact—was turning into a kind of theater. Actions on the political stage had a symbolic weight that often outbalanced what might previously have been thought of as their practical consequences. This development was the wedge that eventually drove an unbridgeable divide between the Old Left, with its programmatic preoccupations and endless appetite for dogma, and the New Left, with its vivid sense of the theatrical. It was also the subtext of the 1967 march. The real dynamics of public life were shifting away from the old tabulations of political give-and-take. Instead, the cut of a candidate’s suit or the unfortunate presence of his five o’clock shadow would travel out over the television sets of the nation and affect people’s perceptions on a level that bypassed any substantial argument.

The media, to use Mailer’s terminology, were driving public events deeper and deeper into the “privacies” of every citizen’s brain, short-circuiting linear thinking in favor of image-driven manipulation. And this was precisely why traditional reportage had become ill-equipped for locating the truth of “what happened.” What we needed, insisted Mailer, was a different approach: “The novel must replace history at precisely that point where experience is sufficiently emotional, spiritual, psychical, moral, existential, or supernatural to expose the fact that the historian in pursuing the experience would be obliged to quit the clearly demarcated limits of historic inquiry.” His book, he adds, “while still written in the cloak of an historic style, and, therefore, continuously attempting to be scrupulous to the welter of a hundred confusing and opposed facts, will now unashamedly enter that world of strange lights and intuitive speculation that is the novel.”

Needless to say, this development dovetailed perfectly with Mailer’s own impulses. And yet (and this is perhaps Mailer’s most important saving grace), he was deeply ambivalent about it. Highly sensitive to the theater of events and personae, Mailer was alive to the ways in which the manipulation of surfaces could, and would, be used to deaden the public’s ability to think, to sift and evaluate information. Writers, public officials, advertising people, politicians, speech writers—all were in possession of a dangerous weapon, and they were obliged to use it with singular care. “Style,” Mailer wrote, much later, in an introduction to a book by Carl Oglesby, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, about the JFK assassination, “is not the servant of our desire to inform others how to think, but the precise instrument by which we attempt to locate the truth.”

In the light of today’s endemic spin, such a sentiment would seem a touching artifact of a simpler time, if it weren’t so achievable by any individual sitting alone in a room trying to locate the truth. The prerequisite is the sense that it is both possible and desirable. Citizen Mailer turns the act of seeing, the workings of consciousness itself, into the ultimate civic act—a responsibility shared by everyone in the privacies of his or her brain. There is something profoundly democratic in his insistence that the individual’s sensibility could meet the largest events on equal terms, with one’s own centering and irreducible humanity as the common denominator.

As a writer and as a man, mailer was always in a state of tension. His mind and heart were planted in a wholly American flux—improvisatory, protean, deeply ambiguous in intention, supremely egotistical and supremely civic-minded. These tensions give his work its deepest dynamism, turning it into a theater of opposing psychic forces. At the same time, Mailer was not quite a wholly American spirit. Or perhaps his Americanness existed in extraordinary tension with his respect for European intellectual and artistic traditions. When, toward the end of Advertisements for Myself , he promises to write a novel worthy of being read by “Dostoevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway,” 80 percent of the honor roll has been read before an American is mentioned.

Mailer retained an almost sentimental attachment to the novel form, yet his major gift was not the ability to imagine living, three-dimensional fictional characters. What he did have a genius for was dramatized dialectic. He loved to interview himself; his 1966 collection Cannibals and Christians contains three self-interviews, and more followed through the years. The form of Armies is itself a kind of dialogue, in two halves, between two different modes of discourse.

In every sense—stylistic, cultural, political—he was stretched between two worlds. Never programmatic enough for the Old Left, neither was he ever anarchic enough to fully sign on to the New Left’s Grand Guignol. Although at times Mailer liked to characterize himself as the Devil (or at least a devil) while criticizing America’s “Faustian” ambitions, he was far from Goethe’s “spirit that negates.” Rather, he found in his own Hebraic, and specifically Talmudic, tradition (his grandfather was a rabbi), perhaps his deepest conviction: the sense that there is something central, necessary, and even sacred in doubt, in the nuanced weighing of competing intellectual and moral and spiritual claims. And this allowed him to put his own ego, his outsized talents, his brilliance and narcissism, in the service of a higher calling. Because of that, The Armies of the Night remains one of the most enlivening, and most deeply American, testaments ever written. 

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Tom Piazza is a writer in New Orleans.