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.