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.