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.