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. 

Tom Piazza is a writer in New Orleans.