The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer/8. The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago
In Mailer’s nonfiction prose, whether the subject be literature, politics, or existential psychology, there is never an attempt to mute or disguise the voice of the man, Mailer. He is always frankly subjective, and it is this quality upon which rests the success of Mailer’s two most recent books, The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both 1968). I must state at the outset that I regard Armies as the superior of the two books, in structure, style and content. The first of the two to appear, it is a firsthand account of the October, 1967 march on the Pentagon, presented in a successful synthesis of the journalistic and novelistic forms. Miami and Chicago, Mailer’s account of the Republican and Democratic national conventions of 1968, is itself a very worthwhile and readable book, employing much the same personal narrative stance used in Armies. But it is The Armies of the Night which represents the significant innovation in form and the more successful execution of it, and since the books are similar in tone and message, it is Armies with which I am primarily concerned in this chapter.
The Armies of the Night is as much an outgrowth of Mailer’s fiction as of his journalism. The subtitle of the book is “History as a Novel/the Novel as History,” and it is a successful combination of the two forms. Mailer recounts historical events here, but he presents them through a plot and structure and a participating narrator which belong to the novel.
In all of Mailer’s work, his preoccupation with contemporary politics has been evident. But the most explicitly polemical of his earlier books is Barbary Shore, which failed largely because it disintegrated in its later chapters into a series of boring political essays. An indication of the enormous distance Mailer has come in his artistic development while maintaining his commitment to liberal political values may best be gained by a brief comparison between Barbary Shore and The Armies of the Night.
In Barbary Shore, Mailer wrote perceptively of the break between the prewar and postwar Left. In The Armies of the Night, he is once again concerned with a precise rendering of the essential differences between the old and the New Left. In both books, Mailer deals with the potential totalitarianism represented by the reactionary elements in America. But where the earlier book ends on a note of isolated resistance to a vague and decidedly pessimistic future, the later work finds Mailer more personally involved than ever before, hopeful that totalitarianism may be averted through the courage of a large minority of the citizenry. Today as twenty years ago, Mailer is aware of what the present portends; but now he is even more a man for the future.
The enormous discrepancy in the artistic success of the two books lies primarily in form. Both represent conscious attempts to break away from old literary forms in the search for a nonderivative art. But in Barbary Shore, the combination of a new narrative voice, an experimental fictional form, and a polemical message are not integral to one another. The Armies of the Night, by contrast, is the effective culmination of Mailer’s perceptible movement towards an assimilation of the best of his perceptions within a clear and compelling prose voice. The book is rife with digressions on a multitude of subjects. Yet none of these are superfluous, none unassimilated into the smooth, eminently readable narrative.
As his own narrator/protagonist, Mailer is free to present any perception or attitude without fictional disguise. And because Armies is a novel as well as a history, the author is freed from the obligation to create the ostensible mood of objectivity sought by most “factual” reporting. He begins with the assumption that the account is a subjective one.
The combination of subject and form is well chosen. What better subject could Mailer choose to deal with his abiding preoccupation with the problems of American society than an event which concerns the entire population and lies at the heart of the nation’s illness? What better way to deal with the fears and hopes of the individual in that society than by choosing as his narrator a participant in that event, a concerned eyewitness who elaborates articulately and imaginatively upon his own reactions and those of such other participants as U.S. Marshals, American Nazis, and hippies?
What of this narrator/participant, then? To begin with, the book is written in the third person. Mailer refers to himself by name, and by such other designations as the Novelist or the Participant. Rather than rendering the narrative stilted, this device proves in execution far less clumsy than a straight first-person narrative might have been. The writing is eminently palatable.
The most striking thing about Mailer as protagonist is a new sense of modesty and personal limitation. He is often frightened and weak, uncertain of how he will react in the face of moral confrontation or physical danger (as when he worries about being clubbed or dosed with Mace; or when he stares down a young American Nazi and prepares for a fist fight). Although the public airing of his own defiances and defeats has been a part of Mailer’s non fiction writing since Advertisements for Myself, there is something new here: his willingness to present himself in a humorous light. If Mailer is often deadly serious in this book, he is also his own comic figure. If he examines the motives of others, from hippies to literary peers to governmental figures, he is equally honest, painstakingly so, about the validity of his own.
Mailer’s understanding of what is comic about himself is presented with wit, but it also rises to great poignance, as when, leaving the stage of the Thursday night theater rally after delivering a particularly flamboyant performance, the author meets the disapproving stare of Robert Lowell. Incensed at what he considers the poet’s in tolerance, Mailer frames in his mind a reply which is never voiced:
You, Lowell, beloved poet of many, what do you know of the dirt and the dark deliveries of the necessary? What do you know of dignity hard achieved, and dignity lost through innocence, and dignity lost by sacrifice for a cause one cannot name. What do you know about getting fat against your will, and turning into a clown of an arriviste baron when you would rather be an eagle or a count. How dare you condemn me!
Even more central to an understanding of the new conception of self which Mailer reveals in this most mature of his books is his recogition that not every aspect of the life of the revolutionary is still open to him at age forty-four. Confessing that he had for years entertained the possibility that he would some day be an armed guerrilla leader, Mailer now comes to the realization that “he would be too old by then, and too incompetent, yes, too incompetent said the new modesty. . . .”
Mailer has, then, realized in himself a new version of the psychic outlaw, one step beyond that represented by Rojack. As did Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, Mailer announces in this book his arrival at a new sense of personal identity commensurate with his age. Another parallel to Hemingway is relevant here. The need to clarify one’s identity and masculinity through repeated confrontations with danger informs the fiction and the life of both writers. But the dangers Mailer is concerned with are often internalized, their significance apparent only to him. That is, the objects of his fears are not as concrete, not as universally granted to be real dangers. Any reader can understand a fear of lions, or of Franco’s soldiers. Mailer presents us with apprehensions about police brutality, Mace in one’s eyes, or even concentration camps in a potentially totalitarian America. These dangers are very real to Mailer, but to a reader who does not share his political views they may seem chimerical.
This is a problem which is central to any understanding of Mailer’s uneven public reputation. The reader who cannot accept the basic axiomatic assumptions with which Mailer begins can find little validity in a book like The Armies of the Night. If, for example, one finds unaccept able the idea that the war in Vietnam is an obscene war, he will be unable to accept the argument of The Armies of the Night, which rests in part upon that assumption. Thus, the possibility of the internally generated totalitarianism which Mailer fears will seem to such a reader a ridiculous or offensive or even subversive idea; and the moral conflicts which Mailer undergoes in mustering the courage to commit civil disobedience will appear foolish and inconsequential.
Mailer’s ideas and the art and actions which they in form are consistent and valid within the structure of his personal philosophy. Their validity to each reader is dependent upon the number of assumptions he shares with Mailer. But they are totally valid, of course, only to Mailer himself. Because Mailer is aggressively opinionated on every subject, his ideas coincide only at certain points with those of any other individual or any group. Thus, although Mailer describes the hippie youth at the Pentagon in largely sympathetic terms, admiring their courage and personal style, he is very much opposed to their abuse of such dangerous drugs as LSD. He considers them foolish and irresponsible for their use of that “devil’s drug,” and thus inadvertently aligns himself with what they would consider the establishment. Although he admires their youthful idealism, Mailer is all too aware that these youngsters are confused in their personal motives and ideas. This confusion is particularly evident, he feels, in their jargon, which employs such sloppy and imprecise terms as “do your thing.” Late in the book, he refers to them sympathetically as “tender drug-vitiated jargon-mired children.”
Perhaps the most fascinating example of an uneasy alliance which is often shaken by Mailer’s personal opinions is that between the author and the liberal intellectual community, among which are his greatest allies and enemies. Although most of these people find themselves more sympathetic to Mailer, more receptive to his words than ever before, because he shares their opposition to the war in Vietnam, many of them are unable to countenance his exhibitionism (as at the Thursday night rally in Armies) or to share his fervent belief that obscenity is necessary and healthy. More important, they cannot take seriously a belief which Mailer advances in dead earnest: that violence is a necessary part of man’s existence, on both personal and national levels. He sees it not merely as a necessary evil, but often a positive source of benefit, as in his cancer theories. Mailer does not follow the liberal line which assumes that man is an inherently peaceful creature perverted by economic and political systems. He has shown as early as The Naked and the Dead that the common man often elects to be brutal and selfish. In Why Are We in Vietnam? he charges that the American male psyche is presently in need of violent action in order to survive intact, and that this situation as much as political considerations is responsible for American presence in Vietnam.
This division between Mailer and his liberal peers (he calls himself a “Left Conservative”) is clearer to him than it is to them. On the way to the rally in Armies, “Mailer could feel no sense of belonging to these people. They were much too nice and much too principled for him.” And in Miami and the Siege of Chicago he declines to join a silent protest march for the private reason that he would prefer not to face police in the company of people who cannot fight physically. The division becomes most clear when Mailer discusses his favorite remedy for this and all wars: a limited war in the Amazon between small groups of American and Red Chinese volunteers to be held and televised for several weeks each year. Although Mailer makes it clear in The Armies of the Night that he feels the idea has real merit, he also remarks that few people are willing to take it as more than a joke. Such lapses in communication are characteristic of Mailer’s relation to his public. He is so committed to being a dynamic personality and to airing his personal views in public that there is virtually no one, no matter how sensitive to his ideas, who is not occasionally repelled or mystified by one or another of his avowals or his methods.
The structure of The Armies of the Night is novelistic. As in a novel, the action is not always recounted in a simple chronological order. Rather, Mailer constructs a plot which presents each incident at the point in the narrative where it is most relevant and dramatically effective. He uses flashbacks, authorial intrusion, and suspense as no history text or journalistic account would dare. The structure of the plot revolves about the protagonist Mailer, who is no passive observer. Like Rojack, Mailer undergoes in this book a series of confrontations which frighten him and test the strength of his commitment to a set of personal moral values. But these crises are not embellished by the greater drama which colors An American Dream (as, for example, the Romeo Romalozzo showdown), nor are the immediate stakes as high (Mailer risks five days in jail while Rojack risks electrocution) or the periods of respite as exciting. Mailer himself remarks humorously on this aspect of Armies at the end of the Thursday evening activity:
Of course if this were a novel, Mailer would spend the rest of the night with a lady. But it is History, and so the Novelist is for once blissfully removed from any description of the hump-your-backs of sex. Rather he can leave such matters to the happy or unhappy imagination of the reader.
This book, then, is a more obviously mature presentation of Mailer’s perceptions than is An American Dream, partially because the protagonist here is treated with more humor.
The nature of the moral choices which plague men of conscience and the necessity of defining oneself existentially through courage in one’s choice is a recurring theme throughout the book. Mailer deals at length with the moral dilemma of every man who carries a draft card and with the uncompromising idealism of a group of Quakers on a hunger strike in jail. But the clearest articulation of Mailer’s personal sense of conscience occurs when he is about to appear before a judge, and hopefully to be released. Another defendant, Tuli Kupferberg, elects to serve a five day jail sentence rather than promise to stay away from the Pentagon for six months. This action calls into question Mailer’s intention to make such a promise (as have all previous defendants that day) in return for a suspended sentence. Cerebrating at length about this new, unwelcome challenge, Mailer sees “an endless ladder of moral challenges.” He elaborates further, structuring a theory which stipulates that each step up such a ladder purges some personal guilt, but that to step down at any stage leads to the negation of one’s moral gains, and to “moral nausea.” After a compromise courtroom situation in which Mailer does receive a suspended sentence, but in which he feels he has acquitted himself reasonably well, he comes to the conclusion that even a partial ascent up the ladder can leave one cleaner and braver.
It is interesting that in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, too, Mailer comes into conflict with authority and with violence and with his own fear. Attending the Democratic convention in Chicago, he is arrested and released twice within a few minutes, gets into a fist fight with a supposed delegate whom he feels is a disguised policeman, and several times wrestles with doubts of his own courage. More amusingly, at the Republican convention in Miami, he gains entrance to an exclusive reception by brashly pretending to be a secret serviceman. But in Miami and Chicago these confrontations are not woven strategically into a taut plot structure as they are in The Armies of the Night, and one feels that in the convention pieces they are merely standard Mailer equipment.
The confrontations which Mailer experiences in The Armies of the Night are parallel to the innumerable similar experiences of other protesters, and symptomatic of the overall confrontation between the antiwar forces and the military establishment. In this sense, the book is thematically structured much like the Iliad, proceeding simultaneously on an individual and a national level. The Armies of the Night is about Mailer, but his personal story is an integral part of the larger conflict of which he tells. The comparison to Homer’s epic of war is not an idle one, for Mailer states several times in the speeches he makes to the protesters (both in Armies and Miami and Chicago) that they are in the first battle of a war which may last many years. The title, The Armies of the Night, suggests this idea still further.
The most frightening conflict to take place at the Pentagon, one which Mailer reserves for the dramatic climax of his book, is that between the relatively small (several hundred) group of remaining youth and a con tingent of troops all through the night at the Pentagon. Refusing to leave as ordered, the young men and women are beaten and arrested. In what is perhaps the most effective combination of the novelistic and journalistic forms in the entire book, Mailer documents a series of factual incidents from eyewitness accounts in the news media, and molds the bare factual situation into a powerful and poignant piece of literature by the skillful use of authorial comment. He sees the confrontation as an archetypal rite of passage, in which the protesters overcome their own fear and become battle-proved veterans.
I must emphasize here what I have suggested earlier about Mailer’s sympathies. He is very much in accord with the political aims of the New Left, and particularly of these youth; but he does not romanticize them to the point that he admires all of them and all of their methods without qualification. Although he makes a point of describing certain individuals whom he feels are particularly dynamic in style or exceptionally brave, he does find fault with numerous young protesters who appear selfish or morally weak to him. Although he describes the panoramic March on the Pentagon in stirring martial terms (civil war metaphors particularly abound) and admires the flamboyant battle clothing of many participants (whom he describes without irony as “Crusaders”), he sees the carrying of a Viet Cong flag by one group as foolish and purposeless.
Perhaps the clearest issue by which to illustrate the precision of Mailer’s perception of the national situation as represented by the March, and the care he takes to articulate the nice distinctions of his position as it differs from that of any large group, is his treatment of the Negro problem here. It might be well not to avoid a statement Mailer makes in Miami and the Siege of Chicago which may bring some public wrath upon him yet. After he and other reporters are kept waiting for a scheduled press conference with the Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, Mailer discovers in himself a new and very unpleasant feeling: “he was getting tired of Negroes and their rights.” Although it is the product of a momentary irritation, the reaction disturbs Mailer, for he sees it as an indication of how much more unsympathetic to the Negro cause the conservative elements in America must be today. Although Mailer may be attacked for this remark by those who wish to see bigots everywhere, my reaction is that Mailer, concerned always with the nuances of every situation, and of his own reactions, is being characteristically candid here. The statement must not be taken out of context. Mailer has been a consistent and vocal advocate of civil rights throughout his career, and elsewhere in Miami and Chicago he writes sympathetically of the Negro’s problem. In The Armies of the Night, he writes perceptively and with some sadness of the general breakdown of the erstwhile Black/White liberal alliance, finding particular poignance in the momentary feeling of reunion which is generated when the protesters sing “We Shall Overcome.” And he recognizes validity in the decision of a group of Negro protesters to disassociate themselves from the March and demonstrate separately in another part of Washing ton. But he is not afraid to remark on his irritation even towards the movements he considers most valid and just.
Mailer always says what he thinks, and he is rarely silenced by considerations of tact or blind group loyalty. Thus, in The Armies of the Night he precipitates conflict not only with those individuals who represent everything he is opposed to, such as the American Nazi, the U.S. Marshals, and a Time magazine reporter, but with his allies as well when they diverge from his views, as in the case of Robert Lowell, Dwight Macdonald and Ed de Grazia on the stage at the theater rally. Mailer reacts strongly and honestly to each individual he meets, regardless of political affiliation or color. Thus, he finds most of the U.S. Marshals and troops frightening or unpleasant, but he describes one Marshal and one young Negro MP in sympathetic terms. On the March, he particularly admires a young Negro leader named Harris, but violently dislikes an officious Negro monitor. And in jail, the worst cellmates he has are a “sly” octaroon and a whining white boy, both of whom try to exploit him.
The metaphorical texture of The Armies of the Night (and of Miami and Chicago as well) is, as might be expected of Mailer, lush and diverse. We find many familiar Mailer ideas and images, among them his theories of obscenity, cancer, excretion, witches, the Devil, God, and the soul. More than in most of his books, he draws metaphors from sports: football, baseball, boxing, bullfighting. But the dominating image of the book is that of war. Returning the microphone to Dwight Macdonald at the theater rally, Mailer muses on his own actions: “Under the military circumstances, it was a decent cleanup operation.” The more precise comparison to the Civil War has already been mentioned. Mailer uses it repeatedly, and in the present political situation, with the nation more violently divided than it has been for a century, the comparison is apt. But for Mailer, the analogy has another dimension as well. In this new struggle he sees a romantic spirit surrounding the motives and actions of the more sincere elements of the New Left; and on this day of battle he gladly senses “a ghost of Gettysburg.” The sense of romantic nostalgia which Mailer associates with the Civil War is most obvious when, having won his release from jail after a taut and exciting exchange of legal wit between his lawyer and a fair federal judge, Mailer exchanges words of mutual respect with the judge: “Mailer, prompted by some shade in the late afternoon air of lost Civil War protocols in Virginia, spoke to the Commissioner.” The implication here, as elsewhere in the book, is that there are good men in America, and that the old ideals of courage and honesty may prevail yet. In this light, Mailer is able to see a “sweetness” in the war between the Right and the New Left: “the sweetness of war came back.” Mailer is not a pacifist. He considers most wars bad, and the war in Vietnam particularly so. But he feels that there are some wars which are just; and in this March on the Pentagon, which he sees as the “first major battle of a war which may go on for twenty years,” there is for him a romantic sweetness.
The central political statement of The Armies of the Night is set forth cogently and simply enough for the edification of the most naive reader, then elaborated upon with a sophistication which can teach something to the most politically aware. Mailer draws distinctions between the old and the new Left and between external and internal threats of totalitarianism, which seem self-evident to the liberal community but which are incomprehensible to much of the rest of the population. The oversimplified view of the patriotic right wing is best illustrated in a long passage in which Mailer describes a tough, sincerely patriotic U.S. Marshal who can barely control his rage at the protesters, whom he feels are “Communists,” helping to weaken America for a Communist invasion. Mailer knows that the depth of this man’s enraged commitment to this rigid preconception obviates any possibility of communicating logically with him:
. . . in this Marshal’s mind . . . the evil was with out, America was threatened by a foreign disease, and the Marshal was threatened to the core of his sanity by any one of the first fifty of Mailer’s ideas which would insist that the evil was within. . . .
The simplistic fears of such men as the Marshal are misguided, as Mailer shows in the distinction he draws between the old and the new Left, since the people on the Pentagon March, with the exception of a few diehard Communists, have no allegiance to any international left wing movement. The Communist party in America, as Mailer wryly notes, is dead but still being beaten; and its few remaining adherents are boring and ineffectual and closed-minded. The New Left, on the other hand, both student militants and moderate middle-class liberals, are interested not in any international movement, but in improving America by redressing social injustices, increasing individual freedom and opposing any movement toward a totalitarianism of the Right.
Throughout The Armies of the Night, Mailer criticizes much in America; but again and again, he affirms his deep love for her. The clearest and most beautiful articulation of Mailer’s feelings about America in 1968 is the powerful concluding paragraph of the book:
Brood on that country who expresses our will. She is America, once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled, now a beauty with a leprous skin. She is heavy with child—no one knows if legitimate—and languishes in a dungeon whose walls are never seen. Now the first contractions of her fearsome labor begin—it will go on: no doctor exists to tell the hour. It is only known that false labor is not likely on her now, no, she will probably give birth, and to what? the most fearsome totalitarianism the world has ever known? or can she, poor giant, tormented lovely girl, deliver a babe of a new world brave and tender, artful and wild? Rush to the locks. God writhes in his bonds. Rush to the locks. Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep.
Mailer sees a frightening situation, but there is hope here as well. Unlike Rojack, Mailer remains tied to America, committed to ride out the battle and to work for a better future. Unlike D.J., the more courageous of today’s youth can reject the outworn values of the past and still do their fighting here at home, working constructively for freedom. Finally, in The Armies of the Night, as in no other piece Mailer has previously written (except the short story, “The Last Night,” which in this sense prefigures it), hope is societal as well as individual. In this thematic resolution, as in the masterful control of form and subject matter, The Armies of the Night is evidence that Mailer has progressed enormously, both artistically and personally, in the twenty years since the publication of The Naked and the Dead.
The Armies of the Night lends itself conveniently to a symmetrical conclusion of this study of Mailer. The book ties together virtually every line of development with which I have been concerned throughout his work. The theme of increasing hope for the individual and his society; the development in both fiction and nonfiction of a unique, highly controlled narrative voice and of a nonderivative prose art; the assimilation of Mailer’s personal image and of his carefully structured philosophical and political theories into a literary form which presents them clearly to a large reading public; the consequent rise in his popular and critical reputation: all of these are here. The significance of The Armies of the Night is dramatically emphasized by the fact that it has won the 1968 National Book Award for Arts and Letters and the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
But one question remains unanswerable today. Mailer is still a novelist, and an ambitious one. Will he ever succeed in writing that major work of fiction to which he has always aspired? The exciting thing about studying Mailer’s career is that one comes to realize how foolhardy it is to put anything past him. Mailer has yet to hit the longest ball in American letters. But more than ever, it seems today that if anyone alive can do it, it is he. I’m still rooting for him.
- Mailer himself draws a comparison between the protest in Chicago and the far more symbolically significant one at the Pentagon. See Mailer (1968a, p. 144).
- Mailer 1968, p. 41.
- Mailer 1968, p. 78.
- Mailer 1968, pp. 34, 92–93. Although Mailer feels marijuana is relatively harmless, he is opposed to the use of LSD because he feels it can destroy future generations by harming the user’s chromosomes.
- Mailer 1968, p. 280.
- I have mentioned in Chapter 5 above, that such sympathies with the political position of Why Are We in Vietnam? seem to have stimulated favorable evaluations by some liberal critics (and conversely, unfavorable ones by conservative critics). The Armies of the Night, a far better book in its own right, has received a more objective critical response.
- See chapters 3 and 4, above, or Mailer 1966, p. 91. Also, see Mailer’s definition of the hip psychopath in “The White Negro.”
- Mailer 1968, pp. 124, 180, 185.
- Mailer 1968, p. 68.
- See Mailer 1968, p. 189. The germ of this idea may be found as early as Mailer 1963, p. 248. Mailer has also expressed this idea in public on a number of occasions. I happened to be present at a speech Mailer made as part of an antiwar rally. When he mentioned this Amazon War Game remedy, the audience laughed uproariously (intent on showing that they were on his side and understood the absurdity of all violence). I doubt that anyone understood that he was serious.
- For a more precise statement of Mailer’s structural intentions here, see Mailer 1968, pp. 254—255, where he draws a fine distinction between “History as a Novel” and “The Novel as History.”
- Mailer 1968, p. 52. Another particularly amusing reference by Mailer to novelistic practices as they bear on the narrative form of Armies appears on p. 133, where he consciously adopts the Victorian practice of authorial intrusion.
- Mailer 1968, pp. 270, 286–287.
- Mailer 1968, p. 195.
- The dust jacket remarks that the title was suggested by Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”
- Mailer 1968, p. 92.
- Mailer 1968a, p. 51.
- See especially Mailer 1968, pp. 101–102
- Mailer 1968, pp. 61–62.
- Mailer 1968, p. 109.
- Mailer 1968, p. 164.
- Mailer 1968, p. 40.
- Mailer 1968, p. 97.
- Mailer 1968, p. 211.
- Mailer 1968, p. 88.
- Mailer 1968, pp. 144–145.
- See especially Mailer 1968, pp. 47, 114.
- Mailer 1968, p. 288.
- Mailer, Norman (1968). The Armies of the Night. New York: The New American Library.
- — (1966). Cannibals and Christians. New York: The Dial Press.
- — (1968a). Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: Signet [The New American Library].
- — (1963). The Presidential Papers. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.