“The Armies of the Night remains one of the most enlivening, and most deeply American, testaments ever written.”—Tom Piazza
We continue our focus on Second Read: Writers Look Back on Classic Works of Reportage with an excerpt from Tom Piazza’s appreciation of Norman Mailer’s legendary work The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History.
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….
Piazza concludes by writing
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.