“On a day somewhat early in September, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up.” So begins Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” and, as I read it almost fifty years after its first appearance, two things seem true and surprising about that sentence and the epoch-marking book it superintends. First, how funny it is, and then how self-aware—not self-aware only in the sense that made the book notorious on its first publication, with Mailer having cast himself in the third person as the protagonist of his own story, but self-aware in a more mischievous sense, with the author well aware of the notoriety that the “egocentric” choice will induce and delighted to risk the consequences. The promotion of author to picaresque hero here is more high-hearted than hubristic. Indeed, the humor and the self-awareness are two sides of the same effect, and central to what is, a half century later, the book’s enduring charm. “The Armies of the Night” is not a journalistic account of a protest so much as a satiric poem of fathers and sons. It tells of how one generation of American radicals confronted and comically misunderstood the next.
The book takes as its subject that single weekend’s protest against the Vietnam War, then at its murderous height. The central players are all men of the nineteen-fifties—Mailer himself, the critic Dwight Macdonald, the poet Robert Lowell, and, more marginally, the social analyst Paul Goodman. All of them, as Mailer dissects for us, were brought up in a kind of sober radicalism that valued intellect, exemplified by literature, above all; they found themselves protesting the Vietnam War with a new generation that valued emotional affect, exemplified by music, above all. The back-and-forth between these generations is the book’s real subject, and Mailer’s at times baffled, at times bemused, at times delighted registry of the differences makes for many of the book’s most vivid moments. (“[The younger protesters] were dressed in orange and yellow and rose colored capes and looked at once like Hindu gurus, French musketeers and Southern cavalry captains, and the girls watching them, indeed sharing the platform with them were wearing love beads and leather bells—sandals, blossoms and little steel-rimmed spectacles abounded and the music, no rather the play, had begun.”)
Opinions date as fashions do, and Mailer’s opinions on many things—homosexuality, the nascent women’s movement, the inherent spirituality and sexuality of black men—can seem, in retrospect, silly or overblown or merely old-fashioned. (He had, perhaps, back in the fifties, overinvested in a French idea of “existentialism” that he hardly understood, making him see blacks and women as types, symbols of liberty or mystery, rather than as the three-dimensional personages they are.) But his eye for the microdramatics of human behavior remains matchless. The back-and-forth, at once mutually admiring and desperately competitive, between Lowell’s Bostonian abstraction and Mailer’s New York Jewish caginess is the material of high comedy, expertly analyzed even as it is experienced. The climax of the book, when the mass of protesters confronts a crowd of military policemen outside the Pentagon, and two Americas do not so much face each other as slip past each other in mutual bafflement, not only is unforgettably told but provides images of a nation permanently divided along class and rural and urban lines that still seem relevant today.
Some think that one of the book’s virtues lies in its prophecy. It is easy, or tempting, to see Mailer as prescient, since his description is of a recognizable Trump-era caste. But the point is that he wasn’t prescient. He was merely descriptive. The group he was describing is a permanent feature of the American landscape. Its members’ politics are the politics of Huck Finn’s Pap, their voices and rhetoric that of Archie Bunker, as he would be introduced to America very shortly after. (His English original was equally racist but much less paranoid in nature.) The real lesson is not that Mailer spotted these views coming early but that they have never gone away, and are largely continuous. He saw the hordes of Trumpites to come, because they had endured since the Civil War. The arrangement that began then—a deeply resentful poor white wing in conflict with an urban, immigrant, and African-American “progressive” wing—is a fixed part of our politics, not to mention our poetics.
Beneath the surface of the book, another, more elegiac book emerges, more interesting than any amount of prescience about political divides to come. Mailer implicitly recognizes throughout “The Armies of the Night” that, for all his avidity and virtuosity, a definitive-seeming break has happened in his culture. As a younger man, the child of the Hemingway generation, he had taken it for granted that books, particularly novels, were where consciousness would change, where cultural mutation would be registered. Words would make minds. Now he sees that this faith—unconsciously shared by his protesting companions, Macdonald and Lowell and Goodman—is over. The next wave to come, the protesting kids in their Sgt. Pepper jackets and “Confederate” beards, look anywhere but the published word for their inspiration. They go instead to songs and troubadours. Even switching from the traditional novel to this new nonfiction novel can’t stop this flood. The process—which culminated, it could be said, in the morning when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature even as the early warning signals suggested a prize for Philip Roth—by which “serious” writing was elbowed out of place by the “trivialities” of popular music begins to be registered here.
So the book is as much a funeral ode for an idea of writing as civic participation as it is a beacon of a new journalism to come. There would be no more Spanish Civil Wars, with writers to envelop them. Writing would take its place in a more fractured consciousness. For some writers—Mailer’s rival John Updike, for one, whom Mailer ruefully came to admire for his simple writerliness—this would present little difficulty. If all that matters are the sentences shining on the page, then nothing outside the page can really alter one’s serenity. If you imagined the sentence as itself an act, and even a heroic one, then the loss of action was a loss of self, as Mailer would put it. The diminished self of the literary writer exists alongside the energized self of the journalist in this book, and gives it its appealingly comic-pathetic undertone.
The era of the heroic novel was over, and Mailer gave us an antiheroic one to mourn it. Or perhaps a lyric one, to rival all those other lyrics. “The Armies of the Night” was famous in its time for being a “nonfiction novel”—its portentous subtitle is “History as a Novel; the Novel as History.” This genre-bending excited a lot of commentary at the time, but it feels less significant to the book’s meanings now. Whether Mailer or Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote or, more likely, A. J. Liebling “invented” the nonfiction novel, the truth is that “The Armies of the Night” doesn’t read like a novel—it reads like a poem. It is not novelistic in the sense of representing a world. It lies in the direct inheritance of the romantic confessional—the Jewish-American offspring of Rousseau and Chateaubriand and De Quincey and Hazlitt, where human truth is the reward of personal egotism. The analysis may be off, some of the attitudes out of date; but the apprehensions are exact and made more so by being unashamedly egocentric.
One wonders if the literary world, and perhaps Mailer himself, didn’t get Mailer wrong by seeing him as a man who raised journalism toward fiction rather than one who made confession into poetry. In their shared day, J. D. Salinger seemed to represent the furthest extent outward from Mailer—complete retreat from the world instead of frantic engagement with it. But, reading Mailer now, one recognizes some very Salingeresque sentences, while Buddy Glass, Salinger’s alter ego, as exact to that writer as “Mailer” is to Mailer, is also engaged in the similar business of breaking down the wall between acceptable detached literariness and engaged, disorganized, rhapsodic talk. That adventure, in which, by obliterating the distinction between reporting and literary craft, the far more forbidding border between life and art is also assaulted, is, to use a Maileresque phrase, an American dream. This book is one of the most exhilarating temporary obliterations of that border any American has yet achieved.