Norman Mailer is the first “serious” writer (depending on how you define that) I ever read, excluding things one is forced to read for school and so tend not to make much of an impression. As a teenager I read The Fight about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, and liked it a lot. In the next few years after that, I read almost all his books, including some that I won’t pretend I understood much of (e.g., novels like Barbary Shore and The Deer Park.)
I came to Mailer through sports since I was a big boxing fan, but then through him was introduced to many other areas I was interested in or would become interested in, including history, politics and current events, philosophy, sociology, literary criticism, journalism, pop culture, and more. (His writings also cover art, poetry, and various other things that failed to kindle significant interest in me.)
Some would probably shudder at the notion of learning these things from Mailer of all people, but it wasn’t like I was a hero-worshipping fan taking everything to heart that my mentor said. Pretty much from the beginning I viewed him as a bold and fascinating maverick—not one who consistently was right and should be followed blindly, but one who consistently said interesting and thought-provoking things because he thought outside the box and spoke his mind (loudly), whether he was right or wrong.
I would count him as a role model for my teen and early adult years, not so much in the sense that I believed all the things he said and wanted to do all the things he did, but in the sense that I wanted to be an individual, and to believe and to espouse what seemed right to me, regardless of how popular it was or wasn’t or where it stood in relation to conventional worldviews. On a superficial level, some of my early attempts at writing mimicked Mailer’s style, but on a deeper level I wanted to be the kind of intellectual who, like him, thought and spoke and wrote about important things and was not afraid if the positions I held or the way I expressed them struck some as outrageous, as long as I was being true to my vision.
So as a youth I agreed with some of what I read in Mailer, disagreed with some, and recognized plenty as being over my head and so withheld judgment, but found it challenging and intriguing often enough for me to keep seeking out more of his stuff.
I also found him to be entertaining. What a compelling character he was! Sometimes insightful, sometimes morally admirable, sometimes crazy, sometimes pugnacious, sometimes charming, often many or all of these at once. I’ve always had a soft spot for the kind of supreme egotist who is totally open about being that. After all, I was a big fan of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell growing up. I liked larger than life figures who inspired people to love or hate them, and made it almost impossible to ignore them.
And Mailer took you along for the ride in his writings. You learned about him and his life directly, from him. I don’t mean just in the sense that you can always infer things about a writer—or at least try to—from his writings, but in the sense that Mailer’s journalism and essays were routinely at least in part about him and his experiences and his way of looking at the world.
What with blogs and the like, that kind of autobiographical writing is ubiquitous now, but growing up with the prose of textbooks and conventional newspapers and such, I found that way of expressing oneself refreshing and compelling when I came upon it in Mailer, and ever since then I’ve appreciated it when it’s done especially well by writers like George Plimpton and Hunter Thompson. I even see my being able to connect as a reader with David Foster Wallace being a product of that same kind of willingness on the part of an author to write about himself and dig deep and be revealing about himself, though in so many ways Mailer and Wallace had vastly different personalities.
The Armies of the Night may be Mailer’s most highly regarded work of “participatory journalism” or whatever you want to call it, having won a Pulitzer Prize among other accolades. The book is his account of the 1967 “March on the Pentagon” anti-war rally in Washington. The first—much longer—section tells about the event by telling about his own participation in it. In the second section he steps back and attempts to give a fuller history of the event including elements that he did not personally experience. But even the second section is still written in his voice as more of an essay or analysis than an attempt at a straightforward, “just the facts” narrative.
I immersed myself in Mailer when I was young, but I then went decades where I read very little of his writings, and if I’m not mistaken none of his participatory journalism. Rereading this book later in life, I experienced Mailer’s style of putting himself at the center of the story a little differently from how I had when I was young.
My first reaction was that he’s considerably more obnoxious than I remembered. What triggered this reaction in me was both him (a drunken blowhard going out of his way to provoke and offend people seemingly as an end in itself), and his manner of describing himself (overwrought, grandstanding prose).
I had always understood in the abstract why a reader might be turned off by his style, even while I was enjoying it immensely. But now I felt some of that distaste myself.
I didn’t hate what I was reading, but I cringed for him on more than one occasion.
The deeper I got into the book, though, the less put off I was by him. I guess it was just a matter of getting re-acclimated. Gradually I returned to finding him more admirable than not, and more entertaining than not.
But still I wasn’t drawn in quite to the degree I had been all those years ago. I suspect that had I discovered Mailer when I was older and less impressionable, I would have thought he was an interesting fellow in some respects and would have been a fan of his writing to some degree, but would not have been so intrigued by him and so eager to keep reading more and more of his books.
Not that that’s necessarily a good thing. There’s something to be said for the youthful passion of adding to your life another favorite person or thing and exploring it in depth, instead of holding out for something without imperfections.
The other difference I sensed in how I reacted to his style is that when I was young I think I assumed total sincerity on his part. That is, I thought he was just being open about who and what he was, showing you the warts and all.
I figured the people who disliked that either disliked certain substantive things about him that he revealed by writing in such an autobiographical manner, or they thought the style itself was unseemly, that regardless of how good or bad the thoughts and behavior were that he was describing, it was inappropriate for him to be talking about himself instead of sticking to the event or topic he was allegedly covering, making himself out to be bigger than the story.
But reading him now caused me to reflect on whether we were seeing the “real” Mailer after all, or just the persona he chose to present to the reading public.
I don’t mean that in the extreme Andy Kaufman sense, like the persona he adopted for a given occasion was a simple put on. But I just mean that when you know what you are writing about yourself will be read, and read widely, doesn’t that anticipated observation alter what you present? Especially when we’re talking about real personal things about your philosophy, your anger, your spiritual beliefs, your emotions, etc. Not that you’d necessarily clean it all up and present yourself as a saint, but I would think it would be awfully hard to simply present your internal reality as it is. Assuming you’re even trying to, that is, which a reader also can’t know for sure.
I don’t want to push this point too far, because what I know about Mailer independent of his writings seems pretty consistent with how he presents himself, but it’s something I thought about more now than in the past: A style that appears to be: “I’m just going to reveal what I did, said, thought, and felt, and let the chips fall where they may” might not really be that, at least not entirely.
But as I say, the deeper I got into the book, the more I warmed to the style and to Mailer, and felt the return of that sense that even though I don’t admire everything he does or agree with everything he says, I’m glad to be taken along by him on this journey.
The fact that so far I’ve just written about Mailer and not about the March on the Pentagon is a reflection of the very fact that the book itself is so much about him. But I do want to say a few things about the event itself and related matters.
The March on the Pentagon took place in 1967, so around the “middle” of the period of the popular movement against the Vietnam War, after its most idealistic phase and before its most frustrated and violent phase, thus combining elements of both.
The organizer of the march was pacifist David Dellinger, but certainly he did not limit it to pacifists. Indeed, it sounds like his was an extraordinarily difficult job precisely because those opposing the war differed so greatly on their reasons for opposition and their preference in tactics.
Some wanted an actual physical assault on the Pentagon. Not to really take it over or destroy it, but to temporarily disrupt it, say with a massive sit-in in its offices and corridors. They were willing to use at least some degree of violence to achieve that.
Some wanted a “political theater” type event, like when the Yippies had tossed dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange and watched the traders frantically chase after them.
Some wanted Gandhi or Martin Luther King-style nonviolent civil disobedience. On the other hand, many prominent liberals let it be known that if the event were going to be about lawbreaking like that—violent or nonviolent—they would have nothing to do with it.
Some were motivated by their religious faith; some were not. Some wanted it to be solely about the Vietnam War; some wanted it to be about a broader spectrum of social justice issues. Some thought the war deviated from American principles and that they were being patriotic in opposing it; some thought the war perfectly embodied American principles and hated America for that reason. Some wanted an out-and-out revolution; most did not.
In the end, the March was considered a failure by many in the anti-war movement for not having a clearer message and for not achieving a greater impact, but the fact that Dellinger and those working with him pulled it off even to the extent they did strikes me as highly impressive.
Not surprisingly, the event contained a little something for everybody but not enough to satisfy anybody. Given the lack of common purpose and tactics, I don’t know what better they could have done.
It’s striking how much effort went into making sure that the statement of opposition they made to the government’s policies was done in a government-approved manner. There were weeks and months of negotiations trying to nail down all the details about where the initial rally in Washington would be, what route they would take to march to the Pentagon (in Virginia), where they would rally at the Pentagon (it turned out to be a drab, empty area where they didn’t even have a clear, unobstructed view of the building), how long they would be at each place, what they could and couldn’t do, etc. That may have been the best approach to take, ethically and pragmatically, but I felt myself getting frustrated reading that, like I wish they would have planned their event independent of the government, the way they thought was best and most peaceful, and then let the government react how it was going to react.
Not that they were completely cooperative with the government. A significant number of the protesters ended up in a local jail, including Mailer, and a good chunk of the book takes place there.
Some of the protesters did indeed make an effort to physically occupy the building itself. They weren’t armed or anything, but they hoped through sheer numbers and determination to get enough of their group through all the security to disrupt activities within the Pentagon. They attacked in multiple waves, but it sounds like they didn’t get very close to achieving their objective. That’s where a lot of the arrestees came from.
Others, including celebrities like Mailer, were arrested after committing symbolic acts of civil disobedience—stepping over a rope barrier into an area on the grounds not open to the public, for instance. Others were arrested for staying in the protest area beyond the permitted time. Others seemingly didn’t break the law at all and were arrested for no reason, beyond whatever tactical reason the government might have had for wanting to show only a limited level of tolerance for the event itself.
Still other arrestees—including a neo-Nazi Mailer encounters when being driven to the jail—weren’t even among the anti-war protesters, but were counter-protesters or hecklers who clashed with them.
When you’re not used to it, being in jail can be a truly traumatic experience, even in a case like this when you know you’re likely to only be there for a matter of hours or days, and when you were arrested in a good cause and you’re surrounded mostly by comrades arrested in the same cause. It’s dirty and uncomfortable and inconvenient in a myriad of mundane ways, from the toilet facilities to the noise, to the smells, to the lack of opportunity to change your clothes, to the paucity of news and communication from outside the facility, and on and on. But mostly it’s just that feeling of being unfree in all these details of your life, of being directly under the control of others, and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next and exactly how long this is going to last.
Mailer’s highly concerned about getting out the same day so he can rush back to New York for a dinner party he’s been looking forward to, which sounds comical on the face of it, but even that level of disruption to your life is something you feel quite keenly in such circumstances.
Eventually a deal is reached where if the inmates plead no contest to whatever charges are brought against them, and if they sign a pledge not to return to the area for at least the next six months, they will be given a suspended sentence and released.
This creates a moral dilemma for some of them. Should they accept the compromise? What if they want a chance to argue for their innocence in court? Even if they have no intention of coming back to Washington in the next six months, are they conceding more than they should by signing a pledge not to? Should they be more defiant of a government engaged in an illegal and immoral war? Wasn’t the very idea of the event to declare your willingness to stand apart from such a government and refuse to cooperate with it? Or have you made your point by being arrested, and no further good would come of refusing the deal and languishing in jail after the movement and the media and the world have moved on?
Mailer makes an interesting point here about a sort of ladder of moral commitment. Imagine there are ten rungs from rock bottom to moral purity, or total selflessness and martyrdom. Almost no one makes it all the way to the top, but you’d think that the higher you get before deciding you’re not willing to go further, the better you’d feel about yourself.
Mailer contends, though, that the higher up the ladder you go, the more morally painful will be your fall when your climb stops.
So the person who comes to Washington and then chickens out the day before the rally will feel worse about himself than if he had been too apathetic to come in the first place. The person who intends to commit civil disobedience but gets cold feet and backs out at the last second will feel more guilty than if he had left before the event started. The person who goes to jail and then accepts a deal he’s not fully comfortable with to get out quickly will be down on himself more than if he’d avoided getting arrested at all. And so on.
There’s probably something to that, though I don’t know how strong or how universal such a psychological phenomenon is. But even insofar as people do feel that way, it doesn’t change the moral reality. If in life you fight the good fight until you succumb 75% of the way to moral perfection, then you’ve done a lot better than if you had thrown in the towel after going 20% of the way, or had never entered the fray at all, regardless of how guilty you might feel when you compromise.
Another thing I was reminded of in reading this book is just how bad journalism can be.
The people who participated in the event consistently reported that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were peaceful and nonviolent. When the row of soldiers providing security for the Pentagon faced off with the row of demonstrators protesting against the Pentagon’s policies, the protesters sang, they pleaded with the soldiers to join them, they reasoned with them, they offered them flowers, etc. The officers rotated their troops with great frequency as they saw many of them wavering.
Remember, the Vietnam War was not a war that was just unpopular with a few hippies. A sizable percentage of the military itself—the “grunts”—opposed it. That number only increased as the war went on. In 1967 it hadn’t yet reached the level of desertions and fragging of officers and such that it did later, but the opposition from within the military was not insignificant. So it’s no surprise that some soldiers didn’t appreciate being given the duty of standing against fellow citizens of theirs who were advocating peace and bringing the troops home.
So a lot of the interaction was amicable, indeed amicable enough to alarm the officers. Insofar as there were outbreaks of violence, it was almost all one way, with soldiers attacking protesters.
Yet Mailer notes that if you go by how the newspapers reported it, both in news stories and editorials, the protesters viciously attacked the soldiers, spitting in their face, verbally abusing them, etc. (Not to mention they were people who used drugs, didn’t bathe, and all that usual malarkey—see the Occupy Movement of 40-50 years later.) The brave soldiers tolerated all this stoically.
That was the narrative reporters knew their editors, the newspaper owners, the government, and most of the public wanted to hear. On the one side were heroes in uniform; on the other side were spoiled kids who hated America.
I’ve spoken with a few people who had a lot of experience with ’60s activism, and they say that one of the things that most stands out to them in their memories of that time was how often and how blatantly the media lied. I’m not talking about close calls or subtle differences in judgment or interpretation, but just out-and-out lies about observable facts. If the police charged into a peaceful demonstration swinging their batons at anyone within range, the newspapers the next day would print something about protesters launching an unprovoked attack on police. If 800-1,000 people showed up at a rally, the local newspaper would report it at “under a hundred.” The press would falsify quotes into something inflammatory to make the protesters look as bad as possible.
In the book, when Mailer is in jail with dozens of others from the rally, someone brings in a newspaper and reads aloud the account of the March on the Pentagon. Of course it makes it sound like the soldiers were angels and all the wrongdoing was on the side of the protesters. The jailed protesters howl with laughter. By this time they are so jaded that they expect the mainstream media to stick to the pro-government, pro-military narrative regardless of the facts.
Remember, this is the so-called “liberal media.”
Journalism can be an honorable profession. What greater sin against that profession can there be than lying? You’re going to make mistakes, that’s inevitable. You’re also arguably never going to be able to eliminate all bias. But if you’re not at all times actively trying to tell the truth and minimize any bias, then you have no business calling yourself a journalist.
Shame on every reporter, every editor, every columnist who lied because they thought it was patriotic—or at least popular—to portray anti-war activists (or civil rights activists, “women’s libbers,” etc.) as negatively as possible.
And of course I’d say the same about anyone who lies to further some other ideology or preferred narrative, especially someone who purports to be a journalist.
I understand why Mailer is accused by some of trying to make himself bigger than the events he covers when he writes in the style of The Armies of the Night. But for me, that wasn’t a problem. I took in all the Mailer being Mailer stuff, and found it entertaining, annoying, humorous, intelligent, etc., but what it didn’t do is overshadow the March on the Pentagon or the Vietnam War and the other events of the time that were relevant to the story of the March. Indeed, I feel like I have a better grasp of these issues as a result of Mailer telling the story the way he did.