Pendragon: Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night”

Mailer, Norman (1994), The Armies of the Night, Plume
ISBN 0-452-27279-3

On October 21, 1967, 70.000 people traveled to Washington, DC to protest the Vietnam war. Speeches were given, and as many as 50.000 united to march to the Pentagon to voice their anger over an unjustified war. Among this crowd were found Americans of all stripes; the only thing they had in common was their outrage. The protests had been approved by the government, but with strict rules, among them a line marked by a rope. A few of those present wanted to commit civil disobedience and stepped over the line, only to be arrested; after the weekend, 681 persons had been arrested, some 100 persons were treated for injuries, due to the mounting aggression among the 200 US Marshals. A large number of famous people was present, among them Robert Lowell, possibly the most important American poet after WWII, eminent pediatrician Dr. Spock, major critic Dwight Macdonald and the renowned novelist Norman Mailer. Of these, only Mailer was arrested. The Armies of the Night is his attempt to make artistic and journalistic sense of that weekend and what it meant for the United States.

The book, published in 1968 and recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, is subtitled “History as a Novel, The Novel as History”. It is one of his best known works, together with The Naked and the Dead and Executioner’s Song, and one of the few which are likely to endure, even as the others drop out of print. Published three years after Truman Capote’s groundbreaking In Cold Blood, and a year after Richard Brook’s movie adaption, it turns Capote’s device, the mixing of fact and fiction in the creation of the non-fiction novel, into a novelty act. Capote created the tools by using them: by writing what to all appearances read and worked like a novel, but basing it on well-known and widely publicized facts, he did not need to advertise his enterprise, it was clear as day. For Mailer, too, especially after the huge impact of Capote’s book, there was no need to flaunt the novelty of what he was doing. The fact that he used so self-important subtitles implies that, at least to an extent, he was commenting on In Cold Blood.

Capote used a journalistic point of view in choosing an apparently objective third person narrator. Capote never entered the novel as a character himself, at least not in an explicit fashion. In contrast to that, The Armies of the Night is, first of all, a paean to Norman Mailer. The book is separated into two sections, “History as a Novel” and “The Novel as History”. The first section, which is considerably longer than the first, is a novel the protagonist of which is Norman Mailer. It’s written in a third person subjective mode, following “Norman Mailer” through the weekend, with all his thoughts, drunk and sober. The novel starts with a party Thursday evening at “Washington’s scruffy Ambassador Theater”, where a few of the luminaries who were to take part in the march later, assemble and listen to speeches by various celebrities. We find Norman Mailer drunk, ogling the function of Master of Ceremonies, eying other guests jealously. What to say to the critic who is currently reviewing his latest novel Why are we in Vietnam?, how to best talk to the grand Lowell, how to find courteous enough words for a writer one despises, ephemeral issues like these.

Mailer the character is both grandiose and insecure. He bows to the superior capabilities of Lowell even as he looks down upon writers and readers he considers inferior to himself, not without being self-deprecating about the whole business:

Mailer, of course, was not without respect for Goodman. He thought Goodman had had an enormous influence in the colleges and much of it had been, from his own point of view, very much to the good. […] But, oh, the style! It set Mailer’s teeth on edge to read it; he was inclined to think that the body of students who followed Goodman must have something de-animalized to put up with the style or at least such was Mailer’s bigoted view.

More importantly for this novel, however, he uses the same voice in order to convey his political beliefs. It is fitting that we start with Mailer’s private confusions and beliefs, in order to have a pattern which will help us make sense of the rest of the novel. It may be an ode to Norman Mailer, but we the readers witness the creation of a political person. It’s not the private that’s become political: Norman Mailer the character is almost completely shorn of his private aspects, and the few left to him are imbued with political significance. It is this change that the narrator links to the ambiguous structure of this section (novel/history) of the book:

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.

Central among the private things that have become political is religion. The Christian religion, especially, is offered as a key to understanding the American experience, both the visionary strength of the American people and its bigotries. These two sides become obvious when Mailer, at the end of the first section, launches a grandiose speech, invoking the former, but is getting browbeaten by the latter, when the newspaper reporting on it follows a quote up with the simple sentence “Mailer is a Jew”.

The narrator tells us this:

Lowell is of a good weight, not too heavy, not too light, but the hollows speak of the great Puritan gloom in which the country was founded – man was simply not good enough for God.

It is, as in many religions, not finding God which he extols, but the search for God. Consequently, in his own speech, it is that part he stresses, by invoking the Arthurian legend:

“I think of Saturday, and that March and do you know, fellow carriers of the holy unendurable grail, for the first time in my life I don’t know whether I have the piss or the shit scared out of me the most. […] We’re going to try to stick it up the government’s ass,” he shouted, “right into the sphincter of the pentagon. […] Will reporters please get every word accurately,” he called out dryly to warm the chill. But humor may have been too late. The New Yorker did not have strictures against the use of sh*t for nothing […] Mailer looked to his right to see Macdonald approaching, a book in his hands, arms at his side, a sorrowing look of concern in his face. “Norman,” said Macdonald quietly, “I can’t possibly follow you after all this.”

The following here is but Macdonald’s comment upon Mailer’s drunk capabilities as Master of Ceremonies, but it is significant in more respect than one. In a novel that treats a march of multitudes, united under one concern, one conviction, it is a sound idea to look for leaders and followers. The speakers, Lowell, Macdonald, Spock and others, are the coterie at the round table but who is Arthur? Following Mailer’s adventures what we notice first of all is the lack of a firm direction, the decided lack of leaders. Mailer, who, after all, is predestined to be a leader, due to the weight of his name and reputation, stumbles through this weekend. We see him attending the march, listening to the speakers, admiring Lowell, above all, walking with others to the steps of the Pentagon. He is among those who cross the line, partly by accident, partly by a belief in the importance of the American vision, the importance of civil disobedience. If this sounds vague and confused, it is because Mailer the character is. He is unabashedly racist and believes in the civil rights movement, he is a lefty and a conservative, he likes and abhors violence, he is for and against the Vietnam war. It is these beliefs, contradictory though they may be, which guide him.

Mailer is not a leader, nor is he a historian. The writer does not use Mailer the character as a means to depict that weekend. This is “history as a novel”, after all, and we are thrust into the narrow head of Mailer. He barely understands what happens, and when he is arrested, we leave the march with him, as we follow him into a van and then further into prison. He, again, is led there, as are others, not by a single leader, but both by his decisions on the steps of the pentagon and by the decisions of the marshals in place. The “history as a novel” never returns to the march. We have to wait for the second section to commence in order for us to learn more about the march. That second section is taut. It does not start or end with the speakers, Mailer makes but rarely an appearance in this section. It tells a different story of the march, it speaks of the organization of it, of quarrels and discussions among the marchers, it tells of the acts of civil disobedience, it speaks of the morning of the march and the evening of it. We learn that as the allotted time is up, the marshals gather the remaining protesters. Not just crossing a line, but staying, as well, turns out to be an act of disobedience.

At first I was somewhat puzzled that this piece of journalism deserves the label “the novel as history”, until I remembered the missing Arthur. It is the American people who are Arthur, it’s the American people who both lead the march and quell the disobedience. “There is something loose in American life”, the narrator maintained in the first section, pointing both to the fact that “[o]ne did not have to look for who would work in the concentration camps and the liquidation centers”, i.e. the authoritarian amongst Americans, and to the fact that rebellion, too, is ingrained in the Americans. This is not a spectacular insight, seeing as Mailer is merely pointing to one of the basic dichotomies structuring all modern societies. It is this last fact, however, that Mailer needs us to understand, in order to understand under whose orders the “Armies of the Night” march. Thus, Mailer manages to provide a fascinatingly full and emotional portrait of that weekend. It’s not Gonzo journalism, Mailer does not have the ability to write this. The book is too cerebral, too ‘cultured’, too forced, to go down that road. But what Mailer achieved here is unique. The non-fiction novel has a long history, but none of its proponents could have written this. It is one-of-a-kind, it depicts a time and a society’s state with remarkable assurance and precision. I would not have expected the writer of The Naked and the Dead to pull off something like this.

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One thought on “Pendragon: Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night”

  1. I enjoyed your excelent review of The armies of the night and I would like to recomend you Operation Masacre by Rodolfo Walsh, a writer that have combined facts and fiction before Capote´s In cold blood. By the way, what you have written about the letters between Bachmann and Celan is really good and interesting. Congrats

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