Discussed in this essay:
Four Books of the 1960s: “An American Dream,” “Why Are We in Vietnam?,” “The Armies of the Night,” and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” by Norman Mailer. Library of America. 950 pages. $45.
In the fall of 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, 70,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington. Some 50,000 then marched across the Memorial Bridge to Arlington, Virginia, to “invest” the Pentagon—to surround it, shame it, disdain it. When they arrived at the American fortress, they saw that the building was being guarded by a mass of government forces. Norman Mailer, who was among the demonstrators, noticed a group of US Marshals, a collection of mainly white Southern men:
No excess of love ever seemed to come off a poor white Southerner, no fats, no riches, no sweets, just the avidity for .?.?. wealth. But there had been a sadness attached to this in the old days, a sorrow; in the pinch of their cheeks was the kind of abnegation and loneliness which spoke of what was tender and what was lost forever. So they had their dignity. Now the hollows in their faces spoke of men who were rabid and toothless, the tenderness had turned corrosive, the abnegation had been replaced by hate, dull hate, cloud banks of hate, the hatred of failures who had not lost their greed.
Collective physiognomy is no doubt unfair. Still, considered as poetic evocation, Mailer’s bitter lines may offer the best description of a certain kind of Trump voter ever written—and written fifty years before the fact too. Who has not looked at the faces at the president’s rallies and wondered how to describe them? Before he’s done, Mailer tells us a lot more about these Trump-voters-before-Trump, some of it sympathetic, some of it tragic.
The words appeared in this magazine, in the issue of March 1968, in an enormous article (“On the Steps of the Pentagon”) devoted to the events of the previous fall. You might say the protest was conceived as a kind of metaphor, as an expression of moral outrage rather than an actual attack, and so, by its very nature, lent itself to imaginative re-creation. Mailer’s account appeared in book form in 1968, as The Armies of the Night, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
In recent years, Mailer has been grievously out of fashion, but in February the Library of America is bringing out a two-volume set of his work from the Sixties, one volume devoted to fiction, the other to essays and journalism, and Mailer may be due for reappraisal and revival. Armies is a grief-stricken and joyous work, a great garrulous American book that comes within hailing distance of Whitman’s poetry and James Agee’s text for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A New Yorker with endless curiosity, Mailer went to Washington, engaged with many kinds of Americans, and got himself arrested. He used this minor adventure as a way of interrogating both the moral destiny of the nation and his own courage, producing the best portrait we have of the mythic and sensational side of the Sixties—its earnest indignation, its wild humor, its lyricism and fantasy. And Mailer perceived something new, a widening divide: “The two halves of America were not coming together, and when they failed to touch, all of history might be lost in the divide.” He anticipated the current contempt shooting across class, regional, and cultural lines, and he made a brave effort to understand it. After fifty years, his work remains entirely contemporary.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson and his military advisers rapidly expanded the size of the American forces in Vietnam and began intensive bombing of the North. The United States was waging technological war—including the use of napalm, a flesh-burning compound, and the defoliant Agent Orange—against Asian peasants, and the opposition to it grew fierce. Teach-ins became regular campus events; newsstands and bookstores overflowed with broadsheets, “citizen white papers,” redundant psychedelic rags—a pre-internet tumult of antiwar analysis and anger. By the time of the march on the Pentagon, almost 450,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam, and the opposition had moved from protest to resistance—from “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” to “Hell no, we won’t go,” combined with scattered attempts to shut down draft induction centers.
Mailer nearly missed the show. As a writer, he had had an extraordinary beginning (with the war novel The Naked and the Dead, from 1948). His fiction thereafter was less successful; he struggled with voices, modes, strategies, writing non-fiction, appearing on television, running for office, making movies. The critical heavyweights worried over him and, by 1967, he himself wondered if his career was in decline. Affable and attentive in most personal encounters, in public he drank heavily and then become maniacally bellicose, especially if other big-deal writers were around. When an old friend, the writer and activist Mitchell Goodman, invited him to come to the march, he was no better than cranky. Another protest—what was the point? He wasn’t much attracted to virtue; he was attracted to power, which he had celebrated in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” a stunning article in Esquire about John F.? Kennedy and the 1960 Democratic National Convention. No one since H. L. Mencken had written about American politics with such brio and malice, or evoked in such juicy detail the bodies and faces, the clothes and manners of the people who gathered around a political event—the kind of data, Mailer believed, that was far more significant than political rhetoric, which, at best, would be American bland.
In the end Mailer did go to Washington, and when he got home, he realized he had a story to tell. Scott Meredith, his agent, and Willie Morris, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, negotiated the then-munificent fee of ten thousand dollars. Mailer retreated to his house in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He worked thirteen or fourteen hours a day; he didn’t drink. Morris, in his memoir New York Days (1993), recounts that as the deadline was approaching, he and executive editor Midge Decter flew up to the Cape and discovered the pages of an immense manuscript, written in pencil, with many interpolations. Some of it had yet to be typed. Swallowing hard, Morris cleared out the March issue and published the text—ninety thousand words—in its entirety. At the time, it was the longest article ever to appear in an American magazine.
Was it fiction, journalism, history, a mix of the three? Mailer certainly uses the resources of fiction—conjuring atmosphere, testy exchanges, interior thoughts, the play of bodies and temperaments. But his intention was not to write fiction; his intention was to re-create actual events, using his eyes, his gut, his desires, his apprehension of the mood, moment by moment. He wanted to shame journalism as much as the Pentagon. To that end, he violated many conventions of the trade, including the canons of that proud Sixties invention, the New Journalism. Truman Capote removed himself from the narrative of In Cold Blood (1966); Tom Wolfe kept his white-suited observer out of the jumpy pieces he assembled for The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965). But Mailer made himself the center of the story, no doubt a terrible precedent for journalists, and terrible intellectual manners in general, but in his hands a strategic and expressive move. As he explains,
Mailer is a figure of monumental disproportions and so serves willy-nilly as the bridge—as many will say the pons asinorum—into the crazy house, the crazy mansion, of that historic moment when a mass of the citizenry—not much more than a mob—marched on a bastion which symbolized the military might of the Republic, marching not to capture it but to wound it symbolically.?.?.?. It is fitting that any ambiguous comic hero of such a history should be not only off very much to the side of the history, but that he should be an egotist of the most startling misproportions, outrageously and often unhappily self-assertive, yet in command of a detachment classic in severity (for he was a novelist and so in need of studying every last lineament of the fine, the noble, the frantic, and the foolish in others and in himself).
He needed to escape the clumsiness of repeating “I saw” and “I thought” without excising anything he saw or thought, so he created a character called Mailer, who was both a recording angel and a performing devil, behaving well, behaving badly, yet always taking in everything around him. This “Mailer” has a complicated mind formed by history, politics, and love of country. He calls himself a “Left Conservative,” by which he means that “he tried to think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” In practice, he hated the Vietnam War yet was a patriot given to many traditional loyalties. He echoed Whitman in believing America could become a special place that allowed men and women to realize themselves as never before. At the same time, he allied himself (consciously or not) with such dour left analysts as Theodor Adorno and C. Wright Mills in disliking the mass society that America had actually become.
His mind was also formed by abundant physical needs. He was forty-four years old, married, with three ex-wives and six children. He had a belly, he needed food and drink. He wanted to get quickly released from jail so he could get back to New York and attend a party that “had every promise of being wicked, tasty, and rich.” As he says, he was no better than a comic hero, and maybe not even that, maybe he was just a fool. In early middle age, for all his accomplishments and fame, he was jangled, out of tune with himself. Like Henry David Thoreau, who was jailed for refusing to pay the Massachusetts poll tax in the 1840s as a protest against slavery and the Mexican War, Mailer needed to flout authority in order to understand—and demonstrate—who he was. He wasn’t sure he wouldn’t run away when faced with armed soldiers.
At first, the fool acted out. Arriving in Washington, he behaved rudely at a party given by liberal academics; he drank too much, and carried a mug of bourbon into the Ambassador Theater, where some of the young protesters had gathered for a kind of pre-march pep talk. Onstage, he made an excruciating speech, in which he admitted that a few minutes earlier he had pissed on the floor of a darkened men’s room. In a tortured redneck accent, heard, or misheard, twenty years earlier from Texans in his platoon in the Pacific, he announced himself as “Lyndon Johnson’s little old dwarf ego,” which means, I suppose, that he recognized in himself bad impulses and self-aggrandizing wishes similar in kind to but lesser in degree than the president’s.
It seems a woefully embarrassing way to begin an epic narrative, even a mock-epic narrative. But then consider the shame-ridden episodes in great confessional works—St. Augustine stealing pears and enjoying the sin itself, not the fruit; Rousseau stealing a trinket and then throwing suspicion onto a chambermaid. The author rides down to the bottom of his soul, airing misdeeds, humiliations, and malevolent thoughts. In that place, he might find inspiration and strength to rise. “We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others,” Emerson wrote. “We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others, is experiment for us.” This experiment may lead to what every writer wants: authority. If he can tell us the worst about himself, we might trust him to tell us everything. For Mailer, the body shaped thought, and what began in drunkenness and piss will end in history, philosophy, and moral speculation.
The United States was waging a war fueled by theological anticommunism, throwing its vast technological resources and the bodies of its young men into what was essentially a Vietnamese civil conflict. Of course, the official rhetoric insisted that we were containing Chinese expansionism in Southeast Asia, preventing dominoes (Laos, Cambodia, and others) from falling to the Reds. America could not be seen as losing to Communists, even in a tiny, backward country. But if our leaders had read history, they might have discovered that Vietnam had long been wary of China, and, in the end, history played an ironic game with American ignorance: after we left, the Vietnamese, all by themselves, repelled the Chinese in a short, brutal war in 1979. Communism triumphant? No one could have foreseen this in 1967, but what was eventually to break out in Asia was not Communism but capitalism.
How, Mailer wanted to know, was a genocidal war against peasants morally possible? How could it be accepted by so many Americans? He was obsessed with concentrated and possibly corrupt power—the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI, the media networks. But corruption of a more pervasive sort, he thought, was built into American modernity, and it was spilling out in extreme militarism and moral apathy. The evil lay in the encompassing role of technology and corporate domination, the repetitive exercise of control through “banks of coded knowledge.” (This was well before big data and the sanctification of tech.) There was a bland authoritarianism built into postwar life. As other evidence of malaise, he looked to architecture—the postwar prisons, airports, and schools, which resembled one another in their depressing mediocrity. He was exasperated by the pleasant nullity, the tyranny of niceness, wrought by consumerism, Fifties and Sixties sitcoms, and advertising; he hated the food preserved in chemicals, the plastic displacing wood and stone, any kind of rooted and sturdy material. Americans were relinquishing will, creativity, and soul to efficiency, standardization, and bureaucratic administration, a native form of totalitarianism.
In these animadversions, the “Left Conservative” may have been moved by a vision of organic life in some pastoral nineteenth-century America that existed only in fantasy. When Mailer evokes, as he does, a sane, rural life before television and strip malls, I’m not sure what positive elements in that life he’s thinking of—or whether he would have actually wanted to live there. Still, he makes a game effort at describing moral stupidity—the incomprehension and delusion that prevented so many Americans from seeing what we were doing in Southeast Asia. Moral stupidity was produced by fear (the Commies are taking over), by demeaning enemies, by alienation from any notion of the common good, by hyperorganization and economies of scale that reduced choice and selfhood. The country, Mailer says, separated in its daily routines from meaning and accountability, had slipped into waking madness and lost its moral grounding.
Could there be redemption of some sort in the march? Or at least the beginning of a new resistance?
The day after LBJ’s dwarf ego appeared at the Ambassador Theater, Mailer, seriously hungover but not chastened, tagged along as hundreds of young men turned in their draft cards at the Department of Justice. Mailer had been unresponsive to student protest, and contemptuous of the Old Left with its “sound-as-brickwork logic of the next step”—an echo of his brief youthful fling, in the Forties, with Trotskyite factions wrestling over actions never taken. He thought that all of them—Old Left, liberal academics, earnest students—were much too adept at losing. But the young men turning in their draft cards—that was something else. As an Army vet and a celebrated war novelist, he was both dismayed and impressed. The young men were risk-takers, they had rejected safety and compromise. (Of course, he is talking only of the educated American young; he was yet to encounter the working class.)
But Mailer’s newfound respect for militant and spontaneous youth left him uneasily altered in his attitude toward himself.
A deep modesty was on its way to him, he could feel himself becoming more and more of a modest man as he stood there in the cold with his hangover, and he hated this because modesty was an old family relative, he had been born to a modest family, had been a modest boy, a modest young man, and he hated that, he loved the pride and the arrogance and the confidence and the egocentricity he had acquired over the years.
The march itself offered the possibility of risk. As Mailer, side by side with the poet Robert Lowell, the essayist Dwight Macdonald, and the linguist Noam Chomsky (imagine a political protest led by writers) walked across the Memorial Bridge, he felt a nervous exhilaration: the novelist was stimulated to create a precise delineation of forces and terrain, as if he were describing the battle at Antietam. He even evokes the Union dead, subject of Lowell’s famous poem. The symbolic attack, for Mailer, suddenly appeared in a line with the most stirring moments in American history.
Mailer’s army had many kinds of troops, not just sobersided liberal professionals, academics, and students. Veteran ban-the-bomb groups were there; the American Nazis (they are always with us) showed up, as well as American partisans of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (i.e., the Vietcong), carrying blue-and-gold Communist flags. In the Pentagon parking lot, hippies in junk-Hindu regalia joined a New York rock group called the Fugs in an exorcism of the Pentagon, an attempt, that is, to encircle the building, levitate it three hundred feet in the air, and chase away its bad spirits. “Out, demons, out!” the crowd cried. The mood turned euphoric. Young women, standing before frightened and bewildered military police, opened their blouses, inserted flowers in the soldiers’ gun barrels, and said, “Join us.”
Some of these goings-on may now seem little more than giddy, but in 1967 despair created new forms of moral logic. The general feeling in the antiwar movement was that the government was behaving senselessly and that rational argument against the war had failed. The protesters in Washington wanted to dissolve the claims of authority right in authority’s lap. Burning draft cards was one kind of response to slaughter; carnival and satire were another. Guerrilla theater, karmic invocation, hallucinatory or erotic celebration—all were good, as long as they were anti-military in spirit. In ecstatic catalogues worthy of Whitman, Mailer described the foolishness as an American awakening. The party of youth liberated itself from mass-market pop by making a pop culture of its own. The politicized hippies were “gotten up like Arab sheiks, or in Park Avenue doormen’s greatcoats.” Among the guises there were
soldiers in Foreign Legion uniforms, and tropical bush jackets, San Quentin and Chino, California striped shirt and pants, British copies of Eisenhower jackets, hippies dressed like Turkish shepherds and Roman senators, gurus, and samurai in dirty smocks. They were close to being assembled from all the intersections between history and the comic books, between legend and television, the biblical archetypes and the movies.
The earnest adults, the hippies, and the serious politicized youth, some of them members of Students for a Democratic Society, assembled and faced the government forces. Many of them wanted to be arrested, a few may even have wanted to be beaten. Their idea was to delegitimize “the system” by forcing it to behave violently: they could better combat injustice, as Thoreau would have said, by experiencing it in their own person, or perhaps, in some complex Christian transfer of guilt—the emotions are mysterious—by taking the sins of violence onto themselves. The protesters went limp, and many were clubbed anyway. The women, Mailer observes, were beaten the worst—that sexual taunting of young soldiers and military police did not go unpunished. More than six hundred protesters were arrested. Only a tiny group—no more than twenty-five—actually made it into the halls of the Pentagon, where they were subdued and taken away.
Eager to be arrested himself, Mailer startled the military police by abruptly rushing forward, a bourgeois projectile alarmingly in motion:
Dark pinstripe suit, his vest, the maroon and blue regimental tie, the part in his hair, the barrel chest, the early paunch. He must have looked like a banker himself, a banker gone ape!
Thoreau, who did not look like a banker, also challenged the state and was arrested. Both men spent a night in jail, and wrote up their experiences with the proud assumption that a personal record of acts and convictions might stir the nation. Yet no odder couple could be imagined. The author of “Civil Disobedience” lived in Concord, Massachusetts, at the intellectual heart of the baby republic; Mailer, in the frenzied media and financial capital of the global superpower. One was disciplined, self-denying to the point of austerity, the other a Falstaffian mass of appetite and semi-larcenous impulse.
“Simplify, simplify.” So goes Thoreau’s famous cry from Walden. Well, yes, simplifying one’s life, and in particular avoiding marriage and parenthood, makes it easier to conceive and sustain dissident moral passions. To his credit, Thoreau admits, in “Civil Disobedience,” that withholding tax payments might cause the state to seize one’s property. But he provides a ready solution to this difficulty: “You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon”—an unattractive proposal that makes some of us wonder whether Thoreau could have been much inconvenienced by his night in a bare cell. By contrast, Mailer in jail admits that he misses the downy comforts of the Hay-Adams Hotel. Thoreau’s question in Walden is “What is necessary to life?” The answer—food, clothes, shelter—would, I imagine, satisfy many of us less than Mailer’s list of necessaries, which, if he had been asked, would have included women, children, houses, friends, enemies, literature, money, religious and mystical thought. Thoreau’s writing is definitive and terse and sometimes wrathfully witty; Mailer’s is exploratory, expansive, funny, and spontaneous. We know that a consistent, well-ordered man, defined in good measure by the strength of his denials, could never have written anything as universally observant and as wide-ranging in its sympathies as Armies.
The cultural divide in America, as Mailer portrays it, is no simple matter—certainly not a clear-cut case of righteously hip (antiwar) and compliantly square (pro-war). As we have heard, Mailer was depressed by the uniformed men guarding the Pentagon. But this judgment gets qualified in extraordinary ways. Mailer develops the confrontation between protesting, middle-class students and working-class soldiers and the marshals with great psychological acuity.
It is the urban middle class in America who always feel most uprooted, most alienated from America itself, and so instinctively most critical of America, for neither do they work with their hands nor wield real power, so it is never their lathe nor their sixty acres, and certainly never is it their command which is accepted because they are simply American and there, no, the urban middle class was the last to arrive at respectable status and it has been the most overprotected (for its dollars are the great nourishing mother of all consumer goods) yet the most spiritually undefended since even the concept of a crisis in identity seems most exclusively their own. The sons and daughters of that urban middle class, forever alienated in childhood from all the good simple funky nitty-gritty American joys of the working class like winning a truly dangerous fist fight at the age of eight or getting sex before fourteen, dead drunk by sixteen, whipped half to death by your father, making it in rumbles with a proud street gang, living at war with the educational system, knowing how to snicker at the employer from one side of the mouth, riding a bike with no hands, entering the Golden Gloves, doing a hitch in the Navy, or a stretch in the stockade, and with it all, their sense of élan, of morale, for buddies are the manna of the working class: there is a God-given cynical indifference to school, morality, and job. The working class is loyal to friends, not ideas. No wonder the Army bothered them not a bit.
This is magnificent and heartrending in equal measure, because of course, as Mailer must have known, the youthful joys will almost certainly dissipate; the bold habits of indifference to school, morality, and job will likely lead to income stasis, to bitter resentment, even to early death—the marshals and soldiers he describes could be some of those boys grown older.
In the end, Mailer comes down on the side of the young antiauthoritarians, especially the brave kids,
who had chosen most freely, out of the incomprehensible mysteries of moral choice, to make an attack and then hold a testament before the most authoritative embodiment of the principle that America was right.
Some of the kids stayed the night in front of the Pentagon—well after the main body of protesters had left or been carted away—and were badly beaten in the morning. The courage of the young was itself, for Mailer, a sign of national awakening.
Re-creating his own, far less brave adventure—a night in the slammer—Mailer writes sympathetically of his institution-bound jailers, including the turnkeys, the hacks, the lawyers and government functionaries. And he accepts, for himself, the modesty that he hated. “The sum of what he had done that he considered good outweighed the dull sum of his omissions these same four days.” He must have known by then that for him the only possible heroism lay in writing well about all of it. The tumultuous text ends quietly, almost in the tones of a requiem mass, with supplication and with prayer for the country.
Despite Mailer’s exaltations, the March on the Pentagon, and many marches and protests like it, did not stop the war, which continued for another eight years, producing around 38,000 more American deaths (58,000 in all) and killing as many as 3 million Vietnamese. The violence and incoherence of the conflict chewed up lives and nearly caused the country to fall apart. In 1968, the year that Armies was published, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and the Democratic convention in Chicago was torn apart by protesters and police brutality. Lyndon Johnson thought the protesters were part of an international Communist conspiracy. Richard Nixon won the election in the fall and implied that they were traitors.
In 1967, in front of the Pentagon, the middle-class children repeatedly taunted the soldiers, and now, after fifty years of economic and cultural change, the situation of mutual ignorance and scorn has only grown worse: the middle-class, college-educated boys (and now girls, too), have become “symbolic analysts” working for Mailer’s loathed corporation. And the working-class adults, many of them, feel abandoned—made to feel like losers as old-line industrial and small-farm life diminishes in status and power. Those Trump voters took revenge in November 2016.
Mailer was enraged by the blandness cloaking an immoral war—the neutrally phrased official lies and hypocrisy of the Pentagon and the State Department, the national public concern for propriety and order while children were burning in Vietnam. Well, Donald Trump and his supporters aren’t bland, and if hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, they cannot be accused of hypocrisy. Lying, ridicule, false accusations, and intimidation are now gleefully out in the open and celebrated as attacks on “political correctness”—celebrated as a form of truth-telling. The widespread belief in official lies that outraged Mailer has been replaced by a corrosive, three-dimensional cynicism in which almost nothing is believed, with our mock president as the Lord of Confusion presiding over a right-wing counterculture. Vice now pays tribute to vice—while those who oppose Trump struggle to sustain their sense of reality. Moral stupidity takes some of the same forms—fear (of Muslims), dislike of the other (Mexican immigrants), and an even greater alienation from any notion of the common good. But it takes a new form, too—a detestation of people with ethical standards, and the desire to pull them down into a common run of vulgarity and self-interest.
Mailer is missed: LBJ’s dwarf alter ego would now be Trump’s alter ego. In Mailer’s fantasies, he was always running for president himself. He knew about egotism, and both gloried in it and was shamed by it; he knew this man (knew him internally), and he would have repelled his nature, and the virulence of his supporters, with a loving comprehension and poetic eloquence that no one is now capable of. And he would have cheered any brave signs of revolt. The young lawyers rushing to airports with their laptops to help refugees after the immigrant ban, in January 2017, could be the antiwar kids of fifty years ago. But if we don’t have Mailer, we have, in Armies of the Night, his gifts of observation and imagination, which turn out to be splendid armor for our own time.