wenty years ago this week, when Norman Mailer published "The Naked and the Dead," became famous and rich and pleased everybody, it looked as if a safe type were off to a traditional career. [Then] "Barbary Shore" (1951) was not just a "disappointment"; it showed that Mailer was not interested in being an "acceptable" novelist, that in his moody indignation with the moral failure of Socialism in Russia and the growth of authoritarian state power in the U.S.A., he was willing to throw a novel away in order to express political agony.
The author of "Barbary Shore" was still the nice Jewish boy from Harvard. But around the time Mailer had such trouble completing "The Deer Park" (1955) to his satisfaction, there appeared the toughie who hated the nice Jewish boy--and began talking about himself in public, with a bravado plainly designed to throw off anything that might soften him up in his opposition to America's cancer- breeding repressions. There was a new wife, a new Mailer and a new ideology--sexual courage, truth to the buried instincts. Several publishers turned it down, he became obsessed with the book, and has been writing about it or dramatizing it ever since.
Mailer was now living "the crisis of the novel." He thought constantly about writing novels, saw everyone as a possible character, made grandiose announcements of a whole series of novels. But he was so sensitive to politics, power and society in America, that the moralist and the "celebrity" left little time to the novelist. He now made a feat of writing books quickly, as if hurling "An American Dream" month by month into Esquire and turning all his powers of mimicry into the "Why Are We in Vietnam?" would finally earn him self-approval as a novelist.
Still, a significant reason for Mailer's impatience has also been his sense of the national crisis, his particular gift for detecting political deterioration--and his professional feeling that the American scene at this time may be too thorny a subject to be left to journalists. It is the coalescence of American disorder (always an obsession of Mailer's) with all the self-confidence he feels as a novelist during reportage that has produced "Armies of the Night," his extraordinary personal tract on the unprecedented demonstration of Oct. 21-23, 1967, when thousands of the New Left attempted to "march on the Pentagon," fell into some brief but bloody skirmishes with armed guards, and a thousand people were arrested--among them, Norman Mailer.
Of course Mailer presents this book as his nonfiction novel--he simply cannot stop dreaming about himself as a novelist. But it is a fact that only a born novelist could have written a piece of history so intelligent, mischievous, penetrating and alive, so vivid with crowds, the great stage that is American democracy, the Washington streets and bridges, the Lincoln Memorial, the women, students, hippies, Negroes and assorted intellectuals for peace, the M.P.'s and United States marshals, the American Nazis chanting "We want dead Reds."
The book cracks open the hard nut of American authority at the center, the uncertainty of our power--and, above all, the bad conscience that now afflicts so many Americans. The form of this diary-essay-tract-sermon grew out of the many simultaneous happenings in Washington that weekend, out of the self-confidence which for writers is style, out of his fascination with power in American and his fear of it, out of his American self-dramatizing and his honest fear for his country.
"Armies of the Night” lights up his main subject--the intellectuals, the students, the Negroes, the academic liberals and the marching women who personify the American opposition. From first to last, this book is about that opposition, its political and human awkwardness; that is why the book that seems too full of Mailer himself is really about Mailer's deepest political anxieties. Things are coming to a crisis, but the forces of protest symbolically assembled before the Pentagon seem to him limited in everything except courage.
Nothing is more likely to drive a brilliant scholar at M.I.T. into a rage than the picture of ex-professor Walt Whitman Rostow of M.I.T. conferring with his boss on just where to bomb the North Vietnamese. "They" have all the power, and "we" have just imagination! This has been Mailer's grievance for many years. Given a novelist's belief that a novelist is the smartest of men anyway, and this novelist's impatience to get into everything all the time and right away, one can see why Mailer in this book shows so much brio, so much wrath at the powerful, so much despair at those on the American Left who have been losing all their lives and perhaps like to lose.
For all his self-dramatization, Mailer is the right chronicler of the March on the Pentagon. For there is no other writer of his ability who, feeling so deeply about this "obscene war . . . the worst war the nation has ever been in," can yet be so aware of everything else around him--not the least the intellectual staleness of his own side.
But because these "Armies of the Night" are in reality his army, if not exactly an army after his own kind, it is a fact that Mailer does not trust his troops, or even his fellow writers on the Left, to be outrageous, strong and imaginative enough. Can the American opposition really take on the corporations, the police, the mass media?