May 5, 1968 The Trouble He's Seen By alfred kazin the Armies of Night

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November 9, 2009

Kirk McKenzie

Armies of the Night (and Day): Norman Mailer, Robert McNamara and the March on the Pentagon

Gentlemen, this evening I want to discuss the events surrounding -- and a famous literary account of -- the event called the March on the Pentagon, which took place on October 21, 1967, during my senior year of college. I began thinking about this paper over a year ago when Norman Mailer, one of the great American writers in the second half of the 20th Century -- and surely the most colorful – died in November 2007. 

Some Background on Norman Mailer

Before we turn to The Armies of the Night, we should begin with a review of the career that by the late 1960s had made Mailer one of the most famous authors in America. He earned immediate attention just after World War II, when The Naked and the Dead was published to widespread acclaim in 1948. It is still considered one of the best novels to come out of World War II, and its reputation was sufficient to warrant the publication of a 50th anniversary edition in 1998.

After The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s career became considerably choppier. His second novel was Barbary Shore, which was panned and is now largely forgotten, and the third was The Deer Park, which – although a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s – offended a large part of the 1955 literary establishment with its graphic sexual content. Later there came the publication of Advertisements for Myself, which cemented Mailer’s reputation as a supreme egoist and earned him a fair amount of ridicule. 

In his memoir, New York in the Fifties,1[3] Dan Wakefield gives the following description of Mailer as he was in the late 1950s, not long after he helped to found The Village Voice:

Mailer’s fellow Voice columnist, Mary Nichols says, “I liked the controversy Mailer stirred up at the Voice. I kept running into him there, of course. At the annual Christmas party he would always get drunk and punch somebody out. It was inevitable, part of the holiday ritual.”


As the 1950s came to a close, Mailer began to cement (and was clearly cultivating) the reputation for heavy drinking and belligerence for which he was well-known by the time I first heard of him. Wakefield gives us the following description of that persona:

I didn’t know Mailer personally, though I used to see him at those Village Voice parties and talked to him a few times at big social events over the years. As long as I was speaking with him one-on-one, Mailer was a gracious, pleasant, fascinating conversationalist, but as soon as a group of people gathered to listen, his voice tended to rise, and his manner and opinions became more brash and pugnacious. [Seymour] Krim had a similar experience, finding that conversation with Mailer “immediately changed when we met in a group or anywhere in public where there were more than just the two of us; when that happened he assumed (and I didn’t contest it) the central role . . . There was usually a turning point in my presence (around the third drink?) when the showboat cowboy in Mailer would start to ride high, bucking and broncking.” (Id. at 146.)


Mailer’s Account of the Events Leading Up to the March on the Pentagon  

In Armies of the Night, Mailer begins at the beginning. He agreed to become involved with the March on the Pentagon about a month before the event, in September 1967, when he received a phone call from a casual friend and activist (and occasional novelist and poet) named Mitchell Goodman, who asked him to join an event before the March, when a group of prominent writers calling themselves “Resist” would go to the Justice Department to “support” students who were turning in their draft cards. Since he had been opposing the Vietnam War since 1965, Mailer agreed. The meat of the book opens with a party at a local faculty member’s home before the event at the theatre, where Mailer greets Lowell and Macdonald, two other writers, neither of whom he has seen for some time. He likes and obviously envies Lowell, whose restrained, courtly and aristocratic New England manner seems to embody everything that Mailer, on many occasions, would like to be. He is warier of Macdonald, whom he admires but who is also, Mailer suspects, giving his latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, a bad review for The New Yorker. Nonetheless, they all make nice to each other, and then proceed to the theatre for the speeches intended to warm up the young audience for the weekend.

In a word, the event at the theatre is a disaster for Mailer, although he takes about 25 pages to describe it. He is fueled, not by food – of which he has had none for 10 hours – but by a FULL MUG of bourbon. Even though he has agreed to serve as M.C., this fuel causes him to wander off to find the men’s room (where he has a little mishap). No wonder Mailer refers to himself as the “Prince of Bourbon.” 

The March Itself and Mailer’s Arrest 

As he sets out for the day’s events by hiking from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, Mailer realizes that he has the feeling of going into battle, and that he hasn’t felt this way for nearly a quarter of a century. Eventually, the crowd – with Mailer, Macdonald, Lowell and other mediagenic celebrities in the forefront – crosses the Arlington Memorial Bridge and arrives at the North Parking Lot, which is separated from the Pentagon by a large highway. The lot is curiously empty, since it’s a Saturday and they are among the first to arrive. After reflecting on how he hopes to get arrested and released early, so he can get back to New York for a party.

 As he approaches the building, Mailer (still at the forefront) sees that military police (MPs) are the rather light first ring, backed by another ring of MPs further back, and in back of them are U.S. Marshals. As he moves forward, one of the MPs finally arrests Mailer, who has been sensible and peaceful, but has stepped over into an area the government considers off-limits. 

Mailer’s Time in Jail and the Processing of His Case

Here Mailer’s prose turns from describing excitement to describing dullness, and how one of the most challenging aspects of being in any jail or prison, even for a short time, is to keep your mind stimulated and block out the repetitiousness of the experience. As the day drags on, it begins to dawn on Mailer that he will be lucky to make that party in New York, after all. It turns out, however, that the Commissioner before whom Mailer is appearing has a harsher sentence in mind for him, and he is sentenced to five days in jail.

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