Perusing Norman Mailer's literary works is frustrating to a critic trained in the twentieth-century Western traditions of a rational empiricism whose goal is usually to categorize and quantify. Mailer, perhaps intentionally, defies categorization.
Literary journalists have consciously combined the techniques and styles of fiction writing and journalism into literary journalism. The themes of literary journalists tend to be concerned with social and political issues, usually examined within the context of contemporary culture. Most literary journalists were so- called straight journalists who found the boundaries of "objective" reporting too constrictive and inadequate to account for their content matter. Mailer is one of the few acknowledged members of this group who went over from the other side--the novelist-turned-journalist. Yet, even though Mailer is often labeled one of the core members of the literary journalism movement, his conversion from fiction writing was never accomplished completely. Furthermore, his role as a literary impresario, to use Mailer's own term, is more like that of a double-agent than of a zealous convert.
In The Armies of the Night, Mailer's first celebrated piece of literary journalism, published in 1968, Mailer describes a conversation between the poet Robert Lowell and himself as both were preparing their speeches to be delivered before the first mass rally and march on the Pentagon in October 1967:
"You know, Norman," said Lowell in his fondest voice, "Elizabeth and I really think you're the finest journalist in America."
... Lowell now made the mistake of repeating his remark. "Yes, Norman, l really think you are the best journalist in America."
The pen may be mightier than the sword, yet at their best each belong to extravagant men. "Well, Cal," said Mailer, using Lowell's nickname for the first time, "there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America." (1968a, 32-33).
Mailer continues to describe how Lowell, sensing the author's offense at his attempted compliment, tries to wriggle out of his faux pas while sinking himself deeper into the quagmire. "Oh, Norman, oh, certainly," he said, "I didn't mean to imply, heavens no, it's just that I have such respect for journalism. "
"Well, l don't know that I do," said Mailer (33-34).
Given that Mailer clearly expresses a distasteful and snobbish attitude toward journalistic writing, why did he publish a nonfictional account of the events surrounding the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, instead of a purely fictional account written in the form of a novel? Before 1968 when Mailer published two well-acclaimed pieces of literary journalism--The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago--he had published two relatively unsuccessful novels--An American Dream (1965) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). Critically he was receiving much better reviews or his journalistic pieces (published primarily in Esquire) and was being categorized somewhat condescendingly as a journalist.
Mailer's ego was made clearly apparent in his exchange with Lowell, and it seems natural that a writer with such an opinion of himself would prefer being listed in the ranks of the literary elites--the novelists--to being taken for a journalist.
In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe describes four devices that characterize new journalistic writing: scene by scene construction, recording the dialogue in full, "third-person point of view," and detailing everyday practices and styles (Wolfe 1973, 31-32). The third technique described by Wolfe is the use of the third-person point of view. While the other three techniques are important elements of the Mailer style, it is his use of multiple narrative personae that distinguishes his literary journalistic works from those of others associated with the genre. Mailer develops a narrator with multifaceted qualities. Jennifer Bailey describes Mailer's approach in theatrical terms: "Like a good actor, the personae of Mailer's writing must be able to sift and select from the context of their acting in order to convey the truth of a situation" (1979, 88).
Armies is divided into two distinct parts: Book One, "History as a Novel: The Steps of the Pentagon" and the considerably shorter Book Two, "The Novel as History: The Battle of the Pentagon." Throughout the book, Mailer self- consciously analyzes the varying merits of the novelistic and historical forms of writing. Two sections are particularly revealing. In the final paragraph of Book One, Mailer discusses the problem with his historical account:
It insisted on becoming a history of himself over four days, and therefore was history in the costume of a novel. He labored in the aesthetic of the problem for weeks, discovering that his dimensions as a character were simple: blessed had been the novelist, for his protagonist was a simple of a hero and a marvel of a fool.... Yet in writing his personal history of these four days, he was delivered a discovery of what the March on the Pentagon had finally meant, and what had been won and what had been lost. (1968a, 241; emphasis added)
Later, in Book Two, Mailer elucidates on "the problem":
The mystery of the events at the Pentagon cannot be developed by the methods of history--only by the instincts of the novelist. The reasons are several, but reduce to one... the difficulty is that the history is interior--no documents can give sufficient intimation: the novel must replace history at precisely that point where experience is sufficiently emotional, spiritual, psychical, moral, existential, or supernatural to expose the fact that the historian in pursuing the experience would be obliged to quit the clearly demarcated limits of historical inquiry. (1968a, 284)
In Book One Mailer develops a narrator who functions both as an intrusive participant and as an observer. In Book Two, the narrator steps back and functions only as an observer whose goal is to record "the facts." To illustrate the change in his narrative voice, Mailer begins Book Two with an extended metaphorical image of a tower which must be erected in a dense forest if one is to "see the horizon," but of course "the tower is crooked, and the telescopes warped" (245). Mailer is attempting with this image to justify his abandonment of the historical form for the novelistic. Thus, in Book Two Mailer "zooms back" to give us a clearer vision (and version) of the events as they unfold and to step away from his own microscopic perspective.
Mailer's literary journalism is characterized not just by a third-person point of view, but by a shifting point of view in which the author conveys an attitude of tacking back and forth between an insider's passionate perspective and an outsider's dispassionate one (Van Maanen 1988, 777). In other words, the author/narrator of Mailer's literary journalism moves between the roles of fictional hero and detached journalist, each with its own literary functions to perform. This narrative style is combined with the more clearly distinguishable techniques of realistic writing described by Wolfe-- scene by scene construction, fully recorded dialogue, and detailing incidentals.