The Armies of the Night
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First edition cover
|Publisher||New American Library|
The Armies of the Night is a nonfiction novel written by Norman Mailer and published by New American Library in 1968. It won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction and the National Book Award in category Arts and Letters.
The book's full title is The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History. Mailer essentially created his own genre; as the subtitle suggests; the narrative is split into historicized and novelized accounts of the October 1967 March on the Pentagon. Mailer's unique rendition of the non-fiction novel was one of only a few at the time, and received the most critical attention. In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote and Hell's Angels (1966) by Hunter S. Thompson had already been published, and three months later Tom Wolfe would contribute The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).
The book deals ostensibly with the March on the Pentagon (the October 1967 anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington, D.C.) While Mailer dips into familiar territory, his fiction—self-portrait—the outlandish, third person account of himself along with self-descriptions such as a novelist/historian, anti-star/hero are made far more complex by the narrative's overall generic identification as a nonfiction novel. Two years before Armies was published, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, who had just been called by George Plimpton (among others) the "inventor" of the nonfiction novel, claimed that the genre should exclude any mention of its subjectivity and refrain from the first person. While to some extent satirizing Capote's model, Mailer's role in center stage is hardly self-glamorizing, as the narrative recounts the events leading up to the March as well as his subsequent arrest and night in jail. The first section, "History as a Novel", begins: "From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist", with an account made by TIME about: "Washington's scruffy Ambassador Theater, normally a pad for psychedelic frolics, was the scene of an unscheduled scatological solo last week in support of the peace demonstrations. Its anti-star was author Norman Mailer, who proved even less prepared to explain Why Are We In Vietnam? than his current novel bearing that title." After citing the entire article, Mailer then closes, "1: Pen Pals" with "Now we may leave Time in order to find out what happened." What creates the difference between Mailer's example and Capote's is not only the autobiography of Armies, but the irony which guides the narrator towards the same objective of empiricism as that of In Cold Blood. The non-conformity which Mailer exhibits to Capote's criterion was the beginning of a feud that never resolved between the authors, and was ended with Capote's death in 1984.
History as a Novel: The Steps of the Pentagon
Written in third person with Norman Mailer as the protagonist, this section is purported to be a first-hand account of Mailer's activities during the March. After beginning with an excerpt from Time, the novel begins with Norman Mailer at home answering a call from Mitch Goodman, a friend from college, asking him to join the March on the Pentagon and specifically join a demonstration " at the Department of Justice to honor students who are turning in their draft cards". Convinced, Mailer promises to join him, but "I can't pretend I'm happy about it". In Washington, Mailer begins to meet up with the other literary minds of the movement, including Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald, and it is decided that Mailer would be the MC for an event at the Ambassador theater. It is this event which Mailer drinks too much, embarrasses himself and has Time write that "mumbling and spewing obscenities as he staggered about the stage—which he had commandeered by threatening to beat up the previous M.C. after being late to the start of the ceremony—Mailer described in detail his search for a usable privy on the premises". Mailer alluded to himself as multiple egos such as; The Prince of Bourbon and The Beast and took being M.C as a form of competition with the other speakers. The next day, he watches many speeches at the event where 996 draft cards are handed in.
On the day of the March, a Saturday, Mailer is one of the first to arrive at the Pentagon and sets out to get himself arrested. He does so without resisting, and the rest of the part is him in custody. He at first interacts with a neo-nazi at the site, before being moved to holding cell in a courthouse. While there, he debates whether he should give his fellow cellmates some of the money he brought to bail himself out, before giving much of it away. Rumors about how they will be released and what is going on at the Pentagon are the topics of conversation. They are then all moved to the Occoquan, Virginia workhouse, and Mailer settles himself in. During the time where he sleeps, the section "Why Are We in Vietnam" is presented. From his arrest onward, Mailer is periodically interviewed by a British journalist Dick Fountain with a cameraman for a documentary. Mailer is frequently very happy to see them and gladly gives interviews at their behest. In the prison, a deal is made where the protestors would plead "Nolo Contendere" and receive a five-day suspended sentence. Mailer initially refuses, wishing to plead guilty. Despite changing his mind, Mailer is still judged more harshly for his actions and, initially, is sentenced to 30 days in jail as well as a $50 fine. After much legalistic challenges, Mailer is released and gives a rambling speech about Jesus Christ to the press.
The Novel as History: The Battle of the Pentagon
The second part begins with an image of "the Novelist in passing his baton to the Historian has a happy smile." This part of the book is much shorter and deals with the March on the Pentagon at large, beyond when Mailer was arrested and taken away. It begins with a discussion of the organization of both sides of the March. Groups are shown to organize which exact routes and which locations are to be used. The protestors and the government negotiates the minutia of the protests, with each side reluctant to give up the smallest ground. Finally, on the day of the March, Mailer goes into the tactics and tools used by each side. He details the violent acts done by the military, using first hand accounts to illustrate the gravity of the actions. At the end of the day, the final hour of the protest is recorded in detail. As the loudspeakers tell the protestors to disperse before midnight, the last stragglers refuse to board the buses. Mailer again ends this section with religious imagery, and the last section, The Metaphor Delivered, attempts to illustrate how Mailer feels about the war and the protests.
Why Are We in Vietnam?
"Why are we in Vietnam" is at the center of Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. The chapter, located roughly at the end of the first half of the novel, is a clinical exploration of the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. The format alone is somewhat curious.[according to whom?] For the previous sections the reader has followed the character of Norman Mailer along through preparations for the protest at the Pentagon, the protest itself, and finally Mailer’s imprisonment. Following the imprisonment of Mailer, said character goes to sleep and this section occurs. This section, described by some as the author’s dream, can be described as an internal monologue regarding the issues surrounding the Vietnam War. It appears strikingly out of touch with the surrounding portions of the novel, and could easily be transplanted into the editorial section of a newspaper. This section bridges the gap between the view of Norman Mailer the character and Norman Mailer, the author and presents his most straight forward discussion of the war in the novel.
Mailer divides American opinion on the Vietnam War into two camps, the Hawks and the Doves, the former in favor of the war and the latter opposed to it. Mailer argues that he disagrees with both camps and places himself in his own category of the Leftist-Conservative, a label he had employed in several of his other works. Mailer summarized the arguments each side had for and against the war, as well as his disagreements with both parties. He noted that the Hawks held five main arguments in favor of continuing or expanding the Vietnam War:
- it demonstrated that China would not expand guerrilla activities in Asia without great expense;
- rallied small Asian nations to America's side;
- it underlined America’s commitment to defending said small nations;
- it was an inexpensive way to fight a great power, far less expensive than actually fighting a great power directly;
- and was superior to starting a nuclear war with China.
The Doves countered that the Vietnam War failed to defend America, and only united Vietnam with China, nations previously at odds. Additionally, the war was not an inexpensive means of containing China, but rather a phenomenally expensive one. Mailer took care to note that the Vietnam War had already consumed itself. Finally, that the war’s real damage took place in the United States, in which it contributed to the deterioration of civil rights and led to the expose of students to drugs and nihilism.
Mailer argued that the Doves appeared to have more powerful arguments; however, they failed to respond to the Hawks' most pivotal claim, “The most powerful argument remained: what if we leave Vietnam, and all Asia eventually goes Communist? all of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and India?” While the Doves in Mailer’s mind failed to respond to this claim, Mailer himself proves willing to do so. Mailer noted, “While he thought it was probable most of Asia would turn to Communism in the decade after any American withdrawal from the continent, he did not know that it really mattered.” Mailer embraced the possibility that an American withdrawal could lead to a Communist Asia; however, he did not think it was the calamity that most individuals thought it was. He instead argued that Communism wasn't monolithic. The struggle of America to export its technology and culture to Vietnam, regardless of the tremendous amount of money spent, highlighted that the Soviet Union would also be unable to unite all of Asia. To Mailer it was far more likely that these nations, even if they all succumb to Communism, would remain pitted against each other, one might even seek the aid of the United States against another. As such, Mailer argued that the only solution was to leave Asia to the Asians.
Finally Mailer turns to what he holds is the “saddest conclusion” of the Vietnam War, namely it highlighted the country’s deep state of schizophrenia. The nation’s state of schizophrenia had been a theme of Mailer’s work, appearing in such pieces as The White Negro. In Why are We in Vietnam? Mailer noted, “The average American, striving to do his duty, drove further every day into working for Christ, and drove equally further each day in the opposite direction —into working for the absolute computer of the corporation…So the average good Christian American secretly loved the war in Vietnam. It opened his emotions. He felt compassion for the hardships and the sufferings of the American boys in Vietnam, even the Vietnamese orphans.” Mailer sets Christian ethics in opposition to America’s corporate mentality. He argues that these ethics, the Christian and the corporate, are diametrically opposed. However, despite their incompatibility, the average American has managed to live with both in a remarkable feat of cognitive dissonance. The mental gymnastics required by this resulted in the nation’s state of schizophrenia. Vietnam, and conflict at large, presented a type of catharsis which satisfied the moral and material ethics of the nation. The war presented the corporate ethic with the opportunity to expand its influence and technology, while it gave the American Christian outlets for their emotional urges such as pity. Mailer ultimately views these systems of ethics as logically incompatible, yet intertwined in the American psyche. He notes, “America needed the war. It would need a war so long as technology expanded on every road of communication, and the cities and corporations spread like cancer; the good Christian American needed the war or they would lose their Christ.”
The year Armies was published, 1968, Mailer would begin work on another project, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, after witnessing the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that year. Mailer's recounting, though quite different in terms of his self-portrait, takes on a comparable rhetorical approach to evoking what he saw as historical underpinnings.
The Armies of the Night won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, the National Book Award in the arts and letters category, and a George Polk Award for magazine reporting. AON did not become a best-seller, but has been in-print since its publication and frequently makes lists of the best nonfiction books of the twentieth century. The major reviews were resoundingly positive, with only John Simon (1969) and Mario Puzo (1968) dissenting.
List of references to famous people in the book
List of references to other books in the book
- All the King's Men, (1946) by Robert Penn Warren
- A Primer on Money, Banking, and Gold, (1965) by Peter L. Bernstein
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"National Book Awards – 1969". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-10.
"Arts and Letters" was an award category from 1964 to 1976.
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- Piazza, Tom (2011). "Citizen Mailer". Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. New York: Harper Perennial. pp. 213–221. ISBN 9780062008220.
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