On October 21, 1967, more than 30,000 protesters of the Vietnam War marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The event was one of the major watermarks in public opposition to United States involvement in the War. Norman Mailer, one of America’s most outspoken critics of the War, covered the event in a work he titled, The Armies of the Night.
A basic book review would state that Armies of the Night is a pinnacle of modern journalism. Mailer recounts the protest, using detailed narratives and descriptive reporting of history to state what really happened in the points leading up to and through the course of the event, while always acknowledging his own unique involvement. The work also covers his arrest and the night he spent in jail before moving into a reflection of the March, crossing the significance of history with social importance. Mailer fills his writing with narratives from his critics, his reporting covers everything, he goes into such great detail that his writing involves the reader to the point of fascination. This is complete reporting, however incapable of total objectivity. In the most true sense, Mailer writes as a subjective journalist, allowing his own perceptions to be reflected throughout the work. The Armies of the Night was written more as a nonfiction novel supported by masterful reporting and a truly unique sense of perception than a traditional journalistic endeavor.
Mailer writes the entire work in the third person narrative. His supporting narratives include the words of members in the intellectual and political communities, members of the military police, individuals best described as involved in the counter-culture, and even the great poet Robert Lowell. Mailer’s inclusion of a never-ending body of sources allows the work to draw out the writer’s involvement with all of them. Mailer’s perception and radical sense of life are the most completely engaging talents of his subjective journalism. However, his gift as a writer is only enhanced by the amount of detail he provides about the military presence throughout the March, the riding of buses, the gathering of all walks of life, the writer’s own bourbon-soaked public speaking, his conversations with prisoners in jail.
His complete coverage of the protest allowed Mailer to offer his critique on the political world, on war, on race-relations, and on the counter-cultural movement. Mailer was a liberal in his own way, certainly separated in difference from the hippies, but also far from the conservative mind. Mailer’s research wasn’t so much directed by his own feelings and opinions as it was by the fact that he was directly involved and this is his story. The reader will understand Mailer’s feelings and ideas right from the beginning, that was clearly the great author’s intention. His options are shamelessly flushed out amongst a crowd of words and the opinions of others. He doesn’t rely on statistics for accuracy as much as he does historical details and conversational narratives. These are just several of the factors that make Armies of the Night a truly unique and special work. Mailer’s writing brims with humor, satire, critique, self-effacing reveal, wit, outspoken opinion and masterful reporting, more engaging than Truman Capote, clearly less extreme than Hunter S. Thompson.
Norman Mailer was an American treasure for over 50 years, although he certainly had his critics, which, in contrast, he criticized for his entire literary life. He changed the face of American journalism and seemingly expanded what a journalist could accomplish with a combination of a vibrant, expressive writing and an incredibly unique sense of perception. Mailer blended the literary techniques of colorful nonfiction with the personal inflection of subjective journalism, allowing his perception and personal involvement to unforgivingly break through his writing. He was one of the first writers to blend the form of the essay with true journalism, purveyor of the nonfiction novel by way of liberal and outspoken literary voice. His writing served as a self-portrait behind the guise of descriptive journalism. His death in 2007 was a great loss for the literary world.