Norman Mailer (b. 1923)
Contributing Editor: Barry H. Leeds
Classroom Issues and Strategies
To begin with, any approach to teaching Norman Mailer's work must take into consideration his flamboyant and controversial public image, which often obscures critical responses to the works. Amazingly, many college students will not recognize Mailer's name at first; but those who do will very probably be armored in negative preconceptions, often based on incomplete or erroneous information.
The selections from The Armies of the Night presented in the anthology provide an opportunity to deal effectively with this issue: Mailer is ultimately shown, not as an unconscionable egotist presenting himself as his own hero, but as a rather self-deprecating narrator/protagonist. For example, crossing the line of MP's in his act of civil disobedience, he describes himself as a somewhat ridiculous figure:
"It was his dark pinstripe suit, his vest . . . the barrel chest, the early paunch--he must have looked like a banker himself, a banker, gone ape!" (pp. 150-151, Signet edition).
Again, before being arrested, Mailer feels, almost unwillingly, that "a deep modesty was on its way to him .. . as well as fear, yes now he saw it, fear of the consequences of this weekend in Washington" (Signet, p. 93).
This emerging new sense of self leads to a crucial realization: "No, the only revolutionary truth was a gun in the hills, and that would not be his, he would be too old by then, and too incompetent, yes, too incompetent said the new modesty, and too showboat, too lacking in essential judgment . . ." (Signet, p. 94).
Yet despite the constant interplay here (as in his life and work as a whole) between the performer and the thoughtful commentator, what looms far larger is Mailer's evocative capacity to strike to the heart of an issue of national significance in his prose. Consider the forceful and moving conclusion to The Armies of the Night, entitled "The Metaphor Delivered" (Signet, p. 320).
The unusual point of view used here, which was to become a hallmark of Mailer's nonfiction of the 1970s, provides interesting possibilities for a discussion of point of view and genre.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The historical themes are obvious from the nature of The Armies of the Night and its relationship to the Vietnam War. Mailer's preoccupation with existential choice, personal courage, and integrity are evident in the passages selected.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
As I have explained in my headnote, Mailer's development from a derivative and naturalistic vision in The Naked and the Dead (1948) to a unique and highly existential one in later works such as An American Dream (1965) is evident in The Armies of the Night. The concept of the "nonfiction novel" and the unusual third-person participant/narrator point of view are important in any discussion of Armies and Mailer's sub-sequent work.
It is interesting and important to discuss the significance (or perceived insignificance) of those events recounted in The Armies of the Night to today's students. Further, my footnotes will to some degree ameliorate unfamiliarity with particular people or events.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Parallels can be drawn to Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa (1935), Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and even The Education of Henry Adams (1907). Further, Mailer's early work, notably The Naked and the Dead (1948) was influenced profoundly by James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Do you find Mailer's use of himself as a third-person participant effective or confusing? This book, which won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, has often been cited, along with Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) as an example of the "new journalism." But a similar point of view was used by Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams as early as 1907, and the concept of a "nonfiction novel" dates back at least as far as Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa (1935). Does this relatively unusual form attract or repel you?
2. Mailer writes (Signet, p. 63): "The American corporation executive . . . was perfectly capable of burning unseen women and children in the Vietnamese jungles, yet felt a large displeasure and fairly final disapproval at the generous use of obscenity in literature and public." Do you agree with Mailer that depersonalized governmental violence is more obscene than the use of four-letter words?
3. Consider Mailer's final statements in "The Metaphor Delivered." Do you feel that Mailer, despite his antiwar civil disobedience, is a patriot? Do the U.S. Marshals who think him a traitor love their country more? Were you emotionally moved by this conclusion?
4. These events took place more than twenty years ago. Do they seem to have any bearing on your life, and on the America you live in today, or do they seem like ancient history? Are the participants (e.g., Robert Lowell, Dwight MacDonald) familiar or alien to you?
5. Can you envision any future national situation in which similar demonstrations might occur? Are there any that you might find justifiable?
The Armies of the Night," in The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer by Barry H. Leeds (NYU Press, 1969) seems to help render the book more accessible to my students. Chapter 8. Also:
Lennon, J. Michael, ed. Critical Essays on Norman Mailer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Manso, Peter. Mailer: His Life and Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.