Anna Banks

"I keep thinking that if I study the contents of the kitchen long and hard enough, I will figure out some incongruous truth lurking beneath the chaotic surface of Mailer's venture." This is the reaction of Daphne Merkin who, seeking an interview with Mailer, walks into the set of the movie version of Tough Guys Don't Dance, which the author is directing (Merkin 1987, 44). Her reaction could just as well express the feelings experienced by a reader and critic of Mailer's vast body of literature. Seeking to understand Mailer's venture involves the careful scrutiny of his novels, nonfiction essays, poems, plays, social commentaries, and--now we must add--screenplays.

Mailer's latest creative venture, apparently, is in the realm of feature films, and the author's new role is as a director of films. Mailer likens being a director to being an "impresario" and states that while novel writing "is like having a difficult second wife," making a movie is "elegant work" (Merkin 1987, 47). Perhaps more accurately, Mailer's move into the visual realm of films is just a natural extension of his career-long search for central themes through which his experiences can best be conveyed. All his novels and nonfiction writing are evocative and visual in nature, a style that translates easily into the world of film.

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. Each piece of work that Mailer produces represents a clear example of what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls "genre blurring," In his latest book, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, Geertz expands on his notion of genre blurring and takes as his central thesis the concept that awareness of the act of writing goes hand in hand with the analysis of a culture (using culture in the very broad sense of symbolic anthropology).

The collection of writings labeled literary journalism forms an explicitly recognizable case of a "blurred genre." Literary journalists have consciously combined the techniques and styles of fiction writing and journalism into the bisociation we call 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; emphasis in original).

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 ? Walter Benjamin, the German literary critic, stated emphatically that "the rigid isolated object (work, novel, book) is of no use whatsoever. It must be inserted into the context of living social relations" (1973,87). This caveat is a useful guideline for critics of literary journalism, because their contents are inextricably linked to the social context that informs them. Less obvious, but equally significant, is the context surrounding the production of a given work in terms of the author's career and personal development. 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. As Tom Wolfe points out in The New Journalism, it was a commonly accepted axiom that "the novelist was the reigning literary artist, now and forever" (Wolfe 1973,28).

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 a later article, Wolfe, paraphrasing Philip Roth, says "We now live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper" (1989, 48). Wolfe continues in this vein to claim that by the 1960s, "American life was chaotic, fragmented, random, discontinuous, in a word absurd" (49).

Why Are We in Vietnam? was the closest Mailer came in purely fictional form to capturing the absurdity of the events he observed in American social and political life in the 1960s. Ostensibly, Mailer's 1967 novel relates a story told by D.J., an eighteen-year-old boy, as he sits "grassed out" at a dinner party given in his honor. The occasion for the dinner party is that it is the night before D.J. and his friend leave for Vietnam. While the title of the novel poses a crucial question--Why are we in Vietnam?--the story is not about Vietnam so much as about the narrator, D.J.: its information themes, and effects are all filtered through his complex first-person narrative consciousness. The novel takes on the form of the inner consciousness and spontaneous outbursts of D.J., and beneath the surface structure action is the deep structure tale of the young man's "uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self" (a phrase used by Mailer in an earlier essay, "The White Negro"). Through D.J., Mailer examines the motives and actions behind U.S. foreign policy in terms of the American Dream Manifest Destiny, and Western imperialism.

D.J.'s narrative function is to relate a 'tall tale," a literary technique exemplified by Mark Twain. Mailer links his character directly to Twain's famous hero Huckleberry Finn in a chapter titled "Intro Beep One," where D.J. says, "Huckleberry Finn is here to set you straight" (1967, 7). But D.J. is more a perversion of ideal American boyhood. He is a schizophrenic character' a Jekyll and Hyde who is D.J. to the world, but Dr. Jekyll to his friend Tex Hyde. Insofar as D.J. takes on the characteristics of both an African American and a "white boy from Texas," the split is also racial. Thus D.J. is a perverted embodiment of the ideal Huck and the ideal Jim. And when he is "grassed Out'' his relation to the world becomes transistorized and he is plugged into the mind of a Negro genius. Then, the white boy and the black boy speak simultaneously from the same mouth, "trapped in a Harlem Head" (41). As a narrator D.J. is more sophisticated than Huck, and as a character he is more complex. Indeed, D.J. is so complex that, unlike "normal" people, he is not ensnared by "inadequate and restrictively artificial modes of expression" (271).

The schizophrenic D.J. had a forerunner in the archetype described by Mailer in an earlier essay, "The White Negro," which is included in Mailer's collection Advertisements for Myself (1959). For Mailer, the African American man embodied what was "hip," he provided the language of "hip," he was the closest thing we had to an American existentialist. D.J. speaks in the language of hip. His is a King Lear character, the mad man who sees more clearly than the so-called sane ones, because he "suffers from one great American virtue--D.J. sees right through shit" (1967, 35).

The language of hip is key to Mailer's style of literary journalism. 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 language of hip and Mailer's concept of the American existentialist, described in great detail in "The White Negro," are informed by all four literary devices. Mailer describes the unique features of hip:

What makes "hip" a special language is that it cannot really be taught--if one shares none of the experiences of elation and exhaustion which it is equipped to describe, then it seems merely arch or vulgar or irritating. It is a pictorial language, but pictorial like non-objective art, imbued with the dialectic of small but intense change, a language of the microcosm, in this case, man, for it takes the immediate experiences of any passing man and magnifies the dynamic of his movements, not specifically but abstractly so that he is seen more as a vector in a network of forces than as a static character in a crystallized field. (1959, 348-49)

The language of hip is spoken by those who are aware of the absurdities inherent in modern life. For Mailer, writing his essay in 1957, the most aware are existentialists, psychopaths, and African Americans. These are the groups of individuals who are closest to their "inner consciousness" and, because of what Mailer views as their shared deviance from the norms of society, they are the ones who can most fully understand the absurd culture in which we live and "so submit that in a world of absurdities the existential absurdity is most coherent" (1959, 342).

The characteristics of hip as a language and a style and the personality of the existentialist, the psychopath, and the "White Negro" apply equally well to the schizophrenic fictional narrator D.J. and to the narrative persona of "Mailer" in The Armies of the Night and the reporter in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. These two books are the clearest and the most successful of Mailer's literary journalism. Both utilize the literary devices of realistic novels adopted by the new journalism described by Wolfe. Each book is comprised of a series of short chapters depicting, scene by scene, the author's observations and experiences of the context under scrutiny. The characters and the nature of the scenes are developed through careful and complete recording of the dialogue that the author overhears or in which he participates. Furthermore, the details of the characters' appearance and manner and the surroundings in which the author finds himself are described in almost obsessive detail. An example from Miami and the Siege of Chicago illustrates well the cumulative effect of these three devices a cappella, as well as Mailer's own brand of hip language:

At this party McCarthy looked weary beyond belief, his skin a used-up yellow, his tall body serving for no more than to keep his head up above the crowd at the cocktail party. Like feeder fish, smaller people were nibbling on his reluctant hulk with questions, idiotic questions, petulant inquiries he had heard a thousand times. "Why?" asked a young woman college instructor, horn-rimmed glasses, "Why don't we get out of Vietnam?" her voice near hysterical, ringing with the harsh electronics of cancer gulch, and McCarthy looked near to flinching with the question and the liverish demand on him to answer. "Well," he said in his determined mild and quiet voice, last drop of humor never voided--for if on occasion he might be surrounded by dolts, volts, and empty circuits, then nothing to do but send remarks up to the angel of laughter. "Well," said Senator McCarthy, "there seem to be a few obstacles in the way."

But his pale green eyes had that look somewhere between humor and misery which the Creation might offer when faced with the bulldozers of boredom. (1968b, 95-96)

The fourth technique described by Wolfe is the use by literary journalists 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. In describing the style of hip, Mailer states: "Hip sees the context as generally dominating the man, dominating him because his character is less significant than the context in which he must function" (1959,353). Mailer's response to the negatory powers of powerful social contexts is to develop 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).

The acting qualities of Mailer's narrative style can best be illustrated by an examination of The Armies of the Night. In a review of Armies, Alvarez concluded that

[Mailer] has taken a fragment of contemporary history in which he played a part, presented it with all its attendant force, muddled argument and jostling power plays, and made it an internal scenario in which ail the conflicting, deadening facts take on new consciousness as an artist. ( 1968, 362 - 63)

In "The Author as Producer," Walter Benjamin argues persuasively that the traditional dichotomy between form and content is sterile: "We are in the midst of a vast process in which literary forms are being melted down, a process in which many of the contrasts in terms of which we have been accustomed to think may lose their relevance" (1973, 89). The melting down of literary forms is an essential quality of the style of The Armies of the Night--the narrative voice is inextricably linked to the form of the book and, in Bailey's terms, the narrator is able to "sift and select" from the contexts in which he finds himself.

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 self-consciousness regarding the style and form of Armies and his protracted self-reflections regarding his narrative voice find a parallel in the works of contemporary anthropologists seeking to describe and explain the cultures they have journeyed to examine. From this perspective, Mailer's account of the events in October 1967 reads more like an ethnographic account of "that quintessentially American event" than a piece of either fiction or history as they are commonly known (241). In particular, Mailer's account is written in the style that John Van Maanen terms "confessional tales":

The confessional writings usually concern how the fieldworker's life was lived upriver among the natives. They are concerned primarily with how the fieldwork odyssey was accomplished by the researcher.... Often the ethnographer mentions personal biases, character flaws, or bad habits as a way of building an ironic self-portrait with which the readers can identify. The omnipotent tone of realism gives way to the modest, unassuming style of one struggling to piece together something reasonably coherent our of displays of initial disorder, doubt, and difficulty. (1988, 75)

Van Maanen stresses that the details that are important in confessional tales are not what happens to the "natives," but those that constitute the experiences of the author. In addition, the author tends to be a certain type:

Confessional writings rarely portray the author as a passive, unremarkable character who simply stands around waiting for something to happen or for the arrival of the white flash of discovery.... The narrator of the confessional is often a foxy character aware that others may be, intentionally or unintentionally, out to deceive h m or withhold important information. (76)

Both Van Maanen's account of the typical style of a confessional and his description of the narrator of the tale characterize Mailer's brand of literary journalism. A further characteristic of the confessional links the mode more directly to journalism itself:

The confessional is apparently interesting only insofar as there is something of note to confess as well as something of note to situate the confession....Authors of unknown studies will rarely find an audience who cares to read their confession. (81)

Not only will authors of unknown studies lack an audience, but Van Maanen suggests that unknown authors must first make their reputations as realist writers of ethnography before they can "sell" the more personal confessional works. Mailer himself only turned to nonfiction writing, and literary journalism in particular, after he had established a reputation as both a fine writer and a well-known public figure whose opinions were provocative and controversial.

Viewing Mailer as a confessional writer rather than as a journalist, novelist, or essayist also allows us to transcend the form and content dichotomy which forces us to focus on techniques rather than effects. Walter Benjamin regards technique as the dialectical starting point for an analysis which moves beyond this traditional dichotomy and forces us to look at the literary melting pot. This melting process, Benjamin argues, blurs the distinction not only between form and content, but also between author and reader (1973, 87-90).

Confessional tales allow the reader to relate to the event through the eyes of the author and from the perspective of others within the culture. A similar effect is produced in Mailer's literary journalism. The reader vicariously lives the events at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968 and participates in the march on the Pentagon in 1967. At the same time, Mailer's authorial narrative voice conveys his social reality. His is not an invisible narrator, but one who is intrusive, who insists on his view of the world. Other accounts of the events, whether from other participants or from the mass media, temper the author's opinions and allow the accounts to take the form of what Geertz calls "documentaries that read like confessionals"-- a case of genre blurring (1983, 20). Yet, we are left in no doubt that, in Mailer's literary journalism, the issues that matter are those that affect the author. Mailer's account, like the confessional anthropologist's, is usually a tale that suggests that the activities he describes constitute a character-building conversion for him.

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.

In The Executioner's Song (1979), it would appear that Mailer has produced a work of literary journalism that is realist rather than confessional. The blurring of genres still applies, however. Although it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980, the book is clearly in the literary journalistic tradition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field. The real names of real people are used, as the book tells of the life and times of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who was executed m Utah in 1977. Mailer wrote the book after interviewing more than a hundred people and reviewing documents and court testimony. In addition letters that Gilmore wrote play a central role in the narrative and in the development of Gilmore's character. Mailer admitted, however, in the book's Afterword that he had improved Gilmore's letters by trimming them and transposing certain words, sentences, and phrases. Mailer also explains in the Afterword that the book "does its best to be a factual account." He also says that his purpose was to write a "true life story. . . as if it were a novel." In the end, while the story is clearly Gilmore's, it is also Mailer's version of Gilmore and the West, and so bears some comparison to the concept of confessional writing. As one critic observed about the book: "He [Mailer] seems to have grafted an Eastern urban dream of the Wild West complete with sixpacks, CBs, and pickup trucks, onto a conventional paradigm about poverty and child abuse eventuating in anomie and murder" Johnson 1979, 3).

What distinguishes Mailer's writing on a more philosophical level is that he embodies Wolfe's claim that good writing will not come from accepting defeat at the absurdities of modern life, not to "leave the rude beast, the material known as life around us, to the journalists, but to do what journalists do, or are supposed to do, which is to wrestle the beast and bring it to terms" (Wolfe 1989, SS). Mailer's confessional anthropology is a direct challenge to the beast.


Mailer, Norman. 1959. "The White Negro." In Advertisements for Myself. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

-----. 1967. Why Are We in Vietnam? New York: C. P. Putnam's Sons.

-----. 1968a. The Armies of the Night. New York: New American Library.

-----. 1968b. Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: New American Library.

-----. 1971. The Long Patrol: Twenty-five Years of Writing from the Work of Norman Mailer. Ed. Robert F. Lucid. New York: World. -----. 1974. The Faith of Graffiti. New York: Praeger.

-----. 1979. The Executioner's Song. Boston: Little, Brown.


Alvarez, A. 1968, June 7. "Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye." Commonweal.

Bailey, Jennifer. 1970. Norman Mailer: Quick Change Artist. London: Macmillan.

Benjamin, Walter. 1973. "The Author as Producer." In Understanding Brecht. London: New Left Books.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books.

-----. 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Johnson, Diane. 1979, Dec. 6. "Death for Sale." Review of The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer. New York Review of Books.

Merkin, Daphne. 1987, Oct. "His Brilliant (New) Career?" American Film: 44.

Van Maanen, John. 1979. "The Fact of Fiction in Organizational Ethnography." Administrative Sciences Quarterly 24: 539-50. -----. 1988. "Confessional Tales." In Tales of the Field. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolfe, Tom. 1973. The New Journalism. With an Anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson. New York: Harper and Row.

Wolfe, Tom. 1989, Nov. "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." Harper's Magazine: 45-56.