Interview by Vicki Mayk
Norman Mailer: The Sixties is a two-volume set that includes four full-length books and 33 essays chronicling the culture, politics and dramatic events of that era. Volume one includes two of his novels – An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? – and two of his most important works of nonfiction, The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. The collection of essays in volume two opens with “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,“ Mailer’s memorable account of John F. Kennedy as a presidential candidate at the Democratic Party’s 1960 convention. Other essays bring to life important figures of the day – from Jackie Kennedy to William F. Buckley – and examine important issues of the era, including race and the war in Vietnam.
Any writer of nonfiction or memoir owes a debt to Mailer, who pioneered techniques that came to define nonfiction, memoir and the New Journalism. I interviewed J. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer’s authorized biographer, to discuss the work included in the Sixties collection and what lessons they hold for nonfiction writers today. Lennon’s books include Norman Mailer: A Double Life and Selected Letters of Norman Mailer. Lennon is emeritus professor of English at Wilkes University, where he teaches in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing.
Few writers were as prolific as Norman Mailer. Why did you choose this period in his long writing career for a collection?
The discussions with Library of America have been going on for a number of years about producing a collection. It’s 50 years after great events of 1968 that were defining moments in America. Mailer had three books come out in 1967 and 1968. All three were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. So the decision was to go with the moment of the 50th anniversary. It seems especially appropriate because everybody’s been making comparisons with the turbulent Sixties and the kind of unrest we’re seeing in America today.
Mailer was part of the New Journalism, along with people like Gay Talese and Joan Didion. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, for The Executioner’s Song and in nonfiction for The Armies of the Night, the latter of which is included in this collection. He started out as a novelist. How did he evolve?
In the early Fifties, after his great success with The Naked and the Dead, Mailer saw himself as a novelist in the tradition of Henry James, a quiet and reflective observer standing apart from public life and writing long, complex novels that revealed society. That all changed in 1955 when he co-founded the Village Voice, and wrote a controversial weekly column for it as well, which was the beginning of alternative journalism in the U.S. He became the central journalistic observer of the Sixties, using his own sensibility and celebrity to probe the nature of the controversial events and issues of the day—the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, feminism, the despoiling of the environment, technology and the moonshot—instead of reporting on them as if he was an anonymous observer sitting in the grandstand. He used himself vividly and with great determination in his writing, all through the 1960s, until 1975, when he wrote The Fight, his account of Muhammed Ali’s championship fight with George Foreman. In that book, he realized that he was growing tired about writing about himself and pulled back. An example of that is The Executioner’s Song in 1979, which is narrated by a quiet voice from the other side of the hill. He takes himself out of the narrative in that book, and he wins his second Pulitzer. Mailer was forever playing with point of view; it’s the key to understanding his narrative voice.
What makes Mailer stand out as an essayist, particularly here, where he’s writing about the Sixties?
All great essays examine large questions. Essays may be grounded in topical events, but they put those topical events into a larger historical and philosophical context. Mailer is of that school. His writing always comes out of the crisis of the moment, the question of the moment, but then they go on to look at the underlying forces, the tectonic shifts, to explain what is happening.
There’s another thing to be said about his essays: They use a lot of fictional techniques. He did it with great concentration in a way not often seen up to that point. Mailer began as a novelist; he was schooled in the traditions and techniques of the great novelists. Novels have to have sensuous descriptions of settings and pivotal moments, as well as the inner life of the characters. So we see him mixing all this in with a presentation of the issues of the day. It’s not often seen in political reportage before that. For example, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” opens with this dramatic description of JFK, tanned and handsome, white teeth gleaming, arriving in an open convertible at the Biltmore Hotel for the 1960 Democratic Convention, crowds cheering as if he is a movie star, juxtaposed with the question of whether he can win the nomination and face Richard Nixon. Mailer uses big scenes like this in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, where we have the moment in Grant Park where he and Alan Ginsberg speak to a large crowd of anti-war protestors. In his piece about a fight where a boxer was killed, “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” Mailer spends 10 pages writing about the faces of the mafia in the audience, describing them — some are like chicken hawks, some are old eagles, others look like condors. You feel like you’ve been sitting there in the second row at the boxing match. No reporter before Mailer would spend a lot of time on that kind of description.
One of the three full-length books included in the set is The Armies of the Night, which Mailer wrote about the protests at the Pentagon in October 1967. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for nonfiction. Why was it a landmark work?
Armies of Night is history, journalism, it’s a novel and it’s a memoir. It has a wonderful narrative line following a three-day period of protest culminating in a march to the Pentagon. Over 100,000 protestors came to Washington to protest the Vietnam War. The march was ultimately was one of the factors that led LBJ [President Lyndon Johnson] to drop out of presidential race. Mailer was there with Robert Lowell, Noam Chomsky and other notables, and was arrested. On the plane ride back, he’s asking himself, ‘How do I write about this?’ He realized he had been in center of events, and that he had to explain who he was and what he felt, the inner life, but he didn’t want to use “I” in writing about the three days. So he took a leap and decided to write about himself in the third person. The formal name for the technique is illeism. No one had used it in American writing for a long time, all the way back to Gertrude Stein and Henry Adams. It is a strange point of view, a seldom-used tool in the writer’s tool chest. Mailer takes over the stage as a half-heroic, three-quarters comic figure (as he put it) in what Truman Capote called the nonfiction novel.
You just mentioned that Armies of the Night is memoir. I’m not sure many people think of Mailer writing in that genre. What lessons does his writing hold for those of us who write memoir?
The problem with many memoirs is navel gazing. I-I-I-I. The writer jumps into the well of self-regard. Often, memoirists don’t pay sufficient attention to context. They don’t pay attention to the forces and events surrounding them, the historical moment, and they often say little about the other actors. We’re locked in a person’s head, and we want to escape and see that person connecting with the world. ‘Armies’ is great medicine to combat the narcissism of memoir writing. Mailer is writing about himself in the winds and tumults of events, and the third person allows him to see things from both sides. You get his inner ambience along with the surrounding swirl of the zeitgeist.
You began this interview saying the period of the Sixties was chosen for this collection because the political unrest was similar to what we’re seeing now in the United States. What do you think Mailer would say about that?
I really wish he were around to write about the situation today. We are experiencing another crisis in our democracy. The country is divided, the same as in the 1960s. Mailer was there to give us reports from the front. Democracies undergo these roiling upheavals every 30, 40, 50 years. Democracy is messy. Mailer knew that and was superb at pointing out latent fascism. He was always fearful of that. He predicted that it would be easy for someone like Trump to come into power. From the late 1940s on, he warned that we’ve got to be wary of divisive, casually cruel politicians who talk about me-me-me all the time. Over the years, he was critical of politicians who exhibited those tendencies. He said it about George Wallace and about Ross Perot. Mailer had the stature to do it. We don’t have any pubic intellectuals like Mailer (or Buckley, Sontag, Vidal) any more. You can’t point to anyone like that today. But we have the books.
Vicki is the editor of the magazine at Wilkes University, where she also teaches adult creative nonfiction workshops and a class about the power of story for freshmen.