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The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer Essay

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Updated: Mar 25th, 2019

The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/ The Novel as History is a 1968 award-winning book by Norman Mailer combining the characteristics of several genres. By fusing the journalistic methods, historical account, photographic images and fiction tropes, Mailer provides a uniquely interesting and original narration of the 1967 anti-war march on Pentagon which he witnessed as one of the protesters.

Mailer fuses the journalistic methods with tropes which are usually used in fiction for creating the unique account of the historical events. The author uses the genre of the so-called new journalism, including the critical analysis, portrait series and description of his individual perceptions of the events into his reportage.

This original experiment allows combining the inside and outside views for looking at the discussed events under different angles. Mailer speaks about himself in the third person singular, not changing the name of the main protagonist: “Mailer never felt more like an American than when he was naturally obscene” (Mailer 61).

By the way, from this citation it can be seen that the author knows the feelings and thoughts of the main protagonist which allows getting an inside view of his inner world and the processes taking place in the soul and mind of a participant of the anti-war demonstration.

Mailer offers his readers to take part in the process of creating a book and intentionally makes some mistakes in his narration for making it more natural and reliable.

Moreover, the author shows how the narration about the 1967 march could turn into an ordinary fiction book. History as a Novel/ The Novel as History is a subtitle of the book which proves that Mailer intentionally mixed the two genres for enriching the content of his work and experimenting with the manner of presentation of the materials and the readers’ perception.

The genre created by the author is uniquely interesting and beneficial for making the narration of the historical events subjectively rich and imaginatively complex. The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/ The Novel as History is valuable not only because it was one of the first accounts of the events written by one of the participants, but also it provides opportunities for original and unexpected interpretations.

Mailer seems to be sincere when describing his immediate reactions to separate fragments of the march which is a rather chaotic event if described in details.

For example, depicting the scene of random attack of the police on the participants of the demonstration, the journalist/writer explains his first response of not recognizing the surroundings and not knowing how to act. “Mailer knew where he had seen this before, this posture of men running in charge , yes it had been in the photographs of Mathew Brady of Union soldiers on the attack across the field” (Mailer 126).

Making comparisons with the photographs which are obviously widely known among the readers of his time, Mailer tries to familiarize the unfamiliar and appeal to the readers’ prior experience.

Mailer uniquely combines the methods of estrangement and familiarization which seem incompatible, but surprisingly complement each other in the book under analysis. Mailer is concerned with the readers’ perceptions and uses different tropes for involving them into the depicted events and recognizing the unfamiliar fragments through comparing them with well-known concepts or applying the generally accepted cultural frames to them.

Trying to make his reportage of historical events more reliable, Mailer as a writer/journalist borrows journalistic methods and focuses on photographic aspect of his narration. There are lots of visual images in the discussed novel which allow reconstructing the pictures of the 1967 march on the Pentagon.

The sequence of visual images describing the demonstrators who run in a panic from the Pentagon makes the novel to resemble reportage from the occurrence location. Though this book is not an objective account, the emphasized photographic aspect enhances its reliability. The comments from Mailer are also significant for interpreting these pictures and decoding the symbols contained in them.

The imagery of the book is not limited to visual ones because symbolic and even mythological implications are important for understanding the main ideas. The author’s voice is needed for paying special attention to the motifs of the Civil War and comparisons with Aztecs’ rites which can be found in the book under analysis. Attempting to provide a historical account of the depicted march, the author views the discussed demonstration in the context of American culture and the previous history of the country.

At the same time, paying attention to the variety of historical and cultural contexts, Mailer focuses on realistic presentation of the march and some of its participants, including even shocking and obscene details which could be omitted in a fiction book or historical account, but are significant for reportage.

The unique genre created by Mailer for his non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night allowed combining the historical scenes witnessed by the author with his unique interpretations of the events is valuable for combining the inside and outside views in analyzing the 1967 demonstration.

Works Cited

Mailer, Norman. The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/ The Novel as History. New York: New American Library, 1968. Print.

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