Swans Commentary » swans.com June 2, 2008  



Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68


Norman Mailer, A Noncombatant At The Siege


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - June 2, 2008)   In Miami and the Siege of Chicago Norman Mailer proved himself once again to be considerably less and a lot more than a reporter. It was clear by reactions to his death last November that no pigeonhole could hold him. America shrugged and tidied him off stage without ever having found the right label. His name had begun to be kicked around the media in 1948 with charges that The Naked and the Dead was uncouth. By his last years he was a worn out news item. He hadn't been in scrapping form for a good while. There could be no more stories of literary fisticuffs at cocktail parties. The old codger wasn't going to knife another wife. And nobody counted divorces any more in the twenty-first century. The clowning days of his druggy run for mayor of New York were prehistoric copy. Likewise his imposture as a film director typified in the East Hampton brawl of nudity and confusion that hatched Maidstone.

The Irish wake for Mailer didn't start a reading binge. Instead Baby Boomers gushed nostalgia with their pens for a couple of paragraphs and then closed the Mailer volume they'd been leafing through with the other hand. His later efforts had stunned their growing sense that time was money: Harlot's Ghost at 1,310 pages in 1991 left them admiring the man but no longer reading him.

A younger more vociferous generation had no time for Mailer short or long, alive or now dead. They sneered at his windy tall talk, of which there was plenty. Then they railed at his daft conceits, of which there were no less: The White Negro claptrap, the bushwa about the devil, the penchant for ex-cons and the glamour of evil, the macho sex and brutality to women, the no brainer that cancer was a moral ailment, the recurring Luddite lunacy and rants against birth control. Poor Norman, his tongue and pen stilled, was drummed spitefully over the Styx and into superannuation.

This was a mistake. Think of the preposterous personal mythology of William Blake or D. H. Lawrence. Did talk of Urizen, Enitharmon, Bromion, and Luvah make Blake less of a poet? Did Lawrence's weird penis worship rule him out as a great writer? Misjudged jabs of fantasy and the occasional outlandish try-on are the waste product of the novelist's working day.

To Mailer's glory, moreover, he never completed the high dive to the right that characterizes American radicals of his generation. He never told us as David Mamet did recently: "Why I am no longer a 'brain dead' liberal." The final low blow by the Puritans of the literal hit at Mailer's ego. It was too big they said, as if anyone could write for half a century, turning out thousand-page books, without self-confidence totally unjustified in a human animal.

There were of course short, swift novels too, like The American Dream and Why Are We In Vietnam? But in the mid-1960s a different kind of writing had appeared. Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion had all begun to produce what was called "creative nonfiction." Capote set rules for the genre, which just as quickly Mailer broke with glee. The narrator was supposed to keep out of the picture and put the brakes on subjectivity. Mailer made an enemy of Capote by superbly ignoring these strictures as well as the dispute over who first stepped on to the new field. He simply took over the leadership by the sheer energy and fertility of his pen.

The New York Times called him, "Our greatest chronicler of contemporary America." Of A Fire on the Moon and The Fight were only two of the books to come out of this particular cornucopia that Mailer gradually dammed down to a steady stream of facts, personalities and self-irony. The Armies of the Night recounted the march on the Pentagon in 1967. Miami and the Siege of Chicago -- published just forty years ago in another Convention season -- reported on the Republican and Democratic powwows of 1968. These party conventions, while certainly the most dramatic, were not the only ones that Mailer covered. He followed in the footsteps of another very personal commentator who enjoyed mocking politicos and conventioneers, though never himself, H. L. Mencken. But the sage of Baltimore was a pre-gonzo journalist. He fancied himself a straightforward historian and wouldn't have used Mailer's leeway-creating subtitle: An informal history of the American political conventions of 1968.

Mailer begins with the Republican Convention, August 5-9, 1968, in Miami Beach. What Lyndon Johnson called "no American city," Mailer baptizes "the materialistic capital of the world," beating out Las Vegas whose materialism was unreliable, he thought, destabilized by the ups and downs of the gaming table. With a greedy grin he straightway telegraphs his approach. Empathy and a delight in the workings of power won't keep him objective, but anyway will prevent him from being partisan. He may be a skew-eyed reporter, often observing events on TV from a hotel bar; but his novelist's need to get into everyone's skin saves us from just another arid succession of what-happened-next.

Mailer quickly writes off his fellow New Yorker, Nelson Rockefeller. Rocky's imitation of his model for a campaign persona, Spencer Tracy, can't convince Republican delegates whose trust in show biz doesn't go beyond the cheerleading Nixonettes. Candidate Ronald Reagan first strikes Mailer as a gawking outsider who can't get his timing right. He will recognize the governor's dumb smarts later. His fascination is for Nixon's makeover: "Tricky Dick to them no more, but the finest gentleman in the land." The account of Nixon's come-back press conference reads like an analysis of something more serious than politics, more like Mailer's later book-length description of the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight in Zaire. "Nixon was at least, beneath the near to hermetic boredom of his old presence, the most interesting figure at the Convention."

The hours until Nixon's acceptance speech would prove less tedious than Mailer anticipated. He summed it up, "A better speech could not have been written by any computer in existence." It went, "My fellow Americans, the dark long night for America is about to end." Martin Luther King had been murdered April 3rd. American cities had suffered upheaval on an unheard of scale. During the Convention, even the stable materialism of Miami Beach had been shaken by the first race riot in the history of Miami. Six miles from Convention Hall three "Negroes" had been killed and five were in critical condition.

The issue of race, never confronted, pulsed beneath the surface of the Convention. Mailer reports how the Reagan girl cheerleaders tried to drown out the voice of Ralph Abernathy who had turned up with his Poor People's Campaign and Mule Train. Mailer's offhand expression of his own ambiguity on the "Negro" question, his patronizing tone and fatigue with the struggle, surely indicated a national mood. To his credit, Mailer spits out his feeling as it comes. Abernathy makes him wait at a press conference:

But he [Mailer speaking of himself] was so heartily sick of listening to the tyranny of soul music, so bored with Negroes triumphantly late for appointments, so depressed with Black inhumanity to Black in Biafra, so weary of being sounded in the subway by Black eyes, so despairing of the smell of booze and pot and used-up hope in blood-shot eyes of Negroes bombed at noon, so envious finally of that liberty to abdicate from the long year-end decade-drowning yokes of work and responsibility that he must have become in some secret part of his flesh a closet Republican. (Page 52)

Mayor Richard J. Daley served as Mailer's Nixon figure at the August 26-29 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Again the writer was intrigued by how power worked and his instincts pointed in the right direction. The demonizing of Daley by -- to simplify -- the liberal establishment sidestepped important questions. Why, after the mayor's brutal show of force, would he be stronger than ever? Why did most Chicagoans defend him?

"Daley," said Mailer, "was no other-directed twentieth century politician." He "was not a national politician, but a clansman -- he could get 73% of the vote in any constituency made up of people whose ancestors were at home with rude instruments in Polish forests, Ukrainian marshes, Irish bogs -- they knew how to defend the home: so did he. No interlopers for any network of Jew-Wasp media men were going to dominate the streets of his parochial city, nor none of their crypto-accomplices with long hair, sexual liberty, drug license and unbridled mouths." (Pages 101-102)

For Mailer, Daley "had the very face of Chicago," namely, "a broad fleshy nose with nostrils open wide to stench, stink, power, a pretty day, a well-stacked broad, and the beauties of a dirty buck." Fresh to town, Mailer mused grandiloquently on the city's uniqueness: "A town where nobody could ever forget how the money was made." He can be forgiven for his lyricism à la Upton Sinclair on the Union Stock Yards, which had already been cut back in view of closing entirely.

After noting in a fine portrait that Senator Eugene McCarthy, with his thin, ascetic nostrils, wasn't going to count as a candidate here, Mailer had to leave off daydreaming. In Chicago you didn't muse, you defended yourself or better yet went on the offensive. Mailer grabbed at a simple proposition to use as a weapon to beat his way through the Convention's complexity: Politics is property. It would prove a too-loose measure of the situation, and another of Mailer's one-night stands with a big idea.

For confusion was rampant: Johnson afraid to run; Robert Kennedy two months dead; Ted Kennedy refusing to fill in; king-maker Daley opposed to Johnson's and the party's man, Hubert Humphrey; Johnson himself not sure he wanted to be replaced as president by Humphrey; McCarthy and McGovern standing like plaster saints above the fray, the one nay-saying, the other willing to deal but with nothing in his pockets. All this to the tune of the slanging match between antiwar protestors and Daley's precinct captains in the Amphitheatre and the smell of teargas and shriek of sirens in the streets.

In this tumult, Mailer may have been lucky to be handed an active role by the gung-ho Chicago Police and the trigger-happy National Guard. How could a founder of The Village Voice not answer the call and adulation of the Yippies? But you can almost hear Mailer telling himself that he was no young buck any longer, that he had a book to write and alimony payments to meet. So at first he only threw a kiss to the longhairs like a gassed WWI hero waving a 1940s' troopship off to besieged Britain.

Mailer's take on gonzo or reporter-as-participant journalism becomes clear as events in Chicago hot up. On Sunday night he smells trouble brewing in Lincoln Park and decides not to demonstrate his courage as he assures us he did in the march on the Pentagon. He fears losing self-control and laying into the cops, only to provoke massive retaliation. He reminds us that he recently broke a man's jaw. Next morning he hears how reporters had been mauled by police and spouts apologies for his absence. That night, again sniffing around Lincoln Park, he has a new justification for leaving: His companion, a boxer, would surely lose his head and take out six policemen. The boxer had to be protected from inevitable police reaction that would destroy him. As Mailer and his volatile friend retreat from the park, they meet Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Richard Seaver, and Terry Southern going in! Mailer goes off to a party.

As always, Mailer walks a line between poking gentle fun at himself and donning his macho mask. The all-too-human weakness mixed in with the bravado keeps us interested and smiling. Writers who followed Hemingway inherited Papa's heroic posturing. But it really wouldn't wash any longer straight in the glass, uncut by irony. (Nelson Algren also offset his tough guy pose by admitting from time to time that some guys were tougher than he.) The momentum of Mailer's Chicago adventure will be toward the questioning of his own courage. It gives coherence to the last part of the book. The figure projected will be an anti-hero saved by his heroic aspirations and honesty with himself. It sounds flat but is in fact hilarious on the page.

After telling us all about the raucous anti-birthday party for Lyndon Johnson at the Coliseum, Mailer has to admit that he didn't attend. When trouble explodes in front of the Hilton, Mailer observes it from a nineteenth storey window complaining that it takes a half hour to call an elevator and that the telephones up there don't work. He's all for calling what happens below "the massacre of Michigan Avenue" but has to rely on quotes from The New York Times and The Village Voice to tell us what went on in the street.

Which brings us up against the truth of Mailer the reporter: He isn't one. We could have had a better account of the facts from any decent newspaper. Mailer's best insights come when he misses the action. Now he tells us that below in Michigan Avenue the old Democratic Party was splitting definitively in two. It was the same in Lincoln Park. His riffs on the raggle-taggle protestors impressed: "Were these odd unkempt children the sort of troops with whom one wished to enter battle?" But for the details of what happened in the park, he has again to quote a reporter from The Village Voice. His boldness can stagger over into paranoia: He thinks, maybe, the Daley forces wanted their brutality on national TV to show what protestors would suffer if they got out of line in the coming police state. But his taste for subversive speculation can cut to the bone:

Every public figure with power, every city official, high politician, or prominent government worker knows in his unspoken sentiments that the police are essentially a criminal force restrained by their guilt, their covert awareness that they are imposters, and by a sprinkling of career men whose education, rectitude, athletic ability and religious dedication make them work for a balance between justice and authority. (Page 169-170)

A hop and a skip later we reach the subjective kernel of the book. Mailer forsakes the inner dialogue between courage and cowardice and tells us the truth as only he could. His fear is not so much physical as disquiet that all this revolutionary hubbub will disturb his writing life. He needs a certain order, good or bad, in American life so he can capture it in his novelist's sights. In a word, the last thing he needs is a country in upheaval. How else can he continue his unique role of describing, conniving with and resisting American mythologies?

This sentiment isn't merely the creative artist's equivalent to the liberal's familiar middle age shift to the right as he becomes dependent on all the things that money and position can guarantee. The confusion and insight in Mailer comes precisely from his uncertain grip on utopia. Without his delighted horror at the spectacle around him, he wouldn't have much to teach or say.

But Mailer's not the writer to finish on any such note. He swallows a lot of bourbon and lets himself be dragged on to a podium in Grant Park to address the Yippies and the hovering National Guard. It's just what he swore to avoid, but he loves it. This boyish coda to the book will continue with more bourbon and a run in with the Chicago police. Mailer makes up for his cagey aloofness earlier and with a true gonzo flourish staggers off in the dawn toward Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion.


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Peter Byrne on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

The Democratic Convention -- Chicago 1968 - Art Shay

Art Shay's Traces Of A Bygone America - Karen Moller

Big Dumpling's Shock And Awe: Mayor Daley's Chicago - Peter Byrne

The Chicago Conspiracy - Irving Wardle

Expats' Chicago: London, 1968 - Charles Marowitz

Whatever Became Of What's-His-Name, The Radical? - Louis Proyect

Three Memories of Chicago 1968 - Michael Doliner

My Mere View Of The Year 1968 - Carol Warner Christen

Fragments Of 1968 - Pier Paolo Pasolini (translated by Guido Monte)

Exercises In Nostalgia -- 1968 - Gilles d'Aymery

Then, Now, And Tomorrow - Martin Murie

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 2, 2008