Commentary Magazine

Miami and the Siege of Chicago, by Norman Mailer

The Conventions, 1968

Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
by Norman Mailer.
World (hardcover), 242 pp., $5.95; Signet (paperbound), 224 pp., $.95.

Norman Mailer is above all a novelist in this book of reportage because in it he writes, as always when at his best, about things that he has not yet made up his mind about. Once he lets his ideas get fixed, he seems unable to use them creatively and becomes instead their polemicist. When this happens, his prose flattens out as well, and the reader is left with Mailer's rather leaden notions about cancer, architecture, or sex.

Perhaps that is why the two-week book is so well-suited to his gifts. Writing at high speed, he has time only to comprehend people and events imaginatively, in the novelist's way. As it turns out, in the frenetic form of his last two books, Mailer has found for himself a way to approximate the accomplishments of the classic American writers. They too had much to fear from giving a subject too much thought. Brooders like Hawthorne, Melville, and Mark Twain knew that they could destroy themselves and their work with too much intellection, and Hawthorne took that danger for the theme of many of his stories, in which excessive brooders destroyed their own works of art and even their loved ones.

When we think of the great achievements in American writing we tend to think of symbolism and fantasy, of the romantic and the farfetched: the white whale, the dream world of Huckleberry Finn and Jim on the magic river, Hawthorne's dark, puritan forests of symbols. But the other side of the American imagination has been just as important in its very different function of dealing with facts in order somehow to illuminate them. Mailer is not the first American novelist to revel in the role of reporter, gatherer of facts. I am thinking not only of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, but of the other side of Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn themselves, where not fantasy but things reign. Even more to the point, for Mailer's is a book about Chicago and about hotels, is Dreiser, who also could breathe life into the dross of America's gilt existence.

What, after all, is Mailer's subject in his coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions but the petty doings of petty men, hack politicians, and second and third-raters like Nixon, Humphrey, and Agnew? What are his settings but their hotel lobbies and crepe-paper-and-balloon-decorated convention halls (“a union had charged 33 cents to blow up each single balloon,” Mailer reports)? It is true that some of the genuinely imposing personalities of The Armies of the Night are here, and its army of youth, too, but they are this time less prominent and less convincing than the men at work, the dealers and hangers-on of the two parties. This time, significantly, Mailer saw few of the intellectuals and missed most of the spectacular action in Chicago and all of it in Miami, much to the benefit of his book, I would say.

In the first part of The Armies of the Night the ever-present protagonist was referred to as “Mailer,” but the second part was a straightforward account of the night of police clubbings of demonstrators on the Pentagon steps in which Mailer attempted to see the events in their larger context, and in which, since he had not been present, he had to imagine the scene into fictional reality.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago is continuous with “The Battle of the Pentagon,” as that second part was called, in having Mailer himself, though present most of the time, decidedly less on review; it is continuous also in its attempt generally to make sense of things by extrapolation rather than by introspection. This time Mailer is “the reporter,” still the bundle of contradictions—cockiness and self-distrust, garrulity and incoherence—of “Mailer,” but a reporter on assignment, too, botching the job of course but saving the book. The reporter would have the reader believe that he saved himself by a series of gestures similar to his arrest at the Pentagon: this time, a speech to the protesters and the watching National Guard delivered on the last night in Chicago, a momentary arrest for baiting a Guardsman, and a punch in the nose by a kook minutes later, for which he was again arrested and again released. But actually his salvation, or at least the salvation of the book, is the Republican and Democratic parties.

The best moment in Chicago turns out not to be Mailer's arrest but the low point of both conventions, Humphrey's acceptance speech. Mailer here directs at Hubert Humphrey that contempt reserved for one's own that so many disaffected liberals have heaped upon him. (Johnson somehow kept his opponents' feelings pent up, perhaps because his presence inspired an almost physical fear.) But incontestably the most devastating of all is Mailer's comparison of Humphrey with “a sales manager in a small corporation,”

who takes a drink to get up in the morning, and another drink after he has made his intercom calls: the sort of man who is not proud of drinking; and so in the coffee break, he goes to the John and throws a sen-sen down his throat. All day he exudes odors all over: sen-sen, limewater, pomade, bay rum, deodorant, talcum, garlic, a whiff of the medicinal, the odor of Scotch on a nervous turn, rubbing alcohol!

This may be more willed than observed, but after it Humphrey can never seem the same. The sen-sen is its most revealing touch—sen-sen, that twenty years ago was one of those terms the mere mention of which by a radio comedian automatically triggered a laugh. And that is just the point about Humphrey: he is ridiculous in an anachronistic way, as the Republicans have always been. This time Mailer was lucky to be covering two events which were best understood in terms of the immediate postwar period, the time that he probably knew best, as one always knows best the style and language of his young manhood.


“The siege of Chicago,” as the second half of the book is called, leads up to the police atrocities by opening with a passage on the influence of the stockyards on the style of Chicago. Yet, though the violence predictably moved Mailer most as a man, it was the shenanigans of the Democrats and Humphrey that moved him most as an artist. He seems to have sensed this, for despite a mounting guilt, he found himself missing the beatings in favor of the convention (even if he could watch it only on television).

Allaying that guilt and coming to terms with the moral authority of the demonstrators, take up an important part of “The Siege of Chicago,” but the personal quest is this time exactly that, personal merely, and lacking what redeemed it last time—the representative quality of Mailer's posturings even at their most ludicrous. I should confess that I found the accounts of his speeches tedious in both books, along with a good deal more of what was personal—in this book we have his immediate reaction to the death of Bobby Kennedy, guilt feelings toward his wife, and suspicions of personal cowardice at not joining the demonstrators. He writes of one speech that “It was as good a speech as he ever made.” Probably. Only he does not seem to realize how excruciatingly and embarrassingly bad he is as a speaker, what a bundle of conflicting poses he is, or that he is just a modest man trying to be outrageous and succeeding only in being tedious. But Mailer's real achievement lies in his treatment of those speeches and proceedings still more tedious than his own. In the previous book the demonstrators, having his sympathy as one of their own, needed to be criticized, needed the author's critical distance if he was to make them come alive. But the politicos at the center of this book—absurd, grotesque, insensitive—called for the more fruitful novelistic act of sympathy to be comprehended. Not to say that Mailer doesn't write well about the Chicago demonstrators, only that his treatment could have been equaled by others. But no one else has been able to write of “the sort of improvement” in Richard Nixon,

that comes upon a man when he shifts in appearance from looking like an undertaker's assistant to looking like an old con seriously determined to go respectable. The Old Nixon, which is to say the young Nixon, used to look, on clasping his hands in front of him, like a church usher (of the variety who would twist a boy's ear after removing him from church). The older Nixon had finally acquired some of the dignity of the old athlete and the old con.

Surely this is less spectacular than what Mailer had to say about Humphrey. But I believe that his sympathetic projection into a man whom he sees as having made a comeback, politics aside for the moment, will prove more lasting than his demolishing of Humphrey, about whom he had come closer to making up his mind.

In the end Mailer determines to vote for neither candidate, but he has gotten inside them, or rather re-created them for himself and in the process shown us that Nixon may not be as bad as we and he had thought. In the meantime his Nixon, conceived of as undertaker's assistant and church usher, takes us back to the atmosphere of the Goldwater convention where Mailer began developing the view of the Republicans now brought to fruition. In a passage that might have been written in the 50's, Mailer describes a receiving line for Nixon as,

a pilgrimage of minor delegates . . . who owned hardware stores or were druggists, or first teller in the bank, proprietor of a haberdashery or principal of a small-town high school, local lawyer, retired doctor, a widow on tidy income, her minister and fellow-delegate, minor executives from minor corporations, men who owned their farms, an occasional rotund state party hack with a rubbery look, editor of a small-town paper, professor from Baptist teachers' college, high school librarian, young political aspirant, young salesman. . . .

In Miami Beach Mailer also slipped into a Ronald Reagan reception; here he was mistaken, he believes, for a guard or secret service man, just as Professor F. W. Dupee recently reported having rushed onto the closed Columbia campus among a gang of plainclothesmen who took him for one of their own. As the police infiltrators learn to look like hippies, the intellectuals are imagining themselves as cops. It is an old dream of Mailer's—later he thinks of himself as a general inspecting troops—a dream of the tough-guy intellectual 50's, before there came in the heroic pacifism which these last two books try so hard to comprehend. Now, as the couples file into the reception Mailer stands watching them like an alert security man, observing that,

Most of them were ill-proportioned in some part of their physique. Half must have been, of course, men and women over fifty and their bodies reflected the pull of their character. The dowager's hump was common, and many a man had a flaccid paunch, but the collective tension was rather in the shoulders. . . .

There is compassion here for the right wing of the Republicans, giving more evidence that Mailer's gift from the beginning has been to feel the emotions of the Right. When he chooses to devote himself to its fascist types the effort seems to me not so useful, but when he gets at the Republican party he can bring news not to be found anywhere else, as when he speaks of “the muted tragedy of the Wasp—they were not on earth to enjoy . . . they were here to serve. . . . In San Francisco in '64 they had been able to be insane for a little while, but now they were subdued, now they were modest.” Here the mind of the novelist creating its own reality comprehends more than its subjects' own thoughts about themselves. Yet it wouldn't surprise me if, in both receptions, Mailer was not right about a single undertaker, schoolmarm, or lawyer, but was really looking in turn at an abortionist, a Madam, and an athletic coach. He would still be right. And so would he still be right about the Democrats among whom “you needed a score card to tell the trade-union from the Maf.”

And Mailer is right as well in the long introductory section on Chicago's stockyards with their primitive slaughtering methods, which he makes into epitomes of the hardness of the city. The smell of the yards hovers over the rest of the narrative, reminding us that the beatings of the demonstrators and the strong-arm methods at the convention taking place right in the stockyards area are both versions of Chicago violence. But Mailer again is twenty years out of date: The stockyards are now hardly in use—Armour and Swift moved out of Chicago from 1952 to 1957—and animals are now tranquilized before they are slaughtered.


The Brilliant cockiness and disregard for accuracy that serves Mailer so well is only the well-placed arrogance of art; as a man, he has in the year since the march on the Pentagon evidently himself become more subdued and modest. Once only too happy to explore the violence, the fascist in himself, he has now done something far more intellectually demanding: he has confronted his own conservatism, and even—still worse!—his own creeping liberalism. He suddenly realizes that he is tired of the Negro revolution, that he is not sure how much he is willing to give up in the fight against America's excesses of the 60's, that for intellectual reasons he is no longer spiritually linked with the demonstrators. Finally, he pays tribute to the liberals he was so hard on at the Pentagon but who marched off with candles from the Convention hall toward a hostile neighborhood on their way downtown to protest the police violence: “Was it remotely possible,” he writes, “that they possessed more courage than himself?” All of these dilemmas are expressed as fears that are later supposed symbolically to be released by his confrontation with the police. Undoubtedly this is the way it worked for Mailer in Chicago, but in the book the dilemmas seem less like fears than intellectual conundrums, and they do not so easily disperse. The result is a far more thoughtful book than the last.

What happened to Mailer in Chicago, I believe, was that the hippies acted out the furthest extremes of his own imagination. They stood for total opposition to the cancerous society he had belabored for years and for the total release of the instinctual man for which he had also spoken and written. But what he saw he could not like; he realized that he was—and he had the courage to put this down—as divided a man as the divided liberals. He admitted that his own life, like all civilized life, subsisted on compromises, even hypocrisies. At the end there is some retreat from this admission, but, more importantly, it casts over the whole of Miami and the Siege of Chicago a new kind of reasonableness for Mailer which I find an achievement larger even than that of his last book.

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