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Sign of the Times - Norman Mailer and The New Journalism

Journalism as a tradition has always been founded on the principles of objectivity and nonpartisanship. It is the balance between objectivity and interpretation that defined the role of the journalist in sifting through the ‘dislocations of politics, economics and society’ and producing only cold facts for the reader (Pauly, 2014, p. 592). However, as Cold War America grew increasingly polarised at the advent of the 1960s, a new generation of writers and journalists began responding to the destabilising forces in society by addressing stories in less detached ways. Writers began including narrative devices and personal perceptions, impressions and opinions in otherwise journalistic reports on real and significant events. Dubbed ‘New Journalism’, this movement that developed in the 1960s and 1970s marked a fascinating turning point in nonfiction writing. Working contrary to many of the respected traditions of reporting, a new generation of American writers began to develop a uniquely involved style that rejected claims of objectivity and factual observation (Wolfe, 1973). Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1954) is often cited as amongst the first examples. Although Capote became intimately familiar with the two young killers of a suburban family in Holcomb, Kansas, he ultimately stressed his detachment from the story itself in what he dubbed the ‘nonfiction novel’. In subsequent years, other prominent journalists such as Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe began publishing increasingly ‘literary’ and subjective pieces in literary magazines and journals such as Harper’s and Esquire. By the mid-1960s, New Journalism had established itself as a prominent, yet controversial presence in contemporary writing (MacDonald, 1965). This article will examine the cultural significance, controversies and legacies of the movement, using two late-60s works by Norman Mailer - The Armies of the Night (1968) and A Fire on the Moon (1970) as principle demonstrations of the genre.

Norman Mailer (1923 - 2007) was a highly prominent writer of fiction before he began working as a journalist. His novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) propelled him to national fame and he continued publishing mostly fiction in the form of novels e.g. Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), and short fiction in Advertisements for Myself (1959). Mailer’s background in literature inspired him and the other proponents of New Journalism to dispense with the rigid factualism of traditional reporting and instead utilise the emotive capabilities of fiction and narrative storytelling to convey the truest sense of a story.

One of the cess-filled horrors of the Twentieth-Century slowly seeping in on the journalist was that they were becoming obsolete. Events were developing a style and structure which made them almost impossible to write about (Mailer, A Fire on the Moon, p. 73).

The Armies of the Night (1968) is Mailer’s account of the 1967 student march on the Pentagon in opposition to the Vietnam War. The U.S. government had begun drafting eligible young men for the war in 1964, and by 1967, opposition to the practice and the war itself had grown to massive proportions across large numbers of American youth. At the time of Armies of the Night’s publication, the protest on October 21, 1967, was the largest anti-war demonstration in history with between 70,000 and 100,000 people descending on Washington (Greenberg, 2017).

A mass anti-Vietnam War protest in 1967, subject of Norman Mailer's 'The Armies of the Night'
Figure 1: The Anti-war protest in Washington on October 21 1967 (Tames, 1967).

The transition to subjective journalism could only be achieved by allowing the personal consciousness to penetrate the story, and none did this more abruptly than Mailer. The Armies of the Night opens with the phrase “from the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist”, before quoting a passage from Time magazine describing a drunken Mailer speaking to some students at a protest rally in Washington. At the conclusion of the passage, Mailer proclaims that “now we may leave Time in order to discover what happened” (Mailer, 1968, pp. 1-2). From the outset, a division is established: traditional, ‘factual’ reporting is inadequate for the task of truly capturing the essence of an event.

Although he continually uses his own surname in the third-person rather than ‘I’, the author is nonetheless firmly implanted as a character within the story:

Mailer received such news with no particular pleasure. It sounded vaguely and uneasily like a free-for-all with students, state troopers and Hell’s Angels flying in and out of the reports (p. 8).

The author is here not a notable inclusion in the narrative; he is the focus of the narrative. The mind/voice perceiving and then relaying the events is not an omniscient other, observing without judgement. It is sensing, feeling and reacting with its own opinions and biases as any other living human being in the crowd.

The most significant influence on this development in journalism came not from the writing community itself but from the growing ubiquity of television. In the ten years following the Second World War, the number of homes with television sets in America jumped from the low thousands to over 12 million; by 1960 over half of the homes in America had a television (Digital Public Library of America, n.d.). The Vietnam War was not America’s first unpopular war; it was America’s first televised war (Mandelbaum, 1982, p. 159). The average US house could now for the first time “witness nightly on prime-time TV the excesses and uglinesses perpetrated by the US and Vietnamese forces” (Hastings, 2019, p. iv). The introduction of the televised element of news had not only shifted public opinion against the war itself, but it also fundamentally altered the way news was experienced: viscerally, immediately and no longer filtered through the dispassionate words of editors and typists. If the written word were to compete with this ability to convey a fractured and turbulent reality, it had to provide an equally immersive and emotive form of representation.

US Soldiers interviewed for broadcast at home in America
Figure 2: US Reporters interview soldiers in Vietnam (Page, 1967).

The ultimate shortcoming of New Journalism was the difficulty in balancing the inherent subjectivity involved in its creation. As Geoff Dyer argues with regard to Mailer’s personality and writing style in particular, “the abandonment of the idea of disinterested recording became so extreme that [it] threatened to displace or usurp the subject” entirely, with the medium overshadowing the message it was attempting to convey (Dyer, 2014, p.x). The success of The Armies of the Night and Mailer’s accompanying fame had placed him in a unique position in the early summer of 1969. As America’s foremost and controversial writer, Mailer’s status and radical style left him with few subjects with weight enough to bear either his style or ego. Yet the coming summer would provide him with a story opportunity of sufficient gravitas, potentially the largest news story of the century: the Apollo 11 moon landing. While the decade of the 1960s was often characterised by utter division in American politics and social life, the NASA mission to land a man on the moon represented a sole moment of national unity amidst the chaos.

A Fire on The Moon was published serially in Time magazine between February and August 1969, covering the Apollo 11 projects’ build-up, execution, and aftermath. The work - published as a whole in 1970 - documents an extraordinarily broad spectrum of the project, from a psychological profile of the astronauts Neil Armstrong, John ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins (all of whom Mailer personally met and interviewed) to the scientific development and deployment of the rockets itself within NASA, and the reactions amongst the broad cross-section of a divided American society focused for one moment on the same event, with the same hope. As The Armies of the Night had attempted to invoke the division inherent in America’s generations and political factions, A Fire on the Moon tries instead to capture the brief instant where all these differences were suspended in fascination and anticipation.

'Buzz' Aldrin becomes the second man to walk on the moon
Figure 3: Astronaut 'Buzz' Aldrin stands on the moon on July 20, 1969 (US National Archives, 1969).

Much like Armies of the Night, Mailer again opens with a decisive declaration that he is the center point of the story: mankind’s potentially greatest achievement would be filtered through him. Dubbing himself ‘Aquarius’ in preparation for the cosmic-philosophical considerations with which the book is concerned, the writer once again becomes the main character as he traverses the endless scope of American society in the build-up to the seminal event on July 20:

At NASA, the elegance was in the design of the system rather than the manners of the men. Who was to know by such a speech, thought Aquarius sipping his breakfast tea, that Petrone (Director of the Apollo Program) had been midwife to the most momentous week, and the mightiest hour (p. 126).

‘Aquarius’ is fixed to the belief that such a monumental event is beyond conveyance without the addition of personal reflections on its historical or philosophical significance. Whether these musings disqualify him from the title of journalist are, to the author, utterly inconsequential. They added to the narrative of the truth and to the credibility of the story.

Sweet thoughts for Aquarius to have as a sequel to the ascent, but the questions were grand at least, so they could occupy the consciousness of the century. It was somehow superior to see the astronauts and the flight of Apollo 11 as the instrument of such celestial or satanic endeavours, than as a species of sublimation of the profoundly unmanageable violence of man… an ultimately pointless activity because they had not the wit, goodness or charity to solve their real problems (p. 127).

That the above hardly qualifies as ‘objective fact’ hardly matters in what New Journalism had become. It was a misconception to think of Mailer as attempting to "raise journalism to literature, rather than raise confession to the point of poetry” (Gopnik, 2018).

Author Norman Mailer protests with students in East Hampton, 1968.
Figure 4: Norman Mailer at an anti-war protest in 1968 (Erwitt, 1968).

The question of whether this type of writing was truly journalism constituted a crisis in the industry (Wakefield, 1966). Traditionalists such as Dwight MacDonald derided the work of Mailer and Wolfe as a "bastard form… exploiting the factual authority of journalism" while providing only entertainment and literary vanity (MacDonald, 1965). Defenders of the new style praised the revolutionary immersive qualities unavailable to old-fashioned journalism:

Such reporting is “imaginative” not because the author has distorted the facts, but because he has presented them in a full instead of a naked manner, brought out the sights, sounds, and feel surrounding those facts, and connected them by comparison with other facts of history, society, and literature in an artistic manner that does not diminish but gives greater depth and dimension to the facts (Wakefield, 1966).

New Journalism represented a crucial fissure in the development of both journalism and literature, the two genres which it straddled and from which it remained perennially excluded. Looking back on the phenomenon, Adam Gopnik wrote that The Armies of the Night is “less a factual report on the Pentagon protests than a satirical poem of fathers and sons… of how one generation confronted and comically misunderstood the next” (Gopnik, 2018). The genre emerged at a time when political consensus in America began to experience a generational breakdown - "the most soul-destroying and apocalyptic of centuries" (Mailer, A Fire on the Moon, p. 39) - where divisive political issues such as Civil Rights and the Vietnam War were exacerbated by the shifting state of news media. Television footage from Vietnam was available to every home in the US and often directly contradicted the government narrative of the war. The 1960s saw a growth in distrust of mainstream media sources and the subsequent increase in self-published underground journals and papers. New Journalism existed at the intersection of these issues in a way that captured a very brief, nebulous moment in socio-political and literary history: where political radicalism and shifting norms were represented not only in the content of the news media but in the very form of that media itself. It is a work "conceptually and rhythmically at odds" with the sort of editing and objectivity demanded by traditional journalism (Dyer, 2014, p. xiii). The short-lived and ill-defined movement nonetheless represents one of American literature’s most experimental and confrontational episodes, uneven in its execution, yet perfectly suited to the chaotic times it attempted to reflect.

Bibliographical References

Digital Public Library of America. ‘The End of the Golden Age and the Rise of Television’

Dyer, G. ‘Introduction’ in A Fire on the Moon. (2014 ed.) Penguin.

Gopnik, A. ‘The Strange Prophecies in Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of The Night”’. The New Yorker. (July 11, 2018).

Greenberg, D. ‘The March on the Pentagon: An Oral History’. (October 20, 2017). The New York Times.

Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War, 1945-75. (2019). Collins.

MacDonald, D. ‘Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe and His Magical Writing Machine’. (August 26, 1965). New York Review of Books.

Mailer, N. A Fire on the Moon. (1970). Little, Brown and Company.

Mandelbaum, M. ‘Vietnam: The Television War’. Daedelus: Print Culture and Video Culture. (Fall, 1982). pp. 157-169 (13 pages)

Mailer, N. The Armies of the Night: The History as Novel, The Novel as History. (1994 ed.) Penguin.

Pauly, J.J. ‘The New Journalism and the Struggle for Interpretation’. Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 5 (2014): 589-604.

Wakefield, D. ‘The Personal Voice and the Impersonal Eye’. The Atlantic. (June 1966). pp. 86-89

Wolfe, T. The New Journalism. (1973). Harper & Rowe.

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Seán Downey

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