Places: The Armies of the Night

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: New journalism

Time of work: October, 1967

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Pentagon

*Pentagon. Armies of the Night, TheMammoth government building located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., that houses the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. Norman Mailer refers to the structure as the “true and high church” of the military-industrial complex, “the blind five-sided eye of a subtle oppression which had come to America out of the very air of the century.” It is portrayed as a geometrical anomaly, an aberration rising from the Virginia fields, a misfit to its natural surroundings, and a creature deserving of its isolation. Nonetheless, the building’s overwhelming size appears to dwarf not only the capital’s monuments but also the demonstrators themselves. On Mailer’s landscape, the structure sits as a mighty fortress. He notes in the beginning that it is not the demonstrators’ intent to capture it, but to symbolically wound it. Tellingly, it appears to have no need for visible guards, since the extensions of the edifice serve as its own defense. Every feature of the building is described as “anonymous, monstrous, massive, interchangeable.” Even the parking lot, utilized by the demonstrators as a staging point for their final approach, is of massive proportions. According to the author, however, it is the size of the crowd that in the end is more significant than the participants, the speeches, or the government structures.

*Lincoln Memorial

*Lincoln Memorial. Washington, D.C., monument honoring the sixteenth president of the United States, which serves as the starting point for the march on the Pentagon. The sound of a trumpet signaling the start of the march evokes in Mailer images of other trumpets announcing a legacy of battles leading back to the Civil War. Clusters of demonstrators dressed in Confederate gray and Union blue contribute to the Civil War imagery. Mailer’s constant references to America’s greatest internal conflict demonstrates the magnitude with which he views the level of civil strife taking place in the capital and the disdain he holds for the Vietnam War, a conflict he believes was close to precipitating a second American Civil War.

*Washington Monument

*Washington Monument. Memorial located in Washington, D.C., honoring the first president of the United States, George Washington. The proximity of the Washington Monument to the demonstrators’ line of march underscores the author’s description of the participants as true revolutionaries, reminiscent of those citizen soldiers who joined in the American Revolution or those who stormed the Bastille in the French Revolution.


Streets. The network of roads leading from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to the Pentagon in Alexandria, Virginia. The federal monuments and institutions dotting the landscape along the route represent all together the nation’s center of authority and democratic rule of law, yet stand in stark contrast to the disorder occurring on the streets. Mailer views the conflicting images and ideas as essentially street theater without a script.

Post office

Post office. Alexandria, Virginia, government building that serves as a makeshift prison for marchers arrested during the demonstrations, including Mailer. He thus spends a weekend in jail within the confines of a far less imposing structure than the Pentagon, largely because some government official believes a man of his literary reputation is deserving of more punishment. A redbrick building, the prison’s interior architecture appears “more agreeable than the average of spanking new junior colleges.” No longer preoccupied with the havoc being played out on the streets, Mailer takes advantage of his prison time to replay in his mind the arguments for and against the war.


*Vietnam. Southeast Asian country that was divided at the time of the war into northern and southern zones. Hovering over all of the activities in the march against the Pentagon are images of the battlefields in Vietnam. Mailer’s frequent allusions to the American Civil War are a reminder of the generally accepted notion among the war protesters that the conflict being waged halfway across the world was itself a civil war.

BibliographyBailey, Jennifer. Norman Mailer: Quick-Change Artist. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979. Particularly attentive to Mailer’s creation of personae, Bailey analyzes The Armies of the Night as his finest achievement in fictional journalism.Bufithis, Philip H. Norman Mailer. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. In his lucid survey of Mailer’s career, Bufithis pays particular attention to Mailer’s characterization of himself and to the presences of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ernest Hemingway in The Armies of the Night, while praising the book as unmatched in drama, energy, and wit since Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.Kazin, Alfred. “The Trouble He’s Seen.” In Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Kazin’s extended and enthusiastic review places Mailer’s book within the context of his career and of American literature.Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Focusing on the unique structure of what he argues is Mailer’s most enduring work, Merrill examines its protagonist’s experience as a rite of purification.Solotaroff, Robert. Down Mailer’s Way. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Noting parallels to Henry Adams, Solotaroff offers insightful analysis of the style and the distance between author and protagonist in The Armies of the Night.
Categories: Places