A great writer dukes it out with 1968
Julia Keller | CULTURAL CRITIC
July 13, 2008
You'll be tempted to do just that, of course, because his sentences
tend to stretch out sinuously like cats in the sun, and because a
culture more at home with the rhythms of blogsquick hits, short
takes, lists and nuggetsthan with the time-lapse beauty of a printed
page whose meanings unfold gradually and gracefully may find Norman
Mailer a hard go.
But if you dash your way through "Miami and the Siege of Chicago,"
Mailer's masterful account of the upheaval that occurred 40 years ago
when Republicans and Democrats met in those two cities, there to
select their presidential nominees, you'll miss a lot. First
published in 1968, and reissued earlier this month by New York Review
Books, Mailer's report glows with descriptions of the people and the
places whose permanent identities were forged in the hot furnace of
that tragic, fateful year. To understand 1968, you must read Mailer;
but to read Mailer, you might have to undergo a patience implant,
lest your restless eyes skitter right over chunks of type such as this one:
"Yes, Chicago was a town where no one could forget how the money was
made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood, and if
one did not protest and take a vow of vegetables, one knew at least
that life was hard, life was in the flesh and in the massacre of the
fleshone breathed the last agonies of beasts. So something of the
entrails and the secrets of the guts got into the faces of native
Chicagoans. A great city, a strong city with faces tough as leather
hide and pavement. ... But in Chicago, they did it straight, they cut
the animals right out of their heartswhich is why it was the last of
the great American cities, and people had great faces, carnal as
blood, greedy, direct, too impatient for hypocrisy, in love with
honest plunder." Chicago, Mailer writes later on the same pagea page
that seems to last as long as an all-day suckerknows "the beauties
of a dirty buck."
What, you ask, does such a paragraph tell you about 1968, year of
sorrow and change? Not enough, apparently, because Mailer, who died
last year after a prolific literary career, surrounds it with
similarly overstuffed hunks of prose about the likes of Richard
Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon
Johnson and Mayor Richard J. Daley: a who's-who of 1968, of men torn
asunder by a terrible war, by rage over racial injustice, by a sense
that the country had somehow jumped the track and was heading down, down, down.
No tepid qualifiers
And yet within its self-indulgent excesses, within Mailer's he-man
histrionics, lies a truth about the time that is unsurpassed. "So,"
Mailer writes of 1968 Chicago, "an air of outrage, hysteria, panic,
wild rumor, unruly outburst, fury, madness, gallows humor and gloom
hung over nominating night at the convention." No tepid qualifiers
for this guy.
Four decades after the year that, many believe, marked a monumental
turning point in American history, the books charting its events and
its forward-stretching tentacles of influence are now showing up
regularly. Among the most prominent are "The Last Campaign: Robert F.
Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America" ( Henry Holt) by Thurston
Clarke; "Nixonland" (Scribner) by Rick Perlstein; "Brothers: The
Hidden History of the Kennedy Years," recently published in paperback
by Free Press, by David Talbot; "Battleground Chicago: The Police and
the 1968 Democratic National Convention" by Frank Kusch, recently
republished by the University of Chicago Press; and "A Time It Was:
Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties"(Abrams), a collection of photographs
from Kennedy's 1968 campaign by Bill Eppridge.
Hindsight being the indispensable pal of all pundits, one might
expect these reassessments to be the best way to comprehend 1968, to
understand the peculiar alignment of forces and personalities that
created its ethos: the one-two punch of the assassinations of the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the erosion of public
support for the Vietnam War; and the crackup of the nation into
simmering, mutually antagonistic camps.
Born out of turmoil
And yet the best books about 1968 remain, surprisingly, the two that
were originally published in the midst of the maelstrom: Mailer's
"Miami and the Siege of Chicago" and David Halberstam's "The
Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy." They were published in 1968,
even as the cities seethed with turmoil, even when the war's end was
still a distant, desperately yearned-for dream.
Halberstam's book is so measured and heartbroken, so closely observed
and deeply felt, that it makes you grieve all over again for the
author's death last year in a car accident whilewhat else?on a
reporting assignment. Halberstam accompanied Kennedy during his
abbreviated 1968 primary campaign. When journalists get the small
things right, you're willing to trust them on the big things; because
Halberstam collects all the telling anecdotes, connects the dots of
the politics of the day, you believe his summaries. "Robert Kennedy
was at exactly the halfway mark between the old and the new," he
writes. But mostly it's a book about the campaign trail, about
hopping from town to town, high school gym to high school gym,
through Indiana and Oregon and California, with a candidate who
sometimes seems too noble and idealistic to be true. No book gives a
better sense of how Vietnam blew other issues right off the
agendasocial unrest, housing discrimination, povertyin 1968.
The ending to Halberstam's book, as Kennedy leaves the podium on the
night of the California primary, settles into your flesh like a pair
of talons: "Then he descended to acknowledge his victory, to talk
about the violence and the divisiveness, and to let a nation discover
in his death what it had never understood or believed about him
during his life."
Several of the recent books that look back at 1968 are perfectly
fine, as far as they go; they offer different perspectives on 1968.
"Battleground Chicago" is especially valuable because it lets the
police officers involved in the riots in Lincoln and Grant Parks have
their say. The photos in "A Time It Was" provide an instant immersion
in 1968not just its politics, but its clothes, its cars, its
hairstyles, its furnishings.
But Mailer and Halberstam staked out this turf early and rule it
still. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich notes in his
introduction to the 2008 edition of "Miami and the Siege of Chicago,"
Mailer's work was a perfect bookend for the decade: The 1960s begin
with Theodore White's politely efficient "The Making of the President
1960," an installment in his series of campaign chronicles, then end
with Mailer. They end with Mailer's passion and energy and
irresistible subjectivity. They end with Mailer's quips and asides
and delicious digressions, his brilliant observations, the kind that
throw off showers of sparks. Of Republicans, he writes that "their
bodies reflected the pull of their characters." McCarthy's eyes, he
writes, were "sitting in sagging brassieres of flesh."
And of 1968, Mailer writes, "The country was in a throe, a species of
eschatological heave." Even if you didn't live through it, for
heaven's sake, don't rush past it now; don't miss this sharp, funny,
bitter, beautiful rumination on what it must have been like.