In 1967 Norman Mailer went to Washington for the march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. He was joined by 100,000 other Americans. As one of many antiwar demonstrations around the nation, the march might be largely forgotten today had he not written an article about it that took up an entire issue of Harper’s and was then expanded into a book, The Armies of the Night, that won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In late October, on the fortieth anniversary of the march, a number of us gathered at Georgetown University to think back on the meaning of the march by reconsidering Mailer’s momentous book about it, for it is rare that literature and history–a great writer and a great subject–have been so closely interwoven. Mailer himself had intended to be there as the main speaker, but illness kept him away. He died on November 10, at 84, putting a period to one of the most challenging and unpredictable careers in modern letters.

Because Mailer was such a self-conscious writer–peering around corners, casing every angle in complex prose–it’s hard to raise questions about his work that he did not anticipate. Early in The Armies of the Night, he wonders whether it’s valid to “write an intimate history of an event which places its focus on a central figure who is not central to the event.” He counters that “the March on the Pentagon was an ambiguous event whose essential value or absurdity may not be established for ten or twenty years, or indeed ever.” Mailer suggests that the organizers, as serious men, devoted to a cause, are in no position to plumb that ambiguity. “For that,” he says, “an eyewitness who is a participant but not a vested partisan is required,” in this case “a comic hero…a ludicrous figure with mock-heroic associations.”

This approach, revolving around a partly fictionalized version of himself, proved to be an innovation in political reportage. It helped kick off a new form of participatory journalism. Every word in this rationale is telling, molded to Mailer’s own specifications. An intimate history is what a novelist–rather than a journalist or historian–would write. If it’s potentially absurd, then it requires a special kind of writer with a feeling for the zany, the paradoxical, someone alert to the comic possibilities of his reluctant participation. If its significance remains ambiguous, hard to pin down, who better to make sense of it than a reflective, introspective writer who had long made ambivalence his specialty–in a later book he would call himself the “Nijinsky of ambivalence.”

The import of the march was elusive partly because it was a media event directed at public opinion rather than a concrete political act with clearly defined goals. It was meant to show that the American people no longer supported the war, that some Americans were in fact outraged by it. They were marching, he says, “on a bastion which symbolized the military might of the Republic, marching not to capture but to wound it symbolically.” (This might remind one of 9/11, an attack on the Pentagon that was both real and symbolic.)

Later, after being arrested, the war novelist asks Walter Teague, a militant activist, what he would have done had he “managed to get into the Pentagon and hold a corridor for a while.” “Oh, I don’t know,” says Teague. “We could have painted the walls, created disruption generally,” a response finely redolent of the ’60s left. One might say that The Armies of the Night was Mailer’s way of painting the walls, creating a kind of disruption. During the march itself, his immediate goals were symbolic, not concrete, as he happily confesses:

§ He wanted to draw attention to the cause by way of his own celebrity, the media notoriety that he fed with his drunken behavior his first night in Washington–getting sloshed on bourbon, pissing on the men’s room floor in a theater where he and other star participants had gone to raise a bail fund to aid those arrested on the march, then behaving pugnaciously, almost incoherently, as MC for the evening.

§ He wanted to get arrested, preferably sooner rather than later, so that he could be quickly released to get back to New York in time for a much-anticipated party.

§ He aimed to restore luster to his somewhat tarnished public image, which served the cause but also would be served by it. Hence the competitiveness, the minute calculations of position vis-à-vis other notables like Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald, his peers in the front rank of protesters–the prow of the ship, you might say.

One emotionally direct moment comes that first night after Lowell, visibly depressed, reads his poetry aloud to a rapturous response from an audience that had just hooted Mailer down: “Mailer felt hot anger at how Lowell was loved and he was not.” Yet Mailer also knows that he and Lowell are there for another purpose, equally symbolic: to bear witness, to dissociate themselves publicly from the war, to purge themselves of complicity with what, as Americans, was being prosecuted in their name. This was the deepest motive my wife and I felt as young, anonymous participants testifying mutely with deeds known only to ourselves. Mailer, on the other hand, could put a megaphone to his actions, and to the whole march, even as he would later set out to crystallize its meaning. For many of us–and surely for those who weren’t there–the march on the Pentagon would dissolve into Mailer’s sensational Harper’s article and later his book about it, both of which would burst forth in the pivotal year of 1968.

Mailer understood that he was in a different position from the other marchers. He tells us only on page 133, with a hint of embarrassment, that a British camera crew was documenting his every move, making his participation all the more theatrical. (The director, Dick Fontaine, showed up at Georgetown with his film, which has only recently resurfaced. With its jerky hand-held camera work, it came through as a crude but faithful adaptation of the public moments in Mailer’s book, though it was all done before his book came out.) Mailer’s keen appreciation for the nimbus of staging and feeling around politics was one reason he was so charmed, as we all were, by the hippies’ attempt to levitate the Pentagon and exorcise its demons, which especially suited Mailer’s strong sense of the magical and the irrational, of evil as a palpable presence. This had been a major thread in his novel An American Dream, published three years earlier. But the heavy-breathing intensity and violence of that book had outraged many readers, just as the rollicking profanity of his next novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, had left readers indifferent and Mailer himself disappointed. As much as the war and the antiwar movement, these relative failures provided a context for The Armies of the Night. Though famous and occasionally notorious for almost twenty years, Mailer was in one of the periodic troughs of his literary reputation, and also perhaps of his usually robust self-confidence.

Just before the Pentagon march, Mailer told his friend and editor E.L. Doctorow, “I feel I’m washed up. I feel I’m out of it now. It’s passed me by.” In Armies he puts this more gently–in the third person, as usual: “His career, his legend, his idea of himself–were they stale?” Mailer was twenty years older than most of the protesters. Like many middle-aged figures of the postwar generation, he wondered whether the 1960s had put him in the shade, out of touch, unable to connect. In the book Mailer emphasizes how detached he feels from others on the march: the earnest organizers; the tweedy academic liberals; the uninhibited young, who have no sense of sin and for whom sex is no more than the gymnasium of love (though Mailer, by his own account, had worked out quite a bit in that gym). He portrays himself at first as out of sorts, out of place, a man who doesn’t really want to be there but is merely lending himself to the occasion. Only in the curve of the unfolding plot, for this is a kind of novel, after all, will he assume his rightful position in the front lines of a new generation.

Initially, Mailer had no plans to write about the march, let alone to make it a large chunk of his autobiography. But in the course of the weekend, his instincts, both private and public, told him that the march was no isolated event. He gradually realized that it summed up the whole anguished decade, gathering all its cultural and political strands, from the hippies and liberals to the military-industrial, all in one time and place. Whatever the ’60s were about, it was happening here, at this very juncture, at an event that took its cue from the great civil rights march of four years earlier. Mailer’s stance toward this was, as usual, ambivalent–he was a virtuoso of mixed feelings–but his instinct for finding the right subject, at least right for him, kicked in. He promised to write 20,000 words in a single month for Willie Morris at Harper’s; by the end of the month, working twelve to fourteen hours a day, he had written some 90,000. With the addition of a more factual, less subjective “Book Two,” the volume was dispatched quickly, and it restored Mailer’s slightly faded reputation to a level not seen since The Naked and the Dead.

Thanks to The Armies of the Night, Mailer became one of the iconic cultural figures of the ’60s, not simply because of the book but in the book, in his self-portrayal as a semifictional character who moves from the edge to the center, from skepticism to commitment, from professional jealousy to solidarity, a man satisfied at last with his own performance. Filling out the arc of this plot, with its pattern of conversion, modest heroism and gradual self-discovery, is a mother lode of autobiographical detail about his background, his marriages, his pleasures and peeves, even his flaws of character, all bound up with an idiosyncratic assertion of patriotism amid protest. Mailer sees his own fate in tandem with the nation’s at a troubled moment in its public life. It’s hard to decide whether he hijacked history, making it an adjunct of his own story, or simply lent his persona to what became one of the decade’s most penetrating interpretations of itself.

Mailer had pulled off this kind of coup before. The 1950s had been a period of personal problems and career reverses. His second and third novels, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, in which he’d invested so much, had largely failed. Audiences and critics looking for another Naked and the Dead had been stymied by them. Fiction was beginning to look like a dead end for him. He edged into journalism, but the results were uneven; he had not yet found his voice. In Advertisements for Myself (1959), he rolled all these pieces, good and bad, ranging from book reviews and experimental stories to his Hip manifesto, “The White Negro,” into one overarching narrative about himself, his travails in fiction, his wild-man image, his vast ambition, his blasted reputation, his new countercultural gospel, his loathing of the whole grim mood of the cold war decade. A strange and surprising alchemy took place. Suddenly, by filtering the world through his own capacious ego, Mailer had somehow reinvented himself, recouping actual losses into triumphs on the page.

This is exactly what he would do again, but in a comic vein, in his first big boxing piece, “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” a report on the heavyweight match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston in 1962. Since the match had ended with a Liston knockout two minutes into the first round, it was really a nonevent, a potential washout for any journalist assigned to cover it. But by projecting himself into the center of the event as a mock-heroic figure, a blustering braggart–challenging Sonny Liston, attacking journalists, reaching deeply into the kind of blood sport boxing is–Mailer wrote not only one of his best essays but created the template for The Armies of the Night, turning marginality into a source of insight, firing up his cadenced prose to an astonishing degree of vividness and complexity, giving us a visceral sense of the occasion and heightening its theatricality by stealing center stage, at least in his own mind.

The clowning and weightless megalomania of “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” which appeared in Esquire in February 1963, gives way in Armies to a fresh take on the public culture of the ’60s, matching the New Left’s turn to what he calls “a new style of revolution–revolution by theater and without a script.” This gives Mailer a new role to play and creates an opening for a classically American form of self-invention. Both at the march and later, as he is writing the book, his grandiose yet self-mocking improvisations, his lighthearted self-importance, buoyed by an authentic moral seriousness, manage to cut a wide swath through the spirit of the age–and also to capture it in print.