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The National Conventions of '68 Through the Eyes of Norman Mailer

Book cover. Click to enlarge.

The first edition of Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago, published by the World Publishing Company in October of 1968.

It is 1968. Vietnam is raging. In late March President Johnson surprises his constituents by refusing to seek re-election. Civil rights activist Martin Luther King is assassinated in April. Two months later, the tragedy of Senator Robert Kennedy's assassination sweeps the nation. Urban and campus riots abound. In Norman Mailer's words, "it was as if the historical temperature in America went up every month."

In this tumultuous socio-political climate, Harper's magazine sent Norman Mailer to cover the Democratic and Republican national conventions. In Miami from August 5-8, he witnessed Richard Nixon secure the Republican nomination and—roughly two weeks later—chronicled the riots and political intricacies of the convention in Chicago, where Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic presidential nominee.

Norman Mailer's record of these two historic events appeared in the November issue of Harper's under the title "Miami Beach and Chicago," and, almost simultaneously, in book form under the title Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Forty years later, this book has recently been re-issued by New York Review of Books. Miami and the Siege of Chicago is a portrait of America unsettled, a time in which shifting race relations, the ever-present shadow of a contentious war abroad, and national tragedies hung heavy on the minds of many Americans and ignited divisions nation-wide. With the striking style of New Journalism that Norman Mailer pioneered, this seminal writer captured a historical moment that uncannily echoes in our present.

The Norman Mailer papers are available for research at the Ransom Center. A finding aid to the materials is online.

—Rachel Sibley


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Press passes. Click to enlarge.

Press passes Mailer used during the Republican and Democratic national conventions. © Estate of Norman Mailer

Pamphlet. Click to enlarge.

Visitor's guide to Miami Beach.

The Republican National Convention took place in Miami Beach, Florida, a setting that Mailer described as "a sultan's strip... [whose] air conditioning is pushed to that icy point where women may wear fur coats over their diamonds in the tropics."

Handwritten notes. Click to enlarge.

Page of Mailer's handwritten notes for Miami and the Siege of Chicago. © Estate of Norman Mailer

In this text Mailer compares his impressions of three candidates for the Republican Presidential Nomination: Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and—briefly—Nelson Rockefeller. He writes in a style typical of New Journalism, the newly emergent literary genre his writing ultimately helped to solidify. For example, Mailer references himself in the third person as "the reporter," unabashedly offers his subjective opinion, and underscores his observations with personal life experience.

Tally sheet. Click to enlarge.

Tally sheet of the Republican nominees from Mailer's personal files. © Estate of Norman Mailer

Press credentials. Click to enlarge.

Mailer's press pass for the Democratic National Convention, August 1968. © Estate of Norman Mailer

The Democratic National Convention took place from August 26-29 at the International Amphitheater in Chicago. Norman Mailer described Chicago as "the great American city." In his words,

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 flesh—one 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... In Chicago, they did it straight, they cut the animals right out of their hearts—which 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.

Norman mailer speaking to a crowd. Click to enlarge.

Photograph of Norman Mailer giving a speech, August 1968. Unidentified photographer.

This photograph of Norman Mailer at the Grant Park rally during the Democratic National Convention was probably sent to Mailer by Roger Feldman.

Letter. Click to enlarge.
Letter. Click to enlarge.

Letter sent from Roger Feldman to Norman Mailer on September 3, 1970. © Estate of Norman Mailer

This letter from one of Norman Mailer's readers reveals the characters and background behind a scene at the Grant Park Rally, which Norman Mailer describes in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. As Norman Mailer's editor put it, the author, Roger Feldman, was "indirectly responsible" for the creation of what became at least one paragraph in Norman Mailer's book.

Demonstrator being arrested by police. Click to enlarge.

Photograph of an arrested demonstrator, 26 August 1968, Tribune Staff photographer.

This photographer was taken during the Democratic National Convention in the midst of the Chicago riots. The caption reads: "police subdue demonstrator who attempted to cross Michigan Avenue Bridge after marching with several hundred down Michigan Avenue. Marchers were stopped here." The civilian in this image was one of roughly 10,000 people who descended upon Chicago during the conventions to protest in the streets. They were met by 23,000 police and National Guardsmen, which Chicago Mayor Richard Daley enlisted to contain the riots. Norman Mailer described the chaos that ensued:

At the other end was the chaos of Michigan Avenue when the police fulfilled their Yippie christening and flailed at the wild forage like wild pigs... Yes, children, and youths, and middle-aged men and women were being pounded and clubbed and gassed and beaten, hunted and driven, sent scattering in all directions by teams of policemen who had exploded out of their restraint like the bursting of a boil.

Daley later justified this use of force by claiming to have received intelligence that assassination plots would be attempted on the conventions' leaders, a threat which, on the heels of the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, resonated with the fears of many Americans at the time. No evidence was found that such plots had been intended.

Political button. Click to enlarge.

Channing Phillips Political Button.

Channing Phillips, who had headed President Kennedy's presidential campaign in Washington D.C. previous to his assassination, was the first black man to be entered into the nomination for president by a major political party. A civil rights leader, social activist, and minister, Phillips received the ballots of 67 ½ delegates.