Several days ago, on July 31st, 2012, the great writer and American man of Letters, Gore Vidal died at age 86 and some nine odd months. My first encounter with Vidal, with the name, came in the Stephen King's curiously dull and uninspired guide On Writing (really only redeemed by it's biographical elements), which I read in 8th Grade, and where King happened to reference the name, and I later asked my grandfather about this Gore Vidal person (because at the time the idea of being both a writer and politician appealed to me as well, and that was the nature of King's reference, something to do with writer's often having other fields of interest), and he gave me another vague answer and the matter drifted out of mind for some years.
Now I cannot precisely recall the next time I came across Vidal, but I believe it was around the time William F. Buckley died and got his whitewashed hagiography from the media, which was only too happy to portray him as a responsible, intelligent high-minded grandfather of the modern conservative movement, while ignoring his pro-segregation history, his claims that we should nuke Red China, his anti-Semitic and racist rants of the late 50s and 60s. Vidal was unafraid though, to thoroughly piss on Buckley's grave, violating all normal manner of decorum and writing a response mainly directed at the media in his essay "Gore Vidal Speaks Seriously Ill of the Dead" where he went so far as to say: "RIP WFB—in hell" and elsewhere, in an interview with the NYT, said, "I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred."
Vidal's incisive brilliance, his forceful and natural ability to spin prose and carry along his readers for that ride, sucked me in. Here was a person that wrote as if he was absolutely correct and could not be wrong, and his was so good at it, that the reader danced along to the piping of his words. I studied Vidal some more, and bought his book Julian, a well-executed novel based on the life and short reign of one of the more obscure Roman Emperors, Julian the Apostate. As a fiction writer I found Vidal gripping, and talented at developing a plot, and he had a knack for leaving out details and sections of the story that left it incomplete, allowing the reader's imagination to more thoroughly engage with the work on its own terms.
Some time after, I wrote a very long and meandering piece that lambasted the Right in America for having, essentially, no true intellectuals. No accomplished and intelligent people who made compelling, rational, cool-headed arguments for the political philosophy of our extremist conservative party. Instead, I noted how Republicans trot out figures like William F. Buckley, Ann Coulter, and Jonah Goldberg as exemplars of their world view. A great deal of my essay I devoted to Vidal, comparing him to Buckley, and discussing other prominent leftists of the last fifty years.
And now, for a much more somber reason, I am writing of Gore Vidal again.
Gore Vidal always claimed that America did indeed have a ruling, aristocratic class. And that more, he was born into the periphery of its ranks, as a little anecdote from Mark Lawson's obituary in The Guardian displays:
A few years ago, when I mentioned a passage in his memoirs that admits to being unable to express any open distress after the death of Howard Austen, his supportive partner for almost 50 years, he drawled: "Have you seen that film with Helen Mirren? The Queen? Our class are brought up not to show emotion."Vidal was born Eugene Louis Vidal (Gore was a name he created himself, as it sounded more literary) October 3, 1925, in West Point, the son of a Flight Instructor and Socialite-Actress, the grandson of Thomas Gore, a populist Democratic Senator from Oklahoma nicknamed "the Blind Cowboy". At thirteen, Vidal's parents divorced. His father would later date Amelia Earhart while his mother married the stepfather of Jacqueline Onassis, the future First Lady, and he himself went on to attend the renown private school, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. It was there that Vidal would have perhaps the only true and complete love affair of his life, with Jimmy Trimble III, who was later killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima, which perhaps formed the cold and acerbic, sexually prolific, Vidal the world came to know over the course of the 20th Century. Vidal, showing his rebellion to his family's expectations, skipped attending an Ivy League University once he graduated from high school, and instead joined the Navy.
By 21, Vidal, then a young World War II vet from a prestigious family, had published his first book, Williwaw (a meteorological term for a strong wind blowing off from a mountainous coast), a standard-fare piece about the war that was well-received. Shortly afterwards, In a Yellow Wood was published, in 1947, and he himself later wrote it off as a horrible novel. It was at age 23 that Vidal made the decision that changed his life (and likely ended his political ambitions), and that was to come out of the closet with The City and the Pillar, a book with scandalously open depictions of homosexuality (that may seem tame and subtle today), and what's more, depicted it as open natural behavior; to paraphrase Vidal's statements on the matter, Jim Willard [the protagonist] begins gay and ends the novel gay, and homosexuality is portrayed as both masculine and normal, both depictions shattering common stereotypes.
The City and the Pillar takes its title from Genesis 19:26 "But his wife looked back from behind him and she became a pillar of salt" and the novel itself contains a similarly cautious warning. Willard spends the entire novel looking back to a single culmination of homoerotic feelings with a friend, and in the end his romantic delusions and obsessions keep him from moving forward and emotionally cripple him by the end. It is a dark work of fiction, but one driven by excellent prose (truly, I must write a separate essay on the matter), and this horrible world of icy manipulative people, all driven by shallow lusts and incapable of genuine emotional love, the protagonist included, and this gives a very real snapshot into Vidal's psyche and helps in understanding his apparent bitterness.
And for all my admiration I did disagree with Vidal almost as often as I agreed with him, and often (unique in my personal experience) I could both passionately accede and passionately dissent from him, depending on the issue. However, Vidal's flaws and biases and faults were always transparent and easily identifiable, and his characteristic arrogance has to be understood through a prism of self-deprecating sarcasm. Yes, Gore Vidal was a horrible name-dropper, but he wasn't lying about being friends with the Kennedy's or Eleanor Roosevelt or Alice Roosevelt (Teddy's daughter), and what honest person would say he wouldn't brag about it if he were so well-connected? Even the terrible elements of his political philosophy have easily identifiable sources; his animosity towards Franklin Roosevelt who supported the successful primary challenge to Thomas Gore in 1936, or his rather inconsistent views on World War II, with the Japanese theater at least (his first lover, again, died on Iwo Jima). Nevertheless Vidal had views that downright angered me with regards to McVeigh, and his propensity for high-brow conspiracy theories bother me and prevent me from respecting his political philosophy as a whole (though the freepers, as the term goes I believe, on The Free Republic online comments need to distinguish Vidal's anti-imperialist nature and anti-Americanism; Vidal was very much a populist, America-firster), but even Vidal's most abrasive writings had kernels of truth, astute observations, and, at the very least, interesting and thoughtful reasoning that were often helpful in my own considerations of what I believed; extracting disagreements from Vidal was an excellent task in self-awareness.
His perceived arrogance and snobbery is one part a genuine reflection of the social environment he grew up in, and the other part a form of detachment that allowed him to unleash his coolest and most withering criticism on everything he observed. Unlike many genuinely and intolerably pretentious writers and intellectuals, like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, Vidal always had a subtle charm and wit; with Vidal there was always the wink and nod, the self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek response, the self-awareness that true egoists lack.
Gore Vidal accomplished many things. He revived literary historical fiction, with acclaimed works like Washington, D.C., Burr and Lincoln, and stubbornly demanded to address taboo topics like homosexuality and transgenderism in The City and the Pillar and my personal favorite of his novels, Myra Breckinridge and offend sacred cows with merciless irreverence and sarcasm such as Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal. His play The Best Man sees regular revivals on Broadway, and he always claimed to have had the main role in salvaging the script to the classic film Ben Hur. But in the end his most natural form was the essay. It was there that he prolifically filled entire quotation books with his trademark barbs like "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." and, "The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so."
Vidal's essays are as varied as the man himself; the tome United States: Essays 1952–1992, which won a National Book Award in 1993, is heavy enough to use as a murder weapon. And while he often wrote about politics (even calling Reagan a "triumph of the embalmer's art."), ample attention has already been paid to those works, that are as a whole problematic and a tad bit inconsistent (another triumph of leftist ideology, I think, that leftist intellectuals don't have the one-size fits all, "irritable mental gesture" that American conservatives pass off as an ideology), and so what I have to talk about pertains to his literary essays and criticism.
In my personal experience, these were Vidal's most scandalous, scathing, prescient essays, his most truthful and honest; the works that imparted on me the most profound influence. It strikes me as only too bad that so much attention given to Vidal invariably had to do with his politics or outsized personality, when he had so much to say about Academia and the cultural and literary establishments in America; he ravaged it, and handed ruthless criticism even on writers like Solzhenitsyn, writing in "The Top-Ten Best-Sellers": "To give the noble engineer his due he is good at describing how things work, and it is plain that nature destined him to write manuals of artillery or instructions on how to take apart a threshing machine."
The most daring (and influential on me) was his elegant and overwhelming essay "American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction", where he ridiculed Barthelme, insulted Barth, dismissed Barthes and made an apathetic criticism of Pynchon. It is particularly bold to, these days, find an immensely intelligent man and important critic saying these sorts of things about Pynchon. "It is curious to read a work that excites the imagination but disturbs the aesthetic sense." "Pynchon's prose rattles on and on, broken by occasional lengthy songs every bit as bad, lyrically, as those of Bob Dylan." Or finally, his conclusion:
Eventually, the text exhausts patience and energy. In fact, I suspect that the energy expended in reading Gravity's Rainbow is, for anyone, rather greater than that expended by Pynchon in the actual writing. This is entropy with a vengeance. The writer's text is ablaze with the heat/energy that his readers have lost to him. Yet the result of this exchange is neither a readerly nor a writerly text but an uneasy combination of both. Energy and intelligence are not in balance, and the writer fails in his ambition to be a god of creation. Yet his ambition and his failure are very much in the cranky, solipsistic American vein, and though I doubt if anyone will ever want to read all of this book, it will certainly be taught for a very long (delta) time[...]American Fiction has turned to postmodern plastic, according to Vidal in this essay (and this builds off earlier essays on fiction), and the problem is the university. Ending the same essay quoted above is this powerful and sweeping statement:
"Academics tell me that I am wrong. They assure me that if it were not for them, the young would never read the Public-novels of even the recent past (Faulkner, Fitzgerald). It this were true, then I would prefer for these works decently to die rather than to become teaching-tools, artifacts stinking of formaldehyde in a classroom (original annotated text with six essays by the author and eight critical articles examining the parameters of the author's vision). [...] The occasional student who might have an interest in reading will not survive a course in English, unless of course he himself intends to become an academic bureaucrat."Such sentiments resonated with me quite strongly; as a university student I still have an aversion to the academic culture, even as I enjoy it and it at times is the most natural fitting environment for me. Vidal plainly calls it boring and petty, too isolated, too narrow-minded, and posits that a major problem with literature is how much it is increasingly based out of creative writing programs and academic literary criticism. His pessimism in declaring the end of the novel before the forces of film and television, is a bridge too far for me, but most probably right in terms of social importance and influence, and that was truly Gore Vidal's greatest talent; expressing an unpleasant observation honestly and without reservation. That facet coupled with his wit and incisive analysis and the envy-inducing erudition and forcefulness of his prose, make Vidal's essays imminently re-readable and ever fun to engage with.
To end, I'd like to share a few videos of Vidal to display his style, his classic levity, and the natural ability he had to entertain and engage people.
History's Glare I
History's Glare II
In addition, Vidal's response to the William F. Buckley obituaries:
The Esquire essay that got him sued:
P.S. While Dkos does have reader guages, these aren't entirely accurate. I always appreciate users who vote in my poll as that gives a more accurate count of readership. Which is always nice to know for something you worked hard on; sucks to feel like you are talking to a wall.