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date: 16 June 2024

Vidal, Gorefree

Vidal, Gorefree

  • Jay Parini


  • North American Literatures

Gore Vidal is a novelist, essayist, playwright, and provocateur whose career has spanned six decades, beginning in the years immediately following World War II and continuing into the early years of the twenty-first century. In addition to a major sequence of seven novels about American history and such satirical novels as Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Duluth (1983), he has written dozens of television plays, film scripts, and even three mystery novels under the pseudonym of Edgar Box. He has also written well over one hundred essays, gathered in numerous volumes published between 1962 and 2001. Taken as a whole, this seemingly varied work has an uncanny unity, exhibiting a tone of easy familiarity with the world of politics and letters, an urbane wit, and a sense of supreme self-confidence on the part of the writer. Vidal's lineage in American literature may be traced back to Henry James, the sophisticated American from the upper echelons of society who mingles with European sophisticates, and Mark Twain, the raw humorist and critic of American empire.

Early Life and Work

Vidal was born on 3 October 1925 at West Point, New York, with high political and social connections. His father, Eugene Luther Vidal, held a subcabinet-level position in the Roosevelt administration as director of the Bureau of Air Commerce from 1933 until 1937. Gore's maternal grandfather was Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, a Democrat who played an important role in his party's politics for many decades. Senator Gore's daughter and Gore Vidal's mother, Nina Gore Vidal, was divorced from Eugene in 1935, when Vidal was ten, and married Hugh D. Auchincloss, a wealthy financier, who in turn divorced her and married Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, thus establishing a connection between Vidal and the Kennedy clan that persisted through the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

In the fall of 1940, having attended for some years a prep school called St. Albans in Washington, D.C., Vidal entered the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and graduated in 1943, at which point he entered the Reserve Corps of the U.S. Army. After a brief training period at the Virginia Military Institute, he joined the Army Transportation Corps as an officer and was sent to the Aleutian Islands. He wrote much of his first novel, Williwaw (1946), during a run between Chernowski Bay and Dutch Harbor. Suffering from serious frostbite and arthritis, he was sent back to the States, where he finished the novel while recuperating in a military hospital. Williwaw focused on a rivalry between two naval officers. In its tight-lipped, minimalist style, it reflects Vidal's reading of Hemingway and Stephen Crane. For a writer barely out of his teens, the book was an extraordinary achievement. It seemed absolutely authentic and put Vidal on the map of young postwar novelists that included Norman Mailer, John Horne Burns, and Truman Capote.

Having little money despite his patrician roots, Vidal moved to Guatemala, where the living was cheap. There he shared a house (as a friend) with Anaïs Nin, who wrote about Vidal in her diaries of that period. By any standard, the postwar years were productive ones for the young Vidal, who published eight novels between 1946 and 1954. These include The City and the Pillar (1948), The Judgment of Paris (1952), and Messiah (1954).

The City and the Pillar is notable for reasons that go beyond its aesthetic qualities. Vidal's hero is Jim Willard, who as the story opens slumps in a New York City bar recalling the years from 1937 to 1943. What he visualizes through an alcoholic haze is the time he first made love to Bob Ford—an American as prototypical as his name. The pursuit of Ford by Willard gives the novel its mythic shape, though Vidal is ever the satirist, ready to send up literary and social conventions. Jim's quest takes him through the homosexual demimonde of California, which Vidal writes about with reportorial cool. His dizzying quest ends in a reconciliation scene that turns unexpectedly nightmarish. In the 1948 version of the novel, Jim strangles Bob. In a 1965 revision, Vidal eliminates that melodramatic ending, transforming the murder into a rape—a more believable conclusion. In all, The City and the Pillar counts among the first explicitly gay novels in the history of American fiction.

Vidal suffered the consequences of bringing a gay novel before a wide audience in 1948. Indeed, his next five novels were dismissed by the mainstream press. Among the best of these was Messiah, a prophetic novel that makes deft use of the modernist technique (pioneered in the twentieth century by André Gide in The Counterfeiters, 1926) of the journal within the memoir—a form that Vidal would exploit to good effect in later novels. Vidal's narrator is Eugene Luther, who considers the 1950s from a vantage of half a century, recalling the spread of a peculiar religious cult based on the figure of John Cave, who preaches the goodness of death and encourages suicide among his followers. Yet Cave himself is hardly willing to practice what he preaches; though murdered in the end, his ashes are spread across the country, giving him a mystical presence in the cultural air. Soon Cave becomes a commodity, like everything else in America, and his followers merchandise him with relish. The religion that evolves in Cave's wake is fiercely hierarchical and bound to the literal Cavesword created by his Pauline apostles. The whole is wittily satirized by Vidal.

By the Hudson River

After a period in Europe when he traveled with his friend Tennessee Williams and met both André Gide and George Santayana, Vidal settled along the Hudson River in a mansion called Edgewater with his companion, Howard Austen. Among the many projects that occupied him during this period was The Judgment of Paris, one of his most compelling early novels. The ghost of Henry James hovers over this work, set largely in Europe, although its style looks forward to the later Vidal, being dryly witty and deeply ironic. But The Judgment of Paris is a fine work in its own right, describing the European sojourn of a young man who must choose among three women. Each represents a different tack for Vidal's hero: a political life, an intellectual life, and a sensual life. (The story is founded on the Greek myth in which Paris was forced to choose among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.)

With single-mindedness, Vidal set out to free himself from economic worries, having made little from his five novels in the wake of The City and the Pillar. Writing as Edgar Box, he published three mystery novels: Death in the Fifth Position (1952); Death before Bedtime (1953); and Death Likes It Hot (1954). These clever fictions, which play off the conventions of the mystery novel with considerable gusto, did not solve their creator's financial problems. Like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald before him, he turned to writing scripts. Vidal took naturally to the new medium of television, producing dozens of scripts in the course of the next decade, which has been called the golden age of television. Among his large number of adaptations were Faulkner's Barn Burning and Henry James's Turn of the Screw (1898). Perhaps his best original teleplay was Visit to a Small Planet, televised on 8 May 1955.

The success of this teleplay prompted Vidal to turn the script into a full-dress Broadway play. With considerable fanfare, Visit to a Small Planet opened in 1957 and ran for 338 performances. The plot centers on a visitor from outer space who arrives in Virginia with the hope of witnessing the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Having come about a century too late, he establishes himself as the guest of a family called Spelding. When the government learns that this visitor, named Kreton, would like to start World War III, pandemonium ensues. Yet Kreton is actually an innocent creature at heart. He believes that war is the greatest achievement of the human race, so it follows that humans should be allowed to destroy themselves.

Just in time, a group from Kreton's native planet arrives to take him home. They explain, rather apologetically, that poor Kreton is mentally retarded—a mere child, in fact. Vidal's play, in its whimsy and scathing satire, recalls Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, though it reverberates with Vidal's idiosyncratic tone. It remains a minor masterpiece of the period, one permeated with the tones and particular cultural histrionics of the period.

The 1950s was, of course, a great age for drama. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and others were producing their masterpieces. In fact, Vidal never devoted himself to writing plays as he might have; consequently, he did not develop as a dramatist. He did, however, manage another fine play, The Best Man, which beginning in 1960 ran on Broadway for 520 performances and was successfully revived in 2000. It was also made into a successful 1964 film starring Henry Fonda, with a screenplay by Vidal. Two other plays for Broadway were Romulus (produced in 1962), adapted from Friedrich Durrenmatt's Romulus der Grosse (1949), and An Evening with Richard Nixon and…(produced in 1972). Neither of these attracted much of an audience or met with critical success.

Screenwriting was lucrative, then as now, and Vidal devoted considerable energies over five decades to the genre. His early credits include The Catered Affair (1956), I Accuse! (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). He also worked on the script of Ben Hur (1959) and doctored a number of other screenplays. Decades later he wrote a television version of Dress Gray (1986; based on a novel by Lucian K. Truscott IV) that received an Emmy nomination. In an unexpected turn, he also acted in several films, including Bob Roberts, where he played a worn-out American politician to great effect.

The Politician as Novelist

Vidal observed the political world from the sidelines for many years, but this vantage did not satisfy him. Hoping for a more active role, he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960 as a Democrat-Liberal in New York State's highly Republican 29th District. In his public speeches he supported many controversial ideas, including the recognition of the People's Republic of China, shrinking the Pentagon's budget, and putting more federal money into education. Given the conservative nature of the region and, more generally, the times, he was defeated, though he won more votes in his district than John F. Kennedy, who headed the Democratic ticket. In 1982, more on whimsy than anything that seemed based in reality, he ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in California; to the surprise of many, he finished second in a crowded field behind Jerry Brown, a well-known political figure in the state.

One can hardly imagine a man of Vidal's literary ability feeling content to endure the grind of daily work in the House or Senate. One nevertheless must admire a writer so engaged in the issues of his day that he would run for public office. The experience of practical campaigning can only have helped him when he began the chronicle of American history and politics that started with Washington, D.C. (1967) and continued through Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s (1990), and The Golden Age (2000). This body of work has a ring of authenticity missing in most American political fiction.

The Move to Italy

After the failed run for office in 1960, Vidal chose to focus again on his main career, that of novelist. Early in the decade he moved to Italy, where he has remained, though with many short intervals of residence in the United States. In Rome, the library of the American Academy proved useful. There he worked on Julian (1964), the first novel in which he became a mature writer of fiction with his own style and manner. In every way, Julian represents the first fruit of Vidal's reinvention of himself as a Roman. Like a ventriloquist, he enters into the mind of Julian, following the noble Roman as he renounces Christianity and embraces paganism, then moves from philosopher-soldier to emperor. The historical details are fascinating, enhanced by Vidal's shrewd embellishments.

A huge commercial success, Julian ranks high among Vidal's creations, a novel equal in quality to Burr, Lincoln, and Myra Breckinridge. As an historical novel about the ancient world, it rivals anything by Mary Renault or Robert Graves; in fact, Vidal as a writer is generally more sophisticated than Renault and less cranky than Graves. He writes with massive authority about the ancient world, much as he does when he writes about the American past. It is this authority for which he is probably most valued by his readers.

Novels by Vidal have often come in pairs. Messiah could be seen as a prelude to a later apocalyptic novel, Kalki (1978). Myra Breckinridge has a sequel, Myron (1974). And Julian, in its way, gestures toward Creation (1981). The latter novel purports to be the memoirs of a retired diplomat, Cyrus Spitama, who is half Persian and half Greek. Spitama offers a panoramic view of life in the fifth century b.c., taking in the Persian-Greek wars as well as visits to India and China. Over thirty years of service to the Persian Empire, Spitama has seen it all. He just happened to be present when Zoroaster was assassinated, met the Buddha as well as Confucius, and even (almost accidentally) bumped into Socrates, whom he engages to rebuild a masonry wall. Only a writer of Vidal's audacity would dare to attempt a novel with such scope.

Creation entertains and enlightens, but it lacks the aesthetic tightness of Julian (a tightness borne of Julian's own idiosyncratic voice, which is pure Vidal). Spitama is just too global, and his voice often seems too much the disembodied voice of History, devoid of personal inflection. Spitama is knowledgeable and world-weary. One inevitably marvels at the amount of information Vidal has assimilated and transformed into fiction in the course of Creation. Even when Spitama is being painfully didactic, telling us more than we might really want to know about Democritus or specific protocols at the court of Darius, there remains the suppleness and sharpness of the prose itself. The surface glimmers as the old narrator surveys the world as he found it with an eye for the exact and memorable detail.


Vidal's satirical novels include Myra Breckinridge, Myron, Duluth, Live from Golgotha (1992), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998). Myra Breckinridge is surely the high point of the author's work in this vein. Like many previous works, it is written in the form of a memoir. This time the speaker is Myra, formerly (before a sex change) Myron, and the nephew of Buck Loner, a retired horse opera star. Myra has come back to Hollywood to claim her inheritance, owed by Buck to Myron, who appeases her by giving her a position as teacher at the Academy of Drama and Modeling—an astute appointment since Myra is, among other things, a movie buff of the first order who (like Vidal himself) adores “celluloid, blessed celluloid.” She is also a protofeminist who repeatedly warns, “No man will ever possess Myra Breckinridge.” One of the kinkiest, funniest, and most shocking scenes in any Vidal novel is Myra's seduction of a strapping young student called Rusty Godowsky, who is anally raped with a dildo by the triumphant Myra.

As sequel to Myra, Myron picks up the story about five years later. A novel of restoration, even a parody of restoration, it completes the portrait of a fractured ego, fusing the split figure of Myra-Myron. Hopping about in time, blending celluloid reality with everyday reality, Myron pushes beyond the mock realism of Myra Breckinridge into something even more peculiar. Myron's rhetoric, so weirdly flat and colloquial, presents a deeply amusing contrast to Myra's decadently baroque ebullience. The two novels cannot, in fact, be separated without a loss to either.

Never one to ignore the reality of politics behind the imaginary world he creates, Vidal teases out links between Hollywood-style fantasy and American politics as Richard Nixon appears in various guises. At one point, for example, Nixon arrives at MGM on the back lot, asking if 1948 has an extradition treaty with the future. This link between the twin capitals of Washington and Hollywood becomes a dominant theme in two of the later novels of Vidal's American sequence, Empire (1987) and Hollywood, where these connections are explicitly and (as opposed to Myron) realistically explored.

Duluth is certainly Vidal's bleakest work, though it might also be considered his funniest. A Swiftian rant against what life in America had become by the 1970s, Duluth (“Love It Or Loathe It, You Can Never Leave It Or Lose It”) was regarded by some critics as the author's most subversive, most bitter, novel. The conceit is postmodern: a narrative purportedly the property of one Rosemary Klein Kantor, the Wurlitzer Prize winner who, like the infinite number of monkeys in a room who manage to type out Hamlet by accident, creates this novel (as well as the TV series Duluth) out of a word processor that contains the plots of ten thousand previously published novels. Full of wordplay, a variety of gags, sleights of thought, and baroque fictional whirligigs, Duluth constitutes Vidal's most open assault on the excesses of American mass culture.

Live from Golgotha emerges from the same netherworld as Duluth, Messiah, and Kalki (the latter a novel in the vein of Messiah, featuring a messianic figure bent on destruction). This insane burlesque of the Gospels takes place at the end of the second millennium. Science and technology by now command the world, making it possible for holograms, even people, to be shifted around in time with ease. NBC is present at the Crucifixion, filming away, and the first bishop of Ephesus, Timothy, has been hired as anchorman. There is a glitch, however; a ruthless computer hacker has sent a virus to corrupt the extant Gospels, so that Timothy must get the “true” story, whatever that might be. St. Paul, Shirley MacLaine, Oral Roberts, and Mary Baker Eddy are among the gathering who witness the Crucifixion, further confusing everyone. In the end, there is no true story; there are only fictions, each crazier than the next one. It seems possible that Timothy is himself, like a character from Jorge Luis Borges, merely a dreamer himself, dreaming the universe.

The Smithsonian Institution arrived in 1998, a slender novel in a similarly fantastic vein as the earlier satires, although this work has a tender side absent from the previous satires. Vidal lavishes affection on T., a thirteen-year-old boy lost in that venerable Washington institution and wandering the corridors of history as the figures of various exhibitions come to life at night, after the museum closes. Set in 1939, when Vidal himself was an adolescent, this novel cannot help being drenched with personal history as well as public history. The development of the atomic bomb forms a kind of eerie backdrop to the novel, which is part science fiction, part historical romance, and part satire. As a narrative it is fantastic, sweet, and exceptionally droll, but it lacks the ferocious bite of the earlier satires and seems to gesture wanly in the direction of Vidal's more realistic fictions of history. It might be considered a superior amusement, though not one of Vidal's finer works.

The American Chronicle

Vidal's canny exploration of American history that begins with Washington, D.C. and ends with The Golden Age may be seen by future critics as his principle achievement in fiction. Though not originally conceived as a sequence, the series starts with a fairly conventional novel that opens in 1937 at a party where the defeat of President Franklin Roosevelt's cynical effort to enlarge the U.S. Supreme Court finds cheerful support among a group of political insiders. The two main families whose lives are chronicled over a decade of national events are those of Senator James Burden Day and Blaise Sanford, who owns the Washington Tribune. Clay Overbury, who regards Senator Day as his mentor, serves as a link between the two families by marrying Enid Sanford, daughter of the newspaper baron. Vidal's plot turns on a bribe that ultimately serves to destroy the senator's career.

Washington, D.C. remains a competent narrative, but nobody could have foreseen how the American chronicle would unfold from this modest beginning. Burr comes next in the sequence, and it stands out as one of the richest of Vidal's works, a novel that brings handsomely into play the author's various talents, including an intimate sense of history and an understanding of political motivations. The novel was finished about the time Vidal moved from Rome to Ravello, a remote town perched on a cliff side overlooking the Mediterranean Sea between Salerno and Naples.

Charlie Schuyler, a young law clerk and journalist who works for Aaron Burr, narrates the novel. Burr, of course, was the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and who, two years later, initiated a secessionist conspiracy that challenged many assumptions of America's constitutional architects. Writing in the immediate wake of the 1960s, Vidal presents a challenging counternarrative of American power, one that would grow into a marvelous exploration of American imperial aspirations in future sequels. In Burr he draws a vivid portrait of the Founders, writing about Washington and Jefferson, among others, as though they were friends and neighbors. The effect remains fresh and startling.

The story of Charlie Schuyler continues in 1876 (1976). Schuyler returns to New York on the eve of his country's centennial. Vidal summons a vision of the Gilded Age, scanning that gaudy and energetic period in American history with an eye for the kind of idiosyncratic detail that marked Creation. He writes about the construction of new churches in Brooklyn, about livestock trotting down East Twenty-fourth Street, and about the origins of Chinatown and Central Park. Like the author himself, Schuyler is the panoptical observer, taking in everything from a discreet distance. He sees but is rarely seen—the ideal Vidalian hero.

Ideally, historical novels generate a feeling of resonance with contemporary affairs, and 1876 achieves that. (Indeed, it was published in America's bicentennial year of 1976—a remarkably well-timed publication.) Vidal cleverly aligns his echoes between present and past, so that Samuel J. Tilden reminds one of the well-meaning but ultimately ineffective George McGovern, while Rutherford B. Hayes recalls the bumbling Gerald Ford. Mark Twain (in his white suit) comes off as a Tom Wolfe figure, the satirist as gadfly, a precursor of Vidal himself, who often quips in public like a latter-day Twain. The Vietnam War and the Civil War are drawn into parallel rows of absurdity and cruelty, while the Lincoln assassination reminds one inevitably of President Kennedy's demise in Dallas. The Babcock break-in might be taken as a dry run for Watergate. And so the comparisons unfold.

The next novel in the sequence, Lincoln, is perhaps the least typical. Vidal's prose is less self-consciously fluent and attractive here, and the subject itself, for once, occupies center stage. The astonishing weight of the material—a nation pushed to the limit because of a bloody and divisive civil war—soon takes control of the narrative, and Vidal wisely steps aside and allows the story to find its own realistic contours. Writing in the New York Review of Books, the critic Harold Bloom characterizes Vidal as “a masterly American historical novelist, now wholly matured, who has found his truest subject, which is our national political history during precisely those years when our political and military histories were as one, one thing and one thing only: the unwavering will of Abraham Lincoln to keep the states united.” He discusses Lincoln in the context of Vidal's developing career, musing on “the still ambiguous question of Vidal's strength or perhaps competing strengths as a novelist.” Adamantly, Bloom concludes: “Lincoln, together with the curiously assorted trio of Julian, Myra Breckinridge, and Burr, demonstrates that his narrative achievement is vastly underestimated by American academic criticism, an injustice he has repaid amply in his essayist attacks upon the academy, and in the sordid intensities of Duluth.”

An important element of Lincoln is the contrast between Salmon P. Chase and Lincoln. Chase was the archetypal Republican abolitionist writhing with jealousy over the president; he was mean-spirited and deceptive as well as crudely pious. In Vidal's rendering, Lincoln is single-minded, ready to sacrifice anything—including the Constitution and human rights—to preserve the Union. Chase, by contrast, appears genuinely concerned about the slaves, while Lincoln has no real interest in their freedom. Indeed, he uses abolition simply as a useful tool in winning support for the war at a critical juncture. At the core of the novel is Lincoln's determination to use all means to support one end.

The last three novels in the chronicle, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age, offer a panorama of the first half of the twentieth century, a time when the American Empire became a global enterprise. The latter novel comes full circle, revisiting (quite literally) the key moments and the characters of Washington, D.C., which is focused on the Sanford family. As usual, real characters (including Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, Henry James, Henry Adams, and Franklin Roosevelt) mingle with fictitious ones. Fact and fiction become, once again, permeable; the world, recast by Vidal, is given the kind of unity that only fiction can generate.

The convergence of various worlds, such as Hollywood and Washington, the twin capitals of the American Empire, occupy Vidal in these later novels. In The Golden Age, Vidal in magisterial fashion ties together the various strands of the chronicle, offering a pageant of the national experience in the years from the entry of the United States into World War II through the end of the Korean conflict. It is all familiar material for Vidal, who lived through these tempestuous years. In The Golden Age, Vidal's distrust of Roosevelt and Harry Truman is typical of his attitude generally toward those who pluck the strings of history. He is cynical and savvy, mistrusting those in control, always interested in how—through the propagandistic use of Hollywood films and journalism—consent is manufactured by the ruling class.

An American Montaigne

Although the novel has preoccupied Vidal and offered a main stage for his writerly activity, he has been an essayist from the mid-1950s to the present. This vein of his work opened with numerous short reviews for various journals, such as The Reporter, the New York Times Book Review, and Esquire. These assignments led to larger essays and reviews, many of which became large ruminations on the state of the nation itself. In the 1960s he became a leading writer for the newly established New York Review of Books, in whose pages he would address a wide range of cultural and political topics. His sharp and scolding manner, with a tonal range from the highly formal to the sharply colloquial, became a kind of trademark, separating his incidental prose from that of other writers. Numerous volumes that collected his incidental pieces appeared at regular intervals, including Rocking the Boat (1962), Reflections on a Sinking Ship (1969), Matters of Fact and Fiction: Essays, 1973–1976 (1977), The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (1976–1982) (1982), At Home (1988), and The Last Empire: Essays, 1992–2000 (2001).

In a sense, Vidal's career in the essay culminated in 1993 when he won the National Book Award for United States: Essays, 1952–1992 (1993). That massive volume unearthed a whole continent of brilliant writing about literature and politics. Over a hundred essays were gathered there, showing off Vidal as a shrewd, uncompromising observer of American political history, cultural history, and world culture. He wrote about homosexuality, about French fiction, about such important American figures as William Dean Howells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Tennessee Williams. As readers of his entertaining memoir, Palimpsest (1995), would discover, he had actually known most of the people he was writing about. His unique presence on the scene of history gives to his essays a feeling of authority and intimacy. Indeed, they often begin with a personal anecdote about the person whose work or career lies at the center of the essay and then move into a more discursive vein.

Though cool, elegant, and witty, the essays comment harshly on American politics and foreign policy. Vidal became, in the 1960s, a leading spokesman for the New Left, an iconoclast who was willing to debate William F. Buckley on television and write scathing essays about Richard Nixon. In Pink Triangle and Yellow Star, he drew stunning parallels between the persecution of homosexuals and Jews. In The Holy Family he burst the bubble of awe and admiration that had kept the Kennedy family free of criticism for many years. He poked fun at any number of American icons, from Theodore Roosevelt (whom he called “an American sissy”) to Edmund Wilson, the most revered man of letters in the twentieth century. In Rabbitt's Own Burrow he surveyed the career of his contemporary, John Updike, with a ferocious eye. Perhaps more importantly, he singled out neglected writers for praise, raising their profile in the world of letters. Among those he helped to reach a wider audience were Italo Calvino and Dawn Powell, both of whom he knew as friends.

In recent years he has waged a continual war on those who would attempt to diminish freedom. In Shredding the Bill of Rights, for example, he says:

It has always been a mark of American freedom that unlike countries under constant Napoleonic surveillance, we are not obliged to carry identification to show to curious officials and pushy police. But now, due to Terrorism, every one of us is stopped at airports and obliged to show an ID which must include a mug shot

(something, as Allah knows, no terrorist would ever dare fake).

As usual, his ability to say what everyone knows and to make it unsettling is a particular gift. He simply tells the truth as he sees it, without worrying about the implications, for himself or his reputation. This habit has won him many admirers and numerous enemies as well. It might be argued that Vidal, as a writer and perpetual didact, is at his best in his essays, and that a century from now he will be remembered mostly for this work.

A Man of Letters

It almost seems a put-down to call someone a man of letters. The term smacks of amateurism and antiquarianism, although it has been applied with dignity to many noble figures of the past, such as William Dean Howells and Edmund Wilson. Yet there is nothing about the concept that deserves scorn. A man or woman of letters is someone who ranges widely over the field of literature and life, who attempts to write in various forms, and who becomes one of the stable, central voices of his or her generation.

It could easily be argued that no American since Mark Twain has performed in this role so ably as Gore Vidal. His American chronicle itself represents a vivid counternarrative of American history and politics. The satirical novels are unique, and add a vein of Swiftian humor to American literature unlike anything that preceded them. His workmanlike achievements as a dramatist and screenwriter were, at least in their time, notable. Finally, his essays and reviews have earned him a permanent place in American letters and politics. In his memoirs, Palimpsest, he has left a remarkably entertaining record of his life and times, which are also the life and times of the nation. Although the quality of the work has varied, the total effect of his presence in American literary culture has been considerable.

Selected Works

  • Williwaw (1946)
  • In a Yellow Wood (1947)
  • The City and the Pillar (1948)
  • The Season of Comfort (1949)
  • A Search for the King (1949)
  • Dark Green, Bright Red (1950)
  • Death in the Fifth Position (as Edgar Box) (1952)
  • The Judgment of Paris (1952)
  • Death before Bedtime (as Edgar Box) (1953)
  • Death Likes It Hot (as Edgar Box) (1954)
  • Messiah (1954)
  • A Thirsty Evil (1956)
  • Visit to a Small Planet (1957)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
  • The Best Man (1960)
  • Rocking the Boat (1962)
  • Romulus (1962)
  • Julian (1964)
  • Washington, D.C. (1967)
  • Myra Breckinridge (1968)
  • Weekend (1968)
  • Reflections upon a Sinking Ship (1969)
  • Two Sisters (1970)
  • An Evening with Richard Nixon and… (1972)
  • Burr (1973)
  • Homage to Daniel Shays (1974)
  • Myron (1974)
  • 1876 (1976)
  • Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays, 1973–1976 (1977)
  • Kalki (1978)
  • Creation (1981)
  • The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (1976–1982) (1982)
  • Duluth (1983)
  • Lincoln (1984)
  • Armageddon? (1987)
  • Empire (1987)
  • At Home (1988)
  • Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s (1990)
  • A View from the Diners' Club (1991)
  • Live from Golgotha (1992)
  • Screening History (1992)
  • United States: Essays, 1952–1992 (1993)
  • Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995)
  • The Smithsonian Institution (1998)
  • The Golden Age (2000)
  • The Last Empire: Essays, 1992–2000 (2001)

Further Reading

  • Baker, Susan. Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn., 1997.
  • Dick, Bernard F. The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal. New York, 1974.
  • Kaplan, Fred. Gore Vidal: A Biography. New York, 1999.
  • Kiernan, Robert F. Gore Vidal. New York, 1982.
  • Parini, Jay, ed. Gore Vidal: Writer against the Grain. New York, 1992.
  • Stanton, Robert J. Gore Vidal: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston, 1978.
  • White, Ray Lewis. Gore Vidal. Boston, 1968.