Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal 1925-2012

Gore Vidal, 1972.

Gore Vidal, 1964.

JFK and Gore Vidal, 1960.
A Life's Work. Gore Vidal, 1925-2012. Taken at Powell's Bookstore, Portland, OR. Photo by Mark Taylor.
The great American writer Gore Vidal died yesterday. Our world is a little less colorful today without him. Vidal was one of my favorite authors, and I was saddened to hear of his passing. Vidal was truly the last of a generation of American writers, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, who were also very public celebrities. Vidal famously feuded with both Capote and Mailer during his long career. It’s safe to say that all three writers shared a very high self-regard. 

Gore Vidal has been one of my heroes since high school. I admired his courage for speaking his mind, even when his views were not shared by a majority. I liked the way he presented himself, full of knowing humor, with a clever bon mot always within reach. If I become a famous writer, I said to myself in high school and college, I would want to be a lot like Gore Vidal. A straight Gore Vidal, that is. Well, I’m not a famous writer, at least not yet, and if I did become a famous writer I’m not sure if I would be as bold as Gore Vidal was in his public pronouncements, but I can still hope, can’t I? I even wrote Gore Vidal a fan letter when I was 17, and to my great shock and surprise, he wrote me back. One of the great thrills of my life was opening that envelope from Italy. I was always amazed that Vidal took the time to write me back.

In my past posts about Gore Vidal I’ve commented on his contribution to the screenplay of “Ben-Hur,” and been critical of his post-2001work.This post will be an overview of his career with my capsule reviews of the books of his that I’ve read. 

Vidal was a precocious talent, publishing his first novel, the war story “Williwaw,” at the age of 21 in 1946. “Williwaw” was well-received, but it was Vidal’s third novel, 1948’s “The City and the Pillar,” that truly made him famous. 1948 was also the year that Truman Capote published his first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and Norman Mailer published his first novel, the monumental “The Naked and the Dead.” “The City and the Pillar” was one of the first, if not the first, American novels to deal seriously and honestly with homosexuality. The main character of “The City and the Pillar” is gay, but he does not conform to the limp-wristed stereotype of that era. It was a bold move for Vidal, as he essentially outed himself with the book. It was a scandalous best-seller, but it also made the literary establishment wary of this young author. Vidal quickly found himself informally blacklisted from the nation’s most important media outlets. The New York Times stopped reviewing his novels, as did Time and Newsweek. The New York Times obituary of Vidal mentions this fact, but it doesn’t mention that Vidal was right. “Mr. Vidal later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, The New York Times especially, had blacklisted him because of the book, and he may have been right.” Yes, he was right. You didn’t mention his name in your newspaper for years; you were blacklisting him because he was gay. Vidal’s next five novels all landed with a thud, as most people probably weren’t even aware of the books. So Vidal wrote for television, wrote screenplays-yes, he added the gay subtext to “Ben-Hur,” and wrote novels under pseudonyms. (He wrote three murder mysteries as “Edgar Box.” These were all favorably reviewed in The New York Times.) Vidal also ran for Congress in upstate New York in 1960. He ran as a Democrat, under the slogan “You’ll get more with Gore!” Vidal lost, but he always mentioned that he got more votes in his district than JFK did. It was for the best that Vidal lost, although the thought of him as an actual member of Congress is a delicious one. 

Vidal returned to the novel, publishing “Julian” in 1964. “Julian” was a historical novel about the 4th century Roman emperor who tried to turn away from Christianity and back to paganism. “Julian” was unquestionably the best book Vidal had written to that point. Finally reviewed again in The New York Times, “Julian” went on to become one of the best-selling novels that year. Vidal had found his niche-historical fiction peopled with real historical figures, but with all the gossip and detail that historians would never include. In 1967 Vidal published the first of his “American Chronicles” historical novels, “Washington, D.C.” (The “American Chronicles” series is also referred to by Vidal as the “Narratives of Empire” series.) Vidal was now on a hot streak, and through the rest of the 1970’s and 80’s he was on a roll, publishing one best-seller after another, while at the same time decrying the fact that the American public had no taste for literature. (How then did Vidal explain his own popular success?) Vidal was a frequent guest on television talk shows, and he proved that he really was an actor. Sure, he must have been funny and acerbic off camera, but Vidal clearly loved to perform for an audience. Vidal also wrote essays on many topics, from the Kennedy family to the novels of John O’Hara to his friendship with Orson Welles. And of course, he wrote many, many essays on the United States government, and our foreign policy, which he almost always disagreed with. 

Gore Vidal may have become more and more of a crank as the years wore on, but at his best he was always a funny, sharp, engaging crank. He saved one of his best books for late in his life, his memoir “Palimpsest,” published when he was 70. The title of the book is a word referring to something that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing sometimes visible underneath. What a wonderful title. “Palimpsest” covers Vidal’s fascinating family, which I did not cover here, and his life until 1964 and the publication and success of “Julian.” It’s a wonderful book, full of gossip and yet very poignant. I don’t think that we shall encounter another talent quite like Gore Vidal. 

Some thoughts on the works of Gore Vidal:

Williwaw, 1946: A good first novel. The prose is tight as a drum, with doses of Hemingway and no sign of the gadfly that would eventually emerge.

The City and the Pillar, 1948: A fine novel with a sympathetic attitude towards homosexuality. It may seem prim and proper now, but at the time it caused a sensation.

Dark Green, Bright Red, 1950: An interesting short novel detailing a revolution in a South American country. The book is a premonition of the CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954. Unfortunately, Vidal re-wrote many of his early novels in the mid-1960’s, so it’s tough to know what was in the book in 1950 and what he added later. 

The Best Man, 1960: Very funny play, later adapted into a movie and currently being revived on Broadway. Excellent portraits of Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon-under different names, of course.

Julian, 1964: An amazing book. I couldn’t put it down. This is one of my favorite Vidal novels. Vidal really puts you inside the waning Roman Empire. If you liked I, Claudius, you will enjoy Julian.

Myra Breckinridge, 1968: A funny, silly book. Combines two of Vidal’s favorite subjects: sex and the movies. It’s not my favorite of Vidal’s, but it was another shocking and scandalous best-seller.

Two Sisters, 1970: This is a weird one. A combination novel and memoir, it’s not very good as either. It’s about incestuous twins. Supposedly it was a veiled attack on Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill. The paperback edition features one of my favorite book blurbs of all time. Norman Mailer used to put his bad reviews in ads for his books, so Vidal decided to praise himself on the back of his own book. "A work of perfect genius!”-Gore Vidal. Which I think accurately sums up how Gore Vidal viewed all of his own books, and that makes me smile.

An Evening with Richard Nixon, 1972: This play, written before Watergate, is an attack on the character of Richard Nixon. Vidal uses Nixon’s own words as often as he can, which makes the play better read than performed. It’s very entertaining.

Burr, 1973: A wonderful examination of one of the most interesting of all the Founding Fathers. (Or members of the Founding Generation, or whatever you want to call Aaron Burr.) Vidal very successfully conjures up the scheming and devious Burr. Along the way there are many great portraits of all the other Founding Fathers. I always thought that a good miniseries could be made of Burr, with Vidal himself playing the aging Burr dictating his memoirs. 

Views from a Window-Conversations with Gore Vidal, 1981: An interesting book, this is a compendium of interviews with Vidal over the years. Very funny and very readable. 

Duluth, 1983: As someone from Minnesota, I felt like I had to read a Gore Vidal novel called Duluth. This is one of Vidal’s “inventions” where he just lets his imagination run wild. So the Duluth of the novel has little in common with Minnesota’s Duluth, as Vidal’s Duluth borders Mexico. A hilarious book.

United States: Essays 1952-1992: I haven’t read all of the essays in this massive tome, but this is the best introduction to Vidal’s essays, and maybe to his work in general. No matter what you’re interested in, Vidal will have an essay for you. He has an essay where he reads all of the books on the New York Times best-seller list, it’s wickedly funny.

Palimpsest, 1995: Vidal’s memoir. As I said above, this is a terrific book. Vidal pulls no punches as he chronicles the first 39 years of his life. There’s even a chapter about his one-night stand with Jack Kerouac. 

The American Presidency, 1998: A very short volume containing an essay about the occupants of the Oval Office. Brief, but entertaining.

The Last Empire: Essays, 1992-2000: I’ve read most of these essays, and as usual they are quite insightful and funny.

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, 2002: Short collection of essays. Features Vidal’s thoughts about 9/11. Good, but it also includes some essays previously published in The Last Empire.

Dreaming War, 2002: Another short collection of essays published in the run-up to the second Iraq war. It’s very good, but also includes some essays previously published in The Last Empire.

Inventing a Nation, 2003: A short book about the Founding Fathers. Quite good.

Imperial America, 2004: Another short essay collection. The new stuff is okay, but I think it also has some previously published essays from, you guessed it, The Last Empire.

Point to Point Navigation, 2006: Vidal’s second memoir, this isn’t as good as Palimpsest and treads some of the same territory. 

And that’s all the Gore Vidal books I’ve read. It’s a lot, but when I look at this list all I can see are the many books of his I haven’t read yet. I need to read more of his “American Chronicles” series. Hopefully this will inspire some of you out there to read some of Gore Vidal’s books. He was truly a great writer.

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