When Gore Vidal passed away, on the last day of July this year, he was already far removed from the limelight in which he reveled for much of his life. Aged 86 and in frail health, Vidal made few public appearances in the last years of his life, focusing primarily on (virulent) political commentary rather than in fictional work. To the youngest readers, his persona, if recognizable at all, might appear old-fashioned, much in the same vein as his pessimistic views of contemporary American society might seem like the bitter assessment of an individual far distanced from the very realities he was critiquing. To those same readers, then, it might come as a surprise to learn that for the best part of two decades, Gore Vidal was considered one of the sharpest, most pungent writers of his generation
Born in New York in 1925 to Nina Gore and Eugene Vidal, an Olympian athlete and aviation pioneer, Gore Vidal (née Eugene Louis Vidal) grew up in the highly politicized environment of Washington D. C., where he often used to help his blind grandfather, Thomas Gore, in his duties as Senator of Oklahoma. Despite the Senator’s eminently isolationist tendencies—which clearly influenced the writer’s later political thought—Gore Vidal enlisted in the US Navy soon after the War broke, serving for three years, primarily in Alaska. Like Norman Mailer, like Joseph Heller, like Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal’s experience abroad, at war, became the basis a novel, the murder mystery Williwaw (1946), which unfolds in the remote backwaters of the War in the Pacific.
Vidal’s promising literary career came to a rather brutal halt two years later, when he published his third novel, The City and the Pillar, which tells the story of Jim Willard, a kid in search of his sexuality in the 1930s and ’40s. Though a moderate success, The City and the Pillar stirred such controversy for dealing with the theme of homosexuality in a sympathetic way that Vidal was effectively ostracized from the literary scene for over a decade. During this time he turned to several pseudonyms, penning five novels under the names of Katherine Everard, Cameron Cay and Edgar Box. By the mid 1950s Vidal turned to the movies, and in 1956 he was contracted by MGM as a screenwriter. He was engaged in the reworking of the script of Ben Hur (1959), though his work went uncreditted, and in the film adaptation of Tennessee William’s sexually laden Suddenly Last Summer (1959).
Successfully making a name for himself on every step of his multifarious career, Vidal then turned to the stage to write what was quite possibly his biggest coup at that point, The Best Man (1960), for which he was nominated to a Tony Award, and which was then turned into a film (scripted by himself) in 1964. By then the ban imposed on him by the literary establishment following his faux pas with The City and the Pillar all the way back in 1948 could no longer be enforced—Gore Vidal had overcome his detractors.
At that time, all the elements that would turn him into one of the central figures among American intellectuals were all in place. In 1964 he published a historical novel set in Classic Rome, Julian, and for the following ten years he would work constantly but not exclusively in the American trilogy that would make him famous: Washington D. C. (1967), Burr (1973) and 1876 (1976).
Particularly acclaimed within the series is the epic account of Colonel Burr’s exploits in the American Revolution and his adventures following his period as Vice-President of the United States. Burr is a compelling narrative that grips the reader even as its focus shifts from one character to the next, from one time frame to another. Irreverently defacing the myths that for centuries have been constructed over messianic characters, such as Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe or Adams, through the controversial figure of a contemporary of these greats, who was antagonistic to them even then, Vidal manages to weave a tale of intrigue and back-stabbing that shatters most stereotypes—even that of history being boring.
And yet, even if the structure of the novel is flawless and the course of the events told fully engaging, what truly stands out in Burr is Vidal’s unique literary style, which jolts, not so smoothly, from coda to coda, through his exquisite ear for conversation and his enviable knack to create short, sharp, fascinating aphorisms and infiltrating them with ease and purpose into the narrative. Indeed, Burr only loses some of its momentum in the very final stages of the 600-page novel, when the exchanges between the Colonel and his biographer become sporadic, and a more traditional narrative form takes the reader, not quite tediously but certainly far less exhilaratingly, to the denouement.
Vidal’s versatility and enthusiasm for the various forms of literary creation meant that he remained active in all genres for a long time: he wrote five more plays between 1960 and 1970, including An Evening with Richard Nixon; seven screenplays after The Best Man, including Is Paris Burning? (1966), and Caligula (1979); sixteen novels between Julian in 1964 and The Golden Age in 2000; innumerable essays on topics as diverse as history, politics, Italy (where he lived for many years) and sex, many of which have been collected in over a dozen volumes; as well as two different memoirs.
Famous for his controversial, if also likeable, persona, Vidal possessed a sharp wit that soon became his trademark. He was a regular guest in talk shows and discussion panels and was capable, time and again, of emerging from the bitterest confrontations with an air of charm, despite rather unseemly episodes. Part of a generation of writers whose success brought them celebrity status, Vidal carried himself with the distinction, with the confidence, of someone who knew he had earned his own way onto the elite. This attitude, combined with his almost pathologically liberal political views and his similarly open-minded sexual stance meant that he had little trouble finding enemies. By the same token, however, he was far from coy in expressing his contempt towards some of his most admired contemporaries, all of which worked wonders in fashioning his public image.
In literary terms, his legacy will certainly be split between his social activism, particularly in relation to the liberalization of the discourse surrounding sexuality at large (and, more specifically, homosexuality), and his political ideas, which form the core of his prolific and highly rated essays. His 1968 novel, Myra Breckinridge, remains a classic of queer literature, more so than The City and the Pillar, because it explores the details and the motivations of alternative sexual behavior with tremendous insight. Another singular piece of work is the 1981 novel, Creation, an amusing tale that brings together the enlightened teachings of contemporary thinkers from antiquity, from Socrates to Zoroaster, Buddha or Confucius.
And yet, it is quite possible that once Vidal’s character is forgotten—which won’t be anytime soon—he will be mostly remembered for his seven-book series known as “Narratives of the Empire,” which includes the American trilogy and maps the journey from the invention, quite literally, of the United States as a country, to the rise and fall of the Great American Empire. Critiquing modern society through the eyes of highly relevant and not terribly distant history, Vidal built narratives that often bridge several generations to create a mosaic of American society and the circumstances that have molded it. The fact that he was disillusioned with such society certainly played a crucial role in his portrayal of it, but despite his disaffection for modernity, Gore Vidal remained an aesthete who valued refinement above all. It was that which made his wit so famous, and so sharp: his aversion for the grotesque. An aversion that is sure to render his work valuable for decades. In this sense, despite his sad parting last month, Gore Vidal will stay with us for a long, long time. Perhaps, even, forever.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday, August 25, 2012.