I won’t tell you the name of the city in which I live—not because puzzling you is the nature of my game so much as I have lived and/or traveled variously in this country—and I think it helps the general narrative not to nail it down. Let me at least say that where I live has claimed (with some national recognition) to have one of the finer libraries in the nation.
Yet as I haunt the 800 section in Dewey Land—a Peter Panic grove I’ve been attending for better than twenty years—I can’t help noticing that there is precious little print on Mr. Gore Vidal.
Oh, you can find acres of theoretical press on Hemingway or Fitzgerald; tons of fun on Bernard Malamud. Nobody reads Malamud, for any reason: but there are his acolytes, taking the temperature of his ever more anonymous fame. Some chump even tried to rewrite Huckleberry Finn, to “fix” the ending. Gah. But re Vidal? Nada.
Dare I take stick to the bars of the cages, but I would suggest that Gore Vidal is the only meaningful Man of Letters that America has produced in the Twentieth Century. And I would do so with the recognition that half his novels are unreadable. But that is no matter; a good deal of them are brilliant.
Gore’s legacy—to the extent that authors can be said to have a legacy, in this day where writing is done desperately for free and everyone now has the Airport Book Rack’s Two Minutes Exposure—is in his polymorph status. Historical novelist, television playwright, memoirist—essay-crafter extraordinaire. His essays, in fact, are what I love best.
I am almost unintelligible to all my friends, and that’s what comes of a misspent youth devouring the Prose Edda, Gilgamesh, and Garcilaso de la Vega El Inca’s two volumes on The History of Peru. But I would propose that I am no more than middle brow. Vidal seems to have read and understood everything, and feeds it back to us with a vengeance. His chief utensil is the satirist’s stiletto, so chew carefully.
I understand often what Gore is saying, but my background will be forever incomplete. A man that devours the entire breadth of Montaigne is a bit scary. A man that can make any of it relevant to the reader of today must have been formed off-planet. But there is Gore.
And his background! I urge you to read of his biography—for he is wired in to our Ruling Elite in the family way as is nobody. What other critic in reviewing the attempts of Herman Wouk to portray the intimate speech of FDR could offer, “I doubt if FDR would have called Pug ‘Old Top’ (though when my father was in the administration the President used to address him, for some obscure reason, as ‘Brother Vidal’).” There's a bit of Achilles in him, rattling off his tree of famous men.
Yep. Vidal’s dad—an Olympic athlete and the first flight instructor at West Point–served the Roosevelt machine. Got Gore on an alcoholic stage actress, herself being the daughter of Senator T. P. Gore of Oklahoma. (Vidal is also distantly related to the Greenhouse Gas Guy.) Gore was taught to fly a little plane at ten (and you thought Steinbeck was spoiled with that red pony).
Vidal wandered in high Washington circles as a small boy; later, his legacy-hunting mother involved herself in a number of complicated dynastic matrimonies, and Gore ended up step-brothering to Jackie Bouvier. Which led him, very naturally, into hanging out with JFK.
Serving in the army as a warrant officer, he turned his wartime experiences into the novel Williwaw, which was printed when he was twenty. He also broke the bank by writing the ‘first’ gay novel—if you don’t count Moby Dick—which got him banned by the NY Times, so to speak.
In his maturity he became an international gadfly, a stern critic of all our pols and parrots. He never pleased either—or any—side. The same guy who started the gay novel industry has been quoted as oft saying, “There are no hetero or homosexuals; those words describe acts, not persons.” In these days, them’s fightin’ words, pardner. Vidal has never developed much in the way of PC kid gloves.
As a historian, his insight and research are much appreciated, but then, it is easier to comment happily on the long dead Founding Fossils than to pillory the more contemporary crews—with obvious exceptions. Vidal was going on about John Adams long before David McCullough became point man.
As Vidal has gone on, however, he has sounded more and more like a blogging fusion paranoid than an austere and distant critic. His latter day works come-on like co-opts from MoveOn.org. Which is not to say invalid, but certainly a bit shrill.
This election night past, a disturbing co-option went very badly. The BBC wheeled Vidal out for an Obama cheer. But he was barely coherent and curmudgeonly. Either Gore had been oversampling the sherry in the green room or—well, the man’s a nonagenarian, and our suspicions tend that even a man of most superior means will fade.
What really troubles me is David Dimbleby and his New Zoo Review Crew tittering and snickering and winking over the whole matter. Of course they don’t know any better. Their own microcephalic intellects—narrow, rude, and unsympathetic –have never tasted Vidal’s heights. Commentators without content, screensaver wisdoms. Why not kick out the man’s cane, Dimbleby, you stooge?
In the case of the sunset Vidal, one is reminded of the musical Li’l Abner, where twenty-year-old buxom Daisy Mae is “wasting away.” Says Marryin’ Sam, “That may be, sugar—but what you got left is more than most folks started out with.”
Ironically, the vocal critic of Americana is himself Americana. He is, in his own way, as remarkable a son as Charles Lindbergh. No other living writer has his reach. His experiences are unique. His placing in history is exceptional. And his writing is sure and infernally perceptive.
There ought to be a few more commentaries on this commentator. But then, a good argument could be made that his essay voice is best parroted by Thomas Harris—when he puts words in Hannibal Lecter’s formidable mouth.
Maybe those critics are out there, waiting to write down what they see. Or maybe they are afraid to.-30-