The BBC’s Today programme of August 1st, 2012 carried the news that Gore Vidal had died the previous evening at his Hollywood home. The death of the eighty-six-year-old “American writer and commentator” – author of some twenty-five novels, six plays, more than two hundred essays and numerous screen and TV plays and scripts – was the second item on the 8am news, taking precedence over what was happening in Syria but behind the nefarious goings-on on the badminton courts at the Olympics. Later, Sir Jonathan Miller (who had known Vidal in the 1960s and recalled him as very “grand”) and Erica Wagner, the literary editor of The Times, were brought in to pay tribute. It was a front page story in The New York Times and every newspaper I saw carried an extensive obituary. This, in today’s world, and in Today’s world, is literary fame. With the possible exception of Seamus Heaney, I do not believe that there is another contemporary English-language writer whose passing would “make the news” to this extent. Vidal was, indeed still is, famous and this fact is central to any discussion of his life and work.
Vidal defined fame for a writer, or any artist, as “the extent to which the Agora finds interesting his latest work”. The agora was the central space of a Greek city state, the place where the business of the polis (political, commercial and artistic) was conducted. He went on to argue that “there is no such thing as a famous novelist now” because “novels and poems fail to interest the Agora today”. While I would agree, I would maintain that Vidal was in some measure an exception to his own rule. Fame in this sense is not to be confused with celebrity. In “Writers and the World” (1965), Vidal notes that although writers now enjoy a higher profile, a higher degree of name and face recognition than has previously been the case, this is not because of “any sudden passion for books among the people” or to “the brief recreation of Camelot beside the Potomac” but to “around-the-clock television and its horror of ‘dead air’”.
In the search for talkers, it was soon discovered that movie stars needed a script and that politicians are not only evasive but apt to run afoul of the “equal time for the opposition” statute … only writers were entirely suitable and perfectly available … [they] responded to the Zeitgeist’s call with suspicious alacrity.
Vidal would have seen Truman Capote as an egregious example of such literary celebrity. The crucial distinction is that fame requires an interest in the work rather than in the artist or writer. Vidal, who once claimed that “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television” was anything but camera-shy and so might be advanced as proof that celebrity and fame are not mutually exclusive.
In “Thomas Love Peacock: The Novel of Ideas” (1980), Vidal begins by citing approvingly Mary McCarthy’s observation that “since the time of Henry James, the serious novel has dealt in a more and more concentrated – if not refined – way with the moral relations of characters who resemble rather closely the writer and his putative reader”. He moves on to assert:
During the last fifty years, the main line of the Serious American Novel has been almost exclusively concerned with the doings and feelings, often erotic, of white middle-class Americans, often schoolteachers, as they confront what they take to be life. It should be noted that these problems seldom have much or anything to do with politics, with theories of education, with the nature of the good.
This is not to say that there have not been many fine novels written during this period (although Vidal did not often choose to say so). In this context such considerations are largely extraneous. Literary value in that sense is, as Vidal comments elsewhere, “neither a good nor a bad thing. It is simply not a famous thing.”
Here, at least by implication, Vidal is advocating writing explicitly and directly concerned with such matters as “politics, theories of education [and] the nature of the good” that addresses the reader not, or not only or primarily, as a private individual but as a citizen or social political being, more zoon politikon than homme moyen sensuel. I would call this public writing. Such writing would be, necessarily, interventionist in that it would enter history as an active agent and manifest a “desire to push the world in a certain direction” (Orwell’s definition of political purpose in the “widest possible sense”). My use of the word public is intended to invoke, and perhaps extend, that “widest possible sense”. It is sometimes said that everything, even presumably tales of professorial adultery, is “political” or has a political dimension but this is not what either I or Orwell mean by the “widest possible sense”. Certainly, Vidal’s writing is political in ways in which not everything is political. According to Senator George McGovern (the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972), Vidal was a “player” in the politics of the United States, and from the early 1950s, when as a writer for television he was “able, every now and then, to comment on power as exercised in the great republic” to his most recent polemics against the folly of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his writing has consistently engaged with the political issues of the day.
Vidal wrote not just about the political but about politics. The distinction is an important one. His plays, notably The Best Man (1960), and the novels Washington D.C. (1967) and 1876 (1976) are obvious examples, and of course his essays give a detailed and accurate account of the day to day political process of the United States generally. Brought up in Washington, the grandson of a senator and the son of a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet who shared a stepfather (Standard Oil heir Hugh D Auchincloss) with Jackie Kennedy and was the friend and confidant of leading political and public figures from Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton, Vidal was very much a political insider. He also ran as a Democrat for Congress in 1960 and for the Senate in 1982 – on both occasions he was unfortunately unsuccessful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in writing about politics in this sense he has no equal among American writers past or present.
Vidal was both a political insider and a patrician – the two are not the same thing. Vidal’s patrician background, and the manner and style that came with it, have been frequently remarked upon (not least, it must be said, by Vidal himself). Very few writers, and in particular very few American writers, are what Jonathan Miller calls grand, and so the fact that Vidal was grand in this sense is, I would argue, something of more than snobbish or sociological significance. In the essay “The Great World and Louis Auchincloss” (1974), Vidal recalls how surprised he had been to learn that Louis (a distant family connection) had written a novel: “I said: Not possible. No Auchincloss could write a book. Banking and law, power and money – that is their category.” Some critics have argued that Auchincloss is limited and damaged as a novelist because although he writes with authority about “‘good’ society, the well-to-do and the well-bred, he is unable to see beyond that “little world” and “never questions its values in any serious way”. Vidal concedes that Auchincloss writes from and of the world of the “well-to-do and the well-bred” but sees this as a strength, not a weakness. He argues powerfully that the world Auchincloss writes about is not in fact a little world but the great world and that the people in it are “the masters of the American empire”. For Vidal, the strength, the great achievement, of Louis Auchincloss is that
Of all our novelists, [he] is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and boardrooms, their law office and their clubs. Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and book-chatterers from actual power that those who should be most in this writer’s debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways betraying, his class.
Much of this can be applied to Vidal himself. He too writes from the inside of a class that is seldom written about at all except in gossip columns and the “fantasy or day-dream narratives of best-sellerdom” in which “the only reality required … is that the descriptions of luxury goods with brand names be precisely rendered”. Vidal’s inside narratives, like those of Louis Auchincloss, rarely offer explicit denunciation but speaking openly of matters that are not meant to be articulated at all disconcerts and embarrasses those he describes as “our proud savage rulers as they go single-mindedly about their principal task: the preserving of fortunes that ought to be broken up”. Vidal’s treatment of class provides perhaps the most obvious, but certainly not the least important, illustration of this. He consistently and insistently presents the United States as a class society; and by this I do not mean simply a society in which some people are richer, or more sophisticated, or cultured (more “classy”) than others, but as a society with an aristocracy, or perhaps better a gentry or patricianate, a hereditary ruling class. This is something that is supposed not to exist in the United States of America, something not countenanced by the constitution and officially denied, but which, as Vidal compellingly shows, does indeed exist.
In an interview published in New Left Review in January /February 1985, Vidal distinguished between two “modes” of writing to be found in his fiction:
One I call “reflections.” I reflect on religion in Julian, on philosophic systems in Creation, and on the American Republic in the other historical novels. Reflections are just that. You study, you look for a pattern and you dramatize it. With Myra [Breckinridge] it was different. I heard this voice: “I am Myra Breckinridge”, she began to thunder in my ear. I don’t know where she came from, perhaps my surrealist past. I sat there as an amanuensis to this extraordinary creature. These are “the inventions” – invention for the sheer pleasure of it. I was walking down a street in Rome when I suddenly heard: “Duluth, love it or loathe it, you can never leave it or lose it.” So I said: what the hell does that mean? I often talk to myself when I walk along and it’s really making phrases out of words.
This is useful up to a point, but one should be wary of seeing the distinction between “reflections” and “inventions” as an absolute or of applying it too rigidly. It becomes particularly problematic in the later work. The Smithsonian Institution (1998) is an invention with many of the attributes of a reflection, and The Golden Age (2000) is a reflection that in some ways resembles an invention.
The earlier fiction (that published in the 1940s and 1950s) is more conventional and cannot be usefully fitted to this pattern. Vidal’s first novel, Williwaw (1946), was based on his experiences in World War II and established him – along with John Horne Burns, James Jones and Norman Mailer – as a leading member of the generation of talented young American writers that emerged in the postwar years. It is now principally of historical interest. The City and the Pillar (1948) is the best known of Vidal’s early works and is quite rightly honoured for its courageous treatment of the then taboo subject of homosexuality. Messiah (1954), a dystopian fantasy about a religious cult that achieves global dominance, also remains of interest, not least for its vision of a future on which the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds are sharply divided. I would also put in a word for the earliest of the historical novels, A Search for the King (1950) – a delightful reworking of the legend of Richard Cœur de Lion and Blondel.
Vidal spent much of the second half of the 1950s in Hollywood working as a writer for MGM. He wrote Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and worked on Ben-Hur (but was never credited), and in 1960, as has already been pointed out, he ran for Congress. In 1962 he and his partner, Howard Auster, moved to Rome. For Vidal, this clearly represented some sort of watershed: it is precisely at this point that he ended the first volume of his memoirs – Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995). Whatever else it may have signified, it marked his return to writing fiction. Vidal’s first novel for ten years, Julian (1964), a fictionalised (but largely historically accurate) biography of one of his great heroes, the Emperor Julian (331/32 – ’63, Emperor 361-3), often called Julian the Apostate because of his attempts to stem the rise of Christianity. It was a critical and popular success (topping the New York Times bestseller list) and it remains for me Vidal’s best novel.
Washington, D.C., set in Washington in the 1930s and 40s and the first of the American history novels, followed in 1967. It is the first in order of publication but Burr (1973) is the first in historical sequence. These were followed in 1976 by 1876, thus completing what seems originally to have been intended as a trilogy. With the addition of Lincoln in 1984 the trilogy became a tetralogy – sometimes referred to as the “American Saga”. Subsequently a further three volumes were added: Empire (1987), dealing with the Spanish-American War of 1898 and its immediate aftermath (including the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt), Hollywood (1990), covering the years from the entry of the United States into World War I to the Great Depression, and The Golden Age (2000), which is centred on World War II and brings the series to a conclusion. The resulting heptalogy is now known as Narratives of Empire (an entirely appropriate title given Vidal’s often stated belief that the grand narrative of American history is, like that of Rome, a movement from republic to empire). In his last years, Vidal was said to have been contemplating an eighth volume, an account of the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, but I do not know whether this was ever completed, or even begun.
Whatever one calls the cycle of American history novels it is an impressive achievement. As it stands, “Narratives of Empire” chronicles the history of the United States from the revolution (Burr is set in the run-up to the election of 1836 but contains extensive flashbacks to the revolution and to the post-revolutionary era) to the present. From the outset, Vidal has stressed that he has been careful to have the historical figures who appear in these novels “pretty much saying and doing” (as he phrases it in the “Afterword” to 1876) what they did say and do. Nonetheless, his historical explanations, particularly his versions of Abraham Lincoln, have come under attack from professional historians. Vidal robustly defended himself against these attacks and, as might be expected, gave as least as good as he got. In “Lincoln, Lincoln and the High Priests of Academe” (1988) he defended specific points in his account of Lincoln such as his advocacy of the idea that freed slaves should be used as colonists abroad. He also argued that although he had as far as possible adhered to the “agreed-upon facts” those facts are problematic and slippery and so history, even the history of professional historians, could never be what is conventionally thought of as an objective science:
Although I try to make the agreed-upon facts as accurate as possible, I always use the phrase “agreed-upon facts” because what we know of a figure as recent, say, as Theodore Roosevelt is not only not the whole truth – an impossibility anyway – but the so-called facts are often contradicted by other facts. So one must select and it is in selection that literature begins.
Vidal’s history of the United Sates is threaded through with a fictional dynastic saga that chronicles from generation to generation the fortunes of a family at or near the centre of American public life. The founder of this dynasty is Aaron Burr (1756-1836), whose (fictional) illegitimate son, Charles (Charlie) Schermerhorn Schuyler, is the narrator and central character of Burr and 1876 – he also makes a brief appearance in Lincoln – and it runs, through some interesting declensions of legitimacy, in an unbroken line to Clay Overbury, the cycle’s “rough beast” who is to be found slouching along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. and The Golden Age. Burr served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, was senator for New York from 1791 to 1797 and was Thomas Jefferson’s vice-president (1801–1805). In 1807 he was accused, on flimsy evidence, of treason, but not convicted. He is best remembered today for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. One of American history’s reprobates, he makes an eminently suitable patriarch for Vidal’s saga.
Narratives of Empire, as is probably inevitable in a work of seven volumes that runs to more than two thousand pages, is uneven and undeniably has its longeurs. In general the earliest volumes (particularly Burr and 1876) are the best. Lincoln is a remarkable work that achieves the status of “myth”: myths are defined by Vidal as “those tribal narratives that define the prospect”; but it is also the least typical of the seven volumes. The opening chapter of Empire, a lengthy description in the manner of Henry James of an English country house party at which most of the guests (including James himself) are Americans, is a tour de force. Hollywood and The Golden Age also have their moments but too often seem thesis-driven and mechanistic.
The American history cycle, like all historical writing, is never “just history”; it is always history for a purpose and in Vidal’s case that purpose will be political. Vidal described himself as a political activist and history is one of the fields in which he was most active. In Screening History, he argues that history should be the “spine” of education so “that by last year of high school, the young adult would know pretty much where the human race (as well as his tribe) had been in time and space, and where it is now” in the hope that this “might even inspire him to show an interest in where we are going or could go”.
From the beginning of this piece I have assumed the centrality of politics to Vidal’s life and work, and I should, before concluding, offer some account of his politics. This is not as easy as one might suppose ‑ not, of course, because he is one of those writers whose political tendency has to be inferred from, or otherwise teased out of, a mass of non-overtly political writing. Nor is he one of those writers who is, as Orwell says of Shakespeare and Dickens, “worth stealing”. Again, if anything, the opposite is true – Vidal tended to make would-be political allies uncomfortable and was not an easy individual with whom to make common cause.
The first thing to be said, and it is significant that it has to be said, is that he was on the left. He was an unorthodox and non-doctrinaire leftist with little use for what he termed “ideology”. In Screening History, he recalls that because he had always been political he had never been “politicised”:
You cannot politicize the political. I knew how politics worked. I never became a communist or even a socialist – except in my sympathies – because I knew that subscribing to any ideology would be pointless in a country so organized as ours. For instance, there has never been – and can never be – a labor party in the United States, because organized labor has been both harassed and demonized by government and media. Unless one really wanted to overthrow the state, communism was for me an exercise in group therapy at best, and a political orgone box at worst.
Nor did he have much time for gender or identity politics. He campaigned courageously and effectively against mistreatment and discrimination based on sexual preference when it was neither safe nor fashionable to do so, but maintained that the adjective “gay” applied to sexual acts and not to a political or social identity.
Reviewing the second volume of Vidal’s memoirs – Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir (2006) – in the Dublin Review of Books, I identified three factors – the influence of his grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his interest in ancient (and particularly Roman) history – as being particularly useful for any attempt to understand Vidal’s politics.
Thomas Pryor Gore (1870-1949), Vidal’s grandfather, must have been a remarkable man. He lost his sight as a result of two unrelated childhood accidents but still managed to qualify as a lawyer and enjoy a successful political career (he was the first blind person ever to serve in the Senate). Vidal described him as having “invented” Oklahoma and he served as senator for that state from 1907 to 1921 and again from 1931 to 1937.
As a child, Gore Vidal was very close to his grandfather and would often read to him, and this included reading political and official documents (he would later claim to have understood bimetallism by the age of ten). Senator Gore was a Democrat with strong populist tendencies: he distrusted high finance, banks, big business (and eastern money generally) and big government. He originally supported Woodrow Wilson but split with him over the entry of the United States into World War I. In 1932 he endorsed Roosevelt but opposed the New Deal and was later a staunch opponent of American entry into World War II. Senator Gore’s populism and his isolationism were rooted in a strong sense of Americanness and more specifically in his veneration for the constitution of the United States. All of this became part of Vidal’s political heritage. Populism, particularly when combined with isolationism, has a tendency to develop a blinkered view of the world that in extreme cases may become xenophobic or racist. TP Gore was largely ‑ but not I think entirely ‑ free of this. Vidal was the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated of Americans but that dark side is also part of his inheritance. It can be traced in his championing of anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh and of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.
One of Vidal’s earliest memories was of driving through Washington with his grandfather when their car was attacked by “Boners” (members of the so-called Bonus Army – veterans of World War I who had marched on Washington to demand a bonus for their war service). Subsequently, the Bonus Army was dispersed by a military unit commanded by General MacArthur (some of them died in the process). That was in June 1932. The following November Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected for the first of his four terms as president and in the first of those terms Social Security was passed into law. Vidal also had vivid memories of hearing of Roosevelt’s death in a military hospital in Anchorage, Alaska:
It seemed impossible that this larger-than-life King Kong of a newsreel politician was gone. I was delighted, of course. He had got us into this war, he had established a dictatorship; he had defeated my grandfather in the election of 1936. He was also the only president that I could remember, and I was bored to death with him. As the years passed, I came to admire Roosevelt’s New Deal, if only for the wonderfully messy improvisatory nature of the thing. There was no new deal, or any deal at all except that of a very wily, bold card-player who, once he’d lost a hand, would say, Let’s deal again.
Vidal shared much of his grandfather’s disapproval of Roosevelt, particularly of his cavalier approach to the constitution and his belligerence, although he later came to recognise virtues that were not apparent to Senator Gore. FDR loomed extremely large in the public life of the United States in which Gore Vidal grew up; he was, perhaps particularly in Washington, its central and dominating figure. In The Golden Age, T. X. Farrell, returning to Washington in 1939 after some years’ absence in Hollywood, “becomes suddenly aware that he had plunged into a world absolutely strange to him”:
None of this was remotely like the normal Washington of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Somehow, everything had been dramatically changed by the mysterious cripple in the White House, who fascinated everyone as he spun his webs all round an entire world that was now rapidly converging upon the city in effort to get his spidery eminence’s attention …
FDR was Vidal’s earliest image of political power incarnate and it was one that remained with him, becoming a standard against which subsequent presidents were measured and invariably found wanting.
In the 1950s and early 1960s Eleanor Roosevelt became a friend of Vidal’s and one of his closest political allies. It should also be pointed out that although at times Vidal exhibited a patrician indifference to the accident of party affiliation, a quality he shared with FDR, he was, apart from a brief flirtation with the People’s Party in the late 1960s, until the end of his life a Democrat. Indeed, in his last years hatred of the Republicans (“not a party but a mind-set”) and in particular of the Bush administration (which he accused of subverting the constitution among other crimes) became his ruling political passion.
By Vidal’s own account his interest in Roman history can be traced back to a childhood viewing of the Eddie Cantor comedy Roman Scandals (1933) – a film his grandfather told him not to see because its central character is a refugee from the Oklahoma dustbowl who finds himself transported back to ancient Rome. Certainly, from the early 1950s onwards Rome has been an important presence in his work. The grand narrative of Roman history – the founding of the city and the rise of the republic, the transformation from republic to empire, the triumph of that empire and its eventual decline and fall – provided Vidal with a powerful historiographical trope for understanding and representing the United States. This way of thinking and writing about the United States is not, of course, unique to Vidal but he makes particularly effective and significant use of it. In terms of this analogy Vidal is a supporter of the republic and of republican virtues. Vidal saw Franklin Roosevelt as America’s Augustus, the first emperor, but Woodrow Wilson was its Julius Caesar – by taking the United States into world war he crossed the Rubicon and so destroyed the republic. In The Smithsonian Institution (1998) Vidal erases Wilson not just from the historical record but from history itself. In “Beyond the Alps,” the opening poem of Life Studies (1956), Robert Lowell writes of Augustan Rome:
Rome asked for poets. At her beck and call,
Came Lucan, Tacitus and Juvenal,
The black republicans who tore the tits
And bowels of the Mother Wolf to bits.
Vidal can be seen as such a “black republican”. This Roman dimension widens the scope and, given that in this view we are all provincials of the New Rome, the audience for Vidal’s political writing.
It is often said that Vidal’s essays are his best work and that it is as an essayist rather than as a novelist that he will be remembered. I am a great admirer of the essays but I would dissent from this view. His work is very much of a piece and I don’t think that it is particularly useful to approach it in these terms. Vidal sometimes described himself as the “biographer of his country” (a land he called the “United States of Amnesia”), and from the 1960s onwards all the elements of his work – the historical novels, the “inventions” and the essays were subsumed by this endeavour. In making this claim Vidal was reasserting the writer’s traditional role as the teller of the “tale of the tribe” (the phrase is Ezra Pound’s). Homer and other ancient epic poets, and Shakespeare in his cycle of history plays, were all tellers of the tale of the tribe but apart from Pound himself no other contemporary writer has so wholeheartedly embraced the role. Many would say that in doing so Vidal was deluded, or at best naive, but nonetheless it is as the biographer of the United States of Amnesia that he should be judged.
Did he succeed in his epic enterprise? The short answer must be No. This, however, isn’t simply to say that Vidal was not Homer or Shakespeare – that point would hardly be worth making. More interestingly, it raises the question with which I began – that of fame. To succeed as the teller of the tale of the tribe, a poet, or any other writer, must have the attention of the tribe, of the agora, and this, as Vidal himself recognised, is something that no contemporary writer has or can have. I have said that Vidal was partially an exception to this rule and perhaps that is the extent of his achievement – he was a writer that the agora could not quite succeed in ignoring. This must, I suppose, still be counted as a failure, but it is a failure that is worth as much as many more modest successes and one that reflects at least as badly on the tribe as on Gore Vidal.
Works by Gore Vidal referred to in the text:
United States: Essays 1952-1992, 1993
Screening History, 1992
The Golden Age, 2000
Stephen Wilson holds a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin and is a professor of American literature and director of an MA in Poetry and Poetics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He has been a visiting professor at Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin and is currently working on a book on Ezra Pound’s Cantos.