The Love of Light: Gore Vidal, 1925 - 2012
We must approach any consideration of Gore Vidal's vast body of work with fear and trembling, because if we do not properly understand and absorb his wisdom, we will have missed yet another opportunity to truly grasp American history and identity.
In characteristic wit and toughness, Gore Vidal once answered a question about his legacy by remarking, “Anyone stupid enough to worry about how he’ll be remembered deserves to be forgotten.” A renaissance man of letters who wrote award winning novels, essays, stage plays, and screenplays, now achieves the greatest goal of any writer: immortality. In his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation (2005), Vidal wrote that he was “moving toward the door marked ‘exit’.” He has now crossed that threshold, and is, as he liked to explain, reunited with the universe’s more primitive forms. Vidal said that he did not know what it was like for him before he was born, and therefore he was not troubled with fear and anxiety over what it would be like for him after he died.
He did not, and now does not, have to worry about how we will remember him -- but we should worry. We must approach any consideration of his vast body of work with fear and trembling, because if we do not properly understand and absorb the wisdom of Vidal, we will have missed yet another opportunity to truly grasp American history and identity. From the publication of his first novel – a terrific examination of youth and mortality in World War II called Williwaw (1946) to his essays on the crimes of the Bush administration in the '00s, Vidal bequeathed to his country the gift of philosophy. He tore open the plaster of convention and rejected the seductions of conformity to present America to the world: naked, with both beautiful curves and hideous deformities.
It's likely that Vidal’s legacy will be forever inseparable from politics. Although he lost both his races for political office (first for Congressman in New York and second for Senate in California), he was a committed critic of America’s imperial excesses and oligarchic tendencies. Like President Franklin Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor, with whom Vidal shared a close friendship, he was a traitor to his class.
Vidal’s father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was a West Point graduate, Olympic athlete, founder of three national airlines, and the nation’s first Secretary of Aviation. Vidal’s grandfather, however, had the most powerful and profound patriarchal presence in his life. Thomas Gore served as a Senator in Oklahoma for 20 years, championing populist causes like the direct elections of Senators, land for Native Americans, and aid programs for farmers. He was one of the earliest elected officials to propose a constitutional amendment to require a popular referendum on a Congressional declaration of war. His grandson spoke lovingly and warmly about serving as his unofficial staffer. Senator Gore had lost his vision, and would ask his precocious grandchild to read him Congressional papers, speeches, and reports, and hold his arm as he walked into the Capitol’s chambers. The Oklahoma Senator and grandfather, in all of his congressional work and paternal advice, was teaching a boy who would grow to achieve so much, the most important of all lessons: the art of betrayal.
Irish poet Brendan Kennelly wrote that “the best way to serve your age is to betray it.” Vidal personified the wisdom of Kennelly’s poetry by not only violating the insular social trust of the WASP elite into which he was born, but also sounding a storm warning to America’s nationalistically insipid kite flyers; as convention became more aggressive and interventionist in foreign policy and more plutocratic in domestic policy, Vidal became tougher, smarter, and louder. Vidal came of age helping a beloved grandfather without sight see what was essential for performing the tasks of his position and serving the sacred bond of people, and in doing so, he also learned how to see the trajectory of history, the complexity of politics, and the truth of his country. As an adult he would attempt to execute the same service, only he wasn’t reading to one blind man. He was holding “Stop” signs up to the eyes of a blind nation.
As the Empire crashed, and in the wake of Thomas Gore's death, it's important to examine the instructions in the art of betrayal that he provided not to his grandson, but to a generation of, one can fervently hope, literary and political children.
Vidal insisted that his favorite works were his “inventions” – books such as Duluth, Myra Breckinridge, and Live from Golgotha. Products solely of Vidal’s imagination, these novels created new ecosystems in which the mind of the reader could explore and thrive. Duluth is a satire of 'the 80s-era Reagan poisoned America ,in which the rich ruled and everyone else suffered, but the sufferers were given the opiate of consumption and distractive divisions of race and ethnicity. The satire emerges through a space ship landing in a fictionalized Duluth near Louisiana, the reports of a psycho white female police officer who rapes Latino men, and a fiction writer for a tacky woman’s magazine whose characters, unbeknownst to her, actually exist and whose fates ride on their creator’s next sentence.
Live from Golgotha retells the New Testament through the experience of a broadcast journalist who travels back in time to capture the Crucifixion on camera. Myra Breckinridge – the most successful of the three – tells the story of a psychotic heroine, who used to be a man, with moral battles that touch on America’s sexual mores, linguistic deterioration, and the presidency of Richard Nixon. All three books are wickedly funny and consistently insightful. They also reveal that Vidal was more than capable of graduating from the same school as Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo, and Robert Coover. It's difficult to argue that Vidal is unappreciated. He's one of America’s most famous authors, but books such as those that comprise his postmodern trilogy reveal that, paradoxically, he may be over exposed -- and underrated. Never is he mentioned in the same sentence as the great inventors, though he should be.
If Vidal limited himself to doing only what he most desired, he would have likely written several more inventions, but in a decision that would ultimately define his career and overshadow his most ambitious literary efforts, he turned to chronicling his country. In essays and with historical novels, he became America’s biographer. It's a mixed blessing, because while Vidal’s readers and his country benefited immensely from having his Narratives of Empire series of historical novels to consult for not only accurate, but for dramatically compelling American history, and also benefitted from his witty and informative essays written on topics ranging from the attacks of September 11th to pornography, the cultural remembrance of Vidal tends to freeze frame him in the role of political provocateur – a role he played with more panache and power than nearly anyone – but also a particular role he played among many others.
Vidal claimed that he felt compelled to write American history, because he noticed that “no one else was up to the job and they stopped teaching it in schools,” but he also may have felt a sudden sense of urgency to become a force for good in the development of America after every major publication in the country banished him from their pages for writing a novel – The City and the Pillar, his second – that openly and approvingly narrated a gay love affair. It was the first to normalize and naturalize homosexuality in American letters. Riding a wave of success provided by his debut novel, Williwaw, he could have easily steered the ship straight ahead toward glitterati acceptance and academic inclusion. Instead, he made his first conscious choice of betrayal and service.
He chose to serve Jimmy Trimble, a teenager with whom he fell in love in boarding school and who provided inspiration for The City and the Pillar, and in doing so betrayed the bigotry of American society. Vidal was smart enough to sense the severity of his decision, but proceeded with courage. The New York Times destroyed the book, along with every other major publication, and refused to review his next six books. In an era when a business owner’s donation to an anti-gay organization provokes a nationwide boycott of his business, it's difficult for some to imagine the recent history of brutal homophobia in America – even in liberal quarters. Vidal’s books continued to sell well in Europe at this time but at home, he turned to writing plays for the stage and screen. Among his most notable works for both mediums are The Best Man – a play written about Presidential politics that is currently running on Broadway – and the film classics Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer, based on the play by Tennessee Williams.
The six year period in which Vidal wrote novels in relative obscurity, at least domestically, is an illustration of the stupidity and social severity of bigotry. The media establishment deprived the American public of some of Vidal’s greatest works, and the cultural consequences multiply even in the present, as many of even Vidal’s most avid readers are unaware of his books from that period. For example, Messiah foretold the Jonestown massacre with such uncanny prescience that its reading experience is spooky. Written in 1954, it's about a charismatic cult leader who eventually leads all of his followers in a mass suicide.
The Judgment of Paris, from 1952, is a coming of age classic that deserves inclusion in any discussion of the greatest novels of the postwar period. It's about a recent law school graduate traveling from America to Italy and France. He falls in love with different women who become emblematic for the internal urges dueling inside of him: passion versus careerism, love versus money. It's with The Judgment of Paris that Vidal said he found his literary voice. The sardonic sense of humor, the effortless swirl of sociopolitical themes with personal intrigue, and the creation of a philosophically deep and spiritually resonant soap opera are all there, and they are the qualities with which Vidal would infuse his novels on American history, Roman history, and comparative religion.
It's also with The Judgment of Paris that Vidal emerged as a master stylist of his generation. A biographer could concentrate on how Vidal’s books accurately forecasted the eventual decay and decline of American civilization. Said biographer could point out how Vidal was prophetic in his characterization of America’s struggle to build empire and maintain a republic as quixotic, corrosive, and ultimately, suicidal. The Narratives of Empire series, which contains Burr, Lincoln, and Washington D.C. among its seven books, is written with a sense of nostalgia for promise that an obituarist would bring to a report on the death of a child. That same biographer could compliment Vidal for his resistance to hagiography – not even Abraham Lincoln, whose beatification process never seems complete – escapes unscathed. Vidal, with historical probity and an attorney’s precision, juxtaposes the former President’s greatness with his imperial ambitions.
The laziest of biographers could identify predictions Vidal makes in essays, align them with contemporary headlines, and credit the literary lion for roaring years ahead of his time. As early as the '80s, Vidal was writing about America going broke. Earlier than that, he predicted rapid urban decay and violence. In the '90s, he wrote about the coming death of the middle class, the housing bubble’s inevitable pop, and the growing power of the Christian right. None of this is to say that Vidal was right about everything or that all his ideas were sensible – he proposed a Soviet-American alliance to pressure the then burgeoning Asian economy, he danced on the edge of 9/11 trutherism by wondering if the Bush administration may have had foreknowledge of the attacks, and he was often too harsh and unforgiving to authors he did not like – Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer, most especially. When it comes to American history, however, few men got so much right.