Gore Vidal, the chronicler of America
Gore Vidal, the chronicler of America, was a footnote to history many times in twentieth century. Eugene Louis Vidal Jr. was born in West Point in the year of 1935 to Eugene Luther Vidal and Nina Gore . Eugene Luther Vidal was an aviation pioneer and a former All-American quarterback who represented US in Olympics. His mother whom he detested, was a major socialite in Washington DC. His paternal grandfather, Thomas Gore, served in the US senate as member from Oklahoma. Gore Vidal first rose to fame not as a writer but as a young aviator. At four, he flew in the first commercially scheduled airliner. And at 11, he became the youngest pilot to fly a plane. His father was the then head of the Bureau of Air Commerce and these stunts were part of the propaganda to promote air travel.
An autodidact, Gore Vidal entered in to American literary scene with his World War II novel Williwaw. He employed his bisexual instincts to produce The City and Pillar, which was the first American novel to deal with homosexuality explicitly. The literary establishment did not welcome his coming-out novel, and the pornography tag that came along with it forced him to take a literary exile under the pseudonym Edgar Box. The writer on exile found refuge in the golden shores of celluloid and broadway. During the ‘50s he produced numerous plays and scripts, and worked as a contract screenwriter for MGM. He, like his character Philip Warren of The Judgement of Paris, went to Italy for a self-discovery in the ‘60s. Vidal the novelist made a second coming by storming the literary world with works like Burr and Lincoln. The chiliastic phase of his career was marked by the presence of two tropes in his works, one being politics and the other, ancient world. The Narratives of Empire is the definitive fictional guide to American politics of the twentieth century. Though a prolific essayist, it is in his fictional works about politics that he employs his political acumen the most. Novels like Burr challenged conventional wisdom about America and appropriates the founding fathers with the help of a fictional Aaron Burr. His work “Lincoln” tried to recreate a Lincoln whom the other biographers tried to iconify. He derided the author of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Carl Sandburg by accusing him of “reducing one of the most interesting and subtle men in world history to a cornball disneyland waxwork rather like...yes, Carl Sandburg ”. His principal source for Lincoln’s presidential years was Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon. The Lincoln he resuscitated was cold, deliberate, brilliant, ambitious, the man who wrote a polemic called “infidelity” and the one who bought syphilis from a less admirable dealer. His Lincoln not only said “If slavery is wrong, nothing is wrong”, but also added “If I can save the Union without freeing the slaves, I will do that. If I can save the Union by freeing some and leaving others alone, I will do that”. The Narratives of Empire series traced the decadence of the US on a space and time that Vidal created and aligned parallel to history. In the 60s he moved to Italy which he characterised as “a society that combines a number of least appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism”. His Italian years were the most productive phase in his life. In Rome he found his second love, first being the US, the ancient world of which he felt compelled to chronicle. His foray into ancient world stories was also not devoid of controversy, thanks to a New Testament spoof.
Vidal the novelist made a second coming by storming the literary world with works like Burr and Lincoln. The chiliastic phase of his career was marked by the presence of two tropes in his works, one being politics and the other, ancient world. Though a prolific essayist, it is in his fictional works about politics that he employs his political acumen the most.
Time will only measure the half-life of his literary works. But one can be certain that his essays and other non-fiction writings will remain an indispensable guide to twentieth century politics and culture. In the latter half of twentieth century, he emerged as a leading voice of the left with his caustic criticism. He was a regular contributor to The Nation, NYRB, Partisan Review and TLS. He detested the national security state that emerged after second world war and his isolationist tendencies came handy in arguments. As a book critic he flaked Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, appreciated lesser known writers like Dawn Powell and William Dean Howells, and, took a sympathetic view of Hemingway and Edgar Burroughs. His collection of essays, United States: Essays 1952-1992 maps the cultural carapace better than any of his contemporaries. In this monumental collection, he introduces the reader to the virtues of the novel (which to him is a big book of life), extols Logan Pearsall Smith’s love for the adverb, solves a paradox for Sciascia, discovers the opportunist in Barry Goldwater and tags Theodore Roosevelt as an American sissy. He has high regard for Edmund Wilson and H.L. Mencken, whom he considered comrades in his fight against academic gangsters. He laments the passing of literary criticism championed by the likes of Edmund Wilson who were leisurely educated and who made sense. He abhor those “Ambitious English teachers (who) now invent systems that have nothing to do with literature or life but everything to do with those games...to rise in academic bureaucracy” . As an independent thinker he went after icons of both left and right.
His debates with Norman Mailer and William. F. Buckley Jr are already among the Classics of television era. In debates, his wit and erudition were often unmatched (probably bettered only by “once-a-dauphin” Christopher Hitchens). These interventions helped him to establish himself as a leading voice of the Left in America. His inclusion in to the left was as much accidental as it was intentional. The Vietnam War offered the isolationist in him a seat in the left bandwagon. His grandfather was a great influence on him, and Gore Vidal rechristened himself after him. His grandfather Senator Thomas Gore was an isolationist Democrat and so became the grandson. An interested reader can see the shades of his grandfather in the character James Burden Day he created for The Narrative of Empire series. Gore Vidal’s politics was Republicanism in the Lincolnian sense, an ideology which the Republican Party had discarded with the coming of southern democrats into it. The Vietnam War years further contributed to the development of a fault line between the new interventionist right of Buckley and Kagan, and an isolationist pacifist left of Chomsky and Vidal. This separation lasted for some decades till the emergence of liberal hawks and the isolationist Ron Paul Right who crisscrossed, fleeted and blurred the lines. Gore Vidal had once made an unsuccessful attempt on election to the congress from a New York congressional district. Though he failed in his bid, he got more votes than Kennedy and gave some irony to his campaign slogan "You'll get more with Gore". Gore Vidal in his twilight years took an extreme view of his isolationist policy and isolated himself from the mainstream.
It is impertinent and almost impossible to write about Gore Vidal without mentioning “Sex”. Sex writing and erotica has a tendency to end up being like descriptions from a user manual. For him, the art is in the ability to enchant and possess, it is a matter of tact and occasion. He has defended pornography saying that, “intentionally or not, he (the pornographer) is the one who tells us most about the extraordinary variety of human sexual response”. For him these lumpen elements are like those Fun House mirrors, which reflect the real thing with some minor distortions. His sexual adventures wasn’t limited to the literary kind. A lifelong bisexual, he succeeded in emulating his ancient heros. For him “Homosexual” was an adjective and not a noun. Born into an aristocracy, dalliances and debauchery were not alien to Gore Vidal. His father was once chased by a former Massachusetts senator David Ignatius Walsh. Gene Vidal himself was no lesser figure in amatory adventures and used to date Amelia Earhart. His mother was a socialite from DC area who also had her share of affairs. Gore Vidal believes that his background gave him a vantage point from which he was able to reflect on sex better. He was devoid of any identity crisis that some young bisexuals may suffer. Once in an interview he was asked whether his first sexual experience was with a man or a woman to which he replied, "I was much too polite to ask."
No matter how much he was able to write about, he couldn’t make much with love. He didn’t enjoy being seduced as much as seducing. He was cold, rational, erudite, acerbic, brilliant and one of the most important public intellectuals of our times. He defended his character once by saying “I'm exactly as I appear. There is no warm lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water." He couldn’t understand love, nor will we who will continue to appreciate his life as well as his works.