Recently, while packing for a move, I came across a letter that Gore Vidal sent me from his home in Ravello, Italy, in the late 1990s. Vidal, a slight acquaintance, had provided me with a blurb for my book Up From Conservatism and we corresponded a few times and met once. I had forgotten about this letter, and on deciphering the handwritten scrawl on monogrammed blue paper I found Vidal complaining that a critic who had panned one of his books in the New York Times had been hosted the following weekend at their seaside home in Connecticut by Vidal’s arch-rival William F. Buckley, Jr. and Buckley’s wife Pat. Whether this occurred or was Vidalian paranoia, I cannot say, though given the interlocking circles of that world, anything is possible. After all, at one of Bill and Pat Buckley’s parties I met Tom Selleck, whose career break came in 1970 when he played a young stud propositioned by the elderly Mae West in the X-rated movie version of Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.
Read ItEmpire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini
Being obsessed with your place on the literary stock exchange is hardly uncommon among writers. But Vidal seems to have been particularly insecure and competitive, to judge from Jay Parini’s new Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. Parini turned down his friend Gore’s request to be his official biographer; instead, he has written a combination of a biography, a catalogue raisonne, and a memoir.
As the title Empire of Self suggests, Parini’s theory of the case boils down to the view that Vidal was a narcissist:
His phone calls, in later years, often began: “What are they saying about me?” To a somewhat frightening degree, he depended on the world’s opinion. Once, in one of those memories that stands in for many others, my wife and I were sitting in Ravello when he came in with drinks. On the wall behind his desk were twenty or so framed magazine covers, with Gore’s face on each one. I asked, “What’s that about, all those covers?” He said, “When I come into this room in the morning to work, I like to be reminded who I am.”
As Donald Trump might say, at the height of his fame in the 1970s and 1980s Gore Vidal was yuge. Beginning with Burr, his historical novels were bestsellers. His contemporaries John Updike and Philip Roth may have been esteemed by professors, but Gore Vidal was the Great American Novelist for Americans who seldom read novels. He could be seen frequently on TV talk shows, saying catty things about Washington politicians and Hollywood celebrities. And you might catch him on public television or European TV, posing in front of the arch of Titus in Rome and lamenting the decline and fall of the American Republic. With his foreign-sounding name and his vaguely British mid-Atlantic accent, like his bete noire Bill Buckley, Gore Vidal was a middlebrow’s idea of a highbrow.
Before his death in 2012, Vidal suffered a series of setbacks, including the death of his companion Howard Austen and, according to Parini, the ravages of alcoholism. His historical and satirical novels got worse and worse, and he penned tracts that read like student’s notes from a class with Noam Chomsky, like Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be Hated. He lost many of his friends and admirers, including yours truly, when he described as a “noble boy” Timothy McVeigh, who, when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, murdered more Americans (168) on American soil than any other terrorist before the 9/11 attacks.
Many of us, as we age, turn into a parent or a grandparent. Vidal’s hero and model all his life was his great-grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a blind democratic senator from Oklahoma whose populist hatred of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt as warmongering tyrants was passed on to his grandson. Among the other nuggets in Parini’s biography is the revelation that young Gore and his grandfather wrote to each other of their pleasure on learning of the death of the detested FDR in April 1945. In The Golden Age, the last of the novels in the Narratives of Empire series that began with Burr, Roosevelt, scheming to embroil the U.S. in an unnecessary war with Japan, knows about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance. Vidal did not simply end in tinfoil-hat territory; like his grandfather, he had dwelled in it all his life, even if the trans-Atlantic intelligentsia for a few decades mistook his isolationist Jeffersonian populism for leftism.
In the original version of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden wrote:
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
If (a big if) we can get over his view late in life of Timothy McVeigh as a misguided but noble rebel against federal tyranny, what of the works of Gore Vidal can we expect to last? The conventional wisdom, shared by his friend and biographer Jay Parini, is that he put his talent into his novels and his genius into the essays he wrote for The New York Review of Books and The Nation. According to this school, Vidal will be remembered in the future as a great essayist.
I disagree. Vidal was a brilliant and funny stylist, to be sure, and when he wrote about Hollywood, the major source of his millions, or literary friends and acquaintances like Tennessee Williams, he had no peers. But he knew next to nothing about the real world of politics and economics. His lack of first-hand experience or careful study shows in his essays on those subjects. He bluffs his way through by repeating a few cliches he inherited from his populist grandfather: the republic has become an empire, there is only one party, the property party or the banker’s party, and so on.
Far from being daring, these are the banal common places of the populist right and the faculty lounge left alike. What gave Vidal authority of a kind not possessed by, say, your retired uncle, was his mystique as a rebellious member of the elite. He posed as a member of one of America’s ruling families like Henry Adams, an intimate of Roosevelts and Kennedys who had betrayed his class to spill the beans, a Tacitus from the senatorial class recording the republic’s decline in an age of American Caesars.
According to Parini, Vidal was furious with an earlier biographer, Fred Kaplan, for undermining this pose:
Kaplan … revealed with patient genealogical research that this writer was not, as the public imagined, a blue-blood aristocrat but the son of a young man from South Dakota who had, by his athletic prowess, managed to get into West Point. Eugene Vidal had moved into the great world of Washington society by marrying the daughter of a U.S. senator. Yet this politician wasn’t a Roosevelt but a country lawyer from Webster County in Mississippi, a man who by grit and determination had found a perch in the Senate. Kaplan also revealed that Gore was not — as he often implied in conversation — a Kennedy insider but merely an onlooker.
If Vidal’s collected essays will not outlive their moment, what will? He made a lot of money by working on screenplays, including that of Ben Hur, but cinema students do not study his scripts.
The novels of his youth were quickly and deservedly forgotten. His best historical novels, published at the height of his powers, are Burr and Lincoln. But as he wrote more novels to round out his tendentious Narratives of Empire cycle, axe-grinding replaced character-drawing. What he called his “inventions,” grotesque lampoons like Myra Breckinridge and Myron and Duluth and Live from Golgotha are belabored and unfunny. Nor is any future canon of gay literature likely to include his scandalous early novel The City and the Pillar, a melodrama in which the protagonist murders the object of his unrequited love (in the revised version, he merely sodomizes him).
My guess is that if what he called “the Great Eraser” does not obliterate his posthumous reputation altogether, Gore Vidal will be remembered as a sort of American Oscar Wilde. Some of his quips may achieve immortality: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”
Like Wilde, Vidal may be remembered not only for his apercus but also for a handful of clever, perfect plays. The constraints imposed by writing for the stage rescued Vidal from the indulgence in prolixity and polemic that ruined many of his novels.
Two of his plays in particular have a shot at a permanent place in the repertory. The Best Man, his well-crafted 1960 play about national politics, made into a movie in 1964, still enjoys periodic revivals on Broadway. And his play Visit to a Small Planet, a masterpiece of the alien-on-earth genre of comedy, appears to have joined the canon of plays performed by generations of American high school drama students.
Gore no doubt would be disappointed by the prospect of being remembered for so little. But few writers are remembered at all. •