A recent online poll conducted by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines ranks the 100 leading public intellectuals. It’s no surprise that Noam Chomsky tops the list, which is otherwise top-heavy with economists and political scientists. However, a formidable literary figure is unaccountably missing from the roster.
“Gore Vidal is America’s premier man of letters,” proclaims Jay Parini, himself a poet, novelist, critic, and biographer. Parini is also an editor, and his pronouncement constitutes the opening sentence of his introduction to a volume of vintage Vidal. If “man of letters” sounds too much like postmaster general, the collection at least confirms Vidal’s preeminence as virtuoso of the essay. He is also a redoubtable novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and memoirist.
Originally published between 1953 and 2004, these selected essays are nothing new except as a revelation to the uninitiated of Vidal’s distinctively enlightened drollery. “No one pisses from quite the height that Vidal does,” John Lahr once observed, and the essays confirm Vidal as the American master of verbal micturation. Summarizing the career of Theodore Roosevelt, he writes: “Theodore Roosevelt was a classic American sissy who overcame — or appeared to overcome — his physical fragility through ‘manly’ activities of which the most exciting and ennobling was war.” About the study of literature at universities, he cautions: “The occasional student who might have an interest in reading will not survive a course in English, unless of course he himself intends to become an academic bureaucrat.” Vidal’s acidulous analysis of the bestseller list of January 7, 1973, describes the week’s number-one title, a fatuous novel called Jonathan Livingston Seagull, as “a greeting card bound like a book with a number of photographs of seagulls in flight.”
About half the essays treat literary topics, and it is a treat to observe the encounter between Vidal’s urbane disdain and the unworthy — or unlucky — authors, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to John Barth, who receive it. When he complains that John Updike “is constitutionally unable to respond to satire, irony, wit,” he deplores the absence of precisely those qualities that are his own greatest strengths. Yet appreciations of Italo
Calvino, Edmund Wilson, Michel de Montaigne, Dawn Powell, and William Dean Howells demonstrate Vidal’s informed generosity.
In the second half of the volume, Vidal addresses largely political topics with the authority of someone who grew up in Washington, D.C., the grandson of United States Senator Thomas Gore. The half-brother of Jacqueline Bouvier, he was personally acquainted with the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and other potentates he writes about. Though he himself ran, creditably, for office twice — for Congress from New York’s 29th District in 1960 and for Senate from California in 1982 — as a Democrat, Vidal laments the fusion of Democrats and Republicans into a single “Property Party,” an imperialist oligarchy that has created a “national security state.” He rails against the usurpation by the presidency and the judiciary of powers that by right belong to the legislative branch and ultimately the citizenry. “Persuading the people to vote against their own best interests has been the awesome genius of the American political elite from the beginning,” he contends in a 1972 essay, long before the names DeLay, Abramoff, and Rove became household obscenities.
From majestic exile in Ravello, Italy, Vidal has, like an outcast head of state, issued periodic assessments of the American republic. In “State of the Union, 2004,” he fulminates against the betrayal of revolutionary ideals: “… we have ceased to be a nation under law but instead a homeland where the withered Bill of Rights, like a dead trumpet vine, clings to our pseudo-Roman columns.” Vidal calls for an end to paid political advertising, the reduction of defense spending, and the legalization of drugs, prostitution, and gambling. He opposes government regulation of private lives. Aiming his barbs even higher than George W. Bush, Vidal inveighs against the cult of a “sky-god” — Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — who demands a misogynistic theocracy. “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism,” he insists.
A disappointed patriot, Vidal writes pungently and plaintively about what he calls “the United States of Amnesia.” “We learn nothing because we remember nothing,” exclaims the author of meticulously researched novels about Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, and ancient Rome. Written with learning, passion, and wit, Vidal’s perversely tonic essays bear witness to American decline and human folly. •
The World According to Gore
Vidal’s major achievement in fiction is Narratives of Empire, his cycle of seven novels that recount the history of the United States with mischievous revisionist wit. Start with Burr and revel in the work of an author who is on intimate terms with the nation’s glorious pantheon of incompetents, charlatans, and opportunists.
— Steven G. Kellman and Elaine Wolff
Burr (1973) An engrossing, intermittently horrifying account of founding father, serial politician, and adventurer Aaron Burr and his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton, whom he mortally wounded in a duel.
Lincoln (1984) This controversial dramatization of the States’ most sainted president resulted in both a TV miniseries and a still-unrequited animosity among what Vidal calls the “scholar-squirrels.”
1876 (1976) The fictional and (likely) bastard offspring of a Burr rival returns to narrate the contested 1876 election and the final days of the scandal-hobbled Grant administration.
Empire (1987) An invented desdendant of Burr clashes with the emerging Hearst media-opoloy against a sprawling backdrop of expansionist America under Teddy Roosevelt’s sway.
Hollywood (1990) A detailed look at the way scandal becomes politics and politics becomes entertainment as power and money shift from East Coast to West.
Washington, D.C. (1967) Everything you always suspected about the capital and its Darwinian winners ... and more.
The Golden Age (2000) The concluding chapters of his American origin stories explore the machinations and power plays that shaped the Greatest Generation’s perception of America, and America’s perception of the world as its oyster.