01 August 2012

An ambivalent homage to Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal, the author who died yesterday at age 86, was one of the last survivors of the last heroic generation of American writers, the people who thought they could change the world through their writing. Vidal was a contemporary and frequently an antagonist of such stars as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, but didn't appear to share their literary ambition. Perhaps because he was burned by morally hostile reviews of his homosexuality novel The City and the Pillar, Vidal retreated to the relatively respectable genre ghetto of historical fiction, emerging occasionally to publish a contemporary satire like the once-notorious Myra Breckinridge. As an adolescent I enjoyed those historical novels, both the ancient-world epics Julian and Creation and the American pieces like Burr and Lincoln. From there I discovered Vidal as an essayist and critic, whose works are memorialized in my personal library in the monster 1992 collection United States. Contemplating the contemporary world, Vidal was a contrarian above all. Open about his sexual preferences, he refused the "gay" label and assumed everyone to be innately bisexual. A sometime screenwriter for Hollywood, he referred to his experiences (and his chats with an anonymous "Wise Hack") to blast the auteur theory of directorial pre-eminence while crediting himself with introducing a homosexual subtext to Ben-Hur. His aversion to "Empire" created odd affinities, leading a man (generally speaking) of the left to sympathize with the "paleoconservative" isolationists of the pre-Pearl Harbor years and with the imprisoned Timothy McVeigh, with whom he carried on a controversial correspondence. Inevitably, after informally naming Christopher Hitchens his intellectual heir, Vidal fell out with him over the War on Terror. As a historical novelist, he trusted his own sense of human nature and history's patterns over academic scholarship, dismissing critical historians as "scholar-squirrels" obsessed with irrelevant minutiae for the sake of tenure. He saw himself, I assume, as an enlightened, disinterested aristocrat (related to the senatorial Gores) in the classical manner. His understanding of politics and history was one part Founders, one part Roman. He saw empire -- and to some extent big government in the form of the "national security state," as the doom of republics. Greed seemed to him a sufficient explanation for every policy he opposed. His account of the world grew shrill as he aged, and the writings of his last decade lacked the old dispassion, though his denunciations of recent wars were no less popular for that.  You could agree with Vidal on many or most things, but he was at heart a reactionary rather than a revolutionary leftist -- you suspected that he preferred that people like him, rather than simply the people, ruled. He may have been a writer who grew old, or he may be a writer that you inevitably outgrow. Most likely he was a creature of his time, more so than his more artistically ambitious rivals, and I suspect that his literary legacy won't long outlast his life. He'll survive as a figure of cultural history or folklore, more likely to be remembered for his battles, rhetorical or otherwise, with Mailer or William F. Buckley, than for his books. His novels lack the romance (in any sense of the word) that keeps Sir Walter Scott's works alive today, though they ought to retain their readability over time, should anyone look them up. I'm less inclined to mourn the man than to note the end of an epoch, the passing of the culture into which I was born and grew up. Not everyone can seem to close an era with his death, but Vidal, like Lincoln, belonged to the ages even before he died. 

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