The literary world lost another icon this week when Gore Vidal, author, playwright, politician, and commentator, died at the age of 86 last Tuesday from complications due to pneumonia. His over-the-top wit and unconventional wisdom shined in his literature and public opinions.
He had a sullen regard for lost worlds, for the importance of the written word, and for “the American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.”
He was often uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was more than mutual. Beyond an honorary National Book Award in 2009, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office, and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club; he was eventually admitted in 1999. Through it all, though, he was a staple on the talk show circuit and like other giants such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote he was a writer with a mega celebrity status because even if you didn’t actually read any of his works you knew who he was.
Admired as one of the great thinkers in American history in the tradition of Mark Twain on subjects ranging from literature, culture, politics, and, as he liked to call it, “the birds and the bees,” he picked apart politicians, living and dead with acerbic one liners like “Politics is just show business for ugly people;” he mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq; and insulted his peers like no other. He often said that the happiest words in the English language were: “I told you so.”
His insider-outsider social status in many high-level circles didn’t come without some side effects.
He has been called anti-Semitic, despite being buried alongside Howard Austen in Washington, D.C. Austen, a Jewish advertising copywriter, was Vidal’s lifelong companion and the two lived together from 1950 until Austen’s death in 2003.
His masterpiece novel, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was the first mainstream novel in the United States to explicitly approach the subject of homosexuality. In fact it was dedicated to “JT,” Jimmy Trimble, who had been his lover at St Albans school; he died in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Twenty years later Vidal would change the ending to what he originally had in mind and released The City and the Pillar Revised, no longer willing or obligated to cater to the wishes of his publisher.
The novel’s main themes dealt with Vidal’s appeal for a lifting of the laws that banned homosexually-related sex acts in the US at the time and a feeling of alienation from what he thought of as homosexual stereotypes about feminine and “unmanly” behavior held by many heterosexuals.
The plot centers on Jim Willard in Virginia in the late 1930s. When his best friend, Bob Ford, is about to leave high school the two make a camping trip into the woods. After some ranting from Bob about how difficult it is to get the local girls to have sex with him, the two have sex several times, even though Bob thinks this is not a normal thing for two men to do.
Jim, to whom it has already occurred that girls do not appeal to him, hopes Bob will stay but is saddened when Bob insists on joining the merchant marines. The next seven years of Jim’s life result in a physical and soulful pilgrimage.
The novel also contains many allegorical, albeit fictional, incidents of Hollywood stars who in their private lives are homosexual, yet forced by studio executives to marry to cater to public opinion. These incidents were sadly a very real element to Hollywood’s early days.
Initial critical analysis of The City and the Pillar attacked its appropriateness and its artistic awkwardness; and several otherwise sympathetic readers, who welcomed it based on its subject matter alone, objected to its violent conclusion, which to them implied that homosexual relationships must always end unhappily. Jim and Bob meet up at the end after many years in New York City but when Jim attempts to renew their sexual relationship Bob rejects him. In the 1948 version Jim ends up killing him in the altercation. In both of the revised versions (1965, 1995) they fight but it doesn’t end in a death. In addition, the revised versions contain substantial stylistic revisions.
Scandal quickly erupted in American popular culture upon its release. It was quickly banned in many communities as pornography and was panned by critics as being “too immoral to be worth reading.” A New York Times literary critic was so enraged by the subject matter that he banned reviews of Vidal’s next five novels. Vidal claimed that he was blacklisted from that point on by the NYT and as a result other major newspapers would refuse to review his novels for decades, this is an accusation that the paper to this date doesn’t completely deny. Up until his death he spoke harshly of the NYT whenever he could find an excuse to work it into conversation.
His black comedy, Myra Breckinridge (1968), about a transsexual movie star was also banned due to its sexuality themes.
His fight with right-wing politics infamously came to a head during the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign, when Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. fought on national television during an iconic appearance on ABC News. Vidal called Buckley a “proto-crypto-Nazi” and the furious National Review founder responded by exclaiming, “You queer.” The two men continued to attack each other in the pages of Harold Hayes’ Esquire, eventually resulting in them suing each other for libel.
Gore would join the magazine, The Nation, in 1981 as a contributing editor, publishing forty-one articles. His work in the publication would reverberate through the political and literary worlds with a razor-sharp wit and sardonic effect. Some of his most memorable quotes appeared in The Nation. In 2004 he would write, “We are the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” The article would go on to describe the United States as a place where “the withered Bill of Rights, like a dead trumpet vine, clings to our pseudo-Roman columns.”
Gore was a great talker as well as a great writer. He was a citizen of life, with an outspoken and brazen voice courageously questioning the establishment. Perhaps the best way to sum up Gore Vidal’s influence on literature and culture is in another of his famous quips: “You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: ‘Where are the readers?’”