Patriotic Gore

by wjw on August 2, 2012

“Always a godfather,” Gore Vidal regretted at a christening, “never a god.”

Alas yes, he was mortal.  With him dies not only the last major writer of the World War II generation, but America’s last public intellectual.

He wrote best-selling novels, he wrote brilliant essays, he wrote movies and television, he wrote Broadway plays.  He ran, nearly successfully, for national office.  He appeared on every talk show, he acted in television and films— was Gattaca the last?— he hobnobbed with Kennedys and Roosevelts, and he appeared in public dust-ups with the likes of Normal Mailer, Truman Capote, and William F. Buckley.  (Mailer, in fact, once head-butted him backstage at the Cavett show.)

If Vidal had a towering ego, who could blame him?

Here in the 21st Century, living as we do in the sad, useless, degenerate America that Vidal so clearly saw coming, people would doubtless be astonished to discover that someone could become incredibly famous by writing well, instead of by being cast on a reality show.

I admired some of his political stands without necessarily agreeing with them.  He proclaimed that America was an imperial power.  (I would say hegemonist, myself.)  And he repeatedly announced the one single thing that all Americans are forbidden to speak aloud— that the United States has a ruling class.  (And that Gore Vidal considered himself a member.)

It’s the political novels that I admire the most— Vidal was a political insider who grew up in the nation’s capital, and he knew the people and the language and how they thought and how they schemed.  In The Best Man, he quotes his grandfather, Senator T.P. Gore: “Power is not a toy we give to good children; it is a weapon, and the strong man takes it and he uses it.”

Can’t get more straightforward than that.  Of the political novels,  Washington, D.C. is very much my favorite, since it’s set in the Thirties and illuminated by Vidal’s own experience in that time and place.

Of the books set in the ancient world,  I found the famous and controversial Julian much less interesting than Creation, which is something of an extended conversation between Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Zoroaster, and Socrates, along with something of a debate between Herodotus and Vidal himself.

A few years ago I read Myra Breckenridge, his scandalously successful novel of 1968.  Alas, it is much more a period artifact than the historical novels.

Best of all are the memoirs, Palimpsest, supplemented by the monumental book of essays, United States.  (The latter should be read over a space of time, since he did tend to hammer on the same points over and over.)

And of course there was the wit, and surprising grace under pressure, as when Normal Mailer knocked him to the ground in retaliation for a bad review.  “Once again,” Vidal said from the floor, “words fail Norman Mailer.”

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Houghton August 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm

“was Gattaca the last?”

Apparently there was a 2009 Kevin Spacey vehicle called Shrink.

Foxessa August 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm

I took a somewhat different tack.

The Best Man is currently dark tonight in his honor. It was playing to sold-out houses — before he went on *vacation.

Love, C.

*In the Kongo way of thinking, you don’t die. You go on vacation from life. As el V’s just back from a month in Angola studying musical, cultural and spiritual matters we’re naturally leaning there at the moment.

S.M. Stirling August 4, 2012 at 2:17 am

Vidal always struck me as being trapped in a dysfunctional love affair with himself; and Gore Vidal was simply not deserving of that level of adulation.

Undoubtedly a brilliant man, but immature. A newborn thinks that it is the universe; a toddler thinks it’s the most important thing in the universe; an adolescent thinks that no emotions have ever been so vast and anguished as the emotions he/she is undergoing.

Growing up means realizing you aren’t particularly important, and that your internal states are -even less- important than that.

Gore never managed it, IMHO.

wjw August 4, 2012 at 4:53 am

Well Steve, it’s not exactly as if writers are known for being =modest.=

If I’d thought I wasn’t particularly important, I doubt I would ever have written a word.

S.M. Stirling August 5, 2012 at 4:58 am

You don’t write about yourself all the time, that I’ve noticed, Walter… 8-).

wjw August 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm

I write about myself =here,= in this forum. The problem is that very few people read it.

Seriously, I’ve noticed that by far the best strategy for earning a name and reputation in any branch of literature is to loudly and fearlessly proclaim your own greatness. Well-publicized feuds with other writers help to no end. Controversy sells.

Of course, you also have to be good.

Unfortunately, when I started, I thought the work should speak for itself. What an idiotic idea!

wjw August 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm

By the way, Roz Kaveny did a very good essay on Vidal, here.

S.M. Stirling August 6, 2012 at 7:28 am

There’s a good essay on Vidal at The New Republic, which points out what an odious racist, anti-semite and all-round elitist snob he was, too.

(He once remarked to a Commentary person who accused him of anti-Americanism that what he really disliked was her country, which was of course Israel.)

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