“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.”