At some point back in the Sixties an interviewer asked Gore Vidal if his first sexual experience had been heterosexual or homosexual. “I was too polite to ask,” Vidal responded. A perfect smackdown, encompassing all the inimitable Gore Vidal qualities: aristocratic hauteur (“The subject does not offer personal disclosures,” Vidal once said), dismissal of sexuality as a defining trait (a frequent theme with Vidal), and effortless wit, with an oafish question serving as the launch platform.
Gore Vidal, who died this past week at the age of 86, was a fast man with an elegant quip, and in some of the articles about his death one might think he’d done nothing more than crack wise on television. But this joke is worth mentioning because Vidal’s insistence that humans were naturally bisexual, and therefore homosexuality was no big deal, was drastically at odds with postwar American society and warped his career in many ways. Though he hated the term “gay,” Vidal’s gayness (and his obvious impatience with fools) barred him from the political career he obviously would have enjoyed. His matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality in The City and the Pillar (1948), his third novel, generated an uproar that almost choked off his writing career — Orville Prescott, the preeminent book critic of the period, refused to review or permit anyone else to review the book in the New York Times. The blackballing sank Vidal’s next several novels, both the good (The Judgment of Paris) and the bad (A Search for the King, Dark Green, Bright Red), but the resourceful author turned to writing potboiler mysteries and plays, one of which, The Best Man, remains one of the best studies of American politics yet written.
He put himself back on the map in the mid-Sixties with a trio of novels that established the three main concerns of his career as a mature novelist: historical fiction, Julian (1964); the start of his seven-novel American epic, Washington D.C. (1967); and Myra Breckinridge (1968), postmodern gamesmanship and satires on sexual roles. Woven through all this work was a stream of essays on politics, writers, politics, sexuality, politics, and politics. And, of course, he took his epigrammatic wit to television. Vidal realized early on that the public was more interested in authors themselves than their work, and he was a consummate performer, playing picador to Norman Mailer’s raging bull and goading William F. Buckley Jr. (Vidal’s mirror image in many ways) into threatening to punch him out on live television. Before long, television would cease to pay attention to intellectuals of any sort; Vidal saw the window of opportunity closing and made the most of his time.
It was a bit of a sore point with Vidal that he was widely considered an essayist first and a novelist second. His editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, called him the American Montaigne, and in fact the novels often read like extended arguments — essays by other means. But the essays were never less than transfixing, and sometimes they were brilliant. His political writings regularly touched off firestorms: “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (published by The Nation with the softsoap title “Some Jews and The Gays”), started as an outrageously funny response to a Midge Decter gay-bashing piece in Commentary, then ended with the suggestion that Jews, blacks, and gays were natural allies against the evangelical tide just beginning to swell in the Eighties — this was, needless to say, before evangelicals toned down the Christ-killer talk and loudly embraced Israel as a necessary step toward the Rapture. Vidal enjoyed baiting neocons like Decter and Norman Podhoretz, and his casual scorn (he referred to critic Hilton Kramer as “a Tel Aviv hotel”) often led to him being accused of anti-semitism, a canard that has resurfaced in many of the articles pegged to his death.
His essays weren’t all cut-and-thrust stuff: Vidal was a knowledegable and sympathetic booster of the works of Louis Auchincloss, Edmund Wilson, William Dean Howells, and Thomas Love Peacock. Contemptuous of academic theorists, Vidal took a nail gun to the inflated reputations of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon, hooting that their books weren’t meant to be read so much as taught. He also single-handedly rescued comic novelist Dawn Powell from the recycling bin of history. Many of his pieces drew on his insider knowledge of Hollywood, hard-earned through years of screenwriting and script-doctoring, most entertainingly in his essay about how the rules of filmmaking had shaped most of the novels on the New York Times bestseller list for a given week.
In that essay (collected in Matters of Fact and of Fiction) Vidal doled out some of his highest praise to Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, part of her triptych about Alexander the Great, and a novel that could sit comfortably alongside some of Vidal’s own historical narratives — namely Julian, based on the brief life and even briefer reign of the apostate Roman emperor who tried to turn back the Christianization of the empire. Though his model was obviously Robert Graves, Julian is far more entertaining than, say, I, Claudius. Julian, whose arguments against Christianity were so strong that they continue to bedevil apologists, was the perfect mouthpiece for Vidal’s own views:
Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god? A man not born when the world began? I am afraid it takes extraordinary self-delusion to believe such things.
There is, unfortunately, no getting around the fact that Vidal in his last years was more than a bit of a crank. He could still dissect the predatory imperialism of Bush-era America with merciless precision, but then would discredit himself with long stumbles into loony conspiracy theories about 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. It made what should have been the triumphant capstone of his American epic, The Golden Age, into an embarrassing fiasco. When he made public his correspondence with, and respect for, terrorist Timothy McVeigh, many former admirers (myself among them) gave Vidal up as a lost cause. He wasn’t the first writer to go off the rails late in life: Christopher Hitchens (who began his career as a kind of Gore Vidal Lite) became a cheerleader for the Iraq invasion, and Saul Bellow endorsed an odious racist pamphleteer. But Vidal’s decline was most shocking: he had been so clear-eyed and articulate, so cuttingly funny.
Among his novels, I prefer the historical works. Julian sparked my lifelong interest in the Byzantine phase of the empire — it also has an unexpectedly moving conclusion for such a cool-tempered writer. Creation takes off from the fact that in the Fifth Century BCE, a man with the right resources could have met and talked philosophy with Socrates, Buddha, Mahavira, Lao Tsu, and Confucius. (Vidal completed the tour by making his hero, Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of Zoroaster.) Given Vidal’s stoic temperament and dislike of religion, it was hardly surprising that Confucius came off the best. Washington D.C. never quite escapes the shadow of its model, Democracy by Henry Adams, but Burr and, especially, Lincoln, are bold, forceful works that upend popular notions about their subjects. I never much liked the postmodern game-playing works such as Myra Breckenridge or Duluth. Myron contained one great comic idea: inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Miller vs. California, which left communities to establish their own definitions of pornography, Vidal substituted the names of Supreme Court justices for the dirty words.
it’s too easy to compile a list of Vidal’s best, bitchiest quips. He outlived and outwrote his immediate literary peers, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, proved again and again his mastery of fiction and nonfiction, and played the role of intellectual gadfly in the days when mass culture still had room for intellectuals. If a writer should be judged by the quality of his best work, Gore Vidal easily passes that test.