In an age and country that have little room for the traditional man of letters, Gore Vidal has established that role for himself by the force of his writing and intelligence and by his public prominence. He is a classicist in writing style, emphasizing plot, clarity, and order. Iconoclastic wit and cool, detached intelligence characterize his elegant style.
Because Vidal knows most contemporary public figures—including jet-setters, Wall Street insiders, and Washington wheeler-dealers—many readers comb his writing to glean intriguing bits of gossip. Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, for example, is often read as an account of the lives and loves of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister, Lee Bouvier. Some people search Vidal’s writing for clues to his own life and sexuality.
Vidal draws from his own rich experience as he creates his fictional world, yet he is a very private person, and he resists people’s urge to reduce everyone to a known quantity. Vidal refracts real people and events through his delightfully perverse imagination. The unwary gossipmonger can easily fall into Vidal’s many traps.
If one can with certainty learn little from Vidal’s fiction about such famous people as the Kennedys, readers can learn much about his major concern, the nature of Western civilization and the individual’s role within it. He is interested in politics— how people make society work—and religion, the proper perspective on life as one faces death. In his early novels, one can see Vidal’s interest in ideas. Vidal’s young male protagonists find themselves entering a relativistic world in which all gods are dead. A “heterosexual dictatorship” and a life-numbing Christian establishment try to impose false moral absolutes. Society tempts the unwary by offering comfort and security and then removes the life-sustaining freedom of those who succumb to the temptation.
The City and the Pillar
In writing his third novel, Vidal probed the boundaries of society’s sexual tolerance. The result, The City and the Pillar, affected the rest of his career. To Vidal, the book is a study of obsession; to many guardians of moral purity, it seems to glorify homosexuality. In American fiction, either homosexuality had been barely implied or the homosexual characters had been presented as bizarre or doomed figures. In contrast, Vidal’s protagonist is an average young American man, confused by his homosexual proclivities and obsessed with the memory of a weekend encounter with another young man, Bob Ford. Although Bob regards the weekend as a diversion to be enjoyed and forgotten, Jim enters the homosexual world. If he is doomed, it is not because he prefers men to women, but because he is obsessed with the past. When he finally meets Bob again and tries to revive the affair, Bob rejects him. Enraged and humiliated, Jim kills Bob. Vidal later issued a revised edition in which Jim forces Bob to submit sexually; in the emotional backwash from the confrontation, Jim realizes the sterility of his obsession.
Vidal later said that he could have been president had it not been for the homosexual label applied to him. Readers assumed that Vidal must be the character he invented. Vidal is a sexual libertarian who believes that sex in any form between consenting adults is a gift to be enjoyed. He believes, furthermore, that a “heterosexual dictatorship” has distorted human sexuality. “There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person,” Vidal says. “There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices, and what anyone does with a willing partner is of no social or cosmic significance.” In 1948, people were not ready for that message. Although the book was a best-seller, such powerful establishment journals as The New York Times eliminated him from the list of “approved” writers. His next few books were failures, critically and financially.
The Judgment of Paris
Two of the books ignored after The City and the Pillar, The Judgment of Paris and Messiah, later found admirers. In these novels Vidal began to develop the style that is so recognizably his own. Moreover, it is in these two books that Vidal fully expresses his philosophy of life: “I have put nearly everything that I feel into The Judgment of Paris, a comedic version, and Messiah, a tragic version of my sense of man’s curious estate.”
In The Judgment of Paris, Vidal retells the ancient myth of Paris, who was asked by Zeus to choose the most beautiful of three goddesses: Hera (power), Athena (knowledge), and Aphrodite (love). In the novel, Philip Warren, an American innocent, meets Regina Durham (Hera) in Rome, Sophia Oliver (Athena) in Egypt, and Anna Morris (Aphrodite) in Paris. Regina and Sophia offer him, respectively, political power and life of the intellect. To Philip, political power rests on manipulation of people, and intellectual life requires the seclusion of the scholar from humanity. He chooses love, but he also leaves Anna Morris. His choice implies that one must accept no absolutes; nothing is permanent, not even love. One must open oneself to love and friendship and prepare to accept change as one moves through life.
Many readers consider Messiah an undiscovered masterpiece. Religion, the human response to death and nothingness, has been a major concern in Vidal’s fiction, especially in Messiah, Kalki, and Creation. Messiah is narrated by Eugene Luther, an old man secluded in Egypt. He is a founding member of a new religion that has displaced Christianity and is spreading over the world. Luther, who has broken with the church he helped build, scribbles his memoirs as he awaits death. The movement was built around John Cave, but Cave was killed by his disciples, and Cave’s word was spread by an organization using modern advertising techniques. One can readily find in Messiah characters representing Jesus Christ, Saint Paul, Mother Mary, and Martin Luther. The process by which religious movements are formed interests Vidal. Messiah shows, by analogy, how the early Church fathers manipulated the Gospels and the Christ figure for their own selfish needs.
With Julian, Vidal again examines the formation of a religious movement, this time looking directly at Christianity. Julian the Apostate, Roman emperor from 361 to 363 c.e., had long been the object of hatred in the West, because he had tried to reverse the Christianization of the empire. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Julian began to attract admirers who saw him as a symbol of wisdom and of religious toleration.
Julian, reared as a Christian, lived in an age when the modern Christian Church was taking shape. Warring prelates conducted abstract debates that robbed religion of its mystery and engaged in persecutions that ignored Jesus’ message of love and peace. Julian was trained as a philosopher. His study of ancient wisdom awakened in him love and respect for the gods of the ancient world and for the Eastern mystery religions then being suppressed by Christianity. When he became emperor, Julian proclaimed religious toleration and tried to revive “paganism.”
Like Paris before him and Philip Warren after, Julian was offered the worlds of intellect, love, and power. Julian chose power, but he tempered the absolute authority of emperor with love and wisdom. He was also a military genius who, like Alexander the Great, was tempted by the dream of world conquest. He was killed during an invasion of Persia.
Vidal constructs his novel as a fictive memoir written by Julian and presenting Julian’s own view of himself and his world. The novel opens in 380 c.e., seventeen years after Julian’s death. Two friends of Julian, the philosophers Libanius of Antioch and Priscus of Athens, correspond as they prepare Julian’s memoirs for publication. Their letters and comments on the manuscript provide two other views of the events described by Julian. Because they are writing as Emperor Theodosius is moving to destroy the ancient religions, Julian’s life takes on a special poignancy. Vidal’s major point, says biographer Ray Lewis White, is that modern people of the West are the descendants of the barbarians who destroyed the classical world, and that the modern world has yet to be civilized. If Julian had lived, Vidal believes, Christianity might well have remained only one of severalWestern religions, andWestern civilization might now be healthier and more tolerant than it is.
In 1981 Vidal took readers even further back into history in Creation. In 445 b.c.e., Cyrus Spitama, an elderly Persian diplomat to Athens and grandson of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, begins to dictate his memoirs to his nephew, the philosopher Democritus. Cyrus is angry after hearing the historian Herodotus give his account of the Persian-Greek war, and he decides to set down the truth.
Here Vidal traces the earliest foundations of Western civilization and the formation of major world religions. Cyrus, a diplomatic troubleshooter for the Persian court, takes the reader on a tour of the ancient world. He knows Persian emperors Darius and Xerxes; as a traveler to China and India, he meets the Buddha and Confucius, and he remembers his own grandfather, Zoroaster. In Athens he talks with such famous figures as Anaxagoras and Pericles and hires Socrates to repair his wall. In Creation, Vidal shows the global interaction of cultures that goes back to the ancient world. He rejects the provincialism that has allowed historians to wall Western civilization off from its Asian and African sources.
This master of historical fiction also turned his attention to the United States. Starting with Washington, D.C., Vidal began a sequence of novels covering United States history from its beginning to the post-World War II era. In chronological sequence, the novels are Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C. Vidal’s iconoclastic view of the past may have shocked some readers, but in the turmoil of the Vietnam and Watergate era, many people were ready to re-examine United States history. At a time when many Americans held that the old truths had failed, Vidal said that those truths had been hollow from the start.
Burr is one of the most widely admired of Vidal’s novels. Aaron Burr, the preeminent American maverick, appealed to Vidal personally. Burr is narrated by Charlie Schuyler, who in 1833 is a twenty-five-year-old clerk in Burr’s law office. He is an aspiring author who writes for William Leggett and William Cullen Bryant, editors of the New York Evening Post. Disliking Martin Van Buren, President Andrew Jackson’s heir apparent, Leggett and Bryant set Charlie to work running down the rumor that Van Buren is the illegitimate son of Burr; if the rumor is true, they can use the information to destroy Van Buren. The seventy-seven-year-old Burr responds warmly to Charlie’s overtures to write about his life. In the next few years, Burr gives the young writer copies of his journal and dictates to him his memories of the past.
Although Vidal’s portrait of the Founders shocks some readers, his interpretation is in line with that of many of the nation’s best historians. Vidal reminds the reader that Burr was one of the most able and intelligent of the Founders. Vidal allows Burr, from an insider’s viewpoint, to demystify the founders of the republic. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and the other Founders created the republic, Burr says, because it satisfied their personal economic and political interests to do so.
Burr admires some of his contemporaries, especially James Madison and Andrew Jackson, but he detests Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is a ruthless man who wants to create a nation “dominated by independent farmers each living on his own rich land, supported by slaves.” What Burr cannot excuse is Jefferson’s cant and hypocrisy:
Had Jefferson not been a hypocrite I might have admired him. After all, he was the most successful empire-builder of our century, succeeding where Bonaparte failed. But then Bonaparte was always candid when it came to motive and Jefferson was always dishonest.
What are the motives of the Founders? Burr tells Alexander Hamilton: “I sense nothing more than the ordinary busy-ness of men wanting to make a place for themselves. . . . But it is no different here from what it is in London or what it was in Caesar’s Rome.” The Founders write the Constitution because it suits their purposes, and they subvert it when it suits their purposes.
Burr makes no secret of his opportunism, although he does regret his mistakes. He should have realized that the world is big enough for both Hamilton and himself, he says. Instead, Vice President Aaron Burr kills Hamilton in a duel and is then accused by Jefferson of heading a plot to break up the United States and establish himself as the king in a new Western empire.
Charlie does find evidence that Van Buren is Burr’s son, but Charlie, having come to love the old man, refuses to use it. Van Buren rewards him with a government position overseas.
Lincoln and 1876
With Lincoln, Vidal surprised those who expected him to subject the Great Emancipator to the same ridicule he had directed at Washington and Jefferson. Vidal’s Lincoln is a cold, remote, intelligent man who creates a unified, centralized republic that is far different from the one envisioned by the Founders. In 1876, Charlie Schuyler returns to the United States from Europe, where he has lived since 1837. He left in the age of Jackson and returns in the age of Ulysses S. Grant to a booming industrializing, urbanizing nation. He watches, in the American centennial year, as the politicians steal the presidential election from Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. He sees members of the ruling class using the rhetoric of democracy but practicing it as little as they had in the days of Washington and Jefferson.
In Empire, Vidal paints wonderful word portraits of Henry Adams, Henry James, William Randolph Hearst, John Hay, and Theodore Roosevelt, along with the fictional characters of newspaper publishers Caroline and Blaise Sanford and Congressman James Burden Day. The creation of the internal empire, begun by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, had already made a shambles of the American democratic promise. Now Roosevelt and other American leaders begin to look overseas for new areas to dominate. Their creation of the overseas empire lays the groundwork for the increasingly militarized republic that emerges in the twentieth century.
Many of these same figures appear in Hollywood, set a few years later, in the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding. Although the forging of the American empire continues, Vidal turns his gaze on a new force that is corrupting the democratic promise, the mass media. Newspaper publisher Hearst and the Sanfords have long understood the power of the press, but Hearst and Caroline Sanford see that the new medium of film has potential power beyond the printed page. Instead of reporting events, film could create a new reality, within which newspapers and politicians would have to work.
InWashington, D.C., Blaise Sanford, his son Peter, Senator James Burden Day, and his assistant, Clay Overbury, are locked in a political and moral drama. Senator Day, a southern conservative, much like Senator Gore, opposes the new republic being created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He has a chance to be president but lacks money. Burden Day gives in to temptation and takes a bribe; his presidential bid fails, and later Clay Overbury, using his knowledge of the bribe, forces Day out of the Senate and takes his seat. Overbury is a young man who cares nothing for friends or ideas or issues. Winning personal power is the only thing that interests this politician, who is modelled on John F. Kennedy.
As Day is dying, he says to the spirit of his unreconstructed southern father: “You were right. . . . It has all gone wrong.” Aaron Burr would have understood what he meant.
If most scholars approved of Vidal’s well-researched historical fiction, many readers were shocked at Myra Breckinridge. Myra opens her book with the proud proclamation: “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.” She maintains her verve as she takes readers on a romp through popular culture. Because the novel is dead, she says, there is no point in writing made-up stories; the film of the 1940’s is the high point ofWestern artistic creation, although it is being superseded by a higher art form, the television commercial. Myra has arrived in Hollywood to fulfill her destiny of reconstructing the sexes. She has a lesson to teach young would-be stars such as Rusty Godowsky and old cowboy stars such as Buck Loner:
To be a man in a society of machines is to be an expendable, soft auxiliary to what is useful and hard. Today there is nothing left for the old-fashioned male to do, . . . no physical struggle to survive or mate. . . . [O]nly in travesty can he act out the classic hero who was a law unto himself, moving at ease through a landscape filled with admiring women. Mercifully, that age is finished. . . . [W]e now live at the dawn of the age of Women Triumphant, of Myra Breckinridge!
Beneath the gaiety of Myra’s campy narrative, a serious purpose emerges. Her dead homosexual husband, Myron, had been abused and humiliated by many men. Myra carries out her plan to avenge Myron, and to revive the Female Principle, by forcing Buck Loner to submit to her demands to take over his acting studio, and by raping with a dildo the macho, all-American stud Rusty.
Myra is brought down by an automobile accident, which upsets her hormonal balance. Her breasts vanish, and she sprouts a beard; she is, in fact, Myron, after a sexchange operation. As the book ends, Rusty is a homosexual, and Myron/Myra is married and living happily with Rusty’s former girlfriend. In a sequel, Myron, Myron and Myra struggle for domination of the single body and again have much to say about popular culture, the mass media, and human sexuality.
Perhaps as respites from the scrupulous historicity of the American history novels, Vidal interspersed them with fantasies in which reality was plastic and ever changing. In Myron, characters were likely to find themselves in the midst of the old films they were watching. Duluth represented a deliberately postmodernist interpenetration of an actual Duluth with a serial television show also called Duluth.
Live from Golgotha
Live from Golgotha continued the motif of a reality subject to random change. It is set in 96 c.e., but the first century is being manipulated by forces from the twentieth, operating through psychic channelers and the Hacker, whose computer manipulations apparently can destroy not only records of the past but even memories of those records. Indeed, there is a plan afoot to return to the Crucifixion, televise it live, and perhaps even change the events.
Timothy, the narrator, is the biblical Timothy to whom Saint Paul wrote epistles. He has been chosen to preserve the Gospel story in the face of these computerized depredations, though his knowledge of the event is at best secondhand, coming from Paul, who knows it only through a vision. The story departs radically from the standard biblical story. Timothy and Paul are actively bisexual, as are most of the first century people depicted. Jesus is thought to have been morbidly obese. Anachronistic terms such as “Mossad” and “intifada” abound. Future figures such as Mary Baker Eddy and Shirley MacLaine make appearances.
Timothy eventually learns that the actual Jesus was a Zealot, a political revolutionary. With electronic assistance, Jesus framed Judas, the fat man Paul saw in the vision, and fled to the twentieth century. There he became the Hacker in order to clear out images of “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” He plans to start Armageddon through a nuclear attack on Arab capitals. Timothy uses more advanced technology to prevent Jesus’ escape from arrest. The Crucifixion takes place, with the real Jesus, but Japanese technicians add to the image a rising sun and the mother goddess Amaterasu. Live from Golgotha was condemned for its irreverence and blasphemy, as well as for the outlandishness of its central conceit, but many readers nevertheless enjoyed its wit and its lusty portrayal of the first century Roman world.
The Smithsonian Institution
Vidal’s next novel, The Smithsonian Institution, also dealt with retroactive time change, but of a political rather than a theological sort. T., a thirteen-year-old mathematics prodigy in 1939, is summoned to the Smithsonian Institution to take part in a secret scientific experiment. He soon learns that the apparent wax dummies that are part of the project are actually living people. Indeed, T. is seduced by Mrs. Grover Cleveland. T. has an Einstein-like ability to visualize equations dealing with time. Anxious to ward off the coming of World War II because it would lead to the development of terrifying new weapons, the scientists secretly in charge of the Smithsonian (with the assistance of the supposed wax dummies of political leaders) plan to use T.’s ideas to construct a time machine and change the past so that the war will not occur. After one trip that only makes things worse, T. returns to a war in which he saves an alternate version of himself and enables the war to be concluded more quickly, without the weapons development.
Some commentators have said that the audience Vidal created for himself with his highly regarded historical novels was destroyed by Myra Breckinridge and Myron and by his later campy fantasies Kalki and Duluth. However, Vidal continued to write one best-seller after another, and his books have steadily gained critical admirers. Vidal’s books, essays, and television appearances stimulated, intrigued, and angered a large part of his audience, yet his appeal as a writer and public figure remained compelling. As long ago as 1948, with The City and the Pillar, Vidal made a decision to live his life and conduct his artistic career in his own way. To many admirers, he is a symbol of freedom. The turmoil of the modern age makes his civilized voice of reason seem more necessary than ever before. Often accused of cynicism, Vidal responded that he is a pessimist and a realist who also believes that people can, or must act as if they can, take action to make the world better.
The Golden Age
Caroline Sanford provides the central focus of The Golden Age as it begins in 1939, but she soon gives way as protagonist to her young nephew and heir, Peter Sanford. Peter meets President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and most of the other political insiders of his time, as well as such cultural figures as playwright Tennessee Williams, composer Leonard Bernstein, and even a young novelist named Gore Vidal.
Sanford family relationships are tangled, although death simplifies matters as the years pass. Peter’s father, Blaise Sanford, champions the ruthlessly ambitious Clay Overbury in his relentless drive for power. Overbury forces his benefactor, Senator James Burden Day, into retirement so that Overbury can take Day’s Senate seat.
However, the Sanford domestic entanglements take a backseat to the geopolitical maneuvers that begin in 1939. Caroline observes the drama firsthand, through her friendship with Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s alter ego. Hopkins mocks the blindness of isolationists who oppose Roosevelt’s attempts to support France and Great Britain, under assault from Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Hopkins says that the unspoken reality is that Americans have a world empire and that Great Britain is America’s client state, which must be protected for American self-interest. Peter and his friend Gore Vidal later speculate about Roosevelt’s role in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They believe that Roosevelt deliberately provoked Japan into an attack, allowing the United States to enter World War II and establish itself as the dominant global power.
After World War II, Peter and his friend Aeneas Duncan publish a journal, American Idea, which becomes a major force in American intellectual and cultural life, and marks the beginning, they believe, of a postwar golden age, in literature, dance, music, and art.
The American renaissance flared and then quickly dimmed. Everything takes a backseat to the ColdWar. The two wartime allies, the United States and Soviet Union, divide the world between them and face off in a potentially deadly confrontation. President Truman puts the finishing touches on the American empire. He uses the people’s fear of the Soviet Union to build a national security state, creating the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council. His newly militarized national government then inaugurates a loyalty program that quashes dissent and ends the brief golden age.
The book skips ahead to the millennium. On New Years Day, 2000, Peter meets a young man, Aaron Burr Decker, Caroline’s great-grandson. Aaron asked Peter to participate in a televised dialogue with Peter’s friend, Vidal, which takes place in Vidal’s home in Italy. The two old men, Gore and Peter, try to make sense of the era in which they had lived. Peter finally reminds Gore that he, Peter, is only a made-up character in a Vidal novel. Why, he asks, did you not give me a better world in which to live?
Williwaw, 1946; In a Yellow Wood, 1947; The City and the Pillar, 1948, revised 1965; The Season of Comfort, 1949; A Search for the King: A Twelfth Century Legend, 1950; Dark Green, Bright Red, 1950; Death in the Fifth Position, 1952 (as Edgar Box); The Judgment of Paris, 1952, revised 1965; Death Before Bedtime, 1953 (as Box); Death Likes It Hot, 1954 (as Box); Messiah, 1954, revised 1965; Julian, 1964; Washington, D.C., 1967; Myra Breckinridge, 1968; Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, 1970; Burr, 1973; Myron, 1974; 1876, 1976; Kalki, 1978; Creation, 1981; Duluth, 1983; Lincoln, 1984; Empire, 1987; Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920’s, 1990; Live from Golgotha, 1992; The Smithsonian Institution, 1998; The Golden Age, 2000
Short fiction: A Thirsty Evil: Seven Short Stories, 1956; Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories, 2006.
Plays: Visit to a Small Planet: A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville, pr. 1957; The Best Man: A Play About Politics, pr., pb. 1960; Romulus: A New Comedy, pr., pb. 1962; An Evening with Richard Nixon, pr. 1972.
Screenplays: The Catered Affair, 1956; Suddenly Last Summer, 1959 (with Tennessee Williams); The Best Man, 1964 (adaptation of his play); Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, 1969; Caligula, 1977.
Teleplays: Visit to a Small Planet, and Other Television Plays, 1956; Dress Gray, 1986.
Nonfiction: Rocking the Boat, 1962; Reflections upon a Sinking Ship, 1969; Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-1972, 1972; Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays, 1973-1976, 1977; The Second American Revolution, and Other Essays, 1976-1982, 1982; At Home: Essays, 1982-1988, 1988; Screening History, 1992; The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1992; United States: Essays, 1952-1992, 1993; Palimpsest: A Memoir, 1995; Virgin Islands, A Dependency of United States: Essays, 1992-1997, 1997; Gore Vidal, Sexually Vidal, Gore 1347 Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, 1999; The Last Empire: Essays, 1992-2000, 2000; Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, 2002; Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated, 2002; Imperial America, 2004; Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2006, 2006.
Miscellaneous: The Essential Gore Vidal, 1999 (Fred Kaplan, editor); Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, 2003; Conversatons with Gore Vidal, 2005 (Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, editors).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.