A strong case can be made that Gore Vidal has been the most consistent, successful, and interesting American writer of the second half of the twentieth century. Following the publication of his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946 when he was nineteen, Vidal produced a series of outstanding contemporary and historical novels, including the undisputed masterpiece, Julian (1964); innovative “inventions” such as Myra Breckinridge (1968) and The Smithsonian Institution (1998); highly successful Broadway plays such as Visit to a Small Planet (pr. 1957) and The Best Man (pr. 1960); screenplays for several motion pictures; and a large body of essays that have been hailed as the finest in modern American literature. There is simply no other American writer of his time who combines Vidal’s range of genres and styles and his excellence in all of them.
Fred Kaplan’s biography does not make this argument overtly—indeed, he is scrupulously careful to maintain a balanced and objective view—but the multitude of facts that Kaplan has so carefully gathered and outstandingly presented are evidence enough. Kaplan, a critically acclaimed author of literary biographies of Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Carlyle, had access to all of Vidal’s personal papers, letters, private photographs, and television and newsreel footage. In addition to interviews with Vidal himself, Kaplan clearly enjoyed the trust of Vidal’s friends and acquaintances, whose own materials and personal memories allowed the biographer to develop a complete portrait of his subject. Finally, and perhaps most important, Kaplan was assured of complete independence in the production of his work; neither Vidal nor his publishers saw, much less reviewed, the text before it was published. The result is an authorized biography in the best sense: one that has access to all the relevant facts but that allows the author to retain his complete independence in telling his subject’s story.
It is quite a story, including a personal life that has combined searing personal trauma at home with intimacies among the celebrities of the age. Vidal had an excellent relationship with his father, Gene Vidal, perhaps the finest sportsman ever to graduate from West Point and an early advocate of commercial aviation in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Vidal’s mother, Nina Gore Vidal, the only child of Senator T. P. Gore, was a beautiful, spoiled, alcoholic, and disturbed woman who used her looks and temper to bend others to her will. After years of harrowing scenes, Gore Vidal finally ceased all communication with her.
Vidal’s personal life was marked, most insistently, by his sexual attitude, which essentially was a straightforward acceptance of human sensuality. Although he has often been labeled as a homosexual, Vidal has consistently maintained that there are, strictly speaking, neither homosexuals nor heterosexuals—only individuals who participate in sexual acts, either with their own or the opposite gender (or a combination thereof). For Vidal, the first and most lasting personal affection of his life was with Jimmie Trimble, a boy whom he met at St. Alban’s School in Washington, D.C., and who was killed as a young Marine during World War II. For Vidal, Jimmie Trimble exists in memory; his lasting companion since 1950 has been Howard Austen (born Auster). Kaplan’s biography presents these and other personal aspects of Vidal’s life frankly and honestly.
It is as an artist that Vidal is most interesting and arresting, and Kaplan’s contribution is his careful charting of Vidal’s growth and powers as a writer. Vidal began as a novelist with Williwaw, a disciplined short novel about men on the periphery of the action during World War II—the opposite of sprawling, epic works such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948). Vidal’s early novels that followed remained in what he has called “the national voice,” that is, the flat, uninflected, stoic prose popularized by Ernest Hemingway. The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was in this national voice but had a decidedly unnational theme: the lasting impact of an early homosexual relationship on its characters. Although discreet, even reserved by later standards, The City and the Pillar caused a number of critics to reevaluate Vidal as an “appropriate” novelist.
Vidal had already started on his own reconsideration of his career. Dissatisfied with the limitations of the prevailing prose style, he had turned to novelists such as Thomas Mann, George Meredith, and Henry James, looking for a more flexible, supple, and artistic medium in which to tell a story.The Judgment of Paris (1952) showed Vidal writing in a style that was more artificial and yet more flexible; he had found his novelistic voice, and it was one that would grow stronger and more profound as his career developed, allowing him to present a vast array of characters in settings that ranged from ancient Rome to twentieth century America. Without the self-reflexive idiosyncrasies of Truman...
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