Great diversity in subject matter, narrative structure, and style characterizes Vidal’s fictional work. His first eight novels, written before he was thirty years old, typically depicted young men in search of proper and fulfilling lives. For example, young men at war on a ship have to work out moral and ethical problems in a small group under stress; other young men examine the meaning of friendship and love; some are caught up in historical events, such as a revolution in Central America; some face dilemmas of choosing careers and lifestyles. Young men who choose what appear to be secure positions or socially acceptable and conforming lifestyles often find themselves destroyed. Vidal’s message is that to live fully, one must defy social pressures and choose to live a life of personal freedom.
Author Ernest Hemingway greatly influenced Vidal’s writing style, as he did that of many other young writers in the postwar years. Vidal’s seventh and eighth novels were particularly important to his development. In The Judgment of Paris (1952), he began to develop his own stylistic voice, marked by wit and irony. In the ancient Greek myth, Zeus forces a young man, Paris, to choose the most beautiful among three goddesses. In Vidal’s story, a modern young man confronts three women, each offering him a different gift: political power, knowledge, or love. He chooses love—not static, possessive love with one person but the stance of remaining open to love and friendship as he moves through life.
In Messiah (1954), regarded by some as a small masterpiece awaiting discovery, Vidal took up a subject to which he would return in several future novels. Messiah is a journal narrated by an old man, Eugene Luther, who had helped found a new religion based on the teaching of John Cave. “Cavesword” had displaced Christianity. Figures in the book correspond to Jesus, Mary, Saint Paul, Martin Luther, and other religious figures. Vidal shows how the needs of the organized church suppress and distort the message of a religious founder such as John Cave (or Jesus Christ).
Lack of money during the ten years that followed Messiah forced Vidal to write for a mass audience on Broadway and in televison and films. He continued to explore the proper role of the individual in modern civilization, but he also learned to entertain and to lace his social criticism with biting satire and flashing wit.
In 1964, Vidal turned back to the novel and proved to be a master of historical fiction. Julian and Creation (1981) won applause from historians because of Vidal’s fidelity to the historical record. Vidal turned his historical probing to the United States by writing a cycle of seven novels, in order by the period covered: Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920’s (1990), The Golden Age (2000), and Washington, D.C. (1967). Vidal believes that the United States is a deeply flawed society, a garrison state that manages a worldwide empire, a society run by a small, wealthy, elite removed from any concern with the masses of American people. The genius of the American ruling class, he says, is that the people do not even know they have one.
In his historical cycle, Vidal studies this ruling class as it evolves over two centuries. He believes that the democratic promise of American society was lost at the very beginning of United States history. The Founding Fathers, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, he depicts as opportunists who built a nation not from some great sense of national purpose but to secure their fortunes and to gain political power. Lincoln is shown as a great man, but his greatness is in creating a centralized and unified nation, not in achieving the nation’s proclaimed democratic promise. In Empire and Hollywood, set in the early twentieth century, the United States’ rulers create an overseas empire which will serve as the foundation of the military-industrial complex. The nation’s rulers use modern mass media, such as newspapers and films, to manipulate the people. Washington, D.C., shows the emptiness of a John Kennedy-like politician whose only goal is to win power. In The Golden Age, Vidal examines the same period but with a different focus: The destruction of a cultural golden age by the suppressive atmosphere unleashed by the Cold War. Vidal typically provokes and angers readers, but he also edifies.
Vidal’s historical fiction provides a foundation for understanding some of his “campy” literature: Myra Breckinridge, Myron (1974), Kalki (1978), Duluth (1983), Live from Golgotha (1992), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998). These are studies of sexuality—of the “heterosexual dictatorship,” in Vidal’s terms—the nature of religious movements, and the role of mass media, especially television and films, in shaping people’s sense of reality.
First published: 1964
Type of work: Novel
In the fourth century, Roman emperor Julian tries to stop the spread of Christianity.
Julian was Vidal’s first venture into historical fiction. History fascinates him, and he has read as widely in the field as most professional historians. Vidal adheres closely to the historical record, but as a novelist he can do two things that professional historians cannot: He can invent facts when the facts are not known, and he can ascribe motives to historical figures. In both cases, Vidal carefully invents facts and motives that seem most likely to have been true historically. Vidal intends to entertain, but he also intends to instruct: He gives a historically accurate portrait of Julian and explores with his readers the origins of Western civilization.
The novel opens in 380 c.e., seventeen years after Emperor Julian’s death during an invasion of Persia. Two old friends of Julian, the philosophers Libanius of Antioch and Priscus of Athens, learn that the Emperor Theodosius has declared an end to toleration of Christian and non-Christian “heresy.” Libanius has heard a rumor that Priscus possesses the only copy of a memoir written by Julian. He proposes that they publish the memoir to remind the world of Julian’s previous attempt to stop the spread of Christianity. The novel, then, consists of Julian’s memoir, interspersed with letters and comments by Libanius and Priscus, who were eyewitnesses to the events described by Julian. They “correct” his version of events and add their own perspectives.
Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus), born about 331, is a descendent of the Christian emperors Constantine the Great and Constantius II. Constantius kills all the other members of Julian’s family to prevent any challenge to his authority. Julian saves himself by making sure he is not seen as a threat. He lives a secluded life, aiming first to be a priest and later studying philosophy with some of the greatest minds of his age.
Yet Julian loses his faith in Christianity, even though he has a religious mentality and personality. His friends say that at another time Julian might well have been a Christian saint. He leads a life of asceticism and, after his wife’s death, maintains sexual celibacy. His faith breaks because he grows up in an age when church bureaucrats gain control of Christianity and rob it of its mystery by carrying on dry and learned battles over esoteric matters. They engage in political intrigues that neglect or distort Jesus’s simple message of love. Julian is drawn to Jesus but detests the church that speaks in his name. As a young boy, Julian witnesses Christians beating and killing other Christians. He cannot square Christian violence and brutality with Jesus’s message of peace and love. Simultaneously, he reads the works of non-Christian scholars, who teach pre-Christian Greek philosophy and religion.
Meanwhile, Constantius brings Julian out of seclusion to play a role in governing the huge Roman Empire. In 355 c.e., Constantius places Julian in control of the Roman provinces beyond the Alps. The young, ascetic scholar proves to be a military genius and quickly wins the love of his troops. In 361, Constantius dies, and Julian becomes emperor.
As emperor, Julian proclaims religious toleration for both Christians and non-Christians. Julian says that he is going to punish Christians by forbidding them to do what they enjoy most—persecuting one another. He sacrifices to the old gods of Mount Olympus and tries to revive the pagan temples and rituals. He lays plans to breathe new life into Hellenism, the civilization inherited from Greece. He also, Vidal believes, is captivated by Alexander the Great’s vision of conquering the known world.
Julian invades Persia and drives deep into the heart of that empire. He wins many victories but is killed—murdered, Vidal believes, by one of his Christian soldiers. “With Julian, the light went, and now nothing remains but to let the darkness come,” says Libanius. Now nothing stands in the way of the spread of Christianity, and Western civilization enters a thousand-year decline, later called the Dark Ages.
One of Vidal’s biographers asked two outstanding historians of the fourth century Roman Empire to evaluate Julian. The historians agreed that Vidal’s work is probably the best portrait of Julian that exists. Vidal sees the era as crucial to the evolution of the West. If Julian had lived, Vidal believes, Christianity would be only one of several religions in Western civilization.
First published: 1973
Type of work: Novel
The activities of the Founding Fathers of the United States were aimed at gaining wealth and power for themselves, not at any idealistic concept.
Vidal’s iconoclastic portrait of the American Founding Fathers in Burr would have shocked an earlier generation. In 1973, however, the United States had just emerged from the tumult of the Civil Rights movement and was still torn by controversy over the Vietnam War and by the Watergate scandal that would soon force President Richard Nixon to resign from office. As one reviewer of Burr pointed out, to the millions of Americans who believed that the ancient verities of the republic had become hollow, Vidal explained that they always had been. If many readers were surprised that Vidal’s history was not what their teachers had taught them, his description of the Founding Fathers did not shock professional historians. As usual, Vidal had done excellent research and had based his work solidly in the interpretative tradition of such great American historians as Henry Adams and Charles Beard as well as the young revisionist historians of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Burr opens in 1833 and ends in 1840, four years after Aaron Burr’s death at age eighty. It is narrated by Charles Schuyler, a twenty-five-year-old law clerk in Burr’s office, who wants to give up the legal profession to be a writer. He is intrigued by Burr, a dark figure of the heroic period of American history, who is still very much alive and active. Burr is witty, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated. He is willing to talk to Charlie about the past. Meanwhile, several friends of Charlie are plotting against Vice President Martin van Buren, whom they expect will try for the presidency in 1836, after Andrew Jackson’s second term in office. Van Buren’s enemies see Charlie’s project with Burr as a possible way to carry out their political schemes. They know that Burr and Van Buren had been close; in fact, there is a rumor that Van Buren is Burr’s illegitimate son. If Charlie finds evidence of that in his research on Burr, they can use it to defeat Van Buren.
Burr provides Charlie with copies of his journal on the Revolutionary War, in which he was an officer, and dictates additional material to fill out his memoirs. Charlie is quickly captivated by the old man, who makes the famous figures of the past, his friends and acquaintances, come alive: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Arnold, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, and many more. Burr had been a leader among the Founding Fathers, a man who sparkled even among that glittering elite. He was Jefferson’s vice president, and he assumed, as did many others, that he would someday be president. Yet he got in the way of powerful interests in New York, represented by Hamilton, and seemed to threaten the Virginia clique headed by Jefferson. Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. His political career in ruins, he went westward, probably with plans to break Mexico away from Spain. Perhaps he intended to become king of Mexico. Jefferson accused him of attempting to break up the union; he had...
(The entire section is 5349 words.)