Vidal, Gore (Vol. 4)
Vidal, Gore 1925–
Vidal is an American novelist, playwright, critic, essayist, and raconteur. He is considered a brilliant essayist and his principal themes for both fiction and nonfiction are social and political. He has also written detective stories under the pseudonym Edgar Box. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[While] outwardly flattering to the political opinions of the spectator, The Best Man is secretly destructive of all intelligent politics: complex ideas harden into ideology, and liberalism itself is tainted with the demagoguery it professes to abhor. It is worth observing that while we are encouraged to sympathize with the upright Russell … in his uncompromising concern with issues rather than personalities, there is not a single political issue of any consequence discussed in the play. And at the same time that we are hooting Joe Cantwell's low-road penchant for malicious scandal, we are giggling at gossipy wisecracks about the sex life, drinking habits, and personal idiosyncrasies of prominent political figures and their wives. That these politicians are presented in composite serves not to disguise them so much as to multiply the scandals in their public and private lives….
In short, The Best Man demonstrates that expediency can be operative in playwriting as well as in politics, and that there is not such a wide gulf between our commercial drama and our national life as one might imagine. Since one can hear an author's true voice speaking in only one of his lines, it is difficult to say how committed Mr. Vidal is to the flaccid attitudes he grinds out in his play. "As a playwright," he once wrote in an article, "I am a sport, whose only serious interest is the subversion of a society which bores and appalls me." Whether wittingly or not, he is certainly realizing his objective with this cynical and mechanical work.
Robert Brustein, "Politics and the Higher Gossip" (1960), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 108-10.
The Broadway theatre has this much in common with American society: It is rapidly becoming an operation of hipsters for the bilking of squares. The hipster—if you are still unfamiliar with the term—is a sophisticated careerist who adapts himself to meretricious surroundings for the sake of advancement, concealing his derisive contempt for his customers while prospering on their gullibility, pretentiousness, and bad taste. He is identified, therefore, by the schizoid split that separates his public from his private personality: he wears a mask of charm and sincerity over a face of scorn….
The smoothest of these legitimized con men is the cultural hipster….
Let me cite, as evidence of the hipster's flourishing influence, the recent adaptation of Duerrenmatt's Romulus der Grosse—or GORE VIDAL'S ROMULUS, as the program more shrewdly identifies it…. [Vidal's] dramatic writings, while superficially sophisticated, are carefully designed for squares. Confirming in spades his press agent's boast that "Vidal has done it again," he has even managed to make Romulus indistinguishable from his other two Broadway opiates, transforming Duerrenmatt's tough parable into an effeminate charade enacted by the theatrical smart set.
What Duerrenmatt wrote was a bitter comedy about the last Roman Emperor…. Vidal has preserved the shell of the original while hollowing out the center, adding a confectionery filling sprinkled with witless political jokes, irrelevant anachronisms, and open thefts from Wilde and Shaw….
[In] our theatre, no artist is safe from the cultural hipster—or, for that matter, from the square spectator, because despite their contrasted natures, both are the natural antagonists of genuine art.
Robert Brustein, "Hipster Dramatists, Square Spectators" (1962), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 130-33.
To work one's way through Mr. Vidal's collected essays [Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972] is to feel with a peculiar immediacy the tone of years long over and done with. Most collections of this sort are timepieces, to be sure. But Mr. Vidal has a gift for catching the tremors of the moment as they occur, and he does so with an alertness usually reserved for the beneficiaries of hindsight…. Mr. Vidal is scarcely ever only cruel, or even only adept. One of the pleasant things about him is a modulating tone, which varies, from time to time, with temper, but which is drawn, one thinks, from reliable reserves and from a certain warmth of mind. This was called personality once, and there is no doubt that its pleasant abundance in Mr. Vidal makes him agreeable, even when he offends. He is seldom strident, except when he is carrying on about sexual freedom for all, or when he is tenting under the skirts of the women's movement, puffing away about the oppression of the second sex, and of Kate Millet in particular…. He has other preoccupations as well. Mr. Vidal's broadsides at the middle class are delivered with a classy hauteur, but their origins are the dank and weary nether regions to which the clichés of the leftish mind retire when they go to breed. His self-confident throwaways about "the moral nullity at the center of American life" have a similar birthplace….
These things said, there is a good deal of intellectual, as well as plain, old-fashioned literary, pleasure to be had in nearly all else Mr. Vidal has written here. He is a moralist, of course, and a man of considerable humor, and those two qualities have usually gone well together in the history of letters. The last essay in the book is on Eleanor Roosevelt, and it is quite the most moving piece on that subject in one's memory. Like any real moralist, the author of this collection has an abundance of feeling, which factor works quite as well for the affections as it does for the spleen.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 19, 1972, p. 73.
Despite its more or less foreclosed partisanship in favor of Burr, this latest and, with Julian and Myra Breckinridge, best of Vidal's 13 novels is not designed merely to change the mind of anyone who has been brought up to venerate Jefferson and Hamilton at the expense of Burr. Because while [Burr] is prejudiced against Jefferson, disdainful of Washington, and somewhat demonological about Hamilton, it nonetheless exhibits Vidal's characteristically 18th-century detachment about human follies, and this extends to the reader's presuppositions about the beginnings of our nation.
If this detachment were merely imposed de haut en bas, as in some of Vidal's writing, then the results would be merely charming, evocative, exciting—and superficial. Instead, Vidal's detachment here is a form of meditative skepticism about our beginnings….
If the novel is about treason, it is also about a much larger problem: to what does anything or anyone truly belong? The success and power of Burr derives from the ingenuity with which this question is probed, even to the point of making it a question about the legitimacy of writing such a book. In the afterword, Vidal asks "Why a historical novel and not a history? To me, the attraction of the historical novel is that one can be as meticulous (or as careless!) as the historian and yet reserve the right not only to rearrange events but, most important, to attribute motive—something the conscientious historian or biographer ought never do." The oddity of this statement is in the lack of ambition it betrays not about history but about the novel itself. It proposes for the writer of fiction absolutely nothing which is not also, though Vidal refuses to grant this, the privilege of the biographer and historian. These latter are of course forever rearranging events and attributing motives; it is hard to imagine what else importantly they ought to do. Vidal's 18th-century inclination extends here to a faith in the decorum of genres, and his concern is of a piece with the whole anxiety in the book about what properly does belong with what and to whom: not only to the Constitution or to the branches of government, not only to the nation or to the family, but also to novelists and/or historians. It is an exciting and most promising dilemma for a novel, and Vidal has worked out a great many variations on it. But in Burr, as in its afterword, he is sometimes prevented by his decorousness from pushing ahead as a novelist, imaginatively and stylistically, into precisely the strange territories he has mapped out for himself and for us….
My primary criticism of Burr is not that it seems sometimes to violate the historical record, especially with respect to Jefferson's attitude toward slavery…. Rather, the main trouble with Burr is that it does not dare quite enough and that Vidal remains just a bit too loyal not so much to "the record" as to a world of essential rationality. This in spite of the fact that his entire structural apparatus, his very principle of organization would seem to commit him to stylistic evocations of the mysterious, the murky, the grotesque in an effort to comprehend those submerged forces that began and set the course for our nation. There are a few attempts to open the book up to the kinds of inquiry that seem to be called for … [but they do not] come off, partly because nothing in the book has habituated us to the treatment of resemblances at any such level of intensity and partly because, as a result, Vidal's natural energies are not fired up by such possibilities.
Nonetheless, Burr, when taken with Julian, Myra Breckenridge and Two Sisters, suggests that Vidal is moving into fictional terrains more hazardous and more rewarding than ever before. He is working out ways by which characters from the past find versions of themselves in characters of later times and are then projected by Vidal as the manipulator of the material, in such a way as to make it all seem immediately contemporaneous and autobiographical. It doesn't matter if this effort isn't always wholly successful. What does matter is that Vidal, who now might lean on or merely transplant his laurels, is instead taking big and exciting chances. In Burr the chances have begun to pay off rather handsomely.
Richard Poirier, "The Heart Has Its Treasons," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 28, 1973, p. 3.
Gore Vidal … is to American letters what, in Burr's time, Thomas Rowlandson was to English painting: a cartoonist, an excellent draftsman, a satirist fond of the bawdy and perverse. Vidal understands that the best way to revise history without accepting responsibility for one's conclusions is to write a novel. The novelist, certain that few readers object to seeing the mighty look incompetent, may simply attribute every motive and action of the great to ambition, stupidity and malice. These days, cynicism, sharpened by style and research, seems a reasonable approach to political reality….
Vidal is not above reaching for easy effects, but "Burr" is an extraordinarily intelligent and entertaining novel. He has done his homework. He has re-created the smells and noises of the time. Vidal's principal triumph, however, is that he has made of Burr more than a political cartoon….
Peter S. Prescott, "Great American Monster," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1973, p. 98.
Vidal has a wonderful talent both for mimicry and evocation…. Vidal has also the love of learning which is so often best guarded by its distance from American university education. He has never let himself be distracted by inferior models or merely satisfied with the greatest ones. Gibbon pointed—but only pointed—him toward Julian the Apostate; and Julian has the particular charm of making us imagine that we have come not upon one of Gibbon's pupils but upon one of his sources….
Vidal himself has observed that his is one of those spirits that are keenest when they are quickened partly out of a sense of mischief and partly out of a sense of justice. Burr has, therefore, some elements of the prank, but it is more a serious attack on the notion of an original American innocence.
Murray Kempton, "Discovering America," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), November 15, 1973, pp. 6-8.
Vidal … is something very few American novelists have been: a wit. Humorists we have had aplenty, but novelists who could actually write sparkling repartee have been rarer among us than saints, and rather more sorely missed. If you look at today's crop of novelists, except for Vidal, only Wilfrid Sheed can be considered a reputable wit, and even he is English-born. If for nothing else but their rarity, therefore, wits are precious hereabouts.
John Simon, "Clinging to A. Burr," in The New Leader, December 10, 1973, pp. 10-12.
[Vidal] is something like the last gentleman of American letters, a stylish politician of the mother tongue, and our most ingratiating snob—a snob of conscience, contemptuous of all that is not Quality. More completely than any other conspicuous novelist of his generation (those who began writing in the immediate postwar period), Vidal sees himself as a man of letters in an old-fashioned sense, which only two or three middle-to-low-circulation magazines and, bewilderingly, Carson and Cavett have allowed to survive into the second half of the century. And among his peers, Vidal assumes the role most successfully. Norman Mailer is too obsessive and self-referring to belong in the great tradition I have in mind. To draw the usual untenable distinction: The man of letters writes not about himself but about the world; he is fundamentally a critic. At his best, Mailer is a far more exciting writer than Vidal, but the excitement is bought at the price of a frequently maundering self-examination that Vidal would never allow on the page. It is boring. If you are able to turn the nifty trick of looking at either the self or the world steadily, the world turns out to be steadily interesting and the self—albeit intermittently consuming—simply not….
The ghostly man of letters I see Vidal fleshing out for us was born in the eighteenth century—think of Voltaire's thin, sneering smile—and he has survived numberless corruptions and transformations on his way to the "David Susskind Show." But he is always political; he is, in fact, usually a politician manqué….
And so Vidal became an unconventional politician in the republic of letters: novelist, playwright, scenarist, television playwright, essayist, and talk-show pundit supreme. He also became—to modify Edmund Wilson's crowning touch on W. H. Auden—"one of the great American men of the world." Worldliness. Is there any American anywhere more worldly than Gore Vidal?… Though not always the most attractive of characteristics, worldliness is—short of being possessed by a great idea—perhaps the best possible perspective for the critical mind ("I was born to be a critic"), and Vidal is one of the most superbly deflationary and entertaining (if not completely persuasive) critics I know.
The man of letters I'm thinking of sees himself as the Ideal Citizen, speaking out of his imagined place in the dead center of society ("I still see America as my turf and a country continually in need of my ministrations"). He addresses neither himself nor the angels of transcendence, but the plain old, faintly simple-minded body politic. The prime virtue for such a man is not passion but articulation. "Writing, for me," says Vidal, "is almost entirely a matter of making sense." He seems to have no interest at all in blowing the mind anywhere…. Vidal talks straight. For all his reputation for glacial, unapproachable archness, his are the simple virtues. Be clear. Think carefully. Talk about something important. Do not be a bore….
In both his essays and novels, Vidal functions best as an acid and urbane witness. His eye alternates between being a very cold eye and a very evil eye—God knows he can turn a phrase like a knife in the heart—but it is never a dazzled eye (bedazzlement is not quite worldly enough), and consequently what he says is almost never dazzling…. The pleasures [I experience with Vidal's fiction are] … the joys of style, the engrossment of argument, the fascination of evil, and, at its best, the pleasure of being hit square between the eyes. Bull's-eye.
These are the joys of connoisseurship, rather than of intellectual—well—adventure. In his criticism, advancing his various causes (repeal of the sex laws, legalization of drugs and making addiction a strictly medical matter, political attacks and exposés, the concern for the environment and overpopulation), Vidal's ideas are—like those of even the best politicians—never original or, for that matter, even all that unusual. (One peculiar result, for me, is that his works turn out almost always to be more interesting than they promise to be at first blush.) But not even Camus was original: The fact is that the role of the man of letters is simply not big enough to accommodate a really powerful new idea. The role consists in lucidly defending intelligence and quality, drawing distinctions, and scourging the bogus and corrupt—at which Vidal has no peer: Contempt could be his middle name. This is usually done in the name of values that—like the rest of the writing—are very clear, finally simple.
But a worldly connoisseurship also tends to suggest decadence: And, indeed, there is a Vidal the good and a Vidal the bad. In Vidal the bad, the Ideal Citizen gives way to the author of Julian, prestidigitator of depravity. He becomes the author of Myra Breckenridge, that comedy of sexual degradation that suggests nothing so much as a buffo unconscious recapitulation of Les Liaisons dangereuses, possibly the most evil masterpiece of all literature.
Then Vidal the good turns around—well, he is never very, very good—and startles the sophisticates with something like this:
To read of Eleanor and Franklin is to weep for what we have lost. Gone is the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right with human action…. Whether or not one thought of Eleanor Roosevelt as a world ombudsman or as a chronic explainer or as a scourge of the selfish, she was like no one else in her usefulness. As the box containing her went past me, I thought, well, that's that. We're really on our own now.
Somewhere in Vidal's mind there is an ever more improbable convocation of superior people—highly intelligent, incorruptible, at once serious and wordly, philosophical and practical—whose duty it is to make egalitarian democracy the social condition of this land, to fulfill the eighteenth-century promise of a republic of the just, a promise that really was a great experiment, which has in turn become a great tradition, which in turn the little foxes have systematically and all but completely destroyed.
Stephen Koch, "Gore Vidal: Urbane Witness to History," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 18, 1973, pp. 24-9.
Wit and intelligence can disinfect almost anything. It is such a relief … to come across a book which deals with decadent material in a sparkling, ironical way. If it is true that an important part of American culture has gone straight from provincial primitivism to metropolitan decadence, then [Myra Breckenridge] stands in more or less the same relation to the decadence as Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses to the gameyness of late 18th-century French society. It is both part of the phenomenon it describes and a marvellously spirited comment on it….
Most pornographic or erotic works are depressingly simple; but one of the charms of this book is the difficulty of deciding whether it is a pure spoof, written for the fun and the money, or a spoof with a core of genuineness.
John Weightman, "Myth of the Butch Bitch," in his The Concept of the Avant-Garde: Explorations in Modernism, Alcove, 1973, pp. 281-84.
Given the circumstances of the nation's inception it is not surprising, Vidal suggests, that American mythology has chosen to sanctify a social-climbing, power-hungry bastard from the West Indies like Alexander Hamilton, and a slave-owning, megalomaniacal satrap like Thomas Jefferson, while writing off a man of genuine greatness like Aaron Burr as an adventurer and a scoundrel. For Burr was a man of moral imagination and intelligence far too refined and subtle for the American herd, which has always been inhospitable to greatness of every sort, and tended to idolize all that is small and vulgar. He was, in short, much the kind of man that Gore Vidal takes himself to be, one of the "host of choice spirits" forced to live among coarse, materialistic, and hypocritical people who remain callously indifferent to the moral instruction he offers them.
While many individual episodes in Burr are entertaining in themselves, the plotting tends to sluggishness; the book's separate story lines and sections never achieve the structural coherence necessary to sustain a work as large as this. As the narrative moves forward, we are always conscious of the very thing good novels make us forget, that the whole business is a contrivance. The book, moreover, is written in a curious "period" language that is probably supposed to promote historical verisimilitude, but a great deal of both the dialogue and the narration is simply stiff or grandiloquent. The transitions between Burr's sections and Schuyler's eventually come to seem wooden and obviously schematic; the momentum built up in any single segment stops abruptly at its close; and the effect is that while the novel is technically well-organized, its spirit is static and crude.
The flaws in Burr's architecture are serious, but its fatal shortcoming is the attempt to fob off its simplistic and polemical obsessions about America as "themes," and its carefully positioned strawmen as "characters." This is a book written in the interest of debunking some myths about the nature of the American experiment and its primary energy derives from the ironic juxtaposition of "reality," as represented in Burr's supposed truthtelling, and the "ideal," or all those casually accepted conventional notions of American history that the reader theoretically brings with him. The strategy works for a while, but it soon becomes apparent that all the events, all the observations, all the interactions among the characters make, essentially, variations on the same small point. What at first passes for naughty iconoclasm eventually becomes predictable and tedious; there is only so much shock value to be derived from learning that George Washington had carbuncles, or that Thomas Jefferson repeated himself tiresomely in conversation.
Jane Larkin Crain, "Above the Herd" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, March, 1974, pp. 76-8.
I suppose that to write an historical novel is the kind of temptation it was, once, to compose an oratorio. It is a solid task to apply yourself to; it lends respectability; and it gives a chance to preach, which is a natural desire. Of course, Gore Vidal has often preached already in his essays—preached a sort of patriotic gloom, not so much unlike Edmund Wilson's…. [In] the same spirit, he has written a novel about Aaron Burr, who (as, according to Vidal, every American schoolboy does not know) tied with Jefferson for the Presidency in 1800, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was eventually tried for plotting to dismember the Union….
However, though Gore Vidal preaches, he also wants to entertain, and here trouble arises. For, if his homily is to have its full effect, we must expect honest republican integrity in him as an artist, and we do not always get it. To put it bluntly, he cheats—as most historical novelists do, blithely or shamefacedly, consciously or unconsciously. (It is what makes it a bothersome genre.) His way of cheating is to make Burr a 20th-century-style novelist, closely resembling Gore Vidal….
Aaron Burr could never have spoken or written in [the style Vidal attributes to him], not having had the advantage of studying Conrad or Graham Greene. This, for good or evil, is the prose of 20th-century fiction…. Vidal is at some pains to give Burr, and his [fictional] biographer, 'period' speech-habits, providing Burr with a terse, sub-Voltairean wit. And elsewhere again, he provides prose which contains no anachronism in the choice of words but is a total anachronism in the way they are put together….
The truth is, Vidal is not interested in making and observing rules for himself, in this matter of 'period' style. His only rule is convenience. If his 'Regency' standard-lamp actually suggests the Regency to his client, so much the better, but the main thing is that it should work. To have written about the Washington of the Kennedys seems to him a good motive for now writing about Washington's Washington—as in a way it is—and he will cut as many corners as need be to bring his special expertise to bear. With some success, I think. At moments, Washington and Hamilton and Van Buren are brought up close to our faces as if at a party or on a television screen, in a way that is outside the scope of history-books. In this novel, for the first time, Washington in particular became real to me, with his unready speech and cold serpent-like eye.
All the same, probity and Jamesian scruple in artistic method are not lightly neglected. What is lost by neglecting them may be not some pedantic accuracy but life itself; and I do think that Vidal, in manipulating Burr so much to his own convenience, loses some of the life of his hero. Burr, when in exile, kept a private journal for his daughter, and the contrast with Burr is striking. Here, indisputably, is a living man; and, by contrast, Vidal's Burr seems all in an attitude, a machine for manufacturing epigrams and Voltairean ironies. Indeed, they seem rather different persons.
P. N. Furbank, "Gore Vidal's Voltairean Gentleman," in The Listener, March 21, 1974, p. 372.
Williwaw … by Gore Vidal was not the Great American World War II Novel. But it was something else. It was an almost classically perfect first novel. Perfect, at least, for a young man embarking upon a career in what is called (around the bar at Elaine's in New York anyway), "Serious Lit." It was short. It was modest. It was tidy. It was impeccably written in a naturalistic style well suited to the times. But it had something else too.
Reading it, you got the sense that (a little portentous musical underscoring, please) the author knew exactly what he was doing! Not for him the passionate … tell it all! tell it all! … first-novel-outpouring that can frequently catapult the writer to instant Fame and Fortune and afterwards, when the passion is spent, and his greying hair spills across the pillow in the moonlight, to a lifetime of trying to figure out how he did it that one time so long ago but can't seem to be able to do it no more baby blues.
Wisely, Mr. Vidal did not, and had no intention of, shooting his bolt the first time out….
Mr. Vidal is too serious a man ever to permit himself to be caught being "serious." It is his pleasant custom to conceal his seriousness beneath a gift-wrapping of savage wit. Some years ago (much impressed by his photograph and his name) I produced a play of his in which a visitor from outer space in a polite, if somewhat patronising attempt to make small talk with his primitive hosts cheerfully remarked, "Isn't hydrogen fun?"! Mr. Vidal comes to us from an intelligence operating in another system. Mr. Aaron Burr came to the simple folk of the nineteenth century in much the same way.
It is Mr. Vidal's pleasure to use Burr as a rear view mirror into history. Mr. Vidal's sort of history. In it, George Washington appears as an inarticulate Eisenhower. Jefferson, who is said by many to be the author of the Constitution of the United States, is shown to be, through Burr's eyes, but vaguely literate.
And then Mr. Vidal comes up with a master stroke of the novelists' art. Cumbersome though it may seem, he employs the use of a fictitious first person narrator who is ostensibly engaged in assisting the ageing Burr in the preparation of his memoirs. Crafty Mr. Vidal! He gets to say any damned thing he wants about American history, not once but twice removed.
The central event of Burr's life was, very probably, the duel with Hamilton. There is no way that Mr. Vidal, as Mr. Vidal, could have made this well-known footnote to American history either new or dramatically workable. Even Burr, recounting his version in first person narrative, could not have been as effective as the tour de force which Gore brings off by (and I know this sounds ridiculous) having Burr re-enact the shooting for the benefit of the narrator, playing both parts himself.
Burr has been, for endless weeks, at the top of the American best seller list. There are excellent reasons for this. It is allegedly about 'American history', and therefore a safe book. It makes an excellent gift.
George Axelrod, "George Axelrod on Gore, a Novelette Without Parts," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 23, 1974, pp. 362-63.
After hearing Gore Vidal rationalise a career in which literary success has only been achieved at the expense of political ambition, the whimsical thought occurred to me that his parents must have made the same mistake as the Sleeping Beauty's: they left one old fairy off the guest list at his birth, and, true to form, she revenged herself in a peculiarly spiteful way. Having seen her colleagues bestow upon the baby boy every gift that a future politician could desire, including the most highly prized of all in our post-Gutenburg age, a natural aptitude for Television, the vindictive sprite trumped them by decreeing that he should also possess the one quality that is incompatible with political office of any sort: a writer's concern for the truth. So the very real chance Mr Vidal might have had of becoming President—'the unfinished business of my life' he calls it—was scuppered from the start, although it was not until he began to write The City and the Pillar, twenty-one years later, that the penny finally dropped.
Still, America's loss has been the English-speaking peoples' gain. Had Gore Vidal contrived the hold he sought upon the slippery pole, we should be the poorer for a huge body of work that includes at least a half a dozen fine novels and three entertaining and informative plays. More importantly, perhaps, for Anglo-American letters, the sadly-neglected art of the essay would lack one of its few modern champions, a cool, witty stylist whose prose is informed by Shavian verdicts like this one, on President Nixon's choice as Ambassador to the Court of St. James's: 'Had he not been born with money he might have found a happy niche for himself as a sales manager in some small firm where his crudeness and lack of civilisation would have been a virtue.' Clearly, Mr Vidal has a rather different set of values from the man who at present orders his country's affairs; values consistent with a background which, by any standards, was cultivated, worldly and very well connected.
Michael Barber, "Crusader Against Cant," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1974, pp. 65-9.
For nearly thirty years Gore Vidal has been publicly struggling with the two-headed monster of Lust. One of its heads is Power, the other is Sex. Vidal's Herculean struggle is not raw and sweaty, like Norman Mailer's. The wily Vidal, greased with urbane ambiguities, slips more smoothly from the monster's strangling grasp. Unfortunately (though perhaps fortunately for literature), the grease works both ways and the monster slips from the hero's grasp, too. Thus the struggle goes on and on, through the several million words of Vidal's thirteen novels and scores of plays, stories, essays and TV appearances.
Vidal's first novel, Williwaw (1946), is the least typical; the last, Burr, is the most mellow. By now the struggle seems more a game, a parody, a treacherously amusing pastime….
The ambivalences of a writer are the most exquisite, for words are both substitutes for, and prods to (or even forms of) action. In the paradoxical power of words—those vicars of the gods, those angel javelins which have only as much power as there is belief—lies both redemption and corruption. While Vidal as an avowed atheist can hardly qualify as vicar of the Judeo-Christian Lord, he takes vicarious pleasure as restorer of the pagan gods, prophesying doom and castigating Christians (often for not being better ones!). Ostensibly down on Christianity and Puritanism—despite his Episcopalian upbringing—he is up on the Greek gods and Roman conquerors whose myths and fables fed his youth. But even at his most Dionysian, there is an evangelical fervor to his scathing pronouncements on the Galileans (as the Christians are called) of Julian, and on the "romantic-puritans" of our time who turn book reviewing into "pulpiteering."…
One can sympathize with Vidal's impatient attitude to the sloppy and transient sentiment that is often characterized as love; but without its aspects of empathy, the lusting after sex and power throughout his novels renders his characters ignoble, trivial, destructive, tragic, or (most outrageously in Myra Breckinridge) ludicrous. That they are all these as well as "stupid" is, apparently, what he has to say about their lustings, those commitments without compassion. But it is when empathy—implied mostly by its absence—is sought more explicitly that the earlier promises of a seriously engaged writer, a "great novelist," seem on the point of being realized, and fail. While Vidal's politics as expressed in both essays and novels is Socialist-humanist, it is accompanied by a bloodlessness, a defensive aloofness, lacking in the empathy of love. The fusion of sexes heralded in Myra Breckenridge, the bisexuality and androgyny to which Vidal has long given lip service, may also be taken as a metaphor for that mysterious mixture of lust and love, of assertion and compassion, which Vidal has not yet grasped or portrayed. Self-sufficient as the androgynous state may appear, and impossible as it is to achieve, its pursuit also suggests, at its fullest, an engagement of feeling that Vidal has so far not seemed willing to make. It is this elusiveness that makes his grappling with the two-headed monster, while entertaining, not entirely serious.
Ann Morrissett Davidon, "Gore Vidal and the Two-Headed Monster," in The Nation, May 25, 1974, pp. 661-62.
Telling the reading public that homosexuality is a recurrent theme in Vidal's fiction is almost like explaining to musicologists that the leitmotif is Richard Wagner's trademark. (p. 21)
Except for a few poetic passages in The City and the Pillar, Vidal has never approached homosexuality with either Genêt's lyrical rapture or Gide's silken diabolism. It is calculated barter where the language of exchange does not even require a translator's ear for idiom. Only to adolescents, thrown into each other's arms from fear of estrangement, is Vidal sympathetic; it is assumed that consenting adults are beyond pathos. (p. 27)
Now it is difficult to think of The City and the Pillar in terms of degeneration of any sort…. The City and the Pillar with its once-subtle distinctions between shrill transvestites and manly lovers, sentimental queens and introspective dreamers, is no longer the Baedeker for anyone journeying through the circles of the gay inferno. Vidal simply charted the terrain which others have apportioned. (p. 30)
If The City and the Pillar were merely the father of contemporary homosexual fiction, one should only accord it the homage patriarchs usually receive—a quick nod or a hasty genuflection. But within the Vidal canon it occupies a more significant position: The City and the Pillar reworks material from Williwaw and In a Yellow Wood into the myth of natural man as the original homo-erotic. In homosexuality, Vidal discovered a crucible that could melt down his first two novels to their components—sexual rivalry and the lost boyhood dream…. A homosexual sensibility was completely absent from both novels; yet their themes—a rivalry between males that reduces the contestants to epicene tormenters, a friendship that ends when paths no longer converge—could easily form the basis of a homosexual novel if they were united as cause and effect.
But if, as Leslie Fiedler argued in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), there is constant ritual warfare between the female as the dark intruder and the male as the fair defender of a sacred boyhood, then there is an even closer connection between a brawl over a bedmate and the termination of a friendship. In The City and the Pillar, Vidal restored these motifs to their original form, where they were part of a homoerotic paradise myth—an all-male Eden that ripens with purity and rots with experience.
In his depiction of this paradise before and after the fall, Vidal uses—and explodes—Mark Twain's symbols of the Mississippi boyhood: the cabin, the enchanted woods, the brown river, the barefoot boys defying mortality, and civilization as the meddling female. It is almost as if Vidal set out to write an anti-Huckleberry Finn merely to prove what Judge Brack said at the end of Hedda Gabler: "People don't do things like that!" (pp. 31-2)
In the essay, Fiedler alluded to "a recent book" of Vidal's where "an incipient homosexual, not yet aware of the implications of his feelings, indulges in the apt reverie of running off to sea with his dearest friend"….
Melville, Cooper, and Twain projected the popular concept of male friendship in its purest form; but it was a dream that could only exist in a Neverland that was pastoral enough to unsex the youths who romped through it. Admit a woman to the sylvan paradise and the cool form of boyhood begins to glower; remove the Arcadian illusion and the form becomes flesh.
In The City and the Pillar,… Jim and Bob are the Good Bad Boys demythologized who cannot endure the limits of the classic American friendship. (pp. 32-3)
[Today] The City and the Pillar is important as a mythic novel, not a homosexual one. (p. 38)
The City and the Pillar did prove that anyone who could crack the surface of Huck Finn and The Last of the Mohicans would eventually discover original sin. Vidal concluded it came into being when a pair of rebellious lads secularized the sacred rites of boyhood by enacting the forbidden parts of the rubrics. Read in the light of Love and Death in the American Novel, The City and the Pillar contains many of the recurrent themes Fiedler detected in Melville, Cooper, and Twain—the boyhood idyll, the intrusive woman, the miraculous sea, Cooper's redskin brother-surrogate for the white male in the guise of the red-haired Bob Ford, the lost frontier friendship. The City and the Pillar is the American wilderness novel demythologized; or rather it exposes the awesome truth the myth concealed. (p. 39)
In the opening pages of Myra [Breckenridge,] Vidal has made clear to those who have read Sartre and Robbe-Grillet (that blessed minority) exactly what he is doing. The novel is a joke, a literary and even an academic one. The recording of banality has become the apotheosis of banality, a characteristic of both the New Novel and the films of the forties….
Myra is also a parody of literature, showing the nadir to which art can plunge when it abandons its canons. (pp. 152-53)
To anyone who respects symmetrical prose and subtle argumentation, Vidal's essays are nonpareil. Yet the essays exist in collections; while they are excerptable and eminently teachable as models of an all-but-abandoned-art, they do not add up to a full-scale work of nonfiction. (p. 192)
When it comes to fiction, Vidal is a classicist; his novels are as plot-centered as Aristotle would want them to be—traditional, often intricate, but rarely innovative. It is his classicism, not his expatriation or even his charmed life, that sets him apart from his contemporaries….
While his colleagues were innovating, bleeding over Vietnam, discovering entropy, and going with the flow, Vidal went about his business writing fiction with the proverbial beginning-middle-end, preferring to address himself to current affairs in his essays and quadrennial plays. Vidal the essayist faces the present, but Vidal the novelist looks to the past. The fact that Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) appeared in the same year as Washington, D.C. not only crystallizes the difference between these two literary rivals but also explains why Mailer has become the voice of his generation while Vidal has become its mocking persona. Even Myra, which supposedly reflected the sexual freedom of the sixties, had more in common with the Age of Petronius than it did with the Age of Aquarius. (pp. 193-94)
Vidal has not published enough verse or short stories to qualify either as a poet or as a short story writer. But he has perfected his own brand of fiction—the literary novel with echoes from Crane, Melville, Twain, Cooper, the eighteenth-century Bildungsroman, futuristic fiction, the Satyricon, Nausea, the New Novel, and even the films of the forties now studied on the campus as "documents of the age." Despite his dislike for the theatre, Visit to a Small Planet (which has been anthologized in college readers) and The Best Man are extremely well-crafted. Technically, they are melodramas in Lillian Hellman's careful definition of the term—tautly constructed plays relying on conventions (sudden disclosures, chance occurrences) which naturalistic drama avoids but which can be valid if the tricks never become ends in themselves. (pp. 195-96)
Bernard F. Dick, in his The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal (copyright © 1974 by Bernard F. Dick; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1974.