Gore Vidal 1925-
(Full name Eugene Luther Gore Vidal; has also written under pseudonym Edgar Box) American novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Vidal's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 22, 33, and 72.
An astute chronicler and audacious critic of American society, Vidal's idiosyncratic voice and persona have enlivened American intellectual life for decades. Highly regarded as a master essayist and historical novelist, Vidal is unsurpassed at the elegant but devastating put-down, witty in the way of Voltaire and Oscar Wilde. Indisputably he is considered an American original, born to wealth and privilege yet democratic to the core. The satirical Myra Breckenridge (1968), his series of “Narratives of Empire” novels, particularly Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), and his many volumes of essays explore every facet of political life and thought and American social mores in the last half of the twentieth century.
Born in West Point, New York, in 1925, Vidal spent his childhood and adolescence in the midst of powerful and influential people. His father Eugene Vidal, an instructor at the United States Military Academy, worked in the Roosevelt administration. With Amelia Earhart, he founded three airlines: Eastern, TWA, and Northeast. Vidal was fond of his father but felt deep resentment toward his mother, Nina Gore Vidal. Until he was ten years old, Vidal and his parents lived in Washington, D.C., with his grandfather Thomas P. Gore, a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. His grammar school education took place at St. Alban's, where he met the boy he considered the great love of his life, Jimmy Trimble, who was later killed at Iwo Jima during World War II. In 1935 his parents were divorced, and his mother married Hugh D. Auchincloss, the future stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy. Vidal lived at Auchincloss's Potomac estate until 1941, when his mother and Auchincloss separated. Before Vidal graduated from Philips Exeter Academy in 1943, he shortened his first name to Gore in honor of his grandfather, the person most responsible for giving him a sense of family and stability. Senator Gore's political ideology significantly influenced Vidal; while a student at Philips Exeter, he ascribed to the America First philosophy of his grandfather and always considered himself a populist despite his patrician background. Vidal enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1943 and trained as an engineer, ultimately serving as a warrant officer aboard a ship guarding the Aleutian Islands. From this experience came his first novel, Williwaw (1946), followed by In a Yellow Wood (1947), and The City and the Pillar (1948), which earned him notoriety for its description of homosexual love. Determined to earn his living as a writer, Vidal wrote several mysteries under a pseudonym and also began writing screenplays. In fact, Vidal played a prominent role in early television, adapting works or writing his own for classic dramatic series of the 1950s like Studio One. He also wrote the screenplays for several major motion pictures. In 1955 he was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America for television drama. Visit to a Small Planet (1957), a work written for television, was aired frequently for many years and later became a successful Broadway play. His screenplay The Best Man (1960) won the Cannes Critics Prize. Always interested in politics, Vidal was a Democratic Party candidate for Congress in New York in 1960 and ran for the Democratic nomination to the Senate in California in 1982. While he never won election to a political office, his writings reveal his ardent interest in the world of politics. His novel Creation (1981) won the Prix Deauville in 1983, and two volumes of his essays, The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (1982) and United States (1993) won, respectively, the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and the National Book Award for nonfiction. Vidal continues to write prolifically and still lectures and appears periodically on television and radio talk shows. He and his long-time companion, Harold Austen, reside in Ravello, Italy.
Vidal has produced important literary works for more than half a century, but the seven novels that comprise his “Narratives of Empire” series, formerly known as the “American Chronicle,” and his most recent novels and essays merit particular attention. Unlike writers who reflect personal transformation through their work, Vidal's themes and interests have remained remarkably consistent throughout his long career. Inculcated with a profound sense of noblesse oblige, Vidal exhibits the greatest sense of duty to the American Republic and wants to assure its existence, yet he paradoxically has no tolerance for people who do not share his views, and they are regularly disparaged in his writings. Though noted as a gay writer, his insistence on the existence only of sexual acts, not sexual identities, continues unchanged and can be detected in many of his works. This is particularly evident in Myra Breckenridge, an outrageous satire of gender identity and graphic sexuality that features a transsexual film buff. Vidal remains convinced of the evils that spring from monotheism and of the growth of a national security state that takes personal liberties away from individuals and interferes in the affairs of other countries to the detriment of all. Finally, in many of his works, Vidal devises an elegiac subtext for a rich literary culture that has been replaced by visual media and an obsession with celebrities and an attendant hollow lifestyle. Repeatedly, he announces the death of the novel and criticizes academic English departments for focusing on theories rather than on the words of the text.
The “Narratives of Empire” novels show two centuries of the Republic through the eyes of the fictional Sanford family, illegitimate descendants of Aaron Burr. The purpose of the septet is to argue that like ancient Rome, the United States has degenerated since its inception from republican ideals into imperial corruption. Chronologically the sixth work in the series, Washington, D.C. (1967) was the first to appear and covers the years 1939-1952. The next work, Burr, marks the beginning of the series and tells the story of the young republic. The novel 1876 (1976) relates political events and situations redolent of the political climate that surrounded the President Nixon and President Ford administrations, while Lincoln explores the psyche of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Empire (1987) looks critically at the efforts of the United States to assert an imperial persona in the years subsequent to the Spanish-American War. Hollywood (1990) explores the role movies play in influencing the public to adopt desired certain points of view. The Golden Age (2000), the seventh volume in the series, takes another look at the period between 1939-1952. The final chapter, a televised conversation between Peter, a character in the novel, and Vidal himself, looks back at the American century and the progress of the Republic. Like his much earlier Myra Breckenridge, Live from Golgotha (1992) lampoons American popular culture. In the latter novel, a computer hacker, later revealed to be Jesus, installs a virus that begins erasing from all memory, both human and divine, the story of the Christian gospels. The narrator Timothy is charged with reconstructing the events surrounding the Crucifixion. Through various miracles of technology, television crews find themselves back in Pilate's court, and Timothy is bombarded with requests from various quarters to rewrite the original events to satisfy special interests. Vidal's abiding interest in ancient religious beliefs is also evident in early novels such as The Judgement of Paris (1952), a modern revision of Greek myth; Julian (1964), which presents a sympathetic portrait of Julian the Apostate, a fourth-century pagan Roman emperor who renounced Christianity; and Creation (1981), which probes, through the fictive memoir of a fifth-century BC ambassador, the creation myths of ancient civilizations in Greece, Persia, India, and China. The plot of The Smithsonian Institution (1998) hinges on a time machine that enables a teenager to travel into the past with the purpose of altering it, so as to prevent the U.S. engagement in World War I.
Two of Vidal's recent books are memoirs. In Screening History (1992), a collection of essays originally presented as lectures at Harvard, Vidal fondly remembers his own experience of various films and actors while questioning the pervasive influence cinema has had on literature. Palimpsest (1995), a more substantial work, is a memoir that covers Vidal's first thirty-nine years. From birth Vidal enjoyed connections to many famous people. He writes of them here, taking relentlessly cynical jabs at the famous, while always unabashedly selling himself. Vidal has continued to produce collections of essays at a prodigious rate. A View from the Diner's Club (1991) is a volume in two parts. Part I is a book chat, used to rescue certain overlooked authors from obscurity and to interest the public in well-known authors who have fallen from favor. Part II contains political essays that rail against various efforts of the state to extend and impose its power over individuals. United States, a collection of essays written from 1952 to 1992, is also divided into sections: “State of the Art” consists of essays about books and their authors; “State of the Union” compiles political essays; and “State of Being” offers personal essays, written in response to various people and events through the years. Vidal has also published the essay collections The American Presidency (1998), Gore Vidal Sexually Speaking (1999), and a minor collection, Virgin Islands (1998), in which John Updike and President Clinton are targets of the author's stiletto.
Vidal's formidable literary accomplishments have established him as a preeminent American author. While he won instant fame with Williwaw, which received excellent reviews upon its 1946 publication, The City and the Pillar—recognized as one of the first American works of literature to portray homosexuality and bisexuality as normal, valid sexual activities—established Vidal as a pioneering gay writer, a distinction that resulted in stigma. For years afterward, the New York Times refused to review his work. Vidal's groundbreaking novel later gained appreciation, enhanced by the success of his gender-bending Myra Breckinridge, a ludic novel that some consider a masterpiece of spoof and scatological satire. His reputation as a brilliant social critic and incorrigible gadfly was further enhanced by his large and diverse body of work. Most critics agree, however, that he is consistently at his best as an essayist. Yet his historical novels are regarded as among the most meticulously researched and supremely entertaining ever written. In particular, his “Narratives of Empire” novels are recognized for having redefined the genre, and his novels of camp sensibility, especially Myra Breckinridge, set the standard for such works. During the 1990s, Vidal continued to win praise for his essays, particularly those collected in United States. However, his novels of that decade did not fare as well. Live from Golgotha, for example, garnered mixed reviews, praised as wholly original by some and labeled blasphemous and too inane to be anything beyond impious by others. Even worse, The Smithsonian Institution was nearly uniformly panned. It may be said that Vidal's achievements are sometimes underestimated because of the variety of his accomplishments, his failure to focus on a single genre, and his celebrated feuds with other writers of his generation. Whether or not critics agree with his point of view, his works are praised for their classic style, elegant tone, originality, and biting wit.