Gore Vidal Vidal, Gore (Vol. 142) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Williwaw (novel) 1946

In a Yellow Wood (novel) 1947

The City and the Pillar [revised edition, 1965] (novel) 1948

The Season of Comfort (novel) 1949

A Search for the King: A Twelfth-Century Legend (novel) 1950

Death in the Fifth Position [as Edgar Box] (novel) 1952

The Judgement of Paris [revised edition, 1965] (novel) 1952

Death Before Bedtime [as Edgar Box] (novel) 1953

Death Likes it Hot [as Edgar Box] (novel) 1954

Messiah [revised edition, 1965] (novel) 1954


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Carolyn See (review date 14 January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gore Vidal and the Screening of America,” in Washington Post Book World, January 14, 1990, pp. 1-2.

[In the following review, See offers a positive assessment of Hollywood.]

Someone has said that when you put the events leading up to World War I into a computer they do not “compute” into a war: The situation was too farfetched; the mindset, too irrational. In Hollywood, the newest volume in Gore Vidal’s American chronicle, the author attempts to place this debacle within its “American” context, and also—as a kind of glorified subplot—to record the shifting and changing of power within the United States from Washington, D.C., to...

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Richard Reeves (review date 18 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Politics Is—Surprise!—Show Biz,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 18, 1990, p. 4.

[In the following review, Reeves offers a generally positive assessment of Hollywood, though he argues that Vidal's observations about the relationship between Washington and Hollywood are not particularly original.]

I was in my 40s, living in Paris, when I tried my hand at writing a novel. For a long time I figured that one day the most important of reportorial assets, my legs, would go, and I’d have to find work I could do without leaving the house—preferably a house in the South of France, or Big Sur, or Ravello, where Gore Vidal lives above the...

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Catharine R. Stimpson (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “My O My O Myra,” in New England Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 102-15.

[In the following essay, Stimpson examines the archetypal themes and power dynamics of sexuality and gender identity in Myra Breckenridge and Myron, drawing attention to the function of these motifs in Vidal's critique of modern culture.]

My o my o Myra, my o my o Myron. Myra rides and Myron clowns through Myra Breckenridge and Myron, Gore Vidal’s wild, steely, and amazing rodeos of the word.1 Vidal has coupled Myra and Myron as tightly as Jack and Jill, then filled their names to the rim and brimmed them with meanings. Surely Myra, my...

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Hilary Mantel (review date 16 November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “How Pleasant To Be Enraged,” in The Spectator, November 16, 1991, pp. 42-3.

[In the following review, Mantel offers a positive evaluation of A View from the Diner's Club.]

In 1976, Gore Vidal tells us in his preface, he received a telegram congratulating him on his election to the Institute of Art and Letters. He telegraphed back that he could not accept because ‘I was already a member of the Diner's Club.’ This must be what in America passes for a joke. John Cheever didn’t see it. ‘It sounds so coarse,’ he complained. ‘Why couldn’t you have said Carte Blanche?’

The first part of this new book of essays [A View from the...

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Mary Lefkowitz (review date 6 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tiresias' Truths,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 1991, p. 7.

[In the following review of A View from the Diner’s Club, Lefkowitz commends Vidal's “pronouncements on politics and life,” though finds his literary criticism less interesting.]

The curious title of this book [A View from the Diner's Club] is emblematic, but not of its contents. It expresses Vidal’s attitude toward the elite literary world where one would naturally have placed him, had he not warned us by the title that he wanted none of it (or us). Vidal explains that in 1976 he could not accept the honour of election to the (American) National Institute of...

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John Rechy (review date 13 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “TV Stations of the Cross,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 13, 1992, pp. 2, 9.

[In the following review of Live from Golgotha, Rechy finds Vidal's satire “splendid” at best and “self-indulgent” at worst.]

If God exists and Jesus is His son, then Gore Vidal is going to hell. And if God is a Jew, Vidal is no better off. There’s enough to outrage everyone in this audacious and courageous send-up of “the story of Our Lord Jesus Christ as told in the three synoptic gospels as well as by that creep John” and by St. Paul in the epistles to St. Timothy. Since super-wit Vidal, astute chronicler and commentator of American mores, has...

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Andrew Greeley (review date 20 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Is Nothing Sacred?,” in Washington Post Book World, September 20, 1992, p. 2.

[In the following review, Greeley concludes that Live from Golgotha is a patently blasphemous book that will not appeal to faithful readers.]

Congressman Newt Gingrich did not notably weaken the Democratic ticket, it would seem, by his suggestion that the Democrats are to blame for l’affaire Woody Allen. But he and his colleagues Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm might be able to make something more out of the charge that the Democrats are responsible for Gore Vidal. Woody Allen is guilty only of what might be called quasi-incest and quasi-infidelity in a...

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Eric Korn (review date 2 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Meddling with Sacred History,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 2, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Korn offers a mixed assessment of Live from Golgotha, which he finds to be both “savvy” and tiresome.]

He weighs more than a Japanese wrestler, more than Orson Welles even. You can’t turn that mass of blubber into a part of the Trinity when he is larger than the whole Trinity put together. The image for us of a fat Jesus is simply catastrophic, particularly now that the Polish Pope is making so many converts in the third world, where people are starving to death, and what do we have to offer them? The fattest god in...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 5 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ecce Homo,” in The New Republic, October 5, 1992, pp. 36-7.

[In the following review, Kazin offers unfavorable assessments of Live from Golgotha and The Decline and Fall of the American Empire. While conceding small “pleasure” in reading Screening History, Kazin objects to Vidal's view of history and his abrasive tone.]

“American life for the writer is so desperate that it has driven Gore Vidal to live abroad.”

—Erica Jong, The New York Observer, June 29, 1990

One night in Rome, in 1975, the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini told me that Gore Vidal...

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Caroline Moore (review date 10 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “When the Saints Go Marching In Again,” in The Spectator, October 10, 1992, pp. 32-3.

[In the following review of Live from Golgotha, Moore concludes that the novel reveals “surprising comic energy” despite its “silly” premise and “puerile” humor.]

Live from Golgotha is like an amalgam of Life of Brian with Star Trek—one of those ‘time-warp’ episodes when characters keep bumping into their past and future selves, and their mission (usually to save the Universe, or prevent History from being rewritten) keeps getting bogged down by the scriptwriters’ need to decide and explain quite what physical and temporal...

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Douglas Kennedy (review date 6 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Further Revelations,” in New Statesman & Society, November 6, 1992, p. 50.

[In the following review, Kennedy offers a positive assessment of Live from Golgotha.]

When George Bush finally achieved his patrician ambition and negative-campaigned his way into the Oval Office in 1988, many old-school members of the Republican Party breathed a sigh of relief. For they wrongfully believed that—after eight years of Ronnie’s down-home jingoism—the arrival of the ultimate New England blue-blood meant that the party would once more return to its just-right-of-centre laissez-faire roots—or what can best be described as Social Darwinism in a Brooks...

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Irving Malin (review date 6 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Fiendish Gospel,” in Commonweal, November 6, 1992, pp. 38-9.

[In the following review, Malin offers a favorable evaluation of Live from Golgotha. Malin concludes that “Vidal's provocative, distasteful novel is, perhaps, one of his most sustained meditations on the nature of things.”]

Gore Vidal has always been interested in performance and duplicity. He has, indeed, played many roles: the nineteen-year-old wunderkind of Williwaw; the sage of the inner workings of the government; the lucid, aristocratic visitor from Rome who appears often on television to attack the medium and American technology in general. If we assume that...

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Gilbert Adair (review date 28 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Everlasting Watch, But Movieless,” in The Spectator, November 28, 1992, p. 49.

[In the following review, Adair offers unfavorable assessment of Screening History, which he describes as “a rambling, inconsequential book that fails absolutely to do justice to its title.”]

The very first, mock-solemn sentence of Screening History unfurls in front of the reader’s eyes like a tiny red carpet, one that is then pulled out gently from beneath him:

As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.


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Diane Johnson (review date 8 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Star,” in New York Review of Books, April 8, 1993, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Johnson discusses Vidal's critical reception and public persona, his interest in film as presented in Screening History, and his attack on monotheism in Live from Golgotha.]

For his delightful, rather reticent memoir Screening History, Gore Vidal apologizes that he has at last succumbed to “the American writer’s disease, the celebration if not of self, of the facts of one’s own sacred story.” He has “always been able to imagine what it is like to be someone else, but now I begin to wonder what it is like to be me, a figure that keeps cropping up...

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Jonathan Raban (review date 23 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bolts from Mt. Olympus,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 23, 1993, pp. 1, 7.

[In the following review, Raban offers a positive assessment of Vidal's essay collection United States.]

Gore Vidal the novelist’s best character is Gore Vidal the essayist. Beside him even Myra Breckinridge seems a pale creation, and this great fat book [United States], chronicling 40 years of the essayist’s adventures, is like a lively picaresque novel in reverse.

Its hero starts out as a wickedly clever but world-weary 26-year-old: between the inauguration of Eisenhower (“The Great Golfer”) and the election of Clinton (sobriquet still to...

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Rhoda Koenig (review date 31 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Red, White, and True,” in New York, May 31, 1993, pp. 60-1.

[In the following review, Koenig offers a generally positive assessment of United States.]

Perhaps the greatest irony in Gore Vidal’s pieces on the state of the union, of the literary arts, and of his state of being (responses to persons and events) is the pun of the title. Though Vidal’s subject has often been American writing and government, his persona has always been that of a lordly and cynical European, swirling his cloak about him and murmuring something amusingly scandalous and unanswerable. For all Vidal’s defense of the theory of America, his opinion of it in practice is...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 8 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gentleman's Relish,” in New Statesman & Society, October 8, 1993, pp. 33-4.

[In the following review of United States, Kaveney praises Vidal's intelligence, wit, and adamance, though argues that his writings are at times overly condescending and irritating.]

Reading this book [United States] is an intrusion, an eavesdropping on a private dialogue between America’s greatest living belle-lettriste/agitator and the United States of his ideals, or perhaps of his fantasies. He would like to talk to America, to the Just Republic. But failing that, knowing that it never existed, he will talk to Americans and, most often, talk down to them from...

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Frederic Raphael (review date 9 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Waspish Grandee,” in The Spectator, October 9, 1993, pp. 31-2.

[In the following review of United States, Raphael commends Vidal's “moral courage,” though finds fault in his smugness and antagonism.]

Before we get down to cases, here is an exercise in the etiquette of reviewing. You are sent a book of essays of very many pages, which you look forward to reading over the summer months, as to a sort of prolonged, even spicy, intellectual buffet. After starting it, you discover, buried among its mountainous 1,200 or so pages, a mousy reference to yourself. Do you consider (a) that you can still read and give a fair account of the book or (b)...

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Ben MacIntyre (review date 5 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Vital Vidal,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 5, 1993, p. 28.

[In the following review of United States, MacIntyre offers a largely positive assessment of Vidal's essays, though he argues that Vidal is a “snob” whose writings sometimes suffer from his “aloofness.”]

Say what you like about Gore Vidal (and no living American writer has generated more conversation), he has not been idle in the past forty years. Were he a character in one of his novels, he might be dismissed as exaggerated and improbable, for he has been, in ascending order of accomplishment, a politician, an actor, a playwright, a script-writer, a novelist and...

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Gregory Woods (review date 29 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Don't Look Back,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 29, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following review, Woods offers an unfavorable assessment of Vidal's revised version of The City and the Pillar, which, according to Woods, muddles rather than improves the original. Woods also comments on A Thirsty Evil, which he regards as significant to the history of gay literature, though the individual stories are unremarkable.]

The City and the Pillar was Gore Vidal’s third novel, published in 1948 when he was only twenty-one. It upset his grandfather and determined his future reputation as a maverick. He cannot have been surprised or disappointed....

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James McCourt (review date 1 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Isn't It Romantic?,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 1, 1995, pp. 2, 9.

[In the following review of Palimpsest, McCourt finds Vidal's memoir lacking, though commends his discussion of a boyhood friendship, which to McCourt's regret is not elaborated upon.]

Gore Vidal, author of this long memoir, of many novels, including the groundbreaking The City and the Pillar and the comic masterpiece Myra Breckenridge, of a clutch of hit plays for early television and high-tide Broadway and of such film scripts as Ben Hur, Suddenly Last Summer and The Best Man, is the child of the broken home called America, of which...

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Bevis Hillier (review date 14 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “He Has Not Lived in Vain,” in The Spectator, October 14, 1995, pp. 39-40.

[In the following review, Hillier offers a positive evaluation of Palimpsest.]

Even when Peter Cook was alive, Gore Vidal was the person I most enjoyed seeing interviewed on television. Not since Evelyn Waugh’s Face to Face with John Freeman has anybody swatted interrogators or hostile panellists more effortlessly, more lethally. Alan Bennett gives a classic example in Writing Home, describing a radio programme of 1984:

Gore Vidal is being interviewed on Start the Week along with Richard [Watership Down] Adams. Adams...

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Hugh Brogan (review date 27 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Private Faces, Public Places,” in New Statesman & Society, October 27, 1995, p. 44.

[In the following review, Brogan offers a positive assessment of Palimpsest.]

Autobiography is a form which invites experiment, and Gore Vidal has been bold enough to accept the invitation. In his introductory chapter to Palimpsest he confesses that, until recently, he misused and mispronounced the word. The OED definition is “a parchment, which has been written upon twice, the original having been rubbed out.” Skillful palaeographers can read what lies obliterated underneath.

To call a book of memoirs a palimpsest is therefore to...

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John Simon (review date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “What Gore Remembers,” in New Criterion, Vol. 14, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 18-27.

[In the following negative review of Palimpsest, Simon condemns the “self-aggrandizement,” vituperation, and disingenuousness of Vidal's memoir, particularly Vidal’s characterizations of various friends, writers, celebrities, and lovers.]

Gore Vidal is a slick novelist, impressive essayist, and perfect bitch. All three of these skills come in handy in his memoir, Palimpsest. The gossip in it is rivetingly indiscreet; the nonfiction writing—as in descriptions of places and people he was indifferent to—evocative and entertaining; and the fiction—as in...

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Marvin J. LaHood (review date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Palimpsest, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer, 1996, p. 704.

[In the following review, LaHood offers a positive assessment of Palimpsest.]

Gore Vidal lived, off and on, in Rome for close to thirty years. The reason: “For one thing, I had never had a proper human-scale village life anywhere on earth until I settled into that old Roman street.” On the other hand, he observes: “I never wanted to meet most of the people that I had met and the fact that I never got to know most of them took dedication and steadfastness on my part.”

Palimpsest, Vidal’s fascinating memoir of his first forty years of...

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John Bayley (review date 15 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Class Act,” in New York Review of Books, May 15, 1997, pp. 45-8.

[In the following review, Bayley offers a positive evaluation of Palimpsest.]

One of the many fascinating photographs in Palimpsest, perhaps indeed the most fascinating of the lot, is of the author’s grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, having his portrait painted in old age. Reticently distinguished, the subject sits in his chair, ignoring the canvas, a remarkable likeness of him on a properly heroic scale, and presided over by the artist, Azadia Newman, whom we learn was soon to be married to the film director Rouben Mamoulian. The expression on her beautiful face, with its...

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Rupert Christiansen (review date 30 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Still Almost on Target,” in The Spectator, August 30, 1997, p. 29.

[In the following review, Christiansen offers a positive assessment of Virgin Islands, though he argues that some of Vidal's themes are repetitive and predictable.]

Some years ago, a ridiculously handsome young photographer friend of mine told me about the piquant experience of snapping Gore Vidal at his home in Ravello. ‘Oh to be in England, now that England’s here,’ Vidal intoned lasciviously as my friend walked in. I don’t think it went any further.

But yes, he does seem to love England so—not the landscape particularly, not even the people, but the...

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Merle Rubin (review date 15 March 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Wrinkle in Time,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 15, 1998, p. 6.

[In the following review, Rubin offers an unfavorable assessment of The Smithsonian Institution.]

In 1948, still in his early 20s, having already published two quite creditable works of fiction, Gore Vidal made literary history with The City and the Pillar, the first mainstream American novel to treat homosexual desire as a natural, if not exactly commonplace, phenomenon in the life of a normal, red-blooded American male. In the 50 years since then, in an amazingly inventive variety of literary and even extra-literary forms, Vidal has continued his role as gadfly. Novelist,...

(The entire section is 1993 words.)

Keith Miller (review date 16 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “American Prodigies,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following review, Miller offers a positive assessment of The Smithsonian Institution.]

On the dust-jacket of Gore Vidal’s new novel [The Smithsonian Institution], a blond hunk and a Scarlett O’Hara maiden clinch steamily, Jeff Koons-style, in a flowerbed, while the museum of the title glowers forbiddingly over them like a buxom aunt. Professional curators will at this point realize, perhaps with some regret, that the book does not offer a literal portrait of daily life in a great museum. For the rest of us, the fable which the lurid jacket clothes is an...

(The entire section is 1260 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 24 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “High Jinks and Low Jokes in Never-Land,” in The Spectator, October 24, 1998, p. 54.

[In the following review, Taylor offers a negative assessment of The Smithsonian Institution.]

Q. How do the books you see reviewed get read by their reviewers? Well, I picked up Gore Vidal’s new novel at 3.15 last Saturday afternoon as the train sped out of Paddington en route for the Cheltenham Literary Festival. At 3.45 I somewhat wanly put it back in the bag and substituted Craig Brown’s new book of parodies. Seven hours later, in a chintzy hotel room, I picked it up again and managed to hang on for at least ten minutes before falling asleep. 7.45 the next...

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Christopher Hitchens (review date 22 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Cosmopolitan Man,” in New York Review of Books, April 22, 1999, pp. 29-32.

[In the following review of The Smithsonian Institution and The Essential Gore Vidal, Hitchens provides an overview of Vidal's literary career, recurring themes in his work, and Vidal's view of American history, national identity, and geopolitical obligations.]

Here is a report from The New York Times of September 12, 1960, written from Poughkeepsie under the byline of Ira Henry Freeman:

Gore Vidal, Democratic candidate for Representative in the twenty-ninth Congressional District, sprawled barefoot in a gilded fauteuil...

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Sylvia Brownrigg (review date 30 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Witness for the Prosecution,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 30, 1999, p. 26.

[In the following review of The Essential Gore Vidal, Brownrigg praises Vidal's diverse and provocative oeuvre, though finds shortcomings with the volume's critical introductions and selections by editor Fred Kaplan.]

Repackaging is one of the finer arts of publishing. How to recast a familiar author in such a way as to tempt old admirers and new readers both, without seeming too mercenary about it? It is not as though we haven’t had much of Gore Vidal in print recently: the past six years have seen publication of his award-winning volume of essays United States:...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)

Marvin J. LaHood (review date Winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Smithsonian Institution, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter, 2000, p. 174.

[In the following review, LaHood offers an unfavorable assessment of The Smithsonian Institution.]

Gore Vidal has just about done it all: twenty-three novels, a book of short stories, five plays, nine collections of essays, and Palimpsest: A Memoir. So what could he possibly imagine for his latest novel? Why not drop a thirteen-year-old boy genius, named T., into the Smithsonian Institution, where he meets just about everyone in America’s past, exhibitions come to life, Lindbergh takes him for a ride (within the building) in The Spirit of...

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Don Fletcher and Kate Feros (essay date March 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Live from Golgotha: Gore Vidal and the Problem of Satiric Reinscription,” in Mosaic, Vol. 33, No. 1, March, 2000, pp. 133-44.

[In the following essay, Fletcher and Feros examine Vidal's satiric, postmodern critique of Christian theology, biblical veracity, and contemporary media culture in Live from Golgotha. According to the critics, Vidal's subversive comedy is undermined to some degree by his essentialist notion of bisexuality and his view of sex as primarily an expression of power and domination.]

All attempts to critique may in fact reinstate or even strengthen their target, especially in the case of attacks on entrenched values or...

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Hugo Barnacle (review date 6 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Novel of the Week,” in New Statesman, November 6, 2000, p. 52.

[In the following review, Barnacle offers a positive assessment of The Golden Age, despite its several historical inaccuracies and American slant.]

Gore Vidal musters his fictitious but well-connected Sanford family one more time to round off the septet of historical novels he began with Washington, DC way back in 1967. The sequence is now to be known retrospectively as “Narratives of Empire”, and purports to show how the United States has fallen, like ancient Rome, from republican virtue into imperial vice.

This volume [The Golden Age] opens in November...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Benfey, Christopher. “Dead Presidents Society.” New York Times Book Review (1 March 1998): 8.

Review of The Smithsonian Institution.

Carson, Tom. “Vidal Statistics.” Village Voice (28 November 1995): 73.

Review of Palimpsest.

Dirda, Michael. “Gore Vidal: Views and Reviews.” Washington Post Book World (30 May 1993): 1, 10.

Dirda offers a positive assessment of Vidal's collected essays in United States.

Disch, Thomas M. “A Coke with Petronius.” Nation (16 November 1992): 606-08.

Disch offers a...

(The entire section is 622 words.)