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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 Hollywood.
The novel begins on the eve of American entry into the Great War. Woodrow Wilson, the president who bills himself as “too proud to fight,” who ran for re-election as the man who “kept us out of war,” is caught, in 1917, in a scenario of thoughtless frivolity, life on an ordinary plane, where the uppermost thought in Washington is: Who’s going to run for president in 1920, and who’s going to win?
In a masterly blend of thought patterns, Vidal mixes Henry Adams and his theory of runaway “dynamo” energy, Teddy Roosevelt’s crackbrained war mania and the overriding flaw of Wilson himself—his sense as a Presbyterian of being morally right, no matter the cost, coupled with his sense, as a former university professor, of being right, on an earthly level, no matter the cost…
Crazy, mindless energy, a love of war for its own sake and that American mania about being right: Put them all together, they spell barbarism, stupidity and the end of civilization as we knew it. The finest scene in this novel shows Wilson declaring war to a room full of dignitaries drunk, asleep or dressed to go out for dinner. Wilson coins the phrase, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” and from then on, during this narrative, characters wearily ponder “democracy’s” meaning: A country with far too many millionaires, where women—at least those without wealth—are denied everything. Where, during the war, the government can charge any journalist or filmmaker with espionage. A “democracy” where, for heaven’s sake, you can’t get a drink unless you sneak it out of a teacup. A world where young men, by means of “selective service,” are used as cannon fodder in a totally meaningless war.
But the second theme, or subplot, concerns a transfer of power far more subtle. Who really rules America? Up until 1917 (Vidal would have us believe), elected officials and print journalists in Washington made up history; told the mob what to think. But with the advent of movies in America, the seat of power shifted. Again, this change is barely perceived at first. William Randolph Hearst sees it as “the best fun there is, making a movie.” The heroine here, Caroline Sanford, co-publisher of the Washington Tribune (who develops a second career as a silent film star) thinks of the movies as “the most exciting of all the games their country had yet devised.” Only an eighth-rate person, self-appointed propagandist for this great country of ours, opines that through motion pictures, “we can control world opinion. Hollywood is the key to just about everything.”
This transfer of power is achieved, in fictional terms, by focusing on two media giants, Caroline Sanford and her half-brother Blaise, both of the Tribune. Caroline, 40, is the smarter of the two. Widowed, independent, wealthy, she has made the paper what it is. Blaise is always a half-step behind her. The novel opens with William Randolph Hearst asking Blaise to...
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join him in a movie-making venture. Blaise refuses. But Caroline, restless, ambitious and looking for a new life, visits Hearst, works in a movie, realizes that the camera loves her and suddenly embarks on a new life as a film star, Emma Traxler. She finds a new lover, begins to see the whole world from a new perspective.
In a sense, no one, not even the reader, is meant to notice this sea-change effected by motion pictures. The Woodrow Wilson years, the carnage of World War I, the president’s longing to form a League of Nations, his stroke, the subsequent nomination and election of Warren Harding, are attended to in excruciating detail. We see passing events through the eyes of Blaise, Caroline, Sen. Burden Day and also through those of Jess Smith, a timid pol far, far down President Harding’s ladder—a nice man whom no one remembers at dinner parties, who, when he gets rich from the Harding administration, buys a vulgar brown suit.
“My, how the money rolls in” is the song that plays over and over in Jess’s head, but his own head is set to roll in the scandals and corruption around the Harding administration. Meanwhile, out on “the Coast,” director William Desmond Taylor is murdered. Coming on the heels of the Fatty Arbuckle disgrace, this could mean the end of Hollywood as an American influence. Taylor, though probably killed by a male lover, is made to appear as a ladies’ man. Cocaine-sniffing Mabel Normand and teenaged Mary Miles Minter are made to take the rap, just as blood flows in the Harding administration, in two gigantic cover-ups.
Vidal delights in parallels: After World War I, a jittery American mob invented a Red Menace and then a Black List. When all else failed, the Japanese Yellow Peril was conjured up as bogey man. After the First War the country devoured cocaine. Movie stars (then as now) were, mostly skinny dwarves with enormous heads. (Not fond, Mr. Vidal, of Nancy Reagan).
Plus ça change, plus ć est la même chose: Corruption will always be covered up, however ineptly. Politicians, at the top level, are in the game for power, and, at the next level, for bucks. A few “aristocratic” families still rule. If this is a “democracy,” we are all Miss America. The only thing that has changed, in the '20s in particular and this century in general, is the increasing hegemony of a new empire—Hollywood. So says Gore Vidal, who sometimes neglects his characters, but gives his ideas, his theories, full reign.
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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.
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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 Gulf of Salerno in Italy.
My fiction career ended, more or less, after I had created a world crisis that could only be solved by a quick meeting of the President of the United States and the Premier of the Soviet Union. Using a compass, I picked a spot for the meeting equidistant from Washington and Moscow: Reykyavik, Iceland. Six months later, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held a quickie summit in that very place. The reach of my imagination, it seemed, was no greater than the routine efforts of energetic underlings in the White House and the Kremlin.
I consoled myself by rationalizing: If only I had begun earlier, say at age 19—the age Vidal was when he wrote his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946—before I was constipated by too much journalism, too many rules about responsibility and reality. I was too old to go back and forth between nonfiction and fiction.
Vidal has been able to do that, with great success and devoted readers, in every which way, in long books and short sentences based on American history. Hollywood, the latest in this series, according to the jacket copy, “swells into a panoramic adventure in which America’s politics and fantasies are inextricably entwined. Mingling fictional and actual characters, shifting from Washington to California and back. …”
The result, not the best of Vidal’s work by a long shot, reminded me again of one of the oldest axioms of nonfiction campaigning: Only 10٪ of what candidates do works, but no one knows which 10٪. Even if 90٪ of Hollywood is true. I don’t know which 90٪ that is. The only thing I’m absolutely sure of is that the Georgetown address given for young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt is not in Georgetown. I walked over that way to check.
No big deal in our wondrous era of docu-drama and re-created news. Many, most or almost all of my fellow Americans seem totally unconcerned about the merging of fact and fantasy—all seem to merit a fair hearing. On Long Island this summer I happened to step into great turmoil about Department of Defense plans to discontinue production of a Navy fighter plane, the F-14 Tomcat. The plane is manufactured on the island, by Grumman Aircraft, which claimed 5,000 local jobs would be lost. One of the arguments being used to make more Tomcats was that they performed so well against Soviet fighters in the movie “Top Gun.”
Twice I found myself saying: “You know, that didn’t happen. Those weren’t real Russians. It was just a movie.”
That is what Vidal writes about in Hollywood, focusing on the years just before, during and after World War I, the years of the rising of the film business in the orange groves of Los Angeles. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding are his characters, along with D.W. Griffiths, Will Hays and Douglas Fairbanks.
Vidal tries to show that Washington and Hollywood are both part of an American continuum or, as he sees it, an American decadence that inexorably led to an actor in the White House. I agree generally with the thesis that politicians and entertainers are pretty much in the same line of disbelief-suspending work. But I think Ronald Reagan—this book attacks Reagan in its descriptions of Harding and his works—was something of an aberration that will be hard to duplicate.
The better example of mutual attraction was told to me once by a man who makes political commercials, Bob Squier. He once introduced one of his clients, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, to actor Paul Newman. “I never saw either of them so excited,” Squier remembered. “Then I realized these two guys wanted to be each other.”
Vidal, too, seems to have spent a lot of time thinking about being someone else or doing something else. His biography at the back of this volume emphasizes his failed political ambitions, actually giving vote totals of a run for Congress 30 years ago. Then he has played, often impressively, at playwrighting and screenwriting, at commentary and journalism. Whatever effect all that has had on his fiction, Hollywood is hardly a novel of great imagination. A good fact-checker who knew Vidal’s political views could turn this into real nonfiction.
Luckily, Vidal has a jaded view of American politics, which, despite a talky plot, does sometimes give a polished edge to his perceptions of Washington.
“The President [Wilson] was vindictive not only in the large, necessary things but in the insignificant ones as well. To Caroline, this was perfect proof of his greatness, since every major political figure that she had known was equally dedicated to disinterested revenge.”
“The Colonel [Roosevelt] … had what all good politicians had, the gift of intimacy with strangers.”
“‘If I didn’t know everybody in public life, I’d say I wasn’t big enough for the job, wasn’t worthy.’ Harding stood up. ‘But I do know everybody, so … why not?’”
Good stuff, I think, but nothing really new. There seems to be more energy in the Hollywood sections of Hollywood. One of Wilson’s assistants goes West to supervise the propaganda content of films during the war and says: “The audience for the movies is the largest there is for anything in the world. So if we can influence what Hollywood produces, we can control everything. Hollywood is the key to just about everything.”
I was reminded of that a couple of months ago, back in Paris. Michael Eisner, the chairman of Disney, was there, too, to cut a ribbon or something for the new Disney World outside the city. Communist union members showed up in Mickey and Donald masks and threw a few eggs and tomatoes at him. “I’ll be damned,” I thought. “The Communists have finally figured out who the real enemy is.”
Vidal long ago figured that out. Perhaps too long ago. Hollywood is an alert to the dangers of swirling tides of fact and fiction, truth and fantasy, politics and entertainment. But the warning is too late. Hollywood is another example of what Vidal is attacking.
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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
A Catered Affair (screenplay) 1956
A Thirsty Evil: Seven Short Stories (short stories) 1956
Visit to a Small Planet: A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville (drama) 1957
I Accuse (screenplay) 1958
The Scapegoat [with Robert Hamer] (screenplay) 1959
Suddenly Last Summer [with Tennessee Wiliams] (screenplay) 1959
The Best Man: A Play About Politics (drama) 1960
On the March to the Sea: A Southern Comedy (drama) 1961
Three Plays [contains Visit to a Small Planet,The Best Man, and On the March to the Sea] (dramas) 1962
Rocking the Boat (essays) 1962
Romulus: A New Comedy [translated and adapted from an original work by Freidrich Duerrenmatt] (drama) 1962
Julian (novel) 1964
Is Paris Burning [with Francis Ford Coppola] (screenplay) 1966
Washington, D.C. (novel) 1967
Dark Green, Bright Red [revised edition, 1968] (novel) 1968
Myra Breckinridge (novel) 1968
Sex, Death, and Money (essays) 1968
Weekend (drama) 1968
Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (essays) 1969
Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel (novel) 1970
The Last of the Mobile Hotshots (screenplay) 1970
An Evening with Richard Nixon (drama) 1972
Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-1972 (essays) 1972
Burr (novel) 1973
Myron (novel) 1974
1876 (novel) 1976
Duluth (novel) 1976
Matters of Fact and Fiction: Essays 1973-1976 (essays) 1977
Kalki (novel) 1978
Caligula [with others] (screenplay) 1980
Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal [edited by Robert J. Stanton and Gore Vidal] (interviews) 1980
Creation (novel) 1981
The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (essays) 1982
Lincoln (novel) 1984
Armageddon? Essays 1983-1987 (essays) 1987
Empire (novel) 1987
At Home: Essays 1982-1988 (essays) 1988
Hollywood (novel) 1990
A View from the Diner's Club: Essays 1987-1991 (essays) 1991
The Decline and Fall of the American Empire (essays) 1992
Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal (novel) 1992
Screening History (essays) 1992
United States: Essays 1952-1992 (essays) 1993
Palimpsest: A Memoir (memoir) 1995
The American Presidency (essays) 1998
The Smithsonian Institution (novel) 1998
Virgin Islands: A Dependency of United States: Essays, 1992-1997 (essays) 1998
Gore Vidal Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings (essays) 1999
The Golden Age (novel) 2000
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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 “ra,” is at once a deity; the symbol of radium, a radioactive element; and a cheer, Bronx-inflected, in the sports stadium of America. “M,” inverted, is “W,” the lead letter in that group “Woman.” Surely Myron, my “ron,” invokes the Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan, who served as governor of California while Vidal was thinking Myra and Myron up. All this is possible and more. Amidst such plenitude, I will focus on Myra as self-willed woman and divinity, self-named “eternal feminine” and goddess. In brief, Myra and Myron are narratives of the godhead in the secular Space Age. Indeed, in such an age, we must create divinity for ourselves. If zoosemiotics is “the scientific study of signaling behavior in and across animal species,” if anthroposemiotics is the subordinate study of signalling systems specific to the human species (Sebeok 35–36), then this piece will contribute to “theosemiotics,” my neologism for the study of communications from, with, and about the gods.
General opinion, the go-cart of critical judgment, considers Myra a better novel than Myron.2Myra is, I believe, fresher, more ebullient, unleashing Myra first on a heedless, needy world. Myron must stick with Myron, who whines, atheistically fights the divinity, and like an unhappy camper gets homesick away from wife and pets. Nevertheless, the novels are faithful to each other in their fashion. So, too, are the books in another Vidalian narrative sequence, the story of Senator James Burden Day and the Sanford family.3 So hanging together, Myra and Myron have their 19th-century ancestry. Vidal compares Myra to Tom Sawyer,Myron to Huck Finn (Lasky 25; Myra Breckenridge and Myron x). As ironically, I might compare Myra to Little Women and Myron to Little Men. More soberly, another critic finds a parallel to the Alice books as “twin exercises in cerebral fantasy” (Wyndham 389). Like the Alice books, especially Through the Looking Glass, the Myra books, especially Myron, set up a situation that must seem, at best, a merely intellectual possibility to the ordinary reader. Think, for example, of a child behind a looking-glass or a transsexual goddess time-traveling to a movie set. These books are funny because their characters respond to such situations with a mixture of improvisation and earnest devotion to the everyday logic they brought with them.
Attaching Myra to Myron are the reliable staples of plot, theme, and character. To recapitulate them for their forgetters and to comment: In 1968, the year of Richard Nixon’s first election as President of the United States, Myra Breckenridge lands in Los Angeles.4 Apparently, she is the widow of Myron Breckenridge, a film critic with homosexual habits who has been writing a book about Parker Tyler and the films of the 1940s.5 Myra is claiming her share of the estate of Myron’s mother, a practical nurse named Gertrude, a Shakespearean allusion that hints at the nature of Breckenridge family ties. Gertrude’s brother, Buck Loner, also wants the property. Once a cut-rate singing cowboy, he is now the proprietor of the Academy of Drama and Modeling. To stall Myra, Buck gives her a job teaching Empathy and Posture. Eventually, Myra must reveal to him that once upon a time she was Myron, before a thrilling sex-change operation in Copenhagen. The ancient comic figure of the transvestite, crossbreeding with modern surgeons, now mutates into the comic figure of the transsexual.6
Myra, however, has an identity far greater than property-owner and pedagogue. Although she occasionally suffers a mortal pang, she is the spirit of femininity, the perfection of a human type, and the White Goddess of Robert Graves, a superhuman being. If she were an ordinary woman, she would be egomaniacal. Since she is Woman Incarnate and Woman Divine, her claims to power and her powers go with the territory. Myra pastes on to herself the names of deities from a jumble of cultures: Cybele, the great Mother Goddess, the Great Goddess, even Jesus and Buddha. Only the goody-goody Virgin Mary seems exempt from Myra’s grasp. Embracing multitudes, she is contradictory: cruel but gentle, exacting but forgiving, demanding of human sacrifices but giving of life, prepared to command but respectful of democratic rights. Though she might believe in equal rights under the boring old law, feminism is as relevant to her as theories of social justice would be to Dionysus on a toot.
In the seesaw of the pagan heavens, one deity’s ascent means another’s fall. Serving as the prophet of her own coming, Myra decrees, “… the cock-worshipping Dorians enslaved the West, impiously replacing the Goddess with a god. Happily his days are nearly over; the phallus cracks; the uterus opens…” (6). In large part, the god is falling because the male role is declining. The cosmos chains sacred and secular together. What Robert Bly now preaches to a mass audience, Myra has foretold. We have “… no ritual testing of … manhood through imitation or personal contest, no physical struggle to survive or mate” (57).
Exquisitely sensitive to the calibrations of power, Vidal distinguishes between a brutal machismo, cocky or sullen before the complexities of the world, and virility, a sculpted muscularity that flexes itself handsomely in the world. Vidal is happy to discard machismo, a “keep’em barefoot and pregnant” attitude towards women. He loathes the conjunction of domineering patriarchal god, patriarchal state, and patriarchal Pop too much to mourn their passing. However, he is ambivalent about the loss of virility. On the one hand, he believes that men must change if the human species is to avoid an apocalyptic doom and manage the great danger of the late 20th century: overpopulation. Myra’s messianic task is to struggle against overpopulation. She preaches, “… efforts must still be made to preserve life. … There is an off chance that my mission may yet succeed” (123). Her path to salvation is to change the sexes, “to re-create Man” by asking men to imitate Myron the First or Myra, the harbingers of a new race. So doing, men will snip off the heterosexual activity that equates sexuality with reproduction. This will stop the release of the countless spermatozoa that swarm towards the less plentiful, but plentiful enough, ova. Vidal’s fear of overpopulation pervades his work beyond the Breckenridge books, often articulated as lectures to the Roman Catholic Church and the Third World. “On Pornography” declares, “… man plus woman equals baby equals famine. If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically…” (8).
On the other hand, the virile is a source of physical and aesthetic beauty. Moreover, curbing masculinity will join with social and economic hierarchies to deprive most men of any outlet for their power drive. Unable to prevail in work or battle, men may sublimate this lust in two ways: first, into sexual violence and bondage, and next, into a pathetic theatricality. Myra predicts to her therapist, Randolph Spencer Montag, that men will masquerade as traditional men. They will stand tall in the saddle in an urban bar. This anxiety has its plausibility. Intensifying it is a second fear about the price of population control, which quick-witted Myra also recognizes: the loss of civil liberties it may entail.
Myra first experiments with a hunk, one Rusty Godowski, raping him in body and soul. She next takes over his girl friend, sweet songbird Mary-Ann Pringle. So plotting and scheming, Myra embodies, indeed encourages, all those garish, atavistic fears that liberating a woman is tantamount to crawling before La Belle Dame Sans Merci, whetting the castrator’s knife, cracking the dominatrix’s whip, getting out the nanny’s ruler and the nurse’s enema tube, yodeling vainly to the Bacchae in blood-spattered wilds. Tough luck, Myra might say, Power to the Powerful. Fortunately for the fearful, a hit-and-run driver smashes into Myra. Perhaps Buck is taking his revenge; perhaps Rusty is. Perhaps it is simply an accident. Whatever the cause, the effect is clear. Myra’s female body vanishes and Myron’s male body returns, a stunning reversal, a carnal and literal peripetcia. “Where are my breasts? Where are my breasts?” shrieks Myra, an anguished rewrite of Ronald Reagan’s discovery of leglessness in King’s Row (210). Some anagnorisis, Buck Loner might have said, if he had had the benefit of a core curriculum.
From this wreckage, Myron the Second struggles forth. The end of Myra recapitulates and then bends the generic rules of the domestic comedy. Myron the Second, with a surgically devised phallus, marries Mary-Ann. They are happy and good. They have each other for sex and love, the television industry for work, Planned Parenthood for civic activity, and the God of Christian Science for worship. However, despite the best efforts of his medical team and non-medical faith, Myron the Second cannot have children and enact the promise of the final scene of traditional domestic comedy: the renewal of the household and family. Myron the Second and Mary-Ann must content themselves with oodles of dogs. However, if the survival of the species depends on population control, their happiness is an exemplary conclusion for the domestic comedy of the late 20th century: a virtuous couple, no kids.
Myron further domesticates the Breckenridges. Square as square can be, anti-Commie as anti-Commie can be, they now cater Chinese food in Orange County. The only residue of Myron’s homosexuality is a warm, cozy, avuncular feeling for a well-built adolescent boy. Unfortunately for them, that old trickster, history, is feeling his oats. For it is 1973, the year of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation of the presidency; of Miller v. California, the Supreme Court case that legally defined obscenity; and of the death of so many movie stars that a virtual Götterdämmerung has occurred. Among the dead is Fay Holden, who played Mom Hardy, the matriarch of the Hardy Family. To Myra, the Hardy Family is the peerless symbol of American virtue, a moral quality, and American innocence, a moral and cognitive quality. America threw both away when it dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, “… two mushroom shapes set like terminal punctuation marks against the Asian sky” (29). Since then, the honor of World War II has given way to the tortures of the Vietnamese War, the strength of President Roosevelt to the slyness of President Nixon, the clean-cut G.I. to the Green Beret.
In the midst of such decay and turmoil, Myra miraculously reappears, trilling and jilling and throwing her lead-weighted pocketbook around, a General Douglas MacArthur in drag. Psychologically, Myron’s “repressed feminine” has returned. Culturally, the competition to inscribe the narrative of America’s soul has a new champion. Politically and socially, the battle is rejoined between the Majoritarian American, one of the gang, a Myron, and the American Individual, a mad minority of one on a self-scripted Mission Impossible, Myra. Vidal’s preference is clearly for the minority of one.7 Mythically, the stage curtains of the sky have opened to reveal the Goddess, who has been hiding in the flies.
The agon of Myron is the subsequent struggle between Myron and Myra, two mutually loathing souls imprisoned in a single body. Myra is determined to wrest “her” body away from Myron, drink hormone cocktails, and restore its feminine charms. The fight begins when “that bitch Myra” pushes Myron through a TV set while he is watching a late-late re-run of “Siren of Babylon,” a 1948 production starring Bruce Cabot and Maria Montez, whose name also doubles the letter “M.” Unhappily together, Myra and Myron, M & M candies without any sweetness, emerge on three strips: the strip of celluloid of the original film; this strip altered for TV through the addition of commercials; and, finally, the Hollywood Strip of 1948, the scene of the shooting of “Siren of Babylon.” Myra also compels men to strip and strip tease before her. The puns on “strip” speak to Vidal’s interconnected explorations of power, representations of reality, and reality. Power, obviously, resides in controlling as many strips as possible. Myron spends his energies trying to escape from celluloid and return to life in front of the 1973 TV. Myra spends her energies trying to remain in 1948 in order to manipulate “reel life” in ways that will alter and redeem the “real life” of TV-ridden 1973.
The savior’s first goal is to keep Louis B. Mayer in charge of MGM and his brand of movies in distribution. So doing, she will foil the ascendancy of such crude directors as Sam Peckinpah (peck-and-paw). However, this is but a means to a larger end. Even more radically than the Myra of Myra, the Myra of Myron seeks to alter human reproduction, now by giving all men the drastic excitement Myron the First experienced in his Danish surgery. She will abolish, not simply male heterosexual desire, but the male heterosexual body. She will substitute sperm banks for the penis and scrotum; fun-loving Amazons for men. MGM movies will convince America that all this is swell. With her silicone, knives, and little bottle of Lysol, Myra begins by transforming red-headed Steve Dude, Rusty’s successor, into Stefanie Dude. “Once I have restored Hollywood to its ancient glory (and myself to what I was!),” she gloats with habitual exuberance, “I shall very simply restructure the human race. This will entail the reduction of world population through a complete change in man’s sexual image” (250).
Unlike Uncle Buck, Myra has read the “great books” of the core curriculum, though often in translation. She exults in rewriting Plato, that “dumb Greek.” In The Symposium, a lovely narrative about an Athenian banquet that has its share of homosexual flirting, Aristophanes tells his famous fable about the three original human creatures: one female, one male, one female/male or androgynous. The gods split each of them in half as punishment for their arrogance, and then, relenting, permitted each half to reunite with its partner. The female couple is the prototype of the lesbian, the male couple of the male homosexual, and the androgyne of the heterosexual dyad. Myra’s mission is to cut the androgyne apart again.
For Myra to revise Plato, Myron’s final scenes must alter the conventions of ancient comedy, which affirm the renewal of life’s great cycles. Myron is sure that he has won out, that order is restored. He is back home with his barbecue, backyard, and Barbie-doll wife, “darned proud” to belong to the “highly articulately silent majority” (416). Foolish Myron. For the divine Myra lives, well beyond his petty domestic and social order. In Vidal’s theophany, she appears, neither in masque nor pageant, but in mirror-writing on the novel’s last page. She has guaranteed the cosmic survival of the species by beginning to block life’s outmoded reproductive techniques. The new fertility goddess is an anti-fertility goddess. “Stefanie Dude,” that “fun-loving Amazon,” is the governor of California. Myron, blind to Stefanie’s origins in the womb of Myra’s plot, complacently predicts that she will be the next Republican president of the United States. Whoopee.
Perhaps the best-known result of Myra/Myron’s search-and-enjoy missions among the classics is its debt to The Satyricon of Petronius. This title may be a pun on “saturika,” a “lecherous, randy” work concerned with satyrs, and “satura,” a satire, a potpourri of subjects and styles (Arrowsmith x). Myra/Myron makes hay with this double identity.8 If Encolpius, “The Crotch,” is the narrator of The Satyricon, Myra, Buck Loner, and Myron the Second, the squabbling narrators of the Breckenridge books, embody a spectrum of genital possibilities in the late 20th century: heterosexual biological male, homosexual biological male who has become a medically created but ardent female, prosthetic male (the dildo), medically created male. Like The Satyricon,Myra/Myron blithely accepts polymorphous sexual experiences, including the orgiastic masochism of Letitia Van Allen, killer agent and feminist nightmare of a career gal.
Myra’s insouciance about sexual difference has obscured the interesting difficulties of the novel’s ideas about sex, sexuality, and gender, ideas which Vidal anticipates in the 1966 essay “On Pornography.”9 Unlike many contemporary historians of sexuality, Vidal is no social constructionist, that is, one who interprets sexual desires, activities, and codes as the product of specific historical periods. Rather, for Vidal, sexuality has at least three constants.
First, we are a bisexual species. The mixture of Myra and the two Myrons symbolizes the potential human norm, not a perversion of it. Once released, bisexuality is the score both sexes play in their sensual games. In these sports, each of us will be top and bottom, male and female, transcendent and fleshly. Polytheistic deities know this better than monotheistic prigs. In one operatic passage, Myra glows:
I am … at heart … a mere woman. One who wishes to love and be loved. To hold out my hand to a masterful man, to let him draw me close to his powerful chest, to feel strong arms about my beautiful if not entirely re-equipped-for-action body, to look up into his strong face and say, “I love you!” And then fuck his ass off. Yes, I, too, am vulnerable, tender, insecure.
Yet, read grouchily, this passage reveals a contradiction in Vidal’s dramas of sex and gender. Yes, Vidal does believe in bisexuality. Yes, he does delight in the spectacle of the female taking on a male body and gender role. Bisexuality entails equal opportunity for hedonists. The Breckenridge duet, however, takes more delight in the spectacle of the male taking on a female body and/or gender role, in Myron the First becoming Myra. The woman who has willed her femininity then enters into a competition with the lazier woman whose femininity is a birthright. As the “gobbling queen” brings another man to climax, he extracts “the ultimate elixir of victory … not meant for him but for … [a] wife or girl or simply Woman” (78).
Such a weighting of interests is compatible with Vidal’s projection of the second constant of sexuality: aggression as the motor of eros and the will to power as the starting mechanism and fuel of this motor. As Alfred Adler teaches Myra, we yearn to dominate. We prefer power to submission, hate to love. If we did not, Myra notes, we would have no satire, no Juvenal, Pope, or Billy Wilder. Some women do have a will to power—Myra, her buddy Letitia. Some men are gentle. Nevertheless, Vidal masculinizes the “aggressive/creative drive” and feminizes pliability and tenderness. Myra first goes soft in her relationship with Mary-Ann, woman with woman, though both squeamishly deny being lesbian, one of Les Girls. To penetrate sexually is the high, historic sign of domination; to be penetrated, especially anally, the historic sign of submission. “Real men” despise it. “Myra,” Steve Dude tells her after her assault on him, “I hated every last minute of what you did, and that’s the absolute truth so help me God, sincerely” (344). “Getting fucked” has often humiliated Myron the First, a pain for which Myra seeks revenge through the anal rape of guys who show off as guys. However, some gay men, like Myron the First, also reverse the power relationship of tough guy and queen. They only appear to be submissive. Actually, they are calling the shots, manipulating Big Butch into believing that he is in charge.
The third constant is fully a trait of both sexes: the marriage of mind and body. We are members of a fantasizing species that enfolds, infiltrates, and interprets its sexual activity with mental images. A passage in Myron dramatizes this coupling. Myra stumbles over “two guys making it” in a “pleasant bosky dell.” Staring at their penises, Myra calls the tips “a pair of standard American rosebuds.” Metaphor, here ironically formulaic, reveals the mind’s seizure of the flesh. Myra then adds graciously, “to be fair to the American rosebud, like a Christmas present, it is not the actual tiny gift but the thought behind the erection that counts” (334). The individuality of human minds guarantees an infinite, heterogeneous variety of sexual activities. Or, as Vidal puns in “On Pornography,” one man’s meat is another man’s poison. In turn, this variety insures that the theory and practice of bisexuality will be fluid rather than strict. “Sex,” Myra teaches, “is the union of two things. Any two things whether concave or convex or in any combination or number in order to provide more joy for all or any concerned with the one proviso that no little stranger appear as the result of hetero high jinks” (301). The orgy scene in Myra (Section 20), an echo of The Satyricon, is funny because of Myra’s vivid descriptions and initial prudishness. It also illustrates a free-floating, polymorphous, often sweetly silly joy, “the Dionysian … (as) necessity in our lives” (89).
Destructively, the “monstrous tribal norm” of the West represses the teeming energies of sexuality and presses us between the cold sheets of the heterosexual nuclear family. So tucked in, we learn to forget that a homosexual lives in every heterosexual, a heterosexual in every homosexual. Our structures are strictures. Because Myra has been a gay man (Myron the First), mostly but not exclusively a straight woman (Myra), and a yuckily normal man at heart but not in body (Myron the Second), her experiences replicate the Western conflict between repressive sex roles and a range of human sexual drives. So do her disagreements with Montag, a puritanical Jew in religion and culture, once a dentist by profession and still orally fixated.
Myra is also that girl goddess. In her divine mode, she affirms two cosmologies of sexuality, which simultaneously praise its glory and satirize such literary prophets of heterosexuality as Lawrence, Miller, and Mailer. In the first cosmology, sexual bliss with a woman will permit Myra to triumph over time, its cycles of life and death, its passages from womb to tomb. Fingering Mary-Ann’s “blonde silky thatch,” she raves, “… if I am to prevail I must soon come face to face with the Minotaur of dreams … in our heroic coupling know the last mystery: total power achieved not over man, not over woman but over the heraldic beast, the devouring monster, the maw of creation itself that spews us forth and sucks us back into the black oblivion where stars are made…” (189). Her second cosmology is even grander. In a daisy chain she drives across the galaxies, Myra links creativity, divinity, anality, homosexuality, filmmaking, and her mission of guaranteeing the survival of “the regnant species.” She is the new “Creatrix,” the creator who is also a trick. Extending the homosexual literary and conversational tradition, Vidal puns in order to link “respectable” discourses with that of homosexuality. A “tearoom” is a nice cafe and a subway lavatory where men pick each other up. A “spout” pours tea and semen. In an astonishing soliloquy that chaotically compresses ancient and modern, mythic and scientific, explanations of the origins of the universe, Myra vows:
… it is not possible for me to fail. In this I resemble God at the moment he created the universe with a single fart. Yes, I am happy to give my imprimatur to the big-bang theory that is generally accepted as being the first movement of music of this and all the other spheres.
But I have now begun to outdo the prime mover himself as I weave this cage of old time, salvaged from cloacal confusions of that mindless universe the first mover has so wisely surrendered to me. Slowly, carefully, I now draw to myself the very stuff and essence of all time … sucked into the last FADE OUT which is FADE IN to the other … the negative universe beyonds the quasars and pulsars of our knowing…
Myra/Myron is, then, a series of collisions among sexual codes and rebellious sexual realities, epistemological codes and our heads, sacred codes and profane aspirations to appropriate them, sacred codes that deny sexuality and sacred codes that enshrine it, “good taste” and a flamboyant sexual performance that defy its criteria. Myra’s “high baroque comedy of bad taste” is the proper literary form for these clashes. For the baroque “is the art of wreaking an explosion deep inside the classical structure and re-assorting the classical elements back into an incongruity grotesque, ironic, comic, barbarically majestic or all at once, but always—by virtue of the discipline which creates a new form to hold the … elements together—beautiful” (Brophy 412). As a comedy of bad taste, Myra/Myron commandeers our ridicule of a rigid decorum and promises that the loss of decorum will permit structures that are deeper and more flexible: in life, bisexuality; in fiction, deftly controlled narrative form.
If there are more things in our sexual heaven and earth than our moralists permit, pornographers are our sexual realists. “They recognize that the only sexual norm is that there is none” (Vidal “Pornography” 8). Given this definition, which neither social conservatives nor some radical feminists would accept, Myra is willful pornography. Moreover, Vidal is satirizing the pornographic tradition and correcting its errors. The novelist is doing literary criticism. Has this tradition neglected two “… modest yet entirely tangible archetypes, the girl and boy next door, two creatures far more apt to figure in the heated theater of the mind than the voluptuous grotesques of the pulp writer’s imagination” (“Pornography” 6)? Vidal will provide Rusty Godowski and Mary-Ann Pringle, a girl and a boy in love. Perhaps Vidal’s plumpest target is the Marquis de Sade. If Sade, a boring village overexplainer, calls on Nature to justify harmful behavior, Myra will glory in being “unnatural,” a transsexual. If Sade, as boringly, reiterates his syllogism of power (the strong must violate the weak; men are strong; women are weak; therefore men must violate women), Myra will be a strong woman who violates men. Some of Myra’s rhodomontade also mimics the “tirades” of Sade that “often strike the Marlovian note” (“Pornography” 6). In one scene, for example, she imagines the bliss she will feel when she transforms the obnoxious Half-Cherokee into an Amazon. Myra exults, “It is plain that nature and I are on a collision course. Happily, nature is at a disadvantage, for nature is mindless and I am pure mind. … I alone can save the human race” (293).
Half-Cherokee is obnoxious because he chillingly acts out a theory of sex as racial vengeance of Eldredge Cleaver in Soul on Ice. He wants to rape and humiliate “white bitches” because of Wounded Knee. However, Myra has her grisly plans for him. Their encounter is a slapstick variant on the theme of the conflict between two wills to power, that of the castrator and that of the rapist. Simultaneously, Half-Cherokee is a sketch of a Native American as a smug, dumb stud. Throughout Myra/Myron, Vidal claims the privilege of the satirist and refuses to exempt any person or group, no matter how disadvantaged, from his mockery. An affirmative action employer would dread his treatment of minorities (the figures of Half-Cherokee, Irving Amadeus, Mr. Williams), lesbians (sporty Miss Cluff), and religions (Judaism and Catholicism). Myra/Myron is, then, a test case of American culture’s ability to accept satire as well as polymorphous sexualities, no matter whom the satire slashes.
Not surprisingly, the presence of Myra as revisionary pornography slipped by many of its first reviewers in the United States. Nearly all agreed that it was camp, that Myra’s rhetoric took a particular homosexual style as one linguistic model. They disagreed whether Myra was unreconstructed pornography, to them a genre that putatively focuses on sex for the sake of sex, or dirty-minded, to them a childish perspective that sees sex everywhere. “[S]ome of this wild fantasy … is funny,” Publishers’ Weekly flounced, “but most of it just seems sniggering, like a small boy delighting in writing dirty words on a wall” (“Fiction” 63).10 Marrying two United States obsessions, correct sex and business, the reviews also stress Myra’s unusual marketing plan, its dramatic appearance without any previews, advance copies, or advertising.
Today, the sexualities of Myra/Myron seem tame, more game than gamey. Myra’s rape of Rusty is still ugly, but Myra’s sadistic shouts of ecstasy as she rides her “sweating stallion into forbidden country” revolt us, not her dildo. She, too, is ultimately “saddened and repelled” by a power trip in pain-giving overdrive (150). This is the one touch of guilt from the goddess. A blessing of divinity is the exemption it grants from secular moral codes and punitive superegos.
Of course, the good burghers of Bookland are a more permissive, a more Petronian audience than we were in 1968. This is a boon for criticism, for a fuss over sex has deflected attention from the ingenuity with which Vidal fulfills the second formal mandate in the word Satyricon, to provide “potpourri of subjects and styles.” He mixes fewer subjects than styles. The trajectory of the Divine Miss M.’s mission gives Myra/Myron a taut thematic coherence. It is her voice, almost by itself, that provides a variety show of style. This mouth is a carnival of registers—from cosmic rants, through autodidactic allusions to anthropology, film, and Aldous Huxley; through cajoleries and commandments to bitchy pungencies. She is also an echo chamber for the smarts and whimsies of Myron the First. In brief, her rhetoric moves from high drama to low colloquialism as easily as sexual desire can zip around if liberated. To increase diversity, Vidal has two other narrators: in Myron the written banalities of Myron the Second; in Myra, the far more agrammatical, non-linear, taped banalities of Buck Loner. His “recording discs” are the tablets of the future. Ominously, they begin, “Other matters to be taken up by board in reference to purchases for new closed circuit TV period paragraph I sort of remember that Gertrudes boy was married some years ago and I recall being surprised as he was a fag…” (20). Though only Myra has explicit sociolinguistic interests, these three narrators record conversations that capture the patterns of Late Imperial American speech.
Vidal is also picking over the various narrative forms available to the 20th-century writer: the nouveau roman (Kiernan 98–99); the memoir, written or taped; the client’s confession to the therapist/analyst11; the Hollywood star biography/autobiography12; the Hollywood novel; and the female impersonator’s monologue, which both pays lavish tribute to traditional femininity and tosses acid at the world. The stiletto heel of the drag queen is a stiletto. Not accidentally, “Myra” is both an anagram of “Mary,” a generic name for a homosexual queen (Kiernan 106) and the stage name of a female impersonator Vidal knew (Dick 170). Like Jean Genet, Vidal is taking the language of a subculture out of the bars, baths, and streets and transcribing it for publication. Significantly, only the Hollywood novel and the queen’s monologue permit fiction the social role of entertaining an audience while instructing it about the ways of the world. The nouveau roman is too fretful about language; the memoir and client’s confession too self-centered; the Hollywood biography and autobiography too giddily self-serving.
Like that of many contemporary writers, Vidal’s catalogue of narrative possibilities is a tough-minded elegy for literary culture composed in a visual culture that reads little or nothing, that writes little or nothing except its autograph. The late 20th century, Vidal realizes, is the post-Gutenberg age. Literary genius can never be wholly extinguished. The ability to provide narratives, stories, zooms across all media. Nevertheless, literary genres have withered. Poetry has given way to the novel, the novel to the visual media, literary criticism to book-chat, Myra the novel to a film adaptation that Vidal scorned and repudiated. Inseparable from the decline of writing is the decline of speaking, of verbal wit and eloquence. Language itself, the material of literature and speech, is dissolving—like classical and neo-classical architecture in the polluted air of modern cities. Plato’s Symposium and Petronius’s banquet scene are now Myra’s conversations about gender and population control with Rusty and Mary-Ann in the Cock and Bull Restaurant on the Hollywood Strip. On this street of dreams, Myra’s linguistic force is as singular as her body.
Myron is the most glittering and gay obituary for contemporary literature. There, inside a Westinghouse television set, are Vidal’s contemporaries and rivals: Maude, a gossipy hairdresser, a “fat small man with a big, bald pug-dog head” (225), a parody of Truman Capote; Whittaker Kaiser, a drunken cook from Philadelphia, a fag-hating, woman-hating nutcase, a parody of Norman Mailer; Mel and Gene, two Beat boys from New York, parodies of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. There, too, is their master and leader, Mr. Williams, a “dinge queen” from Albany in communion with Louis B. Mayer, as furtive and omnipotent as an omniscient narrator, attempting to sabotage the march of culture, an iconoclastic bowling-over of Henry James as a devotee of the art of realpolitik.
Self-determinedly optimistic, Myra is more cheerful about the evolution of modern culture than her creator. Let Hollywood triumph over the novel! Hollywood gives us our myths and dreams. It is our paradise, our heaven, our pantheon of universe-class deities. Myra once asks a rhetorical question and answers it bluntly, “Could the actual Christ have possessed a fraction of the radiance and mystery of H.B. Warner in the first King of Kings. … No” (32). Like saints in training, the students in Buck’s academy will submit to torture in order to achieve the apotheosis of stardom and enter the Kingdom of Hollywood. Myra’s happiest and most lavish self-praise is to compare herself to a star from Hollywood’s classic period: her chuckle to Irene Dunne, her pursed lips to Ann Sothern, her baby talk to Ginger Rogers, her toughness to Barbara Stanwyck. Indeed, her drive pays homage to that of the great female stars, to Miss Crawford or Miss Davis.
Brazenly ambitious, Myra seeks to be even more than a goddess/star. She aspires to industry mogulhood, to be a maker of myths, a producer of dreams, a god’s god. Her surreptitious but titanic battle with Mr. Williams is between The Word and The Image for the control of the studios of culture and the collective unconscious. However, most acutely in Myra, the goddess recognizes that television, especially its commercials, has usurped the throne of the Hollywood movies. Like McLuhan, she predicts that the new medium will create “a new kind of person who will then create a new kind of art.” She writes in her notebook, “It is a thrilling moment to be alive!” (95). Culturally promiscuous, she soars on. A writer can but dramatize her flight.
Since Myra’s birth in a satiric novel, an apocryphal story has been alive in the land, told in health clubs and meetings, printed on T-shirts and cards. It consists of two brief sentences separated, in the telling, by a pause: 1) “God has come back to earth.” 2) “And is she ever mad.” In more vulgar versions, Sentence 2 substitutes “pissed” for “mad.” Is Myra this deity? Vengeful but tender? Irate but amusing? Dotty but shrewd? A touch too tyrannical but taken with democratic virtues? Human of feature but superhuman in will? Female and male? Homosexual and heterosexual? If she is, few may bring offerings to her temple. Our reticence is less the consequence of her delirious and comic monstrosity than of her birth. If we are to believe her creator, in a post-Gutenberg age our most popular gods and goddesses will be born and borne from celluloid, not paper. Our theosemioticians will huddle around screens. For those of us who read there remains—the glow of the embers on which Vidal throws his pages, an occasional graffiti, the provocations of satire, and the risible comfort of Myra/Myronic cult figures.
Myra Breckenridge was first published in 1968, Myron in 1974. In 1986, Gore Vidal put them out in one volume. I am using its 1989 British edition. The new volume made some typographical alterations, substituted a new “Introduction” to both books for an untitled foreword to the 1974 Myron, and erased a sardonic political joke. In 1973, while Vidal was writing Myron, the United States Supreme Court issued its infamous ruling on obscenity, Miller v. California. The obscene work, the Court declared, has three defining features: (1) The average person, applying “contemporary community standards,” would find that the work as a whole appealed to “prurient interest”; (2) The work depicts or describes sexual conduct in a “patently offensive way”; (3) The work, again taken as a whole, “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” In response to the decision, Vidal called for “massive civil disobedience” and said that he was modifying Myron in a surprising way “that would distress the Supreme Court.” (“Broad Spectrum of Writers”). His device was to replace “bad” words (in the arithmetic of United States puritanism, “bad” = “dirty”) with the names of the five Supreme Court justices who had concurred in the majority opinion (Rehnquist, Powell, Whizzer White, Blackmun, Burger) and of “two well-known warriors in the battle against smut” (Myron ix–x). These men were Father Morton Hill, S.J. and Edward Keating, who in 1989 and 1990 was to become a central figure in the savings and loans scandal of the late 20th century in the United States. Two examples of such ironic euphemism: Too proud for self-pity, Myra nevertheless rages at the “private tragedy” of the last five years of her life, “… being trapped inside a Chinese caterer in the San Fernando Valley, with, admittedly, a big restructured rehnquist between his legs but no powells” (Myron 7). In the 1986 revision, Myra is still too proud for self-pity, but now snarls at “… being trapped inside a Chinese caterer in the San Fernando Valley, with, admittedly, a big restructured phallus between his legs but no scrotal sac…” (Myra Breckenridge and Myron 221). In another scene in the first version, Whittaker Kaiser challenges Myron, “My rehnquist is bigger than your rehnquist” (Myron 19). In the rewrite, he now burbles aggressively, “My cock is bigger than your cock” (Myra Breckenridge and Myron 231). I miss the original. Perhaps the rewrite purges Myron of excessive topicality. However, many other topical jokes remain. Moreover, the first version shows the giddy ease with which we can rename the fluidities of the body and sexuality, the variousness of the linguistic codes for these fluidities. The phallus can become a rehnquist. Nevertheless, both the thing and a sentence about the thing carry on.
Even Robert Mazzocco, who reads Myron shrewdly, writes that it is a “vampiristic vaudeville, baroquely cadenced and cleverly done … nevertheless, no match for the ineffable ease and raunchy simplicity of its predecessor” (Mazzocco 13).
In Hollywood, Caroline Sanford has plastic surgery in order to become more youthful and gain more power in the movie business. Although Caroline’s surgery is less extreme, her ambitions less cosmic, her self-willed passage through the theater of the operating room in order to control the theater of the collective unconscious mimics Myra.
In 1969, the Stonewall Riots in New York City marked the formal beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement, a political event that Myra and earlier Vidal novels helped to make possible through the clarity of their confrontations with homophobia.
Several critics have discussed the relationships between Myra and Parker Tyler’s criticism (Dick 144–148; Kiernan 98; Mast and Cohen 4; Schickel vi). A rule-of-thumb judgment is that the more solemnly devoted a critic is to Tyler, the more he will resent Vidal and find him a crude thief of Tyler’s wisdom, an attitude that Tyler’s own responses to Myra might initially seem to encourage, e.g. “It is slanderous to assume that I ever indulged in anything like the simple-minded, extravagant, mock-serious stuff which both Vidal’s novel and the film script put on Myra’s lips” (Tyler 4). Tyler’s rhetorical assault, however, has echoes of Myra’s campiness. “Why can’t … Mr. Vidal take me at my own, virile enough, words rather than tilt at me as if I were a trans-sexualized windmill in the mind of some sex-mad Don Quixote of a film buff?” (Tyler 4). The presence of these echoes makes the Vidal-Tyler textual exchange more than an outraged victim’s identification of the man who mugged him. The exchange also shows, I believe, a mutual appreciation of stylistic flair. To be sure, Myra does parody Tyler’s alliance of brilliant generalization and precise detail, aphorism and enthusiasm. However, the motive for parody can be respect as well as contempt. Something or somebody is worth sending up Vidal also praises a pornographic piece that Tyler wrote with Charles Henri Ford as a “pioneer work (that) … reads surprisingly well today” (“Pornography” 5).
Brigid Brophy makes this point as well (Brophy 412). Like Vidal, Brophy not only condemns censorship of sexual materials, but sees the connection between sexual and political censorship. “[T]he images lodged in citizens’ imaginations are part of the socio-political character of a country.”
In 1990 Vidal wrote, “The tragedy of the United States in this century is not the crackup of an empire, which we never knew what to do with in the first place, but the collapse of the idea of the citizen as someone autonomous whose private life is not subject to orders from above” (“Notes” 202).
Purvis E. Boyette was among the first to treat Myra seriously as prose satire, tracing its lineage to Sterne and Swift, the picaresque novel, and the anti-novel, especially Nathanael West’s A Cool Million. Interpreting satire as a moral genre, in which the satirist seeks to reform the object of his attack, Boyette finds the America that Vidal is exposing “ahistorical, empty of traditional values … artistically shallow” and spiritually sterile (Boyette 235). So far, so plausible, but Boyette resists Vidal’s sexual anarchy and radicalism. He insists that “transsexual Myra is … the … figure of our cultural impotence … as the archetypal pervert she is the image of a debased and debauched society.” Quivering with fears of castration and anal penetration, Boyette blames Rusty Godowski for allowing himself “… to be raped by a woman wearing a dildo. …” Rusty “could … have escaped the event had he fought hard enough” (236). Protecting phallic power, Boyette unwittingly echoes the language that blames female rape victims for their misery.
Peter Conrad also reads Myron through “On Pornography,” stressing more than I would the separation of sex, “playfully experimental and unfaithful,” from “the craven attachments of love” (Conrad 65). Promiscuity, then, is “the final conversion of sex into art,” and Myra “a feminine Don Giovanni” (65).
Dennis Altman wryly describes his vain efforts to prove to Australian authorities that Myra is not obscene when he brought a copy back from America. (Altman). Kiernan (99–100) analyzes Vidal’s skittish treatment of fetishism and the rhetoric of pornography, especially for gay men.
In 1969, a year after Myra, Philip Roth, whom Vidal admires, published Portnoy’s Complaint, another study in sexual excess and exploitation of the analyst’s office as fictive setting.
A review of Myron mourns that it must take second place in the 1974 camp sweepstakes to Rona Barrett’s autobiography, “a rags-to-riches Queens-to-Hollywood saga, with plenty of wretchedness along the way … told in a headlong no-holds-barred style that … would have done Myra proud” (Fremont-Smith 91).
Altman, Dennis. “How I Fought the Censors and (partly) Won,” Meanjin Quarterly 29, Winter 1970, 236–239.
Arrowsmith, William. “Introduction” to Petronius, The Satyricon. University of Michigan 1959.
Boyette, Purvis E. “Myra Breckenridge and Imitative Form,” Modern Fiction Studies 17, Summer 1971, 229–238.
“Broad Spectrum of Writers Attacks Obscenity Ruling.” New York Times, August 21, 1973, 38.
Brophy, Brigid. “The Tang of Uncertainty,” Listener 80, September 26, 1968, 412.
Conrad, Peter. “Look At Us,” New Review 2, July 1975, 63–66.
Dick, Bernard F. The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal. Random House 1974.
“Fiction.” Publishers Weekly 193, February 5, 1968, 63.
Fremont-Smith, Eliot. 1974. “Second Prize in the Camp Sweepstakes,” New York Magazine 7, October 21, 1974, 90–91.
Kiernan, Robert F. Gore Vidal. Frederick Ungar 1982.
Lasky, Michael S. “His Work, His Work Habits, His Workings,” Writer’s Digest 55, March 1975, 20–26.
Mast, Gerald and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford 1974.
Mazzocco, Robert. “The Charm of Insolence,” New York Review of Books 21, November 14, 1974, 13–15. See, too, “Letters,” New York Review of Books 22, February 6, 1975, 37.
Schickel, Richard. “Introduction” to Parker Tyler, The Hollywood Hallucination. Simon and Schuster 1944.
Sebeok, Thomas A. “Zoosemiotic Components of Human Communication,” The Sign and Its Masters. University of Texas 1979.
Tyler, Parker. “Letter” in “Movie Mailbag,” New York Times, July 19, 1970, 4.
Vidal, Gore. “On Pornography,” New York Review of Books 6–7, March 3, 1966, 4–10.
———. Myron. Random House 1974.
———. Myra Breckenridge and Myron. Grafton 1989.
———. Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s. Random House 1990.
———. “Notes on Our Patriarchal State,” Nation 251, August 27/September 3, 1990, 185, 202–204.
Wyndham, Francis. “Hooray for Hollywood,” Times Literary Supplement, April 11, 1975, 389.
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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 Diner's Club] is what Gore Vidal, in his twee vein, calls ‘book chat’. He is different from other writers, he tells us at once; he has never taught in a university, doesn’t attend conferences, and has never reviewed a book for money. This sounds uncommonly like boasting, and on some very odd grounds. Not to review at all—that is the pure attitude. The money is a side-issue.
As a literary commentator, Vidal favours the New York Review of Books style of grinding thoroughness, and is at pains throughout to defend that distinguished paper. Opinion without demonstration is worthless, he says, and most English book reviewing is worthless. (He should know that British book reviewers write to provoke their readers, not to educate them; one wonders, here and elsewhere, whether he has grasped the essential frivolity of the British character. When later he speaks of us as neo-Norwegians, adrift in a northern twilight of solemn insignificance, he seems wide of the mark.) Vidal’s discriminating mind looks a good deal to the 18th century, and one would have taken him for a Johnsonian: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’ No blockhead, he; the book provides us with some fine examples of the craft of reviewing gratis.
The great use of book chat, as he sees it, is to promote the under-appreciated or reestablish a lost writer in the public mind. He is generous in his praise of Dawn Powell, whose novels had gone out of print, and compares her to Waugh, Anthony Powell and Spark; his piece in the New York Review of Books led to her work’s republication. This is one of Vidal’s more self-effacing essays; elsewhere he shows off, just like those of us who carp for cash.
He is one of those critics who always gives the impression that he could have written the book himself, had he cared to. But he has some valid, unfashionable points to make. He confesses a lifelong boredom with that profitable field of endeavour, the literary biography. The facts of a life—which in practice tend to mean who the writer slept with, when and how—are less interesting to him than what the writer does with his material and how he does it. He condemns that modish habit of seeking out the real-life counterparts of a novelist’s characters; sometimes it is mistaken for serious scholarship, but really it is a parlour-game. If the characters have an autonomous life on the page, what do their antecedents matter? Most novelists will sympathise with his view. There is no more tiresome question than ‘who is this based on?’ Twenty different people, would usually be the answer—if it is possible to give an answer at all.
Like gin, Vidal is best when dry and neat: Richard Ellman, in his biography of Oscar Wilde, ‘rises to the essential prurience’. If Gore Vidal were reviewing his own book, he would write after that last phrase ‘This is superb.’ Often, and touchingly perhaps, he attaches his enthusiasm to very ordinary sentences—especially in his essay on Somerset Maugham.
Again, this is a New York Review piece. The poor man who has written on Maugham is a Saskatchewan schoolteacher, a fact which arouses Vidal’s contempt and which he worries at through the whole essay. The man is a parvenu; ‘By 17 I had read all of Shakespeare and all of Maugham.’ Why? I suppose that after such an adolescence we should be glad that Gore has survived to live outside an institution. He guides us through a good number of Maugham plots, analyses for us the manner of the narration. One begins the essay thinking that, after all, it is rather cheap to sneer at Maugham, but one ends by swearing at him as well. ‘If he is indeed half-trashy, then one must understand the other half is of value.’ No then about it, Mr Vidal. But leaving his strange predilection aside, what he tells us about Maugham rings absolutely true to the reader’s experience:
Something gelled very early in Maugham the writer, and once his famous tone was set it would remain perfectly pitched to the end … Maugham’s view of the world was consistent throughout his life.
This may explain why when you have read Of Human Bondage you feel as if you have spent several days shackled to a corpse.
Moving away from book chat, Vidal writes wittily on Orson Welles, with his conversation that was ‘surreal and always cryptic’; one of his reasons for living in Las Vegas, he would say, was
… there are no death duties in Nevada, unlike, shall we say, Haiti.
Here is Welles at their last meeting:
He wore bifurcated tents to which, rather idly, lapels, pocket flaps, buttons were attached in order to suggest a conventional suit.
At the end of his life Welles was a frustrated man; so many great films were made only inside his head. This is a pity, because we now live in a world, Vidal asserts, where there is no longer a novel-reading public and the person who would once have been (at least) a semi-serious reader is now a film-buff. It is his constant grumble:
Writers and writing no longer matter much anywhere in freedom’s land. Mistuh Emerson, he dead. Our writers are just entertainers, and not that entertaining either. We have lost the traditional explainer, examiner, prophet.
It is true that there is a large constituency of non-serious readers, devourers of pulp; but people under 30 never read anything they don’t have to. When they read something good it is because it is on a syllabus. They are ‘involuntary readers’. This phrase recurs many times, and is troubling: it conjures up a picture of some Hammer horror automaton lurching through a university library with big stitches joining his head and neck. Not so far from the truth, Vidal would say; one of his more heartening characteristics as an essayist is his willingness to peer into the most profound depths of modern stupidity, and to erase, speculatively, the fine line that divides stupidity from bad faith.
Academics in general get a rough ride; and it is hard not to cheer on Vidal as he goads their weary nag. The people who dominate university literature departments have no feeling for books, he says, and so have replaced them by literary theory. Writers who teach are interested in tenure, not in writing. Writers who don’t teach are only interested in their careers, and the people who can read them are a dying breed. One wonders, at this point, whether his depression is wholly justified. Is it possible that the outlook is brighter in Britain? By his own admission, he never appears in public to read his work. If he did, would he find that there is more enthusiasm than he thinks; that, indeed, a substantial part of the public is not only eager to read novels but is also trying to write them? Mr Vidal has anticipated the flicker of hope, only to snuff it out:
In England there are more novelists than novel-readers.
The most striking piece here is about Vidal’s own work—“How I Do What I Do If Not Why.” It is less an essay than a bout of fisticuffs with the ‘scholar-squirrels’ who have attacked his six historical novels, and in particular Lincoln. Needless to say, the squirrels are soon flat on the mat; but in the course of the mismatch Vidal has provided a clear and valuable piece of writing on the nature and uses of historical fiction. You may think he is repeating his points when he talks of how his critics have fallen prey to the scholar-squirrels’
delusion that there is a final Truth revealed only to the tenured few in their footnote maze;
but this is no generalised diatribe, for as he takes us point by point through the objections raised against his novel one sees that the mindless pedantry, the pettiness and above all the naïveté of his opponents are sorely provoking. The novelist’s characters are living in history, not looking back on it; it is a simple point, but his assailants cannot grasp it.
It is in the second section of the book that Vidal takes upon himself the mantle of that lost ‘explainer, examiner, prophet’. The prophet is to the fore. Many of these political essays were written three years ago and events might have caught him out, but he may be pleased with his prescience. His essay on the journalist H.L. Mencken sets the tone for what is to come; he shares Mencken’s distrust of government in general, and his low opinion of politicians in particular. He is happy to say what many Americans seem reluctant to admit—that there is no difference between the two great political parties; but perhaps they do admit it since, he says, only 50 per cent bother to vote in Presidential elections. Similarly, the UK, he writes, is governed by ‘a conservative oligarchy of interchangeable careerists’—if that was, in 1989, a point well-phrased, how much today does it bear the stamp of a deep depressing truth. And as he describes the search for a ‘bogeyman’ with which rulers can terrify the populace, we see Saddam’s shadow loom over the page.
Vidal is against the ‘war on drugs’—seeing it as, like most other wars, a device by which the state extends its power over the individual; he is febrile on the topic of over-population, but constantly acute on how poverty of thought and language debases public debate. (I had not known that a ‘body bag’ is now a ‘human remains pouch’.) These later essays, which contain the author’s brisk prescriptions for American society, may enrage the more conventional reader; but how pleasant it is to be enraged by Vidal. As he surveys our slowly sinking democracies, our unschooled populace, our vacuous book chatterers and deluded leaders, he bears out the contention of his preface:
I think you must admit that we here at the Diners Club deliver the goods.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622
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 positive assessment of Live from Golgotha.
Duffy, Martha. “A Gadfly in Glorious, Angry Exile.” Time (28 September 1992): 64.
Provides discussion of Vidal's self-imposed exile, his literary career and novel Live from Golgotha, and his views on American politics and culture.
Gates, David. “A Glitch in the Gospel.” Newsweek (31 August 1992): 69.
Review of Screening History and Live from Golgotha.
Gray, Paul. “The World According To Gore.” Time (25 September 2000): 92.
Review of The Golden Age.
Johnson, Diane. “The Best Men?” New York Review of Books (19 October 2000): 21-2.
Review of The Golden Age.
Jones, Malcolm. “A Titan Takes the Stage.” Newsweek (25 September 2000): 61.
Vidal discusses the revival of his play The Best Man and newly released novel The Golden Age.
Kammen, Michael. “What He Learned at the Movies.” New York Times Book Review (30 August 1992): 1.
Review of Screening History.
Krist, Gary. “Hype.” Hudson Review XLVI, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 237-46.
An excerpted essay in which Krist offers an unfavorable assessment of Live from Golgotha.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Pithy Recollections and Hints of Revenge.” New York Times (5 October 1995): C21.
Review of Palimpsest.
———. “Think History's Dull? Not Mrs. Grover Cleveland.” New York Times (19 March 1998): E9.
Review of The Smithsonian Institution.
Lewis, R. W. B. “Two Score of Gore.” New York Times Book Review (20 June 1993): 11.
Review of Vidal's essay collection United States.
Mattick, Paul. “Inventing History.” New York Times Book Review (14 February 1999): 13.
Review of The Essential Gore Vidal.
McGrath, Charles. “Truer Than History.” New York Times Book Review (1 October 2000): 15.
Vidal discusses his novel The Golden Age and his views on American history.
Sheed, Wilfrid. “Gore's Gospel.” The New Yorker (26 October 1992): 130-4.
A review where Sheed offers a generally unfavorable evaluation of Live from Golgotha, which he concludes is “an ingenious piece of fluff.”
Solomon, Andrew. “Gore Vidal Receives a Visitor.” New York Times Magazine (15 October 1995): 40.
Provides an overview of Vidal's literary career and critical reception upon the publication of Palimpsest, along with Vidal's comments on his life, work, and political views.
Stengel, Richard. “Unsentimental Journey.” Time (9 October 1995): 76.
Review of Palimpsest and an overview of Vidal's literary career.
Sullivan, Andrew. “The Greatest Generation (Revised).” New York Times Book Review (1 October 2000): 14.
Review of The Golden Age.
Tatum, James. “The Romanitas of Gore Vidal.” Raritan XI, No. 4 (Spring 1992): 99-122.
Examines classical themes in Vidal's fiction and the author's preoccupation with ancient Rome, particularly as reflected in his view of power—both political and erotic—and the imperial destiny of the United States.
Thomas, D. M. “God's Own Media Event.” New York Times Book Review (4 October 1992): 13.
Review of Live from Golgotha.
Vidal, Gore, with Andrew Kopkind. “The Importance of Being Gore.” Nation (5 July 1993): 16, 18-20.
An interview in which Vidal discusses his life, critical reception, and personal perspective as a gay writer.
Wood, Michael. “Selective Memory.” New York Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 7.
Review of Palimpsest.
Yardley, Jonathan. “The Indian Summer of Gore Vidal” Washington Post Book World (20 November 1988): 3.
Yardley offers a positive assessment of At Home.
Yardley, Jonathan. “The World, The Flesh and Vidal,” Washington Post Book World (8 October 1995): 3.
Yardley offers a positive assessment of Palimpsest.
Additional coverage of Vidal's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, 90:2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 13, 45, 65; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 152; DISCovering Author Modules: Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; and Major 20th-Century Writers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
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 Arts and Letters because he was already a member of the Diners Club. What more elegant way to tell the Writers Club how much he values their opinion, and, for that matter, the opinion of anyone who likes what they write? And what more subtle way to let us know that he, Vidal, was in fact elected to that exclusive group, and by his refusal made another famous writer (John Cheever) sad?
If you approve of Vidal’s allegiance to the Diners Club, you will enjoy this book. It contains a series of essays that appeared in various journals, mostly in the United States, some on literature, others on politics, all expressing the formidable wit and wisdom of an author who, despite his lack of formal qualifications, has been, by his own admission, invariably right. According to Vidal, formal qualifications would have been a hindrance; he is not a scholar-squirrel who teaches at a university; he has never written a review for money: “when I need money I write for the movies”. At the same time, he beats us scholar-squirrels-cum-literary-hacks at our own miserable game. He can drop more literary names per page than an English literature professor at a session of the Modern Languages Association and disembowel the academic critics of his novel Lincoln and serve them up for our delectation, much as in the ancient myth Atreus killed and cooked Thyestes’ children and then invited Thyestes over to dinner.
What can Vidal tell the world that we squirrels cannot? For one thing, the Truth. Where else could we learn the real significance of another emblem, the sled Rosebud in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane? As befits the importance of the revelation, Vidal tells the story twice: Rosebud, the word that Kane whispers on his death-bed, was what William Randolph Hearst called his mistress Marion Davies’s clitoris. If Welles concealed this truth from his audience, why does Vidal insist on revealing it? The story implies, certainly, that Hearst could be vulgar—one can also learn that by taking the guided tour of San Simeon. It also implies that sex is the key to existence. Vidal does have a gift for discovering sex where ordinary readers have failed to notice it (is the meeting between Vautrin and Lucien de Rubempré in Balzac’s Illusions perdues “one of the most erotic ever recorded”? Did Henry James “lust” for men?) But most of all, the True Rosebud story reminds us of Vidal’s authorial presence: whether we want to hear it or not, like the prophet Tiresias, Vidal knows and tells.
According to the myth, Tiresias lived through seven generations of men, had been both a man and a women and was blinded by the goddess Hera for revealing that women had more fun. Like him, Vidal has been an eyewitness, either himself or through the reports of his connections, to many important events, even before he was born. In July 1882, Vidal’s twelve-year-old grandfather heard Oscar Wilde speak in Vicksburg, Mississippi: “he wore a girdle”. Vidal himself in 1940 shook Wendell Willkie’s “limp hand” at the Republican Convention, which he attended with his grandfather, the former Senator T.P. Gore. Because family connections brought him into Washington society, Vidal can claim that the American world was, and still is, small. But the intimate knowledge he has of this world leaves some doubt about his credentials as a card-carrying member of the Diners Club.
Modern inquirers can still learn the Truth about America from Vidal even when he is in his home-from-home, Ravello, Italy. Thanks to the miracle of television, on which he can appear at any time and in the most unlikely company (William F. Buckley, Junior), we could have learned, had we been watching, at least three years before it happened, that Soviet Communism was doomed. Now at least we can read about this prediction, at least twice, even if in retrospect. Who likes this kind of I-told-you-so prophecy? But it probably makes sense to ask if Vidal’s other predictions might not be equally true and apposite: our next enemy will not be the Japanese (they won’t let us), nor the Arabs (they have the oil), but—as it was for Oedipus—mankind, ourselves, because over-population threatens to destroy what’s left of our planet.
Scholar-squirrel (or chipmunk) that I am, I prefer these pronouncements on politics and life to Also sprach Vidal on literature. He writes about his old friend Dawn Powell’s novels with studied zeal, but none of the plots he summarizes or the quotations he selects makes me eager to read one, even though Powell describes a New York world that I know about by osmosis. Does Somerset Maugham ever approximate to Jane Austen? Although Vidal implies that he has read and thought (why doubt it?) about every imaginable literary topic, he lacks the patience to persuade, or (God forbid) teach. His own marvellously self-conscious style surpasses anything he quotes from other writers. Does that explain why he chose those writers to write about? Unlike a scholar-squirrel, Vidal doesn’t try to hide himself behind his author; who we remember in the end is not Maugham or Powell but Vidal.
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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 already taken on the likes of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Norman Podhoretz family, William Buckley, and even Moby Dick and Norman Mailer, it’s not surprising that he might want to take on St. Paul, perhaps the second most important figure in Christianity. Who will win? Don’t bet on St. Paul.
This novel [Live from Golgotha] reveals Vidal at his satirical best, and, alas, at his most self-indulgent. Part Sterne, part Burroughs, his story is not simple. Computer technology has made possible “a systematic erasure of the Good News” of the emergence of Christ as recorded in the New Testament. A “cyberpunk, or Hacker” has unleashed a virus that is attacking “the memory banks of every computer on earth as well as in Heaven and limbo … The Greatest Story Ever Told … is being un-told.”
St. Timothy, the narrator, must not only rechronicle the days leading to the Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection, but, as it turns out, he must correct the record. New software will allow the replaying of those great events.
Time-traveling news crews are rushing back to Golgotha to record the “truth,” Chet of NBC explains to Timothy while soliciting him to anchor the mega-broadcast—live! Of course, channelers and holograms are creating a traffic jam, along with network and big-business executives, New Age heroines, and “kibitzers” eager to influence the new version—all on their way to Golgotha.
“I don’t understand a word you’re saying,” says a bewildered Timothy when St. Paul (“Saint”) is attempting to clarify more of this. “Amen,” the reader may say. But it is to Vidal’s credit that we go along with his invitation to Golgotha.
Jesus is recurrently chastised for having taken so long to make his promised comeback. (“It’s a return,” another great star, Norma Desmond, insisted.) Some readers may become just as impatient with how long it takes Vidal to get to the core of his novel. Referring to St. Paul’s performance as a preacher of the gospel, Timothy asks: “So how did Saint get through the dull parts? He invented … tap dancing.” To retain our interest in the pre-journey, Vidal does a lot of literary tap-dancing himself—some fancy, some clumsy.
The concept of a fat, waddling Jesus is salubriously comic, but when Vidal can’t stop talking about the Lord’s “glandular problem,” he becomes like the person at a party who isn’t satisfied with one good laugh, and so keeps re-telling his joke. (Curiously, Vidal’s Jesus remains as sexless as the one in the Gospels.)
Vidal makes a genuinely satiric—and valid—point in contending that Timothy’s circumcision by St. Paul, whom he depicts as a lecher lusting after boys, is a central event in the emergence of Christianity. The matter did, after all, create a factional fuss among ecclesiastics. Still, circumcision becomes a kind of leitmotif—organs always large, skin plentiful.
In a hilarious diatribe by one Selma Suydam about Marianne Williamson and the true authorship of the “Course on Miracles,” Selma claims that Marianne may be conniving to become the Messiah. But Vidal’s inclusion of Mary Baker Eddy’s recipe for a “gin dais” is at best baffling.
There are long dissertations about politics (a subject dear to Vidal’s heart—he is poignantly proud of his own political sorties). When Priscilla, hostess to St. Paul and dilettante addicted to French phrases, makes herself up in her “faux egyptien mirror” and shares a “faux egyptien basin,” that’s funny; but when such phrases recur for pages, the joke becomes precious. So do Timothy’s dozen or so references to his darling “hyacinthine curls and pink-strawberry lips.”
Vidal is effectively wicked when he parodies TV hype in preparation for what may be The Show of Shows—“the whole ball of wax, live!” But he can turn tasteless—Nero’s seduction of Timothy is referred to as “date rape,” and a mention of Orson Welles’ weight is mean. Readers may suspect he is indulging private pokes—how else to account for a gratuitous smack at Mother Teresa (did she refuse to drop by?) and three jabs about getting a bad table at Spago’s?
There is a marvelous running commentary on metaphors and similes—as Vidal’s prose exemplifies his thesis. But there is also surprisingly lax writing. “Anyways” and “somehows” recur along with sentences like: “I remember Ephesus then like yesterday now.” And: She was “as lovely as a woman who’ll never see forty hurtle by again can be.” Nor is Vidal beyond one-liners that would elicit groans from the audience of a stand-up comic. The “Fat Jesus” shrills at Saint: “Why dost thou persecuteth me-th [sic]?” And: “Now you’re cooking with Virgin oil,” says Timothy at the expectation of meeting a sexy priestess.
Never mind. When Vidal gets around to delivering on his promise to retell the crucial events narrated in the gospels, he is splendid. The revelation that the Fat Jesus is not the real one, that the thin one of lore pulled a fast one on Judas, is only the first of the many twists and turns Vidal’s inventive daring takes. The last fifth of this novel is a gem, its last page uproarious.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839
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 quasi-marriage. Vidal can fairly be charged with blasphemy.
If Christianity had not progressed at least somewhat from the Middle Ages, Live from Golgotha would have caused Vidal to have his eyes plucked out and be sentenced to the galleys for the rest of his life. If Christians viewed blasphemy the way orthodox Moslems do, some Christian version of the Ayatollah might have put out a contract on Vidal. Fortunately for all concerned, even the most conservative members of the Christian coalition are not into that kind of retaliation.
Blasphemy, real blasphemy, in which the sacred is obscenely ridiculed, is pretty hard to come by. Indeed you almost have to be a believer to carry it off. By that standard, Vidal might be judged to be a man of very strong faith indeed.
Is Live from Golgotha really and truly blasphemous? Well, its narrator is Timothy, disciple and homosexual lover of Saint Paul (“Saint” for short), who is also a dancer, a juggler, a mountebank and a sometime secret agent of the Mossad. Jesus is originally presented as a fat and foolish fellow with glandular problems. Later it develops that this man is really Judas. The real Jesus is a cruel and crazy fanatical Zionist who changes place with Judas and emerges in the 20th century to plot the extinction of the species in a nuclear war in 2001. He can do this because television networks have been able to project back in time and forward to the present. Timothy is projected back in time to the scene of the Crucifixion to be anchorman for the NBC report. Warned by the spirit of “Saint,” he must strive to prevent the switch between Judas and Jesus so that the real Jesus (aka Marvin Wasserstein) dies and the world will be saved from destruction 2000 years later.
If such a story is not blasphemous, then nothing is. There may also be another sin in charging $22 for a novel substantially less than 80,000 words in length, even one by Gore Vidal.
It may well be said that Vidal’s jeu d’esprit with blasphemy is witty, ingenious and frothy, with emphasis on the last adjective. As far as blasphemy goes, Live from Golgotha is very clever indeed—if blasphemy is to your taste. It may also be argued that Vidal’s usual audience is composed largely of readers who rather relish the perversity of his stories and do not have enough religious convictions to be offended by blasphemy, if indeed they could recognize it as such. Rather, they will titter at the titillation that Live from Golgotha’s impish irreverence serves up.
Finally, it might be contended that Vidal’s blasphemy is not likely to cause much injury to God, who, on the record, is quite capable of taking care of Herself when push comes to shove. Surely most of those who still regard blasphemy seriously have never read one of Gore Vidal’s books and are not likely to read this one. It might even be asserted that a book reviewer kind of violates the separation of Church and State when he suggests in a journal as sophisticated and as liberal as this one that a book is deliberately intended to be blasphemous. Yet, following the Law of a Duck, if it walks like blasphemy and talks like blasphemy and looks like blasphemy, then surely it is blasphemy, deliberately designed to be such and indeed as offensively blasphemous as possible. One misses the whole point of the story—and fails in simple honesty—unless one states explicitly that this is what Vidal is about.
Heaven forfend that I should seem to deny Gore Vidal the right to be blasphemous if he so desires. He can work out the morality of his actions with Herself in the appropriate time and circumstances. On the basis of the same record hither-to cited, I am forbidden to judge lest I be judged.
Moreover, I’m not suggesting that committed Christians launch a boycott of Live from Golgotha. That would make Random House’s day. My point, rather, is that if you enjoy a romp of cheerful blasphemy, this is the book for you. If you don’t find that sort of thing to be exactly your cup of tea, then you can easily miss Live from Golgotha—unless you have some excellent reason to want to induce an attack of nausea.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101
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 the business. …
At first blush, it seems that Gore Vidal is declaring solidarity with Salman Rushdie, demonstrating that Christians too can blaspheme, contemplate diabolic revisions of sacred texts and write with bawdy derision of the Founder of their faith. Will there be thunderous denunciations, book burnings, a jeremiad from Jerry Falwell, a patwa from Pat Robertson?
On deeper analysis, Live From Golgotha turns out to be a stemmatological fantasia, a study of the inevitable and enjoyable corruption of texts and doctrines. The scene is late-first-century Macedon, the protagonist and increasingly unreliable narrator is that Bishop Timothy, known to us only as the recipient of some of St Paul’s more relaxed correspondence, the one with the stomach problems and the frequent infirmities. Gore Vidal’s Timothy is a well-endowed muscular blond, the recipient not merely of a little wine, but some gross Pauline familiarities. Paul is not seen as admirable (“all those years working as a secret agent for Mossad had made Saint even more devious than the Big Fella in the sky had made him in the first place”), but he wows the audiences around the Eastern Mediterranean bortsch circuit. Into this idyll irrupt various characters from our own time, from Gore Vidal’s own time, presenting themselves variously as dreams, ghosts, visions, mediumistic messages, retroincarnating channelers, holograms and fully fledged time-travellers. Timothy has some initial difficulty distinguishing Messages from spiritual junk mail (“This is no nightmare, Timmy! We’re in the big league now. This is a vision”). The intruders include Mary Baker Eddy, Dr Cutler 1 and 2, the same boffin at different ages, sundry kibitzers, Shirley MacLaine (who brings tofu) and a Media Mogul who brings a television set, thanks to which the bishop promptly becomes an addict of CNN “and what appears to be the usual ongoing bad new for the dollar”, as well as the Sunday Hour of Power and Prayer. But television faces distress him:
Back here in 96 AD those of us who still have a few teeth don’t usually like to show them, which is why there isn’t a lot of smiling going on—not that there is much to smile about, what with high taxes and the crazy Zionists threatening an intifada against the Romans who are, like it or not, the masters of the world, as the Jews learned twenty years ago when the Romans tore down the Temple in Jerusalem and wiped out the entire Zionist movement except for the Irgun terrorist gang, now going strong setting fire to hotel lobbies.
The problem they are all facing back home is that an entity, presumed diabolic, known only as the Hacker, is spreading virus-like among the tapes of the Gospels, both on Earth and in Heaven, erasing as it goes. As the records vanish and memories fade, the past itself is changed. Timothy’s visitors would like him to write another, definitive gospel, and conceal it somewhere whence it will only emerge to save the Saviour in good time for the Second Coming, tentatively scheduled for 2001 AD.
Of course, the visitors, especially the two variant Drs Cutler, have different notions of the truth they wish to preserve, and each attempts to forestall the others: “a foreign network got through to Him—by remote of course—and the interviewer nearly talked Him into giving up all that Zionist crap of His and emigrating to Palm Springs where there’s this reformed temple with His name on it, along with a brand new condo…”.
As the diachronic shenanigans intensify, Timothy’s testimony departs further and further from Gospel truth, as the various intruders put a different spin on him. Suspicious anachronisms abound. Why does Saint Paul refer to the birth of our Lord at Las Vegas and speak of the gospel writers as “Matt, Mark, Lu-lu and John-John”?
Time-travel paradoxes, since there is nothing to restrain them, soon fatigue the conscientious reader. But Live From Golgotha, you will have gathered, is a romp, a Carry On Up To The Right Hand Of God. Timothy is to be transported as anchor-man for a prime-time NBC Easter special, back to the Place of the Skull. But the big question looms: did they nail the right guy? And is it going to prove significant that the television is a Sony, and not a GE model? It sure is.
Meddling with sacred history is an honourable tradition, ever since the pious copyist who (allegedly) inserted into Josephus the eye-witness of Jesus that Josephus so carelessly omitted. A man named Ranger-Gull (he called himself Guy Thorne) wrote When it was Dark (1903), about a Jewish conspiracy to disprove the resurrection with fake archaeological evidence, causing such dismay to the faithful that they would be able to achieve world domination by 1904. That had fewer jokes. Borges played with these ideas, succinctly, in “Three Versions of Judas”. Vidal is not always-succinct. Jokes about Christian fund-raising (the Holy Rolodex), about the smell of fish sauce, jokes about the radical chic set speaking “faux Gallique” are repeated for safety’s sake. A witty phrase about “St Paul seeing the ghost of our Founder on the eastbound Jerusalem-Damascus freeway” is lovingly repeated. And some of the punches are not so much telegraphed as faxed. Moreover (unless it is the unreliable narrator again) Vidal seems to think that dates AM are After Moses (rather than Anno Mundi).
But at his sharpest, there’s nobody sharper or more politically savvy than Gore Vidal (combining, as it were, the best of Albert Gore and Vidal Sassoon): “Selma has elements of boredom in her personality which have not yet been given, perhaps, their fullest rein”; “Jesus didn’t just clear the moneychangers out of the temple, he lowered the prime rate”. He’s particularly skilful at the farcical blending of various modes of gobbledegook: mediaspeak, econotalk, chicchat; nor does he scorn the belly laugh:
“I doubt that.”
One knew immediately that the speaker was Thomas.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874
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 was thinking of becoming an Italian citizen and had sought his advice on the matter. Barzini was beside himself with scorn, but I was impressed. Until then I had not seen Vidal as the exasperated radical that he claimed to be; he seemed to be playing the part of a weary patrician at Hollywood dinner tables, where it was easier to chatter on about America as a “sinking ship” than to describe hard-pressed American lives in his novels. And I understood his addiction to apocalyptic images as rage against the demeaning of homosexual love. “The heterosexual dictatorship has got to go!” he once wrote. “And I’m here to challenge it, and I’m here every time I can put an end to it.”
Of course Vidal not only adored Italy (what American writer discovering it after the war did not!) but could actually afford to live there much of the year, year after year. He was in a few years to acquire a magnificent estate in Ravello perching on the Mediterranean coast. But for a writer so dependent on the American market, and so enthusiastically playing the part of an American grandee in devastated Italy, even to think of joining himself to this scene as a naturalized Italian! Clearly, I had missed the man’s very real political despair, the intellectual darkness he favored and its sense of urgency.
The urgency has also to do with his other favorite role: the anti-Christian revivalist of paganism. Nothing would be more foolish than to regard Live from Golgotha, Vidal’s farce parodying Acts of the Apostles (it follows the Gospels in the New Testament and describes St. Paul’s missionary journeys to extend the still primitive Church), as nothing but bawdy entertainment for the bathhouse boys; since nothing about the human body, what it can do and what can be done to it, including all incessant acts of violence, war, and so on, is news even to children watching television, Live from Golgotha, though it tries to shock, is actually no dirtier than anything else these days. What makes Vidal’s book different are its “pagan” emphases, its affirmations. The only unsullied character in the book is Petronius singing the soft winds of classic Italy. Vidal made a point of allowing only a gay magazine, The Advocate, to see the text before the publication date. But since any normal person these days is more interested in sex than in religion, the joke is on the book buyers. Vidal’s target in this book is Christianity, which was founded by Jews.
The book is full of clowns, fools, and monsters, but its only villain is Jesus. He disapproves of the Church founded in his name, and at the end he gladly describes himself as a “twentieth-century Zionist terrorist” who looks forward to establishing the Kingdom of God in the next century, replete with Isaiah’s “ring of fire,” for nationalistic reasons. For this, he deserves crucifixion.
Vidal’s Jesus envisions an eventual nuclear holocaust on the goyim. His New Testament Jews are disgusting as well as dangerous. So the novel opens on the circumcision of Paul’s gofer Timothy, the future bishop and saint. This was reluctantly ordered by his boss and lover Paul, in order to placate the still Jewish Jews (especially James the brother of Jesus) who were the first Christians.
Paul, always laughingly put down here by Timothy as “Saint,” is Elmer Gantry with an immense Rolodex, a super salesman who orders “follow-up” letters to the newly reborn once his sales pitch has had its effect and he has pushed on to find fresh suckers. Timothy (“I have golden hyacinthine curls and cornflower-blue, forget-me-not eyes and the largest dick in our part of Asia Minor”) is too gorgeous in his own eyes to respect the scrawny, money-mad, clownish salesman (a tap dancer in his spare moments) he sleeps with. But you have to hand it to a Jew who “ate with goyim, … christened goyim, … was having carnal knowledge of a teen-age Greek with two centimeters of rose-velvety foreskin, me.”
Thanks to computer technology, fast forwards, memory banks, and the like, the joke on which the plot rests is that these biblical characters are brought to our own day, if not quite as flesh and blood. Because print has gone out of style and the history of the Church now exists only in memory banks, Timothy and friends have to save their own history from some devilish hacker who has introduced a virus that threatens to cheat mankind of the true story. This includes such tidbits as the fact that Judas, not Jesus, was happily mistaken for the Messiah to be crucified. The sap weighed 400 pounds, and how would the Romans get him up on the cross?
Since the novel constantly jerks from the first decades of the twentieth century to the last, we are supposed to die of laughter when all the forces of contemporary television are mustered to present the Big Event on Golgotha. But at the very last moment the hacker is revealed to be Jesus, the enemy of the one written record that Timothy has saved (in a janitor’s closet). Because Jesus gladly admits that he is the King of the Jews, his effort “to erase Paul’s work and bring on a nuclear Judgment Day was simply not in the cards. He had lost. We had won. Christianity was saved, as well as the residents of 2001 A.D.”
So the true Jesus is crucified after all. As Nietzsche said, he was neither the first Jew nor the last Jew to die on the cross. But who would have expected Gore Vidal—that mere entertainer, as I once foolishly thought him—to nail Jesus on the cross because he was, and forever remains, a Jew? What’s wrong with that? The answer is, Vidal’s Jesus is a fanatically self-limiting Jew. Jesus believed in Judgment Day, a folly that keeps the Jews frothing even now, with their tiresome inability to forget the Holocaust. This is one of the many throw-away lines in Vidal’s book: “AIPAC has insisted on a twelve-part series based on how Moses and God established the Jews in Palestine forever, as well as another year of reruns of the Holocaust.”
So what is Vidal’s own religion? In “Monotheism and Its Discontents,” the last one in his collection of think pieces for The Nation that is now published as The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, Vidal is as forthright and uncomplicated on that subject as he is about the “last days” of the United States:
Now to the root of the matter. The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three antihuman religions have evolved—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal—God is the omnipotent father—hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.
The sky-god is a jealous god, of course. He requires total obedience from everyone on earth, and he is in place not just for one tribune but of all creation. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good.
Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose. Any movement of a liberal nature endangers his authority and that of his delegates on earth. One God, one King, one Pope, one master in the factory, one father-leader in the family at home.
The tone is maybe too childishly brash, the content maybe too simple to explain monotheism as a great foundation of science in human thought? Not to worry. Vidal has everything down pat, in op-ed lengths. Simone Weil, who also resented the Jews, complained of monotheism that it posited belief in one figure alone, and the removal of that figure therefore led to no belief at all. Vidal’s objection is different. His “paganism” is entirely sexual. His views are those of the brilliant, angry boy at Exeter already revolting against authority. It seems that nothing about monotheism arose from human speculation about the possibly unitary nature of creation; the sky-god just imposed himself like a headmaster. Religion does not rise from the everywhere observable thirst for transcendence; it is just a racket in the hands of some priestly mafia. Beastly authority, especially the kind so hard on same-sexers, is the rule everywhere.
Of all these little books, the only one that gave me any pleasure, meaning relief from the clang clang of this man’s too confident voice, is Screening History, his largely charming and almost idyllic memories of life at the movies. As the Frenchmen wistfully remembering the whorehouses of their youth said at the end of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, there, truly, was our happiness. Vidal correctly points out that Americans, or at least those of a certain generation, owe such scant knowledge of history as they possess to the costume dramas that once presented European lords and ladies, and he is right to lament the comparative absence of great American figures like Jefferson and Washington from the screen.
Vidal fondly remembers Henry Fonda playing the young Lincoln about to walk into the future. He is as good on this as he is bemoaning Hollywood’s inability to present the American past. The lack of the historical sense even among supposedly educated Americans is more and more stupefying, and explains why politicians can get away with any falsehood, since for the most part they too don’t know the falsehoods to be false.
But the subject of Lincoln brings to mind Vidal’s own Lincoln, which was roundly criticized for its falsehoods by Lincoln scholars, whom Vidal nastily calls “Lincoln priests.” As it happens, I know one of these “Lincoln priests,” who is a Hungarian refugee teaching at Gettysburg College and the author of a valuable book called Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream. This scholar complained that “to the general public, Vidal’s is the most influential Lincoln image of our time. It is also the most insidiously ahistorical.” Vidal’s rebuttal: “I think ‘ahistorical,’ in a sense, means a lack of footnotes.” This is cheap enough, and it is thoroughly beside the point. But not content to let bad enough alone, Vidal goes completely wild and notes “the historian’s provenance as Stalinist Hungary because the style is that of a defender of a totalitarian regime.” When I came to this sentence, I found myself saying right out loud, Shut up, Vidal! Just for once, shut up!
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
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 laws govern this week’s instalment. Gore Vidal’s novel is part blasphemously comic rewrite of the Acts of the Apostles, part frenetic science-fiction, complete with ‘tele-time transportation’ and its full quota of bemused questioning (‘Why didn’t you stop your younger self the same way that you stopped him from trying to peddle that false gospel to me?’ There’s no answer to that one.) And our hero, Timothy, one of the saints who ‘started out on the ground floor’ by becoming social secretary, gofer and lay to St Paul, has the usual task: to preserve History (and in this case Christianity) As We Know It, and to prevent the destruction of the world by nuclear holocaust in the year 2001.
These rather tired and tacky elements are given surprising comic energy by Vidal. Surprising, because this remains essentially a one joke book: the depiction of saints with large and active dicks, dongs, whangs, weenies etc (‘He had fantastic double standards, but then most saints do’; ‘Basically, Priscilla was just a horny gal’), whose church is an on-going show-biz concern, grossing massive box-office receipts, due to the fantastic fund-raising and marketing skills of St Paul, with his brilliant new logo, the cross, and his realisation of the importance of the Follow-up Letter. ‘Book-keeping wise, you got one sweet operation going’, as the second high priestess of Diana of Ephesus tells Timothy, in bed, naturally. Such writing is altogether too easy for Vidal, and it shows.
In that silent smoky hall you could have heard an unweighted pin drop or the loosest foreskin slide back …
Now there’s a glissando oddly missing from the BBC sound archives.
This looks pretty puerile; but in Pythonesque fashion, the sheer exuberance of the joke’s ramifications proves irresistible.
Certainly Saint was in great form. He was now writing circular letters to our churches, epistles chock-full of recipes, jokes, hints on good grooming and interior decoration and, naturally, horoscopes.
Like all normal Asia Minor boys I was curious about the hygiene of your average high priestess of Diana … Fascinated, I listened as she talked minor-high-priestess talk by the yard, including such forbidden subjects as clitoral circumcision, depilatories, and of course, inevitably, accident insurance and liability.
If you don’t find these extracts at all funny, don’t buy the book.
St Timothy’s richly anachronistic prosestyle (‘Saint could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo’) is part of his unreliability as a narrator. His problem is that scientists, TV executives, Zionists, assorted religious lunatics and Shirley MacLaine keep ‘channelling in’ to his life from the future, where time travel is being perfected through a mish-mash of trances and technology. This vastly complicates the middle-aged Timothy’s mission, which is nothing less than to save Christianity. As St Paul posthumously reveals to Timothy, via a relatively old-fashioned vision, an evil computer-genius will or has introduced a virus into the memory banks of every computer on earth. The Greatest Story Ever Told is rapidly being untold, garbled with blasphemies or dissolving in cascades from every screen. Only the Gospel according to Timothy will survive, because it has not yet been discovered in the mop-room of his cathedral, and so can be fed directly into a hacker-proof programme. But Timothy hasn’t yet written it, and as he struggles to recall his early life on the road with ‘Saint’, it seems that the hackers have found some way to alter, erase and garble his memories. Will the Gospel according to Timothy be such as to inspire the faith of future generations? What odd compulsion makes him confess to date-rape by Nero? Did Jesus really have a gross gladular weight problem? And if so, will he have a serious image-problem when NBC finally has the technology to transmit the Crucifixion live from Golgotha, with Timothy as anchorperson (‘I thanked both the Roman administration and the Temple staff for their kind co-operation. I also did a short commercial for the company that had provided the user-friendly nails for the crucifix’)?
Jesting Pilate’s query underlies this romp. There are serious questions of reliability, authenticity, transmission and the role of memory in creating personality and history bundled up here. I do not actually think that the book would have been better and funnier if it had played more ostentatiously with these themes: probably only dons write and enjoy the self-conscious genre that they like to term ‘ludic’. What we have here is more entertaining, and silly: it reads more like the extended skit of an extremely clever undergraduate.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778
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 Brothers suit.
The party’s venerable Eastern guard was also certain that, once in power, Bush would quickly distance himself from those tacky electronic Bible thumpers whom Reagan so assiduously courted. After all, one-time captains of the Yale baseball team simply do not bend the knee in the direction of declassé Christian evangelists from the more neanderthal reaches of the American South.
However, as anyone who watched the Republican convention knows, Bush once again embraced the Elmer Gantrys with a vengeance. In the process, not only did he alienate the moderate wing of the Republican Party (yes, friends, there is such a species as a centrist Republican), but he also gave those Bible Belt ayatollahs a new lease of life. After several years in the wilderness—thanks to revelations about financial chicanery and missionary-position proselytising—the fundamentalists are now attempting to resurrect their theocratic agenda. So, despite its absurd excesses and undergraduate humour, Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha is a welcome heretical antidote.
Very early on, Vidal lets it be known that he is gunning for the Rushdie prize for droll blasphemy. Just consider this little encounter between Saint Paul and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science (and the only woman to be buried with a telephone—just in case, like ET, she wants to phone home): “Then Paul put her name in the holy Rolodex. As he used to say, you never know who’s got the money. ‘It’s tough trying to hang on to a trademark. James even went so far as to hire his smart Jew lawyer in Rome who specialises in copyright cases, but so far all he’s been able to do is collect a large fee every quarter. James is a schmuck because the problem is not how you copyright the word Christ, which you can’t, but the cross as logo, which you can. Of course Pauline Christianity might be easier to copyright but’—Saint whinnied happily—‘that would be sacrilege, wouldn’t it?’”
As Vidal aficionados will have gathered, Live from Golgotha is an exercise in hyper-kinetic satire, straight out of the Myra Breckinridge school of burlesque. As such, its plot is communion-wafer thin: a hacker is wreaking havoc with The Greatest Story Ever Told, obliterating for posterity the Good News of J C—a Son of God who has an Elvis-like problem with corpulence. However, there is one forgotten dude in Biblical history who can save Christianity from nowhereville: St Paul’s favourite sidekick, Timothy.
Though born several years after that nasty business on Calvary, Timothy spent much of his childhood hobnobbing with the saints. Now, with the J C story under threat from this would-be hacker, his old padrone appears to him in a vision and informs him that it is his job to stop the “systematic erasure of the Good News” by writing his own narrative of Mr Christ’s life-and-times before the computer virus hits.
But just as Timothy sits down to “describe Saint Paul’s first meeting with our Lord on the eastbound Jerusalem-Damascus freeway”, he gets some unexpected visitors from the 20th century in the form of workmen bearing a gift labelled Sony. Suddenly, Timothy is a television junkie, hooked to CNN. And one morning, a middle-aged NBC executive steps out of this Sony and invites Timothy to front a live broadcast of the Crucifixion.
Live from Golgotha is a splatter-gun lampoon, unapologetically giddy and gloriously excessive. Vidal hits the page like a sacrilegious gunslinger, determined to mow down every sacred cow in sight. And there is something exhausting about his incessant potshots at televangelism and the wholesale idiocies of US popular culture. But, despite its juvenile humour, the novel has a certain demented energy that you will either find bracing or just plain exasperating.
There’s nothing particularly original about mocking the commercialisation of Jesus, but Vidal is an enjoyable companion down this profane and irreverent road. He reminds us that, in a market-driven age, Christ today is the ultimate marketable commodity. After all, the guy is a very lucrative investment.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
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 Vidal is unaware of his “acts,” we are surely deceived. He is, indeed, fascinated by the ability of the performer to play different roles so well that he seduces the audience. We must view Vidal as a self-conscious actor of subtle roles. There is irony here. Vidal is, if you will, so brilliant that he makes us believe that he is “fake.”
But I hasten to add that Vidal is certainly aware of the nature of performance, of artistic creation. And he is at his best when he mixes roles. Perhaps few readers remember that he was our first critic to celebrate Italo Calvino’s fiction. Both writers are essentially interested in the nature of “reality”; they use low forms—science fiction, popular culture—for high ends. They play seriously; their meditations are sophisticated, subtle, subversive. Vidal is at his best when he employs “camp” for serious purposes. In Duluth, Myra Breckinridge, Two Sisters he intermingles genres; he questions, indeed, the very notion of genre—of art itself. (So, of course, does Calvino.)
I must mention a wonderful collection of essays on Vidal edited by Jay Parini (Columbia University Press, 1992). Many of these essays support my contention that Vidal has, for the better part of his long career, created odd novels which cannot be easily categorized. Williwaw, for example, is one of the most interesting war novels because of the very exclusion of epic scenes of battle, of strong leaders. War is presented “off-stage.” (I think of the violence which occurs behind the “scene” in Greek tragedy.) Vidal’s history cycle employs such “real” heroes (or villains) as Lincoln and Burr; at the same time his fictional characters interact with—and interpret the actions of—Lincoln. Thus we have the startling feeling that history—especially American history—is itself a fiction.
Vidal, we know, has always been abusive toward religious orthodoxy. He has attacked Christianity as a kind of comedy; and he has, of course, courted displeasure and anger. Live from Golgotha, like Duluth or Myra Breckinridge, is earthy, dirty, and obscene. Saint Paul is an agent of the Mossad. Jesus is fat. It is appropriate that the mockery and the lunacy begin in the very first lines: “In the beginning was the nightmare and the knife was with Saint Paul and the circumcision was a Jewish notion and definitely not mine.”
But if we look closely at the lines, we recognize that there is a narrator. The narrator is dreaming. The stage is being set for a “dream-world” in which “stability” of any sort is disrupted or mutilated. And the breaks, ruptures, and mutilations continue to the point of utter rupture and farce.
The narrator tells us that he is unsure whether or not he exists. He believes that he is being manipulated by outside forces. He is “possessed,” uncertain, “unreal.” And in a sense he is right. Timothy, the narrator, is being controlled: “Am I possessed? Or—who am I? I must keep a firm grip on myself, assuming that it is mine that I now try firmly to grip.” There are several games being played here. Timothy—any person in a novel—lacks flesh and blood; he is a mark on the page. Vidal uses the notion that we deceive ourselves: we cry or shriek at performances, theatrical events. He does more—he asks whether or not religion as such is a fantasy, a “fiction.”
But Vidal cannot stop here. He questions the validity of time and space—the existence of “reality.” If the Bible—or any religious text—is imperfect or incomplete, then it lacks wholeness (or holiness). It risks misinterpretation.
Although Vidal raises questions about the relation of word to world—of the truth of texts—he now offers the idea that every reader is a creator, a judge. And if the reader is being read—by another reader—aren’t critics criticized? Aren’t interpreters interpreted? Then the entire notion of “belief” is indeterminate, open, cut. Timothy, at one point, tells us—does “he” know we exist?—“But when I enter the past through memory I must now be extremely alert to the possibility that my recollections are being altered in ways that I cannot determine. … What is truth indeed!”
I must stop here. Although Vidal offers a fiendish gospel—a counter-gospel—he must be taken seriously. He is, after all, asking basic epistemological questions. He turns the tables on us. Why do we believe in miracles? Do we find truth by reason or faith? Such questions are especially disturbing because they are asked in improper, shocking, indecent ways.
I suggest that Vidal’s provocative, distasteful novel is, perhaps, one of his most sustained meditations on the nature of things. It will be read for many years.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 864
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.
Gore Vidal, unmistakably.
Just as unmistakable, alas, in the pseudo-stately tread of the prose, is the narcissistic grimace of self-parody. This slender book, all 97 pages of it, is interesting in so far as it is the closest its author has ever come to writing an autobiographical memoir; interesting as it is, however, it reads almost like an anthology of Vidal’s tics, tropes and pet obsessions. It appears to be part of an ongoing series (Vidal makes a passing reference to Eudora Welty’s contribution), but it is unclear whether its specific premise—relating History with a capital H as it was represented in the movies he watched as a child and youth to his apprehension of history with a lower-case h as it disclosed itself to him at the same age—is also the premise of the collection.
The blurb is of no assistance in this, but it surely was Vidal’s own personal theme. Notwithstanding that for some years (and volumes of essays) now he has anathematised the cinema as the original and abiding cause of what he is convinced is the contemporary world’s irreversible estrangement from literature, the medium has been of huge significance in his work and, now we learn, in the formative years of his life. No one who was not also an unrepentant movie buff could have written Myra Breckenridge and Myron or written directly for the cinema itself and allowed his work to be adapted by it or, just this year, played (as one would expect, very ably) the part of a Democrat senator in Tim Robbins’s clunky political satire Bob Roberts. The littérateur in him is obliged to regard the cinema as the curse of the century; yet he loved it, too, as that first sentence of his testifies, and he just cannot resist pawing over it.
The trouble is that he has watched thousands of movies and hasn’t seen a thing. Rather shakily working George Bush into the narrative of Screening History with the connection that ‘When I was at Exeter, George Bush was at Andover’ (which, unless there is something we English do not and cannot understand about these colleges, would seem to mean only that the two men are vaguely the same age), he drolly, predictably, teases the soon-to-be ex-President on his self-confessed problem with ‘the vision thing’. But, where the cinema is concerned, this ‘vision thing’ is precisely Vidal’s own blind spot. No one who refers to the dramatist and screenwriter R.C. Sherriff as ‘one of the true auteurs’, or endeavours to refute the auteur theory by citing Gone With the Wind as a producer—rather than director—driven film (not actually a very good movie, GWTW is to the history of the American cinema exactly what the original novel is to the history of American literature), can have the faintest idea of what the word auteur means. When Vidal, on whom it has clearly never dawned that the cinema might be a visual rather than a literary medium, claims that ‘the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies’, the statement carries much the same weight as would the admission of a weakness for ice cream sundaes.
More satisfying in this little book is the strictly autobiographical element. His blind grandfather, Senator Gore of Oklahoma, whom we are already used to glimpsing in frequent (rather too frequent) walk-on parts in Vidal’s non-fiction, assumes proper supporting performer status here (Lionel Barrymore would be ideal casting). His father, an inventor who founded three airline companies, and his mother, who, asked why, after three husbands, she had not taken a fourth, answered, ‘My first husband had three balls. My second, two. My third, one. Even I know enough not to press my luck’ come pleasantly into focus. Vidal, as usual, regrets the Death of the Novel (and, as usual, enjoys regretting it) and has amusing and pertinent things to say about the way in which real and movie history have intersected throughout the century.
Short as it is, though, this is a rambling, inconsequential book that fails absolutely to do justice to its title. And Vidal’s fundamental lack of seriousness about the cinema really should disqualify him from ever writing about it. For instance, he mentions an early film ‘with Ramon Navarro and Helen Broderick’ which, he insists, he ‘can find no record of anywhere except in my memory’. Perhaps if he had looked up ‘Novarro’, with two o’s instead of one, he would have got the information he required.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2874
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 in the lives of others, usually wearing an impenetrable disguise.” In fact he does not really succumb to the American writer’s disease, which is ordinarily to write about how I became Me. This is an autobiography in the nineteenth-century, or even eighteenth-century mode, about how the writer’s case illustrates some trend or constant of human history, more or less as John Stuart Mill wrote an autobiography to illustrate the efficacy of Headstart.
Vidal was born in 1925 to attractively rakish, prominent, rich parents. His glamorous mother married three times, once to a man who would later marry Jackie Onassis’s mother, and “she never baked a pie, but she did manage to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka.” His father, a founder of airlines, and Roosevelt’s director of Air Commerce, let him solo in a plane at the age of ten. It was from his formidable, blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, that he derived his interest in politics and his sense of coming from a ruling class that ought to be involved in politics—here was a boy who kept a diary at age fourteen in which he recorded instances of labor unrest.
Uprooted throughout childhood, sent off to private schools, at seventeen he joined the Army and served on a freight supply ship. (“I was a dangerously poor navigator, but at least my luck was better than Lord Jim’s.”) After the war he returned, took up writing novels, and, boycotted by critics for treating the subject of homosexuality in his early novel The City and the Pillar, supported himself by writing for film, and eventually for the stage and television. He wrote some brilliant essays, more novels, both historical and satirical, including several whose formal innovations were more or less obscured by their racy charm, and also ran for Congress, later for the Senate, unsuccessfully.
It is from his love of films that he comes to the central thesis of Screening History, “How, through ear and eye, we are both defined and manipulated by fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience of a reality become as irreal as the Turkey of Oblomov’s coffeehouse.’ or the Alaska of my dreams” (or, one might add, the Duluth or Golgotha of his novels).
“In the end, he who screens the history makes the history.” Since the world sees whatever a producer chooses to make it see, to understand America we must understand “how we were shaped by the movies that we saw, and why they were what they were.” He uses himself as an example of a movie-struck American, discussing the films that influenced him at each period of his life and influenced many of us who saw the same movies. He was bewitched by A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with Mickey Rooney into reading all of Shakespeare when he was ten. Traveling to Europe at thirteen, he was already familiar with the French Foreign Legion which paraded by the Petit Palais—he had seen Under Two Flags, The Mummy, Fire Over England, The Prince and the Pauper, The Prisoner of Zenda—he suggests very convincingly that our view of history would be different if the studios had not been run by Europeans and Anglophiles: “One wonders, not so idly, what sort of a country we might have had if, instead of being bombarded by the screened versions of Nelson and Napoleon and Queen Elizabeth, we had been given films about Jefferson and Hamilton and the Lincoln presidency.”
His preoccupation not only with American history but with American history as film has been central to his work as long ago as Myra Breckenridge (which some think his masterpiece, a Calvino-esque Hollywood tale or, perhaps, given the chronology, an influence on Calvino). The redoubtable Myra observed in 1974 that “in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States,” and that “any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition,” but perhaps people didn’t take her seriously enough. As Vidal notes in Screening History, “Cassandra was not much listened to, but her gloomy presence introduced a mood of foreboding. How she would have been ignored if she had made the mistake of being funny!” Myra was too funny, and Vidal himself has paid a price for his wittiness, in that a tone of high seriousness is a prerequisite in America to a work’s being taken as Serious Art.
Vidal is witty in the mode of Voltaire or Wilde; yet the solitary and bookish boy-moviegoer emerges from behind his jokes as a surprisingly austere, scholarly intellectual with a disappointed romantic’s impatience with his country, and obsessed with the question: What is one to make of a country whose idea of reality is “carefully distorted for us by the churches and the schools, by the press and by—triumphantly—the movies, which are, finally, the only validation to which that dull anterior world … must submit.”
Vidal’s serious and unsettling point about film’s influence on history has been nicely illustrated by at least two recent books. Aljean Harmetz in Round Up the Usual Suspects, about the making of the film Casablanca, writes about how she
was in elementary school during World War II; I did my part in the war by rolling tinfoil and rubber bands into balls and bringing them to the Warners Beverly Theater on Saturday mornings. World War II has receded with all its certainties and moral imperatives, leaving muddy flats behind. … I believed the romantic interpretation of Casablanca then—love lost for the good of the world—and believe it now.
Because film can be as formative as family of our views and values, she cannot now believe some more recent re-interpretations, for instance that Rick and Hsa were sick of each other, or that Hsa was only using Rick. (Of the same period, Myra says, “We were, despite our youth, a throwback to the Forties, to I mean of course the war. … I would give ten years of my life if I could step back in time for just one hour and visit the Stage Door Canteen in Hollywood, exactly the way that Dane Clark did in the movie of the same name. …”) Harmetz’s account of how Hollywood, cooperating with the Office of War Information, dutifully and enthusiastically shaped fictions to affect public opinion, shows in detail how looking at the assumptions of those script changes and casting decisions can help to illumine our understanding of the period, for instance how public and official attitudes to the war shifted between 1942 and 1945 with changes in the progress of the fighting, or how film undertook the selling of the war to an ambivalent nation.
If World War II was “the last moment in human history when it was possible to possess a total commitment to something outside oneself” (Myra Breckenridge), the managers of other, less virtuous, wars learned something from the role film played in it. Vidal notes how the defeat in Vietnam “screened daily on television, was then metamorphosed into a total victory in the Rambo movies, films which not only convinced everyone that we had … won that war but which made almost as much money at the world box office as we had wasted on the war itself.” H. Bruce Franklin, in M.I.A., a heated account of the persistence of the myth of POW/MIA’s, believes that film helped this issue to assume its mythic role in the lives of tens of millions of Americans, who persist in believing in the face of all evidence that thousands of Americans are still alive in Asian prison camps. True believers include former president Ronald Reagan and such influential media figures as Clint Eastwood, who were actually involved in backing real-life rescue missions:
The basic technique was to take images of the war that had become deeply embedded in America’s consciousness and transform them into their opposite. For example [in The Deer Hunter] … a uniformed soldier throws a grenade into an underground village shelter harboring women and children, and then with his automatic assault rifle mows down a woman and her baby. Although the scene resembles Life’s pictures of the My Lai massacre he is not an American soldier but a North Vietnamese. He is then killed by … Robert De Niro.
Americans are pushed from helicopters, a sadistic Asian general puts his pistol to the temple of a prisoner and shoots, exactly reproducing the familiar photograph, but the victim here is an American, and so on, to produce a veritable album of images reversing photographs already known to American audiences in which the Vietnamese were the victims. According to Franklin, a prominent Sixties activist, this reimaging of the Vietnam war was perfectly conscious—although one can see that it could easily be unconscious on the part of a film maker anxious to profit from the country’s revisionist mood.
Vidal’s observations and Franklin’s examples lead one to speculate on the revisionary function of all mythmaking, a function different from the propaganda objectives of some of the World War II films. The mythmaker wishes to make emotionally acceptable the unacceptable in human experience—a point Vidal makes about Boris Karloff’s film The Mummy, which offers a form of eternal life.
Writing during the 1992 presidential campaign, Vidal notes other consequences of the American view of history as influenced by film. “Certainly, no reality intrudes on our presidential elections. They are simply fast-moving fictions. Empty of content at a cognitive level but, at a visceral level, very powerful indeed, as the tragic election of Willie Horton to the governorship of Massachusetts demonstrated in 1988.” (He thinks George Bush was imprinted with the movies of 1939—The Wizard of Oz, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Gone with the Wind. Perhaps he might explain Bush’s imperviousness to the national mood as owing to his not having gone to enough movies since then.)
Interviewing Vidal in QW, Larry Kramer, the playwright, says to him, “I bet there is a big romantic streak in you. Perhaps that’s why you are so angry.” If Vidal is angry, he is not yet prepared to say he is so for any reason other than the very rational one of disappointment in a country for which he had great expectations and a sense of responsibility. One finds in all Vidal’s work, from the historical novels like Lincoln and Burr to the comic Myra Breckenridge and Duluth; the outrage of disappointed political illusion—outrage the reader might have shared if he had been raised like Vidal with the same lively sense of noblesse oblige—the need not only to write about matters of serious public concern but a demand that his writings have an effect, too: with Live From Golgotha he says he wants to undermine the Judeo-Christian tradition.
One can understand Vidal’s frustration with our country. But there is also a note, harder to sympathize with, of a rather unwarranted sense of having been ignored. Critics, like prophets, are always ignored and they ought to expect it; and anyway Vidal has not been ignored. He may have been too visible. All writers would be actors if they could, someone has said, and it goes without saying that some actors are stars. The evolution of writer into Personality follows from the bond between writer and reader that is established with every act of reading, independent of both the work and the narrator of the work. Thus we have a sense of Jane Austen from her novels that is not the same as our sense of her narrators or characters, and it is to the real Jane we address any possible objections to her ascribed limitations (but you were never married!) and peculiarities.
Readers of Gore Vidal have an even more tangible sense of him because he is more present in his novels than Austen in hers. Though he has been the least autobiographical of writers, an exasperated Vidal figure, recognizable by its obsessions on certain subjects, is apt to come crashing into his texts like a burglar through a skylight. Add to this the likelihood that the reader will have seen him on television or in the movies (see him in Bob Roberts acting the part of a senator), handsome and funny, like a star, and it does not seem amazing that he more than most writers is the object of that peculiar form of celebrity desire that allows strangers to feel acquainted, involved, even entitled to their connection to the living man behind his books. This has not always furthered Vidal’s literary reputation. The novelist John Calvin Batchelor, for instance, reviewing Vidal’s latest novel, Live From Golgotha, remarks that the reader may be shocked “that Gore Vidal, self-promoting charlatan and conscientiously strident bear-baiter, is in truth a sincere Pauline intelligence in the hard-minded tradition of Augustine, Calvin, Beecher, Niebuhr and Martin Luther King.”1 His ad hominem characterization of the author would seem to be based on Vidal’s extra-literary performances. Nevertheless he places Vidal in a venerable religious tradition which may, as he notes, surprise.
Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal concerns a Zionist plot led by Jesus, a.k.a. the Hacker, Lucifer, or Marvin Wasserstein the film maker, to derail or change the crucifixion as it was being staged, through the wonders of time travel and computers, for Prime Time Live by Saints Timothy and Paul, with Judas substituted for Jesus, on account of Jesus’ cumbersome obesity. Speaking of Live from Golgotha to Larry Kramer, Vidal says, “I’m really interested now in trying to destroy monotheism in the United States. That is the source of the problems.” One sees what he means. The kindly and expedient religion of the English parsonage and the orderly mandates of Moses have been disgraced and discredited by cults with Uzis, book-burning bigots, sex-obsessed cardinals, and a couple of messiahs waiting in the wings. But the hope that he has done in monotheism by writing a book in which Saint Paul is in love with Timothy, “who is straight, to use that word, and puts out only to get on the road with him,” seems literally optimistic.
The plot, in which Zionists travel backward through time to try to erase with computers all historical record of the crucifixion, recapitulates Vidal’s view of history as a product of revisionist images. But his point about monotheism being bad for America may be missed in the antic plot. Irreverence only shocks the reverent. The ex-seminarian Batchelor, however, is unshockable. He congratulates Vidal for creating a Jesus who “clearly schemes and sweats,” and for his “dare to make St. Paul vibrant, admirable, and visionary, even as a dirty old man.” In Batchelor Vidal has perhaps an ideal reader, determined to ignore or find some good in “every Rushdie-like blasphemy.” But as for destroying Christianity. Vidal, a considerable scholar, may not realize how biblically illiterate the rest of his readers are, and he has himself noted how powerless books are. Perhaps Live From Golgotha will be made into a movie.
And as for the power of living role models to affect history? Larry Kramer criticizes Vidal for ducking the responsibility of personal testimony, and not talking enough about his life. Vidal replies. “You have to take into account our temperaments. You’re a subjective and romantic writer, I’m an objective and classical writer. … we see the world entirely differently.” If one thinks of romantic and subjective as the spirit of the age, it is easier to see in the contrast between Larry Kramer and the Olympian Vidal the defining qualities of Vidal’s work, which may well be some of the ones he claims for himself—skepticism, and an interest in politics and “justice,” the Constitution, history, film scholarship, religion, Sainte-Beuve—an array of subjects so unfashionable, or recherché, that people have, like Kramer, usually refused to believe his plainest statements that these are his subjects. Screening History seems to be, so far, his most personal testimony. He does tell Larry Kramer that we may expect another, a kind of summing up of his six historical novels in which he will be the narrator. “After that I’ll let drop the feather.” And Larry Kramer objects. “No! I think if anything you’re getting sharper and wiser.” And so he is.
Chicago Tribune, September 6, 1992.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1859
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 come), he grows steadily cleverer, funnier, more indignant and less amenable to compromise. At 66, Vidal appears to be just coming to his full dimensions as an enfant terrible: one of the best, most stinging pieces in the book is a passionate attack on Christianity—and, for good measure, Judaism and Islam—published last July.
Age has strengthened his hand, in part because the character of Vidal the essayist has always rested on his claim to possess a memory that goes back, in leaps and bounds, at least 2,000 years. America (aka “Amnesia”) forgets; Vidal remembers. He has put together for himself a lineage that makes him as old as the hills. His father’s job, as director of the Bureau of Air Commerce during the New Deal, makes Vidal a vicarious intimate of F.D.R. (and a friend of Eleanor’s); his maternal grandfather, Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma, gives him a foothold in the ruling class under Theodore Roosevelt. From there, it is a short hop to Lincoln’s Washington. (Vidal, like Lincoln’s son Robert, went to school at Exeter, where, circa 1940, “memories of Lincoln were still vivid.” Vidal is a great one for milking his connections, however far-fetched or cousinly far-removed). The Lincoln link gets him, in another long stride, to Jefferson, Tom Paine, Voltaire, from whom he makes the easy jump to Swift and Montaigne. Once there he takes the 30-minute shuttle back to the Roman satirists, Juvenal and Martial. In no time at all, the friend of John F. Kennedy, the fifth—or is it sixth?—cousin to Jimmy Carter, and sometime Democratic Liberal candidate for the U.S. Senate, is in toga and sandals, his gray locks becomingly encircled by a wreath of bays.
The pose is crucial to Vidal’s literary method. Seen from this quasi-Roman perspective, everything from Christianity to television presents itself as a vulgar abomination. For Vidal, though a contributing editor to the Nation and widely thought of as a dangerous lefty, is a conservative. The past he appeals to is simply a much older past than the one beloved by the American Spectator and the National Review—not the Golden Age of unbridled Victorian capitalism but the era of Enlightenment rationalism and the sexy, literate, secular society of Rome before the later Caesars corrupted it with their tyranny. There is a lot of Latin in his prose style—its sting-in-the-tail sentences, their poison cunningly withheld until the clinching verb at the end—and Latin, too, in the characteristic Vidal mixture of sensuality and high-spirited ferocity.
Satire, he wrote in 1958, “is truth grinning in a solemn canting world.” It’s the grin that makes Vidal irresistible—his huge appetite for pure verbal mischief. No one else would manage to identify George Bush’s home town as Kennebunkport, Tex.—as no one else would labor for several paragraphs under the happy misapprehension that Hilton Kramer is a resort hotel in the Catskills. Vidal’s anecdotes are laced with threads of finespun malice. In an essay on Frederic Prokosch, he describes taking Prokosch to an academic party full of tenured poets:
“Prokosch was entirely ignored. But he listened politely as the uses of poetry in general and the classics in particular were brought into question. Extreme positions were taken. Finally one poet-teacher pulled the chain, as it were, on all of Western civilization: The classics, as such, were totally irrelevant. For a moment there was a blessed silence. Then Prokosch began to recite in Latin a passage from Virgil; and the room grew very cold and still. ‘It’s Dante,’ a full professor whispered to a full wife.”
Nor is Vidal ever too pushed for time to settle an old score when the opportunity arises. In the course of a particularly brilliant piece about Somerset Maugham, he suddenly pulls off the shelf an “agreeable picture book” about Maugham, compiled some 15 years before by Frederic Raphael, an English book reviewer. “Mr. Raphael,” writes Vidal, “quotes from Dreiser, whom he characterizes as ‘an earnest thunderer in the cause of naturalism and himself a Zolaesque writer of constipated power.’ Admittedly, Dreiser was not in a class with Margaret Drabble, but—constipated?” Here Vidal posts an asterisk, which leads to the only footnote in the essay:
*Mr. Raphael has many opinions about books that he has not actually read. You will see him at his glittering best in the Times, in his obituary of Gore Vidal (date to come).
Such parenthetical skirmishes and revenges give a tart edge to Vidal’s writing even at its sweetest and most reminiscent: You never know when he’s going to find an enemy to wipe the floor with.
His style is provocatively de haut en bas; it is the style of a man who has spent a lifetime suffering fools ungladly. He is fond of tweaking his readers’ ears, school master-fashion: “Third Republic? Fourth Republic? What am I talking about? Let me explain”; “… the penultimate Dispensation? The what? Let me explain.” In “The State of the Union: 1975” he regaled the readers of Esquire with his state-of-the-union address for 1974, interleaved with notes on its reception by the various women’s luncheon clubs at which it was delivered. “… Nervous intake of breath on this among women’s groups. …” “Sodomy gets them. For elderly, good-hearted audiences I paraphrase, the word is not used.” To the Esquire sophisticates, Vidal confided that he tried to speak wherever possible to “conservative middle-class audiences off the beaten track—Parkersburg, West Virginia; Medford, Oregon; Longview, Washington.”
Irony, as Fowler nicely explains in “Modern English Usage,” is a form that always requires two audiences: one that gets it, and one that doesn’t (though Fowler puts it more prettily than that); or that enlightened legion of subscribers to Esquire (Esquire?) and the flag-waving, church-supper blue-rinse crowd. Getting the one to laugh at the reactionary naivete of the other is a standard Vidal tactic. So is his trick of seeming condemned to fight Reason’s lonely corner in venues like Longview, Wash, and Medford, Ore. Like St. Stephen, Vidal needs the stones to keep coming.
There is another sort of irony here. The appearance of Olympian solitude is a necessary part of Vidal’s pitch as the unregarded wise man in a crass, uneducated world. Yet the world is constantly regarding him: he’s on Larry King, Barbara Walters, Dick Cavett; he’s playing himself in the movies; 14 months ago (let’s say), the views of Gore Vidal were a good deal better known than those of the current President of the United States. Nor are his views so shockingly heterodox (and I write as someone who lives within spitting distance, more or less, of Longview, Wash.): cut the defense budget and put an end to the “garrison state”; tax the profits of churches like those of other businesses; restore literacy; cure society of its superstitious homophobia; limit campaign spending; stop state interference in matters of private morality; discourage “schoolteachers” from writing “R&D” novels (John Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor,” the later Pynchon) whose chief function is to be taught in class; give thanks for “R&R” writers like Louis Auchincloss and Dawn Powell (a writer new to me, who turns out to be much funnier and more vivid about New York life in the 1940s and’50s than her British namesake, Anthony, is about London life in the same period); undermine the complacent hegemony of the New York Times.
Vidal the controversialist has a genius for making his least controversial thoughts take on the dangerous glitter of sedition. In 1986 he addressed the question of the American deficit vis-a-vis the growing economic dominance of Japan. That topic. It was less frequently spoken of then than now, but Vidal was hardly breaking new ground—except in his phrasing of the problem.
“… last summer (not suddenly, I fear) we found ourselves close to ＄2 trillion in debt. Then, in the fall, the money power shifted from New York to Tokyo, and that was the end of our empire. Now the long-feared Asiatic colossus takes its turn as world leader, and we—the white race—have become the yellow man’s burden. Let us hope that he will treat us more kindly than we have treated him…”
In a footnote (“Believe it or not…”) Vidal feigns innocent astonishment at the furor created by this passage, in which every word is teasingly trailed under the noses of the PC crowd, as sodomite was trailed under the noses of the blue-rinses. Bite, suckers! They bit.
His taste for schoolboy hazing, his love of the swash and buckle of debate (“It’s savory scholar-squirrel stew time again!” he announces with horrid relish, as he prepares to boil alive a brace of historians who have found fault with his novel, Lincoln), have tended to marginalize Vidal as merely outrageous—the word that has come to haunt him. “He can’t be serious…” says the luncheon clubber with a pleasurably appalled giggle—and those who treasure Vidal for his sanity in a silly world may wish that his high spirits were sometimes a little more repressible.
For he is at heart a more serious writer than the dozens of solemn preachers and tipsters whose work is discussed across the nation with an earnestness never accorded to that of Gore Vidal. His gloriously funny tirades against the various hacks of academe spring from the conviction that there has been a shameful treason-of-the-clerks by literary intellectuals in the United States. He stands for the proud tradition in which the imaginative writer has a place of honor at the table of the big bad world of politics, money, manners and morals. In Vidal’s work, cultivated worldliness is the order of the day, and he is our best example of the chastening power of a truly freelance intelligence on the loose among the specialists.
Defending the novel as the civilized and civilizing secular entertainment, wrangling with Jefferson, the Adamses, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, as if they were his obstreperous contemporaries, speaking out for the right of the individual to share his or her bed with whomsoever he or she pleases, damning religion (“The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism…”), Vidal is fearless and cogent. He writes of himself as a “born-again atheist.” It’s a telling phrase, for he believes in reason (and reason’s bright child, wit) with something closely akin to religious fervor: denouncing the Puritan sky-god, he sounds eerily like Cotton Mather reincarnated with a magnificently un-Puritan sense of humor.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027
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 conveyed in such Lord Henry Wotton-ish exhalations as “War tends to be too much for any writer, especially one whose personality is already half obliterated by life in a democracy.”
Despite Vidal’s contempt for the lives and gods of the general public, its members (or, at least, those at Book-of-the-Month Club level) purchase his novels and pay respectful attention to his diatribes. Vidal turns this trick with the sense of complicity he creates with the reader, whom he beckons to the arm of the master’s throne, there to giggle with him at Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag. The atmosphere of naughty coziness is enhanced by Vidal’s casual grandeur: his chatty comic and tragic confidences of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Amelia Earhart, his easy mixture of the technical and the demotic (Anthony Burgess’s wife speaks incomprehensibly, with her “imploding diphthong,” but he works out that “Lynne was pissed off”). Then there is Vidal’s fan dance of pseudo-revelation, the kind of safe-sex writing that passes for frankness. Popular psychiatrists, he says, “cannot accept the following simple fact of so many lives (certainly my own): that it is possible to have a mature sexual relationship with a woman on Monday, and a mature sexual relationship with a man on Tuesday, and perhaps on Wednesday have both together (admittedly you have to be in good condition for this).” The hip smile with gratification at this; the square chuckle nervously (he is kidding, isn’t he?). Having often noted the American dearth of irony, Vidal knows how delighted we are by that rarity here, a flirt and a tease.
United States includes a number of pieces that Vidal followers will know from other collections—the ones about the Wise Hack of Hollywood, who helps Vidal find the genesis of today’s best-sellers in yesterday’s movies, and the dim hacks of academe, writing novels for one another to teach and ignoring the intelligent general reader. Here, too, are Vidal’s complaints about the prevalence of hearts and flowers in the American theater (“Love is a warm druggedness, a surrender of the will and the mind to inchoate feelings of Togetherness. Thought is the enemy; any exercise of mind betrays Love, and Love’s vengeance in the theater is terrible, for mind must be broken and made to recant, and then to love Love”); his exegesis of the holy family of politics (“If it is true that in a rough way nations deserve the leadership they get, then a frivolous and apathetic electorate combined with a vain and greedy intellectual establishment will most certainly restore to power the illusion-making Kennedys”); and recollections of such devious but entertaining companions as Tennessee Williams and Anaïs Nin. He defends the educated and civilized rich, deplores the political power of those who just have a lot of money, and, with a mixture of brisk lecture and suggestive insinuation, undermines the myths and assumptions surrounding sexual behavior and legislation. (While invoking a few of his own: Vidal charges that Dr. David Reuben, “as a Jewish patriarch … believes that woman, the lesser vessel, should bear the responsibility” for contraception; woman, as a thinking reed, might reply that when she met a man she could trust as much as herself, she’d let him take the pills. And for Vidal to state that “most men—homo or hetero—given the opportunity to have sex with 500 different people would do so, gladly”—well, it is obvious, if it wasn’t before, that our social spheres have been widely different.)
In the more recent essays, Vidal again discusses contraception, or the lack of it (“I regard with serenity Pope and Ayatollah as the somehow preprogrammed agents of our demise, the fate of every species”); fondly remembers Orson Welles (“He wore bifurcated tents to which, rather idly, lapels, pocket flaps, buttons were attached in order to suggest a conventional suit. … He chuckled and, as always, the blood rose in his face, slowly, from lower lip to forehead until the eyes vanished in a scarlet cloud”); and commends to our attention such overlooked writers as Dawn Powell (“that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less a final, down payment on Love or The Family; she saw life with a bright Petronian neutrality, and every host at life’s feast was a potential Trimalchio to be sent up”).
Some Vidal traits less attractive than frivolity or condescension are also on display here. Only a twittering ignoramus, sycophant to the star guest at the book-chat cocktail party, would think “Poddy is a silly billy” an effective way of telling off Norman Podhoretz; and only a—well, I leave readers to fill in the adjective and noun—would find it apt for Vidal to remark, when Podhoretz says he is not interested in the Civil War, “I realized then that he was not planning to become an ‘assimilated American,’ to use the old-fashioned terminology; but, rather, his first loyalty would always be to Israel.”
Even we full-time Jews and sometime literal-minded bores, though, can forgive Vidal such lapses for his erudition, his uncompromising wit, and the way he dramatically throws out a poetic flourish as the cape swooshes over his exit. Among the industrious dullards who write so many of our literary essays, and the whining bullies who write political ones, Vidal is a welcome relief and a great star turn: our own combination of George Sanders and Sainte-Beuve.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1263
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 the height of his arrogance, intelligence and wit.
His reviews are a serious and sober call to read better; his polemics a call to Americans to discard illusions about politics, religion, history and sex; his more general essays a call for that joie de vivre debauched out of Americans by the synthetic pleasures of consumerism. His tendency to the mandarin and the over-subtle is mitigated by his sense of simple pleasures—whether the flying lessons of his boyhood or the elegant humiliation of his enemies.
Other artists in his position have played with paradox; he lives it. To rebuke a society for intellectual frivolity, he performs on its chat shows. He is Jeremiah, but a Jeremiah so committed to his message that he will endure the shame of motley to preach it and act as the licensed jester of the American imperium.
Some of his most telling essays are those in which he talks of men and women, dedicated to public service, whom he knew in childhood and adolescence. His isolationist grandfather, Senator Gore, and his family friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, were bitter political enemies; what united them was a devotion to the republic.
Vidal is often flippant and name-dropping when he writes about his Washington childhood, but there is an underlying seriousness that makes his memoir pieces particularly impressive. What was important about Gore and Eleanor was not that they were right, or even that they were unimpeachably honest, but that they put the republic ahead of their own comfort. His scepticism about the blessed Kennedy dynasty is based on a sense that they did not.
The sequence of novels about American political history, which is his finest achievement, is of its nature a replacement for actual power. Vidal has stood for, but never been elected to, public office, and his closest relationship to power has been that of an informed outsider: the son, the stepbrother-in-law, the seventh cousin, tolerated at tea and dinner but shut out of the Oval Office. The power of those novels comes from the fact that the also-ran, the poor relation, may not be directly useful to the republic but has a fine vantage-point for fictions that will educate the powerful in what they are doing, and how it looks.
Such is the corruption of intellectual life by the academy that the gentleman-scholar and artist is forced to get his hands dirty in historiography. Vidal is a writer of fiction, but the fact that he is traducing sacred beliefs has not escaped attention. The essays here in which he trounces patriot historians for impugning his accuracy are a guilty pleasure, and not his best work; men not his equals are getting in the way of his work for the republic, and he will stamp them down into ridicule.
Sense of duty is central to Vidal, and admirable. What is more problematic is that it forms part of a carefully constructed and maintained sense of ego that includes other aristocratic affectations. His contempt for the standard machismo of the male American writer—a contempt we can here see growing over the years in his inexorable quarrel with Norman Mailer, once his friend—holds locked within it a cult of silent personal toughness allied to intolerance for weakness. He has problems with camp, which he only ever resolved in Myra Breckinridge. There, the transsexual protagonist parodied Vidal’s own messianic tendency, his attempt to put the clock back and make the times run right.
His writings on sexuality point to one difficulty with the anti-essentialist, social-construction hypothesis of its formation. For Vidal, this intellectually reputable argument that there are no sexual identities, only sexual acts, overlaps rather too heavily with a gentlemanly sprezzatura: a statement that one, being who one is, may take one’s pleasure privately with whom one chooses.
He has defended this position with a courage and wit that put to shame many Gay Liberationist academics and activists. His independence from left piety meant he could attack Norman Podhoretz’s attempt to mate homophobia with Zionism, and not worry about (unjust) accusations of anti-Semitism. His attacks on the heterosexual dictatorship have, however, not always been phrased in terms calculated to give heart to a working-class lesbian in Macclesfield.
Vidal’s cult of personal gallantry and prowess excludes, by its nature, a capacity for solidarity and limits his sympathies. He is intolerant of writers who are doing things of which he cannot immediately see the point. His sniping at Thomas Pynchon, for example, looks shabby when one reads his own more ludic books; the author of Duluth is not entitled to sneer at the author of The Crying of Lot 49.
Generally, he is right to question whether writers belong in the belly of the academy, whether the novel should be an elite form. Oddly, he has never considered popular or genre fiction, except to sneer at it, and he rarely mentions or lists his own early thrillers.
His preference is for writers who stand alone, and preferably for writers who are outlaws and gentlemen, whatever their sex. He writes well about other crusaders for some of the same causes, like Edmund Wilson and Christopher Isherwood, particularly when he can distance himself from their vices: Wilson’s taste for drunkenness and landscape-writing, Isherwood’s religiosity. He has a gift for friendship, not unalloyed with amiable malice; his pieces on such old associates as Tennessee Williams are as much memoir as review, reminding one why candid friends are dreaded.
His essays on less-known writers like Dawn Powell and Frederic Prokosch are entertaining sales pitches. He honours piety to forgotten friends and duty to the canon. There is also here, though, a sense of the sad nobility of failure, which overlaps with his sense of waste at Yukio Mishima’s suicide.
Vidal is ruthless with himself, knows that he has not saved the republic. His sympathies are with Myra and Julian, who fail to remake the world to their heart’s desire, to prevent the triumph of Christianity and television. He is less sympathetic to those who, like the Buddha in Creation or Kelly in Kalki, succeed in imposing their visions. Failure is the prerogative of the gentleman as well; the successful of this world, whether Christ or Reagan, are so deeply vulgar.
George Orwell remarked of H G Wells, with whom he had his differences (Wells called him a shit), that when he was growing up, he crucially felt that Wells was on his side. No one who regards themselves as a radical, a pervert or a humanist can fail to be irritated by Vidal’s manner and much of his substance; but no one should forget that he has, for the past 40 years, been a powerful and witty voice on the side of Us against Them. He has been the irregular outrider of good causes: flexible, mobile and, like good light cavalry, able to lead the enemy on to ice that bears his weight, but not theirs.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2295
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) that honour requires you to disqualify yourself from the critical role or (c) that you will not mention that slight, but grab the opportunity to give as good (or bad) as you’ve got or gotten?
Now for the supplementary: if, having chosen option (a), you find that your response is, in general, one of qualified enthusiasm, should you congratulate yourself on your unfashionable fairmindedness or suspect yourself of intimidated toadyism? That this piece has been written at all reveals my belief that I can rise above personal pique, but you should perhaps allow for a tincture of bile.
Gore Vidal’s greatest merit is moral courage, which I suspect to be sustained by his having had what used to be called ‘a good war’. He makes almost nothing of his service in the Pacific (unlike his close enemy Norman Mailer), but his reticence speaks in his volumes, which do not scorn to gore sacred cows, including (notoriously) his—I think—step-half-sisters, the Bouvier girls. Give or take a step, he does seem to be close to a lotta lotta famous people (Louis Auchincloss’s stories get a familiar pat on the back, rightly). At times Vidal reminds one of a well-connected Alastair Forbes: a Washington DC insider right from the cradle, he lent his step-half-brother-in-law Jack Kennedy books on Byzantine economics, which—we are told—he may have read in the bath (he had less recondite things to do in bed). Gore says that he liked Jack, but eventually disapproved of his presidency (in the spirit of ho gegrapha, gegrapha, however, he has the nerve to reprint an early piece of drool over Camelot).
These essays [United States] are copious (an editor would be bold to approach G.V. with a comment more cutting than V.G.) and often intelligent, though some of the ‘scholarly’ waffle—for instance, about the nouveau roman—could be truncated and still be too long. On the whole, however, Vidal fights good fights; with accurate affection, he rescues the novels of Dawn Powell, which I have never read, from what sounds to be unmerited oblivion. His most enduring admiration, however, is for himself. he tells us, more than once, how famous his first novel made him and how he fell from grace with his third, which recounted the unblue adventures of a male prostitute and earned him non-person status in the New York Times, for which—understandably enough—he cannot forgive that solemnly sententious organ.
He was a dignified, sometimes savage, defender of a person’s right to same-sex sex at a time before Gay Rights became a choral number. His defence of homosexual ‘preference’ is complex: he argues that adult sexual behaviour is a private matter—although it has been made ‘political’—and that, if we were logical, we should favour rather than deplore it, since it avoids baby-booms (this was written pre-Aids). Secondly, he insists that homosexuality was commonplace in the ancient world, at least until Judaeo-Christianity did its stuffy stuff. To my mind, it is not really decisive whether the ancients approved or not (would we advocate torture or slavery because the Lyceum crowd said it was OK?), but it has been argued—for instance by Professor Peter Green—that homosexuality in Athens was a coterie activity, not a common dish on the sexual menu. If it had been, the comedy of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata would not have worked, since the females’ sex strike would have been rendered futile by male blacklegs. Pejorative references to catamites in the literature, and their habitual political disgrace, suggest that antique hedonism was less flexible than Vidal chooses to argue. More significantly, Laius, the father of Oedipus, was condemned by Zeus for his pederastic tastes (Zeus would not have appreciated the tu quoque mention of Ganymede). But then again, so what?
On American politics and politicians, Vidal is amusing and illuminating. His grandfather, he soon tells us, and soon tells us again, was a senator; his father was in FDR’s ‘sub-cabinet’; he himself has run unsuccessfully, but honourably, for office on a liberal-democratic ticket, sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt in whose political faith and wisdom he still places a certain boyish credence. When it comes to Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan, he uses both invective and ridicule; he has his applauding New York Review of Books gallery and he plays to it very smartly. He also accuses Jack Kennedy of thinking that war was ‘fun’. Perhaps he catches his own scent there, since polemic is available by the yard with him. I am lucky, I came to realise, to have been visited only by his teeniest gunboat (at least he hasn’t called me a ‘sissy’, yet).
All right, I hear you, I hear you: so what did Gore (we’re all on first-name terms with the nobs these days, are we not, Bryan?) say about me, and why? Well, in the process of sneering at Somerset Maugham, he alludes disparagingly to my little biography, which is his right. He then adds that I am the author of the obituary of Vidal, Gore, which he alleges may, unless he is assumed bodily into heaven like Elijah, one day appear in the London Times. As it happens, he has his leaked facts pettily wrong; it was for the Sunday Times that I was asked, one dark afternoon some years ago, to file a piece about him. Why me? Why not? Since I have admired his work (in particular Kalki and a number of the essays reprinted here), I agreed to write a paltry thousand words on Vidal’s literary story so far, without in the least wishing that it go no further: I remember asking tenderly after his health.
However, Vidal clearly imagines himself the victim of a buried hatchet job (a fear which, sweetly enough, echoes one of Mr Maugham’s own). Since he himself is said—truthfully, I trust—to have greeted word of Truman Capote’s death with the verdict, ‘Good career move’, one can understand a certain (unnecessary) apprehension, which seems to have led him first to abuse my modest book—modesty being a charge unlikely to be brought against any of his own—and then, by way of a one-two, to go on to allege that I am someone who claims to have read books which I have not.
This witless charge passes a little beyond the genial malice with which citizens of the Republic of Letters must learn to live. It is, however, quite shrewd, in a silly way, since—like the chant of ‘The referee’s a wanker’—it is almost certain to have some truth in it (Gore’s gospel, the Kinsey Report, having established that not only referees but nearly all those who abuse them have probably indulged in one or more hand-jobs during their lives). In much the same way, it is statistically improbable that anyone who has been subject to the English higher educational system can swear that he or she never referred to a text or author who had not been conned from cover to cover. Though few have the nerve to claim, as did Lawrence of Arabia, to have read all the books in the Bodleian, less flagrant lies are almost de rigueur among those seeking to gain academic applause or preferment (bluff is part of intellectual poker). Perhaps it has even been true of Vidal, though the last thing I should like to assert, without evidence, is that he is a man like any other.
In the style of a saint unsure that others will speak well enough of him, he asserts elsewhere that he esteems himself more or less unique in always reading every word of the books he reviews. Although United States supplies a demanding test of critical integrity, I have now read every word; but has the author? I hesitate to say that the repetitions, misprints and venial howlers suggest that self-criticism is not among his priorities, if only to avoid another outbreak of hostilities, but truth will be served, in due course.
As for the original casus belli (his literary luggage is swanky with Latin tags), would anyone be utterly astounded to hear that it is now 25 years since I observed, apropos Myra Breckinridge, that ‘Gore Vidal has announced that the novel is dead, and now he has sent M.B. to the funeral’? Subsequently, I commented amiably on his work, but if you want your words to remain unremembered among book-chatters, you have to say only nice things about them. In the trudging pursuit of his long grievance (he has many, many more against other people), Vidal goes ironically italic over the use—in my ‘twee’ Maugham book—of ‘constipated’ to describe Theodore Dreiser’s fiction. Perhaps, despite his etymological affectations, Vidal is not clear that the word means, literally, stuck together or coagulated in a lump; it says nothing of the quality of the mass, only that it is pressed together. Maybe An American Tragedy strikes Vidal, whose wit knows little brevity, as a model of airy elegance, but one is not obliged to go to the pillory for failing to join him in his tastes.
Vidal is a great one for great ones. As befits a man whose grandfather—you will remember—was a US senator (albeit from hicky-sticky Oklahoma, where the waving wheat etc), he is at ease in lofty company, where his horse can be relied on to be at least as high as the next man’s. He writes persuasively well on Henry James, as of a classmate, and he jeers at bestsellers with condescending fairness (finding reluctant skill in Herman Wouk, whose orthodox, marriage-orientated Jewishness does not, prima facie, recommend him to the waspish grandee).
Although our author has too much morgue for Ezra Pound’s ‘suburban prejudice’, he does not conceal his disdain for Ikey-come-lately presumption in the US/socio-literary scene. Well, we can all wince together at the smugnesses of the late Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe and some of the Commentary crowd (Midge Decter’s queer-bashing gets a deserved bash in response). Why, on the other hand, Vidal insists so querulously on the illiteracy of alluding to ‘homosexuals’ (he would like us to say ‘homosexualists’), I am not clear. He objects to the use of adjectives as nouns, but how seriously deplorable is it? Does he refer to himself as an Americanist?
It is very much Vidal’s style to adopt the haughtiness, if not always the charm, of his betters: for instance, he preens himself on honouring the Nabokovian distinction between criticism of his art (which he affects to take in good part) and that of his scholarship. In the latter case, the ‘Black Swan of Lake Leman’—hardly an apt designation, since black swans are found only in Australia, which VN never was—announced that he always ‘reached for his dictionary’. He did so to better effect than Gore, who—had he reached for Liddell and Scott in due time—might have avoided explaining the etymology of ‘pornography’ by reference to the putative Greek words ‘pornos’ and ‘graphos’. He would have discovered that ‘pornos’ does not exist; although pornee, the word for whore, had a number of derivatives, none was masculine. As for graphos, my Liddell and Scott tells me that the noun was used once in the sixth and once in the fourth century, both in inscriptions and never in extant literature. Does it matter that ‘pornography in fact derives from porne(ia)-graphein (to write about whores or whorish matters)? Not really, but if one choose to parade one’s scorn and irony, with regard both to Academe and to Hackademe (a twee locution which I offer Mr Vidal without ascriptive obligation), one had better get things—preferably everything—right, had one not?
Although he has given us improving entertainment with his recensions of the ancient world (the sideshow nature of Xerxes’ Greek expedition was splendidly caught in Creation) and his Julian was a fine, if extensive, gloss on Ammianus Marcellinus, Vidal should beware of speaking in dead tongues. His oeuvre is heavy with play on the phrase ‘e pluribus unum’, but his coinage ‘e pluribus meum’ is Latin which not even the dog (canis) would swallow or cough up. He admits to speaking French with André Gide, in his post-war youth, but he pays too bold a homage to the old master when he attributes to him the invention of the ‘acte gratuite’ (sic). Even when propounding extremely silly notions of freedom, no mandarin Frenchman, however heterodox, would take it upon himself to change the gender of words.
Although its princely author may never believe me, and it is unlikely to deter him from another prolix display of Charlus-like hauteur, I did not solicit this volume, nor did I have advance knowledge of its reference to me. If I should not have reviewed it, meum culpa, as our author might say. After taking a good deal of pleasure in its aigre-doux flavour, I conclude that some people are born bloody-minded: others have Gore thrust upon them.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1216
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 finally, and most brilliantly, an essayist—a form in which he combines elements of all the above, writing prose that is political, histrionic, dramatic, filmic and fictive.
Both of his bids for political office, in 1960 and in 1982, proved ineffective; as an actor (most recently in the film Bob Roberts, playing a politician), he was not much more successful. His plays have not weathered as well as they deserve, and his twenty-three novels veer from the scholarly and remarkable (Lincoln, Burr) to the pallid and otiose (Hollywood). But his essays, here collected in one vast volume three inches thick, are the vital Vidal, full of brio and braggadocio, sharply learned, wittily argued and beautifully written. This collection illustrates why Vidal became a phenomenon—he would both relish and scorn that exhausted television tag—in his youth, after publishing his first novel, Williwaw, at the age of twenty. It also explains why, at almost seventy, he continues to occupy a unique niche in American cultural life, part intellectual D’Artagnan, part media personality and entirely, oddly, isolated.
This collection is [United States] divided into three “states”: the state of the art (literature), the state of the union (politics) and the state of being (Gore Vidal and attendant subjects). The distinctions are slightly nebulous, since Vidal the essayist ranges over the entire cultural landscape of America, pausing here to excoriate the “Christers”, there to laud the under-appreciated, and here again to put an exquisite, handmade epigrammatic boot into an old enemy (Norman Mailer, say, or “academic hacks”), or to enrage a new one by the same technique. He is a supreme stylist, almost incapable of an inelegant sentence, an inapt allusion or a spongy metaphor. If that can be traced to his talents as a novelist, it is tempting to ascribe his taste for the grand gesture and the camp put-down to his experience of Hollywood. Vidal can demolish in a single stiletto phrase, with the effortless mot juste or, for that matter, injuste. So Cecil Beaton becomes “an elegant lizard just fed 20 milligrams of Valium”, while Howard Hughes “demonstrated, from the beginning, an attractive talent for failure which almost—but not quite—catapults him into the ranks of the human”. The essay on America’s twenty-sixth president (“Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”) is a brilliant piece of calculated desecration, while his “Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures” does more damage, in a few pages, than a dozen Kitty Kelleys could achieve in a lifetime.
There is no better guide to take one, usually by the scruff of the neck, and propel one through the lunacies of modern America “as our dismal century draws to a close”. Here, laid brutally bare, are the smiling horrors of America’s religious Right; the cult that is the Kennedy clan; the end of America’s brief imperium; the argument for legalizing drugs and deracinating homophobia. If, thirty years on, these sound like familiar themes, even approaching conventional wisdom, many originated here in their most pungent form.
But the plethora of Vidal’s concerns leaves one, after 1,200 pages, breathless and a little bewildered as to what he really cares about; for the same sincere anger and scorching erudition are brought to bear on matters ranging from the crucial to the abstruse, the fundamental to the flippant. There are principles and values here, and opinions aplenty, but few beliefs or genuine convictions. Perhaps that does not matter. Convictions are much overrated (particularly in America), and beliefs can be both downright dangerous and insufferably boring.
It is Vidal’s penchant for the limelight, almost any limelight (remember Caligula?), that causes one to wonder whether he actually believes in his many carefully argued certainties. He is a superb television performer. His much publicized quarrels (such as that with William Buckley) have probably done more to establish his name in America’s increasingly illiterate society, than anything he has written. But his addiction to hype makes one suspect that he would rather make a nasty or clever remark than a true one, and that winning every argument is sometimes more important to him than choosing a good argument to win. The theatricality of his prose exacerbates that feeling. For example, at the start of a 1978 essay for the New Statesman, “On Prettiness” (Cecil Beaton’s memoirs), Vidal remember wandering through King’s College, Cambridge with E.M. Forster and remarking “pretty” as the approached the chapel.
“Forster thought I meant the chapel when actually, I was referring to a couple in the damp middle distance”, Vidal recalls. “A ruthless moralist, Forster publicised my use of the dread word.” This is a useful anecdote, since it simultaneously launches Vidal into his topic and sets the record straight, something that occupies much of his energy. The only problem is that scene has the unmistakable feel of post-factum reworking.
There is too an aloofness in Vidal, a patrician finger-wagging instinct that can sound didactic and Victorian (“Let me explain…”, he offers too often), and only increases the sensation that he is not always fully connecting, at least with readers. Discussing the availability of post-war sex in “Why I Am Eight Years Younger Than Anthony Burgess” (1987), Vidal wrote: “Those of us who joined the orgy in our teens often failed, in later life, to acquire the gift of intimacy.” Vidal is distant partly because he is rather a snob. He is acutely aware and celebratory of his lineage, his forebears, and even his nearbears by marriage if they are deemed sufficiently illustrious. His maternal grandfather, a blind senator he describes as “legendary”, crops up in many of his essays, sometimes without obvious relevance. Vidal changed his Christian name from Eugene to Gore in deference to the senator, and somehow conveys the impression that America’s political institutions would have collapsed without the aid of his relatives; in fact, Senator T.P. Gore would be distinctly less legendary without the assiduous publicity provided by his grandson. His family is one of the few subjects on which Vidal seems incapable of irony. Perhaps it is too much to ask of anyone to be a master ironist, exceptionally funny and also thoroughly sincere. And while he some times toys mercilessly with the views of others, Vidal has made himself the champion of the writer’s right, even duty, to say exactly what he wants about anything, unfettered by political correctness, tact or any other prevailing nicety. He is the sworn enemy of the “second-rateness which has characterised our garrison state the last third of a century”. This last is something in which Gore Vidal clearly and genuinely believes. It may be the only thing, but perhaps it is enough.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931
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.
The emotional impetus of the book comes from a bucolic idyll near its start, when two schoolfriends, Jim Willard and Bob Ford, go camping together just after graduation. During a healthily buddyish session of sun-bathing, wrestling and skinny-dipping—that most elemental affirmation of American boyhood—they suddenly find themselves making love. Although Vidal’s style, on this occasion strategically copied from the macho James T. Farrell, is restrained and flat, he nevertheless manages to characterize this first sexual event in hyperbolic terms as a Platonic (if not platonic) meeting of estranged halves: “Now they were complete, each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.”
However, as it later turns out, Jim is homosexual but Bob (though Jim does not yet know it) is not. Both literally and metaphorically, they go off in opposite directions. Jim spends the whole of the rest of the book searching for Bob, his lost half. His quest takes him into the merchant marine and then to Hollywood, the Air Corps and then the New York Bar scene. He sleeps with other men, but none matches up to the purity of his first love.
The novel’s title refers, of course, to the unfortunately hesitant retreat of Lot’s wife from Sodom. There are also references to Orpheus’ descent into the underworld in search of Eurydice. These are two very different myths, but they are used here to underline the same message. Even if its whole tendency is nostalgic for adolescent pastoral, the moral of the story is Don’t Look Back.
Vidal’s original intention, as stated in the afterword to the edition he revised in 1965, was not aesthetic but political: “to shatter the stereotype” of homosexuality as a mental deficiency confined mainly to ballet dancers and interior decorators, “by taking as my protagonist a completely ordinary boy of the middle class”. He would then send this unexceptional Dante, unaccompanied, into the homosexual “underworld” and observe his impressions. The risk involved in this procedure is a familiar one: if you choose to create a dull protagonist you may end up with a dull book.
But there is dull and dull. When The City and the Pillar was first published, it was dismissed by the New Yorker (January 10, 1948) as merely containing “the kind of dreary information that accumulates on a metropolitan police blotter”. This was just catty anti-homosexualism: anyone knows that a police blotter is likely to be more interesting than most respectable novels. In fact, Vidal’s book was offering the American fiction-reading public something which they had never seen before. It is now hard to imagine the shock many must have felt when that early bathing scene veered into something altogether stickier.
It does have to be said, though, that the book was completed before Vidal became witty. There is little sign here of the patrician bruiser of the essays. His short stories, too, are distinguished by their worthy social agenda and, for the time, their daringly pro-gay stance. The stories in A Thirsty Evil were first collected in 1956 but actually date from earlier, nearer the time of the novel. They are of interest mainly because of their place in the literature of homosexuality. The ones on other themes are extremely weak, like dutiful creative-writing exercises.
The new edition of The City and the Pillar, which the dust-jacket describes as “Revised and Unexpurgated” and in which, according to the flyleaf, “cuts have been restored and the ending revised”, is a mess. Vidal evidently wants to have his cake and eat it. In a new preface, he justifiably speaks of the book as a first (“Until then, American novels of ‘inversion’ dealt with shrieking queens or lonely bookish boys who married unhappily and pined for Marines. I broke that mould”), and therefore of historical interest, but he declines to publish it as it first appeared.
In the first edition of 1948, when Jim finally tracks Bob down and is rejected, he reacts by killing Bob. But by the time Vidal reissued the novel in 1965, he regarded this ending as unnecessarily melodramatic, so he rewrote it. In the new version, Jim merely rapes Bob—not a hint of melodrama there. The “revised” ending of 1994 is more or less that of 1965—with the rape, not the murder—but with a bar-room conversation unnecessarily pruned. Not much else is either original or new, apart from the addition of the usual spelling errors (Batchelors Soups have a lot to answer for).
What we are left with is an altered version of the 1965 edition, changed at that time to suit the liberal fashion for queers who did not kill each other or commit suicide, introduced now as if it were the original, historic version of 1948. This sleight of hand leaves the book seeming not so much revised as fiddled about with. The novel itself should stand the test of time, but not in this condition.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1393
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 he has made himself, in dozens of splendid essays, the preeminent public scold.
At age 14 he shortened his name, lopping off Eugene and Luther. I regret the loss of the appropriate Eugene (he was well born into the American sociopolitical aristocracy) and only somewhat less the Luther (it seems to fit one who has nailed any number of authoritative personalist theses on any number of church doors). Gore is a smart first name, but Gore Vidal is two of his mother’s names, and his mother wasn’t at all good to him.
Like his grandfather, T.P. Gore, the first Oklahoman senator, he comes from a border world—his is that of the “straight” queer—and what the Saturday Review critic of The City and the Pillar wrote nearly 50 years ago still applies to his best work: “When one considers that Vidal has succeeded not merely in putting futility behind him but in making a tragic affirmation in the midst of futility, his achievement becomes impressive indeed.” Put next to his own words—“One reason I didn’t like football was the boredom of putting on and taking off all that gear. Even so, at an early school, I made what I thought was an unusually brilliant touchdown against what proved to be, on closer analysis, my own team”—it says more than I can in the space provided here.
Perhaps because I dislike most of Palimpsest’s cast of “power people” (a race that, for it to rule, must renounce love), I am riveted by the great romance of his life, with Jimmie Trimble, a golden beauty met at one of those early schools and killed on Iwo Jima in 1945. “At 13 we talked about girls less than we did about each other. This was a sign, though I was hardly adept at signs then. Why should anyone happy ever note a sign?” That’s bewitching, faltering pitch and all—and having reservations about Palimpsest’s pitch is rather like going to a favorite singer’s recital and carping: “But why that song?” (There were even songs Judy Garland sang that I could do without, although her anthem too was “The Man That Got Away.”)
The author of Palimpsest is certainly entitled to speak about some of the most important, or self-important of the century’s Americans. (He says, assuredly, “Look, I know these people.”) He is brilliant on the Kennedy myth and unassailable in his appraisal of the way “power” women campaign for and attain alternate office.
Early ripe, he has met all the principals in his story before age 25, and presumably unlike the people in novels, he’s grown tired of them all (“once-famous people who mean nothing, by and large, to people now”), except for dead Jimmie, whose nimbus has a long half-life, and his longtime companion, Harold Austen, barely glimpsed. (“I have now lived a half century with a man, but sex has played no part in the relationship and so where there is no desire or pursuit, there is no wholeness. But there are satisfying lesser states, fragments.” I infer some kind of love; as to its type, it did for the Lunts—and as was written elsewhere, I reckon if it’s love, the Lord won’t mind.)
Quoting the American essayist John Jay Chapman, he writes, “The thing that stirs us in any man’s writing is the man himself—a thing quite outside the page, and for which the man is not responsible.” Yes, the man is outside the page, just as the singer’s voice is in the mask, but there’s some responsibility, I think, and shouldering it is a component of the art.
Complaining of Rousseau, he writes, “What one does get is a querulous tone of voice” and then goes on to write himself, “We are apt to become extinct, a consoling thought on one of the most beautiful days that I remember here on the [Amalfi] coast or anywhere else for that matter.” Often he is thus hoist on his own petard—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Gore Vidal’s petard is legendary. Brilliant perceptions are offset with the odd howler, like “the United States has never had a civilization.” (Such also-ran self-loathing! I want to slap him or absolve him. But then he drinks too much in the evenings, boasting, “I have never broken down, as opposed to slowly crumbling.”) Still and all, the important thing to say is that, although I believe that Gore Vidal often goes awry, I think he never deliberately lies, and that distinction is worth making. Did he give up politics, convinced at heart that no such thing as the truth obtains in the world, to be able to deal in some kind of unworldly verity? “Again, I note that only the novel can ever be true,” he writes. Odd if so, for the image of him that will prevail, I think, is that of Jesting Pilate. (“What is truth—pass the hand towel.”)
In general, he is better on people than places—they do more to recall his interior life, whereas places (any, all) merely goad him into an ever more facile chronicling of his roaring takeoff, stormy rise to cruising altitude and trans-world flight. There’s not much there anywhere in Palimpsest, except (brilliantly) the frightening Washington, D.C., the childhood houses and the aerie in Ravello, where he begins to suggest Tiberius at Capua (but seems far too decent an American for the worst excesses of that). He’s better on people (he seems to wish they were different; so do I) if sometimes nonchalantly hustler-crude—on Jack Kerouac, for example, or more than a little opaque (“At 11 I started, mysteriously, vomiting in [his mother] Nina’s presence.” Mysteriously?). He’s probably at his best on the Capote feud. (Can it mean anything that both their mothers were drunks with the same Christian name? I wonder too, if in a fictive world, Myra Breckenridge and Holly Golightly might not be gal pals.)
He is both inaccurate and unfair on New York. “I could never bear the fashion-magazine world that dominated the arts in New York, a world obsessed with decoration, whether of a stage set or of a prose style.” “Dominated by a fashion-magazine world” is shallow. Nor did the one magazine that did help classify (rather than merely feature) the producers and product of New York’s great post-war arts boom, the Ross-Shawn “New Yorker,” ever fall (as does its name-only successor) into the category of “fashion magazine.” I consider the Gotham nightmare a comeuppance (“I also dream that I have gone into an unfamiliar brownstone house in New York City only to realize that I own the building but can never recall its address.”). It just makes no sense to eulogize the fabulous Everard Baths (28 West 28th Street), then trash the city that took the rough-hewn tyro to its manly bosom.
Memoirs done, I wish he would now write a novella about Jimmie Trimble; it could be his second masterpiece. Melville found Billy Budd in his late years. “For years,” Vidal writes, “whenever I was in a numinous place like Delphi or Delos, I would address the night: ‘Jimmie, are you anywhere?’ and almost always the wind would rise. … I still want Jimmie to be, somewhere, if only on this page.”
He succeeds: More than much else in this memoir, Jimmie is. Why not let him be everywhere on about 200 pages? “Finally,” the last sentence in Palimpsest reads, “I seem to have written … a love story, ending with us whole at last in the shadow of a copper beech.” He hasn’t in fact done so; I wish he would.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2064
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 is asked what he thought of Vidal’s new novel about Lincoln. ‘I thought it was meretricious.’ ‘Really?’ says Gore. ‘Well, meretricious and a happy new year.’ That’s the way to do it.
It sure is. Vidal, who has shaken hands with Gide, who shook hands with Wilde, is one of the few people alive who can deploy a Wildean wit.
One of the best phrases he ever minted was ‘the objective narcissist’, meaning, someone who enjoys looking at himself but is as interested in the flaws as in the beauties. The big question was, would his vanity allow him to achieve that in his autobiography—or memoir, as he prefers to call it? We had seen that vanity grotesquely on parade in his introduction to a reissue of his 1983 novel Duluth, whose heroine, Darlene Ecks, is a woman cop addicted to strip-searching male Mexican wetbacks (‘Gimme a piece of okra and a pair of prunes!’). Recording the remark of a British journalist that ‘the Spanish translation of Duluth is the most popular book in the women’s penitentiary of Lima, Peru’, Vidal adds:
That is truly significant. For those who prefer to go upmarket, let us cut now to the Royal Lodge at Windsor late one night. The Sister of the Sovereign reads Duluth aloud to a small group. Then, laughter at last under control, she turns to the author and says, ‘What is there in me so base that loves this book?’
Those ironic capital letters don’t distract us from noticing that Vidal is delivering a double whammy, a big name-drop and a mighty pat on the back for clever old Gore. Magnificent Mr Toad!
There’s plenty more about HRH in the memoir, most of it entertaining (Gore is rarely a bore), and the expatriate author feels we will want to know that ‘the British Embassy in Rome has just rung. Will I come to dinner for Princess Margaret in September, two months away? I say no.’ But in general he does manage to keep his vanity from becoming, say, Rowsian. He really is an objective narcissist, often denying himself the benefit of the doubt—though he doesn’t go so far in self-revilement as that other prince of camp, Kenneth Williams, did in his 1985 autobiography, Just Williams, of which George Melly wrote: ‘Someone who disliked him intensely couldn’t have done a better hatchet job.’
Winston Churchill said Clement Attlee was a modest man—with much to be modest about. In fairness to Vidal, he is a vain man with a lot to be vain about, starting with his classic looks in youth which occupy the whole of the front cover. (The title is on a see-through dust-jacket, so that this Praxitelean image shall not be sullied by lettering.)
As an autobiographer, Gore Vidal has many assets, besides a literary style as classic as his youthful countenance: an unhappy childhood, with a fiend of a mother, if you believe (as I do) his portrait of her; early acquaintance with the great, such as John F. Kennedy and Jackie, with whom Vidal shared a stepfather; an ‘in’ to politics (Grandpa Gore was a senator; we don’t hear so much of the Vidals); a variegated sex-life; early literary fame; a determined and successful chase after the famous, ended only by a disgruntling visit to E.M. Forster; friendship with Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood, both good copy; and fulfilment of his promise in a series of political novels, the 20th century’s answer to Trollope.
The more outrageous novels, including Myra Breckenridge and Duluth, require a grope back to the 18th century for a parallel, in Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, (a very Vidalesque name), of which Hazlitt thought, ‘The subject and characters … are, in general, exceedingly disgusting…’ while Walter Scott rejected the Count’s character as a ‘disgusting pollution of the imagination’. By coincidence, Palimpsest finds Vidal writing about Hazlitt in his, Vidal’s, Italian exile, and finding him tedious. I enjoy the way Vidal makes us free of the Ravello setting where he is writing the memoir. ‘I have always been curious to know where writers are physically situated when they write their memoirs,’ he explains, not forgetting to tell us that on one side of the fireplace is ‘a photograph of me with the president who did us most harm, Harry S. Truman’, and that another photograph is ‘of me, welcoming Jack Kennedy to Dutchess County. He has just been nominated for president. We are both very young, to state the obvious.’
Gore Vidal became notorious overnight in 1948, with the publication of his novel The City and the Pillar. A courageous account of the love of one boy for another, it got him blacklisted for years by the books pages of the New York Times. Tennessee Williams described it as ‘one of the first homosexual novels of consequence’. That qualifying ‘one of’ is well advised: I think that Evelyn Waugh has never been given full credit for his candour about homosexual love in Brideshead Revisited, published three years before Vidal’s shocker. Waugh’s revelations must have raised eyebrows behind the round-framed spectacles of pipe-smoking civil servants and bank managers of the post-war years. But, unlike Vidal, Waugh gave himself an escape clause in the wry, so-understanding words of Lord Marchmain’s mistress, Cara, to the young Charles Ryder:
I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long.
That was the ‘just a phase’ notion of homosexuality; but Vidal knew his was for keeps.
In 1984 the crusty Australian novelist and Nobel laureate Patrick White received a letter from one Jim Jenkins, asking for a letter of support for the 1985 Gay Mardi Gras. He replied:
As a homosexual I have always detested the Gay Mardi Gras nonsense … The homosexual issue is an increasingly serious one. We shall be persecuted more and more since AIDS came to stay. A lot of screaming queens in Oxford Street will not help the cause for which we shall have to fight.
White was asserting his inalienable right not to stand on a float wearing fancy dress and blowing a whistle. Being invited to join the ‘gay’ circus is not the worst thing that befalls the homosexual writer who comes out. He is suspected of disliking women (a charge from which Vidal has defended Tennessee Williams) or of ogling the flies of every man he meets, however repulsive the fellow. He is expected to relish an unrelieved diet of camp badinage and catty gossip. Worst of all, he will never again be regarded as a writer, or a good writer; from now on he is a gay writer—almost a gaywriter like the amalgam ‘Williamandmary’ in 1066 and All That, or, in Vidal’s own narrative, Evelyn Waugh’s wife ‘poor Laura’. (‘Poor Laura was always pronounced as one word.’)
Into this elephant trap Gore Vidal fell headlong in 1948 and he has never quite managed to climb out. Instead of taking his rightful place in the pantheon of novelists, he is demeaned as an also-ran in a list of ‘dandy wits’ in Mark Booth’s 1983 book Camp:
The Dandy Wit is a dilettante, a gifted amateur. One aspect of his seeming knowingness is his conviction that, although in fable the tortoise may beat the hare, in life the hare may stop to take a nap, flip idly through a fashion magazine, pare his nails and still put on a spurt to win.
Models in life and literature include Brummell, Pelham [a Bulwer-Lytton hero], Trebeck [Thomas Lister’s fictionalised portrait of Brummell], Disraeli, Wilde, Lord Wotton, the Duke of Dorset, [Saki’s] Bassington, Addison de Witt in the film All About Eve and Gore Vidal.
Though Vidal is oddly muted on the subject of Howard Austen, with whom he has lived for 44 years (recipe for happiness, ‘No sex’), he is admirably candid about his sex-life, and has written the sort of book that, for example, John Pope-Hennessy ought to have written. His great love was for Jimmie Trimble, a handsome fellow student and athlete. Vidal was left wondering what their relationship might have developed into, for Trimble was killed in the second world war. Though Vidal’s relationship with Trimble was, as it were, consummated (‘… there we were, belly to belly, in the act of becoming one’) his account of him carries something of the bleak, ‘Land of Lost Content’ frustration that A.E. Housman felt and expressed over Moses Jackson, the athlete who rebuffed the pass Housman made at him. Love suspended, love unrequited: these loves never suffer from metal fatigue, remain forever ideal.
Vidal’s other love-making is unidealised: one-night stands with the minimum of sentiment. ‘I never go to bed with friends, much less with anyone older than I,’ he writes. He is scathing about Harold Acton’s view that Tennessee Williams had a ‘casual yet condescending attitude’ to the young Italians he picked up ‘without any interest in their character, aspirations or desires’. Vidal’s scornful comment:
This sentiment or sentimentality could be put just as well the other way round—and with far more accuracy. Italian ‘trade’ has never had much interest in the character, aspirations or desires of those to whom they rent their ass.
Those whose tastes swing the other way may find it hard to enter into the spirit of Vidal’s sex-life; but at least they ought to concede that he renders it in memorable language, which stirs comparisons with the celebrations of male beauty in Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’, the Venice letters of Baron Corvo and the Journals of Denton Welch. Vidal’s lack of sentimentality, almost an affectation at times, gives force to his description of wartime soldiers in the Snakepit Bar of the Olympia Hotel in Seattle.
We were a lean, sinewy, sweaty race, energised by sex and fear of death, the ultimate aphrodisiac. Bodies were different then. No one was fat, unlike most Americans today. These were Depression boys. I recently watched some old ‘pornographic’ films of the period. I had forgotten what the so-called workingman’s body was like—thick-thighed, flat-chested, with muscular arms, not as comely as an aerobics-styled body of today, but solider, uncalculated, earthlike.
The juxtaposition of those last three adjectives is as perfect as Macaulay’s, ‘The Lord Chief Justice was rich, quiet and infamous.’
With all his assets as a self-portraitist, Vidal has some disadvantages too. First, in his determination to be ‘experimental’, he constantly treats us to flashbacks and flashes forward, whirling us all over the shop. Reviewing a crime novel for The Spectator recently in which the detective and his side-kick despised each other, Harriet Waugh wrote, ‘I sigh for the convention’—of some kind of camaraderie between the two. In Vidal’s book, I sigh for the convention by which childhood is followed seamlessly by school, university and so on.
Vidal’s other main drawback is that, as one of nature’s autobiographers, he has already blabbed about some of the book’s cast, in earlier essays. I wondered how he was going to avoid duplicating what he had already written about Tennessee Williams, so finely, in an essay of 1985 published in the collection Armageddon (1987). He solves the problem by a barefaced, enjoyably disingenuous stratagem. First he quotes a passage from the essay, as a quotation, in italics (‘In 1985 … I wrote…’) Then, without drawing breath and with only minimal modifications, he just goes on quoting from the 1985 essay in Roman type as though telling the whole story afresh. This part of the book is yesterday’s dinner reheated. But I can’t blame him: I don’t think the food could be bettered.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066
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 invite readers to undertake detective work; it implies that there is a subtext for discovery. The title is also a warning that the author is not trying to make things easy. Another definition of palimpsest is, “… a parchment, prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate”. Vidal has flagrantly done a great deal of wiping out and writing in. He boasts of it. In short, he has set up the sort of game in which Nabokov used to delight. It is very enjoyable.
Admittedly, the book could be read at a rush by someone ready to skip and intent only on finding the anecdotes. Of these there are a great many, from set-pieces—such as the night with Jack Kerouac and the weekend with the Kennedys on Cape Cod—to the detail that, at West Point, Dwight D Eisenhower was known to his fellow cadets as “Ike the Swedish Jew”.
Together they add up to a narrative of unflagging brilliance, and a pageant of American top people (bluebloods, writers, politicians, film stars) in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that couldn’t be better choreographed. There is a story of Claire Bloom rehearsing the role of Blanche Dubois with Tennessee Williams that ought to be read by every actress or director undertaking A Streetcar Named Desire. But my favourite scene shows Leonard Bernstein being importuned on the telephone for a campaign contribution by a senator from California, who has views on war and peace. Bernstein: “Well, all that sounds fine, but I really don’t know you or where you stand on—well, on a really important issue like…” Senator Cranston: “Like what?” Bernstein: “Like what would your position be on doubling the strings in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth?” Cranston: “I’ll get back to you.” And he does, saying, “Before I give you my position, how big is the auditorium?”
There are plenty more stories, and numberless aphorisms (“Celebrities are invariably celebrity-mad, just as liars always believe liars”) and superb put-downs (“Malcolm Muggeridge, a bright fool”). Those who enjoy wit will find abundance here. But to read Palimpsest in this way would be to slight Vidal’s design, and to miss the subtext entirely.
The book has a sort of double structure. It is both a journal kept while writing a chronicle of the author’s life from infancy to middle age, and the chronicle itself. The two elements are folded into each other (my metaphor is drawn from cooking). The effect is a better mimicry of the way memory works, as today reflects on yesterday and is tossed about by free association, than anything in Proust (though it slightly resembles The Pillow-Book of Sei Shonagon). It does not pretend to be entirely trustworthy. Readers are compelled to be palaeographers.
Gore Vidal, in boyhood, met and fell in love with another boy, Jimmie Trimble, in whom he found his other half, the soul he needed to complete himself. Jimmie seems to have returned his love, but the second world war broke out, he joined the marines and was killed on Iwo Jima. In some sense Vidal never got over this loss.
He has never loved since, he says, and cannot link—let alone fuse—sex and affection. But he does not put all his cards on the table. He has lived for more than 40 years with his friend Howard Austen. Though he explicitly says they have not coupled sexually in that time, a couple they most definitely are. Who can believe it is not love? Vidal’s almost complete reticence about this relationship seems a confirmation.
Yet nostalgia for Jimmy remains. The curious point is that Vidal’s second novel, The City and the Pillar, in which he fictionalised the affair, is a powerful and persuasive warning against that crippling emotion. Plainly, the physician could not heal himself; the past enthrals him. It is a thraldom characteristic of many other Southern writers.
Vidal was born at West Point but brought up in Washington DC, where his grandfather, T P Gore, born in Mississippi, served three terms as a senator from Oklahoma. The Senator was a decisive influence on his grandson. Vidal’s mother (cruelly and comically delineated) divorced two husbands and did all she could to separate her son from his father. The grandparents provided the only real home the boy knew, and got his entire devotion in return. This too was an early love, which cast a long, cold shadow.
Vidal quotes Senator Gore reverently, and he was plainly a remarkable man who was entirely blind from the age of ten, yet made a successful career as a lawyer and politician. But his views on history, economics and politics, as reported, were provincial and archaic when not simply erroneous.
Even Gore Vidal sees that the Senator’s opposition to the New Deal won’t do. For the rest, he calls him a Populist and professes to share his beliefs, particularly his isolationism. It is no wonder that Vidal himself never got far in politics. It is no wonder that he never got far in love. Loyalty to Jimmie and the Senator maimed his heart and his intelligence. That seems to be the message of the palimpsest, the writing under the chronicle.
This would be a sad story, but for two things. First, it is not, perhaps, quite credible: the memoirist loves truth but is playing games. Second, his talent for writing is so huge and compelling that it is hard to believe that he would have neglected it in favour of politics even if his grandfather had been Franklin Roosevelt. Vidal’s political opinions, however jejune, have made lively talking points on many a TV show; and we have his formidable body of writing: novels, plays, essays, screen-plays—a most honourable catalogue. Enough, surely?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6717
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 accounts of himself—smooth to the point of slipperiness. Palimpsest is, apparently, a collaboration. A picture at the beginning shows Vidal with a white cat crouching on his shoulder. The caption reads, “The memoirist in 1992. I am about to start writing this book in Ravello, aided by the white cat.” And indeed, reversing the formula, he got the cat’s tongue. A dubious proposition as a memoir, Palimpsest is awesome as a catty gossip column.
There are, to be sure, many ways to write a memoir—almost as many, I should think, as there are to skin, or collaborate with, a cat. But as there are also many ways to review a memoir, let me lay my cards on the table. I have had my innings with Gore Vidal, as who in this trade hasn’t? I will relate three incidents for the readers’ consideration.
David Susskind once decided that, in the wake of televised confrontations between Vidal and others, it was time for his going mano a mano with me on an entire “Open End”—the David Susskind show, which could go on for hours. Having had me on before, Susskind called me again to ask if I was willing. “Sure,” I said, “but Vidal will never agree.” “Why not?” “Because he is chicken.” David laughed this off. Soon, though, he called me back: “You were right; he won’t do it.” “And why not?” “Why should he make you famous, he says.” Not quite logical, this. Either I am a worthy opponent, then why not do it? Or I am an incompetent, in which case Vidal wipes the floor with me. The upstart sinks into instant oblivion, blood-starved TV audiences are gleeful, and Gore is in his glory.
Vidal had published an essay in Commentary titled “Literary Gangsters,” a clever synonym for his unfawning reviewers, myself among them. Reprinted in all his essay collections, it reads in part: “Other gangsters today? John Simon was lovingly noted. A Yugoslav with a proud if Serbian style (or is it Croatian?—in any case, English is his third language), Mr. Simon has for twenty years slashed his way through literature, theater, cinema.” There follows, in Vidal’s customary bravura polemical style, my bracketing with Gilles de Rais, Charlie Manson, and Lyndon Johnson. Although reading this has given me exquisite pleasure, I regret to say it hasn’t made me famous.
The third time this essay was gathered in a volume, Vidal affixed a footnote after “his third language”: “Mr. Simon has since instructed us that English is his fifth language.” In what may prove to be the final, ne varietur version of the piece, as reprinted in the 1,300-page modestly titled United States: Essays 1952–1992, Vidal has seen fit to omit the footnote. Fate chastised him with a typo: “English in [sic] his third language,” a matter of no great consequence, except as it proves that, at least as a proofreader, Vidal has not yet attained perfection.
Finally, some years ago, when I was language columnist for Esquire, I published something that offended Vidal. In “The Good and Bad of Gore Vidal,” I wrote, “Vidal is an essayist of talent. I am not sure that I would bestow on him the mantle of Matthew Arnold or Edmund Wilson, as Stephen Spender does … nor am I quite convinced that ‘Vidal’s paradoxes at their best rival Oscar Wilde’s best,’ as Edmund White asserts. … But the new collection contains some very good pieces, as weighty as anything in Oscar Wilde and easily as witty as the best of Matthew Arnold.” Vidal, ignoring for once the risk of contributing to my fame, dashed off a sharply critical reply. After expatiating at some length on my unworthiness, it ended in a palinode: for all my flagrant shortcomings, I was still one of the few civilized literary journalists in America. I took this to be less a compliment to me than a cautionary slap at all the rest.
Sorry about this lengthy exordium, but people should be alerted to the possibility that, in reviewing Palimpsest, I may be guilty, despite all my efforts to the contrary, of revanchisme, a quality readers of Vidal’s oeuvre should be well acquainted with. So, to be fair, I admit up front: I mistrust Gore Vidal as autobiographer, and rather than summarize the book in a conventional review (which you could easily get elsewhere), will raise the larger, and perhaps more relevant, issue of his modus operandi and ultimate credibility.
The main elements of Palimpsest can be labeled (a) family and school reminiscences (hates mother, likes father and grandparents, has little use for school); (b) recollections of wartime service (mostly easy cohabitations with fellow servicemen); (c) the love-hate relationship with the Kennedys (Jackie was a stepsister), with whom he appears to have been on good terms much of the time; (d) complex, idiosyncratic sexuality, and the way it has been, most of the time, satisfied; (e) aspirations to political office—even dreams of the presidency—without ever winning an election, and the resultant disenchantment with politics; (f) literary activities in the theater, television, cinema, and in the writing of fiction and nonfiction; (g) famous people known, and gossip about them; and (h) two special relationships—with Howard Austen and Jimmie Trimble.
To start with, two details where I have privileged information. We read that Rosalind, a girlfriend and potential wife, “vanished into marriage [with another] but I saw a good deal of her friend Cornelia Claiborne, a pretty girl with gray-blue hyperthyroid eyes and an interest in literature. She was helping to start a literary paper, The Hudson Review. I was roped into escorting her to a mass coming-out party at the Waldorf for those girls, deprived by war, of what used to be called debuts.” The rest of the paragraph is devoted to the first meeting with James Merrill, a subject of greater interest to Vidal; Cornelia is never mentioned again. Three years later, I escorted Corky, as she was known, to a party at the American Embassy in Paris, and she rather talked my block off about whether or not she should marry Gore Vidal. Since she was neither a liar nor a fool, she must have, dying young and unmarried, deserved more than half a paragraph in a memoir of well over four hundred pages that stops with Vidal anno aetatis suae thirty-nine.
Again, in a passage about Saul Bellow, and in particular Herzog, Vidal talks about Valentine, the villain of that novel. “The original of Valentine, the adulterer, was Saul’s most devoted admirer, Eckermann to Saul’s Goethe. He was some sort of writer-teacher, long since forgotten. I can still remember the afternoon when the president of Bard introduced him to me because, ‘you are both writers,’ and Valentine said, in his thick impenetrable English—he was German, I think—‘At least I write English.’ As it proved, he was optimistic.” Now, both Valentine and I were teaching in the same department at Bard at the time. His being pilloried in the novel for having bedded and wedded one of those wives Bellow kept shedding like so many snakeskins seemed a mite harsh—especially in view of the veneration in which the real-life Valentine continued to hold Bellow ever after. This man was Jack Ludwig, a Canadian, whose accent was every bit as good as Vidal’s, and rather less affected.
Teutonization and demonization of Ludwig, especially after his many visits to Vidal’s nearby home, Edgewater (on one of which I, too, was present), is not to be condoned in a memorialist. How concerned is Vidal with the truth? Early on in the book he writes, “I have pretty much kept to my system of recording only what a faulty memory recalls (and the written—equally faulty?—memories and biographies of others),” but adds that he has on one occasion requested help from a library. Is that enough? When he confides, “I am told that I have an eidetic imagination (I can summon up vivid scenes, recalled or invented, in my head),” one notices that memory and fantasy are given equal status. On meeting John Osborne, Vidal asks “about his two-volume memoir, ‘Did you take notes or keep a diary?’ ‘Good God, no! … Actually, I think I make it all up.’”
This is not comforting to the book’s readers, nor is Vidal’s statement, “My own tendency to lie is seldom indulged in except when picking up a stranger.” Anaïs Nin, one of the few women with whom Vidal seems to have had an extended sexual relationship, wanted him to write about her, “but although I can perjure myself in a short blurb for a book, I cannot sustain deceit over any great critical length.” How about autobiographical length? He wonders why he bothered keeping track of the lies of Truman Capote (hatred of whom, in these pages, runs second only to that of Vidal’s own mother), but explains it with “a constitutional dislike of liars, not to mention Truman himself.” This bolsters our confidence a bit, until we reach “lying is the worst of sins, but there are times when it forestalls what the Bird [Vidal’s nickname for his intimate, Tennessee Williams] regarded as the very worst of sins, gratuitous cruelty.” Since examples of the latter abound in Palimpsest, we might assume that the memorialist preferred unkindness to untruth, though we can’t dismiss the possibility of his having found a way of reconciling the two.
We come now to a crucial utterance: “Today an ambitious writer would be well advised to label any work of his imagination nonfiction, or, perhaps, a memoir.” (The context is a lament for the death of the novel, a leitmotif of the book, to which I’ll return.) And, of course, we must allow for a certain irony that runs through the writing—a kind of amused half-light in which the contours of narrative honesty and license to embellish are jokily blurred. Yet aren’t certain jokes confessions? Invitations to be caught out without being fully disprovable? The tone here is a neat balancing act between, “Don’t you recognize a joke when you hear one?” and “How many times must I underline a point for you to get it?” Near the end of the book, Vidal reiterates, “Again, I note that only the novel can ever be true.”
But even a novelist can surely have a little truth left over for his memoirs. Vidal’s ways of not telling it are as diverse as they are grandiose. There are times, for example, when we feel that the author knows too much to be trusted. Never mind, say, that we are told that, on a school trip to Europe, Gore and his chums were in Downing Street watching Neville Chamberlain head for Westminster “to say that war is now at hand.” Or that, returning to the States on the Antonia, the boys watched its sister ship, the Athenia, being torpedoed by a German sub. Unlikely, but possible. What about other cases, though, where Vidal’s omniscience is a bit too rampant? He says about Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR, “certainly he hurt her mortally in their private relationship.” Mrs. Roosevelt seems to have been friendly with him, but would she have let this out? And is that “mortally” consistent with her style?
Or take the following, about the Kennedys. “I think Jackie’s dislike of Grace began when she and Jack were looking at the press coverage of the wedding in Monaco. Jack studied the pictures intently; then frowned and said, ‘I could have married her!’ Jackie’s face was again tear-stained.” For anyone to write this, he must have been present, yet Vidal, so quick to boast, does not say he was there. And had he been, would JFK, who knew him well enough, have committed such a faux pas?
And what about the casually tossed-off, “had I known to what extent J. Edgar Hoover was blackmailing the Kennedy brothers,” with no further elaboration? Or take this passage, beginning with one of Vidal’s favorite refrains about JFK’s warmongering out of lust for glory, which “he was about to achieve anyway by falling victim to a gangland plot. The ultimate irony is that the elements that did him in—the Marcello mob in New Orleans and so on—were the kind of people that his father had comfortably done business with all his life.” Vidal wants us to believe he knows exactly who did in Kennedy, but can’t be bothered to go into all those tiresome details. And notice also the characteristic Samurai swordsmanship: with one swift swish of the blade, he gets both son and father. Again, about the Windsors: “Only Wallis knew how to control the Duke’s premature ejaculation.” Was Gore hiding under the bed? Yet, at other times, what fastidious shyness! His father, Gore is told by his mother, had three balls. But “I never dared look—you don’t look at parents.” Only at Windsors, in bed.
Closely related to inattention to truth is cavalier sloppiness about English and other tongues, particularly offensive from someone who, while pretending to superior culture, neglects his own writerly tool, language. To start with the poor English, which Vidal, the autodidact who skipped college, cannot even blame on academia. We get “intrigued” (for fascinated), “quo-pro-quid” (for quid pro quo), “equinoctal” (for equinoctial), “at Milton Klein’s, our dentist” (for dentist’s), “paraphrastic” (for periphrastic), “the people who comprised” (the whole comprises the parts, not the other way round), “echt-American writers as Hawthorne” (for like), “masterful gift” (for masterly), “center around” (for on), “except for Tennessee and Bowles and Louis Auchincloss, I never got to know many of my contemporaries” (for any), “a deep affinity … exacerbated by” (only bad things can be exacerbated), “unlike the Jimmie play, I don’t much care for this one” (a dangler), “Niggers” (for niggers—you can’t eat your P.C. and have it too), “of varying degrees” (for degree), “could not help but feel” (for could not help feeling), “Roger L. Stevens, tycoon and sometime producer” (for sometimes—he never gave it up), “Russell was meant to be him” (for he), “better to worship a false image … than that sky-god religion” (faulty parallelism—you can worship a sky-god, but not a religion), and so on.
He is equally poor at foreign languages he keeps throwing around: there is Gide saying, “Premier le Kinsey Report et après le Prix Nobel” (for d’abord); “de Montherlant” and “de Sade” (for Montherlant and Sade); “Ce n’est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachées” (for cachée—the ardor, not the veins, is hidden); “malòcchio” (for malocchio—an absurdly misplaced accent from someone who’s been living in Italy for decades); “acte gratuite” (for gratuit); “Vidal is a common name in every Latin country, as it derives from vitalis, the genitive of the word for life”—which, of course, is vitae.
And what of the general misinformation Vidal tosses about with grand insouciance? Thus “Hieronymous” Bosch, Marlowe’s “Faust,” a ballet “adage” (for adagio), “Raimond” for Raimund von Hofmannsthal, the writer “Leslie Blanche” (for Lesley Blanch), and so on.
There is a basic disrespect here for the values Vidal purports to be upholding, as well as flagrant indifference to other people. Yet what bemoaning of the lack of culture, of the loss of literacy and the impending, or already incurred, death of the novel. “I am plainly at the end of the road. So, I suspect, is literature.” No one realized at “Vance Bourjaily’s gatherings, that we had arrived on the scene to witness the end of the novel.” Again, “now no one does much of any book reading.” And, “today’s publishers are reluctant to publish first novels by anyone who has not been, at the very least, a movie star or a serial killer.” Or: “In those days works of literature were often popular, something no longer possible.” Partly, Vidal seems to deplore his declining sales and insufficient fame; partly, he relishes the notion of having been the last important novelist. “I am American literature,” he tells Christopher Isherwood.
The self-idolizing and mythicizing begins with his physique. Palimpsest features in front (on the binding, under the translucent dust jacket) a full-page, or full-cover, head shot of the young memorialist, giving a lie to the adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. “I am mesmerized by the tributes to my beauty that keep cropping up in the memoirs of that period,” writes Narcissus, affecting sweetly shy surprise. Though he assures us of his “lifelong reluctance to read anything about myself,” and affirms that “there does come a time when one stops reading about oneself,” he can make exceptions for, say, the memoirs of Cecilia Sternberg, in which she asks about Gore, “Is he by any chance the boy who looks like an archaic Apollo?” and her cousin, Count Eddie Bismarck (the chancelor’s grandson), replies, “Why, so he does, rather, though his wits are far from archaic.”
Now, you—or Gore—might claim that some of this is adduced in jest. But it is neither funny nor infrequent enough to be lightly dismissed. We read, for instance, that “Myron and Myra Breckinridge would explode on the world scene as not only saviors of MGM but of the human race as well.” Anaïs Nin and Gore together were like “a very mature Marie Corelli and a very young Jonathan Swift—well, Mencken…” At sixty-seven, Vidal proclaims himself “a movie star.” Furthermore, “I had been brought up with far more famous people than the old writers to whom I was … paying homage.” The king of Malaysia has (and is no doubt famous for) a “father who once gave me lunch in Johore, where he was sultan.”
At the Washington Rotunda, where he is being shot for a documentary, Vidal mingles with tourists “several [of whom] ask for my autograph.” Noam Chomsky likes his novel Creation; Jack Kerouac puts him in The Subterraneans as Arial Lavaline. When he and Kerouac check into the Chelsea Hotel for a night of sex, “I told the bemused clerk that this register would become famous … We [Vidal and Kerouac, not the clerk] owed it to literary history to couple.” Sir Frederick Ashton affects to be in love with Gore. While his ambitious literary contemporaries read “thin Hawthorne or wafer-thin Hemingway,” Gore, late at night, “read straight through Meredith and Peacock; and felt at home in their company.” I wonder how they would have felt in his. Republished by Victor Weybright, The City and the Pillar sells a million copies (hmm?), “a large number in those days.” He publishes an attack on Israel, and claims to have started “what was called Vidalgate,” which makes him the first man to have given himself the gate.
An elderly Hudson Valley neighbor, Alice Dows, writes, “he is handsome, yes, I had long ago conceded this point; there was no denying his crisp good looks and his dimpled smile.” Later, “she was buried with my letters.” Elaine Dundy, Kenneth Tynan’s first wife, confesses in her memoirs to having been in love with Gore. A party at the Tynans, attended by Vidal and Antonioni among others, inspires the movie Blow-Up. (From the way Vidal describes the party, this is hardly apparent.) At a literary conference in the Soviet Union, both Anthony Powell and C.P. Snow are awed by Vidal. “In the early primaries, most of the substance of Jerry Brown’s speeches was my work, and Clinton hated Brown, though not enough for him to refrain from taking over some of Jerry’s—my—best lines. Later, ecumenically, I sent Clinton material for his debates with Bush.”
“Had it not been for me, Ronald Reagan would never have been president.” When Vidal’s movie The Best Man was being cast, Gore didn’t think Reagan right for an Adlai Stevensonish character. Melvyn Douglas got the part, and “his career was hugely revived, while the rejected Reagan, at a loose end, became governor of California.” When Vidal is told that, for services rendered, JFK would give him “something,” the proud response is, “I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted other than Jack’s job, plainly not destined for me.” Whose was the greater loss: Vidal’s or the country’s?
At last, though, Vidal is rewarded for choosing to be a novelist first and foremost. In Rome, with his companion Howard Austen, he is at the heart of literature. Two blocks to the north, Thomas Mann wrote Buddenbrooks. Nearby, too, had lived and worked George Eliot, Ariosto, Stendhal. “I myself wrote at least part of several books in this flat, as well as all of Myra Breckinridge. … Italo Calvino lived at the north end of the street, and we used to cher confrère each other when we met.” The way Vidal describes it, it is rather like those Hollywood maps showing tourists how to find the homes of the stars.
But self-aggrandizement is not enough; one must also minimize the competition. There is “our young cousin [Albert Gore] who currently lives in vice-presidential obscurity, a sort of family ghost flickering dimly on prime-time television.” “As Joe [Alsop] was an expert on everything, he was generally wrong on almost everything.” Could this be true of other universal experts as well? Or take the description of John Lehmann, a friend and publisher of Gore’s: “Sexually, it was his pleasure to beat working-class boys; otherwise, he lived a life of perfect domestic virtue with a ballet dancer called Alexis Racine, an uncommonly plain, uncommonly effeminate man.” Evelyn Waugh was “a drunken social climber who wrote small funny novels of no great appeal.” This screed goes on, and then makes fun of Waugh’s post-Brideshead-on-TV popularity, which made him “to English literature what Winston Churchill is to politics, and written about at endless length, as if here were a great writer, like James Joyce or Rupert Everett.” Note how envy reeks from every Vidal pore, so that in a jab at Waugh even Joyce ends up belittled by being bracketed with the effete movie actor Rupert Everett.
Allen Ginsberg tells Vidal that Kerouac “was rather proud … that he blew you,” and, indeed, a description of Vidal’s brutal buggering of Kerouac is the most distasteful episode of this tasteless memoir. Lionel Trilling? “Anyone who could write a book about E.M. Forster and not be aware of his intense, almost religious, faggotry, is not much in the way of a critic.” It all depends, I suppose, on whether you practice literary or bedroom criticism. Greta Garbo, a good friend, does not escape Vidal’s malice, perhaps motivated by vagina envy. Garbo is described admiring the breasts of Irwin Shaw’s girlfriend, whom she gets to bare them for her. “Garbo’s own,” we read, “hung very low.” Ken Tynan, a rival in outrageous wit, must be humbled: “Ken was tall and languid, very much an Oxonian queen who preferred women to men; hence Ken was fondly regarded by us all as one of nature’s innate and unalterable lesbians.” How fond can regard get?
Of JFK: “Jack seemed—and indeed was—mildly decrepit. He moved stiffly when he did not limp painfully from a bad back: war wound was the official line; touch football, the reality. … Jack’s skin was a curious bronze color that at first looked to be the result of a suntan, but then, when we caught the odd yellow glint, it looked like makeup. Actually, the color was a manifestation of Addison’s disease.”
Bobby Kennedy, who disliked Vidal, comes off worse: “Between Bobby’s primitive religion and his family’s ardent struggle ever upward from Irish bog, he was more than usually skewed, not least by his own homosexual impulses, which, Nureyev once told me, were very much in the air on at least one occasion when they were together. ‘Nothing happen,’ said Rudi. ‘But we did share young soldier once. American soldier. Boy not lie … maybe.’” Well, both Bobby and Rudi are dead, and cannot contest allegations; even so, it all hangs on a maybe. And how does Vidal bolster up a case more sagging than Garbo’s breasts? “Yet anyone who has eleven children must be trying to prove—disprove?—something other than the ability to surpass his father as incontinent breeder.” After which, to hedge his bets, Vidal makes a joky reference to Catholicism. But the doubt has been cast.
Jackie, who was mostly nice to Gore, fares worst. After a long discussion of her craving for publicity (look who’s talking!), there comes this demure two-way blow of the Samurai sword: “Actually, to be fair, she loved money even more than publicity and her life was dedicated to acquiring it through marriage.” Note, please, that Judas-kissy “to be fair.” There follows an account of how she “lost her virginity to a friend of mine in a lift that he had stalled in a pension on Paris’s Left Bank,” a chap she couldn’t marry although “he came from a better family than hers,” because “he had no money.” Elsewhere, however, in the spirit of Christian forgiveness, Vidal writes, “Once, after I was blown by an old man of, perhaps, thirty—my absolute cut-off age—he offered me ten dollars, which I took. As a result I, alone in the family, did not condemn Jackie’s marriage to Onassis.” A quo-pro-quid? And even such a very close friend as Tennessee Williams doesn’t escape Vidal’s (or the white cat’s) tongue when our author, after mentioning Tenn’s grief for a dead ex-lover, adds, “The Bird would mourn Frank ever after, quite forgetting that he had thrown him out several years earlier.”
Which brings us to the slipperiest aspect of these memoirs: Vidal and sex. On the one hand, like so many homosexuals, he wants us to believe that the whole world is actually or covertly or potentially homosexual. On the other, he and his likes are not really homosexual at all. We read: “Like most men, I am attracted to adolescent males.” In the armed services during the war, “most of the boys knew that they would soon be home for good, and married, and that this was the last chance to do what they were designed to do with each other. … It was my experience, in the war, that just about everyone, either actively or passively, was available under the right circumstances.” And, of course, there is “a beauty and fulfillment in sex with strangers that one seldom enjoys with people one knows.” “Most young men, particularly attractive ones, have sexual relations with their own kind.” Already at school, “What we were all up to was a perfectly natural homoeroticism, which some continued for the rest of their lives without lapsing into the physically more complex homosexuality or, for whatever reason, into serious heterosexuality.” Note that “for whatever reason”—presumably not a very good one.
Now for the distaff side. “Alla Nazimova [was] a somber actress of almost unendurable power who reigned over Hollywood’s lesbian world, which included, I have been assured, just about every woman star or star’s wife.” So, too, Jackie Kennedy was fascinated by a lesbian bar in Provincetown, “but dared not look in.” But women, straight or not, are of lesser interest to the casuist from Ravello, even though he has consistently refused to call himself homosexual. Instead, he has opted variously for bisexual, same-sexual (probably unaware that homo is the Greek for same), and homosexualist, as well as homoerotic, as here. All of these, it seems, mean something other than homosexual. At nineteen, Vidal picked up a merchant mariner for sex, but when the fellow tried to bugger him, Gore violently fought him off. “That,” he tells us, “was my first and last experience of being nearly fucked.”
So you wonder just what Vidal does (did?) in the bedroom? Alfred Kinsey congratulates him on having no sexual guilt feelings, to which the grandson of Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma and stepson of Hugh D. Auchincloss haughtily replies that none of his family suffer from that “middle-class disorder from which power people are exempt.” Dr. Kinsey then “told me that I was not ‘homosexual’—doubtless because I never sucked cock or got fucked.” We are to infer that he only buggers and lets himself be sucked. And indeed, that, along with rubbing together (frottage) is mostly what happens in the session with Jack Kerouac he describes in some detail. Nonetheless, Kinsey, on the basis of Vidal’s sexual history, rates our homoeroticist “as a lower-middle-class Jew, with more heterosexual than homosexual interests,” which Gore finds more applicable to Howard Austen. But whatever he is, he is “setting world records for encounters with anonymous youths, nicely matching busy Jack Kennedy’s girl-a-day routine.” Except that, as Vidal tells us elsewhere, JFK usually bedded two girls simultaneously.
Most of Vidal’s pickups are “poor youths my own age, and often capable of an odd lovingness, odd considering that I did so little to give any of them physical pleasure. But then, even at twenty, I often paid for sex on the ground that it was only fair.” He actually agrees with the despised Truman Capote when told by him, “I hear you’re just the lay lousé.” And he tells Anaïs Nin, apropos her efforts to arouse it in him, “Sexual jealousy is an emotion denied to me.” Cold-fishiness is next to saintliness.
Forthwith, though, we are shocked to learn that Gore was, after all, not setting world records with his more than a thousand (mille e tre?) encounters by age twenty-five—“my near contemporaries Jack Kennedy, Marlon Brando, and Tennessee Williams were all keeping up.” While telling about his episode with the dancer Harold Lang, who appeared with John Kriza and Jerome Robbins in Fancy Free (to Leonard Bernstein’s music), Vidal reports Bernstein as saying, “Practically everyone I know—or used to know—liked to tell me how one thing we have in common is the cast of Fancy Free.” To which Vidal, “Well, I did go to bed with two thirds of your cast.” (As if there hadn’t been women in that ballet, who, however, don’t enter into the reckoning.) “‘And I,’ said Lenny, competitive to the bitter end, ‘went to bed with all three. But I will say Harold’s ass was one of the seven—or whatever number it is—wonders of our time.’” Somehow or other, a conversation like this never appears in heterosexual memoirs.
Once again Vidal tells us that he has been as free from sexual jealousy as from envy of another writer. But then, he has “never had an affair with anyone. Sex, yes. Friendships, yes. The two combined, no.” So, it seems, his emotional repertoire is as limited as his sexual one. Indeed, “the potency of other males is, for me, a turnoff.” Amid all this comes an important announcement: “In those days, girls one’s own age meant marriage. This made any sort of friendship with them uneasy if not impossible. Later, when I turned dramatist, I got to know actresses, and as we were all in the same business, relations entirely changed. Most of them didn’t want marriage, either. I relaxed, for the first time, and enjoyed myself.” From this it is impossible to tell whether what he had with actresses was friendship or sex. The wicked tease keeps us guessing.
On the evidence of this memoir—but only from the captions—we gather that he had an “amorous friendship” with Diana Lynn, a charming actress, although by all accounts I am aware of a confirmed lesbian. At a later date, he lives in Los Angeles with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who are lovers. “Joanne Woodward and I were nearly married, but that was at her insistence and based entirely on her passion not for me but for Paul Newman. Paul was taking his time about divorcing his first wife, and Joanne calculated, shrewdly as it proved, that the possibility of our marriage would give him the needed push. It did.” And off the happy pair go to London on their honeymoon, accompanied by, you guessed it, Vidal and his friend Howard Austen. The four of them kept her miscarriage on the honeymoon strictly secret, lest it hurt her career.
Things finally come to order. Marlon Brando fades out of the picture as sexual competition. JFK is “rather sad these days,” Gore is told by an insider. “Nothing happening except Jackie, maybe twice a week.” Whereupon “I pointed out that their marriage had revived—or perhaps really begun—when he started to see her face in every newspaper; he’s now taken to calling her ‘the sex symbol.’ Not till he saw the world’s response to her did he find her interesting.” From whom do you suppose Gore gleaned this information? Jack? Jackie? God?
And what about Vidal’s own happy sex life? The last glimpse we are afforded—although it does go back to Rome 1948, the book having little care for chronology—reads in part: “Every evening hundreds of boys converged on the Pincio in order to make arrangements with interested parties,” etc., etc. Then the paragraph makes a 180-degree turn: “If one knew two or three girls who enjoyed sex for its own sake, splendid orgies were possible … with no drinking permitted, or desired, as every fantasy was acted out in flesh,” etc., etc. One such sex-enjoying girl testifies “that she had never before been entirely satisfied.” And this joyous account stems from someone who keeps assuring us “I have never liked parties of any kind.”
So much for Vidal the sensualist. What about Vidal the true lover? Two men figure importantly in Palimpsest. One is Howard Austen. His real name was Auster—Jewish, and consequently unpropitious for employment in advertising, his field in those days of anti-Semitism in the agencies. Vidal—another bit of information found only in the captions—told him to change just one letter, Auster to Austen, and his career took off. Austen appears early in the book, rather cryptically: “I have now lived a half century with a man, but sex has played no part in the relationship and so where there is no desire or pursuit, there is no wholeness.” Later: “I was able, at twenty-five, to settle down with Howard Austen, age twenty-one. We had met anonymously at the Everard Baths. ‘How,’ we are often asked, ‘have you stayed together for forty-four years?’ The answer is, ‘No sex.’ This satisfies no one, of course, but there, as Henry James would say, it is.”
I am sorry to have to join the ranks of the unbelievers. Clearly, Austen became a kind of amanuensis to Vidal. But what sort of companions does one pick up at the Everard Baths, a homosexual meeting and mating place? And why does one go on living with such a person for the rest of one’s life? Vidal quotes Elaine Dundy referring to Howard as his “companion,” which—in homosexual and perhaps even homoerotic parlance—means spouse. And whom but a spouse would one take along on a sort of double-dating honeymoon with Newman and Woodward? After this, Austen makes no further appearance in the book till the very end, where Vidal tells us, “I have just bought two small plots for Howard and me in Rock Creek Cemetery; we will be midway between Jimmie Trimble and Henry Adams—midway between heart and mind, to put it grandly.” Now, it may just be possible to remain side by side platonically in life; but in eternity, surely not.
The great, the only, love of Vidal’s life—if we are to believe it—was Jimmie Trimble (1925–1945). He was a boy Gore met at Exeter, had an affair with then, and, later, a one-night stand. Then Jimmie went off to the wars and died, a heroic Marine, on Iwo Jima. Gore considered him more than a lover—a twin, with whom he completed himself. And even more than that: “me,” as he says in one place. A fictionalized Jimmie is the autobiographical hero’s lover in The City and the Pillar, and he weaves his way as a sort of princesse lointaine through Palimpsest: a refrain, a leitmotif, the great love story that might have been. Yet even here, in a rare access of credibility, Vidal allows that “my ‘unfinished business’ with him would have been long since finished had he lived.” And this even though “the small room where Jimmie and I had made love” is “a now-legendary room,” presumably even more so than the one at the Chelsea, where Vidal and Kerouac, by coupling, paid their debt to literary history. In fact, Vidal is even posthumously jealous of Jimmie, trying to figure out who it was that, out there in the Pacific, turned him on to Walt Whitman.
We learn quite a bit about Jimmie. Some of it directly from his twin, Gore, e.g., that “his sweat smelled honey-sweet, like that of Alexander the Great.” Some of it from the fallen hero’s fiancée, whom Vidal spares no effort to track down. Jimmie will be reposing not far from Vidal and Austen, so that our memorialist can perhaps, like Jack Kennedy, have an “alternate” lover during that exceptionally long night. We are shown a picture of Jimmie’s final resting place, which he shares with one P. Sherwood Alverson (1896–1972), about whom the book—and even the captions—stays mum. Very touchingly, however, Palimpsest ends by noting that “the half of me that never grew up” will be “only a few yards away.” And then the work’s noble penultimate sentence: “Finally, I seem to have written, for the first and last time, not the ghost story that I feared but a love story … ending with us whole at last in the shade of a copper beech.”
You may have noticed that I have skimped on some aspects of this memoir: Vidal the fictionist, essayist, playwright, TV dramatist, screenwriter, movie actor, politician, and TV talk-show personality. It’s really Gore’s fault for being so much more interesting as a social butterfly, sexual athlete, and self-publicist. But I cannot refrain from adducing a sample of his literary criticism (yet another of his far-flung activities): “Although, as writers, Kerouac and Burroughs were not much different from such conventional writers as Philip Roth and John Updike, I feared that their imitators would, like the executors of some inexorable Gresham’s law, drive literature itself out the window. All this proved a false alarm. Their imitators are few, while the originals either died or did not continue, and literature went out the window anyway.” This should prove how interchangeable Vidal’s activities are: only a talk-show pundit would manage, as it were, to lump Kerouac and Burroughs with Roth and Updike; and only a self-publicist who wants literature to end with himself would so roundly proclaim its defenestration.
But perhaps I’ll get another chance to make up for my omissions. The conclusion of Palimpsest—a paragraph in itself—is the one word and three dots, “Meanwhile…” That, clearly, is the answer to the question why the memoir ends, notwithstanding countless flash-forwards, with its subject aged only thirty-nine. Doubtless a second volume will in due time enrich our shelves and vicarious lives. After all, John Osborne, whose sojourn on earth was shorter, got two volumes out of it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665
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 life, swings in its narrative mood from one to the other of these two poles: from a poignant humanity to a caustic cynicism. He writes as “the eternal outsider, the black sheep among those great good white flocks of folks who graze contentedly in the amber fields of the Republic.” These memories, “recorded during 1993 and 1994 and completed—or abandoned—in March of 1995,” are informative, often delightful, and utterly fascinating.
He remembers his beginnings vividly, starting with his mother Nina: “The fact that the eight years between my tenth and seventeenth years were spent far from home at boys’ schools was, in one sense, a good thing: I did not have to deal with Nina.” His father, Gene, graduated at the top of his West Point class, became one of the army’s first fliers, and eventually founded three airlines with Amelia Earhart: TWA, Eastern, and Northeast. However, it is his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, blind, the first senator from Oklahoma, that he remembers most fondly: “Dah,” as Vidal called him, built a house in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., that Vidal called home for many years. It was in that home, reading to “Dah” and meeting many of the movers and shakers of the time, that he learned so much that helped make him the great observer and critic of American life that he is. After St. Albans and Exeter, he went to VMI and then into the army. It was there that he composed his first book, the novel Williwaw (1946), thus beginning a life of enormous productivity: twenty-two novels, nine volumes of essays, five plays, and several TV plays and movie scripts. This productivity resulted from an early developed “vivid inner life,” and his observance that the boys at St. Albans “accepted my preference for books to their games” and were tolerant of his “eccentricities.”
Palimpsest is laced with stories of and comments by the rich and famous; every reader will have a special favorite. There is much about Anaïs Nin, interesting observations about Orson Welles, André Gide, E. M. Forster, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, George Santayana, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, and Federico Fellini (“I called him Fred, he called me Gorino”), among many others. I found the sections on Tennessee Williams (“Bird”) and the Kennedys the most fascinating and the most revealing of Vidal’s sensitivities. His reaction to the Kennedys at Hyannisport in 1961 also makes some very meaningful points about JFK’s “Cold War.”
Vidal’s very touching association with places—Rock Creek Park, Edgewater (the home he owned on the Hudson from 1950 to 1968), Rome, and his present home at Ravello—reveals a sense of the importance of something as simple as “home” in his rather glamorous life. The other most striking revelation in this book, purportedly about others but very much about himself, is his boyhood relationship with his one true love, Jimmie Trimble. Trimble is Vidal’s lifelong soulmate, although he died at Iwo Jima. Even though he says, “Since I don’t really know what other people mean by love, I avoid the word,” Vidal clearly knows what love is. He also says, “Should you get to know yourself. You will have penetrated as much of the human mystery as anyone need ever know.” Palimpsest is Gore Vidal’s testament to self-knowledge.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4271
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 plucked eyebrows, is quite deadpan. Like a portraitist of the Renaissance she is doing her job, and has no special feelings about it or the sitter. But the photograph seems a revelation not only of the society in which Gore Vidal grew up—a very uncommon one in what Roosevelt was even then calling the Age of the Common Man—but of Gore Vidal’s ability to put his reader inside that society, to give us a happy and an unfamiliar sense of familiarity with it.
The reader—the English reader in particular—is here somewhat in the position of one of the characters in Anthony Powell’s long sequence of memoirized fiction, A Dance to the Music of Time. Marrying accidentally into the haut monde, this chap sets himself to find out all about its peculiar ways, while not for a moment aspiring to be part of it himself. Vidal’s skill as a memoirist puts his reader in the same privileged and enviable position. And he is very funny about it. Ever a stickler for elegance of language, he is careful not to use the word “palimpsest” in any merely approximate sense.
“Paper, parchment, etc., prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate” and “a parchment, etc., that has been written upon twice: the original writing having been rubbed out.” This is pretty much what my kind of writer does anyway. Starts with life: makes a text: then a revision—literally, a second seeing, an afterthought. … writing something new over the first layer of text. … I once observed to Dwight Macdonald, who had found me disappointingly conventional on some point. “I have nothing to say, only to add.”
It might well have amused Proust, a great palimpsester, to have made a rather similar claim. And for the memoirist-novelist, as Proust and Powell would have agreed, the most essential thing is humor. True snobbery is always solemn. After the wedding of Vidal’s half-sister, Nina Gore Auchincloss (her marriage was a failure, “as family tradition required”). Vidal finds himself driving to the reception with the young Jack Kennedy.
In the back of the limousine, Jack and I waved to non-existent multitudes, using the British royal salute, in which the fingers of one hand unscrew, as it were, an invisible upside-down jar of marmalade. Jack thought that Nina had made a mistake in not marrying his brother Teddy. I had no view on the matter. Absently, he tapped his large white front teeth with the nail of his forefinger, click, click, click—a nervous tic.
The reader feels right there, with it and in it: and so effective is the super-imposed ripple of Vidal’s style and personality (the palimpsest at work?) that a kind of innocence of absurdity—as with the marmalade jar—easily mingles with an effortless and knowing sophistication. Brought so fascinatingly close to us, the Vidal world seems both exotic and domestic, glitzy and homely, and is presented with a deft economy that is itself highly droll.
That winter Paul and Joanne and Howard and I took a house together in the Malibu Beach colony. Each had a small car. Paul left for Warners at dawn, as that studio was in the far, faraway San Fernando Valley. I left second, to drive to MGM in Culver City. Finally, Joanne made her leisurely way to Twentieth Century-Fox in nearby Beverly Hills. … Weekends, the house was full of people that, often, none of us knew. Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy were often there, as were Romain Gary and his wife, Leslie Blanche, and. …
I am at the point I have been dreading: lists of names of once-famous people who mean nothing, by and large, to people now and will require endless footnotes for future historians. One might just pull it off if one had something truly intriguing to say about each name or if I had, like so many contemporary autobiographers, tempestuous love affairs, bitter marriages, autistic children, breakdowns, drugs, therapy, a standard literary life. But I was to have no love affairs or marriages, while casual sex is, by its very nature not memorable. I have never “broken down” as opposed to slowly crumbling, and I’ve steered clear of psychoanalysts, nutritionists and contract-bridge players. Joanne Woodward and I were nearly married, but that was at her insistence and based entirely on her passion not for me but for Paul Newman. Paul was taking his time about divorcing his first wife, and Joanne calculated, shrewdly as it proved, that the possibility of our marriage would give him the needed push. It did.
In 1958 they were married at last and we all lived happily ever after.
Not only does Vidal have original things to say on many subjects but the reader feels himself becoming one with the characters in the book: a sure sign of a literary master at work. He has for example, a good point about class. He is amused by the British class system, and by romantic English writers—Auden was one who loved the idea of America as the classless society while firmly asserting their own status back home (upper-middle in his own case, Auden insisted—he was the son of a doctor). Of course America has its own class system, says Vidal, just like Britain. The difference is that most Americans don’t even know it. The few that do are well aware of the exclusion zones and neatly roped-off areas which it takes either privilege of birth or dazzling social and intellectual skills (Vidal had both) to enter and enjoy. Whereas the Englishman knows his place, and is prepared either to put down his inferiors or to be put down—ever so unobtrusively—by his betters, the American really can change his class, if his talents or chutzpah are up to it. All this is very politically incorrect, but it probably happens to be true: and Vidal, as a natural classicist and an admirer of Montaigne and Cicero, thinks it is likely to go on being true.
Incidentally, the “Howard” referred to in the passage quoted above has been Vidal’s almost lifelong companion. “‘How,’ we are often asked, ‘have you stayed together for forty-four years?’ The answer is. ‘No sex.’ This satisfies no one, of course, but there as Henry James would say, it is.” Howard Auster was born in the Bronx, worked in a drugstore to put himself through New York University, and tried to get a job in advertising. At that time Jewish persons were discouraged in that profession, so Vidal recommended that he change the r at the end of his name to an n. He did so, and was at once taken on by an agency. Class is less visible than racism, but no doubt the two always have and always will be intertwined. (Austen, by the way, or its variant Austin, is a respectable though not a grand name in England, not like Talbot, say, or Villiers. Jane Austen knew her class—roughly upper-middle, like Auden’s—and kept a beady eye above and below it, for like many such families she had some connections grander than herself, and others less grand.)
His needle-sharp curiosity and humor make Vidal a natural enjoyer of all such matters. He revels, as already noted, in a sort of sophisticated innocence. P.G. Wodehouse would have been delighted by the idea of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and the author each setting off for their respective studios at different moments in the early morning: yawning, no doubt, as they brushed the crumbs away. A super sophisticate in the public estimation, he has a ruefully witty tale or two to show with what unjust firmness that persona has clung. An actress once told him that everyone knew Noel Coward had one really rather disgusting sexual habit. “I was horrified. I knew Coward well. He was as fastidious about sex as about everything else.” When Vidal saw the actress later she said she’d never forgotten what he had told her about Coward’s sex kink. “Thus I have been transformed into the source of a truly sick invention that will be grist to the Satanic mills of Capotes as yet unborn.”
The two most important people in Palimpsest, and the ones most movingly brought to life, are his Gore grandfather, the senator, and Jimmie Trimble, the fair-haired boy he met in Washington, killed in 1945 with the marines on Iwo Jima. Vidal loved both, and it is love that brings them so much alive in his memoir. Thomas Pryor Gore becomes for us as memorable a figure as the old patriarch grandfather in Aksakov’s well-known memoir A Russian Childhood, but there is nothing patriarchal about him. Rather he is a distant, detached, and slightly sardonic figure, which itself may give a clue to the difference between the naturally big man in a Russian nineteenth-century family and in a twentieth-century American family. Power in an up-and-coming American family was a more subtle affair than it had been in the Russian context, and it had to be more skillfully exercised. Freedom in America was always there for the rest of the family to walk away into if they wanted.
T.P. Gore, in any case, was not inclined to control his family by means of money, or through the prospects of inheritance. He was blind from ten years old: as his grandson says, an extraordinary trick of fate. “The odds are very much against losing an eye in an accident, but to lose two eyes in two separate accidents is positively Lloydsian.” And fate had more freakish adventures in store for him. He was a friend of Clarence Darrow, and at a time when he was visiting one of Darrow’s court cases he was himself about to be tried for rape. He had backed the Indians against the oil interests in Oklahoma, where he was senator, and after ignoring threats to soften up he had the “badger game” played on him. A woman constituent rang him with some request, and after leading him to her hotel room, in the absence of his male secretary, tore her clothes off and started screaming. Two handy detectives rushed in and said. “We’ve got you!”
A jury took ten minutes to exonerate the Senator, who, as it happened, had already once found himself in a “shotgun” situation over a young woman. And she too had been blind. Her family accused him of raping her—the youthful pair were living in the same boarding house in Corsicana, Texas—and demanded marriage. A real shotgun was produced, but the future senator walked away saying, “Shoot, but I’m not marrying her.” The facts of what happened remain obscure, as family facts perhaps always do and should do: but making his own inquiries in later years the grandson found some evidence to suggest that the Senator had indeed been guilty in this instance. Surmounting all the odds he was already on his way to becoming a quietly charismatic personality and a brilliant and dryly Ciceronian speaker: but even he might have been overhandicapped by becoming a partner in a blind marriage. He met his wife—they became known to the family as Dot and Dah—at a political meeting in Texas. After hearing her beautiful low voice he said at once, “I’m going to marry you.”
There is more than filial feeling, strong though that is, in the vivid way Vidal recreates a grandfather who may have meant far more to him than his own father, Gene Vidal, the athlete and airline president. From the Senator, doubtless, came not only the literary gift but the abiding fascination with the personalities of power—power in any era. Reading for hours a day to a grandfather whose affection never took, then or later, the form of gratitude, the seven- and eight-year-old Gore must have unconsciously begun to learn how things go in those power circles. It was to be a lesson put to good and apparently effortless use in the brilliant studies of Caesar and Julian the Apostate, as well as in those of Lincoln and Burr. The young Vidal also saw senatorial ruthlessness in action. If he ever gave up on the reading aloud—always history, poetry, or economics: novels were despised—his grandfather would blithely remind him that both Milton’s daughters themselves went blind, reading to their old tyrant of a blind father.
Language was clearly the Senator’s being. After he had made a fine political oration in Texas a group of Baptist ministers were so impressed that they offered him a fat salary and fine house to become their minister. When he courteously declined, on the grounds that he did not believe in God, they told him. “Come now, Mr. Gore, that’s not the proposition we made you.” The Senator’s own brand of eloquence was what mattered. “Dah,” says his grandson, “had a curious position in the country, not unlike that of Helen Keller, a woman born deaf, mute, and blind. The response of each to calamity was a subject of great interest to the general public, and we children and grandchildren were treated not so much as descendants of just another politician but as the privileged heirs to an Inspirational Personage.”
Jimmie Trimble, appearing, Vidal tells us, in many photos with no smile on his handsome face, and with his eyes looking away, is the image of Delphic Charioteer, or Shropshire Lad, who would have been recognized at once by the poet A.E. Housman. Housman knew that real love was once for all, and that the knowledge went, rather more ambiguously, with an unconscious lust for the loved one’s early death. It did not happen in his case. His fate was to love a young undergraduate who in fact lived a long and useful life, but at least in the poet’s memory he became one with “the lads who will die in their glory and never be old.”
Jimmie was nineteen when he was shot and bayoneted, asleep in his foxhole, by a Japanese raiding party at midnight on Iwo Jima. Vidal is of course fully aware of the irony that now veils the myth of the young dead soldier: but he has the kind of style that can admit all that irony and yet achieve a moving and classic simplicity as well. Jimmie’s single reappearance is both plangent and matter-of-fact, like the visit that Odysseus, after he has drunk the black blood, is permitted to make to the world of the dead. The blood-drinking ritual for Vidal was smoking ganja in Katmandu, “not an easy thing for a nonsmoker to do.”
But as I gasped my way into a sort of trance Jimmie materialized beside me on the bed. He wore blue pajamas. He was asleep. He was completely present, as he had been in the bedroom at Merrywood. I tickled his foot. The callused sole was like sandpaper. It was a shock to touch him again. The simulacrum opened its blue eyes and smiled and yawned and put his hand alongside my neck: he was, for an instant, real in a hotel room in Katmandu. But only for an instant. Then he rejoined Achilles and all the other shadowy dead in war.
Jimmie had been an excellent athlete and a reluctant soldier, who did his best both not to be where he was and not to die where he did. Like Vidal, who was serving as a mate on an army landing craft in the dangerous waters of the Aleutians, he strongly resented the fate that had brought him into war. Had he survived he might never have mattered very much to the author, who dedicated a novel, The City and the Pillar, to him, and who recalls telling an inquisitive journalist that JT “‘was the unfinished business of my life.’ A response as cryptic as it was accurate.” Certainly the living have not the powers of the dead, and power is of course Vidal’s most writerly theme. Finding out about the dead man, chiefly from his mother, after his own brief idyll with the living one, was clearly as important to Vidal’s subsequent and protean development as the relation with his grandfather had been. The City and the Pillar still reads as a most impressive novel, far more powerful and also closer to life than the homoerotic novels of its own or of a previous time. Like the Greeks and Romans, the young Vidal could always find sex at the same time bleak, lyrical, and funny, whatever form it took.
His powers as novelist and writer, not only thoroughbred ones but gifts that are truly his own, are at their strongest in this search for the past which gives us his own family, his Gore grandfather in particular, and his love for Jimmie Trimble. Jealousy, although in this case a retrospective jealousy, is the side of love most familiar to Proust. For Vidal, perhaps, love could only become fully aware of itself when the sources of jealousy were revealed, for others beside the young Vidal had been smitten by Jimmie. Vidal himself was then well able to plunge into a dazzling career of sex, entertainment, and hard work—turning out novels, plays, and filmscripts, even while his unconscious mind was carrying on its “unfinished business.”
The more gossipy and predictable side of Palimpsest is beautifully done, economically funny and elegant, but by necessity a conducted tour rather than what can seem—especially in the first section of the book—a true conversation of discovery with the reader. And yet, as Myra Breckenridge long ago showed, Vidal can be more classically funny than most writers in this vein since Petronius Arbiter wrote of Trimalchio’s Feast. Every page of Palimpsest has some pleasurable absurdity, usually a good-natured one, that stays in the memory, and often with an aroma of poetry about it, as on the pages which return us at intervals to the author’s villa at Ravello, where the memoir is being written. Swimming under the cypresses in the navy-blue pool and rescuing a small drowning lizard, he recalls the exceedingly grubby swimming pool at the Windsor Castle Royal Lodge, where he and Princess Margaret saved a number of bees from drowning, she exhorting them “in a powerful Hanoverian voice” to “go forth and make honey.”
The snapshot of E.M. Forster, patron saint of the English gay community, is not only dreadfully funny but revealing. Forster, as Vidal perceived, held perpetual court in both senses, and his judgments had an “unremitting censoriousness” quite alien to the free and easy living of American gays. Forster twinkled at adoring acolytes like Christopher Isherwood, even while ignoring the book Isherwood had recently sent him. He invited Vidal and Tennessee Williams to lunch at Kings College, Cambridge, for he was shrewd enough to wish to patronize a rising celebrity, even an American one. Williams wisely declined, but Vidal was prepared to undergo a droll experience.
We had a bad boiled lunch. “You must have the steamed lemon curd roll,” Forster said. But as there was only one portion left, which he so clearly wanted, I opted for rhubarb. “Now,” he said, contentedly tucking in, “you will never know what steamed lemon curd is.”
Forster was also highly secretive. Lionel Trilling had just published a study of his novels but had no idea that their author was queer, and was astounded to be told so by Truman Capote. For once, as Vidal dryly remarks. Capote had no need to be inventive.
At this time, in the late Forties, after The City and the Pillar had become a best-seller on the New York Times list. Vidal “wanted to meet every writer that I admired. I met several: as a result, I never again wanted to meet, much less know, a writer whose work I admired.” But the great exception was Tennessee Williams, “the Glorious Bird.” The essential homeliness, even shyness, of this exotic figure is what comes across in Palimpsest, whether in Rome or New York, or on the Left Bank, as if such descriptions of him might be of Julius Caesar, in a domestic light with his wife Calpurnia. Vidal possesses the gift for seeing life, as it were, on its snug, unbuttoned side, perhaps because, as the Bird once remarked. “Gore gets on even less well with people than I do.” It takes the born outsider, which most good writers are, to show the way of the world unbeglamoured, and as it really strikes them.
Vidal shared rooms on the Left Bank with the Bird in the early Fifties, at a time when both were on the edge of success. An American female academic, who was doing a biography of Tennessee Williams, asked Vidal whether they were lovers at the time. Vidal replied that “in my experience of real life it was unusual for colleagues to go to bed with each other. Of course, I added tolerantly, to show that nothing human was alien to me, I did understand that it was known for tenured lady professors to go to bed with each other. …” It was a neat way of turning the tables, and one would like to know what the professor came up with in reply. Palimpsest is much too urbanely written to bother with reticence, but it contains not a hint of either the vulgar betrayal of friends, or a pseudo-radical confession about the self. As the Bird pointed out, intellectuals usually prefer to talk to each other rather than to go to bed together. At least it was so in his case. “‘It is most disturbing to think that the head beside you on the pillow might be thinking, too,’ said the Bird, who had a gift for selecting fine bodies attached to heads usually filled with the bright confetti of lunacy.”
As if he were living in an Elizabethan age, the worlds of fashion and frivolity were as natural for Vidal, given his background, as was the world of politics and power. In Camelot the two were the same, and the Kennedys were typically anxious to meet and to mingle. A photo shows Jack Kennedy with Vidal and the Bird, who have driven up from Miami to greet him. “Far too attractive for the American people” was the Bird’s verdict. That was in 1958, when Kennedy was already running for president. Two years later Vidal himself would be running for Congress in upstate New York on the Democratic ticket. Truman came to help out in Poughkeepsie, remarking “I hope I haven’t done you any harm” as he left. But Vidal’s interest in politics was more that of a writer than that of a dedicated player of the game: his interest in Kennedy, as friend, near-relative, and political phenomenon, was, so to speak. Shakespearean rather than professional. The true goal of Vidal’s politics was surely his own books, particularly Julian, Lincoln, and Burr, which came out of both his own experiences and the feel for things he had acquired at the knee of his senator grandfather.
It is far from easy to say how balanced or how deeply felt is his own political philosophy. The image of Lincoln-Macbeth, the reluctant tyrant agonized by the consequences of his own tyranny, is a striking one, but it may belong more to the study and the theater than to any real political world. On the other hand. Senator Gore used to say, and with some justification, that Lincoln’s sober rhetoric was as inherently meaningless as the flowery sort. “Was there ever a fraud greater than this government of, by, and for, the people? What people, which people?” No wonder that his grandson has considered the greatest presidents to be simply the most Machiavellian, manipulating an attack on Fort Sumter, or on Pearl Harbor, in order to do what they, and not the people, wanted.
If Vidal’s political views are in keeping with his family background there is no doubt about the part their basic assumptions have played in his own career. He once attended a literary conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, at which he encountered that great memoirist, Anthony Powell, together with the English novelist C.P. Snow, who liked to think he frequented in his own fashion the corridors of power. Snow was no match for his Yankee counterpart, who ruthlessly dismissed any genteel plea that the conference might be about “culture.” Authors, like other men of the world, care nothing but for fame and fortune. The enfant terrible who discomfited the English delegates has never been backward about opening his mouth in settings where the conventions of hypocrisy are respected. Goaded in this manner, an exasperated pedagogue at the memoirist’s prep school once told his colleagues that he wanted to be a bull, “So that I could gore Vidal.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
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 nuances, the irony, the sly, telling understatement which is meant to be so marked a feature of our cultural manner. America, you feel, simply doesn’t get him. Many of the best items in this otherwise rather thin collection of his essays of the last five years have been written in his crispest, most assured style for English audiences (the readers of the Sunday Telegraph, the Observer, and the TLS among them), and none of them hits the mark with a cleaner bull’s-eye than his brief report for the Nation on the May general election—I particularly liked the description of Peter Mandelson radiating ‘the insolent manner of one born to the top rung but three’.
Elsewhere there is a feeling of tiredness, afterthought, repetition. Vidal is over 70 now, and in the introduction admits that the great bulk of what he has been impelled to say polemically is already contained in the massive collection United States (published in 1992, and covering over 40 years of his oeuvre), in relation to which the present volume, as the title suggests, is only a dependency. The stroke is still firm, but the pace is slower, and those killing backhands more predictable. Some of the quips—the contrast between ‘banal, anal’ sex and ‘floral, oral’ sex, for instance—will be embarrassingly familiar to his devotees.
But what one admires nowadays is not so much the insouciant, cavalier brilliance for which he is celebrated, as the sheer dogged consistency of his radicalism (untainted by fellow-travelling). No intellectual has ever been less guilty of trahison des clercs or the newspaper pundit’s weekly dose of moral opportunism.
As these essays demonstrate yet again, Vidal has been steadfast in his attacks on the weakness of the US anti-trust laws, the ‘cancer’ of its defence budget, the mauvaise foi behind its imperialistic adventures, the underlying decline in the vitality of its democracy. Being a disinherited Southerner and homosexual must have helped him to remain sceptical of the Washington establishment, and even though, I daresay, they open their arms for him there as a dear old enemy now, his own tolerance does not seem to soften.
Far from it. In Virgin Islands, two new targets are levelled at. The first is John Updike, for whose quietist politics Vidal has little time. He is rightly scathing of Updike’s view that during the Vietnam war ‘it was the plain citizen’s duty to hold his breath and hope for the best’, and details with uninhibited relish the indisputable failure of Updike’s attempt to tread on Vidal’s own literary territory in the historical novel In the Beauty of the Lilies. Somehow one doesn’t taste sour grapes.
The second new target is Clinton and his administration, which fulfils all Vidal’s sourest jeremiads on the morality of American public life. ‘Clinton’s greatest asset is a perfect lack of principle,’ he remarks with Swiftian precision, rightly noting that such a judgment is in some sense a compliment:
What is needed in a time of race and class wars is a quick-witted, devious, soothing leader always sufficiently nimble to stay a step or two ahead of a polity that, if it is going anywhere, is heading down the economic scale, jettisoning, in its dizzy progress, our sacred ‘inalienable rights’.
Steadfast Vidal may be; inflexible he is not. As he moves into Grand Old Manhood, one notices in these essays an impatience with the pretensions and self-aggrandisement of the nation-state which he has never before sounded so forcefully. ‘Let pluralism and diversity be our aim,’ he orates in a lecture delivered in Oxford in 1995, ‘there is already more than enough union … The larger the political entity, the greater the danger for that administrative unit the citizen.’ As devolution moves unstoppably up the British political agenda, I look forward to Vidal returning to these intellectual shores. I only wonder who there is on the Right with the combination of wit and muscle to take him on.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1993
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, essayist, playwright, celebrity and occasional candidate for political office, he is a durable fixture on the American scene, a kind of latter-day blend of the glamorous Athenian renegade Alcibiades and the cultivated Roman satirist and taste-maker T. Petronius Arbiter.
The critical consensus seems to rate Vidal’s essays more highly than his novels. It’s true that his crisp, often barbed prose, his combative stance and his engagement with ideas make him a formidable and provocative essayist. It’s also true that some of his more recent novels, like Hollywood (1989) and Live From Golgotha (1992), stray far past the line between satire and self-parody. But the same might be said of some of his recent essays, which recycle themes he’s been airing for years.
Reviewing Duluth in 1983, George Stade aptly identified Vidal as “an immensely popular writer with an aggrieved sense of neglect.” Yet, even though some of his weaker novels have been, if anything, over-praised, Vidal’s strongest accomplishments as a novelist are still, in some ways, inadequately appreciated. He has done remarkable work, not only in the two very different genres of historical fiction and satire but also in an impressive variety of subgenres: His brilliant and thought-provoking re-creation of the American past, in his six-novel chronicle, Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1989) and Washington, D.C. (1967) is matched by his lucid and lively reconstruction of the ancient classical world in Creation (1981) and Julian (1964). His inventive satires range from the exuberantly bawdy and exquisitely clever Myra Breckinridge (1968) to the more somber apocalyptic visions of Messiah (1955) and Kalki (1978).
Nor has he always confined himself to the categories for which he is now best known. His pioneering portrait of homosexual love in The City and the Pillar is still compelling. His historical novel A Search For the King (1950) is neither American nor classical but a very lyrical portrait of a troubadour in the age of Richard the Lion-Heart. And his urbanely modern reworking of an ancient myth in The Judgment of Paris (1953) is a sophisticated, gracefully wrought mixture of realism and romanticism that may surprise readers who are familiar only with Vidal’s later, more outrageous efforts.
A sprightly, incisive, sometimes cynical intelligence is the salient feature of Vidal’s best work. Like his contemporary William Gaddis and near-contemporary Thomas Pynchon, Vidal is a mordant satirist of modern American culture, but unlike either of them, his overriding aim—and strength—is clarity. The deceptively simple texture of his prose makes him in many ways more akin to the satirists of classical antiquity: lucid, direct and wittily epigrammatic. And, indeed, Vidal likes to present himself as someone who would have been very much at home in the cosmopolitan, cheerful, tolerant pre-Christian world that the eponymous Roman emperor Julian vainly hoped to restore.
Although very much an antithetical spirit, at loggerheads with mainstream American culture, Vidal had little in common with the so-called counterculture and its forerunners, the Beats. In his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, he recounts a conversation with Allen Ginsberg: “Just as I was beginning to get a grip on what writing could be and how best to examine one’s life, you come along, preaching a fuzzy sort of Star-of-the-East mysticism. I wanted people to think. You wanted them to be. Well, they are, anyway. But to encourage the worst educated and the most resolutely propagandized public in the First World not to think about why things are as they are is cruel.”
Without sacrificing the more purely novelistic virtues of well-drawn characters, suspenseful storytelling, evocative atmosphere and imaginative inventiveness, Vidal’s best novels are, in the best sense, intellectual. They display intelligence, they engage with ideas and they aim both to mock and to enlighten in the anti-religious tradition of the Enlightenment and Voltaire. Vidal’s critique of Christianity in Julian, of messianic religion in general in Messiah and Kalki, his lampoon of heterosexual chauvinism and the macho mind-set in Myra Breckinridge and Myron are not only provocative but substantive.
In some respects, it could be said that Vidal’s latest novel is the dernier cri of many of the themes, tendencies and obsessions found in his previous work. It reflects both his fascination with American history and his fondness for bizarre inventions. Its setting is the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It opens in 1939, with the world poised on the edge of the war that will transform the United States into a world power with thermonuclear weapons. The hero is a handsome, blond 13-year-old boy called T., just your everyday American teenager who also happens to have a preternatural ability to visualize super-complicated stuff like the relation of mass to energy and the dynamics of time travel.
One of T.’s teachers at St. Alban’s, the prestigious private school he attends, recommends that he pay a visit to the Smithsonian. But it soon becomes apparent that the boy wonder has been summoned there for more than just the usual guided tour. T. is expected to help Albert Einstein and other scientists at work on a secret weapon that will ensure victory in the coming war but might also destroy the planet. T. decides that what he really ought to do is figure out a way to go back in time and change history so as to avert World War II, and hence, the need to produce this dreadful weapon.
Luckily for T., Vidal’s Smithsonian is not only a repository of items from American history and a secret laboratory for scientific experimentation but also a place where the exhibits come to life after hours. Wandering into a display of the lifestyles of early Native Americans, T. meets up with a great-looking squaw who rescues him from the stewpot and initiates him into the mysteries of exactly what every red-blooded 13-year-old lad wants to know. As if this were not enough, T. discovers that the museum’s exhibits are real in another sense: You can enter, for example, the diorama of Eskimo life in Alaska and instantly be transported to the real Alaska. All of this, along with T.’s own manipulations of a secret time machine, enable T., often accompanied by Squaw (who, for reasons too convoluted to explain, sometimes doubles as Mrs. Grover Cleveland), to travel to the past and the future in his quest to alter the course of history.
Written in the gee-whiz style of old-fashioned pulp adventure stories aimed at the teen and preteen boys’ market, this is a novel that adults may find rather tough going. I’m not even sure teenagers would take to it. The plot is preposterous, hard to follow and, as it turns out, not worth the trouble of having tried to follow. Sample dialogue.
Q: “Are you from here—the here whose now we’re both in—or are you from back then and I’m visiting you in my now?”
A: “You might say that I’m allowed to straddle the two though I’m very much what you’d call ‘then.’ Eventually, when advanced computers become available to me, I may be able to figure out the process, but since you’re still in 1939 I can’t go beyond that year except in theory.”
Many of Vidal’s favorite topics and pet peeves find their way into this novel: from a description of first ladies’ ball gowns to a stale rehash of his oft-expressed theory that the quest for empire has cost Americans their republic. The Roosevelts, especially the imperialistic Theodore, are in for Vidal’s usual drubbing (except for Eleanor, who seems still to be in Vidal’s good graces). The real target, however, is Woodrow Wilson. T.’s aim is to find a way to prevent Wilson from becoming president and taking the country into World War I, which caused World War II, which in turn (as T. foresees on his time machine), will maim or kill some of his schoolmates, including perhaps himself. One of T.’s allies is the isolationist aviator Charles Lindbergh, portrayed here in the rosiest of lights.
Once T. has prevented Wilson from becoming president, President William Jennings Bryan really does keep America out of war, and Germany does not suffer the crushing postwar treatment that left it susceptible to the likes of Hitler. (This seems to presume, on little or no real evidence, that without America’s involvement, the European powers would have come to a fairer resolution of their hostilities.) What T. has not foreseen, however, (history was never his strongest subject at school) is the threat posed by Japan. Pearl Harbor is still attacked, a dangerous war still looms and a secret weapon project is still going on (but, thanks to T., the bomb will destroy buildings rather than people). The climax, so to speak, is when T. heads for Iwo Jima to save the life of his double by taking his place. Readers who have read Palimpsest will find it hard not to recall the fate of Vidal’s boyhood love, Jimmie Trimble, who was killed on Iwo Jima, and frankly, the effect is jarring.
In a bad way, this is a very personal book. Much of the time, it seems to be little more than an opportunity for its author to revisit his various old stamping grounds, places like St. Alban’s in Washington and Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, two schools he attended in his boyhood. The effect is a little like overhearing somebody chortling away at some private joke, a far cry from Vidal’s usual sparkling wit. For those who have admired Vidal’s trenchant discourse on politics, culture and American history, it is disappointing to see how he trivializes those issues in Smithsonian. One gets the sense from reading this book that the reason he thinks World War II was a bad idea has a lot less to do with the atomic bomb and the possible end of the human race than with the death of a friend on Iwo Jima. But even this personal tragedy is treated in a way that trivializes it.
Toward the end, a parade of famous ex-presidents is conjured up to advise FDR on what to do about Pearl Harbor. Vidal has a puzzled, disapproving George Washington dryly question the point of a war “to save Asians from Asians.” Is Vidal, speaking through our first president, really suggesting that Asians are not worth saving or that it’s OK for Asians to oppress other Asians because they’re all Asians anyway?
By some mysterious defeat of his usually fertile imagination, Vidal has managed to produce a book that is silly without being entertaining, faintly offensive without being provocative. Readers who remember his masterly portrait of Lincoln will rub their eyes at the addle-brained Lincoln doppelganger making a cameo appearance in this book. The Smithsonian Institution is rather an astonishing stunt for a writer who has given us some of the most politically acute, sophisticated and fascinating historical novels in English this century. It is almost as if Vidal were trying to undo his own best work. Fortunately, even T.’s time machine can’t do that. Readers would be well advised to skip this guided tour of moldering hobby-horses and spend more profitable time rediscovering the many and varied pleasures of his earlier novels, as fresh and bracing today as when they first were written.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
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 attractive alternative to the forced Sunday traipse, the dog-eared labels and termite-ridden exhibits, the disgraceful coffee in the Institute. Vidal’s Smithsonian is byzantine, organic, omniscient, linked in some mysterious way to the US Government, the US military, or both; and the exhibits come frolicsomely alive after dark. One comes away with the feeling that if museums aren’t really like this, then they should be.
Now I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to pay attention. T, a teenage maths prodigy and star athlete, is delivered to the Smithsonian by taxi on the brink of the Second World War. He is set to work eliminating the risk of chain reaction from nuclear explosions, and meanwhile entertained by a squaw from the Early Indian Exhibit, who, confusingly, is also the first incarnation of President Grover Cleveland’s wife (two terms in office, two inaugural gowns for the First Lady, two wives). As a fringe benefit to his bomb research, T perfects a form of time travel. Glimpsing his mutilated self in a Battle of the Pacific exhibit already being set up, he resolves to go into the past and avert the coming conflict, not by removing Hitler—for this is America—but by blackmailing Woodrow Wilson out of standing for the governorship of New Jersey. To us this may seem as insignificant as the flapping of a butterfly’s wing, but the plan is that America will be (would have been) kept out of the First World War, which will fizzle (would have fizzled) out, avoiding the economic privations which will lead (would have led—you get the idea) to the rise of Nazism.
When T returns from 1910, lots of little things have changed—he is, for example, two years older—and a few big things. Trotsky is the Soviet president; Hitler has made it as an architect (perhaps the most implausible thing in the book). T’s glimpses into the future no longer reveal a nuclear apocalypse. Unfortunately, he still seems scheduled to die at Guam. It turns out that there has been a steady escalation in the Pacific during the 1930s, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor has taken place eighteen months early. A renegade officer, Colonel Douglas MacArthur, is making propaganda broadcasts for the Japanese. It is left to T, assisted by Charles Lindbergh, to set up a base inside the Arctic Circle and scare the oriental foe into submission by nuking the top off Mount Fuji. For good measure, he saves his other self from death on the battlefield, though only at the cost of being hideously wounded himself. The story ends happily, with T repaired by arcane medical techniques, and admitted to the Valhalla that is the Smithsonian’s permanent fellowship. Here, James Smithson himself, who turns out to have had a longstanding interest in T’s career, runs the show, and the Keeper of Ceramics is none other than Abraham Lincoln, whisked away from 1865 and the malign attentions of John Wilkes Booth in an early, and only partially successful, time-travel experiment. Best of all, T gets the girl, her other self sportingly pretending to be a big sister, while an indulgent Grover Cleveland makes a speech.
Before his own period of infatuation with the themes of big science, Martin Amis prefaced an early novel with an endearing caveat: “I may not know much about science but I know what I like.” The motto might have served Gore Vidal well here. For all the snatches of technical jargon—a superstring here, a unified field theory there—he is not gravely preoccupied with plausibility. The hardware on display is as generalized and cranky as in a Flash Gordon movie, while the logical problems of time travel are handled with playful inconsistency. Certainly there would be no story if it were impossible to change the past—if what’s done is done, as it were—but T’s adventures in the fourth dimension, even though they may have a million detailed and unpredictable ramifications (shades of chaos theory), seem in the end to have changed nothing much. There is still war, there are still presidents, there is still—bunkered, autonomous, changeless—the Smithsonian Institution.
In fact, Vidal is more excited about the poor man’s time machine, history. Much of the humour in the book comes from his deft characterizations of the dead presidents, who meet for a pow-wow in the cod Georgetown of the Institution on the eve of the Japanese war. Here, Vidal indulges two lifelong passions; prissily exact sideswipes at American political biographers, and a propensity for thinking the unthinkable about American public life. The Wilson episode hints at a shady cabal of unelected power-brokers whom Wilson must court for preferment—the world inside the world, as Don DeLillo puts it—and Vidal goes on to have the country’s first rulers accuse its twentieth-century ones of lapsing into imperialism. There are even references to a later escapade: “And so to save Asians from Asians, the white race, as I perhaps wrongly insist in regarding us, must do battle with an island people far, far away in every sense”, snaps Washington to Roosevelt. There are numerous references to French Indo-China, just in case anybody has failed to get the point. Vidal understands that both intervention in, and isolation from, foreign wars tend to have some racial element, whether in the smug assumptions of superiority which underlie America’s present attempts to be the world’s gendarme, or in the belief that a white life is worth more than a yellow one. However, either through his own isolationism or in an unpleasant lapse from moral watchfulness, he suggests that a century in which the Holocaust does not take place is interchangeable with a century in which it does. The Second World War was not purely about national interests.
The story’s themes and puzzles crystallize in the person of T. He seems at times like a value in a mathematical equation (“time”, presumably), while the single letter’s brash rectilinearity is a kind of calligraphic rendering of the straight-backed all-American hero. He is also, as it turns out, the result of a long exercise in eugenics—but what old-money East Coast kid is not? In any case there is a kind of inertness about him. His genius is less intellectual than visionary; he is a vehicle for other people’s desires and expectations (even Vidal seems to regard him with more than proprietorial care). Like Kafka’s Josef K (another one-letter name), he is suddenly thrown into a crazy world; only T, with a childish capacity for wonder, blithely goes with the flow. The whole experience is a kind of fairy tale—but of course nuclear weapons reduce everything to a kind of fairy tale. Vidal appreciates that hilarity and bewilderment are entirely appropriate responses to the ridiculous, appalling events at the heart of our century.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
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 morning, as the early sun shone over the distant car parks, found me having another try, before breakfast became an urgent necessity. And so on, through the return train ride, the tube journey back to Putney and a long ‘working’ evening. Finally I finished the wretched thing—and The Smithsonian Institution is not a long novel—late on Sunday night.
The case against Gore Vidal’s fiction was memorably stated over 20 years ago by the young Martin Amis. Having interviewed Vidal in Ravello, Amis found that his subject had followed him back to England. Prudently, he took a draft of his article round to the Connaught where the affable Mr Vidal volunteered to correct it. A few chance scurrilities hastily excised, a generally approving Vidal remarked that it was a bit thin on ‘the works’. Alas, Amis confessed—in print, if not to his host’s face—an admirer of the essays he might be, but the novels … well, life was just too short.
I remembered that interview (reprinted in The Moronic Inferno, 1986) at about the time the train reached Reading. The Smithsonian Institution is one of those increasingly fashionable high-jinks-with-history novels, set in the run-up to the second world war, in which a precocious (sex and intellect) 13-year-old-boy is bidden to turn up at Pennsylvania Avenue on a day when he knows the place to be closed. Here, after various preliminaries—including some dalliance with a ‘white’ squaw from the Early Indian Exhibition—‘T’, as the boy is known, is inducted by Abraham Lincoln into the Manhattan Project, which is going on in the basement.
Nuclear fission aside, T is immediately caught up in some purposeful experiments with the time-space continuum aimed at preventing the outbreak of war (having discovered that it looks set to cause his own death, T is more than happy to help). The nuclear physics stuff is painstakingly inked in, but it seems to be summarised in his realisation that
the four-dimensional co-ordinates of time-space were suddenly clear to him. Once he had the energy to transfer mass, himself, he could not so much enter as cross over into one of innumerable parallel pasts.
Meanwhile ‘Squaw’ (who turns out to be the wife of President Cleveland), when not ravishing him senseless, proves a merry guide to the exhibits (‘We’re pretty lively when we’re not on display’) and suggests an intervention or two on the tape of past time. T may not be able to do much about, say, the Depression, but he could perhaps interfere with the chain of contingency that led to Woodrow Wilson becoming president.
H.G. Wells would have given this kind of thing excitement, ardour and intellectual rigour. Vidal, being Vidal, imparts only a sort of sophisticated smirking, whose prime giggle is what the exhibits get up to after dark (‘Black slave girls, Eskimos are considered really hot,’ a 19th-century army officer explains. ‘And of course they all like the idea of going with a president, any president, in fact.’) In the end, despite an ingenious solution to the problem of T’s impending death and one or two decent jokes—in particular the presidents’ habit of sitting around reading the latest biographies of themselves—I put down The Smithsonian Institution for the last time with a feeling of profound annoyance. No doubt Mr Vidal is one of the grandest of transatlantic literary panjandrums, but how do books like this get published? And what publisher, given the choice between this thrumming opus and a couple of manuscripts by talented newcomers pressing for a hearing, could possibly plump for T and his high-jinks in historical neverland?
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6103
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 of his luxurious octagonal Empire study as he considered the question whether he could win the election.
“If this were not a Presidential year, I might have a chance,” he said. “As it is, every four years, about 20,000 extra people crawl out of their Hudson Gothic woodwork up here to vote for William McKinley.”
Mr. Vidal is 34 years old, slender, smooth in dress and manner, bright, sharp, sophisticated. He looks like a juvenile lead and talks like Mort Sahl. “I say 80 per cent of what I think, a hell of a lot more than any politician I know,” he said.
Take out the proper name in that story, and who could fail to guess the subject’s identity? By then, he had written his first eight novels, two Broadway successes, and the screenplays for Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. According to the New York Times reporter, he had also written some speeches for President Eisenhower. That detail—I’m unsure of its provenance—might have thrown some people off the trail. Yet it is essential, in the understanding of Vidal, to know how conservative as well as how radical he can be.
Having been defeated in Dutchess County while outpolling the presidential leader of that ticket, Vidal was pressed by the party managers to try again. He was offered backing if he would contest the same House district, or perhaps if he would run for the Senate against Jacob Javits. Having scored a critical and commercial hit with his play The Best Man (still, in its celluloid form, the only enlightening movie ever made about an American party convention) and having outperformed JFK as a man of the people, Vidal evidently felt that he had squeezed the political lemon dry for that season, and told the emissaries from New York that he was off to either Athens or Rome, to write a novel about Julian the Apostate.
This could, in ordinary times, have been a reculer pour mieux sauter. There seemed to be space and leisure enough, for Julian and, perhaps, for a return to the fray on the part of Senator Gore’s grandson. But “Camelot,” as he would never have dreamed of calling it, was to be as ephemeral as it was tawdry, and the Republicans were to surpass his most sardonic predictions by nominating Barry Goldwater, and every law of unintended consequence was to combine to make 1964 a landslide year in which even Dutchess County, New York, went for the Democrats.
From a number of hints, scattered through his texts and footnotes, it is possible to intuit that Vidal has never quite forgiven himself or the Fates for this turn of events. Even the dullest imagination might feast for a moment or two on the might-have-been: Congressman Vidal, or even Senator Vidal, his blade flashing from its scabbard at the Tonkin Gulf resolution, or at the Chicago convention. If there sometimes seems to be a law—artfully adumbrated in The Best Man—that keeps intelligent or original men out of politics, there is no law that says that once in they have to leave. “I have a house in Italy and a house in the Hollywood Hills,” Vidal once told an interviewer, “so you could say that I don’t live in America at all.” Our most eminent literary émigré—or is it exile?—has, ever since Julian and Dutchess County, surveyed his native heath with a mixture of loyalty, resignation, anxiety, and satirical distance, in which mixture is compounded a small but crucial element of bitterness.
Vidal has another quarrel with the past, which lies deeper and even further from redress. In the storming of Iwo Jima in March 1945, his first love Jimmy Trimble was among the young men flung into the breach to die. The story was not told to Vidal’s audience until the publication of his memoir Palimpsest half a century later, though its combination of stoicism and sentiment had been prefigured in an essay the preceding year, where Vidal made elegiac use of the old torch song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” This junction of Eros and Thanatos with male bonding had also been strongly present through his thrice-rewritten postwar novel The City and the Pillar, where in one version Jim rapes Bob and in another kills him, but there were restraints upon confessional realism in 1948 (The New York Times neglected to take serious notice of Vidal’s work for a few years afterward). Having matured in the cask, so to say, the story is partly and more relaxedly retold in The Smithsonian Institution, with the emphasis this time on salvage and survival; nearer to the heart’s desire.
The hero and protagonist of the novel—its title almost pancake-flat, as if to disguise its ludic quality—is T. And T. (he always comes with this punctuation, as if to be twice capitalized) is a golden youth from St. Albans school in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1939. Innocent within and without, he has the gift of understanding the quantum and of producing mental simulacra in the field of relativity. He is thus both Trimble and Time. Italo Calvino once wrote of Vidal’s fantasy-fictions, which include Kalki, Duluth, and Live from Golgotha, that they were manifestations of “the hyper-novel or the novel elevated to the square or to the cube.” Not the least achievement of this apparently unstrenuous book is the way that it mobilizes several dimensions of space and time without losing its narrative thread, and contrives to deploy a historical sense in tandem with an awareness of physics and biology. Recent revelations about Jeffersonian DNA and the practicability of cloning are anticipated in the pages, which are a cocktail of magical realism, science fiction, and historical revisionism.
Hard to encapsulate? Not necessarily. Held in a time warp within the Smithsonian, T. is able to visit the past, to interview the waxwork assemblage of ex-presidents and first ladies, and to preview the future. It soon becomes evident that war is on the way, that this war will take his life, and that it—and everything else—will end with a nuclear detonation. The only way to avert all these undesirable outcomes is to derail the locomotive of history well back on its track. This in turn necessitates a judgment of taste as well as of mass—Which past president could we most do without? From a strong field of contestants—most entertainingly reviewed—T. does what I would have done and culls Woodrow Wilson. At one stroke, with some judicious blackmail, he removes the most sanctimonious and—high-mindedness notwithstanding—the most warmongering of the chief executives.
Contact with Princeton, New Jersey, furthermore, invites intercourse with Albert Einstein and allows Vidal full use of a wondrous and yet disturbing coincidence from his own biography—which is that, even as he was bidding farewell to Jimmy Trimble, he had left their old school St. Albans and moved to another in Los Alamos, New Mexico. (This establishment was also alma mater, if the term can be employed in such a connection, to William Burroughs.) Over the historical romp and political lèse-majesté is therefore superimposed the shadow of what we now call, though usually only when possessed or developed by others, “weapons of mass destruction.”
Connoisseurs will encounter some old Vidal favorites, distributed as markers in the labyrinth. Joseph Kennedy turns up, in the role of bootlegger to some American Indians (“Great Hyannis Hyena,” they call him). Benito Mussolini is rumored to be hiding out in “the Englewood, New Jersey area,” a frequent resort of Vidal’s when he wishes to poke fun at innocent but hirsute Italian-Americans. Mr. Lincoln is rescued from Ford’s theater and allowed to become a sort of resident Polonius. The Great Lingam of the Washington Monument receives its due propitiation. For the succulent whiteness of his skin, T. receives the nickname “Veal” from the waxwork Indians who come to life outside visiting hours, and one remembers the metaphorical stress that Vidal has often laid on this controversial dish. Counterintuitively, all the sex is both joyous and hetero, a blend found also in The Judgement of Paris but infrequently attempted elsewhere.
Lighthearted though the treatment may be, the novel is a frontal attack on the retrospective fatalism which makes us say World War I and World War II. and forget that the First was once called Great because it had no ensuing partner. Vidal is serious about stopping the Second, and not just for T.’s sake. He determines—first things first—that this involves preventing Mr. Wilson’s War. As a consequence, the “war clouds” still “gather” in 1939, but there is no Adolf Hitler on the scene. This might be described as the progressive use of anachronism. Also as a consequence—because Vidal has other loyalties from that period aside from Trimble—Colonel Charles Lindbergh, for example, whose Spirit of St. Louis is a centerpiece of the Smithsonian, resumes his place as an American patriot. While Franklin Delano Roosevelt, freed to fight only in the Pacific against the Emperor of Japan (and the Emperor’s American adviser, Lieutenant General Douglas MacArthur), makes plain his global ambitions in an address to all the ex-presidents. Roosevelt proposes a 90 percent corporate tax to fund the arsenal of democracy, not to say empire:
“Socialism,” said Coolidge. “Confiscation!”
“Don’t worry, Calvin. The corporations will get the money back—with interest—in government orders for more and more arms. Then there is the personal income tax. Never exactly popular. Mr. Lincoln got away with it in an emergency. But later the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional. Of course, we got it back again, but, as of last year, only ten percent of the workforce paid income tax, some four million returns. Drop in the bucket, my friends, Well, now, to finance the war, everyone will be paying. …”
“How’re you gonna make them?” Coolidge was sharp.
“No problem. We have devised something called the withholding tax. We take the money out of their paychecks before they get them.”
When President Taft breaks in to say that this really would be confiscation and that the courts will never uphold him, Roosevelt replies serenely that “the courts I’m appointing will take a different view,” and that anyway America has “the whole world ahead of us to do, as Mr. Harding would say, business in.” President Grant proposes a vote to back the President from Hyde Park to the hilt.
In microcosm, then, The Smithsonian Institution revisits and refines several Vidalian tropes. There is, first, his long-held view that “entangling alliances” are death to republican virtue, and that they become domestic entanglements as well. This belief, that a warfare state may evolve into a domestic tyranny, was first set out at length in an essay published in the month of the first Kennedy assassination, and took the form of a review of Edmund Wilson’s polemic of that year, The Cold War and the Income Tax. Discussing the half-buried tradition of American tax-resistance (also present in his tribute to Daniel Shays and the whiskey rebels), Vidal noted:
The line between Thoreau and Poujade is a delicate one. Yet it is perfectly clear that it must one day be drawn if the United States is not to drift into a rigid Byzantine society where the individual is the state’s creature (yes, liberals worry about this, too), his life the property of a permanent self-perpetuating bureaucracy. …
Vidal claims that it was he, and not Milton Friedman who first coined the satirical line about the symbiosis between state planning and corporate power: “Socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.” The line to note above, however, is about another kind of line—the one that separates Thoreau from Poujade. In his polemics against empire and interventionism and the overmighty state, Vidal has been careful to avoid the paranoid school: the old gang who used to cry that “FDR knew” about the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ones who referred to the President as “Frankie Rosenfeld” and who now cluster sadly around the memory of Harry Elmer Barnes and other occult practitioners of the nation’s “hidden” history. (He has never, to my knowledge, written anything about the more respectable and even less fashionable Charles and Mary Beard, whose work fell under a different sort of intellectual ban because they were out of step with the American Century: this is an omission one would love to see him someday repair.) In the same essay, though, he referred approvingly to Edmund Wilson as “something of a cultural America Firster.” This is an early sounding of a note that was to get him repeatedly into trouble, and that continues to do so. In The Smithsonian Institution, this note is defiantly resumed in the affectionate portrait of Lindbergh, to which I want to recur later.
The other essential and familiar elements in the novel are Vidal’s heterodox view of Abraham Lincoln; his tendency to overestimate the Japanese; his contempt for stay-at-home patriots; his interest in the historical role of first lady; and his belief—derived as much as anything from Lucretius and De Rerum Naturum—that nature and philosophy, and the relation between atoms and infinity, are much fitter studies, and greatly more awe-inspiring and respect-deserving, than any religion.
In selecting for his Vidal “reader,” which serves as part prelude to his forthcoming authorized biography, Professor Fred Kaplan has enforced a distinction between Vidal the fabulist, Vidal the novelist and screenwriter, Vidal the historian, and Vidal the essayist. His choices are excellently made, and are partitioned by well-wrought passages of introduction from both editor and author. The interest and pleasure, though, derive largely from the blending effect, from what Vidal (who never attended any university) would certainly scorn to call the multicultural or the interdisciplinary. As he puts it here in a dismissive review of some overlong and overrespectful biography of Truman, there was a time when historians knew they were also composing literature. The corollary—why should not a littérateur be writing history?—would have been obvious before the age of specialization overtook us. Even as it was, Vidal was able in his Lincoln to offer a portrait with background of “The Ancient,” to speculate with profit (and with evidence) about his racial and sexual attitudes, and to provoke a Historikerstreit among the academics of the post-Sandburg school, from which he emerged with distinction.
Here is the closing stave of Kaplan’s selection from the novel. Lincoln has survived an attempt to impeach him—for violating the law and the Constitution in the matter of habeas corpus—but not an attempt to assassinate him:
“I have been writing, lately, about the German first minister.” Mr. Schuyler was thoughtful. “In fact, I met him at Biarritz last summer when he came to see the emperor. Curiously enough, he has now done the same thing to Germany that you tell us Mr. Lincoln did to our country. Bismarck has made a single, centralized nation out of all the other German states.”
Hay nodded: he, too, had noted the resemblance. “Bismarck would also give the vote to people who have never had it before.”
“I think,” said Mr. Schuyler to the princess, “we have here a subject—Lincoln and Bismarck, and new countries for old.”
“It will be interesting to see how Herr Bismarck ends his career,” said Hay, who was now more than ever convinced that Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.
The implication could not be plainer—the unum comes at the expense of the pluribus, and war is the health of the state, and the cost is often not counted. In Lincoln John Hay is the secretary to “The Ancient” and the constant companion of John Nicolay. By the time of Empire, published only three years later, in 1987, he is teamed up with Henry Adams and the “wounds” of the War Between the States are being heartily bound up by a joint all-American expedition against Cuba and the Philippines.
He was Colonel Hay just as the President was always Major McKinley. But the President had actually seen action under his mentor, Ohio’s politician-general Rutherford B. Hayes, whose own mentor had been yet another politician-general, James Garfield, and Hay’s dear friend, as well. … Now, of course, all the political generals from Grant to Garfield were dead; the colonels were on the shelf; and the majors had come into their own. After them, no more military-titled politicians. Yet every American war had bred at least one president. Who, Hay wondered, would the splendid little war—oh, fatuous phrase!—bring forth? Adams favored General Miles, the brother-in-law of his beloved Lizzie Cameron. Lodge had already declared that Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila was equal to Nelson’s at Aboukir. But of course Lodge would support McKinley, who would be reelected: and so there would be no splendid little war-hero president in the foreseeable future.
Thus does Vidal slyly prepare the entrance of his least favorite character, the prancing figure of “Teddy” Roosevelt. His evocation of political culture in Washington, sustained now through seven novels, depends upon a high skill in depicting two sorts of personage—the sinuous and flattering courtier and the military-imperial braggart, the latter often being more of a secret sissy than the former. Note that in his recommendation of Edmund Wilson Vidal characterized the military-commercial nexus of state power as “Byzantine”: he was in the midst of composing Julian when he wrote that.
Julian, which is his literary masterpiece in my opinion, takes place in the world of fourth-century Romanism, when the capital has been moved by the Christian convert Constantine to Constantinople. Julian’s cousin Constantius has succeeded Constantine. As pictured by Vidal, the vicious court oscillates between intriguing eunuchs and boastful tyrants who believe in the domino theory of empire:
“The empire is big. Distances are great. Our enemies many. … I mean to hold the state together. I shall not sacrifice one city to the barbarians, one town, one field!” The high-pitched voice almost cracked.
And here, for comparison purposes, is Brooks Adams trumpeting the murder of McKinley and the ascension of “TR” in Empire:
“Teddy’s got it all now! Do you realize that he occupies a place greater than Trajan’s at the high noon of the Roman empire?” Brooks, like his brother, never spoke when he could lecture. “There has never been so much power given a man at so propitious a time in history! He will have the opportunity—and the means—to subjugate all Asia, and so give America the hegemony of the earth, which is our destiny, written in stars! Also,” Brooks came to earth with a crash, “today is a day of great importance to Daisy and me. It is our wedding anniversary.”
“History does seem to have us by the throat,” said Lizzie mildly.
Brooks Adams really did speak—and write—like that: the near-Wildean bathos is, however, furnished by the author.
The occluded hero of Julian is the Greek philosopher Libanius, who rejects the regimentation and superstition of Christianity (Julian refers to Christian churches as “charnel-houses” for their disgusting practice of keeping moldering remains as objects of veneration) and who wants to keep open the schools of disputation. He helps narrate the story of what emerges as the last battle to preserve the sunlit ancient world.
Vidal’s nostalgia for the polytheistic or pagan Mediterranean has been a constant since his boyhood reading, and rivals that of Mary Renault in its fidelity to period and texture. But it usually avoids the vulgarity of romanticism: does not repeat the Christian error of imagining an ideal state before the fall. In Creation he takes a very detached and sometimes caustic view of fifth-century Athens—the golden age itself—by adopting the perspective of a sightless envoy named Cyrus, giving what Robert Graves in another connection called “the Persian version.” Cyrus is a descendant of Zoroaster and has voyaged to India and Cathay and seen the roots of Tao, Confucius, and Buddha. There is, to him, something provincial and coarse about Athens:
It is my view that despite the basic conservatism of Athenian people when it comes to maintaining the forms of old things, the essential spirit of these people is atheistic—or as a Greek cousin of mine pointed out not long ago, with dangerous pride, man is the measure of all things. I think that in their hearts the Athenians truly believe this to be true. As a result, paradoxically, they are uncommonly superstitious and strictly punish those who are thought to have committed impiety.
Iconoclast as he may be, Vidal does not imagine that the breaking of idols is a sufficient or necessary condition of emancipation. There is much to be feared from zeal of all kinds, especially the puritan variety. Interestingly enough, he does not follow Mary Renault and other writers in making the ancient world a location for the polymorphous perverse. He merely takes note of the fact that sexual love between men and men or women and women was not, in that formative period of “Western” civilization, considered either abnormal or profane.
The proselytizing for—maybe I should say his justification of—intersexuality is reserved for his modern entertainments and his essays. In Myra Breckenridge (I still feel for poor, straight, violated Rusty sometimes) he introduces a phrase which often recurs and which he employs as an all-purpose satire on monogamy and on same-sex discipline: “I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.” As Myra thoughtfully puts it, exploring the implications of this offer:
It is curious how often the male (and sometimes the female) needs to think of those not present in the act. Even with Myron, I was always imagining someone else, a boy glimpsed at Jones Beach or a man observed briefly at the wheel of a truck or sometimes (yes, I may as well confess it) a slender blonde girl that used to live in the brownstone next door.
In his 1966 essay “Pornography” (not reprinted here) Vidal opened one of the most polished of his reflections on masturbation—a topic on which he’s been out front and done the hard thinking for all of us—by writing:
The man and the woman make love: attain climax: fall separate. Then she whispers, “I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.” … For those who find the classic positions of “mature” lovemaking unsatisfactory yet dare not distress the beloved with odd requests, sexual fantasy becomes inevitable and the shy lover soon finds himself imposing mentally all sorts of wild images upon his unsuspecting partner, who may also be relying on an inner theater of the mind to keep things going; in which case those popular writers who deplore “our lack of communication today” may have a point.
And in 1991, in a piece of sparkling pedagogy which is collected by Kaplan (“The Birds and the Bees”), Vidal reviewed the current literature on sexual fantasy and concluded, in an image of indelible and electrifying gruesomeness:
Actually, the percentage of the population that is deeply enthusiastic about other-sex is probably not much larger than those exclusively devoted to same-sex—something like 10 percent in either case. The remaining 80 percent does this, does that, does nothing: settles into an acceptable if dull social role where the husband dreams of Barbara Bush while pounding the old wife, who lies there, eyes shut, dreaming of Barbara too.
And here is another topic on which our author has done some hard thinking: the tricky concept of first lady. He was a confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt. He was stepbrother to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon and Rosalynn Carter were, in sooth, not his type, though I like to think he might have hit it off with game old Betty Ford. But, picking up the thread, about Nancy Reagan he was always deft and perceptive. From observing her, and from an understanding of her Hollywood background, he guessed early what few observers—and almost no intellectuals—ever allowed themselves to believe, namely that this devoted couple was White House-bound. (“The Late Show,” September 1968, his report on the Republican National Convention). And now—having advised Jerry Brown during the 1992 primaries—he has emerged as a defender of Hillary Clinton. Some may prefer to see, in this alliance, an attempt to thwart any premature accession by the distant cousin Al Gore, whose warm connection to the editor of The New Republic is seen as fetid and ominous from the Ravello standpoint. Or it may be, as Vidal put it in a recollection of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1971, that
It is a curious fact of American political life that the right wing is enamored of the sexual smear. Eleanor to me: “There are actually people in Hyde Park who knew Franklin all his life and said that he did not have polio but the sort of disease you get from not living the right sort of life.”
The left wing plays dirty pool, too, but I have no recollection of their having organized whispering campaigns of a sexual nature against Nixon, say, the way the right wing so often does against liberal figures.
Or—to be scrupulously fair—the way that Vidal himself made a guess about Nixon in The Best Man (“When I based the character of the wicked candidate in the play on Richard Nixon. I thought it would be amusing if liberal partisans were to smear unjustly that uxorious man as a homosexual”). Later in the same very moving essay—Mrs. Roosevelt had been among his champions in the Dutchess County campaign in 1960, and shared his own reservations about what he calls the Holy Family from Hyannisport—he recounts:
She was also indifferent to her own death. “I remember Queen Wilhelmina when she came to visit during the war” (good democrat that she was, nothing royal was alien to Eleanor) “and she would sit under a tree on the lawn and commune with the dead. She would even try to get me interested in spiritualism but I always said: Since we’re going to be dead such a long time anyway it’s rather a waste of time chatting with all of them before we get there.”
This of course was written before the current First Lady confided to a therapist friend that she sometimes “channeled” Eleanor Roosevelt from the private quarters. And before Vidal himself wrote of that same Eleanor’s husband:
Certainly, he hurt her mortally in their private relationship: worse, he often let her down in their public partnership. Yet she respected his cunning even when she deplored his tactics.
Vidal shows the same gallant curiosity in his historical fictions, making rather a subject out of the distraught Mrs. Lincoln for example, and even showing President McKinley in a more human light for his indulgence toward Clara, whose face had to be covered with a napkin during spasms of petit mal in mixed company, and whose unscripted irruptions into conversation are rendered drily in Empire as familiar signs that “her unconscious had joined the party.”
Professor Kaplan’s careful selection avoids repetition, and it is in any case one of Vidal’s achievements as a writer that he can recur to a favored subject many times without repeating himself. Three Vidalian commitments seem to undergird what he writes on any topic. The first is the curse of monotheism: enemy of pleasure and foe of rational inquiry. The second is the blight of sexual stereotyping. (He insists that acts, not persons, are homo- or heterosexual.) The third is the awful temptation of America to meddling and blundering overseas: imperialism, to give it the right name.
This Trinity sometimes becomes One in his polemics, and is the reason why Vidal has often been pelted with dead dogs by certain critics. In two major public combats with the spousal team of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, Vidal has asserted that an uncritical pro-Israeli allegiance supplies some of the advocacy for US interventionism, and also that ancient moral creeds from primitive Palestinian sects are at the root of much of our libidinous discontent. This version of the Trinity has exposed him to his own private screening of Live from Golgotha. Not to mince words, he has been accused of the unpardonable offense of anti-Semitism: a charge of which no decent or serious person can even be suspected.
This accusation is, in my opinion, malicious as well as nonsensical. (One might try a brief thought-experiment: Vidal has written for years about an unelected and secretive “permanent government” in Washington. Almost all those he cites—many of them from personal acquaintance or experience—are from what used to be termed the WASP establishment.) Vidal knows as well as anybody else, better than most in fact, that most American Jews are liberal on foreign policy matters and moreover opposed to theocracy in both Israel and the United States. When literal Mosaic precepts are thundered today, they come carefully packaged as Judeo-Christian.
No true admirer should press caution or restraint on Mr. Vidal (it would be to miss the point, somehow), but for this admirer that leaves only one quarrel unresolved. It concerns some aspects of isolationism. And this returns us to the ambivalent figure—featured positively in both the fiction and the nonfiction—of Charles Lindbergh.
Vidal’s fealty here is not in the first instance a political one: his adored father was an inaugurator of American civil aviation (the essay to consult in this collection is entitled “On Flying,” and remains one of his best-observed glimpses of Americana, as well as a rather fine and unembarrassing evocation of filial love). In the pioneer winged cohort of the interwar years (that gray area again), “Lindy” was someone to tip your hat to. However, successor generations have learned to think of Lindbergh and “America First” as protofascist. And here is how Vidal approached the question when reviewing Scott Berg’s excellent biography of Lindbergh in the Times Literary Supplement last October.
In a notorious speech at Des Moines in 1941, he identified America’s three interventionist groups: the Roosevelt administration, the Jews and the British. Although the country was deeply isolationist, the interventionists were very resourceful, and Lindbergh was promptly attacked as a pro-Nazi anti-Semite when he was no more than a classic Midwestern isolationist, reflective of a majority of the country. But along with such noble isolationists as Norman Thomas and Burton K. Wheeler, not to mention Lindbergh’s friend Harry Guggenheim’s foundation, the “America First” movement, as it was called, did attract some genuine home-grown fascists who would have been amazed to learn that there was never a “Jewish plot” to get the United States into the Second World War. Quite the contrary. Before Pearl Harbor, as Berg notes, “though most of the American motion-picture studios were owned by Jews, most were virtually paranoid about keeping pro-Jewish sentiment off the screen.” Also, Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, confided as late as September 1941 to the British Special Operations Executive agent Valentine Williams “that for the first time in his life he regretted being a Jew because, with the tide of anti-Semitism rising, he was unable to champion the anti-Hitler policy of the administration as vigorously as he would like, as his sponsorship would be attributed to Jewish influence by isolationists and thus lose something of its force.”
Everything stated above is uncontroversial, and could probably have been put with even more emphasis. But there is an elision of which Vidal seems unaware. If Hollywood studios and New York publishers, neither of them exactly divorced from the pulses of public opinion, were so impressed by the anti-Semitic element in isolationism as to fall into a defensive or reticent posture, then one must ask: At whose expense is this supposed irony? Where did “the tide” come from? When Vidal says “quite the contrary,” he is saying correctly that there was no Jewish plot. But his supporting evidence is that there was no Jewish plot because even the most Establishment Jews were in real dread of anti-Semitic populism. This won’t do as an acquittal of “America First.”
But nor will it do as an insinuation of prejudice on the part of Vidal. I once came almost to tears in an argument with him about Bosnia. He lives much nearer Sarajevo than most Americans, and can also tell the difference between Dacia and Dalmatia, yet nothing would persuade him that such a crisis was any business of the United States, or had not somehow been overstated by the pundits of the Committee for the Free World, or On the Present Danger. It would have been otiose to accuse him of anti-Muslim bigotry, just as (to take up the missing term in Lindbergh’s triad of “enemies within”) it would have been absurd to accuse Vidal of harboring anti-English feeling in 1941.
The ironic mode is Vidal’s métier, and for all I know he has felt ironic nudges from history ever since graduating from short to long pants at Los Alamos, and then becoming a sailor on the Arctic front of an imperialist war that was nonetheless fought for freedom. Certainly he knows the least tinge of irony when he sees it. Richard Nixon, when asked to what use he would put the auditorium in his dreadful presidential “library,” said that it should be employed to reenact “great debates like—oh, Vidal and Buckley.” This of course delights our author. But here, too, the irony is reciprocal. When Vidal and Buckley almost grappled in Chicago, and exchanged views on appeasement, fascism, faggotry, anti-Semitism, they were at least momentarily obliged to overlook, even to forget, the main thing they had in common, which was their families’ feeling for the “America First” tradition.
It is perhaps some unresolved confusion on this score, even now; that causes Vidal to reprint his least prescient essay (“The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas,” 1986), in which the flag of the Rising Sun is again hoist, this time in the sign of the triumphant yen, not merely over Mount Suribachi and the hecatombs of Iwo Jima but over the Federal Reserve. Could it be that émigré/exile status sometimes prompts a slight, overcompensating twinge of the provincial?
But Gore Vidal’s real debt is not to any nativist counterpart like William Jennings Bryan or even—specialized affinities to one side—Charles Lindbergh. If he were “only” an American, he could have imbibed from the wells of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, commingling and contradicting both at once. Like Twain and Mencken, hostile to empire and especially sulphurous about the missionary element. Like Twain but unlike Mencken, warm toward the Southern states and their odd, durable patrimony. Like Mencken and unlike Twain, a protector and patron of neglected or fragile reputations (Dawn Powell, Thornton Wilder). Like both Twain and Mencken, contemptuous of both Old and New Testaments.
Yet Vidal is inescapably cosmopolitan. A cosmopolitan within America—early Southern exposure, at home in Washington, D.C., likewise on the Hudson, in Hollywood, on Broadway, even briefly at Hyannisport—and also a cosmopolitan in the customary sense of assimilation and ease in London, Rome, Paris. (There is even, in Palimpsest, the merest suggestion of a Sephardic and Venetian trace in his line.) Dutchess County, even when a rising tide was lifting all Democrats, would have been too small a compass for this versatility. So indeed might Washington have been. These losses are our gain: a writer standing at an acute angle to his subject, and making imperishable sentences as well as—no less a pleasure, one suspects—passing and pronouncing them.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1857
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: Essays 1952–92; of his acerbic and entertaining memoir Palimpsest; of his latest novel, The Smithsonian Institution, and a reissue of his controversial 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar, along with some early stories. In Britain last year, it was hard to avoid Vidal’s cool, patrician sarcasm on the Monica Lewinsky affair. As one who has spent a lifetime chronicling the theatre of money, sex and deal-making that is the American presidency, Vidal was perhaps that farcical episode’s ideal commentator. “Though Americans dislike history, they do like soap operas about the sexual misbehavior … of real people in high places”, Vidal wrote—in 1971, in a piece on Eleanor Roosevelt, included in The Essential Gore Vidal. What will prove “essential” about a figure whose vibrant verbal presence has itself been an essential of American cultural life for the past fifty-odd years? Fred Kaplan, one of Vidal’s official biographers, answers with a mixture of fiction and non-fiction that provides an adventurous tour around the busy mind and improbable imagination of this gifted, incisive autodidact. Along with twenty-five of Vidal’s most acute essays, the volume includes the script for his sharp political play The Best Man (to which, Vidal has said, Primary Colors owes its plot—“I am often ripped off and I suppose it is a compliment”), and his unique gender-bent comedy of 1960s manners, Myra Breckinridge, as well as selections from his religious and American historical novels.
It is an admirable project. Unfortunately, Kaplan is not the keenest reader of Vidal’s work. Though he is alert to the great scope of Vidal’s interests, and is capable of some neat summaries—a description of Vidal as “an angry and disappointed utopian” is a helpfully succinct characterization of Vidal’s often paradoxical political positions—Kaplan’s critical commentary is fairly pedestrian. On the hysterically funny Myra Breckinridge, he notes soberly that it is “very much about sexual politics”, while on Vidal’s historical fictions he offers, “As an historical novelist, he takes no liberties with fact. But … he is free to create suppositions about fact and sometimes to give these the claim of narrative truth. That is what historical novelists usually do.” Kaplan’s flat tone is in such contrast with Vidal’s distinctive archness that one almost suspects Kaplan of playing literary straight man to Vidal’s stylish comedian, the better to set the reader up for the provocative pleasures of the Essential.
Vidal’s writing, whether fiction or essay, divides into the didactic and the intuitive. It is almost all the former. Vidal develops an analytical line—that Lincoln was the president who truly federalized America, for instance—and will stick with it, in book after book. He is a writer who likes to be in control, and the material over which he exerts control is vast: he wilfully commands entire legions of biblical and Roman and American historical figures; he can analyse the machinations of Washington as easily as breathing; and he knows the lines of American self-deception and self-mythologizing like the back of his hand. He is at his happiest debunking these myths, and certainly a nation in love with its dream of itself needs a debunker. Vidal’s political writings are invariably entertaining, astute, witty, gripping. They are also essentially bloodless.
But every now and then, Vidal lets his polemical mind take a nap, and some wild and authentic anarchy takes over. Myra Breckinridge is the most complete expression of this, though equally strange and vital moments animate the early story “The Ladies in the Library” and selections included from Duluth and The City and the Pillar. Of the latter, Kaplan makes the interesting decision to give us Vidal’s redrafting of the story’s original melodramatic ending, though it is frustrating that he hasn’t deemed “essential” the whole of that stark and daring novel about homosexual love—on the altar of which the young Vidal sacrificed the possibility of a political career, and for which the literary elite blacklisted him for years. (The book initiated a great friendship, though, between Vidal and Christopher Isherwood, and later drew praise from Thomas Mann.) Here the rules of repackaging clearly come into play: don’t include the whole of a book if you have just reissued it.
What a treat, though, to discover or rediscover the bitter hilarities of Myra Breckinridge, a raucous tour de force about the transsexual Myra who cuts a clean (if filthy) swath through her Uncle Buck Loner’s acting academy outside Hollywood. Vidal has said that when he began the novel—“I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess”, its uncompromising first line—he didn’t know that Myra had once been Myron. That bold spontaneity ignites the novel. Myra, unlike many of Vidal’s other fictions, is neither an idea nor an argument (though it provoked both); it is a genuine “invention”, as Vidal calls it. Myra may be unreal, but she has a surreal presence and life force unmatched by Vidal’s more plausible characters. And that she is a mouthpiece for Vidal’s own views is part of her appeal; we recognize her passionate championing of American movies of the 1930s and 40s; her outlandish, and selective, truth-telling (“if one is right, the unsayable must be said”); and, of course, her cruelty: “I can think of no greater pleasure than to approach an open face and swiftly say whatever needs to be said to shut it.”
That the British publisher demanded changes to the novel to avoid obscenity charges is a reminder that Vidal has repeatedly taken pragmatic, if not necessarily aesthetic, risks in his work. He may not be a sensuous writer—“legs moving like pistons” is a Vidalian description of a woman dancing—but he can write a transsexual rape-of-young-man-with-dildo scene better than almost anybody. Or, as Harold Bloom put it (the novel has been a trove for theorists, an ironic fate to befall a practised academic-baiter such as Vidal), Myra Breckinridge “fixed the limit beyond which the most advanced aesthetic neo-pornography ever can go”.
The historical fictions do not share Myra’s imaginative and verbal liveliness; but they remain popular, both among lay readers and the professionals; presidential candidates, according to Vidal, all read Lincoln—even Reagan. “He probably colored it. We had a version for them to color.” In a gift to his abandoned republic, Vidal created, with these six volumes that stretch from the Revolution to the Second World War, a grand, compelling narrative whose project, as in his brilliant essays, is corrective and deflationary. He sets out to show how simplistic Americans have been in choosing their heroes and demons (Vidal’s fictions reclaim Aaron Burr, and reimagine Lincoln as a man rather than an icon); how at the beginning of this century America created an empire, though we don’t like to admit it; and how American society is and always has been an oligarchy.
It is unclear what Kaplan intends readers to make of the chapters included here. In awkwardly linked selections, he presents a disjointed “greatest hits” that includes Washington’s defeat at Brooklyn from Burr, the Gettysburg address (an oddly unaffecting scene) from Lincoln, and Henry James dining with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House in Empire. What is the point of such abridgements, given that these novels have never been championed for their prose? In Empire, Henry Adams, who is the most Vidal-like of his characters, is said to write like a Roman, “with an urgent war to report”; in a later review, we learn what Vidal considers Roman prose to be—“lean, rather flat, and, cumulatively, impressive”. It’s an apt description of his style in these books. Furthermore, though one expects and enjoys Vidal’s name-dropping in his essays, it is wearing to track the enormous number of famous faces parading across these 200 pages. Excerpts are also included, with mixed success, from three of Vidal’s religious fictions, the colourful Roman Julian, Creation, and the recent, extravagant Live from Golgotha; each, in its way, representing Vidal’s argument against monotheism, and his sympathy for paganism.
The essays are uniformly a delight, whether they catch Vidal in a near-wistful mood, as in a lovely piece about his aviator father and the history of the airline industry, “On Flying”, or in the surprisingly radical feminism of a 1971 essay on “Women’s Liberation”. As part of his life’s work analysing “that peculiarly American religion, President-worship”, Vidal makes his way through each of the presidents he has known, including, most famously, JFK. A charged and comic piece on “Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures” brings to mind a complementary essay, “In the Realm of the Fisher King”, by a fellow New York Review of Books contributor, Joan Didion. Didion and Vidal, two of America’s great iconoclastic political essayists, would make an interesting comparative study, each alert to American peculiarities, of the West and East coasts respectively.
For all that Vidal, for decades, has lived, for much of each year, as an expatriate in Italy, and clearly finds cultural solace in Europe, his drives and obsessions remain American. An apocalyptic vision is for some reason ingrained in the American sensibility, and Vidal has always written (not only as he has grown older) with a sense of the many imminent endings that face us. Politically, these include the end of the American Empire or our “imperial republic” as he variously figures it, of the “thorny Puritan American conscience” (its last flower, Eleanor Roosevelt) and even, in an unusual reliance on cliché, of American innocence, which Vidal thinks we lost post-war, in 1950. Literarily, he mourns the loss of decent biography, of politicians who can write, and, as early as 1967, of the novel itself.
Globally, too, Vidal is not optimistic. “I would not bet the farm on our species continuing in rude health too far into the next century”, he wrote several years ago in an essay reprinted here on “The Birds and the Bees”. Myra’s expression of this pessimism about humanity is, inevitably, more colourful: “we are the constant and compulsive killers of life, the mad dogs of creation, and our triumphant viral progress can only end in a burst of cleansing solar fire”. Until that apocalypse, however, and for as long as he gives us his edgy visions, we have the essential Gore Vidal, who may share something of Myra’s stern conviction: “A new world is being born without a single reliable witness except me.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414
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 St Louis, he is seduced by Mrs. Grover Cleveland in the guise of a twenty-two-year-old white maiden held captive by the Iroquois, and past presidents get a chance to explain some of their decisions.
The main action revolves around T.’s encounter with nuclear scientists working in the Smithsonian basement to beat Germany to the atomic bomb, and includes the startling discovery that he will die in 1945 on Iwo Jima. From then on T. tries to manipulate the past to change history. He turns out to be a composite of Vidal himself and the author’s lover at St. Alban’s, Jimmie Trimble, who died in World War II. It is this autobiographical infusion that gives this not so great novel some warmth.
Vidal’s knowledge of and lifelong interest in American history add substance to the novel. But in its totality, and at this point in Vidal’s long professional career, The Smithsonian Institution raises once again the question I am certain bothers Vidal and the many admirers of his writing: why doesn’t he hold a higher place among American writers of the twentieth century? Perhaps a couple of quotes that Vidal apparently thinks are clever will begin as explanation. “T. perked up considerably. He liked monsters and whenever he could get time off from his busy classroom schedule, he would play hooky from school and go up to the Capitol and look at the Senate.” Probably his cheapest shot is placed in the mouth of a worker at the Smithsonian: “Joe Kennedy is our bootlegger. We call him the Great Hyannis Hyena.” Human existence is a profound experience. Those writers who have a claim to greatness express that experience profoundly. Next to some other American authors of the twentieth century—Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, for starters—Vidal just doesn’t measure up, and that’s always a disappointment.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4855
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 assumptions. This applies not only to traditional satire but also perhaps even to such contemporary modes as queer camp. According to Moe Meyer camp employs the “strategies and tactics of queer parody,” and functions to foreground “queer social visibility” (5). As he sees it, the nature of queer itself is “poststructural,” having to do with practices rather than with an essential identity, in keeping with Michel Foucault’s view of sexuality as something produced discursively rather than being a natural condition (2–3). In Myer’s view queer camp is also anti-essentialist (3) and differentiated from “rhetorical and performative strategies such as […] satire” (7). The purpose of queer, then, is to destabilize heteronormativity—what Chrys Ingraham calls the heterosexual imaginary or hegemonic heterosexuality (168)—and in doing so also to challenge what Steven Seidman describes as “the assumption of a unified homosexual identity” (11). Because cultural meanings are controlled by the dominant ideology, however, queer can enter public dialogue only as parody, and thus as Judith Butler argues, drag and other queer forms are not unproblematically subversive; they may expose heterosexuality as performative and naturalized, but the parodying may “reidealize” without undermining (231). Nonetheless, discursive approaches may be less fragile than traditional ones.
Few contemporary writers better enable one to explore the problems of camp satire than American novelist Gore Vidal. Born in 1925 into one of America’s prominent political families, Vidal has maintained a love/hate relationship with the establishment throughout his life. Vidal’s stylistic and thematic preoccupations hint at the extent to which his politics are the result of his contentious homosexuality. His criticism of mainstream views makes open use of values traditionally associated with the homosexual lifestyle: elegance, narcissism, sex as power, and wit and ridicule used as verbal weapons. Vidal’s The City and the Pillar was perhaps the first major American novel to depict homosexual activity as acceptable. His most camp and controversial work is the 1968 novel, Myra Breckinridge, which along with its sequel, Myron, reduces all life to the phallic. Vidal’s satire in Duluth also utilizes these themes, while Messiah critiques Christianity and particularly Saint Paul. Vidal’s historical recreations, such as the novel Julian and the trilogy on American public life—Washington, DC, Burr, and 1876—frequently employ ribald sexual anecdotes. This fictional convergence of sex and politics is duplicated in a number of Vidal’s essays, especially “Notes on Pornography” and “Sexuality.” While Vidal sees hetero and homosexual as terms that apply to acts rather than to categories of people, these essays reveal his sexual essentialism in that he argues that everyone is naturally bisexual.
Live from Golgotha is particularly apposite for our purposes because in it Vidal continues his critique of Christian doctrine and its ethics of sexual preference. We argue here that although Vidal combines a number of strategies to launch a clever and complex attack on Christian morality, and his work is often called “camp,” nonetheless his essentialist orientations exacerbate the degree to which satire always reinscribes as well as destabilizes its targets. They do this, first, by eschewing a constructivist approach to depicting 1st-century Palestine in favor of an unmasking approach revealing the “real” conflict and violence under the facade of religious harmony and virtue, and, second, by adopting a “pop” camp form that differs from Myer’s queer camp and undermines the openness of what Eve Sedgwick calls the “speculative naivete” of queer readings (2–3). Vidal attacks Christianity through association with Saint Paul’s depicted homosexuality, which undermines Christianity but also reinforces normative judgements against homosexuality; while this problem is partially offset by Vidal’s characterization of Timothy as a joyful sexual being, Timothy in turn re-inscribes a phallic sexuality that is both penetrative and power oriented. After briefly describing the premise and major events on the novel, we will identity the targets of Vidal’s critique and analyze the major strategies that he uses to effect his satire. In conclusion, we will identify some of the limitations of Vidal’s approach and discuss the way that these relate to the problems of camp and satire in general.
The title Live from Golgotha refers to a 20th-century media scheme to televise the crucifixion. The basic premise of this novel is that all history and memory exist only on tapes, and that a computer hacker is destroying the tapes and thereby eliminating any knowledge of previous events. Chet Claypoole, from NBC TV creative programming, time travels to the 1st century to convince Saint Timothy to write his version of the life of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity. As the novel progresses, it is revealed that the hacker is Jesus, who had been a Zionist zealot but had escaped from Gethsemane to the 20th century in the form of Marvin Wasserstein, leaving Judas to be crucified in his place by the Roman centurions. Other significant participants from the 20th century include Cutler One, a computer genius and professor of comparative religion; and Cutler Two, who is really Cutler One at a later stage of his life. Timothy had worked for and been intimate with Saint Paul, and much of the novel centers on Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. Although neither Paul nor Timothy had actually met Jesus, Timothy undertakes to write the gospel and save (Pauline) Christianity. At the end of the novel, the crucifixion is restaged for 20th-century television, with the Japanese using special effects to hijack Jesus and the spectacle of the crucifixion for the greater glory of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.
Vidal’s project in Live from Golgotha is to undermine the claims of Christianity to purity and Truth. Vidal’s approach involves exposing both the contingency of Christian dogma and the impurity of motives among early Christians by depicting conflicts, unsaintly behavior, and the precariousness of the outcome. The first strategy Vidal uses in Live from Golgotha is to extend the postmodernist notion that all is text by positing that all history and memory is on tape and about to be erased. Using this device, he undermines the Truth claims of Christianity by suggesting that our understanding of reality is socially constructed and that texts are all we have to go on to convey constructions and perceptions of historical events. Similarly, enlisting postmodernism’s challenge to the notion of the coherent subject, he presents Cutler One and Cutler Two as the same person at different stages of life, interacting directly in the 1st century, and Saint Paul’s mistaken identity of Judas as Jesus extends this to farce.
If there is no basis for distinguishing what is true (or True), then what we are left with is faith, and once miracles and visions are accepted then anything goes, even channeling and spoon-bending. The power of religion comes from possession of the Truth. Christianity claims to provide the Truth because it is based on the Word of God, and therefore the source of its pronouncements is important. But how can the authenticity of such a claim be verified, especially since—in what Vidal terms “the Great Embarrassment” (31)—Jesus has never fulfilled his promise to return to earth? What prophets take to be the word of God may instead be the voice of the devil or the result of egomaniacal delusion, hallucinogens, or dreams or nightmares: “a voice from above or, worse, within” (132).
Appropriately, the first sentence of Live from Golgotha is Timothy’s statement that “in the beginning was the nightmare” (3), referring to the occasion when Paul forced him to be circumcised to mollify such Jewish Christians as Jesus’s brother James and “the Jerusalem crowd,” and Timothy’s dreams are haunted by his circumcision—all of which suggests the violence underlying religions, questions the authenticity of visions, and brings the central issue of Timothy’s circumcision down to the quotidian level of human pain. Similarly, Paul appears to Timothy in his nightmares, later graduating to visions (8), while “channelers” from the 20th century appear as holograms (138), perhaps comparable to angels, and Jesus explains his appearance to his disciples three days after the crucifixion as having been by hologram (192). Ultimately, Timothy cannot be sure whether he is remembering dreams or dreaming about memories.
If mistakes are possible so also is deliberate fabrication, especially given the stakes involved in establishing accepted versions of reality. Paul is consistently described as a liar, and even Jesus is said to have lied about his age to seem younger and more “with it” (15, 30). The crucifixion is being faked for TV, making the phrase “seeing is believing” doubly ironic (223). In addition, whatever their source and authenticity, texts can be lost/destroyed/hidden, and in Live from Golgotha the whole history of Christianity, known to us largely through the New Testament, is being “un-written” by computer viruses. As Timothy tries to convince Saint John: “‘All we know is what has been written down and remembered, but if, through a control of the tapes, we can determine what was written down as of then, then that is the only reality now’” (100).
Not only are texts vulnerable, they involve both selection of exactly what is to be said and translation from speech into written form and from the word of God into precepts for human guidance. Thus, in his arguments with the Jewish Christians, Paul uses the ambiguities of translation from the Greek to evade the question of whether he is claiming that Jesus is the Son of God or only His servant (123). In Vidal’s version of Paul’s story of his conversion on the road to Damascus, Jesus’s statements must be interpreted because his voice is so shrill that only canines can hear him (32), satirizing the notion that religions need middlemen to explain to the masses what the visionary sees. And Timothy worries that simply writing things down is “a danger to the truth” (135).
After the work of the hacker, Timothy is left writing the final version of the birth of Christianity well after the event and never previously having met Jesus. His major sources are the “lost or fading testaments, epistles, postcards” still available, and Mark’s text as told by the “practically illiterate” Saint Peter (150). In Vidal’s version, not only was Judas crucified in place of the Zionist Jesus, but Saint Paul softened the original Christian message (194), effectively inventing Christianity with the Damascus story, the logo of the cross, and the idea of the trinity (214), suggesting that he was more interested in the risen Christ than in the life and sayings of Jesus. Timothy realizes that the attraction of Christianity is the mystery of the three-in-one, parodied in the way that the Cutlers are two-in-one. For him, as long as everyone thinks that Jesus was crucified, it does not matter that Saint Paul invented Christianity (180), and the reason why the crucifixion cannot be permitted to be televised live is that featuring the four-hundred-pound Judas will destroy the whole image of Christianity (204).
Particularly the postmodern aspect of this part of Vidal’s project extrapolates from the accepted interpretation that the Books of the New Testament were written after Jesus’s time, in a manner influenced by the concerns of the day, and written by the “winners”—the Gentiles rather than Christian Jews—just as the Books of Timothy and Titus were not written by Saint Paul. In a sense, Vidal gives Timothy Luke’s job, which, as Alan Segal argues, was retrospectively to synthesize Saint Paul and the Gospels (163), smoothing over early conflicts. Nor, of course, can Timothy’s version be seen as any more authentic than the others, since it also is constructed after the fact.
Vidal’s second major strategy is to reconstruct the events of the 1st century, emphasizing conflicts over practice and doctrine with a view to demonstrating that events in that period were not ordained by God but could have had different outcomes and undermining Christianity’s claim to having the one and only Truth. This archaeological strategy, however, is made more complicated, if not more complex, by the fact that Vidal’s satire cuts in a number of directions. For example, in using 20th-century technology to recreate 1st-century Jerusalem not only are the events of early Christianity revealed as spectacle, 20th-century media is also exposed as trivializing even such momentous events as the crucifixion of Christ, wanting it to be scheduled for prime time or edited to exclude the “dull spots” (198).
In-so-far as the sole “Truth” constitutes Christianity’s authority, any suggestion of competing interpretations is subversive. As Vidal presents it, there is primarily the contrast between the message of the gospels and the church, on the one hand, and the actual events of the period, on the other. There also are competing interpretations of central events, with Vidal emphasizing that it was not only Jesus, but myriad prophets who were executed by the Romans (111). There is confusion over whether it was Jesus or Judas who was crucified, and particularly Paul’s assumption that Jesus was “the fat one” (39) doubly undermines the visionary basis of his conversion on the road to Damascus (32).
Among the conflicts of the time between Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity, many focused on the issue of purity as prescribed by the Torah, particularly Jewish dietary restrictions in the context of Christian communal meals, the Jewish insistence on circumcision, and the Jewish avoidance of homosexual acts as mixed and therefore impure, if not as “sins” (Countryman 41–42, 61–64). Naturally, however, these differences extended to and were based on other types of conflict and rivalries. For example, Paul was a strict Jew, but as main missionary to the Gentiles he came into conflict with James and with Peter. According to Alan Segal, Paul was a Jewish convert to Christianity, while James perceived Jesus’s teachings as simply an extension of his own understanding of Judaism (103); Vidal extends this to indicate a fundamental difference between the views of the hardline Zionists, Jesus and James, on the one hand, and Paul’s version of Christianity and his ingenious invention of the crucified Christ, on the other (108–10). As Vidal presents it, Paul also never really liked John, who was “part of the Jerusalem crowd and close to James” (9). In addition, James thinks that he is heir to leadership of the church, as Jesus’s younger brother, and, although Jesus agrees (103), there is also sibling rivalry between the two brothers (106).
Such differences are central to Christianity and the stakes are high, involving not only the correct road to salvation but also control of the church. Thus, aside from the Jewish-Christian conflict, they also take the form of manichean opposition of Christ or anti-Christ. In some streams of Christian tradition Saint Paul is regarded as a distorter of Jesus’s message rather than its preserver, while traditional blasphemous works have often interchanged Jesus and Judas or referred to Paul as a juggler. Vidal plays with all these notions, and charge and counter-charge increase the confusion. From Timothy’s perspective, the evil Hacker might be Jesus or he might be Satan (10), or Jesus may be “Lucifer incarnate” (214). It is only through the tortuous proceedings of the entire novel and the violence of eliminating alternatives that the competing views ultimately are reduced to a single version, namely Timothy’s (22). Even then, however, there is a final twist, as his single gospel is presented in an Oriental version wherein the crucified Jesus ascends into the arms of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (224). As Heather Neilson notes, the novel ends with the old meta-fictional trick in which the last page repeats the first page, with the variation in this case that the last page is written in Japanese (89).
Vidal’s third major strategy is to undermine the pretensions of Christianity to divine origins by exposing the failings of the major participants in early Christianity. One method involves the use of nicknames: the four evangelists are referred to as “Matt, Mark, Lu-lu and John-John” (10), while Jesus’s brother James and his supporters are referred to as “the oily James” (4) and “the [Jesse] James gang” (71). Timothy is often reduced to Tim or Timmy (or even Timikins, Tim Boy, Timaximous and Timmy-Wimmy). Paul is referred to throughout as “Saint,” except that Jesus, James and Peter always address him by his Jewish nickname, “Solly,” because they know it irritates him. Saint Peter receives the sobriquet Simple Simon Peter (142) and the reason he is called The Rock is that his head is so thick (4), while the flatulent and “differently advantaged” Judas (210) is referred to as “lard-ass” (73) or “Judas the Overweight” (184). Similarly, Paul is subjected to zoomorphic reduction, being described as short but “thin and carpeted with short black hairs like a spider” (30). Timothy compares him to “a monkey off his leash” (76), and Petronius identifies him as the one who looks like a monkey (155).
Vidal also employs (mis)use of a foreign language to reveal pretensions, including frequent recourse to what is called “faux gallique” (46). The viciously lampooned social climber, Priscilla, is particularly associated with faux gallique in her interactions with Timothy, while Vidal also capitalizes on the way that foreign language phrases—Latin for Greek and even Italian for Latin—were used for centuries to disguise references to homosexual activity in the classics (Boswell 20). Vidal’s pastiche of styles also includes sub-cultural idioms, such as a Negro spiritual rendition of “the begats” and Hollywood/TV jargon, as well as having Paul occasionally lapsing into his “ye old” biblical style (32). At the same time, the entire ambience has a sword and sandal quality, reminding us of how much our view of Christianity has been influenced by Hollywood.
A related way in which Vidal ridicules Christianity’s pretensions to sanctity is to show how the founders were fueled by secondary motivations, especially desire for material and sexual rewards. The temple at Jerusalem is described as an international banking center (105), and Jesus’s major contribution when he took it over was lowering the prime interest rate (118). Similarly, James is presented as a stereotypical Jew—he is a financial adviser and stock speculator first and religious figure second (108, 107), and although he does not like Paul or his message, he accepts the funds that Paul raises from rich Gentiles (ostensibly for poor Jerusalem Jews). Paul’s “inspired fund-raising” is what gave him control over the Jerusalem Christians (4), just as he capitalized on the advantages of getting in on the ground floor by commercially franchising the idea of “One God in three sections” (33) and getting copyright on the word “Christ” and the logo of the cross (41). Paul is also characterized as a con-man (7) who habitually lies (15, 30) and as having “this fantastic double standard” (45), a reference perhaps to the hypocrisy that in Galations 2:11–14 Paul assigned to Peter for eating with Gentiles but not when James and other strict Jews were present (Countryman 99). According to Timothy, “‘I’ve never known anyone who could make things up so quickly and so plausibly when he was really wired’” (30), and he also accuses him of proselytizing by entertainment: there was more to Paul than tap-dancing, Timothy confirms, he was an excellent juggler as well (42).
Another way that Vidal undermines Christian hagiolatry is through an emphasis on the sexual proclivities of Paul and Timothy. While in Christian tradition Saint Paul is associated with love in the form of charity, Vidal presents him as using his religious position for sexual access to boys. Although recent scholarship indicates that Paul regarded homosexual activity less as a sin and more as an impurity (Boswell 106, Countryman 110–20), Vidal accepts the popular view that Paul was strongly against homosexuality and therefore paints Paul in particularly unattractive terms. In keeping with Vidal’s association of sex and power, Paul’s position—“Saint had us all, literally as well as figuratively, by the balls” (108)—is paralleled to Nero’s: “You don’t argue with the emperor of Rome” when he asks for sexual favors (161). Similarly, what is primarily emphasized in the case of Timothy is his racial and sexual impurity and his status as camp super-stud. The biblical Timothy, recruited by Paul to his ministry to the Gentiles, was part Greek and part Jewish, and it was for this reason that Paul had Timothy circumcised to appease the Jewish Christians (Acts 16: 1–3), even though he did not generally expect Gentile converts to Christianity to observe strict Jewish purity codes. In Vidal’s version, Timothy describes himself as “son of Eunice the Jewess and George the Greek” (3) and he is also bi-sexual and therefore doubly “mixed” and impure.
Having joined Paul’s ministry for the sexual opportunities, Timothy sets the tone for the novel with his early statement that “I have golden hyacinthine curls and cornflower-blue, forget-me-not eyes and the largest dick in our part of Asia Minor” (3), later wondering whether “my whang (will) one day be a major relic” (132)—an obvious invocation of the belief among Christians in the miraculous powers of a saint’s body parts and especially Saint Timothy relics. In Timothy’s view, the entire conflict between Paul and James and thus within early Christianity was over his “whang” (3), and here Vidal is presumably mocking what Bredbeck calls Freud’s identification of narcissism with homosexuality (60).
In Vidal’s version Timothy was a very busy “stud” before joining Paul and continues to be so—hardly someone to be sent to the Corinthians to end fornication among them. Corinth, was “sex, sex, sex” (42), and as a missionary to this city Timothy initially spends most of his time in bed with Priscilla (45) before becoming hyper-critical of her social climbing. In Ephesus, Timothy has an interlude with Stephanie, second in command to the pagan High Priestess Diana (Acts 19), including a three-way tumble with Stephanie and her understudy (82–84), after sexually bribing one of her male attendants for access. In Malta, Timothy is sexually excited by Selma Suydam, and is prevented from achieving intercourse with her only by the fact that she is “channeling” and present only as a hologram (132). In Rome, Timothy moves in with the widow Flavia, “as her spiritual adviser and bedmate” (149, 33), in keeping with the Biblical admonition to care for widows (1 Timothy 5). He also is propositioned by Petronius (154) and much more forcefully and successfully by Nero (160).
Vidal’s satiric achievement is significant but limited. On the positive side, he presents a powerful and complex rendering of Christianity that challenges its claims to Truth and purity, its internal consistency, and its “natural” development as a single, seamless story. Parody and satire, however, always reinscribe as well as destabilize, and Vidal’s approach exacerbates this tendency, partly because he attempts too much, but also because he begins from an essentialist position.
Vidal’s extension of the notion that all is text to the idea that all is a set of tapes about to be erased works well, and is only partially undermined by the degree to which we read the book from Timothy’s perspective, and to the extant that the book does not actually erase as we finish it, as implied in the closing pages of the text. Vidal’s “archaeological” strategy also works as satire, presenting an alternative, active reading of the early decades of Christianity based on known conflicts, especially those between Jewish and Gentile Christians. However, he is inconsistent here, and instead of being genuinely exploratory claims to expose the “real” conflict and violence underlying the biblical version of events during this period. Thus, the outcome is much closer to Michel Seidel’s characterization of satire as exposing institutions and conventions as having violent origins than it is to what in Michel Foucault’s early writing (Archeology, “War”) is called archeology—going back to relive the contestations of an earlier period to expose the contingency of any specific outcome.
By way of comparison, Salman Rushdie more successfully approaches similar issues with similar strategies in The Satanic Verses. Rushdie also questions where religious ideas come from—the Word of God, or of Satan, or just indigestion—and parallels contemporary lives against dream sequences of defining moments in Islamic history, and with an openness that undermines traditional interpretations without replacing them with another “truth.” In Homi Bhabha’s perception, Rushdie’s “sin” was not criticizing the content of the Koran, but rather “opening up a space of discursive contestation that places the authority of the Koran within a perspective of historical and cultural relativism” and introducing “other enunciating positions and possibilities” (226).
In sexual matters, also, Vidal is essentialist rather than social constructivist, leading to similar problems. Although in Live from Golgotha he avoids the blatant essentialism which Claude Summers detects in Vidal’s early novel, The City and the Pillar, in which each character is consistently either hetero-or homo-sexual, he succumbs to the extent that he presents everyone as naturally bi-sexual. Further, he also assumes, in this novel and in his non-fiction (“Sexuality” 219, 227), that sex is essentially egocentric and penetrative. As Catherine Stimpson has argued concerning Myra/Myron, this is a phallic rendition of sex, characterized in terms of power (191), and as James Tatum has argued, Vidal’s understanding of and interest in the Roman erotic conception of empire is related to his eliding of notions of political aggression and sexual aggression (217). This phallic emphasis obviously differs from Meyer’s view of camp as always queer, and reflects instead the exaggerated masculinity of “pop” camp, epitomized finally in Timothy’s “scarred tool” (46). Although bisexual, Timothy “never had the slightest gender confusion” (8). When approached from behind on one occasion, he “growls” that he is “a top” (78), and he is shamed when Nero forces him to be “a bottom” (159).
Finally, then, Vidal’s approach exacerbates the problem of reinscription. Vidal undermines Christianity by identifying Paul as its real founder and then associating him with hypocritical homosexual activity, but that also reinscribes the broader value judgement against homosexuality. This is countered by Vidal’s positive depiction of Timothy, natural and happy in his role as stud and carrying the message that (homo and hetero) sex is a good thing. But this goes beyond undermining Christian claims to the moral high ground to introduce an alternative grand narrative or positive good. In addition, for Timothy sex is penetrative and power-related, which reinscribes phallic sex.
The problems inherent in Live from Golgotha thus serve to elucidate some of the dangers that pertain to critique in general. While satire need not provide a convincing alternative to what it exposes, both its targets and the bases of its ridicule must be recognizable to its audience. In-so-far as it is effective in communicating its message, it runs the risk of reinscribing its target or at least the broader values that allow effective recognition that ridicule is taking place.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Bredbeck, Gregory W. “Narcissus in the Wilde.” The Politics and Poetics of Camp. Ed. Moe Meyer. London: Routledge, 1994. 51–74.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Tolerance and Homosexuality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament. 1989. London: Xpress Reprints, 1996.
Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavistok, 1972.
———. History of Sexuality Vol. I: An Introduction. 1976. Trans. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
———. “War in the Filigree of Peace.” Oxford Literary Review 4 (1979): 17–18.
Ingraham, Chrys. “The Heterosexual Imaginary.” Queer Theory/Sociology. Ed. Steven Seidman. London: Blackwell, 1996. 168–93.
Meyer, Moe. “Introduction: Reclaiming the Discourse of Camp.” The Politics and Poetics of Camp. Ed. Moe Meyer. New York: Routledge, 1994. 1–22.
Neilson, Heather. “Live from Golgotha: Gore Vidal’s Second ‘Fifth Gospel.’” Linq 22.2 (1995): 79–91.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. London: Viking, 1988.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” Novel Gazing. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. 1–37.
Segal, Alan F. Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.
Seidel, Michael. Satiric Inheritance—Rabelais to Sterne. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.
Seidman, Steven. “Introduction.” Queer Theory/Sociology. Ed. Steven Seidman. London: Blackwell, 1996. 1–29.
Stimpson, Catherine. “My O My O Myra.” Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 183–98.
Summers, Claude J. “The City and the Pillar as Gay Fiction.” Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 56–57.
Tatum, James. “The Romanitas of Gore Vidal.” Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 199–220.
Vidal, Gore. Burr. New York: Random, 1973.
———. The City and the Pillar. London: John Lehmann, 1949.
———. Duluth. London: Heinemann, 1983.
———. 1876. London: Heinemann, 1976.
———. Julian. London: Heinemann, 1983.
———. Live From Golgotha. New York: Random, 1992.
———. Messiah. New York: Dutton, 1948.
———. Myra Breckinridge. London: Panther, 1968.
———. Myron: A Novel. New York: Random, 1974.
———. “Notes on Pornography.” Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship. Boston: Little, 1969. 85–99.
———. “Sexuality.” Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal. Ed. Robert J. Stanton and Gore Vidal. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1980. 217–46.
———. Washington, D.C. Boston: Little, 1967.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
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 1939. Caroline Sanford, sometime silent film star, now joint proprietor of the Washington Tribune with her brother Blaise, is staying at the White House. In the Oval Office, a brilliantly portrayed Franklin Roosevelt, all misleading candour, mixes her one of his special martinis and claims to be “benignly noncommittal” towards the young anti-war activists whom his wife, Eleanor, has invited to dinner.
The dinner proves largely inedible and climaxes with a ghastly salad: the First Lady has taken revenge for the president's adultery by hiring a terrible cook to torment him. Caroline is seated beside her old friend Tim Farrell, who is making a documentary about the great public issue of interventionism versus isolationism. “I want to keep Americans home,” Tim says. “To make improvements about the house.” Caroline suspects that FDR would quite like a war. “For England?” asks Tim. “For himself,” Caroline explains. “Which will include us, of course.” Presidents gain more power in wartime, and victory would let the US rule the world.
Caroline and Tim, who seem to be the central figures at first, recede somewhat as Caroline's young nephew Peter comes to the fore. Armed with press pass, he attends the 1940 Republican Party convention in Philadelphia and discovers a stitch-up. A cabal of Manhattan lawyers and bankers arranges to murder the official in charge of tickets, replacing him with a fixer who packs the hall with supporters of the interventionist candidate, Wendell Willkie.
The conspirators do not much want to see Willkie elected president; he is simply their insurance policy in case FDR loses. Discussing Britain's predicament on the train back to Washington, Tim tells Peter: “There won't be an invasion now. Roosevelt's spiked the Republican guns.” So those gallant RAF fighter pilots could have stayed on the ground and done the crossword. Hitler turned tail just because he knew that FDR's rival in the presidential race was another pro-war chap.
The slight snag with this ingenious notion is that Willkie and Roosevelt both maintained a stolidly isolationist front in public. Still, FDR does win, and spends the next year or so, as Peter's investigations reveal, deliberately provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor to swing public opinion towards war. Vidal goes into this at great length. Again, his view is very American-centred, and he appears not to credit the Japanese with having minds or plans of their own.
But historical fiction is fiction, not history. What the novel seeks to offer is an atmosphere of insider gossip, articulated and animated in style. It hardly matters that many of Vidal's assertions—for example, that Chamberlain fell because of the failure of the Norwegian campaign, or that the Kennedys were responsible for the assassination of Lumumba—are wrong.
Peter founds a radical magazine, The American Idea. Quite how radical, the reader never learns; but Peter has no trouble with the wartime censors, while he edits the magazine from his comfy office at the Pentagon in the ample spare time afforded by his sinecure in military PR. And after the war, he is not affected by the furious witch-hunt for un-American subversives.
The five years between VJ Day and the outbreak of renewed hostilities in Korea constitute the “golden age” of the mildly ironic title. It is a good time for literature: Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, the young Gore Vidal and others make distinguished cameo appearances, and Peter adds a soon-to-be-legendary culture section to the magazine.
But Harry Truman has already decided to bankrupt the Soviets by instigating a cold war, and the gloomy pattern of the next few decades is set. Peter's prospective father-in-law, the wise Senator Day, tells him: “The real political struggle in the United States, since the civil war, has been between the peaceful inhabitants of the country with their generally representative Congresses and a small professional elite totally split off from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent and justify and resonate for others to die in.”
The epilogue, set at the turn of the millennium, shows Peter and Vidal debating these matters for a television programme. Vidal narrates the passage in his own persona and, Prospero-like, takes his leave. Crackpot conspiracy theory has seldom been so suavely and entertainingly put across.