Gore Vidal, as his volume of collected essays The Last Empiredemonstrates, is a classic example of the man of letters, someone who is both a creator of literature and a critic, from a radical perspective, of literature and society. In Vidal’s case the radical perspective comes from the southern populism imbibed from his grandfather.
Populism was a movement among Southern and Western farmers in the late nineteenth century. As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out inThe Age of Reform (1955), populists looked back to what they believed was a “golden age” that existed in the early nineteenth century, a time of peace and prosperity when farmers dominated American politics. Populists blamed a series of agricultural depressions in the late nineteenth century on the “money power,” industrialists and bankers in the Northeast and in England (a strain of Anglophobia existed in populist thought) who, populists charged, manipulated the economy in order to bankrupt farmers and take their property through foreclosure. The money power, populists believed, had corrupted American politics by controlling the press, and so shaping public opinion to the advantage of the capitalists and disadvantage of the farmers, and by controlling both the Democratic and Republican Parties, making it necessary for the farmers to resort to a third party, the Populist Party. Populists wanted to restore the popular democracy of the golden age. They were anti-imperialist and antimilitarist, believing that a foreign empire would benefit only industrialists and bankers and not the people at large, and that a standing federal army would be used by the money power to impose a tyranny on the people.
Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, helped organize the Populist Party in his home state of Mississippi in the 1890’s. In the presidential election of 1896, the Populist Party endorsed Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. Gore became a Democrat and later moved to Oklahoma, where he was elected to the United States Senate. Senator Gore remained faithful to his populist principles, joining with other Southern populists to oppose U.S. entry into World War I; he argued that U.S. participation in the war would benefit only industrialists who produced munitions and war equipment, bankers who had loaned money to Britain and France and who stood to lose that money if those countries lost the war, and the British, whom the populists hated. Vidal grew up in his grandfather’s household in Washington, D.C., and absorbed Senator Gore’s populist ideas. In The Last Empire, Vidal adapts his grandfather’s Southern populism to produce a radical critique of American culture and politics in the second half of the twentieth century.
In his version of populism, Vidal locates the“American Golden Age” in the years before 1950. The United States in those years, he says, was still a country where people enjoyed relative freedom from government intrusion into their lives, where large numbers of Americans participated in politics, and where public opinion was not yet as cynically manipulated, as would later be the case. For most of its history before 1950—from the Farewell Address of George Washington, in which that president warned Americans against entangling foreign alliances, to Pearl Harbor—America was also, Vidal argues, predominantly isolationist. Vidal praises such isolationists as author Sinclair Lewis and aviator hero Charles Lindbergh for opposing the United States’ entry into World War II (Vidal notes that the latter was the son of a “populist isolationist” Minnesota congressman). Vidal alleges that there was a British conspiracy to get the United States into that war (populist Anglophobia surfaces in Vidal’s thinking here) and that President Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to help the British but who faced an isolationist majority in this country, ensured U.S. entry into the war by deliberately provoking the Japanese into attacking the United States. “Our people tend to isolationism and it always takes a lot of corporate manipulation, as well as imperial presidential mischief, to get them into foreign wars,” Vidal writes.
The years before 1950 were also, Vidal says, “a golden age for writing and reading,” before movies and television pushed serious literature to the margins of American life. Especially, he sees a cultural flowering in the time of peace and prosperity between 1945 and 1950, when the end of World War II had liberated the country’s energies from military concerns and when Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie(1945), the Academy Award-winning film The Lost Weekend (1945), Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (1945), and Edmund Wilson’s novel Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) all appeared.
President Harry Truman’s...
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