Gore Vidal, whose literary oeuvre includes plays and poetry, is best known for his novels. His first novel, Williwaw (1946), was written when Vidal was nineteen years old, and his second, In a Yellow Wood, came the next year, 1947. With the publication of his third novel, however, The City and the Pillar (1948, revised and expanded in 1965 with an essay, “Sex and the Law,” and an afterword), Vidal first touched on a subject very important to him, homosexuality.
In this work, which he saw as a study of obsession, Vidal probed the boundaries of society’s sexual tolerance. The novel affected the rest of his career. Some of his readers saw the work as a glorification of homosexuality, for in American fiction until that time gay and lesbian characters had been presented as doomed or bizarre figures. By contrast, the protagonist of The City and the Pillar is an average American male confused by his feelings about gay sex and obsessed with the memory of a weekend encounter with another young man. If the protagonist is doomed, it is only because he is obsessed with this past event, not because he prefers men to women. The protagonist tries to revive the affair later, and when he is rejected, he kills his former lover. Vidal later issued a revised edition in which the protagonist comes to realize the sterility of his obsession.
Vidal considers himself a sexual libertarian. He believes that sex between consenting adults is something to be enjoyed, a gift, and that a “heterosexual dictatorship” has distorted human sexuality. He declared that There is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person. There are only homo- and heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices, and what anyone does with a willing partner is of no social or cosmic significance.
However, the reading public in 1948 was not ready for Vidal’s message.
Myra Breckinridge in 1968 found a somewhat more receptive audience. The book went through more than twenty printings, although it came out in a censored form in England (with Vidal’s cooperation), and it was made into a 1970 feature film. The novel appeared during a burgeoning sexual revolution and the mid-twentieth century women’s movement. Beneath the gaiety of Myra’s campy narrative is a novel of serious purpose with much to say about popular culture, mass media, and human sexuality.
Myra’s questions about her own—“But who am I? What do I feel? Do I exist at all?”—are not questions limited to gays and lesbians but are germane to the human condition. It is Myra’s purpose, as it was the early purpose of the women’s movement and of the nascent gay and lesbian rights movement, subjectively to destroy the masculine principle. Myra achieves her purpose objectively by raping Rusty Godowsky.
In Myron, a 1974 sequel to Myra Breckinridge, Vidal returns to the same theme he approached in the first novel: the struggle for domination of a single body between the personas of Myra and Myron. This struggle can be interpreted both as the struggle for domination between men and women and as the struggle for domination between heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Vidal’s novels—especially The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckinridge, and Myron—continue to intrigue, stimulate, and anger. Since publishing The City and the Pillar, Vidal lived his life and conducted his artistic career on his own terms. To his many admirers, he became a symbol of freedom, just as his character Myra succeeded in liberating women—and by extension, gay men—in Myra Breckinridge. Many readers who were once shocked by Vidal’s comments on contemporary society eventually realized that Vidal’s vision corresponded closely to twentieth century realities.