Literary critics have not looked upon Gore Vidal as a southern writer, despite his argument that they should. “I am southern,” Vidal said in an interview in 1995, and Palimpsest, Vidal’s memoir of his first thirty-nine years, provides evidence that his southern background indeed shaped his writing and politics.
Vidal grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s in what he has described as “the then southern city of Washington, D.C.” He spent most of his childhood in the home of his maternal grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, whom Vidal called “Dah.” Thomas Pryor Gore, born in Mississippi in 1870, came from a family involved in politics. His father, a Confederate veteran, was clerk of Walthall County, Mississippi. Father and son became members of the Populist Party, but the younger Gore switched to the Democrats in 1896, supporting William Jennings Bryan in that year’s presidential election. The younger Gore had ambitions to run for the United States Senate, but in Mississippi entrenched incumbents occupied both seats, so he migrated to Texas, then to Indian Territory, which he helped organize into the state of Oklahoma. In 1907, he was elected Oklahoma’s first U.S. senator. Vidal’s maternal grandmother, Nina Gore, was also southern, a member of the Kay family, slaveholders from South Carolina who moved to Texas after the Civil War.
As Vidal puts it, “the blood of generations of honor-minded crazed southerners” flowed through his veins, and he developed a strong, traditional southern belief in honor himself. When he was young his hero was Billy the Kid, whose story Vidal would later dramatize in two films. Vidal admired Billy’s code: “Kill my friend and I will kill you.” As Vidal got older, his sense of honor changed. “Now,” he writes, “honor is to try to tell the truth.”
An effort to tell the truth characterizes Vidal’s writing. He refuses to evade issues. In Palimpsest, for example, he is open about his sexuality. He describes in a straightforward way his affairs with men as well as women: his first sex with a girl, at age twelve or thirteen; his affair with Jimmie Trimble, a classmate at St. Albans, from whose death as a marine scout on Iwo Jima in World War II Vidal has never recovered; a one-night stand with Beat novelist Jack Kerouac; affairs with writer Anaïs Nin and actress Diana Lynn; couplings with hundreds of anonymous men. Vidal also refuses to distort his true thought. Often his candor takes the form of unexpected, wicked comments about the famous. In Palimpsest he writes that the Duchess of Windsor had her brain scrambled by anesthetic given in her “fourth or fifth face-lift.” “Orville and Wilbur Wright,” Vidal tells us, “were lifelong bachelors, as Time magazine used to write when eager to suggest uranism.”
Southern literature emphasizes family history and a sense of the past. Historian Joel Williamson in William Faulkner and Southern History (1993), for example, argues that Faulkner drew on the history of both his maternal and paternal ancestors in creating his novels about the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Palimpsest shows that Vidal used the same technique in writing his American Chronicle novels, beginning with Washington, D.C. (1967) and going through Hollywood (1990). Vidal says that the idea for Washington, D.C. came to him while he watched the guests at the wedding reception of his half-sister Nina Auchincloss. It is possible to recognize in Palimpsest family members who became characters in the novels: Vidal’s grand-father Thomas Pryor Gore became James Burden Day, Vidal’s mother Nina Vidal became Enid Sanford, John F. Kennedy provided the model for Clay Overbury (Hugh D. Auchincloss, Vidal’s stepfather, was also Jackie Kennedy’s stepfather). A character based on Vidal’s great-grandfather, the Confederate veteran from Mississippi, appears in the novels in dreams and visions. This character serves in the novels as a reminder of the past, a symbol of the lost ideals of the original American republic.
In Palimpsest, Vidal traces the history of the Vidal family to its origins in fourteenth century Austria. The Vidals were related by marriage to the Traxlers, a Swiss family that Vidal family legend claimed had been creditors of the French king. Vidal used this material, too, in the American Chronicle novels. The Traxlers appear as characters in 1876 (1976). Vidal’s father, Eugene Vidal, appears briefly in Hollywood as an army flier and former West Point football star.
If the South influenced Vidal’s writing, the South also shaped...
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