The Second American Revolution
Whether he is writing reviews and critical reexaminations for The New York Review of Books, deliberately caustic analyses of American sexual or social mores for Esquire and Playboy, or thought-provoking political commentary for The Nation, The New Statesman, and the Los Angeles Times, Gore Vidal is always witty and urbane. It is a temptation to describe his tone as well-bred because his erudition is tempered with enough irony so that he never sounds pretentious.
In this collection, Vidal’s literary essays range from analyses of contemporary writers, such as Doris Lessing and Leonardo Sciascia, to reexaminations of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson, to reevaluations of Thomas Love Peacock’s novels of ideas, L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and Christopher Isherwood’s literary circle. Vidal is at his best when he attacks the academic literary establishment, either censuring or dissecting its literary taste.
Regarding the “serious novel” and those who are interested in writing it, Vidal says, in “Thomas Love Peacock: The Novel of Ideas,” that the serious novel is of no actual interest to anyone, including the sort of people who would like to write it: “they are apt to read Agatha Christie, if they read at all.” As always, Vidal’s wry comments draw attention to the self-delusion of those who intentionally deceive themselves. He has no sympathy for the pretensions of writers who convince themselves that they are writing for some future generation. In a jewel of a sentence, Vidal dismisses epigrammatically the naïveté of would-be serious authors: “These innocents seem not to understand that posterity is a permanent darkness where no whistle sounds.”
Observing that it is naïve to believe that works which are not read today will at some future date become popular, Vidal does acknowledge pointedly that novels which cannot be read can at least be taught. The academic establishment makes a living in the “Service-oriented Field” of getting degrees and then teaching others to read serious novels which are more “teacherly” than “readerly.”
Carrying his observation further, Vidal comments that university faculties realized early that the serious novel could be produced on campus in creative writing classes. This enterprise gradually became part of the teaching program of the academic establishment. More recently, however, Vidal recognizes a new development on university campuses: the academic intelligentsia has finally realized that “the true study of English studies is English studies.”
Vidal concludes that this realization means that the serious novel is no longer a necessary artifact for the literary establishment. The literary critic/theorist can replace the author as the subject of critical scrutiny. This final triumph over creativity on the part of the academic establishment is juxtaposed to the tastes of the reading public. Asking what sort of books people voluntarily read, Vidal quite justly remarks that they read spy thrillers, Gothic romances, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy.
Noting that John Fowles and William Golding, two British novelists who are read by the general public, are ignored by American academics, he concludes that there are historical reasons for the dichotomy between popular and academic taste in the United States. Americans, he insists, accept as literature only those works which support the prejudices and dreams of the bigoted middle class. The middle-class churches which determined social, moral, and political values in the past are receiving powerful assistance from universities. Neither history nor politics is an acceptable topic at the middle-class dinner table, and so novels with intellectual aspirations cannot be taken seriously.
No matter how outrageous his overstatements seem, Vidal succeeds in making good sense. Perhaps it is unfair, as well as outrageous, to call the United States a well-organized zoo in which the zoo’s management throws the best cuts of meat to those who behave with intellectual docility, but such caustic observations contain enough truth to engage the reader’s mind. That may well be all that this deliberately provocative author wishes. Vidal is far more interested in compelling his reader to think than in persuading his reader that what faces him on the page is the final truth.
It is ironic that Vidal believes that the only American writer who might have become a satirist who said what he meant—and mocked those who did not know what they meant—was Mark Twain, since Vidal himself seems so clearly to write essays which are in the tradition of the novels of ideas written by Thomas Love Peacock. Mary McCarthy calls the novel of ideas the “conversation novel.” Vidal himself identifies the tradition as including Aristophanes, Lucian, Petronius, François Rabelais, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Love Peacock. At least in his best essays, Vidal belongs to this tradition. With all the irony of Twain, his persona mocks the chief virtue of the middle class, sincerity, and its inevitable accompanying vice, hypocrisy.
Near the conclusion of his reevaluation of Peacock,...
(The entire section is 2129 words.)