Gore Vidal is that rarest of men, one who consistently resists labels in an age of increasing categorization. With the publication of his first novel, Williwaw (1946), he immediately established himself as a serious writer by dealing with the then-taboo subject of homosexuality. Had he chosen to do so, he could have continued to produce more groundbreaking novels in the same manner: small works for a select audience that would have eventually found their way into the college classroom. Instead, Vidal went on to excel in every major literary form save poetry. In the 1950’s, he had no compunction about writing for the new medium of television, and he even crafted part of the screenplay for one of the most popular films of the period, Ben-Hur (1959). On a parallel track to his literary career, Vidal gained a considerable reputation as a political commentator and as a frequent guest on the television talk show circuit in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
It is as an essayist, however, that Vidal has made his presence felt in the literary world. The essayat once the most personal and digressive of the traditional forms in the genre of nonfictionhas found in Vidal an impressive and enduring master. It is for this reason that The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal is such a welcome addition to any bookshelf. While it is true that an earlier and far more comprehensive volume, United States: Essays, 1952-1992, was published in 1993, it was an omnibus collection of 114 pieces. Vidal’s reputation is probably better served in this new volume, edited by Jay Parini, which contains essays representing the best of the recurring themes in his work. In addition to Parini’s helpful introduction, the book is divided into two sections, consisting of thirteen and eleven essays respectively. In “Part One: Reading the Writers,” Parini presents a group of essays dealing with a variety of literary matters spanning the period from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. Two significant themes emerge in this section: one concerns Vidal’s astute analyses of his fellow fiction writers; the other deals with his critiques of other critics. Among the latter, “Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s” introduces what has proven to be a common Vidal theme: his lifelong contempt for academic critics. “They tend . . . to be absolutists. They believe that by a close examination of ’the text,’ the laws and the crafty ’strategies’ of its composition will be made clear and the findings will provide ’touchstones’ for a comparative criticism of other works.” He then proceeds to point out that this is more effective with metaphysical poetry than with the more open-ended format of the novel.
For those unfamiliar with the history of Western academic criticism, Vidal’s comments require some explanation. What he is describing is what came to be known as New Criticism, a formalist approach to literature that attempted to divorce a work from its historical and cultural context in order to examine it as an isolated artifact. The best-known exponent of this type of critical approach was Cleanth Brooks, whose book The Well Wrought Urn (1947) was very influential in the academy. Brooks provided a powerful new tool with which to examine verse; indeed, the book’s title derives from John Donne’s poem “The Canonization.” Vidal’s comments on the subject highlight both the strengths and the weaknesses of his writing. On the positive side, Vidal early on recognizes some of the inherent shortcomings in a critical technique that was fast taking root in American universities, and he delivers his verdict with a wit that is as acerbic as it is incisive. As an iconoclast (literally, a destroyer of sacred images), he relishes the opportunity to deflate what he perceives to be the pervasive self-importance of the academy. To be fair, it must be pointed out that, even in its heyday in the 1950’s, New Criticism was rarely practiced in its purest form. Good critics then and now employ theory as a tool to be used with caution and not as an intellectual fetish. It should also be noted that New Criticism arose in reaction to the critical strategies of the preceding generation, which centered upon historical and biographical approaches. The severity of Vidal’s tone is probably linked to the fact that even then he recognized the gradual demise of such freelance critics as Edmund Wilson, who wrote voluminously about literature from a perspective outside the academy. Nevertheless, Vidal seizes upon what has long been recognized as the primary weakness of academic criticism. While a roving critic such as Vidal...
(The entire section is 1887 words.)