United States United States
by Gore Vidal

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United States

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In UNITED STATES, Gore Vidal has gathered two-thirds of the scores of essays, observations, articles, and polemics he has published since 1952. The collection will delight readers who appreciate an attentive observer. Vidal, whose use of language is unsurpassed in contemporary American literature, writes in a modern fashion reminiscent in style and tone of Montaigne and Addison: a direct, conversational approach to the reader in which even the most serious subject is approached with wit.

In an author’s note, Vidal points out that his essays, although composed over nearly half a century, fall into three categories: literature, or the state of the art; politics, or the state of the union; and memories, or the state of being. This book gathers his reports on those three states—united.

There are few, if any, critics now practicing who can match Vidal’s ability to consider the true nature of a work of literature, assess its relative success in achieving its goals, and explain this to the reader in a clear, nontechnical language. Certainly the “hacks of academe,” as Vidal gleefully labels the campus critics, cannot accomplish this feat; nor, as Vidal shrewdly notes, do they wish to, for the ideal academic novel is meant to be taught, not read. As for the dwindling realm of actual readers, Vidal stoically accepts that, with a few exceptions, the ephemeral best-seller has triumphed, and the world grown gray with its breath. However, those who still value craftsmanship in writing will delight in reading Vidal on masters such as Henry James, individualists such as Italo Calvino, and unjustly neglected writers such as American novelist Dawn Powell.

The state of the union engages Vidal on both personal and philosophical levels. Grandson of a United States senator (Thomas Gore, of Oklahoma), related by marriage to one president (JFK) and by blood to one vice president (Al Gore) and himself a sometimes candidate (House of Representatives, the Senate), Vidal is a shrewd and merciless observer of the crimes, vices, and follies of electoral politics. His views, often unconventional but always sharply and memorably expressed, combine a nostalgia for the old American Republic, now lost to what Vidal terms the “national security state” and the imperial presidency, with realization that our nation has been from the very start less of a Republic and more of a joint stock company, with most Americans lacking the resources to purchase enough shares to join in the profits, much less have a vote on the board.

Finally, Vidal’s memories and reflections provide the section on his personal state of being. Interestingly, it is the shortest in the volume, and its tone becomes less sharp and acerbic, and is, at times, positively elegiac, as Vidal remembers eras, places, and people now lost forever, except through his vivid and loving prose.

That prose, whether it summons up the ghost of a literary friend or excoriates the sins of a political foe, is one of the greatest pleasures in modern American literature. This splendid collection of essays spans forty years but remains undated and, one suspects, largely undatable—one of the virtues of good writing, and a virtue Gore Vidal here displays abundantly.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. June 6, 1993, XIV, p.6.

The Economist. CCCXXIX, November 6, 1993, p.121.

Library Journal. CXVIII, May 15, 1993, p.69.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 23, 1993, p.1.

New Statesman and Society. VI, October 8, 1993, p.33.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, June 20, 1993, p.11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 5, 1993, p.54.

The Spectator. CCLXXI, October 9, 1993, p.31.

The Times Literary SupplemenL November 5, 1993, p.28.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, May 30, 1993, p.1.