Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1851
“Every now and then, usually while shaving, I realize that I have lived through nearly one third of the history of the United States,” writes Gore Vidal in one of the many splendid essays gathered in United States: Essays 1952-1992. It is indisputable that Vidal not only has experienced and chronicled much of his nation’s history but also has also written some of the shrewdest, wittiest, and most perceptive commentary on the arts (in particular, literature), politics, and mores of that once-austere republic turned gaudy empire. Noted as a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, Vidal is arguably at his literary best in the essay, and those found in this volume, two-thirds of the total he has written over a period of forty years, are a resounding product of a highly critical intelligence combined with a genuine, if mordant, sense of humor, refined by real genius.
The first of the essays collected in United States was published in 1952, during the presidency of the chief executive Vidal dryly dubbed “the Great Golfer,” Dwight D. Eisenhower. The latest appeared in 1992, the year Bill Clinton was elected to the Oval Office; thus the Jovial Jogger ascended to the throne of the Great Golfer, after the reigns of first magistrates identified by Vidal as the First Criminal (Richard M. Nixon) and the Acting President (Ronald Reagan), and others. During those forty years the United States went from being the world’s only true superpower in a recently war-ravaged, economically fragile world to being once again the only Superpower, though a shaky one, in a world that is continually, if undeclaredly, war-ravaged and even more economically fragile. In between came many things: the Cold War, with its threat of destruction from abroad and subversion from within, and all the ill effects that tension wreaked on the American psyche; developments, good, bad, and indifferent in the arts, especially literature; and Vidal’s personal experiences in such mythical places as Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Through the years, Vidal commented on these three topics—the nation, the arts, himself—and United States is the result.
In an introductory note, Vidal explains that the essays “fall naturally into three categories: literature, or the state of the art; politics, or the state of the union; personal responses to people and events, not to mention old movies and children’s books, or the state of being. So, herewith, my three states—united.” One of the greatest pleasures of this volume, and there are many, is not only that Vidal writes about so many different topics but also that he writes of them so well. He seems constitutionally incapable of publishing an essay whose language is not as deftly phrased as its subject is acutely considered.
“State of the Art,” the section on literature, reveals Vidal at his critical best, capable of ranging from the broad, theoretical view to appreciation and analysis of individual authors and their works. Himself no academic (in the pejorative sense of the word), in an essay such as “French Letters: Theories of the New Novel,” first published in 1967, Vidal shows the residents (inmates?) of academe that an acute and accurate survey of literary theory need not be dull, laborious reading. His examination of the “new wave” of French fiction exemplified by writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute makes more sense, in a more approachable fashion, than almost any other study of the subject. Just as important, it is not the sort of fluff that Vidal elsewhere dismisses as “book chat” but a well- informed and seriously considered study of the topic. What strikes the reader as equally impressive is that while Vidal openly disagrees with many of the theories posited by the French “new novelists,” he presents those views clearly and accurately. The same honesty and grasp of his material, this time with much of it learned at first hand, laces the sentences of Vidal’s essay on “Novelists and Critics of the 1 940’s,” a survey that is remarkably thorough considering its relative brevity. Brevity has always been one of Vidal’s strongest points; where another writer might require a page, Vidal makes his point with a phrase.
Vidal is a writer who takes writing and reading seriously, and it is evident that he sometimes feels nearly alone, if not perhaps lonely, in this attitude. Essays such as “The Top Ten Best Sellers,” “The Hacks of Academe,” and “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction” articulate his fear that badly written popular novels vie with even worse-written academic novels to determine which genre can inflict the most damage upon the language and diminish still further the already limited audience of true readers. Where language still flourishes and imagination reigns, however, Vidal is quick to appreciate and elucidate both the established master and the neglected author. His essays on Henry James are exercises in well-informed critical and aesthetic appreciations unmarred by academic tediousness, and his lengthy appraisal of the now nearly and unjustly forgotten comic novelist Dawn Powell is a well-intentioned attempt at a deserved revival as well as a minatory observation on the state of “that perpetually foggy pane, ’American Literature.’”
It is at politics that Vidal excels, first because he is an acute and penetrating observer who misses none of the small, telling gestures that others might let pass but that give away the garne. In 1964, he watched Ronald Reagan “staring intently at the speaker on the platform. Thus an actor prepares, I thought, and I suspected even then that Reagan would some day find himself up there on the platform.” Vidal understands that politics, especially as practiced in the United States, is a personal rather than ideological matter, and therefore biography is destiny. Hence his fascinating series of short studies of the nation’s leaders, past (Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt) and relatively present (John and Ted Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan). Vidal is acute and unsparing of both praise and criticism in his evaluations, which often contradict the popular view. Of the often denigrated Grant he writes, “It is simply not possible to read Grant’s memoirs without realizing that the author is a man of first-rate intelligence,” while the oddly popular Theodore Roosevelt is dismissed with the considered observation that he was “a classic American sissy who overcame—or appeared to overcome—his physical fragility through ’manly’ activities of which the most exciting and nobling was war.” Yet, as Vidal might note, that is merely one author’s judgment, and Roosevelt now looms large on “that once beautiful Dakota cliff defaced by the somber Gutzon Borglum with the faces of dead pols.”
Perhaps most important for a comprehensive view of how the United States is truly governed, Vidal practices the politics of inclusion, bringing in not only economics, a fairly standard component of political science, but also theology and sexuality as well. To those of his readers who might be surprised by this, Vidal points out in essays such as “Sex Is Politics” that “the sexual attitudes of any given society are the result of political decisions.” He notes the instinctive use of gay-bashing among the more brutish political elements to divert the electorate’s attention from real issues of money and power—in other words, who owns America.
Vidal, astute observer of the present political situation though he is, still retains a visionary view that political matters might be better ordered in what he frequenfly terms liberty’s home and freedom’s land. In “The Second American Revolution” and in essays such as “Homage to Daniel Shays,” he advocates a restructuring of American politics along more parliamentary lines; that would, he wistfully hopes, “make it possible for the United States to have, for the first time in two centuries, real political parties,” and even, “ah, the note of optimism!—civilization.”
The bookish dreams of a cloistered author? Perhaps not. A serious contender for the United States Senate during the 1980’s, Vidal had also won more votes in his district as a congressional candidate than John E Kennedy took for president in 1960. Vidal has written speeches for presidents and observed, at first hand, the workings of the political-economics system. His suggestions may perhaps be unworkable, but they are not unthinkable, and they are certainly thoughtful as well as thought-provoking.
Finally, and most poignantly, in the section “State of Being,” Vidal turns to address his own life and career, recalling what it was like growing up in pre-World War II Washington, helping to create the “Golden Age” of television drama during the 1950’s, being of the creative generation that produced artists such as Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Orson Welles, and, yes, Gore Vidal. While elsewhere his essays are sharp, often acerbic (and, it should be noted, often deservedly so; there is no reason, indeed no excuse, to blunt an attack on bad writing or incompetent or dishonest politics), in his personal memories Vidal sometimes strikes the elegiac note with a truly evocative eloquence. Here he is on the nation’s capital remembered as an actual city where people could live, and live well, not the least because they remained connected to a sense of history, of tradition:
But here and there in the city one still comes across shaded streets and houses; so many relics of lost time—when men wore white straw hats and Suits in sun’mer while huge hats decorated the ladies (hats always got larger just before a war) and one dined at Harvey’s Restaurant, where the slow- turning ceiling-fans and tessellated floors made the hottest summer day seem cool even though the air of the street outside was ovenlike and smelled ofjasmine and hot tar, while nearby Lafayette Park was a lush tropical jungle where one could see that Civil War hero, Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., stroll, his white moustaches unfurled like fierce battle pennants.
That one long sentence itself unfuris with a grace and beauty unfortunately unmatched by most contemporary authors, who have neither the inclination nor the ability to write such prose that captures clearly and elegantly a sense of place and time as it teaches, delights, and persuades the reader.
United States is that rarest of books, a collection of essays Written over half a lifetime that yet possess, because of the talent and genius of their author, a unifying sense of excellence and coherence. From articles and reviews written here and there, for various purposes and different audiences, Gore Vidal has been able to draw together more than 1,200 pages, each one marked by the three cardinal virtues of writing: quality, clarity, and intelligence. There are few gatherings as uniformly outstanding as this one. United States well deserves the recognition it will receive, and long enjoy, as a masterpiece.
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.