“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...
(The entire section is 1851 words.)