Civic Virtues: Gore Vidal's Selected Essays
Gore Vidal has known, or at any rate met, nearly everyone of literary, political or cinematic note during his lifetime. A great many of his essays feature anecdotes, always charming and often revealing, about his personal encounters with his subjects: Tennessee Williams, Dawn Powell, Christopher Isherwood, Norman Mailer, Paul Bowles, Anthony Burgess, Italo Calvino, Amelia Earhart, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, the Roosevelts, Luces, Kennedys, Reagans and Gores among them.
I have never met Gore Vidal. But that seems a paltry reason for not beginning this homage in the proper Vidalian key. All right, then...
One night in the winter of 1970, I was driving a taxicab in New York City. Outside a posh club, I was hailed by a tall, handsome gent in evening dress. "Old bores," he muttered as he climbed in. "Money and brains; never the twain shall meet without giving rise to truly lethal tedium."
"Where to?" I piped up.
"Wherever I can find some intelligent company," he sighed.
From a certain lyrical eloquence in the sigh, I guessed he meant literary company. "How about Elaine's?" I suggested, glancing at him in the rearview mirror.
He winced. "No-o-o, thank you. Norman is probably presiding tonight. I'm not feeling sufficiently...existential."
"The Gotham Book Mart is probably still open. Lots of writers hang out there, I think."
The handsome face wrinkled in distaste. "Also a few literary parasites, I'm afraid. I doubt I could control myself if I spotted Truman's malicious mug leering in my direction."
"Well, maybe the White Horse Tavern?"
He blanched. "Good God, no. Anaïs sometimes holds court there, fabulating reminiscences and emanating her legendary Life Force. Of course, she's the source of that legend."
I looked more closely in the rearview, and this time I recognized him. "You're Gore Vidal, aren't you?"
Wary, noncommittal, slightly amused, he murmured: "Possibly."
I was inspired. "Well, why don't I just drive you home? Then you can have a nightcap alone, in the company of the most extraordinary assemblage of wit and talent since JFK invited all those intellectuals to dinner at the White House."
He snorted appreciatively, reached over and patted my head, and when I let him off at his hotel, gave me the biggest tip of my short cab-driving career.
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. has always enjoyed a healthy appreciation of his own, indeed remarkable, wit and talent. So have most other people, though approbation of his moral character has perhaps been less close to universal. His successes--bestselling novels, Broadway plays, screenplays, two enchanting memoirs and five decades of scintillating literary and political criticism--would be tedious to chronicle (and superfluous in the Age of Wikigooglespace). But what do they add up to? Is he famous for some more enduring reason than... being famous?
He grew up in the penumbra of fame. His maternal grandfather, T.P. Gore, was more or less heroic: blind, Oklahoma's first senator and a friend of Bryan and Darrow, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. His father, Gene Vidal, was an All-American football player, World War I aviator, friend of Lindbergh and Earhart and founder of TWA. His mother later married that socialite of socialites Hugh Auchincloss, who would later become Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's stepfather as well.
In the vast attic of his grandparents' house in Rock Creek Park were thousands of books. Up there and downstairs, reading to his grandfather, he acquired an education. At school--he attended St. Alban's, like his younger cousin Albert Arnold Gore--he picked up Latin and fell in love with a godlike fellow student, who died a few years later, young and still perfect, on Iwo Jima. As told in Vidal's memoir Palimpsest, it is one of the most stirring love stories in recent literature.
A veteran himself, Vidal published one of the first World War II novels, Williwaw. Public service in the family tradition was one possible future. Instead he wrote The City and the Pillar, a novel about a youthful homosexual affair that one of the boys, but not the other, leaves behind. So much for his political career, at least as of 1948.
Vidal spent the '50s in the trenches, writing for television, Hollywood and Broadway. He cavorted with the stars--Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and far too many others to mention. More perilously for his soul's health, he also cavorted with the Kennedys. But by the end of 1961, the moral and intellectual hollowness of Camelot was plain to him. With his nest egg, he left for Italy and novel writing. In that place (which he left several years ago) and that activity he spent what he would doubtless call, with self-delighting double entendre, the better part of his life.
It would be hard--and is, of course, unnecessary--to decide whether Vidal's novels or his essays are his greatest achievement. Certainly the seven-volume "American Chronicles" series is in the front rank of historical fiction; and at least two volumes, Burr and Lincoln, are indisputably masterpieces. Julian, it seems safe to wager, will long remain the only novel set in the fourth century, with a protagonist dedicated to turning back the fateful onrush of Christian fanaticism, ever to ascend to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Myra Breckinridge was a minor milestone in the sexual revolution--perhaps not so minor.
Essay writing was an afterthought. Edmund Wilson, too, would have preferred writing novels and plays to literary journalism--who wouldn't?--but he was never as successful as Vidal. As a result, Vidal tells us in Palimpsest,
I never wrote a proper essay until 1954, when I read a new translation of Suetonius' Twelve Caesars. Suddenly, I had so many new thoughts on the subject of sex and power that I was obliged to write an essay...ot for publication but just to clear my own mind. Eventually, it was published...and that is how I became an essayist. I wrote first for myself; then for those few readers who might be interested in the resulting essai.
It was, he acknowledged, "not exactly novel writing, which I missed, but it was prose and kept me thinking" while he was churning out those scripts, earning that nest egg.
The fruits of those fifty-plus years of thinking on paper are harvested in Selected Essays. The first thing to say is that this new collection does not replace United States: Essays 1952-1992 and The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. Nothing could. The former, in particular, is the best essay collection in recent decades by any American writer, except perhaps for last year's two-volume Library of America edition of Edmund Wilson. At 1,300 pages, United States is, however, a little bulky. So there is every reason to cheer Vidal on his way to Valhalla with the publication of this compact yet comprehensive and very well-chosen volume. Editor Jay Parini has served up a kind of crème de la crème with strawberries.
Vidal is perhaps better known for his raspberries, which are well represented here by "American Plastic," "The Hacks of Academe" and "The Top Ten Best-Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973." The first of these, though by no means a hatchet job, does make one grateful not to have read much of John Barth or Donald Barthelme. It also expresses a far more discriminating admiration for William Gass than is usual among reviewers of that overadmired writer. But nothing in "American Plastic" equals the joyous havoc wrought on the bestsellers, whose roots, structural and thematic, in bad Hollywood movies Vidal convincingly demonstrates. Poor Herman Wouk (Winds of War) and Frederick Forsyth (The Odessa File) receive a brisk version of the treatment meted out to James Gould Cozzens by Dwight Macdonald and to Judith Krantz by Clive James. Even "the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn" (August 1914), though an exemplar of "man's indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society," is chiefly talented at "describing how things work, and it is plain that nature destined him to write manuals of artillery or instructions on how to take apart a threshing machine."
Though Vidal can be devastatingly snide ("Rabbit's Own Burrow" makes John Updike pay very dearly indeed for a few censorious remarks about our hero and other "frivolous" opponents of the Vietnam War), his generosity is more characteristic and even more satisfying. Some of his subjects in Selected Essays, like Tennessee Williams and Edmund Wilson, may not have needed critical rehabilitation, but William Dean Howells and Dawn Powell did. Twenty-five years ago, Howells was frequently dismissed as dry and lifeless, the faded flower of a genteel tradition. Explicating Indian Summer, A Modern Instance and The Rise of Silas Lapham, Vidal reconstructs Howells's "subtle and wise reading of the world," which "opened the way to Dreiser and to all those other realists who were to see the United States plain." And the first half-dozen pages of the Howells essay contain a surprising revelation. As the judicial murder of the Haymarket Square defendants unfolded in 1886, "of the Republic's major literary and intellectual figures...only one"--Howells--"took a public stand."
Dawn Powell's novels were all out of print in 1987 when Vidal's long appreciation in The New York Review of Books pronounced her "our best comic novelist." Her studies of genuine Midwestern dullness and ersatz Manhattan gaiety, rendered with fearless, pungent wit and entirely without sentimentality or euphemism, may have been, as Vidal claimed, "Balzacian" and as good a portrait as we have of mid-twentieth-century America. But in this they were fatally unlike the top ten bestsellers of 1973 or any other year. She died more or less obscure in 1965, and Vidal's influential revaluation doubtless brought a smile to her long-suffering shade.
The hacks of academe (new generation) have put it about that everything is political, especially textual analyses of great literature that reveal, through the application of emancipatory ideology and subversive wordplay, that the past was even less enlightened than the present. Besides allowing critical minnows to patronize artistic whales, this approach frees academic literary intellectuals from having to learn much about history, economics, politics or how to compose felicitous English prose.
Without ever saying so, Vidal also manages to suggest that everything is political, though in a very different, non-postmodern sense. The clarity and elegance of his prose, for example, make a political point: that a critic with public purposes has rhetorical obligations, above all transparency. More generally, to a sufficiently sensitive and knowledgeable critic, everything will appear intelligent or unintelligent, skillful or shoddy, graceful or graceless, truthful or mendacious. In each of these pairs, the latter is--not immediately, perhaps, but ultimately, in some measure--a threat to our common life, our res publica. Intellectual virtues are civic virtues; intellectual vices leave the citizens vulnerable to superstition and demagoguery. There is, of course, no more sense in trying to legislate the intellectual virtues than the moral ones. But one can propagate intellectual virtue, first of all by example. This is Vidal's abiding contribution to American politics.
The prevailing American superstitions are: one, there is a Supreme Being, omnipotent and benevolent; two, some sexual predilections are more natural than others; and three, there is no class system in the United States. No one who denies any of these things can be elected to high office. As a patriot, Vidal naturally has no patience with this affront to our civic intelligence. Some of his most memorable onslaughts on our national delusions are included in Selected Essays.
"Monotheism and Its Discontents," a version of which appeared in these pages (July 13, 1992), is forthright. "The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism." Vidal's dislike is ecumenical; Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all "sky-god religions." The sky-god is, alas, a jealous god, whose intolerance and blood lust have set a very bad example for his more devoted followers, whose unyielding irrationality managed in only a few decades, Vidal laments, to pervert the founders' entirely secular purposes. "Monotheism" was written in 1992; sixteen years later, the danger is much more widely recognized. I suspect Vidal's puckish but prescient call for "an all-out war on the monotheists" had some effect in stimulating the salutary secularist counteroffensive.
In (possibly premature) retrospect, it appears that one historical function of neoconservatism was to supply an intellectual rationale for the worst impulses of traditional conservatism. The attack on the welfare state rationalized--in effect if not intention--greed and class privilege. With the same qualification, the attack on affirmative action rationalized racial hostility. The attack on multilateralism and international law has, less ambiguously, rationalized national chauvinism and aggressive tribalism. Midge Decter's "The Boys on the Beach," a vaguely Freudian analysis of homosexuality as pathology, published in Commentary in 1980, was a not at all ambiguous effort to rationalize sexual bigotry. But thanks to Vidal, this was the least successful of all the neoconservative ideological operations. "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star"--perhaps his best-known essay--so thoroughly demolished Decter's smug fatuities that neither the pseudo-psychoanalytic approach to homosexuality nor, mercifully, Decter herself ever regained intellectual respectability.
My favorites among Vidal's essays, both included in this volume, are "Homage to Daniel Shays" and "The Second American Revolution." Soon after the Revolutionary War, the eternal tension between lenders and borrowers, the rich and everyone else, came to a crisis in New England. Shays led thousands of small farmers, many of them former soldiers in the revolutionary army who stood to lose their land to creditors, in search of debt relief and tax relief. The rich fought back, first militarily and then by writing a Constitution that imposed a strong central government disproportionately weighted in favor of the propertied.
That Constitution has become the American Scripture, our political Holy Writ and a chronic obstacle to popular initiative. Dissolving the mystique of the Constitution and those who framed it, as well as that of the revered Federalist Papers--whose "general tone," Vidal accurately observes, "is that of a meeting of the trust department of Sullivan and Cromwell"--is essential to our civic health. These two essays, along with Vidal's historical fiction, are powerful dissolving agents.
Disabusing Americans about their government's international behavior is equally essential. After a PEN benefit one night in the mid-1980s, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. confided to his diary, "Gore gave a (relatively) polished talk about the American empire, banal in content, cheap in tone, and delivered to the accompaniment of smiles of vast self-satisfaction." Presumably it was the tone Schlesinger objected to; his own self-satisfied banalities about the American empire were always pronounced with reverence and gravitas.
Vidal's bête noire (and not surprisingly, Schlesinger's hero) was Harry Truman. The National Security Act of 1947; the creation of the CIA, with its unconstitutional exemption from Congressional scrutiny; the containment doctrine, supposedly for defense against Soviet expansionism but promptly invoked to justify the rearming of Germany and interventions in Greece, Guatemala, Iran and elsewhere; the paranoid secret blueprint for the cold war, NSC-68--all these Truman-era setbacks for democracy are described in "The National Security State," along with a modest and sensible five-point program that, decades later, still sounds like a very good way to begin reclaiming the country.
It's not clear, though, to me and I suspect to Vidal, that American democracy can be reclaimed, at least in the form of vigorous, Jeffersonian self-government. (As Vidal points out with his customary sardonic relish, Jefferson began selling out Jeffersonianism during his second term.) The reasons are structural--mass production and mass consumption may not leave enough room for individual autonomy--and clinical--like muscles, intellectual and civic virtues may atrophy beyond repair. No matter who is elected president this fall, the country may become an ever more dispiriting place for a conservative-radical aristocratic republican of Vidal's stamp.
If so, he has much to teach us about grace in an era of decline. Twice before, he has lived, in imagination, through the death of a cherished ideal. The first was paganism, splendidly memorialized in Julian. In that novel's climactic scene, the eponymous emperor appeals to the assembled Christian bishops, who are bent on destroying traditional religion, "never to forget that the greatness of our world was the gift of other gods and a different, more subtle philosophy, reflecting the variety in nature." Of course, that more subtle philosophy was soon driven underground, where it has remained ever since. But things can live a long time underground, especially when nourished by occasional infusions like Julian.
"French Letters: Theories of the New Novel," another well-known essay reprinted here, reports on the programmatic writings of Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roland Barthes and their American enthusiasts, none of whom saw much of a future for the traditional novel. Vidal agreed, not because the traditional novel is exhausted but because its traditional audience has been captured by electronic distractions. He greeted this melancholy prospect with barbed but eloquent stoicism:
The portentous theorizings of the New Novelists are of no more use to us than the self-conscious avant-gardism of those who are forever trying to figure out what the next "really serious" thing will be when it is plain that there is not going to be a next serious thing in the novel. Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.
Whatever dreariness lies ahead for our endlessly benighted and bamboozled republic, Gore Vidal's mocking, disenchanted patriotism will always be a resource for its well-wishers.