In January 1948 Dutton brought out the third novel of a promising young writer named Gore Vidal. The publishing house was nervous. Vidal had already reached a national audience with his first book, Williwaw, based on his experience in World War II, and the year before had been photographed for Life magazine in a feature on young writers. At the mere age of 21, he had made a name for himself, and Dutton wanted to preserve it. The cause of their queasy stomachs lay in the fact that the book they were releasing, The City and the Pillar, was at the time arguably the most explicit and uncompromising novel about homosexuality ever to be published in the English-speaking world. E.M. Forster’s Maurice, written some fifty years earlier, wouldn’t see the light of day until the 1970s, after its author’s death. In France, Proust and Gide had certainly broached the subject but even there the leap into the floridly detailed world of Jean Genet wouldn’t come until Our Lady of the Flowers was more broadly issued by Gallimard in 1951. And it wasn’t just that The City and the Pillar was sexually explicit (though unlike Genet, tame by today’s standards). It also failed to subscribe to the pejorative wisdom that homosexuals were desperate and perverse people who dressed hair by day and lurked in alleyways by night. This book was about the love of a shy, handsome, all-American high school athlete for his equally athletic, all-American classmate. Would the sky fall?
As it happened, reaction took a form that has come to characterize much of Vidal’s career, not just as a novelist but as a playwright, essayist and polemicist: media controversy tinged with moral outrage and good sales. The New York Times refused to review the novel because of its content, but it ended up on the bestseller list anyway, joined that year by Orwell’s 1984, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. In the half-century or more since The City and the Pillar was published, Vidal, raised by his senator grandfather to be a senator himself and perhaps one day the President, has become instead a kind of permanent dissident-in-exile, relentlessly criticizing American political culture and mores, often in the pages of this magazine.
The novel, an early nail in the coffin of his political career, has remained more or less continuously in print until recently, and has now once again been reissued. As an account of one young man’s struggle to make sense of his desire for other men, it remains remarkably salient, capturing the anxieties of American masculinity that to this day mark adolescence and young adulthood in this country and that provide the political fuel for the opposition to gay rights. And though flawed in ways as a work of fiction, the book, especially in its final scenes, contains a pathos that signals it is more than a piece of social documentary and is in fact the work of a willful and even brave young novelist.
Our entry into the world of the hero, Jim Willard, comes through a device that could have been taken from a 1940s film noir: A drunk man in the back corner of a Times Square bar stares into a glass of whiskey, a ruined expression playing across his face. When a prostitute approaches, he toys with her somewhat meanly, then scares her off. Trying not to remember, he takes another swallow, as the jukebox plays. The scene fades and rises again on a leafy spring afternoon in Virginia. In the film, a legend would appear at the bottom of the screen: “Six years earlier…” True to form, the novel will end back in this bar just under 200 pages later, the causes of the man’s condition laid bare.
While the films of D.W. Griffith had begun to inform literary narrative by the 1940s, it’s not until this period that a generation of writers who watched movies as teenagers comes of age, and with this we see a deepening of the influence. The framing device of recalled memory is hardly a Hollywood invention, and yet the style in which it’s done here presages a filmic trait that runs throughout the book. Characters, deftly painted from the outside, will be types rather than fully crafted individuals. Over the course of the novel we meet the tough, womanizing sailor, the narcissistic movie star, the tortured writer and, first and most dear to Jim Willard, the plainspoken high school jock.
Even the hero is not prone to introspection, and one aspect of his conflict consists of his being a type himself–the shy, handsome athlete, whose desires draw him into a gay demimonde that is unsure just how to categorize him. Is he trade, i.e., gay for pay? A tourist bound eventually into marriage and a return to the closet? None of those who fall in love with him, male or female, can quite tell. While by the end of the book it is clear that Jim is a lover of men and not women, the problem the novel explores is, in a way, one of classification: If you are a man sexually attracted to other men, must you therefore label and understand yourself as queer or gay?