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?
Of the latter term, Vidal wrote in his 1995 memoir Palimpsest, it is “the weirdly inappropriate word used to describe a nonexistent category.” If the popular novels of E. Lynn Harris and this summer’s New York Times Magazine cover story on “down-low culture” are any indication, there are a significant number of African-American men who are none too keen on the term either. Many married white men who sleep with guys avoid the label as well. Despite the emergence over the past thirty years of a powerful civil rights movement for gay rights, the fact is that the category remains more a cultural identification and a locus of institution-building than an exhaustive description of same-sex desire as actually practiced.
And this is one of the things that makes The City and the Pillar so interesting to read today. Written well before the emergence of identity politics, it has no a priori commitment to the telos of its hero’s self-understanding. It’s a story of a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality, yet it isn’t a coming-out novel. What Vidal gives us instead is a tale of idealized love and a quiet, apparently well-ordered obsession that in the end turns violent. Not a love that dare not speak its name but a love that desperately doesn’t want a name that wants the bliss of innocence to carry over into adulthood.
This lingering memory of young love has its seeds in the author’s own youth. While a weekly boarder at St. Albans prep school, Vidal became friends with a boy named Jimmie Trimble. As 13- and 14-year-olds, they had an adolescent love affair, fooling around together at school or at Vidal’s house overlooking the Potomac. Soon Vidal was shipped off to another school and the two didn’t meet again until they were 17, at a formal dance. “Our bodies still fitted perfectly together, as we promptly discovered inside one of the cubicles [of the men’s room], standing up, belly to belly, talking of girls and marriage and coming simultaneously,” Vidal recalls in his memoir.
Two years later Trimble died at the battle of Iwo Jima. Vidal returned from the war and began a career as a writer. In Palimpsest, he devotes long sections to Trimble and says he was the one true love of his life, a twin never to be found again. Vidal has spent the past fifty years involved with the same man but says sex has played no part in their relationship. His adolescent affair with Trimble was apparently for him the one and only time sexual and emotional life were joined.
The specter of the dead friend and lover is no doubt the psychic engine that drives The City and the Pillar, though not in the obvious autobiographical ways one might imagine. Rather, Vidal, showing at 21 the signs that he was probably destined to be a writer and not a politician, performs the quintessentially literary act of forcefully reshaping his own world and experience into a new form, one that can forge meaning out of loss. Trimble is resurrected in the novel as Bob Ford; he is made to survive the war; and thus Vidal is able to have Jim Willard meet his love once again.
Their first brief idyll takes place at an old slave cabin on a riverbank. Bob, a year ahead of Jim, has just graduated from high school and is about to sign up for the merchant marine. On this final summer weekend, they spend a day and night fishing, swimming and wrestling together in splendid isolation from the outside world. In this mini-state of nature, the boys frolic naked. While Bob appears unselfconscious of the fact, Jim “tried to fix the image of Bob permanently in his mind, as if this might be the last time they would ever see one another. Point by point, he memorized him: wide shoulders, narrow buttocks, slim legs, curved sex.” By the fire that evening they wrestle once more and then comes the moment when the wrestling stops:
As faces touched, Bob gave a shuddering sigh and gripped Jim tightly in his arms. Now they were complete, each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.
So they met. Eyes tight shut against an irrelevant world. A wind warm and sudden shook all the trees, scattered the fire’s ashes, threw shadows to the ground.
But then the wind stopped. The fire went to coals. The trees were silent. No comets marked the dark lovely sky, and the moment was gone. In the fast beat of a double heart, it died.
Vidal has disparaged the writing in his own book as “clumsy gray all-American prose,” a style he outgrew in the later, more imaginative novels such as Myra Breckinridge and the highly praised historical fictions. He went so far as to revise the original text in 1965, changes the new edition incorporates. While the book is no prose masterpiece, it’s a reasonably deft piece of postwar realism that later on in the book has a number of wonderfully executed satiric set-pieces, precocious for a novelist of 21. In the passage above it isn’t grayness that we see, but rather a youthful writer’s indulgence of the pathetic fallacy as wind and fire mirror the boys’ rise and fall from unity. Bob says afterward, “You know that was awful kid stuff we did,” and Jim replies, “I suppose so…but I liked it.” When Bob says it’s not natural, Jim reluctantly agrees, but “again excited, they embraced and fell back onto the blanket.” The powerful fear of intimacy between men is ineluctably present, but it doesn’t win out over the boys’ youthful hearts.
The scene by the river becomes a memory that Jim will carry with him through the rest of the book. This innocent, unnamed affection becomes the rule against which he measures all other versions of love, and all come up lacking. After heading to sea in search of Bob, he ends up on a double date in Seattle with a sailor named Collins. They go home with the girls, but at the moment of truth Jim can’t stand the sight of the woman’s naked body, and flees from the apartment. “Let the queer go! I got enough for two,” Collins calls after him. Jim’s anxiety that he might be gay doesn’t begin at the river where he lies with his teenage love, but here at the first point in the novel where his desire is actually named. It’s the label, not the act, that produces crisis.
In this panic over naming, we can see a homology between Jim Willard’s fears and those of today’s social conservatives. In the military context, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the now-infamous compromise over gays in the armed services, tacitly allows private homosexual sex so long as it is never mentioned or discussed publicly. Similarly, in the marriage debate, having lost the battle over the basic right of people to engage in voluntary same-sex conduct, both in the court of public opinion and now, with this past summer’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, in the Supreme Court itself, the right wing is digging in its heels over the question of what recognition or name that love will be granted in the public square. On both the military and the marriage front, then, the issue is no longer about sex per se but rather the publicity it receives. In legal-theory terms, the battle is no longer over conduct but status. Fifty years earlier, The City and the Pillar seems to have intuited that when it comes to homosexuality in this country, this is where the real struggle lies, not only in the realm of national politics but in the psyche of the American male.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that the novel has often been described as being unapologetic about homosexuality. To the extent that it shows two young men having sex and not feeling terribly bad about the fact, this is accurate. But it would be a serious mistake to think it is an early literary banner for gay rights or a gay identity. On the contrary, the novel is shot through with an admiration for men who eschew that label and behave in a traditionally masculine fashion. In this sense, the book can be seen as a forerunner to modern gay culture’s fetish relation to a certain parody of “real manhood” as embodied in a thousand commercial images of strapping muscles, military buzz cuts and tough-guy stares. Put rather crudely, Jim and Bob’s riparian adventure would make a great hit in today’s gay pornography: They’re not gay, but they do it anyway.
One supposes that the tension between his family’s early political ambitions for him and his own sexual preferences created in Vidal a particularly acute awareness of the line between conduct and status. There was no question of feeling guilty about the former (“As far as I can tell, none of my family ever suffered from that sort of [sexual] guilt, a middle-class disorder from which power people seem exempt,” he writes in his memoir). The status, on the other hand, could end your career, and Vidal knew it. Whatever its source, this negative capability on his part to celebrate the unlabeled act of sexual love between men while keeping his main character somehow aloof from the status such an act connotes is part of what makes the book still such a relevant text in understanding how and why men identify with or distance themselves from the public expression of sexual liberty. Relevant because no matter how complete the victories in gay rights become, each young man or woman is still confronted with the dilemma of whether to adopt the presumptive association between act and identity and describe themselves as gay. The resistance to this presumption has already shown itself in the form of queer activism, and will no doubt change as time goes on. Whatever the legal landscape, the tension over what place a named sexual orientation has or should have in self-understanding and self-description isn’t going anywhere.
The “word Collins had shouted after him was hardly apt. It couldn’t be. It was too monstrous. Yet because it had been said, he could never see Collins again.” Following this moment of panic in Seattle, our hero leaves ship life behind and heads to Los Angeles. The next hundred pages of the novel take Jim to Hollywood, Mexico and New York and far into the gay underworld. These sections are among the strongest in the book. They combine a sort of documentary account of postwar gay life and its new, relative openness with Vidal’s nascent genius for social satire. Jim becomes the kept boy of the closeted matinee idol Ronald Shaw, an endlessly vain, self-involved fellow. In his dressing room on the studio lot, “Shaw patted a muscular thigh with obvious affection. ‘That’s what they want out there in the dark and I got it.'” Vidal’s take on America as a carnival of sex, power lust and hypocrisy, “a sanctimonious society of hustlers,” as he recently called it on American Masters, is coming into early view, though interestingly here it is tinged with an empathy for those who act in the carnival, something his public comments don’t always suggest. Narcissistic and unpleasant as he may be, Ronald Shaw is a sad figure, someone we are meant to pity.
Though he travels through these worlds, Jim Willard is not quite of them. Shaw is drawn to him precisely because he’s not like the others. He’s not effeminate but “natural and…unscheming.” In other words, he looks and acts like a straight guy. Paul Sullivan, the handsome but tortured literary writer who has temporarily sold his soul to Hollywood, is attracted to the same quality in Jim and lures him away from Shaw. At a party for Sullivan’s new novel back in New York, Vidal, already a cynic about publishing, has Jim overhear the bitchy chatter of editors. “I suppose there will be war novels. The real horror of war is the novels which are written about it.”
One marvels at the worldliness of a 21-year-old who could pen such a wicked, jaded line. Certainly Jim Willard couldn’t have. Vidal invests his hero with an innocence and naïveté that he himself no longer possesses, though he is as young. Which brings me to what I think is going on in the jarring and to this day still radical final scene in the book.
After splitting with Sullivan and continuing his life as a tennis pro, Jim finally gets back in touch with Bob Ford, married now to his high school girlfriend. They meet once down in Virginia and Jim comes away with his illusions intact, imagining that with Bob still working at sea, somehow his wife can be kept to the side and he and Bob can carry on the love that began at the cabin by the river, a love unmarked and unsullied by the names Jim has been called and the places he has travelled in the intervening years. In the novel’s final sequence, the two of them meet in New York and after a night of drinking end up back at Bob’s hotel room. Jim carefully makes sure Bob gets drunk while he remains more sober.
At last he draws the conversation around to their time at the cabin; Bob dimly remembers that they fooled around. Encouraged, Jim asks if he has done it with anyone else. “Any other guy? Hell, no. Did you?” he asks.
“No,” Jim replies, uttering what is perhaps the single saddest word in the book. Willing to cast aside everything his life has been to steal his way back into the affections of his married friend, the portrayal of Jim hovers here on the edge of a cliché: the pathetic or defeated homosexual. But the scene isn’t over. When they finally crash out on Bob’s bed, Jim reaches over and starts touching his friend as he has dreamed of doing again all these years. Bob swats him away in anger, calls him a queer and tells him to get out. The long-held illusion is shattered. At which time, Jim Willard wrestles Bob Ford to the bed and rapes him.
There may be other scenes in film or literature of a gay man raping his straight best friend, but I’ve never seen, read or heard of them. The original edition, in fact, went a step further and had Jim strangle Bob. Critics, along with Vidal’s good friend Tennessee Williams, thought the ending weak and out of keeping with the rest of the book. The suggestion was that Vidal had shown us very little if anything in Jim to suggest he is capable of such a dramatic act, and for this reason the scene’s violence isn’t earned. I disagree. While it may be true that a line here or there would have better prepared the reader for the final act, be it murder or rape, the book is first and foremost about someone living an illusion, placing their hopes in an impossible dream; when it is denied there is an explosion, a violent decomposition of the personality formed on that hope. For all his apparent ease, Jim Willard is a man under pressure, and at the end he breaks.
Like all rape, this one is more about power and humiliation than sex. I have tarried so long with my desire for you, and now you dare to rebuff me? I’ll show you who the weak one is. After the act itself, “Jim crossed to the bed and looked down at the body he had loved with such single-mindedness for so many years. Was this all? He put his hand on Bob’s sweaty shoulder. Bob shied away from him: fear? disgust? It made no difference now. Jim touched the pillow. It was wet. Tears? Good.”
It is a brief but incredibly powerful scene both dramatically and symbolically. For all the book’s other merits as a social document, I think it is this utterly unsentimental conclusion that grants it the status of a minor classic. All the pathos of Jim’s hope that he could exempt himself from the “irrelevant world” and enjoy a nameless innocence comes to dark fruition in this moment, and while the novel may be light on emotion through many of the more descriptive scenes, here you’d need to be numb not to feel it. The writing has cost the writer something, and it shows. It took guts to write this scene. It took someone as headstrong and brave as Gore Vidal to do it. And the writer’s bravery lies not just in risking the portrayal of one young man raping another, symbolically a more radical act than simple murder. It lies also in being strong enough to imagine oneself behaving with such violence against a dead friend.
In his memoir, musing on the years after Jimmie Trimble’s death, Vidal writes, “In due course, I wrote a novel in which I described what might have happened had we met again years later. The conclusion was too harsh for many readers, but that is the way American society is and I was a realistic writer until, one day, I realized that there is no common reality beyond desire, the pursuit, and, in at least one case, the achievement of the whole.”
Fair to say, then, that in The City and the Pillar‘s final scene it is not just Jim Willard trying in his frustrated rage to humiliate Bob Ford but a young writer trying to murder and dominate a ghost. Of such doomed, utterly unsought tasks great writing is made.