Gore Vidal, a longtime Nation contributing writer, was a prolific novelist, playwright and essayist, and one of the great stylists of contemporary American prose. Vidal made his debut as novelist with Williwaw at the age of 19, while still in the US Army.
Vidal grew accustomed at an early age to a life among political and social
notables. He was born at the military academy in West Point, New York,
where his father was an instructor. He was raised near Washington, DC, in the house of his grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a populist Democrat senator from Oklahoma. Vidal learned about political life from him, and when he was a teenager he adopted the first name of Gore. Vidal also spent time on the
Virginia estate of his stepfather, Hugh. D. Auchincloss. After graduating from
Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he served on an army supply ship
in the Aleutian Islands, near Alaska. Much of his time in the Enlisted Reserve
Corps he devoted to writing. Upon his discharge he worked for six months for
the publishing firm of E.P. Dutton. From 1947 to 1949 Vidal lived in Antigua,
Guatemala. Williwaw was based on his wartime experiences as first-mate on Freight Ship 35 in the Alaskan Harbour Craft Detachment. The conventional seafaring story was written in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway.
In 1948 The City and the Pillar shocked the public with its homosexual main
character and the novel also broke the mold of gay American fiction. The book was reissued in 1965 with a different ending. The Judgement of Paris (1953)
is about a young man travelling with the jet-set and wondering how to satisfy
his own part-cynical, part-romantic outlook. Several of Vidal’s following novels did not gain critical approval, and Vidal began to write plays for television, Hollywood and the stage.
In the 1960s Vidal returned to the literary scene by writing historical novels, including Julian (1964), written in the form of a journal by the eponymous Roman emperor, Washington, D.C. (1967), a political thriller spanning the years 1937-52, Burr (1974), in which its title character rises above the other Founding Fathers, 1876 (1976), Duluth (1983), and Lincoln (1984), a carefully reconstructed account of the life of the US president, who is “almost diabolically unknowable in his use of power”. Creation (1981) is the memoir of an imaginary grandson of Zoroaster who travels the world in the service of Persian kings and plays with the ideas of Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Anaxagoras and other thinkers. In Live From Golgotha (1992) Vidal portrayed events in the Bible as though they were reported on television.
Among Vidal’s finest works are two novels which deal with power and sex. Myra Breckenridge (1968) is a transsexual comedy parodying the cult of the Hollywood film star, dedicated to Christopher Isherwood. Its sequel, Myron, appeared in 1974. Myra is a feminist and her alternate self, Myron, is her mirror image and bitter antagonist.
The hero of Washington, D.C., Peter Sandford, appeared again in The
Golden Age (2000), in which the reader meets a number of real, historical
figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Joseph Alsop, Tennessee Williams and the author himself.
Gore Vidal was also active in liberal politics. In 1960 he ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress as a Democratic-Liberal candidate in New York. Between 1970 and 1972 he was co-chairman of the left-leaning People’s Party. In 1982 Vidal launched a campaign in California for the US senate. He came second out of a field of nine, polling half a million votes.
In the 1960s Vidal moved to Italy and appeared as himself in Fellini’s Roma (1972). During the Reagan years, Vidal published a collection of essays, Armageddon (1987), in which he explored his love-hate relationship with contemporary America. In 1994 Vidal co-starred with Tim Robbins in the film Bob Roberts. His collected essays, United States (1993), won a National Book Award. In Palimpsest (1995) Vidal wrote of his early life and friends, among them President Kennedy’s family.
As an essayist Vidal dealt with a wide range of subjects from literary to issues of national interest, and people he knew. Vidal’s family provided him with a wealth of material, starting from his maternal grandfather, former senator Thomas Pryor Gore and his relation to Jackie Kennedy through one of his mother’s marriages. Vidal also met and worked with prominent people, using freely these connections in his essays.