Gore Vidal, 1925-2012
If one had to sum up Gore Vidal in one word, that word would be iconoclast. According to the dictionary one of the definitions for the word ‘iconoclast’ is “a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition.” In that since of the word, Vidal has definitely attacked cherished beliefs and traditional institutions, from his third novel in 1949 to his most recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher on Hbo.
Gore Vidal’s Early Years
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born October 3, 1925, into a privileged family. Vidal spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., where he spent a lot of time reading to his blind grandfather, senator from Oklahoma, Thomas Gore. While still a teenager he started calling himself Gore Vidal, taking his mother’s maiden name as his first name in honor of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Gore. During World War II he served on an army supply ship in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
A nineteen year old Vidal wrote his first novel, Williwaw, while recuperating from hypothermia in military hospitals. Williwaw: A Novel was published the following year, making it the first of the war novels to come from young American veterans during the post-war era. Gore’s novel would be followed by Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which hit the New York Time’s bestseller list in 1948. James Jones published From Here to Eternity in 1951.
In 1948, Gore Vidal published his third novel, The City and the Pillar—the story of a young gay man who travels from port to port in search of a serious romantic relationship. The book sold well and was reprinted several times in paperback. Some critics praised it as good literature, but many more condemned it for its shocking subject matter. Vidal himself said “shock was the most pleasant emotion aroused in the press.” The New York Times refused to advertise the novel. Vidal, still a young writer, found himself blacklisted; no major magazine or newspaper would review his novels for six years.
It was not just the subject matter of The City and the Pillar that made it controversial, but Vidal’s audacity to make the homosexual protagonist a normal, masculine man who does not die at the end, as had been the convention in previous gay novels.
His Novels and Plays
For several decades from the sixties to the present, Vidal gained a reputation as a successful and respected novelist, playwright, screenwriter, actor and celebrity. Most notable among his myriad of literary works is the play The Best Man, exposing the backstage intrigues at a presidential nominating convention. The play premiered on Broadway in 1960. Vidal wrote the screenplay for the 1964 movie with the same name, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, and starring Henry Fonda.
Among the many critics who consider Gore Vidal a good or even great novelist, many more consider him to be an even greater essayist. Martin Amis, an often snarky British critic, acknowledges that, “Essays are what he is good at… [h]e is learned, funny and exceptionally clear-sighted. Even his blind spots are illuminating.” In 1993, Vidal won the National Book Award for his collection of essays, United States (1952-1992), the citation noting: “Whatever his subject, he addresses it with an artist’s resonant appreciation, a scholar’s conscience, and the persuasive powers of a great essayist.”
Social Critic and Celebrity
One of my fondest memories of Gore Vidal is the infamous altercation between him and Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970. You can see an excerpt on YouTube, what I remember now so many years later, is that that show was so much fun and that it endeared both Mailer and Vidal to me ever since.
In his elder years, Gore Vidal has become more elegant, witty and fearless as a social commentator. You can find him on C-span, Charlie Rose, and Real Time with Bill Maher whenever he has a book or essay to publicize; he is not shy about speaking his mind.
The The Best Man crackles with the smart lines and situations inherent to the work of Gore Vidal. The political intrigues rampant in Vidal’s 1960 setting are strangly similar to the political intrigues of the present day. This darkly satirical drama finds two presidential contenders seeking the endorsement of an aging ex-president and explores how personal agendas can change the course of a nations destiny.
Frequently linked with famous Democrats such as President John Kennedy, Senator Thomas Gore, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Vidal wrote in the 1970s:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party…and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt-until recently… and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
Written like a true iconoclast.