Just as Vidalís work as a
playwright and screenwriter came
about in part through financial necessity, so did his work as an essayist.
In the early 1950s, he found that he could make some extra income writing
for magazines and journals, and so he did. Soon he came to enjoy this
role, although he could not have known these little pieces - which grew
bigger as time went on - would bring him perhaps his widest fame. Many
Vidal enthusiasts now consider his essays to be more important
novels, and even those who like his novels realize that they expound upon
the themes he examines so well in his critical nonfiction. A number of
European publishers have enjoyed and published Vidalís essays, although
surprisingly, not as widely as his novels. His essays have been
periodically translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese,
Serbian and Hungarian. Heís also a popular commentator in the United
Kingdom, where all of his American essay collections have appeared, along
with a few unique British collections.
In addition to all of the nonfiction written by Vidal, numerous
scholars have written book-length works about him. The largest of
these is Fred Kaplanís 1999 authorized biography, although Vidal - who
gave Kaplan access to his diaries and letters - ultimately disavowed
Kaplanís effort, apparently concerned that the book would not represent
him as he had hoped to be represented. The first scholarly tome about
Vidal, an eponymous critical study of his work, appeared in 1968 and was
written by Ray Lewis White. Six years later came two books: Bernard F.
Dickís The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal; and
Myra & Gore: A Book for Vidalophiles, by John Mitzel with Steven
Abbott, consisting of a socio-sexual reading of Myra Breckinridge
and a lengthy interview with Vidal reprinted from the journal Fag
Rag. Robert F. Kiernan published another eponymous critical study in
1983; Jay Parini, Vidalís literary executor, compiled Gore Vidal:
Writer Against the Grain, a collection of scholarly essays, in 1992;
and Susan Baker and Curtis S. Gibson published Gore Vidal: A Critical
Companion in 1997, offering a series of original essays on Vidalís
books from various critical perspectives (deconstructive, feminist,
Marxist, new historicist, etc.). Finally, for those fluent in French,
thereís Nicole Bensoussanís Gore Vidal: líiconoclaste, a 1997
critical study, not yet translated into English, that covers everything
from Myra and the other inventions to the novels of ancient
and American history.
In general, Vidalís essays discuss four topics: literature, politics, sex
and himself. Rarely is a topic exclusive to one essay, for Vidal finds
plenty of crossovers between them. He has used this work to develop a
political ideology that he continued to explore in his novels of American
history, and many of his other novels, particularly his inventions,
clearly dramatize his assertions about human sexuality. As for his views
on literature: They have led him to write particular kinds of novels,
although literary subjects rarely come up in the novels themselves. Vidal
has long maintained that the novelist, once a respected category of artist
in American society, has lost his prestige to the moving picture - a
medium in which Vidal himself has joyfully dabbled for decades.
In addition to all of the nonfiction written by Vidal, numerous scholars have written book-length works about him. The largest of these is Fred Kaplanís 1999 authorized biography, although Vidal - who gave Kaplan access to his diaries and letters - ultimately disavowed Kaplanís effort, apparently concerned that the book would not represent him as he had hoped to be represented. The first scholarly tome about Vidal, an eponymous critical study of his work, appeared in 1968 and was written by Ray Lewis White. Six years later came two books: Bernard F. Dickís The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal; and Myra & Gore: A Book for Vidalophiles, by John Mitzel with Steven Abbott, consisting of a socio-sexual reading of Myra Breckinridge and a lengthy interview with Vidal reprinted from the journal Fag Rag. Robert F. Kiernan published another eponymous critical study in 1983; Jay Parini, Vidalís literary executor, compiled Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, a collection of scholarly essays, in 1992; and Susan Baker and Curtis S. Gibson published Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion in 1997, offering a series of original essays on Vidalís books from various critical perspectives (deconstructive, feminist, Marxist, new historicist, etc.). Finally, for those fluent in French, thereís Nicole Bensoussanís Gore Vidal: líiconoclaste, a 1997 critical study, not yet translated into English, that covers everything from Myra and the other inventions to the novels of ancient and American history.
In general, Vidalís essays discuss four topics: literature, politics, sex and himself. Rarely is a topic exclusive to one essay, for Vidal finds plenty of crossovers between them. He has used this work to develop a political ideology that he continued to explore in his novels of American history, and many of his other novels, particularly his inventions, clearly dramatize his assertions about human sexuality. As for his views on literature: They have led him to write particular kinds of novels, although literary subjects rarely come up in the novels themselves. Vidal has long maintained that the novelist, once a respected category of artist in American society, has lost his prestige to the moving picture - a medium in which Vidal himself has joyfully dabbled for decades.
One of the more significant essays in Rocking the Boat is "A Note on the Novel," originally published in 1956 in the New York Times Book Review. In the essay, Vidal begins to expound upon a theme that he would return to often: Despite the presence of good novelists, the novel is dead or dying, he argues, because readers no longer give the form the kind of cultural weight they once did. Finally, Rocking the Boat contains the essay "Ladders to Heaven: Novelists and Critics of the 1940s," which Vidal first published in New World Writing #3, a multi-authored 1953 paperback anthology of essays and short stories. Whatís significant here is that Vidal originally published the essay under the pseudonym "Libra" because he also had a short story ("The Ladies in the Library") under his own name in the book, and because he was one of the founders of the anthology series and didnít want to appear to be too prolific in its pages. So the essayís re-publication here unmasks yet another Vidalian pseudonym.
The Last Empire contains 48 pieces on literature and politics, most of which were first collected in the 1997 U.K. volume Virgin Islands. Kenneth Starr, Frank Sinatra, John Updike, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Mark Twain: They all get the Vidalian treatment. Vidal published this book in the wake of the bizarre presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and to make his book as timely as possible, he added this foreword to one of the essays: "I am writing this note a dozen days before the Inauguration of the loser of the year 2000 presidential election. Lost republic as well as last empire. We are now faced with a Japanese seventeenth-century-style arrangement: a powerless Mikado ruled by a shogun vice president and his Pentagon warrior counselors. Do they dream, as did the shoguns of yore, of the conquest of China? We shall know more soon, I should think, than late. Sayonara. Gore Vidal - 11 January 2001."
In his five-page introduction to Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Vidal discusses the history of his unpublished Vanity Fair piece and quotes from a piece by Arno J. Mayer that The Nation declined to publish. The Mayer essay speaks of the United States' history of "preemptive state terror" in the Third World since World War II. Next comes the essay "September 11, 2001 (A Tuesday)," the piece originally written for Vanity Fair. Here Vidal discusses at length the implications of what happened to the World Trade Center on the 21st Century's first day of infamy. The essay ends with a 20-page chart detailing American military operations around the world from 1949 to the present.
Vidal calls the second section of the book "How I Became Interested in Timothy McVeigh and Vice Versa." This begins with a brief introduction about his relationship with McVeigh and then presents two essays: "The Shredding of the Bill of Rights," which appeared in the November 1998 issue of Vanity Fair under the title "The War at Home"; and "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," which appeared in the September 2001 issue of the magazine.
The book's third section, "Fallout," contains a very brief introduction to a copy of Vidal's Aug. 27, 2001, letter to FBI director-designate Robert S. Mueller III. The letter chides Mueller with evidence that Timothy McVeigh did not act alone in bombing the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. "Now that McVeigh has already been injected into a better world," he writes in the letter, "I am sure that the bureau's choice of explanation to my inquiry will be a difficult one." He goes on to ask whether the FBI merely conducted an incompetent investigation, or whether the bureau knowingly withheld evidence. He then presents a 10-point Bill of Rights written by McVeigh on May 28, 2001.
The last two sections of the book present two more of Vidal's previously published essays: "The New Theocrats," reprinted from a 1997 issue of The Nation, in which he discusses a moralizing conservatism that breeds an "old-fashioned American stupidity where a religion-besotted majority is cynically egged on by a ruling establishment"; and "A Letter To Be Delivered" - reprinted from Vanity Fair, and written on Nov. 7, 2000 - in which he writes an open letter to the soon-to-be-elected president. To this final piece he adds a preface and a footnote - written "a dozen days before the inauguration of the loser of the 2000 presidential election" - that sees the Bush-Cheney presidency as one of "a powerless Mikado ruled by a shogun vice president and his Pentagon counselors."
Much of the material in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace appears in The Last Empire, Vidal's 2001 essay collection. So there's really very little new Vidalian content in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace or its Italian counterpart tthat you couldn't already get at a library, although the publication of the essay about Sept. 11, and the material relating to it, is clearly very significant.
For Dreaming War, Vidal retitles the Observer essay "Goat Song: Unanswered Questions - Before, During, and After 9/11" and follows it with another original piece: a short essay-cum-diatribe on Louis Menand and his October 2002 piece in The New Yorker in which Menand dissected and criticized Vidal's and Noam Chomsky's books on the Sept. 11 attacks. Naturally, Vidal sets Menand straight and charges that Menand misrepresented and misunderstood his position. The rest of Dreaming War reprints seven political essays from The Last Empire and three essays published in journals since The Last Empire appeared in 2001. It closes with a 15-page interview with Vidal conducted by Marc Cooper.
In a brief "Note" at the start of Dreaming War, Vidal declares himself to be trading in a literary form that's new to him: the pamphlet, which he calls "the oldest form of American political discourse." Thus he dedicates the book to Publius - the pseudonym under which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay published the numerous Federalist papers - and even includes Perpetual War for Peace in the genre.
Still, Vidal admires many things about many of these men. Washington: honest, altruistic, majestic, a mediocre general who led by force of character. Adams: misanthropic, anti-aristocratic, well-meaning, and a bad judge of human nature. Jefferson: a dreamy existentialist who wanted a convention once a generation to re-examine and revise the federal constitution. And of course, the immutably wise old Franklin, whom Vidal sees as having been rendered by history from an "eerily prescient voice" into "the jolly fat ventriloquist of common lore, with his simple maxims for simple folk." He especially praises Franklin for predicting that "the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any others."
Vidal's narrative in Inventing a Nation seems to meander at time but all in all flows quite smoothly, moving backward and forward within his 18th Century time frame whenever he needs to make connections. Sometimes he even moves very forward, drawing parallels between his central historical events and the emerging history of the 21st Century. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pop up, as does Britain's New Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, whose victory Vidal sees as a reminder of the pre-destiny - or at least, the consistency - of national character, for better or for worse. Money and power are the villains of the piece, although Vidal never goes so far as to suggest that the People would do any better.
Imperial America begins with "State of the Union: 2004," a followup to his other "State of the Union" essays throughout the years. But in the essay, Vidal says virtually nothing about the state of America today: Mostly, it's a reminiscence about past state of the union addresses, which he gave on speaking tours and on David Susskind's PBS talk show. After that comes a longer, more substantial piece of new writing, "The Privatization of the American Election," in which Vidal examines the record so far of the Bush administration, including massive cuts in veterans' benefits at the same time Bush portrays himself as being pro-military. Referring to the "ever-reckless Bush-Cheney junta," Vidal says, "Not since the 1846 attack on Mexico in order to seize California has an American government been so predatory. . .He is like a man in one of those dreams who knows he is safe in bed and so can commit any crime he likes in his voluptuous alternative world."
After this piece comes a number of earlier essays, including his much more substantial "State of the Union: 1980." The essay "Note on Our Patriarchal State," which appeared in The Nation in 1990, has a new postscript on the Pledge of Allegiance controversy currently before the Supreme Court. The book ends with another new piece of writing, "Interim Report: Election 2004," in which Vidal argues that "a feckless Bush has not only given new meaning to the equally feckless Democratic party but he has, despite the best - that is, worst - efforts of the media, given new meaning to our corrupt political system as the United States is now starting to divide, consciously, between imperialists, eager for us to seize all of the world's oil resources, and the anti-imperialists who favor peace along with renewable sources of energy." The essay, and the book, ends with a nod to Dennis Kucinich, "the most eloquent of the presidential candidates this year," whom Vidal sees as "the natural leader of an as-yet-unborn progressive alliance." Time will tell if this prognostication comes true.
The book's most moving passages revolve around the illness, decline and 2003 death of Howard Austen, who lived with Vidal for 53. His stories of Howard are largely unsentimental, and yet, they turn the lion into the lamb. At the end of Palimpsest, in which he often spoke of Jimmie Trimble, his boyhood lover, Vidal declared the book to be a love story. This is no less true of Point to Point Navigation, although because this love is older, longer and of a different nature (they shared everything but sex), it's understandably much more private. Agape usually is.
As for the rest of his anecdotes, they're probably best taken with a large grain of salt water. At least twice in the book, Vidal is embarrassingly wrong about things. He has long hated The New York Times, and rightfully so, after the daily Times refused to review his novels that followed the publication of The City and the Pillar in 1948. But ire is no reason to err. In the new memoir, Vidal recounts two details of a 1960 New York Times "hatchet job" about his run for Congress that are not, in fact, a part of the article as he claims. Whether Vidal came off looking good or bad in the article is a matter of opinion, although he deftly answers every charge of his opponent. But the reporter did not say Vidal chain smoked, as Vidal writes in his memoir, nor did the reporter get Vidal's eye color wrong.
More disturbing is a lovely passage in which Vidal describes watching Neil Armstrong's July 20, 1969, moon walk with his dying father, Gene Vidal, who was a pioneer in the aviation industry. Trouble is, Gene Vidal died on Feb. 20, 1969 - exactly five months before the historic event took place. There is no indication whatsoever that Vidal intended this passage in his book to be taken as dream or metaphor. It's odd that his fact checkers at Doubleday didn't catch the error, but it's odder still that Vidal thinks it actually happened. He writes:
Father and son equally gasped as a hollow voice told us that this was a small step for man but a giant step for mankind . . . Gene was amused: "I can just see the wars over who gets the mineral rights to the moon." But he was delighted to be still alive at the moment. . . . "I always knew we were headed for the moon and beyond but I never thought that I would live to see it." He did by some months.
How, then, are we to take the rest of the tales in his book, even if Vidal does remind us that memory is imperfect. Decide for yourself.
Point to Point Navigation is imbued with talk and thoughts of death, with Vidal often joking about answering his own Grim Reaper's knock at the door. He ends his life story - and, perhaps, his life as a writer - with a six-line passage from Pope's Dunciad that concludes: Light dies before thy uncreating word;/Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall,/And universal Darkness buries all. This sounds ominously like a poem that the 16-year-old Vidal published in his high school literary journal. "We are lost to hope and God," the proto-atheist wrote. "For the night is black, no light but night, no God." Full circle.
Parini calls Vidal "American's premier man of letters" with "a unique voice whose luminous, excoriating, funny, and informative essays may well be regarded by future generations as the pinnacle of his achievement." He also notes that "Vidal is conservative in many respects, asking only for liberty in the eighteenth-century sense of that term. He stands behind individual choices, the limitations of executieve power, and the preservation of the environment. Always the iconoclast," Parini says, "Vidal has a particular distaste for piety in its American manifestations."
Each book leads with the oldest essay, "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s," which first appeared in 1953 in New World Writing #4, a literary anthology of the time. Each ends with the most recent one, "State of the Union: 2004," which appeared in The Nation. A little more than half of the book's essays are about literature (Updike, Dawn Powell, Calvino, Williams), and the rest are about politics, history and culture (Teddy Roosevelt, gay rights, national security, Sept. 11, pornography). Unique to the American edition is "The Holy Family," Vidal's excellent 1967 essay about the Kennedys; a refletion on Edmund Wilson; and "Tarzan Revisited," his 1963 treatise on the jungle man and related issues.
Here's a sample of what Vidal had to say about money in politics during the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush:
"There isn't one person in America who has ever thought about politics who doesn't know that every single member of Congress is paid for by corporate America, and it isn't to represent the people of their state, it is to represent corporate America's interests, which are not those of the people at large. So, they've given up on the idea of having representatives in Congress. They see two candidates this year [Gore and Bush] who, whatever their plusses or minuses, represent nothing at all that has to do with the people. These are people who go to fundraisers, who create fundraisers. Bush became the Republican candidate because he has the same name as a failed president, and he got $70 million on the strength of that from corporate America. Gore is running neck and neck with him."
Edited by Richard Lingeman Vidal wrote many essays for many publications from the 1950s until a few years before his death. But nowhere was he at his most fiery and liberal than in The Nation, a journal that would often publish essays no other magazine would touch.
All of the writing in this assemblage - which is available only in a Kindle edition - appear in other books of his collected essays. But they're still some of his most assertive and trenchant work. "Some Jews and the Gays" caused a stir, and such essays as "Requiem for the American Empire" and "Monotheism and Its Discontents" show the many tentacles of his intellect. Nation Books, a publishing arm of the magazine, also published two of Vidal's post-Sept. 11 books, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War. The former began as an essay written for Vanity Fair that the magazine subsequently rejected.
Edited by Tom Graves
Introduction by Robert Gordon In 1968, before the copious (perpetual?) punditry spawned by 24-hour news channels with time to fill and nothing to fill it with, a live political debate on television was something rare. So when ABC News hired Gore Vidal and his conservative counterpart, William F. Buckley Jr., to conduct a series of political debates during the presidential conventions, it became must-see TV.
The debates began in Miami, during the Republican convention, and then continued a week later in Chicago, at the Democratic bacchanal. There were eight in all, and as the political tensions grew in a divided nation, the exchanges between the two long-time ideological rivals became more acrimonious.
This book, edited by Tom Graves, and with an introduction by Robert Gordon, has transcribed the debates to let you read what the two men said to each other, with ABC newsman Howard K. Smith moderating. Gordon and Morgan Neville co-wrote and co-directed Best of Enemies (2015), a documentary that mines the tapes of the debates and tells their story with clips and narration.
For all of the substance that came forth during the two men's exchanges, surely nothing was more memorable than the moment when Vidal called Buckley a Nazi and Buckley countered by calling Vidal a "queer." It happened on Aug. 27, 1968. (Listen to the full 22-minute debate.) Looking back now, most historians conclude that Vidal got the upper hand, and Buckley seemed to know it. But in the moment of that exchange, watch Vidal's face: He manages an uncomfortable smile, clearly shocked at having been outed on national television.
The exchange went like this:
VIDAL: There are many people in the United States [who] happen to believe that the United States' policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago that is too bad. I assume that the point of American democracy is you can express any point of view you want.With all due respect to Carville and Matalin, we don't get TV debates like that any more.
VIDAL: Shut up a minute.
BUCKLEY: No, I won't. Some people are pro-Nazi and the answer is that they were well-treated by people who ostracized them and I am for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American marines and American soldiers. I know you don't care.
VIDAL: As far as I am concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself, failing that, I would only say that we can't have.
HOWARD K. SMITH: Let's stop calling names.
BUCKLEY: Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered.
Edited by Andrew Delaplaine "There is no human problem that could not be solved," Gore Vidal once said, "if people would simply do as I advise." And that was one of his more modest declarations.
In this slim but entertaining volume, Andrew Delaplaine has brought together a cornucopia of Vidalian observations, declarations and proclamations on politics, history, culture, sex and himself. The book begins with what might be its epigram: "Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn." Vidal spent more than half a century demonstrating what he meant.
A few more samples:
- "When I arrived for the filming of Ben-Hur, all the sets had been built, including Charlton Heston."
- "American society, literary or lay, tends to be humorless. What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke"?
- "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."
- "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."
And finally, in case you think he only said what he said to give people a smile and something to think about: "I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."
Edited by Carole Mallory This promises to be one of the more unusual compilations of Vidal's writing - if it ever materializes. Originally announced for 2014, it's now been put back until the end of 2016. (Must be the lawyers.) It's a collection of writings by the two authors that revolve around their decades-long feud. Mallory was Norman Mailer's mistress for about a decade beginning in the early 1980s, and in 2010, three years after his death, she released a memoir called Loving Mailer.
Melville House, the book's publisher, describes it like this: "The feud, from a time when writers really mattered in American public life, is the stuff of literary legend, and Vidal vs. Mailer collects the exchanges, transcripts and interviews that document the historic rivalry. Their 1971 confrontation on the Dick Cavett show is probably the most famous literary encounter ever captured by television. The on-air badinage between the two was shockingly nasty, but some reports say it was even worse backstage, where Mailer reportedly headbutted Vidal in Cavett's greenroom. At the climax of the feud in the late 1970s, Mailer encountered Vidal at a party thrown by Lally Weymouth and promptly flattened him with a punch. At which point Vidal, still on the floor, uttered what is perhaps the most immortally apt literary criticism ever: 'Once again, words have failed Norman Mailer.'"
By 1991, the feud had ended, and the two men got together for a joint interview published in Esquire. Mallory's book revisits this fiery passage in American literary history.
The Early Fiction:
The Pseudonyms: 1950-1954
The Later Fiction: 1962-2006
Works for the Theater: 1956-1972
Essays, Interviews and Memoirs: 1963-Present
Writing About Gore Vidal: 1951-Present
If you came right to this thumbnail page and don't see a frame on the left, please visit The Gore Vidal Index now or after you've enjoyed the thumbnails, which you can access from the main index page. And please send me comments if you have a thought, a suggestion or a link to add to the index.
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University of Pittsburgh