Gore Vidal liked to style himself a populist but despite his political leanings this hardly fit the man at all. Populists in America come in many shapes and sizes, from William Jennings Bryan to Frank Capra, from Thomas Hart Benton to Sarah Palin. Vidal didn’t resemble these would-be common folk prone to idealize the salt of the earth. He was a patrician radical, a type more common in Europe than here, since we have never had a formal aristocracy. His prototype was Henry Adams, the grandson and great grandson of presidents, who felt that he had been born to public service but found that the corrupt, rough-hewn America of the Gilded Age had no use for his talents. Becoming a writer instead, he turned his disappointment into cutting irony and wit, surveying the details of American history—and his own life—from an eagle’s perch. After his death in 1918 his autobiography, written largely for private consumption, became a surprise bestseller, evoking a vanished era.
Like Adams, Vidal lived in swiftly changing times, which produced a far more leveling culture. A growing ethnic diversity eroded old traditions of Wasp privilege and authority. The traditional elite was giving way to more meritocratic elites but also to a messy democracy and a boisterous popular culture, including movies, pop music, and television. When Vidal started out as a writer in the mid-1940s, the great field of a young man’s ambitions was the novel, then the crown jewel of the arts. After publishing a Hemingway-style war novel when he was barely twenty, he attracted unusual attention in 1948 with his third novel, The City and the Pillar. The book was a bold step forward in its touching, explicit treatment of homosexuality but an otherwise conventional coming-of-age story. The dazzlingly good-looking young author became an instant star, and over the next five or six years, though he remained extremely productive, his fiction went nowhere. Later he would insist that he was blacklisted for writing sympathetically about the gay demimonde and about love between men but at the time he felt that the culture itself had changed: the novel itself was no longer the royal road to success.
Unlike most patricians Vidal was a consummate professional who also had to support himself from an early age. Seeing that movies and TV were supplanting fiction in the shifting galaxy of popular culture, he patiently taught himself to write dialogue, crafting effective small-scale dramas for stage and screen. Even more momentously, he began investing himself in reviews and essays that gradually evolved a distinctive voice and, even more important, a recognizable character behind them. It’s fascinating to see them develop from a flat, impersonal objectivity toward an engaging conversational voice, not exactly intimate but coolly inviting. Other novelists were testing their wings in essay writing, dipping into their own experience in direct ways, including Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Mary McCarthy, but Vidal, like Mailer began doing more. He had noticed that the public, though no longer so captivated by novels, had grown more preoccupied with authors, less as writers than as recognizable, sometimes notorious public personalities. Vidal instinctively understood how the nascent celebrity culture could envelope or sideline the literary culture, and he exploited this opening. Mark Twain, with his iconic head, white linen suits, and irresistible platform manner, had been there before him. So had Hemingway, whose self-cultivated myth had begun to overwhelm his literary conscience.
Vidal created a character quite different from Twain or Hemingway. He took on the role of a sardonic observer, the witty, acerbic outlier commenting on the foibles of the literary scene, the follies of popular taste, and, as time passed, the depredations of the plutocracy and the political class. Where Mailer, partly inspired by the Beats, but also by his own literary frustrations, dabbled in transgression and presented himself as an outlaw, Vidal came out like Adams as the remnant of an older America, its conscience and historian. He ran for public office, quickly making his failed effort a part of his gathering myth, and he began writing political novels, the first of them, Washington, D.C., plainly modeled on Adams’s satiric novel Democracy. Soon he was locking horns with William Buckley at the 1968 Democratic convention.
As a nonfiction writer, turning the crisis of the novel to his own advantage, Vidal never approached the fictional density of Mailer’s finest work, from The Armies of the Night to The Executioner’s Song, but he bested him in a medium Mailer failed to master and came to loathe, television. Vidal’s coruscating wit, epigrammatic clarity, good looks, and feline hauteur proved perfectly camera-ready, whether he was chatting with the plebeian Johnny Carson or basking in the fan’s gaze of an adoring Yalie, Dick Cavett, and crossing swords with his other guests. No matter what the subject, he came up with a sound bite that could curdle milk. He could be unbearably glib, but his patrician persona and acid tongue, his radiating sense of superiority, made for good showbiz. Despite becoming a public character he survived as a writer as well, chronicling the fate of his own generation and the changing cultural scene in essay after essay, even as he chronicled the earlier history of the nation in his novels. Mailer showed a quirky brilliance in his fiercely competitive takes on his fellow writers, but no one wrote better than Vidal on his friends and contemporaries, among them Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and John Horne Burns. A legion of Forties writers lives on vividly in his evocative essays.
He could be unbearably glib, but his patrician persona and acid tongue, his radiating sense of superiority, made for good showbiz.
His political novels, his novels in general, proved less memorable. Their greatest virtue is their uncluttered directness, their fluid mastery of well-researched detail. They sparkled with the effortless clarity of his conversation. Like Robert Graves before him, Vidal cleared out the fusty antiquarian machinery of historical fiction, playing off real and invented characters, and providing a feeling of lived reality to the American past. With Burr he had the kind of scoundrel he could identify with, a troublemaker demonized by history for killing one of the founding fathers. But only in Burr’s duel with Hamilton, when one of them is momentarily blinded by the sun, did one get an inkling of some higher imaginative ambition, a place where the novel chose not to go. The book’s perfectly workmanlike sequel, 1876, offered no such exalted moment at all. Vidal had successfully returned to fiction, taking possession of a large slice of American history, but he had chosen the popular route where no real innovation was possible.
In his last decade, beset by old age and illness, the loss of his longtime partner, Howard Austen, Vidal in a way became the despised Burr, finally a marginal figure. He once said that his goal was to seize the spotlight and hold on to it forever, but now the spotlight turned away from him or else shed an unpleasant light on his bitter mix of conspiracy theories after 9/11. He had always loathed the “American Empire” and its neoconservative apologists, especially Jews. Once Bush and Cheney added real substance to the term, Vidal’s cold fury gave cynicism a bad name. His political criticism, once so poised and witty, slid into a sour misanthropy that reminded me of the elder Mark Twain, who was justifiably incensed by our earlier imperial adventures. But no writer should be judged by the diminished work of his last phase. Vidal in his prime was never less than fun to read. As an indelible character and a fine essayist, he added something of his own to the drama of American life that he portrayed with such zest and élan.