November 05, 2005
GORE VIDAL'S AMERICA
The following is an expanded version of my review of Dennis Altman's just-published book, Gore Vidal's America, which appears in the latest issue of In These Times, of which I am a contributing editor.
Just in time to help us celebrate Gore Vidal’s 80th birthday -- he turned 80 on October 3 -- comes Dennis Altman’s Gore Vidal's America.
This is not a biography. Fred Kaplan’s admirable Gore Vidal: A Life, published by Random House in 1999 (and now available in paperback), definitively fills that niche. But the great value of Altman’s book-length essay is that it gives us an understanding of the central project of America’s most visible radical public intellectual in a writing career that has spanned six decades: to help us imagine a different United States and develop alternatives to the dominant understandings of American society.
“Vidal’s constant pre-occupation,” Altman writes, “has been to excavate the past, to explain the present, and forewarn us of the perils of the future, and to do so by reaching the largest possible audience.” A brilliant novelist, political essayist, literary critic, historian, scenarist, television pundit, actor, raconteur extraordinaire, political activist and candidate (right, a button from his 1960 Congressional campaign) , a talented lecturer and platform performer, polemicist, and pamphleteer in the Tom Paine tradition, Vidal‘s “quite calculated creation of himself as a celebrity has given him a significant audience for half a century.” Vidal’s celebrity has helped him explain to a large public the insidious effects of America’s domination by a ruling class of power elites bent on imperial expansion, and how this has led to “the destruction of any meaningful choice or genuine information in an electoral process which is increasingly irrelevant to most Americans.”
It may surprise some readers to learn that one of America’s most erudite and cosmopolitan writers is largely an autodidact who never went to university, eschewing Harvard to pursue the writing career on which he had decided as a schoolboy. The grandson of a United States Senator, Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, and the son of a high-ranking government aviation bureaucrat, he attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy (Vidal at Exeter, right) and a character fashioned after him appears in John Knowles’ Exeter-based novel A Seperate Peace.) Enlisting as a teenager toward the close of World War II, the precocious Gore drew on his military service to write his first novel when he was only 19 (at left, Gore in 1948, photo by Carl Van Vechten): the finely-chiseled Williwaw -- a tale whose cynicism about war was compared to that of Stephen Crane (whom Vidal admired), and which brought Vidal recognition in a Life magazine cover story on literary newcomers that also featured Truman Capote (his later rival in a feud that lasted decades). (Left, Gore with Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, 1948)
After a brief stint as an editor at Dutton (where he championed the young James Baldwin and unsuccessfully sought to publish an early version of Go Tell It On the Mountain.) Vidal turned fulltime to writing. With his third novel in 1948, The City and the Pillar, Gore achieved a notoriety that would never leave him. It was an extraordinarily courageous and daring book for a young writer at the beginning of his career, because it broke new ground as the first major post-war literary work of quality to deal with homosexuality -- which was presented as a normal variant of human existence -- and also popularized the particular, same-gender meaning of “gay,” long a code-word used by the underground homosexual subculture. Excoriated by the critics, including The New York Times, in the most violent homophobic terms (the Times even refused ads for the book), it severely damaged Vidal’s reputation -- the oh-so-prejudiced lit-crit biz viciously pigeon-holed him as a “fag” writer of “pornography“ (although there is little description of physical coupling in any of Vidal‘s fictions) -- and savaged or ignored altogether Gore’s output for years. The City and the Pillar nonetheless had an unusual impact and a long life, selling more than a million copies in paperback and, as Altman correctly notes, for decades afterward helping a great number of “same-sexers” (a preferred Vidalian vocable) to accept their homosexuality and come out (the author of this review among them.)
Politics has always been central, in one way or another, to Vidal’s fiction. He first seriously dealt with U.S. imperialism in the 1950 novel Dark Green, Bright Red, about American interference in Central America (a book I like more than Altman does). Set in Guatemala, where Vidal lived for a time, the novel prefigured the coup the CIA organized at the behest of United Fruit, four years later, against the radical left-wing government of President Jacobo Arbenz (above right) (the company’s colors were green and red).
By the time he was 30, the prolific Vidal had produced eight novels under his own name and -- to supplement his income when they didn’t sell -- another five under pseudonyms, which he dashed off in a few weeks. The latter included the entertaining detective novels Gore signed as “Edgar Box”; but, unusually for genre fiction, even these were both political and presented homosexuality as normal -- like the delightful 1952 Death in the Fifth Position, which satirizes McCarthyism, and one of whose main characters is a sweatily masculine ballet dancer who chases everything in pants. (Above left, Gore with former ballet dancer and Broadway musical comedy star Harold Lang, with whom he had a torrid affair, in 1947.)
There followed the years of writing over 50 scripts (often quite political) for live television dramas in the 1950s, the screenwriting for Hollywood, his first-best-selling novel, Julian (a witty meditation on religion and power set in ancient Rome -- Gore always proudly proclaimed himself an atheist), the success of plays like Visit to a Small Planet and The Best Man (the latter also a film, and one of the best movies ever about politics), and his captivating appearances as a witty raconteur on the late-night TV chat shows that further implanted his celebrity. (Gore in the late 1950s, above right)
Radicalized by the Vietnam war and the social movements of the 1960s -- Vidal had a keen interest in the New Left -- and by his profound disillusionment with the John F. Kennedy administration -- codified in his famous 1967 Esquire essay, “The Holy Family” (left, Gore between JFK and Gore's step-cousin Jackie). Vidal was a founding essayist for The New York Review of Books, where many of his best political essays have appeared -- like the ones collected in such essential books as Homage to Daniel Shays, Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship, and The Second American Revolution, among others. [Vidal also has been arguably our most formidable and perceptive literary critic, bringing to American readers' attention for the first time such enormous talents as Italo Calvino (right) -- for Gore's moving essay in the NYRB on "Calvino's Death," click here. ]
Then came Gore’s best known fictions. The 1968 Myra Breckinridge was in the forefront of the “cultural assault on assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the world” in the late ‘60s and 70s, as Altman puts it. The chapter on Vidal and Sex is the best in Altman’s book, and charts the consistency of Gore’s critique of American puritanism, the radicality of his approach to sexuality, and the way in which Myra (and its sequel, Myron) “said more to subvert the dominant rules on sex and gender than is contained in a shelf of queer theory treatises.” [Gore's Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, is available in peperback.] (Above right, Raquel Welch as Myra in the film version -- Above Left, Gore on the cover of Christopher Street magazine)
In his chapters on Politics and on History, Altman walks us through Vidal’s radical critiques of power and government in his American Chronicles series of novels that included such magnificent best-sellers as the meticulously-researched Lincoln and Burr -- which, as the critic Harold Bloom has written, tell us more about what really happened in American history than do many orthodox historians. (Left, Gore in 19th century garb on the cover of TIME. To read Gore's essay for Vanity Fair, "Was Lincoln Bi-Sexual?" click here.) Vidal has often taken his critiques to the little screen (right, Gore debating William F. Buckley on TV) , delivering regular “State of the Union” dissections for the late David Susskind’s TV show in the ‘70s, and most recently writing and hosting the TV series “The American Presidents (originally produced by Britain’s Channel 4, the series was purchased here by The History Channel -- for which it was way too radical, and so given only one late-night airing, then permanently shelved. A pity, for it should be required viewing in civics and history classes instead of the bowdlerized pablum they normally serve up.)
Altman performs a signal service by refuting in detail the absurd accusations of anti- Semitism against Vidal, whose life-partner, the late Howard Austen -- with whom he lived for 55 years -- was Jewish. Gore also wrote the seminal essay, “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” on the shared concentration camp experience of Jews and gays. Altman demonstrates how these nasty accusations by neo-cons like Norman Podhoretz actually put words in Vidal’s mouth that Vidal never said or wrote, and stem from Gore’s tart critiques of Israel’s apartheid government and its defenders here at home.
This is not, however, an uncritical appreciation of Vidal. Altman’s first book -- the 1971 Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, which owed much to Herbert Marcuse and became the most influential of the early gay liberation texts here -- was written when Altman was quite left-wing. Unfortunately, as Gore has become more radical, Altman (left) has become less so: he finds Vidal’s attacks on American imperialism “overstated” (I do not), and, as a sociologist, skewers Vidal for not having a “sociological imagination” (a rather silly objection) and for failing to write more about the working classes (which, it seems to me, is rather like taxing Proust for not being Emile Zola -- it is the dissection of the ruling elites he knows so well that has been Vidal’s primary goal). With somewhat more justice, Altman notes Vidal’s “failure to grasp the full magnitude of the scars left by race on the United States” (true in the sense that this is not a topic frequently addressed in Vidal's writings.)
But this is still a useful book, because it gives us the sweep scope of the career of an extraordinarily courageous writer who refused to deny his sexuality while also refusing to let it, alone, define him, and who has been a great radical teacher of a mass audience. Happy Birthday, Gore -- Cent'anni!
P.S. An excellent introduction fo the work of this great writer is The Essential Gore Vidal, edted by his biographer, Fred Kaplan, and which contains many important essays and excerpts from his fiction.
THE GORE VIDAL INDEX: I heartily recommend to you the very best of the numerous websites devoted to Gore Vidal -- The Gore Vidal Index, lovingly assembled and kept up to date by the University of Pittsburgh's Harry Kloman. This first-rate, multi-media website has an extensive collection of written and audio-visual work by and about Gore -- including dozens of long and short film and video clips on-line that show Vidal being interviewed, making speeches, or sparring on television with his adversaries, excerpts from Vidal's own writings, a smart and sensitive opening biographical introduction by Kloman, and much more.....this site is a treasure trove, both for those who admire and esteem Gore Vidal, and for those deprived souls who are unfamiliar with him and his work. No wonder this site has already attracted a half-million visitors. To visit the Gore Vidal Index, click here.
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Tracked on Mar 25, 2006 4:18:00 AM
Interesting, I will try reading stuffs about this guy!
Posted by: Spell Check Website | Jan 6, 2010 10:42:23 PM
Interesting, I will try reading stuffs about this guy!
Posted by: Spell Check Website | Jan 6, 2010 10:42:10 PM
My teacher once told me that Gore VIidal is one of those examples who uses brain and tongue quite perfectly! I have not brought the book yet, and but perhaps I will include that in my list!
Posted by: Arnold | Dec 12, 2009 6:24:48 AM