Gore Vidal: Writer, activist, social critic
Gore Vidal was the last of an extraordinary generation of American writers who came of age during the 1940s and 1950s. Just considering the roster of talent that emerged from that period – Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, John Horne Burns, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, John Updike – makes one wistful for those pre-Kindle days when books were literally page turners, when the cover jacket art was sometimes as controversial as the narrative, when you bought books because you wanted to keep them and dog-ear the pages that you knew you would need to remember someday. Vidal’s passing offers a moment to reflect on the body of his work, and also on the importance of good writing and contemplative reading in our lives.
Vidal’s literary output was formidable, on a scale matched – and probably exceeded – only by Updike. Vidal may best be remembered by many as the controversial social critic who nearly came to blows with William F. Buckley Jr. and the author of purposefully campy novels like Myra Breckenridge, but his literary output deserves a more thoughtful assessment.
Perhaps his finest books were his historical novels. His groundbreaking novel Julian was an unexpected success, reaching an audience that was apparently hungry for history enrobed in wit and insight. What followed was a series of novels that, read chronologically, provide a history of the United States that is at once informative and entertaining. Starting with Burr, these novels – Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, The Golden Age, and Washington, DC – delve deeply into American politics and the unrelenting drive to attain power. As told through the fictional lives of the descendants of Aaron Burr, this survey of the rise of American power and influence combines historic accuracy with fictional license, and the combination is a powerfully engaging commentary on the uses and abuses of political power.
Through his political activism, his social criticism, and his insightful essays and commentaries, Vidal helped shape the political discourse of the 1960s and 1970s, articulating a largely libertarian perspective and challenging the buttoned-up social and political norms that defined much of mid-20th Century America. He could often be over-the-top in his criticism of America, elevating hyperbole for full dramatic effect, but one never got the impression that he was motivated by hate. Rather, his biting commentary was a form of tough love, a way for him to use his great talent for wit and wordplay to shake us out of our conventional ways of thinking and lead us on to some meaningful form of introspection.
For all of his fame and controversy, it will be his writing that will last. The City and the Pillar will be remembered as a breakthrough novel in its depiction of gay men in pre-Stonewall America. The novel is both a literary achievement and an historic milestone marking the emergence of an unprecedented willingness at mid-20th Century for people to be open about their sexual orientation. In contrast to that famous work, Vidal’s several collections of essays, which rival Updike’s in scope, are perhaps his least well known but most important contribution to our literary heritage. They are worth reading, for their craftsmanship, for their wit, and for the light they cast on the times in which we live.I fear that as technology takes greater hold of our lives, and we find our time carved up into smaller and smaller pieces, distracted by email and iPhone apps and bombarded by text messages, tweets, online blogs, and YouTube videos, we are losing the ability to find quality time to read, to be contemplative, to savor a writer’s use of language and to take lessons from a carefully crafted narrative. There are some writers who require that kind of contemplative reading, the kind of reading that compels you to dog-ear and underline and return again and again because something in the narrative touches you, perhaps a witticism expressing an eternal truth, or perhaps a turn of phrase that strikes you as having meaning in your life. Gore Vidal was that kind of writer.
James Aloisi was Secretary of Transportation in 2009. He is the author of The Vidal Lecture: Sex and Politics in Massachusetts and the Persecution of Chief Justice Robert Bonin.