With typical cheek, Gore Vidal, who died yesterday, once reviewed a book about himself by a young academic named Ray Lewis White. This was in 1968, when “in many quarters,” reviewer-Vidal explained, author-Vidal was “still regarded with profound suspicion,” making White’s study a bit of an outlier. Expressing gratitude for what he deemed “a most interesting book” wouldn’t have suited Vidal’s act, to put it mildly. But he came close in his summing-up: “[I]n the declining kingdom of literature,” he wrote, “Mr. White has staked out with some nicety the wild marches of a border lord.”
Some marches; some border. (I can already imagine Vidal’s ghost complaining: “What about ‘some lord’?”) It’s hard to think of another American writer who conducted so many campaigns on multiple fronts with such aplomb: superb essayist, undauntable political polemicist and TV jouster, unexpectedly engaging autobiographer. His other incarnations ranged from successful playwright for TV (Visit to A Small Planet) and Broadway (The Best Man) to cheerfully mercenary Hollywood scenarist in the sunset of its glory days (Ben-Hur, not to mention the immortal—and co-written with a neophyte Francis Ford Coppola—Is Paris Burning?). Somewhere in there, he found time to run for Congress and then the Senate, hobnob with Kennedys and kings, fearlessly remind everybody that same-sex sex was just sex and he should know, and generally glitter everywhere from Italy to California.
And then, of course, there are the novels: two dozen of them in all, as variegated as anyone could ask for. Unlike most American novelists of his generation, he disdained straining to deliver the Big Book, preferring productivity to would-be masterpieces. Yet Julian probably qualifies as one—sue me for preferring it to Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, its obvious inspiration—and that glorious prank Myra Breckinridge is, if nothing else, some kind of ineffable cultural landmark. Then came his marvelously entertaining Burr, launching the revisionist chronicle of American history that continued—with, sad to say, diminishing results, aside from the nearly as impressive Lincoln—for another five volumes.
No one else so fused the mandarin and the engaged, the eclectic and the consistent. For both better and worse, what gave his career its unity was his manner: poised, allergic to wallowing in emotion, insouciant and/or supercilious at its most combative, and forever underlining itself as a performance. Nonetheless, except when playing “Gore Vidal” got the better of him—something that happened most often in his later years, when playing “Gore Vidal” was the only way to keep himself prominent—I suspect it would be a serious mistake to label him a cynic. To go back to his essays is to discover how often an earnest or even mawkish statement is prinked into sounding feline instead by his trick bag of jaundiced asides, droll qualifiers, and ostentatiously world-weary interjections.
To be sure, the mask only slipped rarely. But I remember watching him once nearly bring himself to tears on TV while reading a passage from Lincoln whose well-concealed but almost Carl Sandburgian bathos had previously eluded me. (“Fooled again!” I thought, briefly succumbing to an affection he didn’t often invite.) Not much less revealing of his surreptitious maudlin streak is how persistently, unlike his contemporaries—Mailer, Capote, Tennessee Williams, et. al.—he was given to lyrical recollections in print of the “golden age” when they were all young, literature was still American culture’s main event, and it seemed that the world was their oyster.
The edifice also had its shoddy side, however. Much as I admired and enjoyed Lincoln, it irritated me no end that Vidal’s repeated, pregnant-with-meaning mentions of “Washington’s unfinished monument” were lifted straight from Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington—she used the unfinished Capitol instead—and its closing comparison of Lincoln to Bismark was cribbed, also without acknowledgment, from Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore. His ad hominem attacks on other writers could be atrocious. People who remember the fabled Vidal-Mailer smackdown on The Dick Cavett Show and relish the fool Mailer made of himself often forget that Vidal had just compared Mailer to Charles Manson in The New York Review of Books.
As the years went by, his vanity went from a deliberately self-amused construct to something less debonair and more pathetic. (“When it comes to matters of prose and of fiction at this time and in this place, I am Authority,” as he declared in 1977, is not a claim anyone should make unless its truth is in no doubt. In that highly unlikely case, someone else should make it.) And the endless, increasingly canned-sounding nattering—the ritual belittling of his fellow citizens’ sheeplike ignorance and boobishness, the dismissive philistinism disguised as sophistication, the ever cruder and more self-satisfied doomsaying—simply got tiresome.
Overarching all that, what may make Vidal’s stance impossible to stomach for future generations—indeed, for the current one—was his insistence on his status as a renegade member of America’s WASP patricianate and his inability to conceal that he considered it a superior caste. (Only his fondness whenever he wrote about his grandfather, blind and not all that patrician Oklahoma Senator T.P. Gore, humanized this snobbery to some extent.) However entertaining when it gave him a pretext to treat his critiques of the power elite as an inside job, that attitude added a poisonous undertow to his public wrangles in the 1980s with the admittedly unlovable Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and other members of the “Israeli fifth column”—yes, he really wrote that—in America. While not every form of anti-Semitism leads directly to Auschwitz, however much Podhoretz himself may believe the contrary, Vidal unquestionably flirted with it and then some. His tone made it evident he really couldn’t bring himself to think of American Jews as his equals in the club—not if they disagreed with him politically, anyhow.
The last couple of decades of his life did even more to tarnish his reputation. Trivial to us but a major value to Vidal, the loss of elegance alone—which, in a kinder world, would have been the last thing to go—was dismaying. It was one thing to argue that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had motivations we shouldn’t discredit by reducing them to psychopathy; it’s possible to think so without finding McVeigh’s act any less horrifying, after all. But it was quite another to do so as if purringly recommending him to Harvard as a potential prize pupil.
In the Oughties, Vidal did his fellow progressives no favors by turning our arguments against the Bush-Cheney regime into asinine and reckless hyperbole. Nor can anyone who isn’t a cretin forgive or forget his 2009 comment on the Roman Polanski case, made even worse—if that’s possible—by how obviously and grotesquely he was trying to play the cosmopolitan curmudgeon: “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels she’s been taken advantage of?” All in all, about the only way to salvage any respect for Vidal from such appalling stuff is to remember, however grudgingly, that it was a hell of a reputation to tarnish.
Which means that even the worst of him—and there was a lot of it—doesn’t quite cancel our debt. I feel it as a writer; progressives should feel it for the days when his advocacy had gallantry and hadn’t degenerated into crankhood. Believers in literature should thank him for keeping it vital to the conversation even as he proclaimed its looming demise, gay Americans should salute an insolent pioneer who lived in far more homophobic times, and so on. Even movie fans should be grateful for his malicious inside scoop on Ben-Hur.
At least in my case, there’s no way around another pang. Whatever else he may have been, Vidal was our last link to the generation of novelists —Mailer, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and others—who served in World War Two and did their best to remake American fiction afterward. Forgive me for recalling his own adieu to Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the few people he revered: “I thought, well, that’s that. We’re really on our own now.”