Although Gore Vidal distinguished himself first as a novelist, he has become one of America’s most prolific essayists, perhaps because the essay allows him to pursue most easily what he admits is his “only serious interest” as a writer: “the subversion of a society that bores and appals me.” Toward this goal, he has produced work that has been collected in n volumes, the first, Rocking the Boat, appearing in 1962, the latest, United States, in 1992. While the majority of the essays originally appeared in journals, magazines, and newspapers such as the New York Review of Books, the Nation, and the Reporter, Vidal’s opinions also found voice in less predictable forums like Zero and Architectural Digest.
As the titles of the journals in which Vidal’s essays appeared might indicate, he writes about literature, issues of national interest, and the people he has known. In fact, in United States, which draws from essays published during the preceding 40 years, Vidal separates the essays into three categories: “State of the Art,” “State of the Nation,” and “State of Being.” As these groupings indicate, Vidal regards himself as a critic of literature, government, and society.
Critics of his work generally agree that Vidal’s essays about literature represent him at his best, even though the majority of these essays are not weighty: arguing, for example, the influence of films on modern fiction or denouncing academic novels. They are, however, usually bright, witty, and filled with pithy metaphors. He accuses John O’Hara of detailing his characters’ spending habits “with the zest of an Internal Revenue man examining deductions for entertainment” and Henry James of “giving us monsters on a grand scale” in his late fiction. Evaluating Herman Wouk, Vidal quotes a passage and concludes, “This is not at all bad, except as prose.” When he approves of a writer or a work, his appraisals ring with wit and insight. His disapproval, characterized frequently as “bitchy,” stings with biting satire.
Satire is, indeed, his preferred mode. More negative than positive in his evaluation of the “state of the nation,” Vidal attacks government regulations, bureaucracy, and “the Bank,” specifically Chase Manhattan Bank; but he explains that this shorthand also refers to all those who have “ownership of the United States.” This group includes Democrats, Republicans, and the press. In a manner that critics often classify as superficial and frequently vindictive, Vidal condemns the policies and/or personal behavior of most
20th-century presidents, characterizing Harry Truman as “the president who did us the most harm” and Jack Kennedy as sexually selfish—“not much interested in giving pleasure to his partner.” Although surely liberal in his sentiments, Vidal proposes reforms which most people, liberal or otherwise, might have difficulty endorsing, either for their naivety or for their inhumanity. Supporting the legalization of illegal drugs and substances, he justifies his position on the bases that legalization would remove the Mafia from the drug picture and that if people want to kill themselves, the government should not try to stop them. After the Reagan election, Vidal called for a coalition of “faggots,” Jews, and blacks since the do-gooders wished to place all of them “in the same gas chambers.” Richard Brookhiser’s hostile review of United States in the New Criterion (September 1993) dismisses these political essays, saying, “When Vidal exerts himself, he rises to the average.”
His essays on “State of Being” accommodate work that does not fit neatly into the other two categories. Pieces such as “On Flying” (1985), which recalls Vidal’s first experience with an airplane at the age of four and moves to a lesson on the history of flight and famous aviators; “Tarzan Revisited” (1963), which summarizes the Tarzan story with the purpose of exploring human fascination with and personal dreams of adventure; and several essays which might serve as a travel guide for the uninitiated— “Nasser’s Egypt” (1963), “Mongolia!” (1983), and “At Home on a Roman Street” (1985)—are included in this section. Like most of Vidal’s essays, these pieces incorporate not only his personal views but also references to people, places, and experiences from his own life.
Vidal’s family provides him with a wealth of material. His maternal grandfather was Thomas Pryor Gore, one of the first two senators from Oklahoma. He was related to Jackie Kennedy through one of his mother’s marriages. Even though Vidal admits in Palimpsest, his 1995 book-length memoir, that “I had never wanted to meet most of the people that I had met and the fact that I never got to know most of them took dedication and steadfastness on my part,” he claims an acquaintance with a large number of political and literary figures in his essays. Being a novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright and having also run for Congress twice, Vidal met and worked with prominent people in politics, the entertainment industry, and literary circles. He freely uses these connections in his essays, frequently sharing anecdotes from his personal and working relationships with the famous and infamous. In fact, we might classify his style as conspiratorial namedropping.
Readers learn of the business dealings and the sexual, drinking, and personal habits of the notorious; family skeletons emerge from the closets. John F.Kennedy, Henry James, Tennessee Williams, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Roosevelt, Anais Nin, and many others become human in the most negative sense with Vidal’s revelations. While these anecdotes personalize and invigorate Vidal’s views, they also frequently trivialize them. As Robert Kiernan (1982) observes, “the essays are more interesting for their quips, their anecdotes, and their satirical exaggerations than for the spine of essayistic logic that these bend to their will. The essays…are a banquet of canapes. They may leave one hungry…but the canapes are so tasty withal that more conventional fare seems unflavored.” While Vidal accuses some authors and reviewers of “book chat,” he himself may be guilty of “people chat.” However, Vidal without the conspiratorial revelations would hardly be Vidal.
GLORIA GODFREY JONES
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, Jr. Born 3 October 1925 in West Point, New York. Studied at Los Alamos School, New Mexico, 1939–40; Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, 1940–43. Warrant officer in the U.S. Army, 1943–46. Editor, E.P.Dutton publishers, New York, 1946. Lived in Antigua, Guatemala, 1947–49. Member of the advisory board, Partisan Review, 1960–71. Democratic-Liberal candidate for Congress, New York,
1960; member, President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts, 1961–63. Lived in Italy, 1967–76. Co-chair, New Party, 1968–71.
Awards: Mystery Writers of America Award, for television play, 1954; Cannes Film Critics Award, for screenplay, 1964; National Book Critics Circle Award, for criticism, 1983; National Book Award, for United States, 1993.
Essays and Related Prose
Rocking the Boat, 1962
Sex, Death, and Money, 1968
Reflections upon a Sinking Ship, 1969
Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952–1972, 1972; as Collected Essays, 1952–1972, 1974; as On Our Own Now, 1976
Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays, 1973–1976, 1977
Sex Is Politics and Vice Versa, 1979
The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, 1976–1982, 1982; as Pink Triangle and Yellow Star, and Other Essays, 1982
Armageddon? Essays, 1983–1987, 1987
At Home: Essays, 1982–1988, 1988
A View from the Diners Club: Essays, 1987–1991, 1991
Screening History (lectures), 1992
United States: Essays, 1951–1991, 1992.
Other writings: 23 novels (including The City and the Pillar, 1949; Washington, D.C., 1967; Myra Breckinridge, 1968; 1876, 1976; Lincoln, 1984), three crime novels as Edgar Box, a collection of short stories, many plays, television plays, and screenplays, and the memoir Palimpsest (1995).
Stanton, Robert J., Gore Vidal: A Pritnary and Secondary Bibliography, Boston: Hall, and London: Prior, 1978
Abbott, Sean, “Book Sales, Prizes, Tenure, and Riotous Times at Bread Loaf: An Interview with Gore Vidal,” At Random 12 (Fall 1995):43–45
Auchincloss, Louis, The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal and Others, New York: Scribner, 1994
Baker, Susan, Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion., Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997
Brookhiser, Richard, “State of the Essay?,” New Criterion 12, no. 1 (September 1993):80–83
Dick, Bernard F., The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal, New York: Random House, 1974
Kiernan, Robert F., Gore Vidal, New York: Ungar, 1982
Macaulay, Stephen, Gore Vidal, or, A Vision from a Particular Position, Rockford: Rockford Institute, 1982
White, Ray Lewis, Gore Vidal, New York: Twayne, 1968
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