With the help of his editor and biographer Fred Kaplan, Gore Vidal has now excerpted a thousand pages of his “essential” writings in all genres. There’s plenty to choose from. Since publishing his first novel at age 21 in 1946, Vidal has been a historical novelist, experimental novelist, playwright, screenwriter, literary critic, autobiographer, political essayist, and “queer theorist” avant la lettre. As Vidal writes of the Roman emperor Constantius, he is “many men in the body of one.”
Only one of them is worth the trouble. A contrarian turn of mind has served Vidal well in his historical novels, the middlebrow achievement on which his highbrow pretensions rest. The books enlighten, delight, and provoke. Of those collected here, Julian views the rise of Christianity through pagan eyes, as mumbo jumbo about a “triple monster.” Creation takes Athens from the viewpoint of the Persians: The Acropolis is an eyesore. Pericles is corrupt, Herodotus a propagandist, and Thucydides a drunk.
Vidal’s six American-history novels (Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C.) are similarly contrarian. Vidal’s George Washington is a Machiavellian bounder; had he had a son and heir, he would not have refused a kingship. Vidal’s Lincoln is an imperialist authoritarian, much like the bogeyman of certain contemporary paleo-conservatives. Lincoln’s private secretary John Hay is a callow whoremonger. Ulysses S. Grant is corrupt, not a mere bumbler. Vidal may make things up; he may take his sense of history from Charles Beard and other Constitution-haters. But he deploys his erudition thoughtfully enough that when Martin Van Buren is revealed as the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr, we know that we’re in the presence of a dramatic device rather than an Oliver Stone–style conspiracy theory.
If Vidal is the only recent novelist who has written credibly about Washington, D.C., it’s not surprising. He was brought up there, grandson to the blind Oklahoma reactionary Senator T. P. Gore (in whose honor the novelist changed his name from “Eugene” at the age of 14); son of an aviation functionary in FDR’s first term; and a step-relation of Jackie Kennedy — none of which he ever tires of telling us.
Vidal’s great liability as a writer is that his worldview has only two dimensions: power and hate. In a novel about politics, those are sufficient to motivate characters. In other books, they’re not. A few pages from The City and the Pillar, Vidal’s groundbreaking 1948 novel of homosexual obsession, illustrate why that ground didn’t get broken before. At an age when Norman Mailer’s work had reached an exquisite maturity, Vidal was writing a sort of boys’ fiction, but with homosexual rape added in — from the viewpoint of the rapist, of course. (“‘Jesus,’ Bob whispered. ‘Don’t. Don’t.’”) The only works reproduced here in full are a stilted political play, The Best Man, and Vidal’s 1968 succès de scandale, Myra Breckinridge, the diary of a troublemaking transsexual at a Hollywood acting school. Three decades on, it seems not fresh but slack, aimless, and intellectually lazy, except — again — for the homosexual rape scenes. (“Oh, no! For God’s sake, don’t.”) In the same ironic vein, Duluth is a critique of Eighties suburban vapidity by one who hadn’t taken a fresh look at American suburbia since the 1950s. Live from Golgotha tries to recast the Christian passion as a cyberporn narrative — a clever (if offensive) idea for a back-of-The New Yorker parody, but unreadably banal at book length.
In his introduction, Kaplan cites Vidal’s essays to show him as a more intellectual novelist than Updike, Bellow, and Mailer. He’s wrong. It’s not that Vidal is incapable of brilliance. Essays on the Kennedys and on Edmund Wilson’s foot fetish are the highlights of the current collection. But hate and contrariety get in the way of the spirit of inquiry.
In “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” Vidal attacks Jewish neoconservatives who oppose homosexuality. Vidal depicts the semi-out-of-the-closet gays of the 1980s as in the same position as Jews under the Nazis. Since the neo-cons “are going to be in the same gas chambers as the blacks and the faggots, I would suggest a cease-fire and a common front against the common enemy, whose kindly voice is that of Ronald Reagan . . . ” This “common front” flourish introduces Vidal’s second big liability, one that’s survivable for a novelist but fatal to an essayist: bad faith. Because Vidal wants no such alliance. He is a hedonistic pagan who hates all monotheisms from the very kernel of his being. And Judaism especially, for having nurtured Moses, St. Paul, and Freud, the holy trinity of what he calls the “heterosexual dictatorship.”
Vidal will thus cut slack to anyone who shares his impatience with religion. In 1971 he applauds anti-Christian feminists for saying “there is nothing innate in us that can be called masculine or feminine.” Granted, by 1991 he breaks the “bad news” to readers of The Nation that “men and women are not alike.” Perhaps he’s changed his ideas, but on subjects like this, Vidal doesn’t have so much ideas as stances.
And those are negotiable. Eleanor Roosevelt (clearly Vidal’s favorite politician) is applauded “because she was a Christian and not a Manichean.” One suspects, however, that Vidal appreciates her for the same reason he appreciates Thornton Wilder: because her “dislike of heterosexuality was lifelong.” He thinks a third of American males are homosexual, hates quotas but loves affirmative action, calls Herbert Hoover more of a socialist than FDR, and refers to the Japanese as “our Asian masters.” You could spend a delightful dinner party sparring with such a person, but you wouldn’t leave it under the impression you’d dined with an intellectual.
“Writers,” Vidal concluded in the 1950s, “are valuable in spite of their neuroses, obsessions, and rebellions, not because of them. It is a poor period indeed which must assess its men of letters in terms of their opposition to their society.”
That’s a fact. Vidal lost sight of it early on.
— Christopher Caldwell is a Senior Editor at The Weekly Standard. This article originally appeared in the May 3, 1999, issue of National Review.