The American writer Gore Vidal died on 31 July 2012 at the age of 86. And finally I have a Sunday free so I can reflect on his life and pay tribute to the great man of American letters. Gore Vidal was a hero of mine. I admired his intellect and wit, his brilliant essays, interviews and liberal politics. He was urbane but with an acerbic edge. Vidal had the courage of his convictions and over a long life relished his battle with the American right in all its political, social and religious manifestations.
Gore Vidal's literary output was prodigious: essays, novels, novellas, plays, screenplays and memoirs. His novels varied in quality. The historical novels Burr, Lincoln, Creation and Julian are excellent because Vidal is an expert at combining history with characterisation to produce a compelling narrative.
His satirical novellas Duluth and Myra Breckinridge are wonderfully shocking and funny; but for me Live from Golgotha and The Smithsonian Institution, like some of his other novels (The Judgment of Paris and Messiah) fall flat. But even so there is something very touching in The Smithsonian Institution. Vidal's main character is a young physics genius working on the neutron bomb and time travel. He uses his time travelling discoveries to visit the battlefield of Iwo Jima and rescue his friend, a young marine killed there. A moving piece of wish fulfilment this: Vidal's friend, an eighteen year old marine called Jimmy Trimble died at Iwo Jima in 1945 and Vidal grieved his loss for the rest of his life.
Jimmy Trimble also features in The City and the Pillar (1948), an unflinching account of a young gay man's life and his ultimately destructive attachment to his best friend. It's a remarkably frank account now but in 1948 the book caused a storm. Vidal says he was faced with a difficult choice contemplating its publication: he could pursue the political career he wanted, Vidal's grandfather was a United States Senator, or he could publish the book and be damned. He chose the latter course and was subsequently shunned by the establishment and the right-wing press in particular - the battlelines were drawn! Vidal went on to run for high office on the Democratic Party ticket but was unsuccessful.
Gore Vidal was a good novelist; but, as Martin Amis has said, it's as an essayist that Vidal approaches greatness. He was a master of the wicked turn of phrase, the put-down, the metaphor that sums up an enemy in the most unflattering terms possible. He drew on a vast knowledge of history, politics and literature. Vidal was a voracious reader, a habit that began when he was six, reading to his blind grandfather, Senator Gore of Oklahoma. In his scathing attacks on American foreign policy Vidal drew particularly on classical history, likening the post-war 'security-state' and it's interventions abroad to the late Roman Empire. Vidal mourned the passing of the republic, arguing that the Founding Fathers would not recognise the America of Nixon and Bush.
In recent years I enjoyed watching videos of Vidal on YouTube and on Websites run by public service television stations in the United States. His legendary row with the sneering William F. Buckley is there and a near punch up too with Norman Mailer. I shall be watching them again, but this time with some sadness rather than relish. As The Economist says, the passing of Vidal really is the passing of an era. I'm now going to visit Amazon to plug the gaps in my Gore Vidal library and I've added some links below for those who would like to read more about Gore Vidal.
Gore Vidal Obituaries
The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, BBC News, BBC Newsnight (YouTube), The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Morning Star, USA Today, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Republic