He was born at West Point to a prominent family, served his country in World War II, was made famous by his first novel (published at age twenty), and a couple of years later alienated book-review editors with his third novel, which, for 1948, was that most scandalous of things – a gay love story. Unwelcome in the New York publishing world, he proceeded to bang out TV plays, tinker with scripts at MGM, churn out pseudonymous potboilers, and get a couple of plays produced on Broadway – the grating, now impossibly dated Visit to a Small Planet and the well-made but preachy The Best Man (which, as it happens, is at this very moment back on The Great White Way for the third time).
His series of novels about American history – from Washington, D.C. (1967) to The Golden Age (2000) – help make him rich and led him to brag that he was America’s foremost historian, but these bulky, inert productions might fairly be described by borrowing a few words of criticism that his nemesis, Truman Capote, once directed at the work of one of Vidal’s sometime bedmates, Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Even worse, perhaps, than his history novels were his more off-beat fictional works, notably Myra Breckenridge (1968), which at the time passed for naughty and sensational but which has long since come to be recognized as an embarrassing, godawful bore.
If Vidal the novelist seems almost surely destined for the ash-heap of literary history, his essays were – very often – instant classics. He had two principal topics: literature and politics. If his novels (especially the history ones) often seemed the work of an industrious, indifferent hack who had happened upon a money-making formula, his essays were inspired and learned, crackling with conviction and sizzling with a wit that often shaded into withering sarcasm. On literature, Vidal – who never went to college – proved to be a supremely well-read arbiter who had exquisite taste and was gifted with rare powers of discrimination. “When he writes about literature,” I observed in a review a thousand or so years ago, “Vidal can be wonderfully sane and astute, scorning academic mumbo-jumbo and defending high aesthetic standards.” His literary essays, briefly put, were marvels of elegance, models of first-rate critical prose – and always a delight to read.
But the political essays were another matter entirely. Let me put them, briefly, in context. Vidal never tired of telling the same old stories – either in essays or in the guest chair on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – about his grandfather, a distinguished senator from Oklahoma; his father, a top aviation official in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration; and his family connection to the Kennedys (he and Jackie shared a stepfather). Why was he so preoccupied with this family history? Partly just because he was an egomaniac who liked to brag on himself. But partly, too, because he felt compelled to remind everyone, at every opportunity, that he was a scion of the American aristocracy, born, like one of his heroes, Henry Adams, into a family whose members (in his view) were destined to guide the course of the republic. Vidal twice ran for Congress, and if he lost both times, it was, in his view, one gathered, precisely because the electorate was too undiscerning to recognize its natural leaders when they offered themselves up for public service.
Deprived of public office, Vidal had his political essays (most of them published in the New York Review of Books), in which he made clear his contempt for – well, for pretty much everything and everybody, aside from himself, his family, and his handful of literary, cultural, and political heroes (such as Lincoln). He despised capitalism; he ridiculed what he considered Americans’ naïve enthusiasm for a freedom he regarded as a chimera; and he mercilessly mocked religion, Christianity above all (although the way in which he wrote about Israel and about certain Jewish authors led many to peg him, not unfairly, as an anti-Semite). To the supremely cynical Vidal, America was a “national-security state” run by power-mad oligarchs whose perfidious designs, obvious to him, escaped the notice of the moronic, mouth-breathing multitudes. (One of the paradoxes of Vidal is that even as he professed to be deeply concerned about the life circumstances and prospects of the American people, his prose dripped with condescension toward them.)
At first (in his JFK days) a Democratic booster, Vidal soon morphed into a left-liberal gadfly who rejected both major political parties as equally implicated in a mass deception and betrayal of founding American values; in his dotage, he bloomed from a reliable contrarian into a full-fledged crank who actually befriended Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh and argued that Bush was responsible for bringing down the Twin Towers. In 2002 (is it already ten years ago that he published this?) he attained the very apotheosis of crackpottery with Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, a cornucopia of the most inane of post-9/11 conspiracy theories – a book that only made one shake one’s head at the sad decline of a mind that had once, at its best, been (at least) reliably sharp and amusing. In his final TV appearances, he seemed a shadow of his old self, recycling now tattered old JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt anecdotes for the thousandth time and struggling to keep up the façade of the wry, all-knowing pontificator, even as he spun out theories that no sane person could credit. His career is a cautionary tale of a considerable intellect in thrall to an ego that, more and more, commanded him to shock and sneer as if from an imperial height – the consequence being that, increasingly, he merely captured attention and caused bemusement where he might, instead, have delivered insight, illumination, and wisdom.
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