Gore Vidal has his work cut out for him.
In order for historical fiction like his to work as literary art, it is necessary that it not be required to do all of history’s work for it. History must be knowledge already held in common if the central, poignant effect of historical fiction is to work properly; that effect, namely, by which the reader knows in advance what the characters of the novel only uncover step by step. Dickens’ and Tolstoy’s first readers did not learn from “A Tale of Two Cities” and “War and Peace” all t1751480608Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
But all too many of Vidal’s readers do learn from his novels--like the latest, “Empire” (Random House)--all that they know of American history. At The Times recently for lunch, Vidal lamented the fact that this is true even for journalists (not to speak of reviewers). On the other hand, he has more respect than some writers do for fiction as instruction. I asked him somewhat apologetically whether he intended through his work to correct the notorious historical amnesia of his countrymen. “Of course,” he answered, “Why else would I go to all this trouble?”
I had to ask because many another writer has been at pains to renounce any such socially ameliorative purpose. “I am an artist,” the refrain goes, “not a schoolteacher or some kind of busy do-gooder.” Vidal’s refrain is different. Having run for public office twice, he sees writing as simply an alternative form of public career. If he wants now to teach, this is only because he wanted earlier to lead. He still wants to lead.
Unfortunately, the duties of his educational office sometimes interfere with his art. Presuming little historical knowledge in his readers, Vidal carefully provides them all that is necessary. But all that is necessary for historical understanding is more than is convenient for realistic fiction. His solicitude slows his exposition. And for those readers (too many) for whom Vidal’s account of a set of events is their first and who therefore must experience the events pari passu with his characters, the mentioned central effect of classical historical fiction is radically undercut. It is no accident that so few writers who know the American audience attempt anything but the utterly unanalytical, “saga” variety of historical fiction--fiction as “painless” history. Vidal aims much higher. He certainly does not aim to be “painless.” But he has set himself a task of almost impossible difficulty.
He succeeds best, I think, with those who need him least as a teacher. “I consider him our greatest living novelist. I have read ‘Lincoln’ three times,” said a brilliant economist, visiting The Times on the day when Vidal was here. Journalist/biographer Ronald Steel, reviewing “Empire” in USA Today, wrote: “Because (Vidal) entertains so well, it is easy to forget how much he constructs and reconstructs. One of our finest novelists, he is also perhaps our most interesting historian.”
A reader as well-prepared as Ronald Steel may forget how much Vidal constructs and reconstructs. The more usual kind of reader will not fail to notice the many times when he is sat down for a lesson. Vidal may be most in his element when mischievously revising some bit of American civic hagiography, but he is anything but a systematic historical skeptic. That kind of attitude would undermine the teaching.
“History is the agreed--" he began at one point in our lunch. "--the agreed-upon lie,” I chimed in. But it was time to chime out. The familiar version is not the one he had been about to cite. Rather: “History is the agreed-upon facts,” those facts, to be sure, being few and never more than a part of the truth. The rest of the truth, as Vidal sees it--but note well: only the rest, never the whole--is open for intelligent invention by journalists first, then by historians (who depend on journalists), and last by novelists (who read historians). This is not the methodology of fast and loose but that of slow and steady. It is the modus agendi of the determined teacher. Vidal wants us to get it and get it right.
There is more to history than politics, of course, even politics enlarged, as Vidal enlarges it, to include the private lives of the great and their symbiotic relationship with journalists. The period covered by “Empire” is a period when America experienced its heaviest immigration, but of this--of the sort of thing one reads about in, for example, Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers"--Vidal has little to say. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a contemporary of Thomas Edison (1847-1931) and of the Wright brothers, but of their impact on the country “Empire” is equally silent.
The kind of history Vidal teaches in “Empire,” the kind he wants us to master, is actually the old-fashioned, kings-and-battles kind, with special attention to life at court and to the unique importance of the court chroniclers. The writer I kept thinking of as Vidal spoke was an unapologetically, even defiantly old-fashioned historian (and another recent visitor to The Times), the conservative British journalist/historian Paul Johnson.
Each of these historians has had access at one key moment or another to the chief executive of his country. At lunch, Vidal reported a conversation with an angry and frightened John F. Kennedy, just back from his famous Vienna meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. Vidal’s advice: “Remember your father,” a tough businessman not easily bluffed or rattled. For his part, Johnson reported a conversation with Margaret Thatcher just after her recent Moscow encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Iron Lady, it seems, had felt the force of Soviet intimidation more than her performance on television showed; in private, she was intensely, emotionally relieved to return home.
Though the conservative Johnson has little in common with the radical (“in the etymological sense”) Vidal, they do have something crucially in common as historians; namely, that they both willingly pay attention to moments like these in the lives of presidents and prime ministers. They believe, in short, that important people are important, a view which, in the era of “social history,” is far more novel than it might at first seem.
When describing the decline of historical knowledge in Britain, Johnson offered as worst known case a candidate for a history teaching position who had never heard of Edward I or of Oliver Cromwell. Vidal would view such a candidate with equal horror. And what Johnson would find wanting in Vidal’s “Empire” is not, I suspect, patterns of immigration or developments in technology. Kings-and-battles makes strange bedfellows.
Kings-and-battles is shorthand, of course, for the premise that events do have a course. They follow one another, like reigns. They have their causes and consequences, like battles. Johnson recently published a piece in The Times of London calling for a return from social history to this kind of history; the piece brought a large and favorable public response. Vidal’s careful linkage of one administration to the last before it and the next after it puts him squarely in the same camp, a social radical, perhaps, but a historiographical conservative.
Two volumes remain in Vidal’s American history cycle, he reports. The next, “Harding,” will deal most heavily, despite its title, with Woodrow Wilson. The last, still untitled, will pick up where the earlier-written “Washington D.C.” left off and bring the cycle to a close in our own day. In it, Vidal will appear as a character speaking in his own voice.
“Harding” will undoubtedly teach as conscientiously as its predecessors in this cycle which, Vidal reports, one critic has compared to the histories of Shakespeare. But for reasons mostly not of its author’s making, its characters, like those of its predecessors, will be too much a part of the schoolroom exposition for us quite to love or to hate them. Nor shall we be able to give vent to much irritation with Vidal himself, even when he most wants us to, because, once again, he will have been so admirably careful about everything and, worst of all, doing it for our own good.
In that promised last volume, however, at the smallest possible remove from the present, the problems of historical fiction written for an audience with no sense of the past will shrink. Moreover, Vidal will have many opportunities to give the Vidal character the stunning last word, and let us hope he seizes them all; for having so long muffled his own rather dazzling voice out of a historian’s respect for the integrity of historical characters, he will have earned the right to step forward like Prospero as the revels end and speak his piece.
But what will be Prospero’s theme? “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”? “True history is the final fiction,” Vidal has William Randolph Hearst say on the final page of “Empire.” Hearst, however, is not the hero of “Empire,” he is one of its villains, anything but a stand-in for the author; and as noted, Vidal is anything but a pure aesthete. Furthermore, the aesthetic theme, so to call it--illusion as the ultimate reality--has long since become the croissant on the literary menu: a delicacy turned into a staple.
My own suspicion is that Vidal is not just a teacher but a stern teacher, more Cato than Prospero, and that what he will serve up on the last page of his last book will be more hardtack than croissant. Such is his gift, however, and such our needs, that many will mistake it for croissant.