June 18, 2008
At 82, Gore Vidal is America's most formidable man of letters.
The page of previously published work included in the front matter of this latest volume -- "The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal" -- lists 24 novels, a nonfiction book, two collections of short stories, six plays, 11 volumes of essays and two memoirs. It's a formal list that leaves out the screenplays and collaborations done as work for hire, much of it of some distinction.
This is a body of work that fairly seethes with contention and indignation, but what animates -- and elevates -- it is the unmatched beauty of the prose. Fearlessness and independence of mind are the strengths in this author's arms, but his heart's love is language and the richness of language. No other writer working in English today deploys quite so many clear and lovely sentences per page as Gore Vidal -- except Joan Didion, and the beauty of her prose is of a more austere sort.
More than 30 years ago, Stephen Spender proposed that Vidal was at his best in the essays. He is, indeed, one of the form's great contemporary masters, and, since then, Spender's appraisal has become the critical consensus. Still, one suspects that time is likely to give the fiction rather more weight than it enjoys today. The publication of "Palimpsest" and "Point to Point Navigation" already has established Vidal as a masterful memoirist.
Edited and introduced by Jay Parini, Vidal's literary executor, "The Selected Essays" easily could serve as Exhibit A in Spender's case. Though all but three of these 24 pieces appeared in the author's huge 1993 collection, "United States: Essays 1952-1992," there's a freshness and cohesion to this volume that more than justifies the repackaging. Part 1 ("Reading the Writers") deals with writers, writing and critical fashion; Part 2 ("Reading the World") assembles 11 political essays, from a 1963 piece on Egypt shortly after Nasser came to power through more recent ones, including his stunning 9/11 essay, "Black Tuesday." The first section includes an important 1974 appreciation of Italo Calvino, whom Vidal recently called "the greatest writer of my time." The second contains not only the courageous 1981 essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star" but also the prescient " Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy" -- a 1981 piece that will sober up any sensible reader tempted by the neoconservatives' cloying cult of Teddy.
The literary essays include Vidal's famous recovery of William Dean Howells, his scathing but hilarious denunciation of fashion masquerading as critical literary scholarship ("The Hacks of Academe") and his moving recollection of Tennessee Williams, "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self." There's also the 1973 essay for the New York Review of Books in which Vidal read all 10 of the then current New York Times bestsellers, a list that included Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914" -- "I daresay as an expression of one man's indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society we must honor if not the art the author. Fortunately the Nobel Prize is designed for just such a purpose." The top spot on that particular list was occupied by "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and it should be left to the reader to discover what Vidal made of that.
A 1953 essay on "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s" finds the young Vidal at his most shrewdly erudite: "One could invent a most agreeable game of drawing analogies between the fourth century and today. F.R. Leavis and Saint Jerome are perfectly matched, while John Chrysostom and John Crowe Ransom suggest a possibility. The analogy works amusingly on all levels save one: the church fathers had a Christ to provide them with a primary source of revelation, while our own dogmatists must depend either upon private systems or else upon those proposed by such slender reeds as Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot, each, despite his genius, a ritual victim as well as a hero of literary fashion."
The sense of just how close and independent a reader Vidal always has been is reinforced in "Tarzan Revisited," a piece for Esquire: "Though [ Edgar Rice] Burroughs is innocent of literature and cannot reproduce human speech, he does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly. I give away no trade secrets when I say that this is as difficult for a Tolstoy as it is for a Burroughs (even William). Because it is so hard, the craftier of contemporary novelists usually prefer to tell their stories in the first person, which is simply writing dialogue. In character, as it were, the writer settles for an impression of what happened rather than creating the sense of the thing happening. In action Tarzan is excellent."
From the earliest of the political essays collected here to the most recent, "State of the Union" (2004), the spine of Vidal's historical analysis has remained intact. As a young man, Vidal served as aide and guide to his maternal grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore (D-Okla.), a leading isolationist. Vidal was profoundly influenced by the older man, though he is much too cosmopolitan to share the basic isolationist notion that contact with "the old world" would inevitably contaminate the American Eden. Vidal does share the isolationist notion that World War II was a disaster for the United States, but his opinion is based on the judgment that the war -- and particularly the postwar world -- created an irresistible temptation to empire. Ascension to empire, in turn, created a demand for construction of a national security state, and that entity has eroded individual liberty ever since.
"From 1950," he told the National Press Club in a speech collected in this volume, there has been "strict governmental control of our economy and the gradual erosion of our liberties, all in order to benefit the economic interest of what is never, to put it tactfully, a very large group." At the time, he described the United States and its then-adversary, the Soviet Union, "as the two klutzes of the north, each unable to build a car anyone wants to drive, we deserve each other."
In "Black Tuesday," he describes the George W. Bush administration as "eerily inept in all but its principal task, which is to exempt the rich from taxes" and charges that its response to Sept. 11 delivered "the knockout blow to our vanishing liberties by phone-tapping, unlawful deportation of suspects and powers to arrest and detain individuals."
There is a kind of heroic pessimism running through this work, and one is inclined to appropriate for the sort of essay collected in this volume a lament Vidal once delivered for the novel: "Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words."