Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday night at age 86, was a fixture on the American cultural landscape for so long that it seems hard to imagine our literature without him. From 1946, when his first novel, “Williwaw,” became one of the first to evoke World War II in fiction, through the publication of his final memoir, “Snapshots in History’s Glare,” in 2009, Vidal was ubiquitous: a writer and a social critic, a talk show guest and raconteur.
A product of the American aristocracy — his grandfather was Oklahoma Sen. Thomas Gore — Vidal wrote literary fiction and potboilers, worked in Hollywood (most notably on MGM’s 1959 production of “Ben-Hur”) and produced searing essays on the decline of American empire.
His 1948 novel, “The City and the Pillar,” was an early examination of homosexuality; his 1968 novel, “Myra Breckinridge,” revolved around a transsexual. But it was really with the publication of “Burr” in 1973 that he embarked upon what is his lasting literary achievement: a seven-novel series called “Narratives of Empire,” which traces both the promise and the failure of the American experiment from the Louisiana Purchase to the Cold War.
Politics was essential to Vidal. Given his background, that’s hardly surprising, yet perhaps more than any American writer of his generation, he wove it into the fiber of his work and life. In 1960, he ran for a New York congressional seat (he was unsuccessful); in 1982, he lost the California Democratic senatorial primary to Jerry Brown.
More recently, Vidal enjoyed a late-life notoriety as a critic of the George W. Bush Administration, seeing the war on terror as a pretext for the dismantling of democracy. He could be withering on this subject—and very funny—although the last time I saw him, at a 2009 event in Culver City, he seemed to have lost the ability to trace a clear path between the conspiracy-laden rhetoric of his youthful audience and his own belief in rationality. It was as if he had painted himself into a corner, a point he tacitly acknowledged in 2007. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist — I’m a conspiracy analyst,” he said at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. “The Bushites … could never have pulled off9/11, even if they wanted to.”
For Vidal, contemporary America could be best interpreted as a reflection of ancient Rome: a republic that had become an empire and, in so doing, had fallen prey to empire’s corruptions, empire’s woes. This is the story to which he returned, in both his writing and his public appearances, and it illustrates a fundamental tension that he never quite resolved. Vidal, after all, was both insider and outsider: an aristocrat who saw the failings of the aristocracy, a true believer whose belief had been betrayed.
This was only exacerbated by his sexuality: a gay man in a culture in which homosexuality was not accepted, he helped push the conversation, even as he refused to be categorized. “There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person,” he argued. “There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”
Although he lived for more than 50 years with his partner, Howard Austen, Vidal did not support gay marriage. “Since heterosexual marriage is such a disaster,” he told Time magazine in 2006, “why on earth would anybody want to imitate it?”
There is, of course, an air of the provocateur in such a statement, which is a role Vidal loved to play. And yet, whatever pleasure this afforded, it complicates our sense of his legacy and what it means.
How will we remember Vidal — for his punditry, his desire to discomfort us, or for the very real achievement of his work? Will we remember him as the man who fought with Norman Mailer on “The Dick Cavett Show” and with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic Convention? (Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” and Buckley threatened to punch Vidal in the nose.) Or will we remember him for what is in the books?
The truth, of course, is that if Vidal’s life has anything to tell us, he should be remembered for both. He saw himself as a canary in the coal mine, a writer — and thinker — who could, and should, say anything. Part of his mission was to shake us out of our complacency, even (or especially) when that meant being contrarian. He was both an elitist and a populist, someone who could, without apparent contradiction, tell stories about his relationship with John F. Kennedy and rail against the abuses of entrenched power.
Such extremes motivate the best of his fiction, and they also reside at the center of his essays, which are gathered in more than a dozen collections, including the National Book Award-winning “United States.” If the sheer range of his work makes him difficult to categorize, then this, too, is part of who he was.
For Vidal, the world was both subject and spectacle, and in his inability to reconcile these two perspectives, his point of view was forged. It’s a point he makes explicit in his 1992 novel, “Live From Golgotha,” in which television crews go back in time to tape the Crucifixion — the ultimate conflation of history and entertainment, played large across the video screen.
“Live From Golgotha” is not a major work, yet in its cynicism, its sense of going to extremes, it tells us something important about how Vidal saw the world.
“A story of worn faith,” he called the book in an interview given while he was writing it, and thinking about him now, that seems a fitting epitaph for both the man and his career.