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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Remembering Gore Vidal: playwright, novelist, essayist, critic

“To find someone writing in English, who, like Gore Vidal, distinguished himself as a historical novelist, a commercial playwright, a political activist, and a dandy, attracting controversy and opprobrium along the way, one would have to go back to Edward Bulwer-Lytton,” writes Laurence Senelick in The American Stage. Reviewing Vidal’s life and work in The New York Times, Charles McGrath also conjures with evocations of another era, describing “Mr. Vidal” as “at the end of his life, an Augustan figure, who believed himself to be the last of a breed. He was probably right.”

Vidal often weaved scenes and people from his life into his writing, and his close friendships with fellow playwrights, including Tennessee Williams, disinclined him to criticize plays. However, on those occasions when he wrote about theater, Senelick observes, he delivered “the elegantly styled responses of a discriminating and intelligent insider.” Here he traces the theater’s “beautiful circle of love”:
The desire to give pleasure is a fundamental characteristic of the popular artist. . . .The literary pleasure givers are happiest using the theater, loneliest in the novel. . . And it is understandable. A most tangible audience responds like a lover to pleasure given, and in his audience’s response the artist is himself ravished by what he has done. The result is a beautiful circle of love which at its truest has been responsible for much good art in the theater along with most of the bad.
Vidal joined the lonelier pleasure givers in crafting some twenty-five novels, the most popular being his series of scrupulously researched historical novels. By far the most popular was his lively portrait of our sixteenth president in Lincoln, published in 1984. In one scene, excerpted in The Lincoln Anthology, Lincoln and William H. Seward pay an unannounced visit to lame duck president James Buchanan at the White House in 1861:
Lincoln was staring at a pile of white marble blocks, at whose center the base of an obelisk rose. “They’ve still not finished that monument to Washington?” 
“No, sir. In fact, nothing is ever finished here! No dome on the Capitol. No street pavings. No street lamps. Nothing ever done to completion here except, sir, one thing.” The old man’s head now rested on his shoulder and the bad eye was entirely shut as, with a quiet joy, he pointed out the window. “There,” he said. “Look.” 
 Lincoln stared at a huge red-brick wall. “The one thing that the Executive Mansion has dearly needed since Mr. Jefferson’s time was a proper barn. . . . You don’ t know the pleasure it has given me these last four years to see this beautiful barn slowly rise from that swamp they call the President’s Park.”
“And watch the Union fall apart,” said Lincoln to Seward as the two men crossed the President’s Park . . .
McGrath writes in his obituary that in the opinion of many critics “Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays.” Objections to America’s foreign policies permeate Vidal's political essays, yet, as Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes in The Mark Twain Anthology, “Any attempt to read Vidal’s blunt dissent from American pieties as anti-American is of necessity derailed by the fact that Mark Twain was there first.” Reveling in their shared antipathies to the course of American empire, Vidal wrote the introduction to an edition of Twain’s Following the Equator and Anti-Imperialist Essays.
[Twain’s] To the Person Sitting in Darkness was published as a pamphlet in 1901, a year in which we were busy telling the Filipinos that although we had, at considerable selfless expense, freed them from Spain they were not yet ready for the higher democracy, as exemplified by Tammany Hall, to use Henry James’ bitter analogy. Strictly for their own good, we would have to kill one or two hundred thousand men, women and children in order to make their country into an American-style democracy.
In other essays Vidal studiously reappraised and resurrected the work of writers he deemed underappreciated. When he declared Dawn Powell a “comic writer as good as Evelyn Waugh and better than Clemens” in The Antioch Review in 1981, he sparked a revival of interest in her work that led to many of her books returning to print and, eventually, to her inclusion in The Library of America. Six years later, he published an extensive title-by-title review of her fourteen novels in The New York Review of Books, (the review appears in full on The Library of America’s Dawn Powell website):
For decades Dawn Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion. But despite the work of such dedicated cultists as Edmund Wilson and Matthew Josephson, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell never became the popular writer that she ought to have been. In those days, with a bit of luck, a good writer eventually attracted voluntary readers and became popular. Today, of course, "popular" means bad writing that is widely read while good writing is that which is taught to involuntary readers. Powell failed on both counts. She needs no interpretation and in her lifetime she should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald or the mid O'Hara or even the late, far too late, Katherine Anne Porter. But Powell was that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less a final, down payment on Love or The Family; she saw life with a bright Petronian neutrality, and every host at life's feast was a potential Trimalchio to be sent up.
Vidal was a close friend of Richard Poirier, the founding chairman of The Library of America who died in 2009, and he dedicated the 1983 novel Duluth to him. He also served for many years on the board of advisors for The Library of America, and he closely followed the progress of the series, offering advice and suggestions and writing an introduction especially for a paperback edition of Lincoln’s writings and speeches. His presence, advice, generosity, and wit will be missed.

Related LOA works: The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner; The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now; The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works; Dawn Powell: Novels 1930–1942; Dawn Powell: Novels 1944–1962


  1. Will we be getting Vidal's works in the Library of America, starting with his collected essays?

  2. Pierre: We don't know yet the situation with his estate or the rights but it's far too soon to say when or if we might be able to publish a collection of his writings. The idea has never been far from our minds.

  3. Very kind of you to respond. We'll keep our fingers and Gores crossed. Thanks.

  4. Three years later: are we closer to an edition? I for one would like to see the Narratives of Empire in a single volume. ~ Jon Paul


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