Major American novelist, essayist, and commentator. Gore Vidal has long been identified as an openly gay writer, and some of his novels and essays have very pointedly addressed gay themes. Yet, his whole body of work is so far ranging in subject and theme that to call him a “gay writer” would seem the equivalent of calling Norman Mailer, one of his most public intellectual combatants, a “Jewish writer.” Iconoclastic to a degree that begs to be described as perversity, Vidal seems to have been driven by the ambition to become the most formidable “man of letters” of his generation. If his achievements have not quite matched his ambition, not even his most vitriolic detractors would claim that he has grossly misjudged his own literary gifts.
Born in 1925 to Nine Gore and Eugene Vidal, the future writer's birth name was Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. He and his parents lived with his maternal grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, in Washington, D.C. Senator Gore was something of an anomaly in the 1930s, when the progressivism of Roosevelt's New Deal dramatically expanded the functions of the federal government and greatly extended its power over the lives of average Americans. An old-fashioned agrarian populist, Senator Gore advocated the sort of economic self-reliance that had been embodied in the figure of the yeoman farmer during the Republic's formative decades and the sort of limited government that had been envisioned by the Democratic-Republicans of the Jeffersonian era.
It is not hard to trace the Senator's considerable influence on his grandson. Several decades later, in a period marked by increasing political, social, and cultural radicalism, Gore Vidal emerged as an unsparingly outspoken critic of both the forces of institutional reaction and the radical movements that seemed, paradoxically, all too ready to adapt their own versions of cant and conformity. Aristocratically disdainful of American mass politics and mass culture, Vidal often seemed an anachronism even as he positioned himself as one of the most reliable acidic commentators on the salient aspects of American myths, manners, and morals in the second half of the twentieth century.
When Vidal was 10, his parents divorced, and shortly thereafter his mother married the scion of a wealthy and influential family, Hugh D. Auchincloss. Moving to Auchincloss's estate along the Potomac River in Virginia, Vidal was exposed to an even broader range of affluent and powerful people than those to whom he had been introduced at his grandfather's house. Indeed, Auchincloss would eventually divorce Vidal's mother and then marry Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, providing Vidal with a familial connection of sorts to the Kennedy White House.
Enrolled in a series of private schools, Vidal had his first homosexual relationship with a classmate at St. Albans and would be devastated when that boy, named Jimmy Trimble, was later killed while serving with the Marines on Iwo Jima. In 1943, Vidal graduated from the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. Enlisting in the military immediately afterward, he served primarily in the Aleutian Islands. This experience provided the subject of Vidal's first published novel, Williwaw (1946), which he began to write while recuperating from rheumatoid arthritis in a military hospital. Focusing on a small group of soldiers whose troop transport is caught in a sudden, violent storm common to the Aleutian region and called a williwaw by the locals, the novel is written in a spare style that has frequently been described as Hemingwayesque. Unlike the most acclaimed novels about the war—Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951) and The Thin Red Line (1962), Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1949), and Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978)—Vidal's debut novel is remarkable for its deliberately limited scope and its understated intensity of focus.
Following the success of Williwaw, Vidal continued in a naturalistic vein to explore the manners and mores of the immediate postwar period. In a Yellow Wood (1947) is a very patient psychological portrait of a man who is faced with a choice between a staid, well-planned and career-oriented life and a more adventurous, bohemian experience. The novel was a modest success, critically and commercially.
In contrast, The City and the Pillar (1948) became a sensational best seller, creating such controversy that it almost derailed Vidal's career. The novel focuses on an athletic and seemingly perfectly “normal” young man named Jim Willard. A professional tennis player, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the memory of a homosexual episode with an adolescent friend named Bob Ford. When he eventually crosses paths with Ford again, he confesses his passion, which Ford rejects, discounting their past intimacy as an accidental, adolescent experiment of no lasting consequence. In the original version of the novel, Vidal agreed to his publisher's suggestion that Willard murder Ford, an act that links his secret “perversion” with an unambiguous criminal manifestation. Despite this nod to conventional mores, the novel was widely denounced for its presentation of an all-American protagonist who conceals his homosexuality. Paradoxically, the broad readership that was attracted to its scandalous reputation almost immediately largely declared itself uninterested in reading anything further by its author. And, in this instance, the literary establishment and the general reading public concurred in their judgment.
In 1965, in a revised edition of the novel, more faithful to the original manuscript, Vidal replaced Willard's murder of Ford with a rape. This revision suggests more fully the futility of Willard's sexual obsession, since Ford provokes the violence with a verbal outburst against Willard and since even Willard almost immediately realizes that the rape represents the impossibility, rather than the fulfillment, of a passionate intimacy with Ford. The revised novel was more positively received than the originally published version because the expanding countercultural movements of the 1960s were initiating the “sexual revolution” and a new frankness about topics previously taboo in mainstream America.
Drawing on his knowledge of southern society, Vidal followed The City and the Pillar with a more conventional novel of manners. A wry take on multigenerational melodramas featuring heterosexual sexual obsessions and liaisons, The Season of Comfort (1949) received lukewarm reviews, when it was reviewed at all. Shifting gears dramatically, Vidal next produced the first of his historical novels, A Search for the King: A Twelfth-Century Legend (1950), which concerns the search undertaken by the troubadour Blondel de Neel for Richard the Lionhearted, who had gone missing on his return from the Crusades. Vidal continued to expand his range dramatically in his next three novels, all rather slender works, ranging between 130 and 250 pages. Dark Green, Bright Red (1950) focuses on Americans involved in a Central American revolution. The Judgment of Paris (1952) is a retelling of the Greek myth relocated to postwar America. And in Messiah (1954), he combines social satire with the speculative mode in chronicling the rise, accelerated by modern marketing and media, of a prophet offering a new religion.
Frustrated by the tepid critical reception and lackluster sales of these novels, Vidal spent much of the next decade writing essays, short stories, plays, and screenplays, as well as mystery-detective novels under the pseudonym C. J. Box. His success in all of these genres provided him with some financial security and a renewed confidence as a novelist. The short stories are of particular interest here, for the seven stories collected in A Thirsty Evil (1956) address a broad range of gay themes, from a darkly ironic take on male prostitution to a more subtle treatment of the issues faced by adolescent homosexuals.
Ten years after Messiah, Vidal returned to the novel with Julian (1964), a lavishly detailed historical novel about a fourth-century Roman emperor who attempted to reverse the spread and influence of Christianity. With this novel, Vidal not only reestablished himself as an important novelist, but he found the combination of devices that permitted him to synthesize the long-established conventions of the historical novel with some elements of postmodern experimentation. The bulk of the narrative is presented as Julian's personal journal, but that text is annotated by two of the late emperor's subordinates, who have very different personalities and attitudes toward the text that they are annotating. In this way, the novel probes the distinctions between history and fiction, between public and private selves, and between the enduring and the ephemeral details of events.
Vidal would apply these elements to a series of novels about the development of the United States, emphasizing its transformation from a republic to an empire—and thereby linking it to the transformation of Rome from a city-state defended by citizen soldiers to an imperial capital. This series of novels began with Washington, D.C. (1967), treating the mid-century emergence of the United States as a major world power. Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), and The Golden Age (2000) followed, presenting a chronological survey of American history from the Jeffersonian period to the Cold War. Often described as the crowning achievement of the series, Lincoln is the only novel published out of chronological sequence, with 1876 being published before it to coincide with the bicentennial. With The Golden Age, the series comes full circle, as the concluding novel revisits the era covered in the initial novel, Washington, D.C. Vidal's sometimes idiosyncratic political opinions and his emphasis on gossipy material, along with the perception that the series’ popularity owes more to its conventional narrative elements than to its experiments with form, have seemingly kept the series from being appreciated by the academy as the landmark achievement that it is.
In between the novels in his historical series, Vidal produced a number of decidedly less conventional works. He followed Washington, D.C. with Myra Breckinridge (1968), a satire on the contemporary obsession with sexual self-expression and on the personal identification with the creations of Hollywood, whether the “stars” of the film industry's “golden age” or those of the series produced for network television. Myra Breckinridge is the first postoperative transsexual protagonist in a novel by an indisputably major author, and although the novel is very campy, Myra's behavior and voice are engaging because they are alternately very dryly and very flamboyantly outrageous. As a result, the novel manages to strike more than a single note and is not as constrained by its premise as it might have been. This observation is born out by the limitations of its much less successful sequel, Myron (1974), in which Myra physically reverts to her original gender, although her psychological reversion is much less definitive, leaving her gender identification not just ambiguous but, instead, literally conflicted. In both of these novels, Vidal has drawn on the tradition of fabulation borrowed from speculative fiction by other satirists such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Donald Barthelme.
In his other novels of the last three decades, Vidal has revisited the subjects of some of his earlier efforts and reinvigorated their explorations of their themes. In many ways, Kalki (1978) is a reworking of Messiah, with a pop superstar substituting for the media-promoted prophet. Likewise, a novel in the manner of Julian, Creation (1981) presents the chronicle of the physical wanderings and intellectual restlessness of Cyrus Spitama, the last descendant of Zoroastra. His travels bring him into personal contact with both the Buddha and Confucius, and he offers an Eastern alternative to the Judeo-Christian tradition that is comparable to Julian the Apostate's paganism.
In two of his most recent efforts, Vidal has moved more fully into the realm of speculative fiction, aspects of which he exploited in Myra Breckinridge and Myron. Live from Golgatha (1996) is a postmodern retelling of the New Testament by a disciple named Timothy, who is charged with preserving the gospels but does not quite agree with the details set down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—never mind Paul. And in The Smithsonian Institution (1998), he has explored the nature of time and history, in effect merging the speculative physics of Stephen Hawking with his own speculative notions about historical personalities and events. Although it is not his most successful novel, The Smithsonian Institution does offer a meaningful conjunction between Vidal's historical fictions and his more eccentrically focused fictions.
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