Friday, August 03, 2012

Gore Vidal

The passing a couple days ago of one of the great battlers of 20th-century American literature, Gore Vidal, deserves comment from me, as I was a major fan of much of his writing.

I read several of his historical novels, always finding them entertaining and well-researched.  Vidal was a permanent expatriate for the last couple decades of his life, but he was, in his way, a patriot of this country.  He was a veteran of World War II, and a student of American history.  He was not so fond of what America had become, but what it symbolized, the potential of what America brought to the global political table that was new and promising. These themes were evident in novels such as 1876, Lincoln, and Empire, in which he examined, from the point of view of (largely) unknown participants close to the action, the principles that made America great, on the one hand, and their violation in key historical events  (Empire was about the Spanish-American war; 1876 the incredible election that year;  the other, of course, the Presidency of Lincoln). 

Burr was a more ambitious effort, told from the point of view of Aaron Burr; for Vidal, Burr was the Founding Father whose role history had neglected, and his novel corrects it somewhat, focusing in particular on Burr's prominent role in the Revolutionary War, his leadership (along with Thomas Jefferson) of the anti-Federalists, and his central role in the disastrous Electoral College constitutional crisis in the Presidential election of 1800.  If Vidal wanted to make Burr loved, though, it was not an effort that could succeed.  Burr was a soldier of fortune, a schemer, like Benedict Arnold; in fact, in his later days, Burr was lucky not to have been executed for treason. Finally, of course, Burr was the rival and sworn enemy of Alexander Hamilton, and the one who ultimately killed Hamilton in a duel--the reasons for which were only suggested (Hamilton spreading rumors of Burr's having an incestuous relationship with his daughter).  For me, Vidal identified with Burr as an insider/outsider who was rejected by the elements of "proper society" where he (Vidal/Burr) believed that he belonged.

My favorite of his historical novels, though, was Creation, something quite different.  What Vidal was trying to get at was explaining the movement creating new religions, which occurred independently in several different parts of Europe and Asia in roughly the sixth century B.C.  It was told from the point of view of a Zoroastrian, the first monotheistic religion, which developed in Persia, who visited both to the West and the East and found a ferment about the basic questions which religions sought to answer.  A very important philosophical inquiry, in the form of an engaging adventure story.

I loved reading his essays.  His themes were consistent, almost repetitive:  anti-war, anti-imperialist, seeking and finding conspiracies of evil intent,  politicians (of both parties) taking advantage of the naive and poorly informed.  It was his style which made them worthwhile:  he was a polemicist who would never give ground, who utilized all the rhetorical tools, including satire, ad hominem attacks, logic, and ridicule, to great effect.

I was a little less interested in his social commentary; for one thing, he wasn't too close to American society, being a patrician by birth and an expatriate by choice.  He was bisexual, tending toward same-sex; he was discriminated against, people tried to humiliate him for it, but he was not a spokesman for sexual freedom--at least not directly.  Of course, he did write Myra Breckinridge, a farce about sex change, which was pretty far outside the lines of "normality" at its time, but it wasn't all that entertaining:  its main appeal is the unique pairing of two sexpots from different generations--Raquel Welch and Mae West--in the same movie.

One thing I do in my obituaries of celebrities is to discuss the role of their fame in their life.  Vidal's peak of fame came in the late '60's, after his vitriolic encounters with William F. Buckley, Jr, when both were brought on as TV commentators for the 1968 Democratic convention.  Buckley called him a "queer" and threatened him with violence, Vidal called Buckley a Nazi.  Vidal got a (deserved) reputation from that in the American public as cranky, prickly; this was called out in the famous Lily Tomlin sketches on "Laugh-In" in which she played an unctuous, but ignorant, phone company representative ("Is this the party to whom I am speaking?" she would ask) calling "Mr. Veedle" about his problems with his phone service.  Vidal was already someone who lived more in Italy than the USA, but this was not the kind of notoriety he wanted (though I believe he was a good sport, and did some cameo appearances on the show).  His search for privacy, I believe, led him permanently abroad, and he gradually faded from public view--except in certain circles.  He maintained a good literary reputation, though, politically, he was far from acceptable.

I will give him personal credit--although I had already formulated the term "Bushite", I first saw it in print (outside my blog) when reading an essay of his in The Last Empire--written in 2000!  He was referring to the insubstantial political philosophy of  "Bushism", and did not draw out the colloquial, defecatory allusion which I also favor.  

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