Gore Vidal’s passing this week at the age of 86 has not gone unnoticed. Nearly every US news outlet of consequence along with many overseas at least mentioned it. A few did so at length. Most, however, treated the story as they would the passing of any minor celebrity. More than a few ran clips from the 1968 Democratic Convention in which he and William F. Buckley sparred angrily in what was for both of them uncharacteristically sophomoric fashion – “good television” in today’s reality TV terms, but not really fair to either. None of us should be judged by the occasional off moment. (Gore came off better than Bill, but both were out of line.)
I doubt Gore Vidal expected anything different. In an interview several years ago Gore remarked to an interviewer that he was once a famous novelist. When assured he still was, Vidal argued that the adjective no longer fits the noun. He might well be famous as a TV personality, but not as a novelist, for novels no longer occupy a central place in the culture. Only a tiny minority of adults read novels. The movies and other media dominate instead. He was right, but amid that minority he stood tall.
Gore grew up well connected. His grandfather was Senator Thomas Gore (yes, related to Al Gore), his father was FDR’s aviation expert and a personal friend of Amelia Earhart, and he himself was friends with the Kennedys, he and Jackie Kennedy were “related through divorce” (they had a stepfather in common), and he socialized with many of the postwar literary lights including Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.
Favorite authors are like old friends. Their voices are on hand whenever we need them, and they inform our thoughts as much as anyone we know in person. In this sense Gore is a very old friend, even though we never met and perhaps wouldn’t have liked each other if we had. Our one-sided introduction came when I was 13 years old and rarely read recreationally anything more challenging than science fiction novels aimed at boys my age. For some reason I picked off a shelf at home Dark Green Bright Red, Vidal’s novel of revolution in a Central American country; my mom must have bought it. Even then, something about his style caught my mind’s ear in a way only Mark Twain had done previously. Gore had won a new reader.
A quick look at his bibliography reveals that I’ve read 21 of his 26 novels and short story collections – the missing ones are mostly his early work, though I have read his first book Williwaw as well as The City and the Pillar, the 1948 novel that caught him so much flak at the time for its homosexual themes. I’ve read 2 of his 8 stage plays, a collection of his 1950s teleplays, 13 out of 26 collections of essays, and 2 of his 5 pseudonymous novels. I’ve seen 8 of the 14 movies for which he wrote the screenplays. Not an exhaustive exposure, but a plentiful one.
Vidal’s fiction is varied, to say the least, though the writing is uniformly well-crafted. The historical novels on what he liked to call the American Empire are the finest of their kind, and anyone who is bored by textbook histories would do well to pick up these engrossing books instead: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., The Golden Age. His novels on classical times, Creation and Julian, are on a par with anything by Robert Graves. His off-beat novels, e.g. Myra Breckinridge (don’t judge by the awful movie), are not only fun but have something to say about culture, human nature, politics, and sex.
As an essayist, Gore was unparalleled. He wrote literary criticism and quite a lot about politics and culture. I often found myself on the other side of the political fence from him, but he invariably knew where the fence was and described it with sardonic wit. On purely social issues I almost always agreed with him, and on foreign policy matters I usually did, but we parted company elsewhere. It didn’t matter. He was instructive – perhaps the most instructive – when we disagreed.
Gore was very much a man of the Left and grew more radical as he grew older. He had a visceral distaste for private wealth, especially inherited wealth. Yet, while always antagonistic toward the traditional Right, social conservatives, and neo-cons, he was never doctrinaire. His commitment to civil liberties so outweighed other considerations with him, that in the 90s when asked about party politics, he remarked, “I’m partial to the Libertarians.” In 1980 he said that the best choice was between the Citizens Party (Barry Commoner’s far left party) and the Libertarians. He favored the former, but respected the consistency of the latter; respect for philosophical opponents is something that has grown rare in recent years.
Gore often ignored politically correct niceties. For example, though a fierce proponent of sexual freedom, he disliked the word gay, and argued that there was no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual. “I’ve always said it was just an adjective. It is not a noun.” He said the words describe particular acts; they do not indicate states of being. He argued, sometimes mischievously citing Freud, that individual tastes do indeed vary along a continuum, but that everyone is bisexual. This position exasperated Larry Kramer in a 1992 interview:
LK: But Gore you are gay. You’ve lived with a man for 40 years or something, and everyone who knows you personally knows you are gay. And I think you think of yourself as gay.
GV: I assure you I do not think of myself in these categories. It is like saying I’m a carnivore.
He meant, of course, that he preferred meat dishes but was capable of eating veggies, and that he didn’t form a sense of identity around his food preference.
Whatever one thinks of Gore’s politics, opinions, and fiction, the man by the time of his death was America’s foremost “man of letters,” a term one scarcely hears applied to anyone anymore. And while, once again, we never met, he is also an old friend. I’ll miss him.
Howard Stern's Unconventional Obit