Gore Vidal was the greatest American essayist of the 20th Century. He was also one of the greatest and most influential historians of the past 100 years.
He died yesterday
and it is important we note his achievement upon his passing. (NOTE: Elaine Woo, of the LA Times, is the best obit writer I've seen and this one is outstanding).
Vidal considered himself as much as chronicler of American history as a novelist. And he was right to do so. When his historical fiction book, Burr, was released in 1973, the consensus of historians, led by the Southern gentleman scholar, Dumas Malone, among others was that the Founders were near saints whose disputes were of the most lofty and important. Malone was a leader of the historians who held that Jefferson was closer to sainthood than every other Founder, and he certainly could not have had any sexual relations with any of his slaves, even the slave, Sally Hemmings, who was the half-sister of Jefferson's pre-deceased wife.
Burr upended this. Burr gave center stage to the rogue Aaron Burr, and showed he was not so different in his political scheming as Jefferson or Hamilton. It was Vidal who combed through the original sources and gave us the understanding that is now nearly commonplace among historians today. Gordon Wood and David Donald, the latter who is the foremost authority on Abraham Lincoln, recognize Vidal's contribution, though other scholar-squirrels, as Vidal calls most academic historians, studiously avoid mentioning him.
It was Vidal, in the mid-1970s, who, in the NY Review of Books, made the case for the brilliance and importance of John and John Quincy Adams. It was Vidal who gave us the first human Lincoln in the 1980s (meaning first in our time, as Herndon's Lincoln did a great job of humanizing Lincoln in the late 19th Century).
Vidal's essays are brilliant not only for their substance, but their prose style. They teem with excitement and continue to fascinate. Vidal, in the 1950s, was prescient in recognizing the literary academy was undermining our studies of the novels of the great writers by losing themselves in the lives of the writers. He also saw how the literature professors would rather teach their literary criticism articles about Sinclair Lewis than have the students read Sinclair Lewis. Vidal, in the 1960s, began to turn his lens toward a long view of American history and politics, and recognized three important points that provide a great insight into what ails us politically:
1. The Property Party, which is divided up into two wings, commonly called the Democratic and Republican parties.
2. The Village, by which he meant the permanent denizens of Washington DC who, no matter who is president, control not merely the cocktail circuit, but the levers of government. These include not merely permanent establishment figures who populate organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations, but lobbyists, kingmakers, and the like. There is a belief among the left blogs that Digby, at Hullabaloo, coined the phrase "The Village" to describe the DC residents. Not true. It may not have been Vidal either, but he was using this phrase in interviews going back to the 1980s at least. I even used the phrase in my book, which I began writing in manuscript form in 1998 and 1999, well before Digby was using the phrase.
3. Vidal understood that Hollywood and Washington DC is a marriage made in heaven. Vidal's historical novel, Hollywood, provides a strong analysis of the interplay of political propaganda and films and the way in which Hollywood money, whether management or the actors or unions, find their way into both Republican and Democratic Parties' coffers. It is thus required reading. One begins to understand how important Thirties Hollywood boy-mogul Irving Thalberg was to the development of political campaign advertising and bundling money on behalf of the powerful economic elements in our society.
Vidal came from an interesting family. His father, a football star at West Point, was a major player in the aviation industry in the 1920s and 1930s. Amelia Earhart loved Vidal's father, though it remain unrequited. He and Earhart founded what became known as TWA airlines. He was the first head of the Civil Areonautics Board for FDR in the 1930s. Vidal was more politically influenced in his early years by Vidal's grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, the first senator from Oklahoma, who was an old Populist Democratic who for rather cranky reasons did not abide FDR or the New Deal. FDR recruited a primary challenger to run against Gore in 1934 and Gore was history. Vidal himself became an American Firster, and was, according to contemporaries, not a liberal at all at the time. By the 1950s, he had become very fond of and friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt and became much more associated with the literary and New Deal left.
One fun note about Vidal: He was the youngest person to fly an airplane in the early 1930s, age 7 I believe.
Vidal had family members who could be traced back to before the founding of the American Constitution. His family stretched to at least Jimmy Carter, though there is more evidence to suggest he is not related to Albert Gore, Sr. or Jr. than Vidal himself believed. His family owned much of the land that was sold to the US government where the White House and Congress and other government landmarks currently sit. He also had famous friends, from Johnny Carson to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, with whom they could be comfortable and lay down their burdens.
Vidal also provided us insight into the understanding where sex and religion intermingle, and that we are not homosexual or heterosexual as much as we engage in those acts, either exclusively or otherwise. Okay, I get squeamish here myself, but Vidal is vital in humbling ourselves in this cultural debate, and causes us to realize we're all a little nutty when it comes to matters of sex.
Finally, there is the canard that Vidal was an anti-Semite. That Vidal lived with a very NY Jewish guy named Howard Auster for over forty years should be immediate proof against the charge. And if you ever met Howard Auster, you'd say, My God, the guy is screaming Jewish. He talked like Harvey Fierstein, and was even a stereotype of many of my Jewish relatives--except they were not homosexual in their practices. Vidal was charged with anti-Semitism for recognizing, in the 1980s, that some American Jews, starting with Norman Podhoretz, had become so wrapped around the axle over Israel that their liberalism was destroyed, and that they were more interested in protecting Israel than the US. I've seen such folks at my temples and synagogues over the years, and immediately recognized the "some" that appeared in the article, which was largely about his squabble with Podhoretz, and Podhoretz's wife, Midge Decter (who herself acquired a reputation based far more on her own actual writings, of being a homophobe). Vidal proved how difficult it is for non-Jews in America to write about Israel or how the American Jewish political groups work, and has had to endure the ridiculous attacks on his integrity ever since that article appeared in The Nation.
I'm of course in mid-week and working, and so there is no time to link to various things. Suffice it to say that America has lost its greatest 20th Century essayist and one of its foremost historians and man of letters.
Vidal outlived most of his adversaries, starting with Bill Buckley, and that did give him some solace, but he has died in deep worry about the viability of the American experiment. He diagnosed the problems in his various State of the Union addresses, which were originally published in Esquire magazine, and thereafter in books and essays and articles in other magazines. I have long said that when the historians of the 23rd Century sift through the wreckage of the American Empire, it will be Vidal to whom they turn for contemporary understanding and wisdom, and not many others.
Hail to Gore Vidal. I'd say rest in peace, but he was a confirmed non-believer in deities, and had a marvelous essay about the wreckage caused by those who believe in Sky-Gods. It is a humbling article for those of us of the monotheistic set and is just another Vidalian insight that we may now cherish as history and life move forward without Vidal.
(Edited: I substituted Woo's great obit for the first shorter obit from CNN. And corrected Howard Auster's name from Austen, though Mr. Auster had originally been known as Austen. MJF).