In those journals in which they appear, Gore Vidal’s essays are the intellectual equivalent of the comics. Intellectual journals are not noted for providing many laughs, but laughter is Gore Vidal’s specialty—what he plays for and what he is about. The chief ploy in a Vidal essay is to point out that the emperor has no clothes and then to go a step further and remove the poor man’s skin. The spectacle can be most amusing, assuming, of course, that it is not one’s own carcass that is being stripped. But two questions present themselves: How serious is Gore Vidal? And how seriously ought he to be taken?
As it should in a familiar essayist, Gore Vidal’s personality permeates all he writes. More than merely permeating his essays, his personality is, as we nowadays say, very much up front. His grudges, his biases, his social origins, hints about his sexual adventures, the bits of gossip he has to divulge—all come into play. Often it is less what he has to say than what he says by the way that is of greatest interest. While he claims to detest the cult of personality in writing, perhaps no other contemporary writer plays to it as thoroughly as he. Along with his lacerating wit, his splendidly fluent prose, and his wickedly funny mimicry, it is part of the attraction.
Another part of the attraction is that Gore Vidal, in this nation of the sons and grandsons of immigrants, is moderately well born, passing, among Americans, as something of an aristocrat. The reason that we know this is that he keeps telling it to us. His maternal grandfather was Senator T. P. Gore of Oklahoma; his father was said to have been the best all-around athlete ever to have attended West Point, as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first Director of Aeronautics; he himself was a friend of Mrs. Roosevelt; and his stepfather, whom he shared briefly with Jacqueline Kennedy, was Hugh Auchincloss. Far from resenting their upper classes, Americans tend to be quite balmy about them. As a celebrity intellectual, a habitué of the television talk shows, Gore Vidal is the equal in fame to his political opposite number, William F. Buckley, Jr. Quite apart from one’s politics, a good accent and what is taken to be an aristocratic point of view are no deterrent in these democratic United States.
Gore Vidal has also been not only a highly productive but a considerably successful writer, though his success has perhaps not been quite of the kind he would have wished. While his fiction more often than not achieves the commercial status of best-sellers, it has not been taken as seriously as he should no doubt like. But he is generally considered to be a master of the essay. (“America’s finest essayist,” says the New Statesman.) Novelist and essayist are not altogether separate creatures, however. Aristocratic yet radical heroes out of tune with their times—Julian the Apostate, for example, or Aaron Burr—these are the figures Gore Vidal the novelist is drawn to; it is also the kind of figure upon which Gore Vidal the essayist has modeled himself. If his standing in the view of the world is not so high as he might like, in his own view it is very high indeed. Self-love, in him, does not go unrequited. In a recent interview, he has compared himself as a critic to Edmund Wilson; Vidal is used to placing himself among good company. But mightn’t this be, one wonders, an act not of social but of intellectual climbing?
As a critic, Edmund Wilson was preeminently the connoisseur. His great art was that of an introducer and importer of literature, which, without a trace of condescension, he would lay out before his readers: explaining how a piece of literature works, why it is important, what its place is in the grand scheme of things. As with so many writers who have spent their careers chiefly on the attack—Dwight Macdonald, say, or John Simon—Gore Vidal, unlike Wilson, has no convincing language of praise.
In two of the essays in his most recent collection, Matters of Fact and Fiction,1 Vidal does come to praise rather than, as usual, to bury—and neither essay quite convinces. The first is “The Great World and Louis Auchincloss,” in which Vidal sets out to make the case that Louis Auchincloss’s talent as a novelist has gone insufficiently recognized because, in the 50’s, “he did not appear to deal with anything that really mattered, like the recent war, or being Jewish/ academic/middle class/heterosexual in a world of ball-cutters.” Louis Auchincloss himself has written: “I was perfectly clear from the beginning that I was interested in the story of money: how it was made, inherited, lost, spent.” This is a very great subject, and Vidal’s case for the novelist who has chosen to take it up is compelling up to a point—the point at which one reads Auchincloss’s novels. If one has, then Vidal’s essay is likely to seem an instance of what the English call over-egging the pudding. Although he is a novelist of seriousness, Louis Auchincloss’s novels suffer from what is perhaps the upper-class fault of too great a reticence. He is interested in money, all right, but he does not tell us enough about the mechanics of it. Too often, moreover, his novels degenerate into the stale, and rather card-board, drama of the depredations of new money upon old money. But in Vidal’s telling, the neglect of Louis Auchincloss is tantamount to our neglecting the direct novelistic descendant of Henry James and Edith Wharton in our midst.
The other writer Vidal praises is Italo Calvino. Here his task more closely resembles that which Edmund Wilson regularly took upon himself—a bit of “cultural cross-fertilization,” as Wilson used to call it, introducing the little-known work of a writer of one country to the readers of another. Vidal goes through the Wilsonian steps, telling us what is special about Calvino’s talent, specifying what he does that no other novelist does, patiently tracing his development by summarizing each of his novels. But then, when he comes to the crux of the matter, the point at which Calvino appears to have struck out for new literary ground in a new “marvelous creation,” Vidal backs away. “I shall spare myself the labor,” he writes, “noting, however, that something new and wise has begun to enter the Calvino canon. The artist seems to have made a peace with the tension between man’s idea of the many and of the one.” Here, at just the point where Edmund Wilson would have rolled up his sleeves and set to work, Vidal departs the premises.
As a literary critic, Vidal is much to be preferred on the attack, where he can work his ploy of the emperor-has-no-clothes. The three best essays in Matters of Fact and Fiction are essays of this kind: “French Letters: Theories of the New Novel,” “The Hacks of Academe,” and “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction.” All three have to do with the so-called “post-modernist novel,” the first with its theoretical underpinnings, the second with the criticism devoted to it, and the third with the American products themselves, the fiction of Barthelme, Barth, Gass & Company. The first essay is appropriately serious—fewer detours’ for snideness, fewer one-liners; the second two essays are straight-out devastating. The effect is that of a literary massacre; when Vidal is finished, in the words of one of Truman Capote’s killers in In Cold Blood, there is hair and flesh all over the walls. If one happens to come to these essays already in agreement with Vidal—as I did—then one can only salute him for a job supremely well done.
One of the tests of a critic, however, is how persuasive he is when one does not come to his work already in agreement. Does he persuade one to change one’s mind, or at least to reconsider one’s own position? In “The Top Ten Best Sellers,” Vidal had the nice notion of reviewing the best-selling fiction of the spring of 1973. The result is, predictably, a romp. Alas, one of the novelists on the list happens to be a serious one, perhaps the most serious novelist now at work, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (It could have been worse; one of Gore Vidal’s own novels could have been on the list; or one by Saul Bellow, a novelist he is on record as admiring. The best-seller list can be more complex a matter than Vidal makes it out to be, namely, a perfect reflection of the shabby tastes and pitiful fantasies of his countrymen.)
How does Vidal deal with Solzhenitsyn? Callowly, I should say, and callously. He refers to him more than once as “the noble engineer.” After making the obligatory remarks about Solzhenitsyn’s courage, he scribbles the by now crusty cliché of those who do not—or cannot—come to terms with Solzhenitsyn’s work that “we must honor if not the art the author.” He then goes on to dismiss Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 in a few jokey paragraphs. Not a very impressive performance, especially when, in the same essay, he praises Mary Renault for forcing “even the dullest book-chat writer to recognize that bisexuality was once our culture’s norm and that Christianity’s perversion of this human fact is the aberration and not the other way round.”
Not that it is surprising that Gore Vidal is dismissive of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A figure such as Solzhenitsyn is, to put it gently, an enormous inconvenience to a writer with Vidal’s politics; as great an inconvenience, in a different way, as he was to Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. What are those politics? If is not sufficient to say that they are conventionally left wing. They are fanatical in their conventionality, exceptional in their utter unoriginality. To get a firmer idea of what Gore Vidal’s politics are, one must imagine someone who has over the past ten years read every single issue of the Nation, Ramparts, and the New York Review of Books and believed every word he has read. Things, in Vidal’s politics, couldn’t be worse—or less complicated. As sophisticated as Vidal can be in literary matters, so is he coarse in political matters. Attend to a few scraps of sentences which one can finish on one’s own: “Since we are essentially a nation of hustlers. . . .”; “The United States has been a garrison state for the last thirty-two years. . . .”; we are “a nation that worships psychopaths. . . .”; “the master-criminal Lyndon Johnson. . . .”; “the federal constitution . . . has gone on protecting the property of the worthy for two hundred years. . . .”; “The United States has always been a corrupt society. . . .”; and so on.
What Vidal has done, in the essays that comprise the section of his book he entitles “Matters of Fact,” is to find books for review that result in essays which give full vent to his politics. Most of the essays are thus setups—so many milk bottles to be knocked over by Vidal’s spitballs. Vidal on West Point is the usual philippic about the military-industrial complex. Vidal on a book about ITT is the standard stuff about the evils of the multinational corporations, with references down nostalgia alley all the way back to United Fruit stories. Vidal on E. Howard Hunt attempts to make a case for Lee Harvey Oswald being not a left- but a right-winger. Vidal on Robert Moses displays the stock-in-trade items about the infinite corruptibility of urban politicians.
In short, no surprises, though quite a few disappointments. Put through the meat grinder of Vidal’s politics, even such appetizing subjects as the Adams family and Ulysses S. Grant are chopped up into the same dull hamburger: the first Vidal finds interested chiefly in protecting the property of what in America passes for an elite, the second was corrupted in a country that, then as now, has always been corrupt. Vidal refers to the right-wing nightmares strewn with “commie-weirdo-fag-nigger-lovers,” but his own nightmares are strewn with CIA-Mafia-military-industrial-Rock-efeller-jock-heterosexuals. Crude politics makes bad literature.
Still, Vidal remains famous for his wit. Above all else—even despite all else—it is what one reads him for. But this book forces the question, What is the nature of that wit? There is wit that is gentle, wit that is playful, wit that is wise. But Gore Vidal’s wit is angry; it needs a target, some person or thing to spit on or kick over. Witty though they may be—without the wit they would be altogether unreadable—these are the essays of an angry man. One senses the vigor of grudge behind so much of what he writes. What is the source of Gore Vidal’s anger?
On the face of it, he has many reasons for contentment. As a novelist, he sells well and reaches a wide audience. He has worked in Hollywood, for television, and on Broadway, and come away uncontaminated. His celebrity is substantial, the equal certainly to that of the other celebrity intellectuals of our day: Galbraith, Buckley, Capote, Mailer. Yet his anger is nonetheless real, unlike that of, say, George Bernard Shaw, who in his later years came to seem a professional maverick, a man working an act that had worked very well for him in the past. Vidal’s anger is best understood if we look at the villains of his essays—Jews, academics, the middle class, and heterosexuals—and attempt to understand why he regards them as villainous.
Jews and academics are bound together in Vidal’s contempt, and both, it does not seem going too far to surmise, are connected with his own discontent over his status as a novelist. As a novelist of seriousness writing for a large public, Vidal has compared himself with Saul Bellow, but he is, so far as is known, alone in making the comparison. Nobody else has done so; neither among academic nor among metropolitan critics. In “The Great World and Louis Auchincloss,” Vidal refers to “the breathy commercial fictions of all Irvingses—so unlike the higher relevancies of all the Normans.” Earlier he complains about Alfred Kazin’s reference to Jews as “the mental elite of the power age.” He is fairly open in his complaint that Jewish writers seem, as they say on the fair grounds, to have an X on the joint—the X being a monopoly, the joint being contemporary American fiction. A conspiracy is hinted at; hence the neglect of poor Louis Auchincloss. Yet, as conspiracy theories go, this one is already badly dated. The fabled renaissance in fiction by Jewish writers appears already to have petered out, and such public as exists for serious fiction has begun to look elsewhere.
As for Vidal’s hatred of the middle class, this is connected with his hatred of, if not heterosexuals, then all that is implicit in heterosexuality: family, raising children, saving, looking to the future through one’s children, religion, the humdrum business of life lived in the quotidian. Vidal has never made any secret of his own homosexuality—in The City and the Pillar (1948) he published one of the first explicit novels about homosexuality in this country—but of late he has become a propagandist for what once used to be justified as a mere preference. “The love that dare not speak its name,” homosexuality used to be called; but so completely have the tables been turned that it now appears to be heterosexuals who dare not speak the name homosexuality. In the reviews of Matters of Fact and Fiction that I have read no one has seen fit—not in the New York Times Book Review or in Harper’s—to mention that homosexuality is a strong motif running throughout the book.
It would be better literary manners not to mention sex at all—one wouldn’t in the case of most heterosexual writers, with the possible exception of Norman Mailer—but it becomes impossible not to do so here, because Vidal drags (no pun intended, as he would say) it in wherever possible; to the point, even, of obsession. The respectable public (as opposed to the university) novel, he writes, “is always naturalistic, usually urban, often Jewish, and, of course, deeply, sincerely heterosexual.” Part of the reason for the neglect of Louis Auchincloss is “the continuing heterosexual dictatorship that has so perfectly perverted in one way or another just about every male in the country.” Remarking upon Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough in his “The Ten Top Best Sellers” essay, Vidal writes: “A peculiarity of American sexual mores is that those men who like to think of themselves as exclusively and triumphantly heterosexual are convinced that the most masculine of all activities is not tending to the sexual needs of women but watching other men play games. I have never understood this aspect of my countrymen but I suppose there is a need for it (bonding?), just as the Romans had a need to see people murdered.”
Sometimes Vidal’s obsession with homosexuality gets a bit confusing. He routs the myth that “all SS were fags,” for example, which would seem to mean that homosexuality is not itself evil. Yet later, in a capsule standard caricature of J. Edgar Hoover—in Vidal’s view the moral equivalent of an SS man—Hoover is accused of being homosexual. Then again he informs us that another (for him) American SS man, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was also a homosexual: “Just another genial pol with a drinking problem and an eye for the boys.” Whatever is going on here, it sounds unpleasantly like fag-baiting.
“I touch with reluctance, and despatch with impatience,” wrote Gibbon in Chapter 44 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “a more odious vice, of which modesty rejects the name, and nature abominates the idea.” In his essay on the memoirs of Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal writes: “I never had the slightest guilt or anxiety about what I always took to be a normal human appetite.” On the one hand Vidal remarks upon “the homophobia which is too much a part of the national psyche,” while on the other hand he pours on the allusions, jokes, and straight talk about homosexuality, even occasionally, as in the Tennessee Williams essay, serving it up for entertainment. When referring to the propensity for sexual exaggeration of the young Truman Capote, for example, he writes: “I should note that the young Capote was no less attractive in his person then than he is today.”
One might leave all this alone if Vidal didn’t posit the notion that to be heterosexual is to be, somehow, stunted if not sick. (As bad, even, as being middle class or American.) Gore Vidal’s homosexuality is of a contentious kind. He uses the word “homosexualist” as an honorific, rather like aerialist. Unlike other literary men who have come to terms with their homosexuality—W. H. Auden and E. M. Forster prominent among them—Vidal, for all his talk about freedom from guilt and anxiety, has not. In a recent essay on Christopher Isherwood, not included in this collection, he lauds Isherwood—who has himself of late spoken about “why there shouldn’t be the most powerful sort of love, like St. Francis’s, applied to one-night stands”—for obeying what he and other homosexuals construe to be the ecological imperative of not reproducing children.
The interesting problem, of course, is to what extent Gore Vidal’s politics are the result of his contentious homosexuality. Is nihilism built into a certain strain of homosexuality? Many of the Pied Pipers of the youth rebellion of the late 60’s were homosexuals. One of the disappointments of Martin Green’s otherwise fascinating book, Children of the Sun, was the author’s refusal to draw the line—or erase it completely—connecting sexual to political adventurism. Perhaps no firm connection can be made. But the question remains.
1 Random House, 285 pp., $10.00.