Gore Vidal in a sense had to weather his own gifts. He began publishing novels in his early twenties and always regarded himself as a creator of fictions. His public career as a personality and as someone who became widely known for his work in film, stage, and televison may have obscured the essential goal of his life.
Gore thought of himself as a political man. He told me more than once that except for his audacity in proclaiming his homoeroticism, he would have been elected President of the United States. He did run for state-wide office in California and for the House of Representatives from upstate New York.
Frustrated politically, Gore turned instead to the composition of novels chronicling the political history of the United States. He manifested an astonishing imagination in attempting to realize the American morality of power and its workings.
The best of his novels is Lincoln, which caused controversy when it appeared, and still does not please most scholars who rightly exalt our greatest American President. Reading Vidal’s Lincoln, I perceive Gore’s ambivalence towards the martyred President, but appreciate how dialectically interesting this fictive portrait remains, whatever its actual relationship to the Lincoln of history.
Gore had a healthy distrust of American power politics, and several times told me he could forgive Lincoln for having invented the Imperial Presidency. When I would remind Gore that Lincoln had little choice if he were to save the Union, the novelist replied that in his highly considered judgement it would have been better for all of us had the South departed. Sometimes I wonder if Gore was right. I remember that Emerson opposed the admission of Texas to the Union, warning that Texas would yet destroy America. Gore patiently would explain to me that the South in time would have been forced by world opinion to emancipate the slaves on its own. Whatever one thinks of this, it has the grim political logic in which Vidal moved and had his being.
When I try to sum up Gore’s literary achievement, I would place Lincoln first, and then the novel Burr. In a very different mode, the sublime nastiness of Myra Breckinridge achieves a rancidity that Gore raises to a level of aesthetic splendor.
I remarked to him once that if only he could fuse the veins of Lincoln and Myra he would have achieved a new kind of literary vigor. With a certain sadness, he said he did not think it would be possible for him.
A number of my best students value Gore Vidal primarily as an essayist upon many aspects of the American nightmare. Some of the elements that inhibited him as a novelist tend to vanish when he breathed the free air of voyaging essayist, who wrote for the sheer pleasure of exercising his own very considerable wit.
Gore’s wit could be brutal and quite lethal. Of a certain person who had announced he intended to achieve real importance as a literary editor of a butcher-paper magazine, Gore remarked, “He has very important hair.”
Though he could be acerbic, I always found Gore very kind and gracious, particularly since we had such different temperaments. When I visited him and his life-long partner Howard at Ravello, he was the rarest kind of host, who did neither too much nor too little.
Gore had a very dark conviction that the novel was an outworn genre, and that it should and would die soon after he died. Even if one disagrees with that pessimism, one feels its force. He thought of himself increasingly as being archaic. He phoned me once to tell me that my defense of the Western Canon was both commendable and too belated to be of true use. I never found it easy to disagree with him, and enjoyed the range of his opinions, even if they could not always be converted into knowledge.
How can I sum up a literary career at once so courageous and so misplaced, in its own view? I do not think that Gore was comfortable in the twenty-first century, or for that matter even in the twentieth. He was at home in the United States of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He cared enormously about the future of the American democracy. Even when he was confined to a wheelchair, his spirit remained indomitable, and his rhetoric inventive and free. I think of him now as a very complex and gifted human being, who saw more clearly than most of us the decline of our nation and its hopes for both common and uncommon women and men.