By Michael Lind
The Smart Set
Recently, while packing for a move, I came across a letter that Gore Vidal sent me from his home in Ravello, Italy, in the late 1990s.
Vidal, a slight acquaintance, had provided me with a blurb for my book “Up From Conservatism” and we corresponded a few times and met once.
I had forgotten about this letter, and on deciphering the handwritten scrawl on monogrammed blue paper I found Vidal complaining that a critic who had panned one of his books in The New York Times had been hosted the following weekend at their seaside home in Connecticut by Vidal’s arch-rival William F. Buckley Jr. and Buckley’s wife, Pat.
Being obsessed with your place on the literary stock exchange is hardly uncommon among writers. But Vidal seems to have been particularly insecure and competitive, to judge from Jay Parini’s new “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.” Parini turned down his friend Gore’s request to be his official biographer; instead, he has written a combination of a biography, a catalogue raisonne and a memoir.
As Donald Trump might say, at the height of his fame in the 1970s and 1980s Gore Vidal was yuge. Beginning with “Burr,” his historical novels were bestsellers.
His contemporaries John Updike and Philip Roth may have been esteemed by professors, but Gore Vidal was the Great American Novelist for Americans who seldom read novels. With his foreign-sounding name and his vaguely British mid-Atlantic accent, like his bete noire Bill Buckley, Gore Vidal was a middlebrow’s idea of a highbrow.
Before his death in 2012, Vidal suffered a series of setbacks. … His historical and satirical novels got worse and worse.
‘A country lawyer from Webster County’
Many of us, as we age, turn into a parent or a grandparent. Vidal’s hero and model all his life was his (maternal) grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore (1870-1949), a blind Democratic senator from Oklahoma whose populist hatred of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt as warmongering tyrants was passed on to his grandson.
Among the other nuggets in Parini’s biography is the revelation that young Gore and his grandfather wrote to each other of their pleasure on learning of the death of the detested FDR in April 1945.
Vidal posed as a member of one of America’s ruling families like Henry Adams, an intimate of Roosevelts and Kennedys who had betrayed his class to spill the beans, a Tacitus from the senatorial class recording the republic’s decline in an age of American Caesar
According to Parini, Vidal was furious with an earlier biographer, Fred Kaplan, for undermining this pose:
“Kaplan … revealed with patient genealogical research that this writer was not, as the public imagined, a blue-blood aristocrat but the son of a young man from South Dakota who had, by his athletic prowess, managed to get into West Point.
“Eugene Vidal had moved into the great world of Washington society by marrying the daughter of a U.S. senator (Thomas P. Gore). Yet this politician wasn’t a Roosevelt but a country lawyer from Webster County in Mississippi, a man who by grit and determination had found a perch in the Senate.
“Kaplan also revealed that Gore was not — as he often implied in conversation — a Kennedy insider but merely an onlooker.”
An American Oscar Wilde
The novels of his youth were quickly and deservedly forgotten. His best historical novels, published at the height of his powers, are “Burr” and “Lincoln.” But as he wrote more novels to round out his tendentious Narratives of Empire cycle, axe-grinding replaced character-drawing.
My guess is that if what he called “the Great Eraser” does not obliterate his posthumous reputation altogether, Gore Vidal will be remembered as a sort of American Oscar Wilde. Some of his quips may achieve immortality: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”
Gore no doubt would be disappointed by the prospect of being remembered for so little. But few writers are remembered at all.
Michael Lind is a contributing writer for The Smart Set (thesmartset.com), an independent online magazine supported and published by the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A longer version of this column (“The empire of Gore Vidal: The Legacy of an American writer”) was posted in the magazine’s “Idle Chatter” section on Jan. 29.