Gore Vidal, like his contemporaries Louis Auchincloss and William F. Buckley, was of an American type that is now almost extinct: the bookish aristocrat, thoroughly well educated at the best schools and thoroughly well traveled, connected to all the right people, capable of summoning up a fragment from Proust or a jotting from the notebooks of Adams and Jefferson in an instant.
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All three took their duties as spokesmen for that culture seriously, noblesse being obliged to do so. But Vidal’s mission was all the more charged—not only was he an aristocrat, but he was also committed to a kind of aristocratic lowercase libertarian vision in which there was actually room for democracy, an authentic Jeffersonianism without all the neo-Confederate trappings it comes wrapped in these days.
Vidal well knew the dangers of that ingrown aristocracy, one that is exercising an increasing hold over American politics. His own favorite example of imperial decadence may have been the Bush dynasty (noteworthy among its members, for all the wrong reasons, “the charmingly simian George W. Bush”), but he did not exempt himself from the proceedings. After all, he maintained, he himself had grown up in the House of Atreus, if one with fewer instances of incest and parricide than the original.
Vidal, who died Tuesday at the age of 86, knew his classical references, but also his American history, the lens through which he judged much of the modern world. It’s no accident that he should have written about that dark figure from our past, Aaron Burr, with the same sense of conspiracy with which he enshrouded his understanding of the assassination of John Kennedy, and no accident that he saw shadows of Caligula’s Rome on every street corner in Washington and New York. Michelle Bachmann has said that reading Burr so revolted her that she became a Bible-bearing right-winger after closing it, but one has to wonder about such road-to-Damascus tales, particularly since Burr, apart from, well, a little aristocratic incest, was mild compared to some of his other dissections of America’s political past, few of which would have passed the Parson Weems test of patriotic deification.
But Vidal was a patriot, an American through and through, if one who lived for much of his life, like Henry James, another critic of the Gilded Age, in voluntary exile. From the splendid Amalfi Coast, he took aim at targets across the Atlantic, hitting doctrinaire members of both reigning parties with the same blast. A typical pronouncement: “Republicans are often stupider and more doctrinaire than the Democrats, who are cuter, a bit more corrupt (sigh of relief), but willing to make small—very small—adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists [are concerned].”
Thus Vidal in Imperial America, one of many books of what might be called political criticism. He exercised that criticism not just in essays and journalism, though; read in a certain light, even an essentially goofy novel such as Myra Breckenridge can be considered a species of that particularly Vidalian genre. It’s hard to imagine now, but when it was published 44 years ago, Vidal’s gender-bending yarn of Hollywood—a metonym for America—was considered pornographic and a candidate for banning in precincts across the land. It doesn’t help, perhaps, that certain marital aids are essential props in Myra/Myron’s tale, but in the years since, Myra Breckenridge has been anointed by none other than Harold Bloom as the product of an author whose “narrative achievement is vastly underestimated by American academic criticism.” The academy continues to ignore Vidal, apart from the occasional course in queer theory, of course, but that has done nothing to diminish his status as one of the most important writers of the late 20th century, and one whose every book, if not always essential, was at least worth reading.
A scrapper to the last, Vidal lost a bit of his oomph in his last years. In part that was a function of age and debility, but in part it was because he was the last of the last cohort of American writers to practice to perfection the art of the literary feud. He wrangled legendarily with Buckley, with Truman Capote, with Norman Mailer, and with many other lesser lights. When he was the last man standing, the joy in the enterprise disappeared, and some of his last public moments were marked by a kind of tired bitterness in which he spoke darkly of decline and fall, of looming fascism, of apocalypse. All those things may yet be in the cards, but we might prefer to remember Vidal, writer, gadfly and revolutionary patrician, with one of his happier quips, such as this: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus.