Love it or loathe it, you can never leave it or lose it.
— Gore Vidal on the US, in Duluth (1983)
He was very quick, cerebrally deft. Whatever he wrote – be it on the novel (birth, death exaggerated or otherwise), ancient Rome, Richard Nixon or sexual freedom – he was always channelling his interests in the United States. To be a genuine, heart-felt German, argued Friedrich Nietzsche, a good dose of anti-German sentiment was needed. Ditto Vidal on the subject of the United States, country he loved to distraction, even if it was a poison-penned distraction. America’s great scribe was also greatly aggrieved on the pathway the republic had taken – hegemony was a sin that was making the empire fray – rightly so.
To pluck a few literary samples is to do something of a disservice to this prolific enfant terrible, but a few themes certainly come to mind. If American empire was something of a disease, its great explicator and literary doctor was Vidal. The novel Burr (1973) remains a cutting analysis of that golden and flawed generation that pieced together the American Republic – those slave owning aristocrats who could still spout about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Aaron Burr, the third US vice president and slayer of Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, provides the perfect foil – he, after all, had been accused of being anti-American, treason and a host of other naughties, amongst them incest.
His portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (1984) remains powerful, highly readable and anti-hagiographical. What readers get in this novelistic account, better pitched than most histories on the man, is an individual who expanded executive power and enshrined the mysticism of the Union. Emancipating slaves was secondary. The weasel wordsmiths in the academy, supported by an army of “indentured servants” (Vidal’s term) called graduate students, were not impressed. C. Vann Woodward, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, and Richard N. Current, Lincoln’s main biographer, fumed in startled fury at the aspersions. To Current, Vidal “grossly distorts Lincoln’s character and role in history.”
One of Vidal’s favourite subjects open to other merry distortions was America’s most problematic President – Nixon. An Evening With Richard Nixon (1972) is a play that is a patchwork of Nixon’s own quotes. In The Best Man, a play that become a Broadway spectacular in 1960, Nixon finds form in the dark eminence of U.S senator Joe Cantwell. The play prompted an aside from President John F. Kennedy, whom Vidal personally knew. “You know, in a campaign we don’t have all that much time to talk about the meaning of it all.” More’s the pity.
The greatest of those imperial symptoms, Watergate, saw a superb essay on one-time CIA agent and unsuccessful burglar E. Howard Hunt. The “hick from western New York” found the prefect refuge in the CIA, “a marvellous sort of club where he could rub shoulders with those nobles whose savoir-faire enthralled him.”
Very much part of the political continuum was sex. Vidal was a one-man sexual revolution, echoing the themes even before they bubbled to the surface of 1960s America. He loathed the obsession with sexual taxonomy and labels – activities were not categories; laws had no place in regulating the sighs of the bed room. He wrote Jimmie Trimble, one of his great passions who perished at Iwo Jima, into print in The City and the Pillar (1948), a book that made sure he stayed off the review lists for decades. In creating the lusty, adventurous and occasionally sadistic Myra Breckinridge (1968), he was deemed smut’s writer-in-chief.
The hysteria and sexual infantilism Vidal excoriated was pure politics. “Sex is Politics”, Vidal’s essay in the January 1979 issue of Playboy, was a succinct summary of authoritarianism in morality. “Although our notions about what constitutes correct sexual behaviour are usually based on religious texts, those texts are invariably interpreted by the rulers in order to keep control over the ruled.”
Any note on Vidal would be remiss in not documenting a few of his spicy confrontations. His encounter with an irate and shaken William Buckley, Jr. at the 1968 Democratic Convention remains the point of high entertainment, smoulderingly exciting for its pugilistic promise. “As far as I’m concerned,” murmured Vidal before a wounded Buckley, “the only pro or cryto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” As the words found their mark, Buckley threatened to raise a fist. “Now, listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-fascist or I’ll sock you in your goddam face and you’ll stay plastered.” Truly, he who uses force hath only overcome half his foe.
His battles with the literati were also fabulous. Norman Mailer head-butted Vidal in the green room of The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 – a response, probably, for Vidal’s famous riposte to The Prisoner of Sex. Mailer’s poorly argued reaction to the feminists he famously encountered in the Town Hall debate (Germaine Greer, Kate Millett amongst others) prompted the Vidal view that his essay had simply been “three days of menstrual flow.” Mailer proceeded to explain to the audience that Vidal had ruined Jack Kerouac by buggering him. Both Vidal and he were bound together, expressed Mailer, “like a bad marriage.”
Vidal was always sharp on the correction – indeed, being called ‘left’ was as redundant as being called ‘homosexual’. In noting the conversion of the various left-wing activists to conservatism and neo-conservatism in the 1970s, he could barely resist a barb. Against the Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter over their perceived obsession with Israel, he suggested a fifth columnist tendency, highlighting the remark that Podhoretz “personally felt as remote from the American Revolution” as from the “Wars of the Roses”. This was “proof that, in common with most Jews, [his] true loyalty was to Israel rather than to America.”
There will be much bile thrown his way, but even in death, his words will be their own retort. If there was a razor sharp rejoinder, Vidal was there to launch it with well-read precision. Whether he was or wasn’t America’s Montaigne, a writer he much admired, is not the point. The point was that he existed to begin with, the necessary corrective to unbridled power.