United States (Essays 1952-92)
by Gore Vidal
Published by Andre Deustch, 1295 pp. £25
Reading this book is an intrusion, an eavesdropping on private dialogue between America's greatest living belle-lettriste/ agitator and the United States of his ideals, or perhaps of his fantasies. He would like to talk to America, to the Just Republic, but failing that, knowing it never existed, he will talk to Americans, and, most often, talk down to them from the height of his arrogance, intelligence and wit.
His reviews are a serious and sober call to read better; his polemics a call to Americans to discard illusions about politics, religion, history and sex; his more general essays a call for that joie de vivre debauched out of Americans by the synthetic pleasures of consumerism. His tendency to the mandarin and the over-subtle is mitigated by his sense of simple pleasures - whether those be the flying lessons of his boyhood or the elegant humiliation of his enemies.
Other artists in his position have played with paradox; he lives it - to rebuke a society for intellectual frivolity, he performs on its chat shows; he is Jeremiah, but a Jeremiah so committed to his message that he will endure the shame of motley to do it, act as the licensed jester of the American imperium.
Some of his most telling essays are those in which he talks of men and women, dedicated to public service, whom he knew in childhood and adolescence. His isolationist grandfather, Senator Gore, and his family friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, were bitter political enemies; what united them was a devotion to the Republic; Vidal is often flippant and name-dropping when he writes about his Washington childhood, but there is an underlying seriousness which makes his memoir pieces particularly impressive. What was important about Gore and Eleanor was not that they were right, or even that they were unimpeachably honest, but that they put the Republic ahead of their own comfort; his scepticism about the blessed Kennedy dynasty is based on a sense that they did not.
The sequence of novels about American political history which is his finest achievement is of its nature a replacement for actual power; Vidal has stood for, but never been elected to, public office, and his closest relationship to power has been that of an informed outsider - the son, the stepbrother-in-law, the seventh cousin, tolerated at tea and dinner, but shut out of the Oval Office. The power of those novels comes from the fact that the also-ran, the poor relation, may not be directly useful to the Republic, but is a fine vantage point for fictions that will educate the powerful in what they are doing, and how it looks.
Such is the corruption of intellectual life by the academy that the gentleman scholar and artist is forced to get his hands dirty in historiography; Vidal is a writer of fiction, but the fact that he is traducing sacred beliefs has not escaped attention. The essays here in which he trounces patriot historians for impugning his accuracy are a guilty pleasure and not his best work; men not his equals are getting in the way of his work for the Republic, and he will stamp them down into ridicule.
Sense of duty is central to Vidal, and admirable; what is more problematic is that it is part of a carefully constructed and maintained sense of ego that includes other aristocratic affectations. His contempt for the standard machismo of the male American writer - a contempt we can here see growing over the years in his inexorable quarrel with Norman Mailer, once his friend - holds locked within it a cult of silent personal toughness allied to intolerance for weakness. He has problem with camp, which he only ever resolved in Myra Breckinridge, where the transsexual protagonist parodied his own messianic tendency, his own attempt to put the clock back and make the times run right.
His writings on sexuality point to one difficulty with the anti-essentialist, social construction hypothesis of its formation; for Vidal, this intellectually reputable argument that there are no sexual identities, only sexual acts, overlaps rather too heavily with a gentlemanly sprezzatura, a statement that one, being who one is, may take one's pleasure privately with whom one chooses. He has defended this position with a courage and wit that puts to shame many Gay Liberationist academics and activists; his independence from Left piety meant he could attack Podhoretz's attempt to mate homophobia with Zionism and not worry about (unjust) accusations of anti- Semitism. His attacks on the heterosexual dictatorship have, however, not always been phrased in terms calculated to give heart to a working-class lesbian in Macclesfield.
Vidal's cult of personal gallantry and prowess of its nature excludes a capacity for solidarity, and limits his sympathies; he is intolerant of writers who are doing things of which he cannot immediately see the point. His sniping at Pynchon, for example, looks shabby when one reads his own more ludic books; the author of Duluth is not entitled to sneer at the author of The Crying of Lot 49. Generally, he is right to question whether writers belong in the belly of the academy, whether the novel should be an elite form; oddly, he has never considered popular or genre fiction except to sneer at it, and rarely mentions or lists his own early thrillers as 'Edgar Box'.
His preference is for writers who stand alone, and preferably for writers who are outlaws and gentlemen, whatever their sex. He writes well about other crusaders for some of the same causes, like Edmund Wilson and Christopher Isherwood, particularly when he can distance himself from their vices - Wilson's taste for drunkenness and landscape-writing, Isherwood's religiosity. He has a gift for friendship, not unalloyed with amiable malice; his pieces on such old associates as Tennessee Williams are as much memoir as review, reminding one why candid friends are dreaded.
His essays on less known writers like Dawn Powell and Frederic Prokosch are entertaining sales pitches; he honours piety to forgotten friends and duty to the canon. There is also here, though, a sense of the sad nobility of failure which overlaps with his sense of waste at Mishima's suicide; Vidal is ruthless with himself, knows that he has not saved the Republic. His sympathies are with Myra and Julian who fail to remake the world to their heart's desire, to prevent the triumph of Christianity and television; he is less sympathetic to those who, like the Buddha in Creation or Kelly in Kalki, succeed in imposing their visions. Failure is the prerogative of the gentleman as well; the successful of this world, whether Christ or Reagan, are so deeply vulgar!!
George Orwell remarked of Wells, with whom he had his differences - Wells called him a shit - that, crucially, when he was growing up, he felt Wells was on his side. No-one who regards themselves as a radical, a pervert or a humanist can fail to be irritated by Vidal's manner and much of his substance; no-one should forget that he has, for the last forty years, been a powerful and witty voice on the side of Us against Them. He has been the irregular outrider of good causes - flexible, mobile, and, like good light cavalry, managing to lead the enemy onto ice that bears his weight, but not theirs.