Born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, October 3, 1925, in West Point, NY; son of Eugene Luther (a U.S. government official) and Nina (Gore) Vidal. Education: Graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, 1943. Politics: Democrat.
Home— La Rondinaia, 84010 Ravello, Salerno, Italy. Agent— Lynn Nesbit, 598 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-1614.
Writer. E. P. Dutton, New York, NY, editor, 1946; Democratic Party candidate for Congress in the Twenty-ninth District of New York, 1960; member of President's Advisory Committee on the Arts, 1961-63; host of Hot Line (television program), 1964; cofounder of New Party, 1968-71; cochair of People's Party, 1970-72; ran for nomination as Democratic Party senatorial candidate in California, 1982. Lecturer; has appeared on television and radio talk shows. Military service: U.S. Army, Army Transportation Corps, 1943-46; became first mate; served in Pacific Theater during World War II.
American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1955, for television drama; Antoinette Perry Award nomination for best play, 1960, and for best play revival, 2001, and Drama Desk Award for outstanding revival of a play, 2001, all for The Best Man; Screen Writers Annual Award nomination, and Cannes Critics Prize, both 1964, both for screenplay The Best Man; National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, 1982, for The Second American Revolution and Other Essays; named honorary citizen, Ravello, Italy, 1983; Prix Deauville, 1983, for Creation; National Book Award for nonfiction, 1993, for United States: Essays, 1952-1992; Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France).
Williwaw (also see below), Dutton (New York, NY), 1946, reprinted, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2003, published as Dangerous Voyage, Amereon, 1946.
In a Yellow Wood, Dutton (New York, NY), 1947.
The Season of Comfort, Dutton (New York, NY), 1949.
A Search for the King: A Twelfth-Century Legend, Dutton (New York, NY), 1950.
Dark Green, Bright Red, Dutton (New York, NY), 1950.
The Judgment of Paris, Dutton (New York, NY), 1952, revised edition, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1965.
Messiah, Dutton (New York, NY), 1954, revised edition, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1965.
Julian (also see below; two chapters first published as Julian the Apostate, 1962), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1964, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY), 2003.
Washington, D.C. (part one of series), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1967.
Myra Breckinridge (also see below), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1968.
Two Sisters: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1970.
Burr (part two of series; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
Myron (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
1876 (part three of series), Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
Kalki (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1978.
Creation, Random House (New York, NY), 1981, reprinted, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
Duluth, Random House (New York, NY), 1983.
Lincoln (part four of series), Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
Myra Breckinridge [and] Myron, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
Empire (part five of series), Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
Hollywood (part six of series), Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
Live from Golgotha: The Gospel according to Gore Vidal, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
The Smithsonian Institution, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
The Golden Age (part seven of series), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2000.
MYSTERIES; UNDER PSEUDONYM EDGAR BOX
Death in the Fifth Position (also see below), Dutton (New York, NY), 1952.
Death before Bedtime. . . (also see below), Dutton (New York, NY), 1953.
Death Likes It Hot (also see below), Dutton (New York, NY), 1954.
Three by Box: The Complete Mysteries of Edgar Box (contains Death in the Fifth Position, Death before Bedtime . . . , and Death Likes It Hot ), Random House (New York, NY), 1978.
Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays (contains Visit to a Small Planet [also see below; aired on Goodyear Playhouse, 1955], Barn Burning , Dark Possession , The Death of Billy the Kid , A Sense of Justice , Smoke , Summer Pavilion , and The Turn of the Screw ), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1956.
Dress Gray (based on the novel by Lucien Truscott), National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC-TV), 1986.
Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, Turner Network Television, 1989.
Also author or adaptor of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1955, Stage Door, 1955, A Farewell to Arms, 1955, Honor (also see below), 1956, The Indestructible Mr. Gore, 1959, and Dear Arthur, 1960. Author of teleplays for Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One, and Omnibus Theater.
The Catered Affair, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1956.
I Accuse, MGM, 1958.
(With Robert Hamer) The Scapegoat, MGM, 1959.
(With Tennessee Williams) Suddenly Last Summer, Columbia, 1959.
The Best Man (adapted from Vidal's play of the same title; also see below; produced by United Artists, 1964), edited by George P. Garrett, Irvington, 1989.
(With Francis Ford Coppola) Is Paris Burning? (based on the novel by Dominique Lapierre), Paramount, 1966.
The Last of the Mobile Hotshots, Warner Bros., 1970.
Also author of screenplay adaptations of his novels Kalki and Burr.
Visit to a Small Planet: A Comedy akin to a Vaudeville (also see below; adapted from his television play; produced on Broadway, 1957), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1957, revised edition, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1959.
The Best Man: A Play of Politics (also see below; produced on Broadway, 1960), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1960, revised edition, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1977.
On the March to the Sea: A Southron Comedy (also see below; adapted from the teleplay Honor), produced in Bonn, West Germany (now Germany), 1961.
Three Plays (contains Visit to a Small Planet, The Best Man: A Play of Politics, and On the March to the Sea: A Southron Comedy), Heinemann (London, England), 1962.
(Translator and editor) Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Romulus: A New Comedy (produced on Broadway, 1962), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1962.
Weekend (produced in New Haven, CT, 1968; produced on Broadway, 1968), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1968.
An Evening with Richard Nixon (produced in New York, NY, 1972), Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
Vidal's Romulus: The Broadway Adaptation was performed with Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Romulus the Great (translated by Gerhard Nelhaus), 1966.
Rocking the Boat, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1962.
Sex, Death, and Money, Bantam (New York, NY), 1968.
Reflections upon a Sinking Ship, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1969.
Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-1972, Random House (New York, NY), 1972, published as Collected Essays, 1952-1972, Heinemann (London, England), 1974, published as On Our Own Now, Panther (London, England), 1976.
Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays, 1973-1976, Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, Random House (New York, NY), 1982, published as Pink Triangle and Yellow Star and Other Essays, [London, England], 1982.
Armageddon? Essays, 1983-1987, Andre Deutsch (New York, NY), 1987.
At Home: Essays, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
A View from the Diner's Club: Essays, 1987-1991, Andre Deutsch (New York, NY), 1991.
Screening History, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, Odonian Press, 1992.
United States: Essays, 1952-1992, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
The Last Empire: Essays, 1992-2000, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.
Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, Nation Books (New York, NY), 2004.
A Thirsty Evil: Seven Short Stories (also see below), Zero Press, 1956.
Three: Williwaw, A Thirsty Evil: Seven Short Stories, [and] Julian the Apostate, New American Library (New York, NY), 1962.
(Editor) Best Television Plays, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1965.
An Evening with Richard Nixon (recording; based on Vidal's play of the same title), Ode Records, 1973.
(With others) Great American Families, Norton (New York, NY), 1977.
(Author of introduction) Edith Wharton Omnibus, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978.
(With Robert J. Stanton) Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal, Lyle Stuart (Secaucus, NJ), 1980.
(Author of introduction) Paul Bowles, The Collected Stories, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1983.
(Author of foreword) Logan Pearall Smith, All Trivia, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1984.
(Author of introduction) Tennessee Williams, The Collected Stories, New Directions (Newton, NJ), 1985.
(Author of introduction) Fritz Peters, Finistere, Seeker Press, 1985.
(Author of introduction), Dawn Powell, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1985.
(Editor) Henry James, The Golden Bowl, Penguin (New York, NY), 1985.
Vidal in Venice, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1987.
(Author of foreword) Alfred Chester, Head of a Sad Angel: Stories, 1953-1966, edited by Edward Field, Black Sparrow Press, 1990.
(Author of introduction) Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader, edited by Don Bachardy and James P. White, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.
(Author of foreword) Impossible H. L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories, edited by Marion E. Rodgers, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
(Author of foreword) Robert McAlmon, Miss Knight and Others, edited by Edward N. Lorusso, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1992.
Palimpsest: A Memoir, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
The American Presidency, Odonian, 1998.
Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, Cleis (Pittsburgh, PA), 1999.
The Essential Gore Vidal (omnibus volume), Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
Conversations with Gore Vidal, edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and Nation. Member of advisory board, Partisan Review, 1960-71.
The Death of Billy the Kid was the basis for the film The Left-handed Gun, filmed by Warner Bros., 1958; Visit to a Small Planet was filmed by Paramount, 1960; Myra Breckinridge was filmed by Twentieth Century-Fox, 1970.
In a career that has spanned much of the twentieth century, Gore Vidal has become one of America's literary giants. Familiar during the second half of the twentieth century as a witty and wicked talk show guest, two-time political candidate, and creator of the outrageous fictional character Myra Breckinridge, Vidal also penned numerous novels, plays, screenplays, essays, and reviews. Called "one of the more alert and favoured writers of our time" by a critic in the London Observer, Vidal remained the subject of critical and media attention for much of his career, particularly during and after the 1960s. His work is noted for its eloquence, intelligence, urbane humor, and biting satire, as well as for its attacks on cultural and political sacred cows. "Vidal's novels, plays, and essays can be divided roughly into three areas of animosity," explained Time correspondent R. Z. Sheppard. "The first is the author's belief that Western civilization erred, when it abandoned pagan humanism for the stern, heterosexual authority of the Judaeo-Christian patriarchy. . . . The second area that draws Vidal's scorn is American politics, which he dramatizes as a circus of opportunism and hypocrisy." For the third area, Vidal's "most freewheeling disdain is directed at popular culture, macho sexuality and social pretensions."
Vidal's writings run the gamut from historical fiction to autobiographical essays to political commentary, and his styles range from witty and cultured to sarcastic and acidic. "Vidal is a difficult writer to categorize because he is a man of several voices," wrote Robert F. Kiernan in his book Gore Vidal. "He has brooded over ancient empires in several novels, as though he were possessed by the spirit of Gibbon, yet he has also written about the American crise de virilite and managed to sound a good deal like Hemingway. He has sent young Americans in search of old Europe, as a dutiful son of Henry James, but he has also written novels about the American political system and acknowledged a debt to Henry Adams. In his essays he often seems like Lord Macaulay, magisterial and urbane, while in the Breckinridge novels he evokes Ronald Firbank, irrepressible and playful." In the Nation, Patrick Smith observed: "Vidal has given us many gifts. His gathered essays are nonpareil in postwar American letters. With Julian, published in 1964, he began to exploit the historical novel to an extent no one I can think of approaches. . . . In the land of Updike and Jane Smiley, one does not stray . . . far from the nineteenth century without risking opprobrium. Some of Vidal's risks—too many, one could argue—have not come good. Praise be to him, though, for all the leaps he has attempted. In no artist's work can the failures be subtracted from the triumphs."
An Elitist Upbringing
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born October 3, 1925, in West Point, New York, the son of Eugene Vidal, a professor at the United States Military academy, and Nina Gore Vidal. During Vidal's childhood, his family lived at the Washington, D.C., residence of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, a senator from Oklahoma. Vidal's parents divorced in 1935, and his mother married wealthy financier Hugh D. Auchincloss. From 1936 to 1941 Vidal was educated at a number of boarding schools, including the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico. When his mother later separated from Auchincloss, Vidal drew closer to his grandfather. It was during his time at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire that he shortened his name to Gore Vidal, in commemoration of the senator.Greatly influenced by his grandfather, Vidal developed a lifelong passion for politics. "I do nothing but think about my country," he once noted in a Time article. "The United States is my theme, and all that dwell in it." His interest has taken a variety of forms outside his writing. He twice ran for political office—for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960 and the U.S. Senate in 1982—originated the idea for the Peace Corps, campaigned for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and served as an organizer and secretary-of-state designate for the ultraliberal People's party. He also became well known as a political commentator and journalist. "The only thing I've ever really wanted in my life was to be President," he told a Time writer. His interest in the U.S. political system, as well as his intimate knowledge of politicians and powerbrokers, informs many of Vidal's works, such as his political plays, The Best Man, Weekend, and An Evening with Richard Nixon, and his celebrated historical novels, Washington, D.C., Burr, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age.
Vidal sees himself as a "correctionist," a word he has used to describe his political views many times since his 1960 congressional campaign. In his essay "Writing Plays for Television," reprinted in Homage to Daniel Shays, Vidal wrote: "I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise." Nothing is too large or small for his attention; at one moment he will rail against the U.S. military-industrial complex and the Chase Manhattan Bank; later he is outlining a plan to curb the earth's burgeoning population. "His tone is that of the seer scorned; yet he can hardly claim to be the prophet ignored," commented a Time writer, who added that Vidal has long been "a cinder in the public eye."
Success and Controversy
With the publication of Williwaw in 1946, Vidal joined the ranks of the literary enfants terribles who dominated the American cultural scene just after World War II. His name was often linked with other post-War prodigies such as Truman Capote, John Horn Burns, James Jones, and—several years later—Norman Mailer. Begun while Vidal was recuperating from a bout of rheumatoid arthritis contracted during his U.S. Army Transportation Corps service in the Bering Sea during World War II, Williwaw describes the effect of an Arctic squall—called a "williwaw"—on the crew members of an army transport ship. The plotting is simple, the language concise, and a number of critics applauded Vidal's self-restraint. Vidal quickly followed up the success of Williwaw with another novel, In a Yellow Wood, published barely a year later. The book recounts a day in the life of Robert Holton, a rather dull young clerk at a brokerage house. The novel shows "a psychological astuteness," noted New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review's Stephan Stepanchev, who admired the way Vidal structures the book by reflecting Holton through the eyes of the various people with whom he comes in contact.
With two fairly successful novels to his credit, Vidal wanted to try something different. "I was bored with playing it safe," he recalled in the foreword to the 1965 revision of his next novel, 1948's The City and the Pillar. "I wanted to take risks, to try something no American had done before." The City and the Pillar immediately appeared on best-seller lists and raised conflicts in the New York publishing world that would reverberate for years. The subject of the novel—homosexuality—was not a topic new to American literature; what was new, however, was the way in which Vidal treats his subject, presenting the novel's young gay protagonist as a perfectly average, athletic, handsome, boy-next-door type. Vidal "wrote what had never been published by a reputable American writer: an unreserved novel about the homosexual demimonde and the 'naturalness' of homosexual relations," observed Kiernan.
While an inquisitive public put The City and the Pillar on the best-seller lists, the more conservative press helped dampen the career of its author. A New York Times contributor gave the book a very negative review, refused to accept any advertising for it, and then either did not review or published extremely harsh reviews of Vidal's next five novels and story collections. (At one point Vidal resorted to publishing a series of mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box in order to get them reviewed.) According to Vidal in his annotation to the revised version of The City and the Pillar, the New York Times's judgment continued "to haunt that book, and all my writing ever since."
Perhaps because of such backlash, the five novels Vidal published after The City and the Pillar were commercial failures. Searching for his authorial voice, Vidal discarded his naturalistic style and experimented with a number of techniques in The Season of Comfort, A Search for the King, and Dark Green, Bright Red. These books, generally judged to be inferior works, were followed up by The Judgment of Paris and Messiah. Largely ignored at the time of their publications, both have since been recognized as well-crafted novels written in what has become Vidal's mature style. However, critical recognition of these novels came too late to salvage Vidal's flagging career as a novelist. His financial resources dwindling, he embarked instead on what he termed his "five-year plan": he went to Hollywood to write screenplays for films and television, determined to earn enough money to last him the rest of his life.
Television was in its heyday in the mid-1950s when Vidal was writing scripts for such highly acclaimed programs as Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One, and Omnibus Theater. As a screenwriter for the movies, he made contributions to the scripts of Ben Hur, I Accuse, Suddenly Last Summer, The Catered Affair,The Scapegoat, and The Left-handed Gun, among others. A self-proclaimed "writer for hire," Vidal eventually met his goal of financial independence, although it took him closer to ten years than five.
During his Hollywood years Vidal also began to write plays. His first theater script, Visit to a Small Planet, grew out of a television play of the same title. The story of a visitor from another planet who comes to Earth to watch the U.S. Civil War battle at Manassas Junction but instead ends up in mid-twentieth-century Virginia, Visit to a Small Planet had a Broadway run of 338 performances and an extended national and international tour. It was later produced as a motion picture starring Jerry Lewis.
With the success of Visit to a Small Planet, Vidal continued to write for the stage. "As a playwright, I am a sport, whose only serious interest is the subversion of a society which bores and appalls me," Vidal wrote in an essay about this vocation. The rest of his plays have indeed been attacks on politics, politicians, and what he views as middle-class hypocrisy. A typical example is The Best Man, a political drama concerning two contenders for the presidential nomination and one of Vidal's most successful plays. Produced in 1959 in order to take advantage of the 1960 election fever, The Best Man had a respectable Broadway run and was later adapted into an award-winning film that is still often shown on television.
The Historical Novels
In 1964 Vidal published Julian, his first novel in ten years and his first historical novel written in the style that became his trademark. Presented as the journal of the eccentric fourth-century Roman emperor Julian, and framed by a commentary in the form of margin notes and letters by two of Julian's aging contemporaries, the novel is full of cutting remarks, catty asides, ribald jokes, fourth-century gossip, and references to the state of the commentators' health, careers, and sexual performance. It is this humorous interjection of the trivial and the personal into an impeccably researched historical novel which has made Vidal famous.
After Julian, Vidal turned his eye toward American history, producing the interrelated volumes Washington, D.C., Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age. The first of these, Washington, D.C., introduces to the reader Vidal's interest in exposing the seamier side of American politics. Peter Ackroyd, writing in the Spectator, called the novel "a lounge-lizard look" at Washington's power structure that is "giddily melodramatic [as well as] soberly historical." Burr is told as the memoirs of American founding father-turned-renegade Aaron Burr, and 1876 is an account of the United States' centennial year. Both are narrated by the character Charles Schemerhorn Schuyler, who first appears as the young, opportunistic illegitimate son of Aaron Burr, and in the second novel is seen forty years later, a jaded expatriate come home to recoup his lost fortunes. These novels are told in Vidal's familiar style; as Time contributor Paul Gray remarked, the author "can make old facts look like contemporary gossip. And he takes wicked pleasure in turning accepted notions about the past upside down." Reviewing Burr, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times declared: "Vidal gives us an interpretation of our early history that says in effect that all the old verities were never much to begin with. . . . And how thoroughly enjoyable is the entire process of disillusionment!"
The novel 1876 also takes demythologizing the American past as its task and, as many critics pointed out, the events recounted in the novel were startlingly similar to those taking place near the time of the book's publication in 1976. Parallels abound: the corrupt Ulysses S. Grant with discredited President Richard Nixon, the Whiskey Ring scandal with Watergate, the Hayes-Tilden presidential race with the election of 1972 and the administration of Gerald Ford. The novel is, according to Paul Levy in Books and Bookmen, "an historical contribution of large importance. . . . What Vidal has done by investigating the scandals leading up to the 1876 election and the election itself is to show that nothing much has changed in America's last hundred years."
Lincoln is also concerned with the history of the United States. Released in 1984 with an extraordinary 200,000-copy first printing and preview excerpts in the Atlantic Monthly and Gentleman's Quarterly, Lincoln was called "a momentous fictional biography" and a "masterpiece" by Stephen Rubin in the Chicago Tribune Book World. "The intelligence, the wit, the humor, the outrageousness are omnipresent," said the critic. "If Vidal is impatient with novelistic techniques such as transitions, he allows himself the luxury to marvelously plot a true political novel of breadth and rich texture. The pace he sets for himself is a noble andante that gives him the time for a spectacular array of detail work, the element that ultimately makes Lincoln unforgettable." Lincoln became a tremendously popular novel, partly because its mature depiction of a popular historical figure appealed to a much wider audience than some of the author's earlier works.
Set in the late 1890s to early 1900s and covering the rise of American industry, Empire, according to Newsweek contributor David Gates, "reanimates the moribund genre of historical fiction with a few modernist jots—and still stays within the conventions of the Good Read." Gates added that even critics of the novel "won't be able to deny that they've been elegantly entertained." Lehmann-Haupt considered Empire the best of Vidal's series, stating that Vidal tells "a dramatically compelling story without sacrificing either his complex view of American history or his unusual ability to caricature its major players."
Hollywood takes up where Empire leaves off, with America's entrance into World War I, covering the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding, in addition to the rise of the film industry of Hollywood. "Like the earlier books, the new novel is an imaginative re-creation, a heady mix of fact and fancy, wisdom and nonsense," stated Joel Conarroe in the New York Times Book Review. Conarroe commended Vidal's colorful portrayals of such figures as President Wilson and his wife, Edith, the actors Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, as well as the witty Alice Roosevelt Longworth. David Walton in the Detroit News, however, commented that while "there are a number of effective scenes and sharply rendered lines in this book . . . Hollywood is too sprawling, too diffused and uncentered, and in most ways too much concerned with what's behind the scenes ever to establish a consistent fore-ground."
The Golden Age, Vidal's final installment in the American historical fiction series, revisits some of the same characters and situations that the author pondered in Washington, D.C. A span of thirty-three years separate these two volumes, and the passage of time has altered both Vidal's focus and agenda in the latter title. "Vidal's interest this time is less concentrated on his characters' private vicissitudes," observed Janet Maslin in the New York Times Book Review. "Like Orson Welles, who of course turns up in a heavily name-dropping story that begins in 1939, he is interested in deep focus. So the series' familiar figures . . . are integrated into an ambitious historical tableau." As he was a young man at the time of the story—and a first-hand observer of Washington politics—Vidal includes himself as a character too. Beneath the surface banter, however, large issues loom: Roosevelt secretly plots to involve the United States in World War II, Harry S Truman ushers in the Atomic Age and the cold war, and the military-industrial complex gears up for the Korean War. A Time reviewer declared that The Golden Age "coats its ethical inquiries with plenty of narrative sweeteners: the sweep of history, celebrity walk-ons, conspiracy theories and reams of conversation, much of it witty. . . . But the issue of power and who should hold it is never far from the surface."
Pens Scathing Satires
Popular as Vidal's historical novels have been, the author's greatest coup, according to many critics, has been Myra Breckinridge, a campy, satiric look at modern America. An instant smash, Myra Breckinridge takes potshots at almost everything, from uptight heterosexuality to the burgeoning population, from the New American Novel to 1940s movie stars, and from American youth to the American dream. Above all, Myra Breckinridge is about breaking the barriers of sexuality, a theme in much of Vidal's fiction and nonfiction.
"To say Mr. Vidal's new novel is queer would be an understatement; it is a queer, queer book, a virtuoso exercise in kinkiness, a draught of fizzy hemlock, a strikingly intelligent attempt to go as far as possible in outrageousness," declared John Weightman in the Observer Review. "Literature about sex is so often soggy and embarrassing or clinical and sick-making. Mr. Vidal pitches his narrative in a key of slightly demented funniness, and sustains this note right to the end." Indeed, the irrepressible Myra is an odd character: a homosexual male turned female through a sex change operation, she goes to California to claim her share in a drama academy and to write a book about the films of the 1940s. Teaching empathy and posture at the academy, Myra expounds her views on every possible subject—yet in the end, according to her logic, it all leads back to sex and power. "Myra Breckinridge herself sees all life as a naming of parts, an equating of groins, a pleasing and/or painful forcing of orifices. Which is the essence, after all, of pornography," observed a Times Literary Supplement critic.
While Myra Breckinridge is sexually graphic, most reviewers recognized it as a satire on pornography. Nat Hentoff noted that Vidal, "walking on the waters of polymorphous perversity and sexual revolution . . . has written the first popular book of perverse pornography—a book for which one does not need even the slightest special taste." Newsweek correspondent Joseph Morgenstern referred to the book as "gleefully dirty, wittily dirty, gracefully and intricately dirty in its creation and development of a genuine film freak." Myron, a sequel to Myra Breckenridge in which Myra returns to her male form and is transported to the set of a 1940s B-movie, was described as "surprisingly colorless and lumpish" by James Boatright in the New Republic.
In 1992 Vidal penned the much-hyped novel Live from Golgotha: The Gospel according to Gore Vidal, a scathingly irreverent examination of the origins and subsequent perversion of Christianity. The novel's protagonist is Timothy, the confidant of Saint Paul, who will become Saint Timothy. Some sixty years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Timothy is visited by the ghost of Saint Paul, who warns him that, in the distant future, a super-sophisticated computer hacker is deleting the Gospels from the files of Heaven and Earth alike, thereby erasing the memories of the faithful. Timothy's task, Paul explains, is to write the last, definitive account of the Gospels and hide it, so that it can be discovered by theologians two thousand years hence.
The problem, readers soon discover, is that Timothy's recollections are vastly different from those of the New Testament's Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: Saint Paul, for example, is depicted as an evangelical huckster and a pederast, and Jesus is a buffoon with a glandular problem. History is further obfuscated by the visitations, in the form of visions, of celebrities and network executives from the twentieth century. Having perfected the technology to both travel and broadcast through time, they plan to broadcast the crucifixion "live" on television, and they ask Timothy to act as emcee. When introduced to television—and, in particular, to CNN—Timothy's memories and accounts become increasingly unreliable, and he calls into question whether it was actually Jesus who died on the cross.
Despite the caustic portrayal of Jesus and his followers, Live from Golgotha stirred up surprisingly little controversy. Alfred Kazin, writing in the New Republic, called the novel "nothing but bawdy entertainment for the bathhouse boys" that is "actually no dirtier than anything else these days." Thomas M. Disch opined in the Nation that Vidal's novel is less polemical than such works as Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, because "the Gospel according to Gore Vidal is not to be taken as serious fictional evocation of the (possible) history behind the myths....Not even the most naive reader could approach Live from Golgotha as a serious challenger to the Gospel according to anyone else." "Some readers will find it sacrilegious," admitted New York Times critic Herbert Mitgang. "But it's too funny to be condemned simply as a blasphemous novel."
An Accomplished Essayist
In addition to well-reviewed novels, Vidal has also received critical acclaim for his essays and criticism. "It is not that Vidal's essays are better than his novels,"
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explained Gerald Clarke in the Atlantic Monthly. "It is rather that his essays are more consistently good and that the qualities that limit him as a novelist are precisely those that a good essayist needs: a forceful intelligence, a cool detachment, an unpretentious, graceful style, and a sense of perspective that distinguishes the big from the little. If most of his fictional characters seem unbelievable, his judgments on real people are both original and irrefutable." Vidal's essays display the same incisive wit and characteristic elan that make him such a popular talk show guest and interview subject; his nonfiction is full of autobiographical asides, personal references to the famous and the infamous, allusions to ancient and modern history.
Dubbing Vidal's essays "the intellectual equivalent of the comics," Joseph Epstein added in a Commentary profile of Vidal: "Intellectual journals are not noted for providing many laughs, but laughter is Gore Vidal's specialty—what he plays for and what he is about. The chief play in a Vidal essay is to point out that the emperor has no clothes and then go a step further and remove the poor man's skin. The spectacle can be most amusing, assuming of course that it is not one's own carcass that is being stripped." According to Robert Plunket in the Advocate, Vidal's "marvelously bitchy commentary makes for delicious company. As he dispenses scandal, insight, and punch lines, all that's missing is the pitcher of martinis. But amid all the dish are some touching nuggets.... Most of all, one comes away awed by Vidal's career—not just his writing but also the people he has known."Wit alone has not made Vidal the respected essayist he is; critics have noted that his essays and reviews reveal an erudition and knowledge that is impressive, and an insight that is often remarkable. Simon, reviewing the essay collection Matters of Fact and of Fiction in Esquire, wrote: "I think that Gore Vidal's greatest service to this society could be in the proper packaging of his style and language. I do not see fiction as being his true medium....Vidal is an essayist of talent . . . [and Matters of Fact and of Fiction ] contains some very good pieces, as weighty as anything in Oscar Wilde and easily as witty as the best of Matthew Arnold." In the volumes United States: 1952-1992 and The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000, Vidal draws together the best of over four decades of commentary, including literary criticism—he makes no bones about his contempt for the writing of John Updike—politics, and biography. Calling The Last Empire "vintage Vidal," Marvin J. LaHood noted in World Literature Today that "because Vidal's greatest talent may be as an essayist, this longish collection is good reading." A Publishers Weekly contributor agreed, noting that the selections reveal "the mandarinist populist to be at the height of his powers of both vituperation and sagacity."
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. government's War on Terror that followed in its wake, Vidal held no punches in expressing his views on the state of world politics, publishing widely in periodicals ranging from the Nation to the Times Literary Supplement. In the books Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to BeSo Hated, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, he collects some of these essays, and thus secures his place as "a prolific preacher against America's imperialist policies," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace recalls the U.S. government's assaults on Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Operation Desert Storm while taking a particularly close look at the Oklahoma City bombings because of their retributive quality in light of U.S. aggressions around the world. Vidal's essay "September 11, 2001" is also included; rejected by several U.S. magazines, it posits the idea that the attacks were justified in much the same way Vidal sees the Oklahoma City bombings as justified. The three new essays in Imperial America criticize the Bush administration, demonstrating, according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, that "Vidal's Jeffersonian anti-imperialism is fashionable again with the left wing" on the eve of the 2004 presidential elections. Among other topics, Dreaming War draws parallels between the September 11 attacks and the attack on Pearl Harbor during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and Vidal argues that both Bush now and Roosevelt then knew in advance of the attacks and used these tragedies to fuel their own political ends. "That Vidal is fonder of sermonizing than logical argument, of assertion rather than cold data is no matter," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor of Dreaming War: "This is trademark Goring and unforgiving: woe to its unfortunate target."
Although many critics inevitably take issue with Vidal's often radical points of view, few challenge the grace and elegance with which he expresses his opinions. "No one else in what he calls 'the land of the tin ear' can combine better sentences into more elegantly sustained demolition derbies than Vidal does in some of his best essays," observed Thomas Mallon in the National Review. McPherson suggested: "Technical virtuosity is what Vidal possesses to an extraordinary degree; and intelligence and erudition, irreverence, and an ability to cut through cant. I used to think of him as the brightest rhinestone around. I've revised my opinion though; he's the genuine article."
Throughout most of his fifty-odd-year career as a writer and public personality, Vidal vowed that he would never write an autobiography. However, the 1995 publication of Palimpsest: A Memoir proved him wrong. Covering Vidal's first four decades, the book focuses on what Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley termed "the most public period of his life," in which Vidal worked as a Hollywood scriptwriter, playwright, and sometime political candidate. Yardley added, "Vidal knows that private turmoil and public provocation make splendid stories, while laboring away in his office, [as Vidal did after age forty,] makes no story at all. Thus craftsmanship far more than reticence or coyness is surely the explanation for his decision to cut things off where he does." Feasting on the tumultuous saga of his dysfunctional family, high-profile friendships, numerous homosexual liaisons but only one great love, various forays into the political arena, and writings, Palimpsest is, "for all its tilts and malice and wonderful jokes, an oddly disinterested work," opined Michael Wood in the New York Times Book Review. "As I am supposed to be remembering myself, I am central to these memories," Vidal wrote. "I am, however, happier to be at the edge, as one is in an essay, studying someone else or what someone else has made art of." Widely praised by reviewers, Palimpsest prompted Karl Miller to write in the Times Literary Supplement: Vidal's "essays, and this memoir, with its repertoire of stories and sayings, are a dimension of his elegant and pointed speech, and there are admirers of his who think that he speaks better than he writes, and that his essays are better than his fictions."
If you enjoy the works of Gore Vidal
If you enjoy the works of Gore Vidal, you may also want to check out the following books:
Jeff Shaara, The Glorious Cause, 2002.
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, 2002.
Christopher Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War, 2004.
Once asked by Newsweek interviewer Arthur Cooper if it is fun being Gore Vidal, the author's response was characteristic. "Gore Vidal isn't what I set out to be," he explained. "Early on I wanted to be Franklin Roosevelt, and then as I realized I had to make a choice I saw myself more in the great tradition, somebody like Thomas Mann, going on and on into my old age turning everything into literature like a bivalve collecting sea water. But I don't mind what I've become. . . . I do exactly what I want to do and I've made a living—which you're not supposed to do if you write the way you want to. I've had really great luck."
Biographical and Critical Sources
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Pseudonym: Edgar Box. Nationality: American. Born: Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, Jr. in West Point, New York, 3 October 1925. Education: Los Alamos School, New Mexico, 1939-40; Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, 1940-43. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1943-46: Warrant Officer. Career: Editor, E.P. Dutton, publishers, New York, 1946. Lived in Antigua, Guatemala, 1947-49, and Italy, 1967-76; member, advisory board, Partisan Review, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1960-71; Democratic-Liberal candidate for Congress, New York, 1960; member, President's Advisory Committee on the Arts, 1961-63; co-chairman, New Party, 1968-71. Awards: Mystery Writers of America award, for television play, 1954; Cannes Film Critics award, for screenplay, 1964; National Book Critics Circle award, for criticism, 1983; National Book award for nonfiction, 1993; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1995. Address: La Rondinaia, Ravello, Salerno, Italy; or c/o Random House Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
Williwaw. New York, Dutton, 1946; London, Panther, 1965.
In a Yellow Wood. New York, Dutton, 1947; London, New EnglishLibrary, 1967.
The City and the Pillar. New York, Dutton, 1948; London, Lehmann, 1949; revised edition, Dutton, and London, Heinemann, 1965; revised, with a new preface by the author, published as The City and the Pillar and Seven Early Stories, New York, Random House, 1995.
The Season of Comfort. New York, Dutton, 1949.
Dark Green, Bright Red. New York, Dutton, and London, Lehmann, 1950.
A Search for the King: A Twelfth Century Legend. New York, Dutton, 1950; London, New English Library, 1967.
The Judgment of Paris. New York, Dutton, 1952; London, Heinemann, 1953; revised edition, Boston, Little Brown, 1965; Heinemann, 1966.
Messiah. New York, Dutton, 1954; London, Heinemann, 1955; revised edition, Boston, Little Brown, 1965; Heinemann, 1968.
Three: Williwaw, A Thirsty Evil, Julian the Apostate. New York, NewAmerican Library, 1962.
Julian. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Heinemann, 1964.
Washington, D.C. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Heinemann, 1967.
Myra Breckinridge. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Blond, 1968.
Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Heinemann, 1970.
Burr. New York, Random House, 1973; London, Heinemann, 1974.
Myron. New York, Random House, 1974; London, Heinemann, 1975.
1876. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1976.
Kalki. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1978.
Creation. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1981.
Duluth. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1983.
Lincoln. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1984.
Empire. New York, Random House, and London, Deutsch, 1987.
Hollywood: A Novel of American in the 1920s. New York, RandomHouse, and London, Deutsch, 1990.
Live from Golgotha. New York, Random House, 1992.
The Smithsonian Institution. New York, Random House, 1998.
The Golden Age. New York, Doubleday, 2000.
Novels as Edgar Box
Death in the Fifth Position. New York, Dutton, 1952; London, Heinemann, 1954.
Death Before Bedtime. New York, Dutton, 1953; London, Heinemann, 1954.
Death Likes It Hot. New York, Dutton, 1954; London, Heinemann, 1955.
A Thirsty Evil: Seven Short Stories. New York, Zero Press, 1956;London, Heinemann, 1958.
Visit to a Small Planet (televised 1955). Included in Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays, 1956; revised version (produced New York, 1957; London, 1960), Boston, Little Brown, 1957; in Three Plays, 1962.
Honor (televised 1956). Published in Television Plays for Writers: Eight Television Plays, edited by A.S. Burack, Boston, The Writer, 1957; revised version as On the March to the Sea: A Southron Comedy (produced Bonn, Germany, 1961), in Three Plays, 1962.
Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays (includes Barn Burning, Dark Possession, The Death of Billy the Kid, A Sense of Justice, Smoke, Summer Pavilion, The Turn of the Screw ). Boston, Little Brown, 1956.
The Best Man: A Play about Politics (produced New York, 1960).Boston, Little Brown, 1960; in Three Plays, 1962.
Three Plays (includes Visit to a Small Planet, The Best Man, On the March to the Sea ). London, Heinemann, 1962.
Romulus: A New Comedy, adaptation of a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (produced New York, 1962). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1962.
Weekend (produced New York, 1968). New York, Dramatists PlayService, 1968.
An Evening with Richard Nixon and … (produced New York, 1972).New York, Random House, 1972.
The Catered Affair, 1956; I Accuse, 1958; The Scapegoat, with Robert Hamer, 1959; Suddenly, Last Summer, with Tennessee Williams, 1959; The Best Man, 1964; Is Paris Burning?, with Francis Ford Coppola, 1966; Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, 1970; The Sicilian, 1970; Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, 1989.
Barn Burning, from the story by Faulkner, 1954;Dark Possession, 1954; Smoke, from the story by Faulkner, 1954; Visit to a Small Planet, 1955; The Death of Billy the Kid, 1955; A Sense of Justice, 1955; Summer Pavillion, 1955; The Turn of the Screw, from the story by Henry James, 1955; Honor, 1956; The Indestructible Mr. Gore, 1960; Vidal in Venice (documentary), 1985; Dress Gray, from the novel by Lucian K. Truscott IV, 1986.
Rocking the Boat (essays). Boston, Little Brown, 1962; London, Heinemann, 1963.
Sex, Death, and Money (essays). New York, Bantam, 1968.
Reflections upon a Sinking Ship (essays). Boston, Little Brown, andLondon, Heinemann, 1969.
Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972. New York, Random House, 1972; as Collected Essays 1952-1972, London, Heinemann, 1974.
Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973-1976. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1977.
Sex Is Politics and Vice Versa (essay). Los Angeles, Sylvester andOrphanos, 1979.
Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal, with Robert J. Stanton. Secaucus, New Jersey, Lyle Stuart, 1980.
The Second American Revolution and Other Essays 1976-1982. New
York, Random House, 1982; as Pink Triangle and Yellow Star and Other Essays, London, Heinemann, 1982.
Vidal in Venice, edited by George Armstrong, photographs by ToreGill. New York, Summit, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.
Armegeddon? Essays 1983-1987. London, Deutsch, 1987; as At Home, New York, Random House, 1988.
A View from the Diners Club. London, Deutsch, 1991.
The Decline and Fall of the American Empire. Berkeley, California, Odonian Press, 1992.
Screening History. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, and London, Deutsch, 1992.
United States: Essays, 1952-1992. New York, Random House, andLondon, Deutsch, 1993.
Palimpsest: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1995.
The American Presidency. Monroe, Maine, Odonian Press, 1998.
The Essential Vidal, edited by Fred Kaplan. New York, RandomHouse, 1999.
Gore Vidal, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, edited byDonald Weise. San Francisco, Cleis, 1999.
Editor, Best Television Plays. New York, Ballantine, 1956.*
Gore Vidal: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography by Robert J. Stanton, Boston, Hall, and London, Prior, 1978.
University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Gore Vidal by Ray Lewis White, New York, Twayne, 1968; The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal by Bernard F. Dick, New York, Random House, 1974; Gore Vidal by Robert F. Kiernan, New York, Ungar, 1982; Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain edited by Jay Parini, New York, Columbia University Press, and London, Deutsch, 1992; Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion by Susan Baker and Curtis S. Gibson, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997; Gore Vidal: A Biography by Fred Kaplan, New York, Doubleday, 1999.* * *
Gore Vidal has been called "our wild man of the literary left." He has lent his political savvy to monumental historical fiction projects such as the American Chronicle series which spans the history of the United States from the Revolution to the post-World War II years. The six novels arch from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., with a large cast of fictional and historical characters in a panorama of American politics interpreted by the intellectually adroit mind and drawn with the irreverent hand of a sophisticated and ironic observer. Vidal's oeuvre is not limited to historical fiction, however, as he has turned his attentions to doomsday fictions, playfully pornographic novels, a pseudonymous series of detective stories, and science fiction, as well as essays and plays. Always relevant, often funny, undeniably astute, Vidal's tone purposefully drifts into cynicism and his style into satire whenever possible.
Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, published in 1946, is set on an army transport vessel laying a course among the Aleutian Islands during World War II. The story about seven self-absorbed men whose enforced closeness results in a homicide about which no one really cares was written when Vidal was nineteen years old. Of more lasting interest among the early novels is his third published in 1948, The City and the Pillar, about a young man's gradual discovery that he is homosexual. The stark, unsentimental examination of his main character's sexual identity shocked the public, and the five novels which followed, including the somewhat redemptive Messiah, a savagely apocalyptic novel about merchandising a savior, were commercial failures. The rest, which were coolly received by critics, include In a Yellow Wood, a glimpse into the Manhattan demimonde; The Season of Comfort; A Search for the King: A Twelfth Century Legend, the first of Vidal's historical novels; and The Judgment of Paris, a campy updating of the Greek myth.
After a successful period of writing dramatic scripts for television, film, and the stage during the 1950s and 1960s, he published one of his most enduring early novels, Julian, in 1964. Vidal's first major novel purports to be the Emperor Julian's autobiographical memoir and private journal. The sympathetic fictional portrait is of Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century pagan Roman emperor who opposed Christianity. In scenes complexly imagined and impressively researched, Vidal recreates Julian's path from Christianity to Mithraism and from philosophy to military science. The novel is rewarding for its rich historicity and for the interplay of Julian's elevated discourse with the witty phrase-making of Priscus and the pedantry of Libanius, the editors of Julian's memoirs. Its ventriloquistic mode of narration became a proven formula for Vidal's most accomplished fiction.
Washington, D.C., published in 1967, is the first novel of a sequence and offers an illuminating portrait of the republic from the time of the New Deal to the McCarthy era. Widely regarded as Vidal's ultimate comment on how the American political system degrades those who participate in it, the novel traces the fortunes James Burden Day, a conservative senator eyeing the presidency, Clay Overbury, a congressional aide, and Blaise Sanford, a newspaper magnate. The novel follows the power and the money as the power mongers of the nation's capital transform the United States into "possibly the last empire on earth." As national events from Pearl Harbor to Korea stage themselves in the background, the histrionic characters prove the importance of image and the Hollywood style in the success of politics.
The theme of how public opinion is shaped by movies is fleshed out in Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s, which begins with the fall of William Randolph Hearst on the eve of American involvement in the First World War and ends shortly after the mysterious death of Warren G. Harding, who is replaced by the taciturn Calvin Coolidge. It covers the scandals involving Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor, and a youthful Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his mistress, Lucy Mercer. It is the fifth in the biography of the United States series covering a period when Hollywood tries to shape public opinion on behalf of the powerful, and America exercises its world power.
The third novel in the sequence, 1876, is a sardonic centennial celebration of the nation's birth in which an old man named Charlie Schuyler returns from Europe to New York for the first time since 1837 and travels about the country in the service of a newspaper. Everywhere he sees violence and mendacity lurking behind the patriotic scrim of the nation's centenary—particularly in the scandals of the Grant administration and the bitterly contested Hayes-Tilden presidential election.
The centerpiece of the series, and one of Vidal's best novels, is Burr, an account of Aaron Burr's last days as written by the young Charlie Schuyler, whom Vidal imagines Burr employing and befriending. Schuyler's interest in Burr's life encourages the older man to give his written account of the early days of the republic—a compelling, gossipy account in which the Founding Fathers are little more than despoilers of infant America. The alternation of Burr's own narrative with Schuyler's worshipful memoir results in a composite portrait of Burr as both an unregenerate adventurer and an elegant arbiter of political style. It also shows Vidal at his best: iconoclastic, anecdotal, intellectually and stylistically agile.
In a duo of confections entitled Myra Breckinridge and Myron, Vidal indulges freely the taste for camp extravagance evident in his work as early as The Season of Comfort. Myra Breckinridge takes the form of a journal that the eponymous Myra begins when she arrives in Hollywood after a sex-change operation. Firm in her belief that film is the only art and militant in her devotion to Hollywood's Golden Age, she is no less imperious in her determination to realign the sexes—a determination rooted in her former life as Myron. The results are gaudily offensive, climaxing in her rape of a chauvinistic young man and ending (to her chagrin) in her accidental reversion into Myron. Myron picks up the story five years later when Myron falls into his television and discovers himself on a Hollywood set in 1948. As the novel progresses, Myra and Myron alternately commandeer the Breckinridge psyche, Myra bent on saving Hollywood from television, Myron on defeating Myra's revisionist imperative. Although not to everyone's taste, the books are enormously rich—a comedic feast of styles and sexualities, invention and invective. Their charm is considerable.
Vidal's greatest success in recent years has been in the historical mode. In Creation his central character and narrator is a fictional diplomat named Cyrus Spitama (a grandson of Zoroaster), who cuts a broad swath through the Persian-Greek wars and recounts fascinating meetings with the Buddha, Master Li, Confucius, and a host of kindred figures. Revisionist speculations and tantalizing "what ifs" energize what amounts to a Cook's Tour of the fifth century. If Lincoln overshadows Creation, it overshadows very nearly everything else in Vidal's oeuvre. A compelling, thoughtful, and well-researched portrait of America's sixteenth president, it renders his tragic Civil War years through candid viewpoints of his family, his political rivals, and even his future assassins. The result is a rare fusion of monumentality and intimacy, quite distinct from the idealized portraits created by romantic nationalism.
Vidal's historical novels move through time and the lives of famous personages with the breathless anticipation of good fictional epics, yet he continues to explore a variety of modes. Kalki is a mordant doomsday novel, narrated with odd restraint by a bisexual aviatrix, the personal pilot of a Vietnam veteran who exterminates the human race in a belief that he is the last avatar of Vishnu. Because of its emotional coolness, the story fails to engage except in scattered passages, as does the story in Duluth, a broad parody of law-and-order consciousness in middle America during the 1980s of the Reagan era. More interesting stylistically than these novels is the undervalued Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, a Chinese box of narrations in which each narrative replicates a single story-line encapsulated in a screenplay at the heart of the novel.
The Smithsonian Institution is a recent, light foray into science fiction, time travel, historical costume romance, and Vidal's familiar political satire. The love story woven through the text is between Gore Vidal and the main character, who is Jimmie Trimble, based on Vidal's friend killed on Iwo Jima in March 1, 1945. In a whimsical revision of his personal history, Vidal rescues his lover from the destruction of one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Pacific. His novel surpasses the trivial material produced in the fantasy/science fiction genre while using its conventions. The story is driven by that powerfully brilliant and original mind which produced the Empire narratives.
The greatness of Vidal's fiction lies not only with its extraordinary range but with its small-scale effects: witty, autobiographical indiscretions; aphoristic nuggets, firm and toothsome; a fine interplay of the demonic and the mannered. Indeed, he must be regarded as one of the most important stylists of contemporary American prose. His ear for cadence and his touch with syntax are sure, and few can equal his ability to layer a sentence with wit and to temper it with intelligence. His book list survives in popular reprints despite the government's consistent attacks on left-wing politics and the public taboo against homosexuality.
—Robert F. Kiernan,
updated by Hedwig Gorski
(b. 3 October 1925 in West Point, New York), novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, and essayist who became a well-known liberal political commentator in the 1960s through television appearances, articles in Esquire magazine, and debates with conservative William Buckley during the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions.
Vidal, whose full given name is Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, is the only child of Eugene Luther and Nina (Gore) Vidal. Vidal's father taught aeronautics at the U.S. Military Academy, founded several airlines, and served as director of air commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1937. Vidal attended several private high schools and in 1943 graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts, at which time he shortened his name to Gore Vidal. He enlisted in the army in July 1943 and served as a warrant officer aboard a ship in the Pacific Theater. Shortly after his discharge in 1946 his first novel, Williwaw, was published. Vidal had begun the novel at the age of nineteen while serving on a ship and finished it while being treated for rheumatoid arthritis in a hospital. His next novels were In a Yellow Wood (1947) and The City and Pillar (1948), which gained him widespread notoriety for its account of a homosexual man's self-discovery. In the 1950s Vidal began writing plays as well as movie and television scripts to augment his income. Perhaps his most successful effort in these genres was Visit to a Small Planet, which was televised in 1955 and then staged on Broadway.
By 1960 Vidal was earning several thousand dollars per television script, and his play The Best Man (1959), a cynical political drama, was doing well on Broadway. That same year Vidal, whose grandfather, Thomas Prory Gore, had been a U.S. senator from Oklahoma, ran for Congress in upstate New York, but he lost the election. In 1962 a number of essays on literary and political topics Vidal had written in the 1950s and early 1960s were published in Rocking the Boat. The book gained Vidal a reputation as an incisive and provocative commentator on American politics and society. He followed up Rocking the Boat with two plays, On the March to the Sea (1961), a Civil War drama based on a television script he wrote in the 1950s, and the 1963 play Romulus, a historical comedy about the fall of Rome, adapted from a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The comedy featured familiar themes in Vidal's works—history, politics, and power. In 1964 Vidal received a Screen Writers Annual Award nomination and the Cannes Critics Prize for his screenplay adaptation of The Best Man.
In 1964 Vidal published his first novel in a decade. Julian told the story of a Roman emperor, circa 360 a.d., who tried to turn his people and country away from the growing religion of Christianity. The book's publication received good reviews, introduced Vidal's talent for historical fiction, and firmly established him as a best-selling novelist. Vidal followed up with the script for the movie Is Paris Burning? (1966), the 1967 political thriller Washington, D.C., and Sex, Death, and Money (1968).
Vidal's play Weekend opened on 13 March 1968 at the Broadhurst Theater in New York but closed after just twenty-two performances. A story of political ambition and amorality, the play included acerbic references to the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson.
Despite the play's disastrous run, Vidal rebounded that same year with his book Myra Breckinridge (1968), which took the critics and the public by surprise. The sexually daring novel told the story of Myra, who was called Myron before a sex-change operation. The book revealed Vidal's camp sensibility via a black comedy about a transsexual woman who wants to dominate men. Although shocking to many, the novel garnered Vidal widespread acclaim and admiration.
Vidal's wit and willingness to speak his mind also gained him wide notoriety throughout the decade as he freely commented on politics and society. He was recognized by the general public because of his guest appearances on television programs and his hosting of a syndicated panel discussion show, The Hot Line, in 1964. Vidal also had connections to the White House. After divorcing his father, Vidal's mother was married briefly to Hugh Auchincloss, a stockbroker who eventually divorced her and married Jacqueline Bouvier's mother. Bouvier became the wife of President John F. Kennedy. As a result of this connection and Vidal's reputation as a liberal Democrat, Vidal enjoyed insider status on the political scene for a brief time during the Kennedy administration until he had a confrontation with Robert Kennedy at a White House reception in 1961. His association to the Kennedys eventually led to several essays in Esquire about the family. Vidal's 1970 novel, Two Sisters, also contained an irreverent, fictionalized account of the mystique surrounding the former First Lady.
In 1968 Vidal participated in a series of ten debates during the Republican National Convention in Miami and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Set up by American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television, the debates highlighted the opposing left-wing liberal and right-wing conservative views of the time as represented by Vidal and William Buckley, respectively. The long-time ideological enemies did not disappoint. The debates reached a crescendo on 22 August 1968 as the two confronted each other in Chicago during the Democratic convention, which became known more for its Vietnam War protests and the violent police efforts to suppress them than for what occurred within the convention itself. During the debate Vidal called Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi." The enraged Buckley countered with "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." The two men completed the last of their debates the next night. The battle continued, however, with mutual lawsuits and the publication in Esquire in 1969 of competing versions of the encounter.
Vidal ended the 1960s with another collection of essays, Reflections upon a Sinking Ship (1969), and the screenplay The Last of the Mobile Hotshots (1970), based on Tennessee Williams's The Seven Descents of Myrtle. During the decade he not only solidified his skills as a novelist but also became known as a controversial and acid-tongued provocateur. He was, for example, an early supporter of legalizing illicit drugs, which had reached the middle class in epidemic proportions by the late 1960s. Vidal, who never went to college, is a respected novelist but has never achieved the reverence accorded other novelists of his generation, like John Updike and Saul Bellow. He may be best remembered for his contributions to American literature via his essays, which cover numerous topics from literary criticism to national issues.
Robert F. Kiernan's biography, Gore Vidal, was published in 1982 and contains extensive information on Vidal's works and life in the 1960s. To learn about Vidal's life in his own words, read Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995). Several good interviews with Vidal during the 1960s can be found in Eugene Walter, "Conversations with Gore Vidal," Transatlantic Review (summer 1960): 5–17; Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynchi, "Disturber of the Peace: Gore Vidal," Mademoiselle (Sept. 1961); and "Playboy Interview: Gore Vidal," Playboy (June 1969). Critical studies of Vidal's works of the 1960s include Bernard F. Dick, The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal (1974).
Gore Vidal is one of America's most important literary figures on the basis of an enormous quantity of work, including novels, essays, plays, and short stories.
Influenced by politics
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born into a family long important in American politics on October 3, 1925, in West Point, New York. His maternal grandfather was Thomas P. Gore, senator from Oklahoma; his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was director of air commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945); and he is distantly related to Albert Gore (1948–), vice president of the United States in the administration of President Bill Clinton (1946–). Although Vidal was never close to his mother, Nina, he had to live with her after his parent's divorce in 1935. As a child Vidal spent long hours in his grandfather's vast library. There young Vidal began to develop his love of literature and history.
The importance of politics in Vidal's life is obvious from his statement, "The only thing I've ever really wanted in my life was to be president." But Vidal did more than talk: he was the Democratic Party candidate for Congress from New York's 29th District (Duchess County) in 1960; he served in the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts under John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) from 1961 to 1963; he was a cofounder of the New Party, backing Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916–), from 1968 to 1971; he was cochairman and secretary of state-designate of the People's Party in the period 1970–1972; and he ran unsuccessfully for the nomination as the Democratic Party's senatorial candidate in California in 1982.
Literature wins over politics
Although always involved in politics, Vidal was a central figure in literature after 1946. In that year, while working as an editor at E. P. Dutton, he published his first novel, Williwaw, based on his service during the last years of World War II (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis powers: Germany, Japan, and Italy—and the Allies: England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States).
After the poorly received In a Yellow Wood in 1947, Vidal had his first best-seller with The City and the Pillar, a successful but scandalous novel about a homosexual (a person sexually attracted to a member of their own sex). Although many critics termed it groundbreaking because the hero is an all-American youth, its tragic ending is rather conventional for its time. It may or may not be coincidence that his next five novels were negatively reviewed and were all commercial failures.
In 1954 Vidal developed what he called his five-year plan—that is, to go to Hollywood, write for films and television, and make enough money to be financially independent for the rest of his life. Between 1956 and 1970 he wrote or collaborated on seven screenplays, including the film version of Tennessee Williams's (1911–1983) Suddenly Last Summer, on which he worked with the playwright in 1959. Between 1954 and 1960 he also completed fifteen television plays.
Returns to the novel
After the novel Washington, D.C., in 1967, he wrote another novel, Myra Breckenridge (1968), the saga of a homosexual male converted into a female via a sex change operation, called by Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice, "the first popular book of perverse pornography." After a long stay on the bestseller lists, it was made into a movie.
Two Sisters (1970) was followed by ten novels, a number of them about politics. They were Burr (1973), Myron (1974), 1876 (1976), Kalki (1978), Creation (1981), Duluth (1983), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), The Smithsonian Institution (1998), and The American Presidency (1998), the text of Vidal's three-part British television series.
Fame as a critic
While the general public enjoyed Vidal as a novelist, more sophisticated readers and the critics praised him more for his essays, many of which had appeared first in periodicals, published between 1962 and 1993. The Second American Revolution (1982) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1982 and United States won the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 1993.
Continuing with literary nonfiction, Vidal released a critically successful memoir in 1995, Palimpsest: A Memoir. In it he reflected upon a life peopled with such interesting friends and acquaintances as his relative Jackie Kennedy (1929–1994), President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), and many others he mixed with in the literary and political scene. In 2000, Vidal's novel The Golden Age was published.
In May 2000, Vidal gained controversy by announcing plans to attend the execution of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of masterminding the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995, resulting in the deaths of 169 people. Due to scheduling conflicts, Vidal was unable to attend.
For More Information
Baker, Susan, and Curtis S. Gibson. Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Kaplan, Fred. Gore Vidal: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
Kiernan, Robert F. Gore Vidal. New York: F. Ungar Publishing Company, 1982.
Vidal, Gore. Palimpsest: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1995.
VIDAL, Gore. Also writes as Edgar Box. American, b. 1925. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Mystery/Crime/Suspense, Plays/Screenplays, Essays. Career: President's Advisory Council on the Arts, member, 1961-63; Partisan Review, Advisory Board, member, 1960-71; The New Party, co- chairman, 1968-71. Publications: NOVELS: Williwaw, 1946; In a Yellow Wood, 1947; The City and the Pillar, 1948, rev. ed., 1965; The Season of Comfort, 1949; A Search for the King; A Twelfth Century Legend, 1950; Dark Green, Bright Red, 1950; The Judgement of Paris, 1952; Messiah, 1954; Three, 1962; Julian, 1964; Washington D.C., 1967; Myra Breckin- ridge, 1968; Two Sisters: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir, 1970; Burr, 1973; Myron, 1974; 1876, 1976; Kalki, 1978; Creation, 1981; Duluth, 1983; Lincoln, 1984; Empire, 1987; Armageddon?, 1987; Hollywood, 1990; Live from Golgotha, 1992; Smithsonian Institution, 1998; The Golden Age, 2000. PLAYS: Visit to a Small Planet, 1957; The Best Man: A Play of Politics, 1960; Three Plays, 1962; Romulus: The Broadway Adaptation, and the Original Romulus the Great by Friedrich Durrenmatt, trans. by G. Nelhaus, 1966; Weekend, 1968; An Evening with Richard Nixon, 1972. TELEVISION PLAYS: Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays, 1957. ESSAYS: Rocking the Boat, 1962; Sex, Death and Money, 1968; Reflections upon a Sinking Ship, 1969; Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-71 (in UK as Collected Essays: 1952-71), 1972; Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973-76, 1977; The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, 1982 (in UK as Pink Triangle and Yellow Star and Other Essays); At Home: Essays, 1982-1988, 1989; United States: Essays, 1952-1992, 1993; Virgin Islands: Essays, 1992; Essential Vidal, 1998; The Last Empire: Essays 1992- 2000, 2001; Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, 2002; Dreaming War, 2002. OTHER: A Thirsty Evil: Seven Short Stories, 1956; (with others) Great American Families, 1977; (with R.J. Stantion) Views from a Window: Conversations, 1980; Gore Vidal's Venice, 1985; The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1992; Screening History, 1992; Palimpest (memoir), 1995; The American Presidency, 1998; Sexually Speaking, 1999; Inventing a Nation, 2003. AS EDGAR BOX: Death in the Fifth Position, 1952; Death before Bedtime, 1953; Death Likes It Hot, 1954; Three by Box, 1978. Address: c/o Janklow and Nesbit, 445 Park Ave Fl 13, New York, NY 10022, U.S.A.