Gore Vidal: An Appreciation
The author Gore Vidal died on July 31 of complications from pneumonia; he was 86 years old. He left a rich body of work: novels, plays, essays, movie scripts, countless interviews and public talks as well as two memoirs. He was a man who understood that this country has a history, and he put his considerable talents to use in exposing and demolishing the mythologies, hypocrisies and outright lies designed to present America as the culmination of the quest for heaven on earth.
In an interview with the Progressive (August 2006), Vidal described himself thus: “I’m a lover of the old republic and I deeply resent the empire our Presidents put in its place.” He was a radical egalitarian in the age of imperialism, an enemy of bigotry and religiosity and impeccable on matters of sex and morality and women’s equality. Gore Vidal was a superb writer and quite simply the greatest American essayist since Edmund Wilson. As Marxists, we keenly appreciate his body of work. While our parallel attitudes on many social and historical issues came from very different vantage points, they often put us on common ground—from an appreciation of the centrality of the Civil War in U.S. history, to sex and religion.
Born at West Point in 1925 and raised among the rich and famous, Gore Vidal was very much aware that there is a ruling class in the U.S. “But,” he noted, “it’s the best-kept secret in the United States” (Vanity Fair, June 1987). His maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor (T.P.) Gore, was a longtime Senator from Oklahoma. His father, Eugene, founded three airlines and served under Franklin D. Roosevelt as director of the Bureau of Air Commerce. His mother, Nina, divorced Eugene in 1935 and married Hugh D. Auchincloss, the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Vidal went to the right schools: St. Albans School in Washington and then Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He joined the Army in World War II at the age of 17, serving as first mate on a freight supply ship in the Aleutian Islands. He did not go on to university. As he noted in his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation (2006): “After nearly three years in the army, the thought of four years at Harvard was unbearable.... I would ‘live by writing,’ I said. And so I did.”
He was radicalized initially by the outpouring of homophobic censure that greeted his early novel, The City and the Pillar (1948). Vidal claimed that his next five books were blacked out by the New York Times as well as by Time and Newsweek. In its obituary, the Times (1 August) grudgingly conceded its role in scandalizing the novel and more: “Mr. Vidal later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, The New York Times especially, had blacklisted him because of the book, and he may have been right.” We believe Vidal would get a chuckle out of the fact that the Times blew it when publishing the obituary, making no less than three whopping factual mistakes, including one on his sex life, which required an embarrassing correction (3 August).
As Vidal explained, “I exist to say, ‘No, that isn’t the way it is,’ or ‘What you believe to be true is not true for the following reasons.’ I am a master of the obvious. I mean, if there’s a hole in the road, I will, viciously, outrageously, say there’s a hole in the road and if you don’t fill it in you’ll break the axle of your car” (“The Scholar Squirrels and the National Security State: An Interview with Gore Vidal” by Jon Wiener, Radical History Review No. 44, 1989).
Vidal was also radicalized by the post-World War II McCarthyite witchhunt and the blacklisting of leftists, particularly in the entertainment business in which he worked during that time. In the interview with Wiener, he recounted: “I decided that I would do an anti-McCarthy play on Philco-Goodyear Playhouse: something called ‘A Sense of Justice’.” Vidal also turned his go-for-the-jugular wit and serious study of history to religion. Referring to his novel about the “apostate” Roman Emperor, Julian (1964), he remarked: “I’ve always been anti-Christian, but I wanted to know why. So I investigated the cult, a radicalizing thing to do since I come from that tradition.”
In 1968, when Vidal says he was caught in the Chicago police riot at the Democratic Party Convention, he “came out, as it were, into radical politics.” But he was not a Marxist. From his youth, he had been determined to be a politician. He ran unsuccessfully for office in the early 1960s (and later in 1982) as a Democrat. He became co-chairman, with Benjamin Spock, of what would become the People’s Party (affiliated with the Peace and Freedom Party). He was involved in that effort from 1968 to 1972, the year that Democratic Senator George McGovern, a Vietnam War “dove,” mounted a presidential campaign only to get trounced by Richard Nixon. Vidal told Wiener, “I quit when McGovern, in the primaries, was saying everything we were, and rather better.”
Despite his own campaigns and acquaintance with much of the Democratic Party glitterati, Vidal did not gloss over the nature of the beast. As he told the Progressive: “I have been saying for the last thousand years that the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings: one is Democrat and the other is Republican.”
As a truth-teller, Vidal made his share of enemies. After his death, one David Greenberg wrote a vile piece headlined: “Stop Eulogizing Gore Vidal: He Was a Racist and an Elitist” (Slate Magazine, 2 August), which rides to the defense of the Zionist neocon Commentary crowd, circa 1986-87. At that time, Vidal had had the temerity to tangle with part of the Zionist lobby devoted to pressuring Congress on Israel’s behalf. The Commentary Cold Warriors—editor Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter—responded with an attack baiting Vidal as an anti-Semite. Podhoretz had established his reputation as a racist back in the 1960s with his essay “My Negro Problem—And Ours” and was outspoken in his bigotry against homosexuals.
Vidal skewered the Podhoretz/Decter team in the Nation (22 March 1986): “Joyously they revel in the politics of hate, with plangent attacks on blacks and/or fags and/or liberals, trying, always, to outdo those moral majoritarians who will, as Armageddon draws near, either convert all the Jews, just as the Good Book says, or kill them.” Commenting on Podhoretz’s proclamation that for him the “Civil War is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses,” Vidal noted, “I realized then that he was not planning to become an ‘assimilated American,’ to use the old-fashioned terminology; but, rather, his first loyalty would always be to Israel.” Podhoretz whined that Vidal’s essay was “the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II” (Commentary, November 1986).
It was at this time that we took up the cudgels in defense of Vidal against the witchhunters and established a modest correspondence with him. Our main article in defense of Vidal, titled “Gore Vidal: Bad Boy of the Bourgeoisie,” was published in Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 40, Summer 1987. We quoted Vidal’s statement:
“We stole other people’s land. We murdered many of the inhabitants. We imposed our religion—and rule—on the survivors. General Grant was ashamed of what we did to Mexico, and so am I. Mark Twain was ashamed of what we did in the Philippines, and so am I. Midge is not because in the Middle East another predatory people is busy stealing other people’s land in the name of an alien theocracy. She is a propagandist for these predators (paid for?) and that is what all this nonsense is about.”
In August 1987 he wrote to us to applaud our article as “the clearest and most detailed so far—not to mention informatory: I learned a good deal.”
Vidal had come to know the social reality of this country. That’s why, from the centrality of the Civil War in American social and political life to the racist horrors perpetrated at the time of Hurricane Katrina, he was so eloquent. Recalling watching “the catastrophe that has left most of New Orleans under water” from his home in Italy, he observed in Point to Point Navigation:
“The Italians are astonished at the casualness with which the American government goes about saving those clinging to life atop the roofs of buildings. Tact keeps the local press from noting what every American knows: those who have been abandoned by lifesavers belong to our permanent underclass: the African Americans.”
We hated a lot of the same people for about the same reasons. Our special debt to Vidal is for the seven novels—from Burr (1973) to Lincoln (1984) and Empire (1987) through to The Golden Age (2000)—that constitute the “Narratives of Empire” collection. Vidal told the truth, and that is both rare and subversive. And, he embraced life, not what he referred to as the “death cult” of Christianity and other religions, nor the stultifying, hypocritical conformity of the holy family. There is more truth in Vidal’s fiction than in many celebrated works of “history.” The Prometheus Research Library, archive of the Spartacist League Central Committee, long ago made Gore Vidal a subject category and collected his writings to educate comrades with provocatively good reads.
Gore Vidal is buried side by side with his partner of 50 years, Howard Austen, near the grave of his first love, Jimmie Tribble, who was slain in World War II. We will miss his creative spark, but his legacy will continue to enrich us.