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A prolific novelist, Gore Vidal is famous for his controversial subject matter and his historical novels. But his versatility extends beyond the world of the novel, as he has also achieved fame as playwright, critic, essayist, mystery writer, and screenwriter.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Discord and Politics
Eugene Luther Vidal was born on October 3, 1925, in West Point, New York, where his father was an army instructor of aeronautics at the famous West Point Military Academy. His mother, Nina, was an actress and an alcoholic, who had several affairs during the marriage. She and Vidal’s father divorced in 1935.
Vidal became a part of the political life very early. After his parents divorced, his mother married the wealthy and socially prominent financier Hugh D. Auchincloss. After eventually separating from Vidal’s mother, Auchincloss went on to marry Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of future first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, bringing Vidal into future orbit with the politically powerful Kennedy family.
Vidal spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C. Because of the discord between his parents, he was heavily influenced by his grandfather, Senator Thomas P. Gore. Thomas, a populist (someone who supports democracy, and the rights of the common people over the elite), who was Oklahoma’s first U.S. senator and was also blind. Vidal spent many hours in Gore’s extensive library, frequently reading aloud to him. This helped to give Vidal his first understanding of history and politics. Despite the fact that his family was wealthy, he would later describe himself as a populist, like his grandfather. Through Thomas P. Gore, Vidal met the personalities of Washington. He experienced a stimulating tour of pre-World War II Europe at age fourteen. Inspired by his grandfather, Vidal decided to take the name Gore as his first name.
In 1940, Vidal enrolled in the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, where he became interested in writing. By the time Vidal graduated from Exeter and enlisted in the army, World War II (which had begun two years earlier, with the German invasion of Poland), was still years from being over. Trained as an engineer and assigned to an army freighter, Vidal was able to avoid combat. This proved to be a very boring period for him, however. To relieve the boredom of his service responsibilities, he started writing his first novel, Williwaw (1946), when he was only nineteen. This success seems to have led to Vidal’s decision not to go to college, but to instead embark upon a career of writing.
Homosexual Themes in Vidal’s Writing
Vidal had a longtime male companion, Howard Auster, whom he met in 1950. Vidal and Austen were partners until Austen’s death in 2003. However, Vidal has never accepted the label “homosexual,” and he equally dislikes the term “gay”; he has said, ”There are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts.”
Gay characters or gay subtexts appear in most of Vidal’s work. The publication of Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar in 1948, resulted in a public and critical clamor over its openly gay main character and depiction of homosexual behavior. The novel was considered scandalous, and several newspapers blacklisted Vidal, refusing to review his future novels. The book was dedicated to Vidal’s first romantic partner, Jimmie Trimble, who died in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
Gore Vidal was not the only person writing about controversial sexual themes during the late 1940s. In the same year that The City and the Pillar was published, Alfred Kinsey published his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), which was also a bestseller and similarly, the subject of controversy. Among other things, it suggested that homosexual experiences among males were not uncommon. The appearance of other homosexual characters in popular fiction around this time could also be found in fiction by major authors Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, among others. It would seem that Vidal was simply tuned into a post-World War II sexual consciousness that would continue through the next decade and soon evolve into the ”sexual revolution” of the 1960s. Never behind the times, Vidal wrote another popular novel in 1967 that dealt with gender identity and sexuality. Myra Breckenridge featured a male protagonist who becomes female by undergoing a sex change operation.
Dabbling in Film
Vidal’s play Visit to a Small Planet (1955), about a child-like alien named Kreton trying to understand humans, was a great success. It first appeared on the stage, and was later adapted into a film in 1960. In 1956, Vidal was hired as a screenwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. He helped rewrite the script for Ben-Hur (1959), however, in the course of further rewrites by other scriptwriters, many of his changes were rejected and he was ultimately denied credit. Vidal had a small, uncredited part in Tennessee William’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, for which he also wrote the screenplay). Vidal would continue to work on various television and film productions through the 1980s.
A Bid for Political Office
Vidal ran for Congress in 1960 as a liberal Democrat, and while he was not victorious, neither was his race a disaster; the writer had shown that he possessed the political acumen and the persuasive skills necessary to collect votes. He remained politically active during this period. During President’s John F. Kennedy’s administration, Vidal served on the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Arts. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he engaged in television debate with author, conservative commentator and one-time CIA deep cover agent William F. Buckley. The exchange became so heated that Buckley threatened to punch Vidal.
Stirring Up Controversy
Vidal’s well-regarded historical novels Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), are considered revisionist histories, meaning that they interpret historical events and people differently than have most mainstream accounts. In Burr, Vidal portrays Vice President Aaron Burr, who served under Jefferson and was famous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, as a hero. Thomas Jefferson is portrayed as self-centered and hypocritical, someone who does not have the best interests of the country at heart. In Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States is treated more respectfully than was Jefferson, and yet is portrayed as someone indifferent toward the practice of slavery, and who ignores the constitution when it suits him. These depictions were controversial, because in order to create them, Vidal mixed truth and fact, blurring the line between them
In 1993, Vidal won a National Book Award for his United States: Essays 1952-1992. In 1995, Vidal published an autobiography entitled Palimpsest that offered details on the various relationships with both men and women that Vidal had over the years. Also in 1995, Vidal attracted criticism by commencing a three year correspondence with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, while McVeigh was in prison. McVeigh had been found guilty of domestic terrorism for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The explosion, on April 19,1995, killed 168 people, and injured over 800 more. In 2001, Vidal published an article in the magazine Vanity Eair in which he suggested that McVeigh had not acted alone in detonating the bomb, and that McVeigh was used as a scapegoat by the press and authorities. Vidal attended McVeigh’s execution on June 11, 2001, at the prisoner’s request. Although Vidal’s explanation was that he wanted to show that a non-violent person (Vidal himself) could disagree with his government, Vidal’s sympathy toward a terrorist resulted in many people feeling that Vidal was being disloyal to his country.
Another Memoir and Later Year
Vidal and Auster divided their time between Ravello, Italy, and the United States through the 1990s. Auster died in 2003, and in 2006, Vidal published another memoir: Point to Point Navigation, which focuses on his later years. Vidal continues to work and make guest appearances at literary events around the country.
Works in Literary Context
Les Enfants Terribles
the publication of Williwaw in 1946, Vidal joined the ranks of the so-called enfants terribles (terrible children) who dominated the American cultural scene just after World War II. Such successful writers thrived on deliberately putting forth shocking or unorthodox ideas and stories. Vidal’s name was often linked with other post-war prodigies such as Truman Capote, John Horn Burns, James Jones, and—several years later—Norman Mailer. Five years after the release of Williwaw, John W.Aldridge wrote in After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars, ”Gore Vidal, at twenty-five, occupies an enviable position in American letters. Not only is he the youngest of the group of new writers whose first books began attracting attention right after the war, but he has already produced as large and varied a body of work as many of his contemporaries may be expected to produce comfortably in a lifetime.”
Vidal’s historical novels, written between 1973 and 2000, are now known as the ”Narratives of Empire” (previously called The American Chronicles). They are: Washington, D.C. (1967), Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (l990), The Golden Age (2000). They cover events in the United States from colonial times to the post-World War II era, and are Vidal’s renderings of the worlds of politics and power, worlds to which his grandfather, Thomas Gore, had helped introduce him. While all historical novels take liberties with facts and historical characters in order to produce a compelling story, Vidal has been criticized for bending facts further than most, and for presenting historical figures such as Burr, Jefferson, and Lincoln in ways that do not square with the historical record. Whatever their opinions of the individual novels, most critics feel that this series has been Vidal’s greatest achievement.
Sexuality and Gender The themes of homosexuality and gender identity are such an ingrained part of Vidal’s writing that William F. Buckley once accused him of being a ”pusher” of the gay lifestyle. But for Vidal, his sexuality and his philosophies surrounding sexuality and gender are part of his identity as a human being and a writer, and he has written many essays on these topics. Vidal has indicated that he dislikes the terms ”homosexual” and ”gay” because he does not like labeling people, and also because he said he believed everyone was bisexual (capable mentally and physically of having sex with either men or women) but some people simply chose to have sex exclusively with one gender or the other.
Works in Critical Context
Vidal has been the subject of critical and media attention for four decades. His work is noted for its eloquence, intelligence, urbane humor, and biting satire, as well as for its attacks on culture and politics. A divisive figure all his life, he has drawn both high praise and scathing criticism.
Myra Breckinridge (1968)
Popular as Vida’s historical novels have been, the author’s greatest work, say critics, is Myra Breckinridge, a campy, satiric look at modern America. A bestseller within weeks of its publication, Myra Breckinridge takes satiric aim 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. The book is sexually graphic, but most reviewers of the time recognized it as a satire on pornography that had, at the same time, become what it was—satirizing. In May 1968, Margot Hentoff of the New York Review of Books, 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 s Joseph Morgenstern referred to it as ”gleefully dirty, wittily dirty, gracefully and intricately dirty in its creation and development of a genuine film freak.
Lincoln is the third in a series of seven historical novels, written between 1973 and 2000, that focus on American political figures. Critical reviews of the novel were mixed. Harold Bloom, in the July 19, 1984 New York Review of Books, wrote, ”until now no novelist has had the precision of imagination to show us a plausible and human Lincoln, of us and yet beyond us. Lincoln biographers, on the other hand, were quick to point out that most of what was depicted in the book was wrong and misleading. The novel creates a difficulty for reviewers in being historical, for Gore insisted that his novel was mostly factual, yet it was a work of fiction and not biography.
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. However, a television miniseries of the novel in 1988 received very poor reviews all around, and was considered to be inferior to the novel.
- Aldridge, John W. After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars. New York:McGraw-Hill, 1951.
- Baker, Susan, and Curtis S. Gibson, eds. Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion. London: Greenwood Press, 1997.
- Dick, Bernard F. The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal. New York: Random House, 1974.
- White, Ray Lewis. Gore Vidal. New York: Twayne, 1968.
- Walter, Eugene. ”Conversations with Gore Vidal.” In Transatlantic Review. 4 (1960): 5-17.
- Hentoff, Margot. ”Growing Up Androgynous.”New York Review of Books. vol. 10, no. 9 (1968): 5-17.
- Wilhelm, John F., and Mary Ann Wilhelm. ”’Myra Breckinridge’: A Study of Identity. ”Journal of Popular culture. 3 (Winter 1969): 590-599.
- PBS American Masters: Gore Vidal. Accessed November 11, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/.
- The Gore VidalIndex. Accessed November 12, 2008, from http://www.pitt.edu/ ~ldoman/vidalfame.html.
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