Gore Vidal published his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946 at the age of 21. A precocious talent, he began writing poems and stories as a young teen-ager and took his first stab at novels before he was out of high school. He finally finished one when, as a 19-year-old aboard a World War II ship in the Aleutians, he began a story of men at sea and continued it while recovering in a hospital, the victim of rheumatoid arthritis. Critics received the book well, and Vidal - whose grandfather was a senator and whose father, a pioneer aviator, worked for the Roosevelt administration - set out on his own career as a novelist rather than the family career of politics and privilege.
His second novel, In a Yellow Wood (1947), didn't please critics quite as much. But when, in 1948, he published The City and the Pillar, he changed the course of his career. The story of a young homosexual, the book received scathingly moralistic notices from most of the mainstream press, and The New York Times refused to review his next five novels in the daily newspaper. Sales slipped along with his prestige, and so in the early 1950s, under three different pseudonyms, he wrote five pulp fictions while continuing to publish his literary novels. Among these books are A Star's Progress, written as Katherine Everard, and Thieves Fall Out, written as Cameron Kay. He also wrote three mystery novels under the name Edgar Box: Death in the Fifth Position, Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes It Hot.
It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
- Gore Vidal
Aldridge's praise for Vidal more or less ended there. Speaking of The City and the Pillar, he writes: "The technique that proved too weak to carry the ideological weight in In a Yellow Wood now shows signs of being thoroughly flattened. The old terseness has given way to hollowness; the old theme is felt everywhere in the material but it is now, one feels, almost shamelessly planted. All the effects in the novel come out of a uniform shade of gray, and every page bears testimony to exhaustion and haste."
Aldridge is quite wrong about the haste: The flat, sullen tone and style of The City and the Pillar differs from its predecessors because, for better or worse, it is precisely the tone Vidal had hoped to strike. One suspects Aldridge had ulterior motives, for later he writes: "At bottom, [this is] a thoroughly amoral book - not immoral in the conventional sense, because it deals with homosexuality, but amoral in the purely ethical sense, because there is no vitality or significance in the view of life which has gone into it." In a five-page section of his book, Aldridge discusses the era's spate of novels about homosexuality, branding them all social tracts and literary lightweights. He concludes of Vidal's offering, "[The novel] was purely a social document that was read because it had all the qualities of lurid journalism and not because it showed the craft and insight of the artist."
Whatever the reason for the umbrage taken by Aldridge and other critics toward Vidal's work, Vidal found his bank account dwindling by the early 1950s. So he turned to writing plays for live television and screenplays for Hollywood. He would continue to dabble in moving pictures throughout his career, considering it to be a source of fast, good money - and also, one suspects, because he enjoyed the celebrity that came with it. Vidal grew up loving movies, and in several of his books he uses Hollywood as a lens through which he explores American culture and society. Yet his work in Hollywood has almost always disappointed him, never more so than with the wretched 1970 film of Myra Breckinridge - made from a screenplay he did not write - and a film based on his original screenplay about the mad Roman emperor Caligula.
|Under the headline "The Legend and the Wrecker," this 1960 issue of a New York tabloid says of Vidal: "A playwright-novelist sets out to defame anything and everything in U.S. politics." The handshake between President-elect Kennedy and Vidal took place backstage at a production of Vidal's play The Best Man.
During the 1950s, Vidal also began to write for live theater, although somewhat by accident: His live TV drama Visit to a Small Planet was so well-received when it aired in 1955 that a producer urged him to expand it for Broadway. He did - and the play was an immediate hit, chalking up 388 performances.
His next play, the cynical political drama The Best Man, did even better on Broadway in 1960 during an election year, closing after a healthy 520 performances. That same year, Vidal ran for Congress in upstate New York. He lost the race but outpolled Kennedy in a heavily Republican district. He would continue to write plays through the early 1970s, never returning to the success of these first two. The 1964 film version of The Best Man is the only film based on his work that Vidal admires. Not surprisingly, he wrote the screenplay himself. And in the fall of 2000, during the presidential election, Vidal's enduring political play had a Broadway revival with an impressive cast.
Finally, during his time of banishment from the novel in the 1950s, Vidal began to write book reviews for magazines and journals. Before long he was publishing longer essays on a variety of literary and political topics. He collected his first decade of pieces in 1962 in Rocking the Boat, thus launching a new reputation for himself as a trenchant and provocative commentator on American life and culture. Some people now even consider his essays rather than his novels to be his preeminent contribution to American letters.
In 1964, after a decade away from the novel, Vidal published Julian. A historical fiction, thick with research that fascinated and engaged readers, it recounts the life of the Roman emperor Julianus II, known to history as "Julian the Apostate," who tried, during his short reign that began in 361 A.D., to forsake the emergence of Christianity and return the old religions of Greece and Rome to his empire. A phenomenal bestseller, it also earned almost uniformly positive reviews. So Vidal had re-established himself as a prominent and best-selling novelist, and he would continue producing novels rather prolifically for the rest of his career.
A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.
- Gore Vidal
The most significant of Vidal's metafictions is surely Myra Breckinridge, which he published without fanfare in 1968 on the heels of Julian and his best-selling political novel Washington, D.C. He took his fans and the reading public by surprise with Myra, a sexually frank black comedy about a transsexual woman whose goal is to dominate the male gender. Although Vidal had long opined on matters sexual, this book put him at the forefront among modern authors as a theorist and satirist on topics of sex, sexuality and gender identity. Myra Breckinridge remains startling and somewhat ahead of its time even today.
Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.
- Gore Vidal
Since the 1960s, Vidal has gone back and forth from his historical novels to his metafictions, but he has not written a straight contemporary drama since the late 1940s or early 1950s, depending upon how one might classify his 1952 novel The Judgment of Paris. Two of his novels, Messiah (1954) and Kalki (1978), revolve around men who become religious icons at the center of their own self-fashioned death cults. These books straddle genres and might just as well be called prophetic science fictions.
Throughout Vidal's novels, certain themes recur: His belief that America is an imperial nation run by a small group of powerful corporate and political insiders; the loss of our ideal of a democratic Republic where the people actually have some influence on their government; his assertion
There is not one human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.
- Gore Vidal
Decades ago, Vidal asserted that "the novel is dead," meaning that the audience for the novel as a serious, influential art form is dead, replaced in post-war America by movies, television and the whole of popular culture. That's why he seems to have no interest in writing contemporary novels of introspection like so many of his peers whose works generally receive higher praise from the liteary establishment (which Vidal has called "the hacks of Academe"). He prefers instead to explore history in his novels or to invent worlds of his own delight.
The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes.
- Gore Vidal
In these pages, you will learn a lot about the work of Gore Vidal and what people have to say about him. The links in the frame on the left will take you to dozens of sites related to Vidal - some of them my own, but most of them set up by others. (If you don't see a frame on your left, then click here.) Feel free to send me feedback about this site or to point out links that I might add to my index. My address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you should find that a particular link is no longer available, please let me know. I try to check them from time to time but can't always keep up with everything.
Finally, let me note that I have no relationship with Gore Vidal, nor does he have any relationship with this web site. The Gore Vidal Index is a site offering information and research on Vidal and his work. Think of it as a book published in electronic form: Under the guarantees of the First Amendment, a writer neither needs nor traditionally seeks the permission of a public figure when writing about the person.
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