Wednesday, August 01, 2012

An Elegant, Acerbic Man of Letters -- Gone

“You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: Where are the readers?” -- Gore Vidal in Esquire, 2008

Well, you can certainly count me as one. My first exposure to fiction by Gore Vidal -- who died last night in Los Angeles at age 86 -- came during the late 1970s, when Vintage republished all three of the mystery novels he’d penned in the ’50s as “Edgar Box.” As Les Blatt explains in his blog, Classic Mysteries:
When Vidal wrote his mysteries, he did so -- as he quite often observed in later years -- to survive. He had managed to offend the New York Times -- which, for a young writer, was not a good thing to do -- and found himself writing a series of mysteries as a way of putting food on the table. I reviewed the first of them, Death in the Fifth Position, on this blog last year. They might be described as medium boiled, but they are also influenced by the traditional mystery -- in his own words, he “worked very hard at being a mystery writer, somewhat heavily reliant upon Agatha Christie.” Each of the three books, he said, was written in eight days at the rate of ten thousand words a day, and, he says, he lived on them for the next dozen years.
Because they were quite slender works, I remember spending far fewer days with each of those novels -- Death Before Bedtime (1953), Death in the Fifth Position (1952), and Death Likes It Hot (1954) -- than Vidal had allegedly taken to prepare them for publication.

However, my interest in the author’s work had been ignited, and I went on over the years to read most of his oeuvre, including 1876 (1976), Duluth (1983), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998). Two of my favorite novels of all time, in fact, were works bearing Vidal’s byline: Burr (1973), about the fascinating and quite scandalous life of Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States; and Lincoln (1984), which examined the political and personal challenges faced by President Abraham Lincoln. I later included Lincoln in a January Magazine feature about the most memorable books of the 20th century. And the only time I ever met Vidal, after an onstage interview he gave in Seattle, following the publication of his non-fiction work Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003), we talked briefly about Lincoln. Actually, he did most of the talking, while I barely managed to stammer a couple of questions in his direction, intimidated by this sudden opportunity to converse with someone whose work I had so long admired.

There are plenty of tributes to be found in the press today, recalling Vidal’s history not only as an “elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters,” but also as “a true individualist and a Liberal who sought political office more than once,” a veteran political commentator, a famous feuder, and a speaker with a quick wit and sometimes cutting tongue. (When asked for a comment, following the death in 2008 of his longtime foe, conservative author and Firing Line host William F. Buckley Jr., Vidal said: “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”)

My favorite remarks about Vidal, though, come from Charles McGrath’s obituary in today’s New York Times:
Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, putdown or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy.

Perhaps more than any other American writer except Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, Mr. Vidal took great pleasure in being a public figure. He twice ran for office -- in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate -- and though he lost both times, he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Where are the readers, Mr. Vidal? I suspect that there will be many people who, realizing today that they’ve never taken the time to enjoy your work, or have at least read too little of it, will pick up a copy of Lincoln or Burr, or maybe one of your earlier novels -- The City and the Pillar (1948), say, or Myra Breckinridge (1968) -- and discover what they’ve been missing. It is not the best thing for a writer to realize, that death can earn him new fans, but in the long run, that’s not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.

READ MORE:My Q&A with Gore Vidal (1925-2012),” by Erik Lundegaard; “R.I.P., Gore Vidal,” by Ed Kilgore (Washington Monthly); “Gore Vidal (1925–2012): A Patrician Gadfly Leaves the Stage,” by Gregory McNamee (Kirkus Reviews); “The Long Arc of Gore Vidal,” by Tom Carson (The American Prospect); “Remembering Gore Vidal,” by Jay Parini (The Huffington Post); “Christopher Buckley on His Father’s Old Nemesis, Gore Vidal” (The New Republic); “Postscript: Gore Vidal,” by Hilton Als (The New Yorker); “The Virgil of American Populism,” by Michael Lind (Salon); “Mort: Gore Vidal,” by Don Herron (Up and Down These Mean Streets); “Gore Vidal: An Appreciation,” by Michael Carlson (Irresistible Targets); “Gore Vidal’s Reading List for America,” by Michael Winship (Salon); “Mailer and Vidal: The Big Schmooze,” by Carole Mallory (Esquire); “The Merv Griffin Show with Guest Gore Vidal” (Classic Television Showbiz).

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