If I had to be stranded on a desert island with the works of only one author, I would pick the novels and stories and essays of Gore Vidal (1925-2012). Brilliant, erudite, perceptive and sarcastic, Vidal was a one-man library. He was the author of twenty-five novels, eight plays, a dozen screenplays, two memoirs, numerous short stories and well over two hundred essays. Thanks to a combination of heredity, luck and talent, Vidal witnessed almost a century of American political and social life. Born to America’s a-list, Vidal was a natural leader but he lacked the hypocrisy and fake modesty that our country expects from its politicians. (Vidal’s two campaigns, for Congress in 1960 and the Senate in 1982, both ended in defeat.) Frustrated in politics, Vidal channeled his political genius into literary forms. His most famous series of novels - Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington DC and The Golden Age - form a fictional history of the United States from the American Revolution to the recent past. Vidal also chronicled the Decline and Fall of the American Empire in a series of perceptive essays that, collected as United States: Essays 1952-1992, won him the 1993 National Book Award. The best of Vidal’s essays also appear in Sexually Speaking (Cleis, 1999) and The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal (Doubleday, 2008).
In addition to his contributions to historical fiction and political commentary, Gore Vidal wrote some of the most important works of American literary works dealing with LGBT people. Christopher Bram, writing about Vidal in his book Eminent Outlaws, called Vidal “a godfather of gay literature, in spite of himself.” Openly bisexual, Vidal rejected any attempt to sexually categorize himself or any others. His controversial 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar, was one of the first mainstream American novels to deal with male homosexuality and bisexuality. Two decades later, Vidal’s stinging Hollywood satire, Myra Breckinridge, was one of the first novels ever written about a transsexual woman. Vidal also wrote a series of gay short stories, some of which appeared in his 1956 collection, A Thirsty Evil. Gay characters also appear in most of his historical novels.
Gore Vidal was one of the last of the great celebrity writers, the successor of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain and Sholem Aleichem. He was a regular guest on television talk shows in the 1960s and 1970s, where he delighted audiences with his acid wit. Never one to mince words, Vidal was one half of some of the last century’s most notorious literary feuds: with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr., among others. Needless to say, Vidal was the most sought-after commodity in the book fair circuit. I had the pleasure of seeing Gore Vidal in the flesh in November of 2008, when he appeared at the Miami Book Fair International to promote his Selected Essays. Then 83, Vidal had recently sold his beloved palace in Ravello, Italy; moved back to the US; and mourned the loss of his long-time partner, Howard Austen. Infirm, and barely able to walk, Vidal was nonetheless as brilliant as ever. An early and constant critic of then-President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” - an excuse to increase presidential powers and curtail civil liberties - Vidal welcomed the election of Barack Obama as our 44th Chief Executive: “The terrible time is over,” he exulted, with uncharacteristic optimism. Vidal called Obama “an educated man, probably overqualified for the post” and hoped America would take Obama’s message of change to heart. (Not surprisingly, Vidal lived to be disappointed by President Obama, just like the rest of us.) But Vidal was equally critical of both parties in this “United States of Amnesia,” adding that “we have a political system which has been so crooked so long there's no rationalizing it. Everything is a lie and a cheat, and everybody is grabbing as much money as they can.”
We need critics like Gore Vidal, who criticize our leaders and inspire the rest of us. Speaking at the Miami Book Fair in 2008, Vidal worried about the “dumbing of America.” Americans, Vidal said, need to be “smarter people, better-read people, knowledgeable people. We wouldn’t have had the Bush administration if people would read.” Since then, Americans have only gotten dumber, in a political climate where money rules and elections are won by a minority Tea Party whose views are the direct opposite of Vidal’s. Vidal’s death on July 31 was a great loss; and we will miss him. Even so, those of us who still read have gotten much out of Vidal’s wit and wisdom, and will continue to do so for a long time, desert island or not.