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Notes on Gore Vidal's Life and Work

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2013 34 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur










1 Introduction

The following work deals with the life and work of Eugene Luther (Louis) Gore Vidal (the full name seems widely disputed to me.) He was born on the 3rd of October in 1925 as the only son of Eugene (Gene) Luther Vidal, an Olympic decathlete, aeronautics instructor, founder of the once-successful all-American TWA (Trans World Airlines in full, which merged with American Airlines in 2001),1 alcoholic and atrocious Nina Gore, and grandson of renowned Thomas Pryor Gore, former first Democratic Senator of Oklahoma, who was in fact one of the first two senators of that rather young state, and whose surname Vidal adopted because he believed his name at birth bore too much an apparently striking resemblance to his father’s name. He had been on the brink of insignifi- cance, not to say of no political importance, for roughly his last 25 years and died on July 31, 2012.2,3

He was a renowned author, playwright, journalist-turned-screenwriter and movie scriptwriter, speechwriter, an enormously prolific essayist, a prodigious satirist, a pundit dedicated to social and political topics, and - besides for his fictional and historical short stories and novels - most famous for the realistic one-of-a-kind play about politics, The Best Man (1960), which shall be men- tioned later again. Not only did he have political ambitions as learned and liter- ate writers sometimes do to no avail, but he was also actually involved in poli- tics and public life, not so much prominently as consistently.4,5 Being a man with plenty of aplomb, both revolutionary and conservative, idealist and pacifist, made him a person of honor and detest at the same time (which, to some ex- tent, reminds me of the late ill-reputed Cicero).

Well, whathedetested was American imperialism, and what he came up with were ideas on how to change American foreign policies. Mainly, alterations in this respect just meant not to stick one’s nose into something one does not understand and is not capable of.6

Vidal was a wack, both famous and infamous, just like his contemporary fellows Lyndon LaRouche, famous economist and part-time conspiracy theorist, Ralph Nader, lawyer with political zeal, and George McGovern, author and lib- eral politician of distinction and exemplary morality, who all took a stance for the good (just think of Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed with the case of the Chevrolet Corvair under scrutiny and how his actions triggered lawsuits against GM), or at least against the government and corrupt or weary politicians. Perhaps they only pretended to do so. Undoubtedly, they were winners and losers at once, now popular, then detested. But still not as odious as their coeval political col- leges, or rather antagonists, who were indulging in affaires and official miscon- duct. I surmise, as a rule of thumb, politicians just have to be complicated char- acters (please, don’t bear in mind simple-minded marionettes like G. W. Bush junior who will certainly suffer from his bad repute for good), and therefore Gore Vidal fits perfectly into that theatrical performance called politics.

2 Determined by Origin?

Vidal’s course of life seems to have been predetermined by his famous origin: as mentioned above, his grandfather was Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, who turned from a Western populist into a conservative Democrat, adamantly refusing 1930s’New Dealpolicy of President Roosevelt and the American involvement in World War II.7,8

2.1 Vidal’s Grandfather, His Books, and a Message

From his blind beloved grandfather, Vidal inherited the love for literature and language. He would read out books and papers loud to the Senator which helped him develop rhetorical skills and faculties which later rendered him a great service in debates and controversial discussion. Besides, the aged man raised and educated Vidal at large.9

Vidal’s oratorical training consisted not only of reading aloud, but of read- ing a wealth of all kinds of literature which he could find in his grandfather’s mul- tifarious library. Literature had such a deep impact on Vidal that we can now assume that it changed his whole life by influencing his attitudes and (sexual) orientation. He read books about Classical legends and myths, indulged espe- cially in Roman historiography, all of which are tales of exemplary morality.10 Having read such literature, Vidal recognized the controversy between “the old American republic and the new American Empire,”11 between a refined culture of arts and the cold barbarism of war. Undeniably well-balanced antitheses.

On what Vidal focused in his works and what he witnessed was nothing more than the evolution of a country, reminding me of the Roman empire, which - and that is the only decisive difference - turned from a barbarian warfare-tribe into a more sophisticated, and after several civil wars, even somewhat peaceful culture (at a later point in time, the republic became bellicose and litigious again).

Vidal tried to stem that unholy development by providing the American people with the notion that the USA was on the wrong track, even on the road to perdition, on the brink. He wanted to raise American citizens’ awareness of that problem, i.e. imperialism, he meant to “preserve the American republic from the evils of empire”12 by means of literature and film addressing broad audiences. Some surmised he might be right, so did most liberals. Many considered his notions wry and exaggerated. Without a doubt, American imperialism has al- ways been a contentious issue.

A rather unique property of Vidal was the fact that he was able to combine “serious classics and popular literary and cinemagraphic[sic!]culture.”13Taking into account the time when Vidal was born and bred, considering the upcoming and increasing popularity of the movies back then, which triggered a severe competition between common books and the freshly-invented cinematographic means, we must admit that he was an excelling, curious, modern and open-minded person, far ahead of his time.

Still, it was a clever, cunning move to make use of both the old-fashioned and the brand-new medium in order to communicate his ideas to the masses. Why did he want to communicate? Because he did not want to be a mere au- thor, but political also. As a young man, Vidal widely adopted his grandfather’s attitudes to American domestic politics and foreign affairs, from which he would later distance himself in most parts.14 Vidal was a mainstream liberal Democrat, who later drifted toward the political, some say radical, left. As Lind claims, Vidal never had approximately defected to the left wing, but “moved to the South and West and back in time,”15 meaning he had grown reactionary. He had finally turned from a progressive Democrat to a reactionist against the newly reinvented liberalism of the mid-to-late 20th century.

2.2 Connection to the Kennedy Clan

Through his socialite mother’s (whom he kept execrating) second marriage to Hugh D. Auchincloss, Vidal should become the step-brother of Jackie Kennedy - because after his divorce from Nina Gore, Hugh married Janet Bouvier, Jackie’s mother - and thus basically a relative (by marriage) of John F. Kennedy, whom he knew so well that he was almost like a brother to him, not only familiar but amicable.16,17,18

Being a descendant of that kin, Vidal might have stood a chance in a po- litical career if not for his odd views and unorthodox, outré lifestyle, but that was his way of angling for and drawing public attention to his person and what he was standing for. And what he wanted was all but being mainstream; instead he deliberately displayed his seriousness and extravagance (you might even think of some sort of queerness now, but more on that matter later). If we assume from today’s perspective that being mainstream means being popular, Vidal was surely on the wrong tack. JFK’s affairs could not preclude him from suc- cess, while Vidal’s exclusively elitist demeanor chagrined common people.

Obviously, he was not very fond of company (especially of that of contemporary writers) and not such a man you would like to spend your leisure time with, except for his gay companions who adored theirdandyVidal, largely unlike JF Kennedy, who was a dude and serial womanizer. Maybe these personal differences between the two plus JFK’s unsagacious impolicy (Cuba crisis, Vietnam War) caused Vidal’s change of mind,19his ensuing shift to the left, which obliged him to brake up with the Kennedys at last.20

3 Controversial Political Views

As I stated before in my introductory sermon, Vidal adamantly defended the truth in politics, refuted those intentional inexactitudes, also known aslies, that are so frequently, if not always, used by politicians, no matter which party they represent. He exorbitantly hated lying and liars,21but lived in a nation of them, he once stated. A fact that had worsened over decades, an instance of deteriorated “general intelligence” as Vidal put it.22

It seems to me like Vidal’s attempts have not turned into long-lasting achievements because corruption and lying is still political everyday business.

3.1 Vidal’s Attitudes - Formed by Ancient Protagonists as Exemplars

As it is a well-known fact that Vidal was a learned and literate man who found advice and support for the intellectual refinement of his (political and cul- tural) virtues in ancient literature,23 we do not really have to wonder who his predecessors in mind are: in his writings Cicero, for instance, provides us with almost, if not completely, the same ideas and attitudes as Vidal does. Cicero was a homo novus, a social climber - no upstage or upstart, which are slightly pejorative terms -, and that is exactly what Vidal claimed to be (“I’m a populist”) when he was trying to refute claims that he were a patrician.24

Studying classical philology - Latin in particular - and having a strong personal interest in Ciceronian literature and thoughts, I did not have to search for good in order to find parallels between those two politicians, the one more or less playing the role of an (in)famous underdog, the other prominent, of undulat- ing repute and, at first, politically successful (plus an undoubtedly one-of-a-kind lawyer). In the following, I would like to present a few passages to you I found that show parallels to what Vidal was reputed to stand for.

The first passage is from a speech by Cicero on the disputed Roman agrarian legislation (de lege agraria) of that time, given in the senate in 63 before Christ when his consulship had just commenced:

“[…] nullum externum periculum est, non rex, non gens ulla, non natiopertimescenda est; inclusum malum, intestinum ac domesticum est. Huic pro se quisque nostrum mederi atque hoc omnes sanare velle debemus.”25

“There are no external threads, no king, not any tribe at all, no nation we have to be afraid of; it is a problem that has arisen from deep inside, here within our country and in our homes. Each of us is morally obligated to willingly cure this disease on his own and we all just have to heal it.”

Like Gore Vidal, Cicero thought that most of the problems and perils that a country has to face and cope with are home-grown as it were. In his opinion, domestic affairs prevail and there is no, and if so, only restricted, external military engagement needed.26Cicero was, just like the adolescent Vidal, vehemently critical of warfare on foreign ground, which is the basis ofimperialism, a method especially applied by Roman rulers like Julius Caesar to extend a state’s territory and accumulate powers.

Furthermore, sending soldiers out for war could trigger additional future problems, like crippled veterans who assert their claims to financial aid, something which was not unknown back in ancient Roman times. But in order to strengthen a country’s inner bonds and ties that hold it together, domestic problems have to be solved at first.


1Cf. Teeman,The Times(09/30/2009).

2Cf. Wagner,The Times(08/04/2012).

3Cf. Chalmers,The Independent(05/25/2008).

4Cf. Kaplan (1999), p. ix.

5 Cf. Chalmers, The Independent (05/25/2008).

6 Cf. Kaplan (1999), p. xii.

7Cf. Kaplan (1999), p. x.

8Cf. Kaplan (1999), p. xii.

9Cf. Chalmers,The Independent(05/25/2008).

10Cf. Kaplan (1999), p. x f.

11 Kaplan (1999), p. xi.


13Kaplan (1999), p. xi.

14Cf. Kaplan (1999), p. xii.

15 Lind, Salon (08/02/2012).

16Cf. Cornwell,The Independent(08/01/2012).

17Cf. Teeman,The Times(09/30/2009).

18Cf. Chalmers,The Independent(05/25/2008).

19Cf. Vidal, BBC HARDtalk (05/23/2008).

20 Cf. Lind, Salon (08/02/2012).

21Cf. Chalmers,The Independent(05/25/2008).

22Cf. Teeman,The Times(09/30/2009).

23Cf. Kaplan (1999), p. x.

24 Cf. Lind, Salon (08/02/2012); in opposite to Vidal, Cicero never had to complain about being deemed a patrician, but a populist (popularis, regarding the citizens, loved by the people, popular.)

25Cicero, leg. agr. 1,26 f.; p. 23.

26 Cf. Chalmers, The Independent (05/25/2008), where Vidal claims that people like him are the “original patriots.” These people are “strongly opposed to foreign wars.”


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Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg – Anglistik - Amerikanische Literaturwissenschaft
notes gore vidal life work

Titel: Notes on Gore Vidal's Life and Work