If a man’s legacy were to be gauged by the immediate response to his death, then Gore Vidal’s is very much in danger of being reduced to a succession of pithy and caustic sentences that will however rattle round the internet, and cheapened by the descent into hysteria that warped his political views in his final years. As quotable as he was—for good and for ill—it’s worth remembering Vidal the novelist, whose writing helped define the postwar American novel because his subject—whether he was writing about religious strife in ancient Rome or middle America as a gaudy soap opera—was always the United States itself.
Vidal’s most substantial body of work is his seven-book series “Narratives of Empire,” a chronicle of the United States tinged with the Vidalian view that the nation has morphed since its inception from republic to empire. Often, Vidal’s heterodoxy affected the quality of his work; as Christopher Hitchens noted in his attack on Vidal in Vanity Fair, by the time The Golden Age was published in 2000, Vidal’s obsession with conspiracy pertaining to Pearl Harbor had overtaken him.
But Burr—his novel on the founding of the republic—and Lincoln are unsurpassed in the field of American historical fiction. Ever the contrarian, Vidal made his Lincoln a leader with dictatorial tendencies who would suspend habeas corpus and lead the North into sanguinary conflict to keep the republic together. Vidal deployed verifiable quotations to make his case that the Great Emancipator did not care much for emancipation at all: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Nonetheless, his portrait of Lincoln the man is affectionate and affecting. At the book’s conclusion, Charles Schuyler, Vidal’s fictional interloper, asks Lincoln’s secretary John Hay where he would place Lincoln amongst all the presidents past. The voice is clearly Vidal’s:
Oh, I would place him first. Mr. Lincoln had a far greater and more difficult task than Washington’s. You see, the Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union. But Lincoln said no. Lincoln said this Union can never be broken. Now, that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won. So he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image.
Vidal considered his best books to be the ones he labelled his “fantasies” or “inventions,” including Duluth—set in an American town where the lines between real life and fiction are indistinct—as well as Kalki and Live from Golgotha. The most famous of these, and the best, was Myra Breckinridge, starring a transgender protagonist who wallows in the golden age of Hollywood and takes revenge upon mankind in brutally lustful ways. I defy anyone who opens Myra Breckinridge and reads its opening lines—I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess—not to press on and revel in the humor and verve.
But all of Vidal’s novels, even those deemed creations of his imagination, are grounded in reality in one way or another and seek to propagate a political or historical argument. In the case of Myra Breckinridge, Vidal spoke of fluidity between the genders, advancing a point he had made before that there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person, merely, as he put it, “same-sex sex and other-sex sex.”
In addition to politics and sex, Vidal was preoccupied by religion, and in his magnum opus, Julian, Vidal chronicles the life of that 4th-century Roman emperor, who attempted to restore pluralism and Hellenistic values to an empire which had began to promote Christianity throughout its territories. Ever the patrician, republican, and secularist, Vidal took the side of Caesar in the novel, granting him some passionately-articulated anti-clerical polemics:
Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god? A man not born when the world began? I am afraid it takes extraordinary self-delusion to believe such things.
Again, however, Vidal was coming back to the great subject, the one to which he devoted his life: the United States. In electing to tell a story of Roman decline and fall, Vidal was sending a warning shot, expressing his opinion that his country of birth was beginning to go the same way, abandoning its democratic and republican values for the sake of empire. He may not have always been right on this point, but his novels remain essential. Watch him battle Buckley and Mailer, and hear him trash Capote. But read the books—it is where the best of Vidal is to be found.