Goodbye to Gore Vidal, America's Biographer and Champion

Gore Vidal, one of my favorite writers, is dead, as Nick Gillespie and Jesse Walker have noted below.

For the facts of his life in newspaper form, combined with some decent editorializing about his larger meaning, see Charles McGrath in the New York Times, a paper that Vidal often complained failed to give him the attention he deseved as a novelist.

For his life story as told by him, see Palimpsests and Point to Point Navigation, with the former, earlier book more thorough and thoughtful; and I enjoyed though Vidal himself despised Fred Kaplan's Gore Vidal: A Biography.

Vidal was, and will still be in death, an object of reflexive contempt by most people who think of themselves "of the right," I think largely because of his personal contretemps with conservative leader William Buckley, though there is more to it than that, which I'll get to shortly. 

My affection for his writing had much to do with a resonance with his spirit, especially its anger and contempt at empire and the national security state, and awe at his wit, in his essays at least. Vidal was more impressed with his own whimsies and absurdities and comedies in fiction than I was, though. His "comic" novels of the Myra Breckenridge and Duluth variety, when I can get through them at all, are my least favorite of his books, while as Nick Gillespie noted below, Vidal on at least one occasion called Duluth his favorite.

Bill Kauffman (who shares Vidal's interest in and possessive attitude toward the history of American letters and the American republic) reviewed in The American Conservative a Vidal essay collection and called him "The Last Republican" in the sense of admiring a small America that minded its own business and respected its citizens' rights. In it Kauffman makes the best case for the non-partisan conservative to admire Vidal.

Vidal's seven-novel series of American history, which he called "Narratives of Empire," are my favorite of his fictions and I recommend them highly for a never-didactic survey of a nation that is wounded by its government but still a glorious setting in which conflicted, striving, but admirable humans scheme and strain and dream and create, with a mordant and well-placed understanding of the seats of power, political and cultural, from the Founding Fathers to FDR. (Empire is my favorite, Washington D.C. least favorite, but they are all fine.)

My 2007Reason review of one of his memoirsPoint to Point Navigation, summed up some of my thoughts on him. He was at heart just a plain fascinating interesting character, not afraid to gossip about the other fascinating characters he interacted with in politics and culture (Kennedy and Tennessee Williams tales were his favorites), interested in people and writers and power and liberty; he wrote from where he came from and what he knew, growing up as he did in Washington, D.C., at the knee of his grandfather, the Sen. Thomas P. Gore (D-Okla.), who as Kauffman described him was "a first-rate populist foe of war and FDR. He was a peace Democrat, which is why no one has ever heard of him."

I reviewed his magisterial essay collection United States (a true top 10 desert island tome, over 1200 pages that bring the literary and historical world entire of our nation to you with the wittiest and most engaging of guides) in the March 1995 issue of Liberty, pairing Vidal's book with the latest essay collection of his old sparring partner William Buckley.

In that review I dealt with why so many on the Right have such a reflexive and unearned contempt for Vidal. I wrote: "Vidal's political instincts and opinions are sometimes admirable and sometimes goofy. He loves the Old Republic and can even find a good word of the likes of Pat Buchanan, 'a reactionary in the good sense--reacting against the empire in favor of the Old Republic.' Now, what other monotheism-hating queer would write that? Vidal is no libertarian, of course, and he is not particularly thoughtful or sensible on politics much of the time. He harbors a cliched aversion to the accumulation of wealth, seems to believe capitalism can only succeed by driving its workers into penury and quasi-slavery, and holds an affection for socialistic redistribution of income that is not practically compatible with his hatred for the national security state and for a government that, since Lincoln and Roosevelt, can get away with whatever it pleases."

Vidal "hated tyranny, but also seems to hate wealth and that which is often done to attain it. But he also hates empire and loves civilization, and praised its loveliness in his wide-ranging enthusiasms and joyous and witty expressions of admiration for so many things. One comes away from Vidal enriched and energized and inspired--to read the author he has been discussing, to ponder his interpretations, to learn more about his topic."

As a critic, Vidal added greatly to my own mental life by being a sympathetic and knowing introduction to the novels of Louis Auchincloss and Dawn Powell and the works of Montaigne and Anthony Powell. Vidal had a winning mistrust of elites and understood--and this is the key to why so many cannot tolerate him--that they, especially in the American security and foreign policy apparati, didn't necessarily mean well and could and did behave evilly.

This is not a message many Americans can handle (as Ron Paul has learned), but one they ought to hear. Combined with that understanding of the malignities of empire was a mistrust of the means most of us learn about and understand the world, the modern media. I have often had occasion to think on Vidal's comment, "To take at face value any newspaper story is to be dangerously innocent. But one can't challenge everything that has ever been printed. So, through weariness and ignorance, there is a general consensus, which then becomes what I call an 'agreed-upon' fact. We all decide not to worry it."

That mentality which led Vidal to entertain heretical ideas such as that Timothy McVeigh had something more to him than insane monster, that the official story of 9/11 might not be entirely true, arises from Vidal's understanding that men of power can and do behave monstrously, yes even in America--his love of country was never blind. When I saw him speak in Los Angeles sometime I believe in the late 1990s, he was asked a question about party politics, and said merely, with no elaboration, "I'm partial to the Libertarians."

This libertarian was partial to him. I approached him for an interview for Reason in the early 2000s; at that point he insisted on having a list of questions faxed to him, which he might answer in writing, or possibly agree to meet. Eager to make sure the questions captured, as best they could, the rhythms of conversation, I overwrote the questions, with followups designed to capture and steer the flow of the "conversation" whichever way it might meander. The document probably read like a "choose your own adventure" book. I received an unexpected call from Vidal at the Reason office in which he said he felt my questions were "overly tautologous," in the sense of "Needless repetition of the same sense in different words; redundance."

I was, and am, a fan, and got a little stammery at the Great Man sounding perturbed on the other end of the line. I made stumbling attempts to explain my strategy in question writing, but he kept to his rumbling sense of annoyance. I took him at his word, that he was not interested in pursuing the interview, and after 90 seconds or so the conversation ended. His publicist later told me that I'd blown it; that the very fact he called me meant that he was likely open to me steering that very call into the interview I was seeking. (I don't know whether to be impressed or annoyed by how incredibly gracious Vidal was with another troublesome interviewer, Ali G.)

I have failed, I fear, to get across the pleasures of his mind and work entire. He was a serious writer, and as such he wanted most to do, as he quoted the largely forgotten American writer Logan Pearsall Smith, was "to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people." In his day, the best-selling Vidal reached more than a few, and he deserves to keep reaching more and more as long as even the shell of the American Republic he studied and chronicled and loved and feuded with stands.

He did great work, he deserves respect, and his views and his acerb and erudite way of expressing them will be missed.

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  • Marshall Gill||

    I knew that Reason was staffed with quasi-Leftists but the fawning over this piece of shit exceeds even my negative expectation. Leave it to the Cosmotarian to praise the Leftist while ignoring his many anti-Liberty positions.

  • ||

    I know I am going to read a bunch of books by Gore Vidal now.

    Leave it to the Cosmotarian to praise the Leftist while ignoring his many anti-Liberty positions.

    Gill I think I have seen you here for years. What the hell man? How can you be stunned about the cosmo leanings of Reason let alone critical of it?

    It is what it is and will always be that.

    Plus I don't think Riggs is a Cosmo...they have heard your cries and they responded by giving you one guy. Sure it is inadequate...but it is not nothing.

  • John||

    The boot licking and excuse making for Vidal is worse than usual. "Well sure he was a communist, but he didn't trust the national security state and he objected to the Iraq war, so that is okay".

  • Bill||

    I don't recall having read anything by him, at least not deliberately. If I was going to read one book (or essay) by him, give me some good choices.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Vidal has played on the state side enough for me to ignore his politics, and he's said some quite loony things over the years.

    I love a number of his books, but I don't make the mistake of allowing that love to drift beyond the books themselves. And those books were written decades ago, anyway.

  • Tman||

    I'm glad Nick posted the interview piece about Polanski, because really that's all you need to know about this scumbag.

    But yeah, I don't get why Doherty and others seem to want to adulate a guy who was so clearly anti-liberty.

    "The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes." Gore Vidal

    Good riddance.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Anti-liberty? Hell, how about the fact that the guy was a rotten prick:
    ""Whenever a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies."
    and
    "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."
    Somebody who holds those kinds of views is a petty shit, and a hypocrite to boot, whether libertarian, Republican or communist.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Notes on the evolution of language: The insult "cosmotarian" was invented by the crowd over at LewRockwell.com. And they love Vidal.

  • Tman||

    If the shoe fits.........

  • John||

    And they are borderline fascist anti-Semites. So I am not surprised. I don't understand how you guys could be so forgiving of an outright socialist. I guess you can be, but I don't really want to hear you guys talking about the evils of socialism anymore because clearly it is not that big of a deal. Clearly writing a decent novel and objecting the the Iraq war are more important.

    Cockburn was an outright Marxist and he got a fawning obit from Reason. He was a Marxist with all of the murderous history and baggage that comes with it. And Reason couldn't get enough of saying what a great principled guy he was. How was Cockburn any better than someone who was a Nazi?

  • ||

    Cockburn was an outright Marxist

    After he was a Marxist he became an outright libertarian...

    Am I evil cuz back in 1992 I voted for Clinton?

    You ever had the wrong political ideology John? Ever?

  • John||

    Cockburn was a Marxist until the day he died. Show me on link where he ever fully renounced Marxism?

    And voting for Bill Clinton is not the same as being a vocal adherent to the most murderous ideology in history for decades. That is not just having the "wrong political ideology".

  • ||

    Cockburn was a Marxist until the day he died. Show me on link where he ever fully renounced Marxism?

    I am just going off of the obit Reason did on him. I recall it quoting him as saying he was a libertarian.

    You really cannot renounce Marxism more then by calling yourself a libertarian.

  • John||

    He never called himself a Libertarian. Reason never said that.

    http://reason.com/blog/2012/07.....ckburn-rip

  • ||

    the newsletter and website that Cockburn edited with Jeffrey St. Clair, to ask what the editors thought about libertarianism, St. Clair replied that "we are both anarcho-libertarians. One of us slightly more anarcho, the other slightly more libertarian."

    It was St. Clair who wrote it. Was St. Clair lying or wrong?

    Plus this:

    But after the Cold War he drifted in an anti-authoritarian direction, telling an interviewer in the mid-'90s that he was "thinking like an anarcho-syndicalist these days";

  • Bill||

    Bill Maher called himself a libertarian once and he's a marxist from what I can tell. Ok, I'm exaggerating. But he is a dick.

  • ||

    The insult "cosmotarian"

    You should stop seeing it as an insult.

  • John||

    he harbors a cliched aversion to the accumulation of wealth, seems to believe capitalism can only succeed by driving its workers into penury and quasi-slavery, and holds an affection for socialistic redistribution of income

    Then Brian, he was not a republican, he was a communist. And whatever his objections to the "national security state" he clearly envisioned something much worse. Being a communist is no better than being a fascist and hating the rich and thinking their wealth should be looted is no better than hating the Jews and others you consider to be "inferior races".

    First it was the tongue fest for Alexander Cockburn and now for Vidal. What if you could say the following about Vidal

    he harbors a cliched aversion to the world Jewish conspiracy, seems to believe capitalism can only succeed by Jews driving their workers into penury and quasi-slavery, and holds an affection for the supremacy of the superior races

    Would you find his novels good enough to ignore that? If not, then you shouldn't find them good enough to ignore his communism. Communism and socialism are the flip side of fascism. Anyone who believes in either is worthy of nothing but contempt, I don't care how talented or nice they are or how often they manage to say something that makes sense once in a while.

  • ||

    Vidal had a winning mistrust of elites and understood--and this is the key to why so many cannot tolerate them--that they, especially in the American security and foreign policy apparati, didn't necessarily mean well and could and did behave evilly.

    This is not a message many Americans can tolerate (as Ron Paul has learned), but one they ought to hear.

    Pretty much why Ron Paul only got 4 states instead of all 50 of them.

    It is aggravating. Not only do all the conservatives I know agree with 99.9% of everything else Ron Paul says but they themselves hate and distrust elites in government...only for some magical reason when it comes to the military they throw out this standard conservative understanding.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    shhhhh!

    You are agreeing with Gore Vidal. And he is as good as a child rapist. Therefore you can't think these things unless you want to become a pro-slavery, anti-semitic, communist child rapist. Or something like that.

  • Bill||

    The conservatives you know. But for many Repubs, Paul's stance on drugs, gays, homeland security and probably others are just as important as his anti-war stance. They also don't want the defense budget cut which is related but not identical to not wanting to intervene everywhere.

    On top of that, he is seen as too extreme on most issues. People don't want to do anything drastic or meaningful. They don't realize that when Romney says he will cut something 4% it will grow 6% and if Paul was president and tried to cut something 25% it would only end up being 9% or maybe only the 4% Romney said he wanted.

  • John||

    Vidal had a winning mistrust of elites

    What a load of horseshit that is. Vidal never held a single opinion that wasn't approved by elites. He was, as someone else described him in another thread, the ultimate intellectualist. He didn't give a shit if a position was correct, only that it was fashionable among the "right people".

    This post makes me want to puke.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    "He harbors a cliched aversion to the accumulation of wealth, seems to believe capitalism can only succeed by driving its workers into penury and quasi-slavery, and holds an affection for socialistic redistribution of income..."

    Yeah, what is not for a libertarian to love?

  • John||

    Sometimes Reason really earns that Cosmotarian "lefties who couldn't get a job with the MSM" label.

  • ||

    It sounds like Gore Vidal's books, at least inadvertently, helped Doherty and Walker come to libertarianism.

    But yeah we should stick with you the conservative as to whether they are "true libertarians".

  • John||

    Ezra Pound wrote some fantastic poetry. And Leni Riefenstahl was probably the greatest female film maker of the 20th Century. Were those two okay?

    Why is it okay to be a communist Joshua? Why is that so forgivable and fascism not?

    Again, you guys can think Vidal and Cockburn were great people all you want. But then don't tell me you consider socialism and communism to be evil ideologies because clearly you don't.

  • ||

    Why is it okay to be a communist Joshua? Why is that so forgivable and fascism not?

    I think it is only the Jew killing fascists that are unforgiven.

    MSM does not seem to have any trouble apologizing for Obama's non-jew killing style of fascism.

    IDK John you are right in a way...but from my view i swim in a world of fascists and communists everyday...they are quite a bit better then communists of the USSR or the fascists of Nazi Germany...still in my opinion they still are communists and fascists.

    I guess for my own sanity I draw a line between the two. I can't hate the whole world.

  • ||

    By the way was Vidal ever an apologist for Stalin or the USSR?

  • John||

    Yes

  • John||

    and his views and his acerb and erudite way of expressing them will be missed.

    You mean like this Brian

    I really don't give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she's been taken advantage of?

    Will that be missed? And God knows we certainly need another dottering has been writer running around the world talking about the evils of capitalism. You going to miss that too?

  • Tim||

    You're unending hosannahs to Gore Vidal grow tiresome.

  • Drake||

    The Rumford Meteor had the best obituary.

    http://rumfordmeteor.com/?p=7288

  • Gladstone||

    Well to be fair the Rockwellians and the Reasonoids have always had weak spots for lefties who are willing to criticize Democrats and are against the Status Quo.

  • ||

    In fairness lefties like that are a rare breed.

    If anything they should be studied.

    Reason also has a weak spot for republicans who criticize mains steam conservatives....Ron Paul, Tea Party etc.

  • Gladstone||

    LRC are even bigger Paul fans than Reason. Reason having columnists criticizing Paul is according them evidence of heresy.

    In fairness lefties like that are a rare breed.

    True. But it does ridiculous when how they seem to ignore the fact that they aren't libertarian and beyond a dislike of the status quo they really don't agree on anything.

  • Spiny Norman||

    All this and not a word about the movie version of Myra Breckinridge?

  • Gladstone||

    I thought it would be one of Gillespie's favourites.

  • David Emami||

    Allen Ginsberg, Gore Vidal. Who is Reason going to hold up for admiration next -- Noam Chomsky?

  • Drake||

    Hugo Chavez hopefully.

  • Scotch Man||

    Vidal's legacy was that he managed to make all the stupid shit he said and wrote sound intellectual. #TeamMailer

  • Jackand Ace||

    He and Buckley had so much in common, then.

  • ||

    Empire was also my favorite from the series, though Lincoln was the best novel of the bunch. Agree that Washington DC (and 1876) were not especially good.

  • Jackand Ace||

    "Vidal was, and will still be in death, an object of reflexive contempt by most people who think of themselves 'of the right'..."

    Read the comments here, Brian. For daring to say there were things you liked about Vidal, you too are now held in contempt. Lets face it, most here are from the right. And you thought they were libertarians!
    But you are right...he wrote some great books. My favorite was "Burr."

  • David Emami||

    I don't hold Brian in contempt, but his praise of Vidal's political positions more or less boils down to "well, yeah, sure, he hates capitalism, that's true -- but he agrees with me about US foreign policy!"

  • ||

    How convenient. "Anyone who disagrees with my boot licking adulation for a statist communist sympathizer who despised pretty much every fundamental moral tenet of libertarian philosophy is a partisan with a closed mind". Or it could just be that you're a fucking idiot.

  • Jackand Ace||

    PM-
    You have quotation marks- are you quoting yourself? Must be.
    Therefore your last sentence must apply to you.

  • nike free run||

    People sad thing

  • ||

    Read article

    Disbelief

    Check comments

    Faith in libertarianism restored

    No need to pile on, but Jesus... what were you thinking? Gore Vidal a libertarian icon?

  • David Emami||

    He's a "the US is a horrible evil imperialist empire" icon, which is enough for those among the subset of libertarians who share that view.

  • Jackand Ace||

    "Vidal is no libertarian, of course..."
    Note my ability to use quotes correctly, PM. Brian said that.
    Try reading the article before complaining improperly.

  • David Emami||

    Well, given that Reason is (last I checked) a libertarian magazine, by praising Vidal, the message "libertarians, as such, should like this guy" is pretty much implicit. Brian fails to make a case for that, in my opinion.

  • Ardelle||

    are my favorite of his fictions and I recommend them highly for a never-didactic survey of a nation that is wounded by its government but still a glorious setting in which conflicted, striving, but admirable humans scheme and strain and dream and create, with a mordant and well-placed understanding of the seats of power, political and cultural, from the Founding Fathers to FDR. (Empire is my favorite, Washington D.C. least favorite, but they are all fine.)

  • Intn'l House of Badass||

    I approve of his retirement.

  • LifeStrategies||

    What a wonderful phrase, "a nation that is wounded by its government but still a glorious setting." It's still true but seems to be becoming rather less glorious than before. Switzerland's constitutional restrictions on its government seem to be holding, however, how can the free world copy them?

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