The Conversation

American author and essayist Gore Vidal died at his home on Tuesday from complications of pneumonia.

The 86 year old was the author of 25 books, including the historical novels Burr and Lincoln. He also wrote extensively about American politics, literature, religion and sexuality.

Here, academics reflect on his political, cultural and literary legacy.

Paul Giles, Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney:

Gore Vidal, born in 1925, was two years younger than Norman Mailer, the figure who was perhaps his most obvious peer in the contemporary American literary pantheon. Like Mailer, Vidal came to intellectual maturity in the late 1940s, in a United States that had been both enriched and made more conservative by the outcome of World War II, and both of these writers went on to make lasting contributions as public intellectuals who cast a skeptical eye on America’s new military-industrial complex.

Vidal came to fame in 1948 with The City and the Pillar, one of the first American novels to treat homosexuality as normal. But his strongest works of fiction were his subsequent historical novels, where he compared American politicians such as Abraham Lincoln and Aaron Burr to figures from classical Greece and Rome, thereby repositioning US imperial history within a more extensive chronological and intellectual framework.

Vidal was unusual, then, because he wrote about America while resisting the pressures of American nationalism; he compared himself as an author to Voltaire and Machiavelli and, like those European figures, Vidal had a cynical sense of human behaviour as driven by a lust for power, erotic desire and darker instincts of various kinds.

This also made him a lively controversialist — he had notorious feuds with conservative commentator William Buckley Jr and bien-pensant novelist Joyce Carol Oates, among others – and he became a well-known foe of fundamentalist Christianity as well as of the Republican Party.

Vidal also became associated with the cultural radicalism of the 1960s through various comic works of fiction such as Myra Breckinridge and Two Sisters, both of which feature an array of sexual escapades, although he dissociated himself from the gay liberation movements of this time by saying that in his eyes there was no such thing as homosexual identity, only homosexual acts.

The narrator of Two Sisters perhaps sums up Vidal’s philosophy of life by claiming there is nothing “to say, finally, except that pain is bad and pleasure good, life all, death nothing.”

Vidal will perhaps be remembered longer as an essayist than as a novelist, but in both fiction and non-fiction he was an iconoclast who sought to reconceptualize more parochial American assumptions within a universalist framework, thereby linking them to the long arc of world history in a way that many domestic commentators found disorienting.

Jeff Sparrow, Editor of Overland literary journal:

Gore Vidal was many things (the “other works” list on his books generally took up a whole page: novels, plays, short stories, film scripts) but he was undoubtedly one of the finest polemicists of his era. That’s an accomplishment worth stressing, particularly in Australia, where literary essays tend to the polite and the personal. Vidal could do personal – in some ways, personal was always what he did – but he could also make a denunciation into a work of art, a talent this age depressingly often requires.

Many gay men of Vidal’s generation might have shied from public engagement for fear of sexual denunciation (as in William Buckley’s famous queer baiting episode on US television in 1968). But Vidal’s status as a kind of American aristocrat (his grandfather was Senator Thomas P. Gore; his father founded the TWA; he was a distant cousin to Al Gore, and so on) lent him a kind of splendid indifference.

“I have often thought,” he wrote in the seventies, “that the reason no-one has yet been able to come up with a good word to describe the homosexualist (sometimes known as gay, fag, queer, etc) is because he did not exist. The human race is divided into male and female. Many humans enjoy sexual relations with their own sex; many don’t; many respond to both. This plurality is the fact of our nature and not worth fretting about.”

Vidal’s essays on sexuality, imbued with refreshing unconcern for propriety, are among his best: witty, dry and invariably deadly. In a discussion of porn and feminism, he notes that, until recently, male nudes could not be published. “After all,” he deadpans, “the male – any male – is a stand-in for God, and God wears a suit at all times, or at least jockey shorts.”

In his political writing, Vidal rested heavily on his insider knowledge of the American establishment – basically, he knew everyone and had slept with most of them. He was often accused of conspiracy mongering, a charge to which he replied breezily: “There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. I’ve met these people. They all think alike.”

Though he was more a contrarian than a leftist, his patrician contempt for small-minded orthodoxies made him one of the few voices of sanity during the most delusional days of the War on Terror and the man he called “the charmingly simian George W. Bush”. In his 2002 pamphlet, Dreaming War, he discussed the beginnings of the catastrophic invasion of Afghanistan in terms of the “one per cent who own the country”, thus anticipating the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street by nine years.

Mind you, the drum circles and street marches of Occupy would not have been his scene. In his prose, as in his life, Vidal was exquisitely elegant and controlled, a stylist’s stylist. The conclusion of his review of Tennessee Williams, another confidant of his youth, might stand in tribute to his own writing:

“[Y]our art has proved to be one of those stones that really did make it to Henge, enabling future magicians to gauge from its crafty placement not only the dour winter solstice of our last days but the summer solstice, too – the golden dream, the mimosa, the total freedom, and all that lovely time unspent now spent.”

David Smith, Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre:

Gore Vidal was one of the great English language essayists of the 20th century.

He was a very strong critic of American intervention as foreign policy. And what was notable about him was he kept up that criticism regardless of who was in power.

This is because he didn’t come out of a radical left tradition or a Democratic Party tradition: his whole view of American foreign policy was closely linked to traditional isolationist views of the United States. His grandfather had been a senator from Oklahoma, who was strongly opposed to American involvement in World War I, and for his whole life Vidal was very much against any kind of American military intervention in the world, despite the fact that he actually served in the Navy.

He kept up this position all the way through the Vietnam War and the Iraq war. And what’s interesting is he would talk about the historical background to this position as well. He was a very strong defender of the America First Committee, which is a largely demonised organisation that had opposed American intervention in WWII. And going back even further, he criticised Abraham Lincoln and his role in the civil war. So he was very much against militarism and against United States intervention abroad.

Vidal came from a very elite background and constantly lamented the intellectual state of America. Even culture that’s regarded as pretty high brow – like John Updike’s novels, for example – he regarded as fairly mediocre. He was constantly writing essays about how degraded he thought American culture was.

He took all of these positions, which are guaranteed to make him fairly unpopular, but he didn’t really seem to care. This was why he was one of the great contrarian essayists of the last century. That’s his major legacy and I think it’s more important than his novels.