By Kauffman, Bill
The American Conservative , Vol. 7, No. 16
"GORE VIDAL is America's premier man of letters," says Jay Parini in his introduction to The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, and if after reading Vidal on William Dean Howells, Tennessee Williams, various dead Kennedys, and "American sissy" Theodore Roosevelt the reader denies it--well, hie on back to the MFA prison.
The Selected Essays were written over the course of a half-century (19532004), or almost one-quarter of the lifespan of the Republic that is Vidal's primary subject--though it might more accurately be said that Vidal has been a contumacious patriot of the Old Republic for nigh the entirety of the post-Republic era. As such, he is a man out of time in the United States of Amnesia, as he calls his native and beloved land.
What a pleasure these essays are. One imagines Gore Vidal at his writing desk, hint of a smile creasing his mouth as he mints Saint-Gaudens gold-piece witticisms with Lincoln-penny frequency. Here he is on Ohio's greatest novelist: "For a writer, Howells himself was more than usually a dedicated hypochondriac whose adolescence was shadowed by the certainty that he had contracted rabies which would surface in time to kill him at sixteen. Like most serious hypochondriacs, he enjoyed full rude health until he was eighty."
"It should be noted that Vidal is conservative in many respects," writes Parini. "He stands behind individual choice, the limitation of executive power, and preservation of the environment. Like his grandfather, he dislikes the empire.... He would return us, if possible, to the pure republicanism of early America."
That grandfather, the blind Sen. Thomas P. Gore (D-Okla.), 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. Vidal's education owed more to home than academy, as he read aloud to the senator, from whom he inherited an isolationist opposition to foreign wars, a populist suspicion of concentrated capital, a freethinker's hatred of cant, and a patriot's detestation of empire.
Like Mencken, Ray Bradbury, Hemingway, and other original Americans, Vidal escaped a college sentence. He is the scourge of sciolism, of credentialed arrogance. As he writes of his friend's mistreatment while speaking to snotty drama students at Yale: "Any student who has read Sophocles in translation is, demonstrably, superior to Tennessee Williams in the unruly flesh."
The foaming and thoroughly ideologized haters of Vidal are simply incapable of writing prose anywhere near as tautly conversational, as confidently but never pedantically erudite, as amaranthine as the master. Vidal commits an unforgivable sin in our age of the national hall monitor: humor. Is it any wonder they hate him? Vidal inevitably gets the best of the carpers in any exchange because he is funny and they are not. Or in his words, "I responded to my critics with characteristic sweetness, turning the other fist as is my wont."
His best essays are often sympathetic readings of such forgotten or undervalued American writers as the Ohio (Ohio again!)-bred satirist Dawn Powell (who "always knows how much salt a wound requires"); Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs (a talented action writer who was "innocent of literature" but as a drifter, cowboy, gold miner, and railroad cop was, like Vidal, "perfectly in the old-American grain"); and Tennessee Williams, "the Glorious Bird," whose work Vidal assesses with an affectionately critical eye. The personal anecdote he deploys expertly. Of a dinner with Williams and his magnificently termagant mother:
Tennessee clears his throat again. 'Mother, eat your shrimp.' 'Why,' counters Miss Edwina, 'do you keep making that funny sound in your throat?' 'Because, Mother, when you destroy someone's life you must expect certain nervous disabilities.'
One of my favorite Vidal essays is his appreciation of William Dean Howells, who brought Ohio into the Atlantic and championed the new realists and regionalists of the late Gilded Age. …