Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
My friend Mark F. used to tell the following story during our days working in the University Book Store warehouse in the 1990s.
Apparently Gore Vidal was on the Phil Donahue Show one time (according to IMDb.com, it would have to be this episode from 1974), and the discussion got around to God and Jesus and yadda yadda, and someone from the audience, a kindly woman, stood up and asked Mr. Vidal, author of “Myra Breckenridge” and eventually “Live from Golgotha,” whether he had ever read the Bible. He responded that, yes, he had read it many times. An even more sincere look crossed her face and she asked, “Yes, but have you ever read it with your heart?” Mark, who bears a slight resemblance in appearance and manner to Dr. Niles Crane, Frasier's brother on “Frasier,” would then do his masterful Gore Vidal response. “My dear,” Mark would say, “I'm afraid that that is hardly the proper organ with which to read.”
As Gore Vidal did with the Bible, so I've done with Gore Vidal. Over the years, reading his books, I've found myself highlighting this or that sentence, or paragraph, or page, which I felt was funny, or sharp, or helped explain some part of the world. That's what I've peppered the blog with today: the stuff I've highlighted over the years. These aren't his most famous quotes; they're probably not his best. But they're the ones that struck me or tickled me as I happened to read with pen or pencil in hand.
I disagreed with him a lot, too, of course, more so as he aged. He came to believe that Pearl Harbor had been a vast conspiracy to get us involved in World War II. I.e., FDR knew the attack was coming and did nothing. Post-9/11, same thing. Bush knew. He became one of those guys. In a 1998 piece for Vanity Fair, Vidal revealed too much sympathy for Timothy McVeigh and not enough for his victims. For years, Vidal suggested a new constitutional convention to replace the worn-out one we've been using.
My disagreements with him even reached my subconscious. From my 1996 dream journal:
Gore Vidal and I are talking in my apartment, and he picks up a book of his essays that I'm reading. Initially I worry I might have scribbled offensive lines in the margins but he doesn't find anything. We talk of other authors and other books, and he asks if I have them, but I worry about the notes scribbled in the margins of those books, too, and don't bother to show him.
I felt bad that I didn't read more of his novels, but the ones I did read (“Lincoln,” “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr”) I didn't like much. His personality didn't come through. I know he railed against the state of the modern novel, its smallness, to go along with the size of its audience. He kept argung that the literature that lasts tends to focus on great men and great events, which is why he wrote about ancient Rome, and Jesus, and the United States of America: from the founding fathers to Washington, D.C., post-World War II, when, as he reminded us again and again, the great Republic died and was replaced by the National Security State. He even gave us an exact date for this replacement: February 27, 1947.
I wound up interviewing him, by fax, and meeting him, at Town Hall, and reviewing for The Seattle Times a few of his later books, none of which thrilled. But the essays remain necessary reading. A final quote, from “How I Do What I Do If Not Why,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1988:
Writers and writing no longer matter much anywhere in freedom's land. Mistuh Emerson, he dead. Our writers are just entertainers, and not all that entertaining either. We have lost the traditonal explainer, examiner, prophet.
Yes, we have.
Gore Vidal (1925-2012)