Wednesday, August 1, 2012

R.I.P. Gore Vidal

No sooner do I mention him in my little comment on Mencken and Gore Vidal dies.  He succumbed to age and that which it seems is often the end of the aged, pneumonia. 

He was a celebrity, of course, and in that sense was not remarkable except for his acidity.  He didn't seem to care whether he pleased or not when he acted in that capacity, appearing on television talk shows, primarily, and for that indifference he must be honored--generally, celebrities are tiresome in their zeal to evoke pleasure in their audience.  He is of course remembered for his "debates" with William F. Buckley, Jr. during the 1968 Democratic convention in my beloved Chicago.  I vaguely remember watching those, and feeling pity for Howard K. Smith, the amiable but overwhelmed moderator.  Neither Vidal nor Buckley benefited from that encounter; both were probably at their worst.  Vidal of course later mocked Buckley through the device of William de la Touche Clancy, a character who now and then would appear in Vidal's wonderful series of novels of American history commencing with Burr.  Clancy was the editor of a right-wing publication and a notorious pederast.  Vidal had very well known encounters with Norman Mailer as well.

Regardless of his celebrity status, however, he was in fact quite remarkable as a writer and stylist, in my opinion at least.  His writing was generally elegant and insightful and distinguished by a magnificently dry wit.  He wrote enchanting novels--historical novels in particular (my favorite being Julian).  He is, with Patrick O'Brian and Mary Renault, one of the best writers of historical novels I've ever read.

But he was especially able, I think, as an essayist and critic.  He may well be the last of the great essayists.  In this age of Twitter, and, yes, blogs, none of us seems capable of extended thought; our technology doesn't encourage it, and in fact discourages it.  He had lapses, it's true.  At least as he grew older, he seemed to either indulge in or propound conspiracy theories regarding Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and what we have chosen to call 9/11.  I've always wondered, though, whether he was pulling our collective leg when he wrote such things.

He seemed to know lawyers (good ones, I mean) quite well.  I'm not sure why he knew them well, but I judge this to be the case by his characterization of them in his novels, and specifically his portrayal of the proceedings in the case of the United States v. Aaron Burr.  He also seemed to know politicians quite well, and this is unsurprising as he was part of a political family, and actually ran for office himself.

He was also a critic of American interventions, military and otherwise, in the affairs of other nations, which I think sensible in most cases.  He seemed to long for the time when the United States was not an imperial world power, which would I think take us back to before the Spanish-American war (although the Mexican-American war was a most egregious land-grab and a shameful enterprise as noted by one U.S. Grant).

Unless there is some change in the way our culture seems to be heading, I doubt we will see his like as a writer again.  Christopher Hitchens is the only one I can think of who (recently) could write as well, and they fell out, perhaps inevitably.  But I'm a pessimist, and my feeling that we have become a society too concerned to speak, think, write and emote as quickly and briefly as possible may be unwarranted.  I hope that's the case.

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