Gore Vidal died last night at age 86 because of complications from pneumonia.
When I was younger, back in college, I loved Gore Vidal. I read almost all of his essays and I tried to read most of his novels (I didn’t succeed–he has published some 50 books). His book United States: Essays 1952–1992 is one of the best collection of political essays I have read.
People who know Vidal at all know him for different reasons. Some know him as a writer of historical novels known as the Narratives of Empire: Burr (covering 1775-1805 and 1833-1836), Lincoln (1861-1865) 1876 (1875-1877), Empire (1898-1907), Hollywood (1917-1923), Washington D.C. (1937-1952) and The Golden Age (1939-1954).
Others know him for his outspoken pro-homosexuality stance. His third novel 1948’s The City and the Pillar caused quite the controversy for presenting sympathetic gay characters. He also wrote Myra Breckenridge about a transsexual character. His published quote from about sexuality (from 1969) is:
We are all bisexual to begin with. That is a fact of our condition. And we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from our own as well as from the opposite sex. Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime … despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word ‘natural,’ not normal.”
But he is probably best known for his essays. He has been critical of much of the corporate structure in America (going back to the 1950s), and more recently he wrote several short books criticizing American expansionism, the military-industrial complex, the national security state and the George W. Bush administration.
Vidal was also involved in politics. He has political connections in his family and personal connections to politicians–he is distantly related to Al Gore, for instance (Gore was his mother’s maiden name). He has always been very outspoken and has ruffled feathers across the political spectrum with comments like this:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
I didn’t always agree with him (although I usually did), and I would have been very interested to see some of his ideas put into practice, but we all knew that would never happen. He and Noam Chomsky were essential to the construction of my political beliefs.