The obituaries are coming in, and as usual they are filled with the trite things Americans are obsessed with: Gore Vidal’s sexuality, his "coldness," his feuds, his quips. Andrew Sullivan is typical – and isn’t that typical – in ascribing what he views as Vidal’s flaws to his lack of support for gay marriage and his "anti-American" utterances. Commentary magazine celebrated the great man’s death by posting Norman Podhoretz’s interminable rant, first published in 1986, accusing Vidal of … yes, you guessed it: anti-Semitism. The evidence? Describing Podhoretz and his wife Midge as "Israeli fifth columnists," a charge that, in retrospect, seems more like an undeserved compliment: after all, a "fifth columnist" is something like a spy, a profession that hinges on the clandestine, but Poddy’s big mouth – which he opens at every opportunity – has hardly made a secret of his allegiances.
Aside from Vidal’s disdain for the kind of identity politics that gives a nonentity a hook on which to hang his bonnet, Sullivan is appalled by what is perhaps Vidal’s most interesting book. The Golden Age dramatizes the fascinating historical research published in Thomas E. Mahl’s Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44. Mahl’s 1998 book is based on declassified documents that tell some of the story of how British intelligence agents permeated the political and social elites in Washington and New York, pushed a reluctant "isolationist" America into war – and put us on the road to empire.
Sullivan, still the loyal subject of Her Majesty the Queen, is horrified by this, but it’s not just the British angle that sets Andy’s skirts aflame – it’s the very idea that anyone in their right mind would question the official history of our entry into World War II. In Sullivan’s world, this makes him a "Pearl Harbor truther." To the historian, however, who isn’t just a court historian – and to the serious person, as opposed to court jesters of Sullivan’s ilk – this makes him that most exotic of creatures: a truth-seeker. Rarer than unicorns in our media-driven propaganda-drenched Twitterverse, the loss of this one marks a turning point in American intellectual history – a downturn, to be sure. As I put it in my 2001 review of The Golden Age:
"Gore Vidal is a member of what seems to be a nearly extinct fraternity: the American novelists of ideas. When he goes, who is left – and what hope is there that someone will breach the walls of political correctness meant to keep his kind out forever?"
His enemies understood him, which is why they hated him – and couldn’t help admiring him. The neocons hated him because he was a formidable opponent of their imperial project: they never forgave him when he called them out for their treasonous tribalism. The liberals, who thought he was one of them, were made increasingly uneasy by his public utterances, as detailed in this very perceptive account of Vidal’s career by Michael Lind, who describes his attendance at a speech by Vidal given at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the late 1990s:
"Soon I found myself as uncomfortable as the other members of the auditorium audience, when, during his speech, Vidal launched into what sounded like a defense of Timothy McVeigh, the far-right would-be revolutionary whose bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil before the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. While not exactly condoning McVeigh, Vidal told us that a violent reaction was inevitable, given the way that the federal government was oppressing American farmers.
"I could sense that others in the audience shared my disquiet. The farmers? What the hell is he talking about?"
To the Washingtonian patricians who grace such events, farmers and other ordinary Americans are alien creatures whose fate is of little if any concern. The farmers? Who the f*ck cares about them? To statist ideologues and other creatures of Washington’s black lagoon, the very idea of individual farmers is "reactionary," to use one of Lind’s favorite epithets.
Yet to be as fair to Lind as he is to Vidal, he is quite correct when, in a eureka moment, he divines that "Gore Vidal has turned into his grandfather."
"Vidal," writes Lind, "had always insisted that to understand him it was helpful to understand his grandfather, Thomas Gore (1870-1949). Blind from an early age, Thomas Gore served as Democratic senator from Oklahoma twice, from 1907-1921 and again from 1931-1937. A populist in the tradition of Jefferson and Jackson, Sen. Gore was a maverick who did not hesitate to take on his own party. He voted against President Woodrow Wilson’s call for U.S. entry into World War I and he voted against President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. In the light of Jeffersonian ideology, each of these votes made sense as efforts to preserve the American republic from the evils of empire and the welfare state."
Unfortunately, Lind insists on mounting his ideological hobbyhorse, and brings in a totally irrelevant comparison to Ignatius Donnelly, and none other than William Hope Harvey, whose didactic and excruciatingly boring "novels" on monetary theory were a late nineteenth century populist phenomenon. Donnelly was a minor Populist party politician of the same era, whose most notable work is Atlantis: the Antediluvian World. Lind’s condescending tone throughout the review is typical of what one might overhear at a Georgetown cocktail party: he isn’t quite sure Vidal’s fiction output is really all that "literary," or if it’s really literature at all but rather a series of didactic manifestos in the style of Coin’s Financial School.
Once he dismounts his various hobbyhorses, however, Lind can be penetratingly perceptive:
"The academic literati do not hold either Vidal or Solzhenitsyn in high esteem — but neither wrote to be read by what Vidal described as ‘the scholar-squirrels.’ If you think that the political and journalistic establishments are corrupt and that fiction provides you with a way to bring your message directly to the public, you are going to write your didactic fiction in a traditional, accessible style that ordinary citizens can understand, not in an avant-garde style that only graduate students in literature can decipher. Other Nation columnists wrote about the masses. Gore Vidal wrote for them.
"And they loved him for it. Growing up in Texas, I marveled at the way that suburban conservatives who would not read any other fiction would buy the latest Gore Vidal novel. But if you think of Vidal as a populist, it makes sense. He was giving them the inside scoop about American history, the scandalous true story, not the patriotic pablum they were taught in school. The fact that he had grown up as a member of the Washington establishment (as he never ceased reminding his readers and viewers) gave him credibility as he carried out his revisionist project of exposing the secret history of the United States. What Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are to libertarians, Vidal’s historical novels have been to middlebrow Middle America."
Us poor middlebrows, doomed to live in the Great Middle of the country amid the fast-disintegrating middle class: will we never disabuse ourselves of our middlebrowed prejudices against neo-royalist empire-builders who don’t believe in the existence of farmers and think they can rule the world? Against all the strictures of patrician good taste and political correctness, we read Gore Vidal and keep our "reactionary" faith in the Jeffersonian vision Lind deplores.
As a novelist, Vidal’s great achievement was his "Narratives of Empire" series, which dramatizes what Lind calls a "revisionist" view of American history and I would simply describe as clear-eyed. The overarching theme of this heptalogy is the long, slow degeneration of what had been the world’s freest republic into a vast and corrupted empire. His portraits of historical figures – the grasping, manipulative FDR, the bullying Churchill, the syphilitic Lincoln – constitute a veritable shooting gallery of the Vital Center’s pantheon of heroes. This earned him the enmity of both left and right.
Unlike Lind, I don’t marvel at the way us "middlebrows" snatched up the latest Gore Vidal novel, and I won’t be surprised to see his posthumously published works shoot to the top of the bestseller list. That’s because the power of what Vidal represented – not the "ranting" of a Southern populist, as Lind would have it, but the sharp dissent of an American original and a literary giant, whose oeuvre will be remembered – and read – long after the journalistic twitterings of his critics are justly forgotten.