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Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Gore Vidal will be missed because he was, perhaps, the last of the Great Public Intellectuals with the ability to discourse knowledgeably on an impressive variety of inter-related subjects. We can run down the list of items he had a nuanced opinion on literature, politics, antiquity, American history, film, particular and peculiar aspects, niches and submerged terrains of popular culture and the currents that ran under it. He was the man to read whenever a new essay appeared or a new novel appeared on the new release table in a local bookstore. He was a lively, challenging read.

Still, there was something about Vidal that struck me as being a mile wide and an inch deep; there are points in both his essays and the many, many interviews he gave where he would cite the same facts, make the same sweeping declarations, offer the same crowd-pleasing diagnosis as to what exactly the matter with American at large happens to be and the same crowd soothing prognosis for the country, citizens and culture at large if his advice were heeded; Vidal would often sprinkle his views with scattered facts, but he rarely cited his sources, rarely delved into a matter and provided substantial, vetted analysis of many of things he spoke. As with many people I've met over the decades, Vidal seemed to be a brilliant writer who can make provocative and well-structured speculations to the origins of our lust for power and the cultural and institutional disguises we disguise our ambition with, but remaining, by and large, an intriguing conversationalist, the center of every cocktail party who offers things more quotable than useful as regards policy.

 That being said, allow me to insist that I agreed with most of what Vidal noted and recommended for the country. Vidal was a novelist, most of all, especially brilliant and grossly underrated by critics who were condescending even when they were giving his books favorable reviews. And I think his intellectual legacy will be less the political writings for which he most noted for and more for the large body of literary criticism and book reviews he wrote during his lifetime. He was a first-rate literary intelligence, powerful, insightful, able to detect fakes, fads, and balderdash in the work of other novelists who were trying too hard to be unique.

 I, for one, am grateful to him for a long essay he wrote reappraising the career of novelist Dawn Powell, author of "The Locusts Have No King" and other novels; she is, as Vidal wrote, the best American comic novelist of the 20th century. His essay helped bring her books back into print. I wound up being doubly blessed, being a man who had the honor of reading both Vidal and Powell in the same lifetime.


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  2. Thanks for this perceptive and judicious summation of Vidal’s work and legacy. I agree that his views were stimulating and trenchant, if sometimes repetitive. He would go over the same ground again and again in his essays, perhaps out of moral outrage or the need to satisfy his fan base or both. As a novelist, I found his work full of worthy ideas, though his prose could be rather bland at times. His treatment of American political history – particularly in Burr and 1876 – was delightful. Who else bothered to resurrect the likes of Samuel J. Tilden and James G. Blaine as literary characters? I’m sorry he never won any of his quixotic political contests. Most of all, Vidal’s passing reminds me that (like Norman Mailer) he was an independent voice, beholden to no narrow ideology or political party. He was nobody’s mouthpiece, something that seemingly can’t be tolerated in today’s Fox/MSNBC polarized climate.


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