Regarded as one of the most promising novelists to emerge in the period after World War II, Gore Vidal (vee-DAHL) not only created an important body of fiction but also became an influential man of letters, rivaling his contemporary John Updike in the scope and consistency of his work. Born Eugene Luther Vidal to a politically prominent family–he adopted his name “Gore” in honor of his grandfather, Oklahoma senator Thomas P. Gore, and is a distant cousin of former vice president Al Gore–Vidal grew up in Washington, D.C., and has written novels and essays that have the authoritative character of one steeped in politics, but he first came to prominence with the war novel Williwaw. His reputation took a sharp downturn with the publication of his third novel, The City and the Pillar, largely because of its then shockingly sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual protagonist. Several novels on both contemporary and historical themes followed, but Vidal found himself unable to make enough money as a writer or to attract the critical praise that would ensure his career as a novelist. Consequently he turned to writing for films and television, becoming one of the four or five best television writers before adapting his teleplay Visit to a Small Planet for a successful run on the Broadway stage. He wrote a number of plays for stage, screen, and television.
Having achieved some degree of fame and financial security, Vidal returned to the novel in 1964, publishing Julian, a brilliant historical novel that re-creates the life of a fourth century Roman emperor who renounced Christianity. He subsequently created a dazzling series of historical novels and contemporary satires. Vidal’s fictional magnum opus is a six-volume series of novels that presents American history in the same acerbic terms as his essays. The first of the books to be written is the last chronologically, the contemporary novel Washington, D.C. The second novel, Burr, for example, sides with one of history’s losers, creating sympathy for a political leader who had none of the pomposity or hypocrisy of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson. If Vidal has an American hero, it is Abraham Lincoln, who is the subject of what is perhaps Vidal’s greatest novel. Lincoln is presented as a political genius who broke certain constitutional restraints to save the Union. Lincoln, when viewed in the context of Vidal’s other historical novels, suggests that the president’s very greatness may have contributed to the follies and abuses of power Vidal chronicles so entertainingly in 1876. Vidal concludes the series with Empire, set at the turn of the century, and Hollywood, set in the 1920’s. The series traces and reflects the history of the United States through the lives of Aaron Burr and his fictitious descendants.
Vidal’s lucid prose stands in marked contrast to the baroque experimentalism of Norman Mailer and other celebrated contemporaries. In fact, in his essays Vidal attacked much of contemporary American fiction, finding it esoteric and obscure, a literature produced for discussion in the American classroom, not a body of writing that will survive for a general audience. Vidal’s models have been writers such as Edith Wharton, clear-eyed social critics and novelists of manners. Throughout his career Vidal used fiction to question the received truths of the political establishment and of what he called the heterosexual dictatorship. Having discussed homosexuality in The City and the Pillar, Vidal raised the stakes by centering Myra Breckinridge and its sequel Myronon a transsexual. In Messiah and Kalki he uses a quasi-science-fictional approach to examine human beings’ fascination with death; Kalki features a character who wipes out most of humanity. Vidal offended almost everyone with Live from Golgotha, a farcical stew of Christianity, computers, and time travel, narrated by St. Paul’s male lover. Under the pseudonym Edgar Box, Vidal also tried his hand at mystery and detective fiction with novels such as Death in the Fifth Position, Death Before Bedtime, and Death Likes It Hot.
For many literary critics, Vidal the essayist predominates over Vidal the novelist. In some of his fiction, characterization seems weak, and he often seems more interested in the points he has to make than in the people he has created. There are, however, major exceptions to this judgment. Burr, in which the historical figure’s voice blends perfectly with Vidal’s, is a triumph–as is Lincoln, in which Vidal restrains his sarcasm in favor of a sober yet lively narrative that reveals Lincoln’s political intelligence in all of its magnificence.