Our book today is Gore Vidal’s mammoth collection of essays, United States, which was published in 1993, won him the National Book Award, and will almost certainly stand as the greatest work of his long and varied career (I write ‘almost’ here out of superstitious reflex – Janus-faced rumors have abounded for years, after all: that the man is so far deteriorated mentally that he can no longer distinguish past from present or craft a coherent line of prose, and that the man has been steadily working on a book that will strike amazement, both hallowing and exploding the very notion of late style). His various scripts and stage plays are embarrassments of catty infighting; his novels are radically uneven in the way that can only come from a having a sense of literary entitlement to write novels in the first place. Each is a grand soiree of the season – any hint of a work ethic is entirely absent. So meticulous triumphs like Julian or Creation will give way to narcissistic cryptograms like Hollywood or The Golden Age (or the breathtakingly horrifying Live from Golgotha); Vidal has amassed a cadre of loyal fans over the decades, and in his novels he forces them to read the tea leaves of his creative moods, without seeming to care about their embarrassment, or his own.
But his essays – by turns dazzling and erudite and chatty and tossed off and so, so often brilliant – soar. Here the various lamentable trainings his early life gave Vidal (that true literary success was success in writing fiction, or that the 19th century concept of writing theme-fiction was, gawd help us, still an artistically valid thing to do in a post-Fitzgerald world) are burnt and purged away. What remains is polished stone – it can take any weight, and it glitters when the light hits it just right.
The essays in United States span four decades, from 1952 to 1992, and Vidal divides them into three large categories: The State of the Art, in which he concentrates on writers and books, The State of the Union, in which he concentrates on how seldom the Kennedys took his advice, and The State of Being, in which he allows chit-chat to run gloriously, uncontrollably rampant. Each section has its appeals, and because each moves forward in time independently of the others, each has its perils as well, although all the perils can be summarized in one quick warning label: like Oedipus, Lear, and Elvis, Vidal started out gorgeous and (therefore?) grew to be quite mad.
Any re-reading of United States will involuntarily stumble across the madness, alas. The same old brass-notes are hit again and again – hidden conspiracies of the wealthy and powerful, secret cabals chortling over their unparalleled – and undetected – control over all aspects of American society, every missed taxi cab or miscalculated meal check a knowing wink from paymaster to plaything. The regular harping on such notes is the price we pay for admission to the genius – and the humor – of the rest, as soiling a price as it might be, especially since the sincerity of Vidal’s jeremiads is severely undercut by his painfully obvious longing to be invited into a cabal or two. Those invites never come (we never implored him, across party lines and unanimously, to be our President! He’s bigger than the rest of us, he’s let bygones be bygones, but you can tell this still bothers him), and out of bitterness he reacts like all autocrats – by calling for revolution:
True revolution can only take place when things fall apart in the wake of some catastrophe – a lost war, a collapsed economy. We seem headed for the second. If so, then let us pray that that somber, all-confirming Bastille known as the consumer society will fall, as the first American revolution begins. It is long overdue.
Vidal was a genius early and lauded as a genius early, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he so quickly grew to believe that he was the only sighted man in a country – a world – full of the blind. But as stylistic tics go, it’s pretty damn annoying, especially for those of his readers who might, perhaps, know a thing or two about history themselves. Here he is in 1983:
To understand Nixon’s career you would have to understand the United States in the twentieth century, and that is something that our educational, political, and media establishments are not about to help us do. After all: no myth, no nation.
This couldn’t come any closer to Vidal writing “I am the only person in the world who can understand Nixon’s career,” and if you swap out the subjects you find it repeated throughout United States, to irksome effect.
But it’s only one effect in a vast menagerie, so it’s easy to forgive! This is a huge book (an intensely satisfying 1300 pages) of endless delights, and it would be wrong to say Vidal’s overweening egotism – that sense of him and only him – wasn’t one of those delights, perhaps even the greatest of them all. As the pages fall like individual flakes of snow, you soon find yourself socked in talk, buried in badinage, shuttered in schadenfreude . When Vidal finds himself sitting across from a zeppelinesque Orson Welles, watching the great man’s face redden with laughter, and he asks himself – which is to say, he asks aloud in front of us – what he would do if Welles had a stroke right there, you know the answer will not be – could never be – “call a doctor.” Lucky for Welles, it never happens – it would be a hard, hard thing for the creator of Citizen Kane to choke to death on his shrimp scampi while an epigone struggles for the right epigram.
The spotlight never really wavers, even when (perhaps especially when) our author is trying to waver it. In a charming little 1985 piece he wrote for Architectural Digest (most of the really charming pieces in this book weren’t written for self-consciously literary venues, which may constitute Vidal’s ultimate pronouncement on those venues and their readers), “At Home in a Roman Street,” he tries with an utterly deliberate insincerity to present himself as somehow not epochal:
Literature? Two blocks to our north, back of the Pantheon, Thomas Mann lived and wrote Buddenbrooks. Nearby, George Eliot stayed at the Minerva Hotel. Ariosto lived in Pantheon Square; Stendhal was close to us. I myself have written at least a part of every one of my books from Washington, D.C., to Lincoln in this flat. The last chapters of Lincoln were composed on the dining room table.
Italo Calvino now lives at the north of the street, and we cher confrere one another when we meet. Then we move on. Yes, we are all growing old. But a baby’s being born to the wife of the hardware-store owner, while a half-dozen babies of a few years ago are now men and women. So – plenty more where we came from. That is the lesson of the street. Meanwhile, what time is it? Free the bejeweled ladies held captive! Daffodils, tulips, and mimosa! What time is it? The same.
The humor here is bruising – we cannot believe that ‘plenty more where we came from’ even if we want to. And given how thoroughly, how openly Vidal disbelieves it, we often very much do want to believe it – but it’s not possible. The sheer power of the achievement that is United States admits of no quibbling – the book has only one real equal in the 20th century (and only because nobody in that benighted era succeeded in creating equivalent volumes for the two or three other giants whose periodic deadline-work still lies scattered over a thousand fields; indeed, given the parlous state of publishing today, these volumes might never get created), the collected essays of V.S. Pritchett, and in a 1979 appreciation, Vidal has the quick and entirely amiable good grace to acknowledge it (although not, of course, without hobby-horsing around):
The fact that America’s English departments are manned by the second-rate is no great thing. The second-rate must live, too. But in most civilized countries the second-rate are at least challenged by the first-rate. And score is kept in the literary journals. But as McDonald’s drives out good food, so these hacks of Academe drive out good prose. At ever level in our literary life they flourish. In fact, they have now taken to writing the sort of novels that other tenured hacks can review and teach. Entire issues of “literary journals” are written by them. Meanwhile, in the universities, they are increasing at a positively Malthusian rate; and an entire generation of schoolteachers and book chatterers now believes that an inability to master English is a sign of intellectual grace, and that a writer like Pritchett is not to be taken seriously because he eschews literary velleities for literary criticism.
But the extended, sonorous wonder of Pritchett’s collected literary essays is a decidedly high table affair, as elevated as it is elevating. In United States readers are treated (and there in the end no better word – for all its maddening mannerisms and in glowing conjunction with its gargantuan length, this book is one seemingly unending treat) to a much wider register – the backstairs and the kitchen are invited to mix in the merriment. The verbal portraits here are so vivid as to be actionable, as in this 1965 take on the deservedly forgotten fourth-rate novelist John Horne Burns:
In 1947 The Gallery by John Horne Burns was published, to great acclaim; the best book of the Second World War. That same year Burns and I met several times, each a war novelist and each properly wary of the other. Burns was then thirty-one with a receding hairline above a face striking in its asymmetry, one ear flat against the head, the other stuck out. He was a difficult man who drank too much, loved music, detested all other writers, and wanted to be great (he had written a number of novels before the war, but none was published). He was also certain that to be a good writer it was necessary to be homosexual. When I disagreed, he named half a dozen celebrated contemporaries. “A pleiad,” he roared delightedly, “of pederasts!”But what about Faulkner, I asked, and Hemingway. He was disdainful. Who said they were any good? And besides, hadn’t I heard how Hemingway once …
We can note the cat-like delicacy with which the author refrains from quite actually calling The Gallery the best book of the Second World War; we can see the significance always given to asymmetry by the flawlessly symmetrical; we can laugh out loud at Gore Vidal calling himself a war novelist; we can share a fraternal certitude that “a pleiad of pederasts” was never roared delightedly at any point in Western history … but the point is, we do all these things while in the full torrent of the narrative, as helplessly swept away as if we couldn’t tell a velleity from a strawberry daiquiri. That’s the prevailing power of United States: it’s the apotheosis of gossip.
In 1959 Vidal wrote, “All of us tend more or less consciously to arrange our personas in an attractive way,” and certainly United States stands as a vast monument to the author’s own such floral arrangements, perhaps the most psychopathically self-serving yet overwhelmingly entertaining example of such an arrangement since The Education of Henry Adams. And besides, haven’t you heard how Adams once …