United States: Essays 1952-1992
By Gore Vidal
Abacus, 1994. 1295 pp., $19.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
Gore Vidal has, for most of his 70 years, been writing novels, plays, essays and journalism in a brave attempt to hold back the surge of militarism, homophobia, profiteering, political lies and other afflictions which the heartland of capitalism, the United States, has been ceaselessly discharging.
He has also run, unsuccessfully, for Congress (in 1960) and for Democratic nomination for the US Senate in 1982.
This collection of his essays, a real shelf-buckler at 1295 pages, displays Vidal's feisty wit, his attractive, conversational style, and his love of literature, ideas and humanity. Given the job of reviewing Herman Wouk's 885-pager The Winds of War, with its "solid, uninspired prose and love of the American ruling class", Vidal recounts how "as I picked up the heavy book, I knew terror". There is, with Vidal's blockbuster however, no glum riffling of the pages still to go.
Vidal's literature reviews are informed by his political focus. He regrets that "the public range of the novel has been narrowed". It is considered bad form, a '30s embarrassment, to treat "the ruling class as a subject for fiction". The novel is now about "small, private, interior" worlds and much impoverished, except for gay writers whose exploration of homosexuality through literature was often their only way of going public on this most political of private issues.
Not that all externally focused, action-oriented writers such as Hemingway got to grips with the public world, either. Hemingway's plain style and truncated sentences helped him "get off every kind of ideological or ethical hook". Hemingway was a "most artful dodger, all busy advancing verbs and stony nouns. Surfaces coldly rendered. Interiors unexplored. Manner all." A dab hand at parody is Vidal.
Vidal's novels have heartily embraced the political and historical, from a left-liberal perspective of robust awareness of political and economic power. Vidal is scorned by the literary and political right wing. "Those who own the country also rule it", says Vidal, demonstrating why conservatives react to him with the butterflies of fear fluttering in their wallets.
We live in "an acquisitive, warrior society", where the "profits of the few depend on the exploitation and conquest of distant lands and markets". There is "only one political party — the Property Party — with two right wings — Republican and Democrat" who perform the hard-cop/soft-cop routine to do over the poor, the black, the Asian peasant, the pregnant woman denied an abortion. Half of American voters don't vote — "they are not apathetic, just disgusted".
A favourite Vidal target is conservative religious morality for prohibiting private behaviour "in ways not approved by the holy book of a Bronze Age nomadic tribe as reinterpreted by a group of world-weary Greeks in the first centuries of the last millennium". The pinko heresies are in wonderful abundance.
Vidal has his illusions. A Malthusian ire at "overpopulation" rankles, whilst his rejection of "the Nixon myth" — that the crook Nixon was "the one bad apple in a splendid barrel" of Presidents — is replaced by his own myth of the one good apple (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in a rotten barrel of "American Presidents who are the continuation of previous Presidents under another name".
Neither does he write about struggle from the bottom up. But if words can contribute to popular struggles, then Vidal's will have played their part.