Charles McGrath’s New York Times obituary for Gore Vidal calls him “the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization.”
For anyone who has read Vidal’s work with delight and care, it is hard to believe that Vidal saw the United States as possessing a civilization that could end. Power, yes: the nation has great power, wielded without regret and directed anywhere those who possess it choose. But the USA, a civilized nation? Debatable, as Vidal saw it.
That the country could at times be a great deal of fun, or at least amusing, and a pre-eminent provider of entertainment — that Vidal would agree with, laughing all the while. Like Aaron Burr, who as protagonist opened Vidal’s extended fictional portrait of the carpeted halls of power, he enjoyed himself, and laughed more than most — at the nation, at us, at the power brokers and even at himself.
His wide-ranging body of work is like no other, as we see in his obituary. He had the courage of his convictions, or perhaps the courage of one born into the families that determine our national and personal fates, but who was fated by his lesser status among them — relatively poor, proudly sexually transgressive, highly educated in the arts, aesthetics and intellectual analysis — never to be a serious political player himself. He therefore had nothing to lose from honesty, and he was openly, aggressively, fluidly sexual at a time when few could afford to be, writing both non-fiction and outrageous comic fiction with post-gender attitude.
Narratives of Empire, his heptalogy of historical novels published between 1968 and 2000,traces the United States from the Age of Burr through the Age of Mass Media. It reveals more than many non-fiction histories about how power is inherited, used, and guarded in America. These seven novels of our national political life bristle with ideas and even historical facts that were not discussed — or admitted to — by either critics or historians, by and large, and certainly not by politicians. Though this is his best work, Vidal will probably be remembered more for his lesser achievements — theater, film, and television appearances, feuds with other writers.
Vidal compared himself on at least one occasion to historian Henry Adams, who as the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents was present not only in the hallways of power but also in the homes where the power brokers lived and socialized. Adams’s influence was not always positive: in 1876, Vidal avenged his precursor’s personal prejudice against President Ulysses Grant in a way that was unworthy of most of his historical work — mean, petty, nasty, and a historical lie.
Adams is most often remembered today for the rather historically irrelevant cultural musings of Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres and for his highly selective personal memoir The Education of Henry Adams. While Education is empty of Adams’s wife’s suicide and the decades they were together, and leaves out his D.C. salon and ever-changing circle of ‘nieces’, it is worth reading, if only for Adams’s account of being private secretary to his father, Francis Adams, who as minister of the Mission to St. James in London was appointed by Lincoln to ensure that Britain not recognize the Confederacy. But Adams’s grand works are his histories of the Jefferson and Madison administrations — and possibly “Napoleon I At San Domingo” (in Adams’s Collected Essays, 1891), the most clear-eyed and even admiring assessment written by a white American historian in the nineteenth century of General Toussaint Louverture and of what the San Domingan revolution meant for the history of the United States.
These two writers offer a grand composite vision of the history of the United States. They were there, and if they weren’t there, their relatives were. They brought us their visions of our shared past; they have themselves become part of the historical record.
Henry Adams’s Collected Essays; History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson; History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison; The Education of Henry Adams.
Constance Sublette is the co-author with Ned Sublette of The American Slave Coast, forthcoming in 2013 from the Chicago Review Press.