Why Hasn't Gore Vidal Written His Summa?
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal always reminds his readers that his long life has spanned one-third of the life of our common great American Experiment. At the ripe old age of 86, Gore Vidal has outlived all of his enemies, his sometimes allies and his lovers. As a prolific writer and perhaps the best practitioner of the Essay -- that forgotten art -- in the English language, the question arises: Why hasn't he written his summa?
Granted, Vidal's Great Subject -- America -- has been his major concern throughout his entire literary life. America has been, and always will be Gore Vidal's great love. His magnum opus -- his great work -- is his America series. Neoconservatives who like to minimize Gore Vidal as being a crank, a "conspiracy theorist" and, worst of all, a leftist have probably never read his loving, extensive portrayal of America in his astonishingly good historical novels chronicling these United States from the era of Aaron Burr, a relative, to the end of the second world war when, Vidal notes with more than a touch of melancholy, the country of his birth ceased to become a Republic and became an Empire in full. When he writes on America's Fall, he sounds more like Tacitus than Hemingway. It will be interesting to see how Vidal tackles the Mexican War -- imperialistic -- in his upcoming and final historical novel of the series.
So we know Vidal has done a magnum opus, but what would form his summa take? It certainly wouldn't look like Proust's labyrinthine Remembrances, that is for sure. Gore Vidal is a hardened realist, almost more patrician ancient Roman Senator than American writer/ statesman manque. Vidal, a true American pragmatist, has always more concerned with Power and how it is exercised than with the vagaries of nebulous Consciousness; no European, he. Then again, the Founding Fathers always looked more towards the antiquity of Rome than Athens or, for that matter, to London. In this sense, Vidal's hard realism spans time beyond the relative youth of his beloved and not so beloved American Empire.
And so we will be left, when Vidal finally shuffles off the mortal coil, with only the pretentiously titled Palimpsest and the godawful and hastily written Point-to-Point Navigation as reference to what the man made of the man. We will never ever know the juicy affairs he embarked upon beyond Anais Nin and Jack Kerouac; we will never quite know the poignant inner gossip of Old Washington or the relatively new jet set; we will never quite know the intrigues of the Kennedy White House or even the workings of the literary set in the postwar from the acidic perspective of Gore.
What will Gore Vidal's legacy be? He no longer has a literary heir (my former mentor Christopher Hitchens was disinherited). In the end, Gore Vidal will be remembered by his essays and his America series. And while that is probably how Vidal would like to be seen by the cold, clear eyes of History, I worry. In the age of low attention spans and tablet readers, will anyone go in for that type of late 20th century longform? The essay -- not quite a blog post -- is in grave danger. And historical fiction not involving fucking vampires is also in peril. That bodes, at least for now, badly for History's rememberance of Vidal. After all, Gore didn't call America "the united States of Amnesia" for naught. And if in one hundred years Gore Vidal is a literary footnote like his old friends the nearly forgotten Vance Bourjaily and John Dos Passos, that would be a terrible shame. In that case Vidal's legacy in the 22nd century and beyond would be almost entirely determined by the Master's dissertations of precocious American Literature majors. Then the dreaded "hacksd of academe" would have truly won and that would be an American tragedy.