I confess this is the first time in my life I will break the old Hellenic rule: ton tethnvêkota mê kakologein (speak no ill of the dead). That Vidal was a cruel person is no excuse for not refraining from criticism after his recent death, but here I sin nonetheless.
I could never finish any of Gore Vidal’s fiction, even his best, Julian — although I grant that he was ironic, at times shocking, and could be a valuable corrective to unmerited reputations. But Robert Graves (even at his worst with Count Belisarius) and Peter Green were probably superior historical novelists. To compare similar contrarian essayists, the late Christopher Hitchens was a better writer. He was more widely informed and more honest about the public intellectual’s propensity for caricaturing the very ribbons and medals — and cash — that he so covets.
Many praised Vidal’s essays. Some were insightful, but more were self-indulgent, full of pathetic aristocratic references, and tinged with anti-Semitism and passive-aggressive gossip about those with better bloodlines and more money. Among the latter, Vidal eagerly sought opportunities to play the court jester. Somehow all of that was central, rather than incidental, to his arguments.
For all his claims of erudition, Vidal suffered the wages of the public autodidact. I noticed he quoted Latin ad nauseam — and nearly always with his nouns and adjectives not just in the wrong cases (especially the confusion of the accusative and ablative in preposition phrases), but predictably in the fashion of those who like to copy down Latin phrases but cannot read a complete Latin sentence. By his sixties, Vidal had degenerated into a conspiracy theorist, and his embarrassing late-life infatuation with Timothy McVeigh caught the eye of the goddess Nemesis.
Vidal said he was nauseated by American imperialism and gloated over our decline, but his real pique was that the mannered East Coast snobbishness that he loved to shock had given way to a socially mobile, no-holds-barred popular culture that did not so much ignore his world of blue-blood repartee, but had no clue that it had ever existed. He liked being hated; he hated being irrelevant.
Otherwise, it is hard to find any commonality in Vidal’s corpus of work other than a certain disdain for what he would term the “grasping”: the supposedly wannabe Jewish intellectual, the upper-middle class suburbanite who sends his kids to State U, or the American can-doism that sought to “improve” itself through intellectual and artistic awareness — about which brings me to my sole Gore Vidal story.
I met him once. Or rather my family did. In the early 1960s, my father, William F. Hanson, a former teacher, farmer, and then administrator at Reedley Junior College, proposed to the local JC school board “a lecture series.” The Central Valley farming community was innately conservative. But nonetheless, in the classically liberal spirit of those pre-Vietnam times, the farmers on the board not only funded my dad’s proposed lecture series, but encouraged him to invite controversial, and often liberal, voices — over the objection of the careerist president of the college at that time.
There was only a small ramshackle college motel in Reedley (population around 6,000 then). Consequently, often my father asked the speakers whether they wished instead to stay at our Selma farmhouse, 16 miles away, on the night before the lecture. A lot did.
So it followed that, from about age 9 to 15 (e.g., 1962-1968), I listened to every word, at dinner and the next morning’s breakfast, from the likes of Ansel Adams (I remember a short, bearded bald man in cowboy hat who railed all evening against James Watt), Pearl Buck (two strange aides who would not let her out of their sight), Louis Leakey (suffering from terrible dental pain and around the house wearing a blue jump suit), Bernard Lovell (stared out about two feet over our heads when speaking), Rod Serling (refused to answer our constant questions about the Twilight Zone, and instead went on a nonstop invective against Richard Nixon), Mark Van Doren (gracious, polite, and a beautiful speaker of the English language), and about 30 or so others in rural Selma.