Why Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote All Failed to Write the Great American Novel

Many commentators have suggested that the passing of Gore Vidal at age eighty-six on July 31 marks the end of a remarkable generation of postwar American novelists the likes of whom we shall never see again.

When people speak of that generation of novelists, they are usually referring to exactly three people: Norman Mailer (born in 1923), Truman Capote (1924), and Vidal (1925).  All three made splashy literary debuts in the years shortly after the war.  All three were not just writers but celebrities.  Their arrival on the national scene was followed shortly by the advent of television and the TV talk show, on which all three excelled in their different ways at making an indelible impression.

Vidal was the pompous, formidable intellect and wit, serving up well-turned putdowns of those he considered his inferiors – which included pretty much everyone – in an authoritative upper-crust dialect. Capote was the flamboyant quipster and gossip with the pronounced Southern accent, more explicit on national TV about his sexual orientation than any other gay man in America would dare for another generation. And Mailer, in contradistinction to these two gay men, was the embodiment of post-Hemingway machismo – a Brooklyn Jewish kid by way of Harvard with a chip on his shoulder and a determination to prove that he, and no other, was the natural heir to Papa Hemingway.

Back then, big authors were big TV. These three loved doing the talk shows – and the talk-show hosts loved having them on. Both Vidal and Capote were regulars on Carson (Carson actually invited Vidal to be a guest host, and Capote died at the home of one of Carson’s ex-wives, who’d become a close chum); Vidal and Mailer appeared together on a legendary episode of The Dick Cavett Show (whose wife and Vidal became good friends) on which they all but got into a fistfight on the air.

Nowadays they’d all be lucky to get on C-SPAN.

They attacked one another, mocked one another, sued one another. Each was always aware of – and felt threatened by – the other two. (How absurd all the jealousy, the competition, seems now!) All three proclaimed their brilliance unashamedly – and repeatedly. All three were motivated by the now quaint-sounding goal of writing the Great American Novel. All three, indeed, were desperate to be proclaimed immortal masters of the novel. But though Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was unquestionably brilliant, arguably perfect of its own kind (even Mailer admitted as much), neither Vidal nor Mailer ever produced a fictional work anywhere near approaching the first rank, and even Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when you got right down to it, was a short work – hardly War and Peace.

All three were far better at non-fiction – Vidal in his innumerable, and inimitable, literary essays (neither of the other two, curiously, seems to have been particularly interested in, or perhaps even capable of, writing serious book reviews); Capote in what he called the “non-fiction novel,” as exemplified by In Cold Blood, as well as in a series of juicy (if highly unreliable) accounts of such things as his friendship with Marilyn Monroe; and Mailer in his engaging early miscellany Advertisements for Myself and in The Armies of the Night, his award-winning account of an anti-Vietnam march in Washington, D.C., in which he co-starred with the poet Robert Lowell. (Some would also include among Mailer’s most impressive works The Executioner’s Song, his attempt – unreadable, in my view – to outdo In Cold Blood.)

Why were they better at non-fiction than fiction? A big part of the reason is that a great novelist needs to have the gift of profound empathy – the ability to create, care profoundly about, and comprehend to the depths of their souls characters radically different from himself. To be a great novelist requires that one be able to stand alone, as it were, at the edge of the party and observe other people patiently and unobtrusively – to look into their eyes and, in doing so, try to see into their souls.

None of these three were up to that; all were too wrapped up in themselves. Yes, they were all formidably gifted. Of the three, Vidal was the most intelligent, widely read, and critically discerning; Capote was the most sensitive to lived experience and the finest prose stylist; Mailer had, well, a certain feisty energy and ardor, an urgent sense of the Zeitgeist, and a terrific knack for figuring out how to place himself in the center of things so that he would have something spectacular to write about.

But none of them was a born novelist – far from it.

Important question: what does it mean that all three of them befriended murderers? Capote became smitten with Perry Smith, one of the two twisted young creeps who committed the crime – the slaughter of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959 – that became the subject of In Cold Blood. Norman Mailer entered into a correspondence, and eventually became chummy, with the killer Jack Henry Abbott, whose book he helped get published in 1981 and whose release from prison he was instrumental in arranging – and who, after being out of the slammer for six weeks (during which he was, thanks to Mailer, the toast of the New York literary scene), stabbed to death Richard Adan (also, coincidentally, an aspiring writer), who was working as a waiter in a Manhattan café into which Abbott had happened to wander in search of a men’s room. Vidal, for his part, answered fan letters from Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and ended up being pals with him, praising him as a “noble boy” before McVeigh, like Perry Smith before him, was executed. (Abbott, after being sent back to prison for the murder of Adan, ended up hanging himself in his cell.)

This fondness for murderers suggests that, for all their differences and their mutual hostility, Mailer, Capote, and Vidal had something in common that separated them from most of the rest of us. Even as all of them adored the limelight, they were drawn to the dark side. If they weren’t, in the final analysis, great, or even particularly good, American novelists, perhaps it was, in large part, not because of a lack of raw talent but because they all felt, to some degree and for various reasons, alienated from ordinary Americans to a degree that made it impossible for any of them to write with sufficient empathy and understanding about their countrymen – except, perhaps, those who had killed in cold blood. To be capable of a perverse sympathy for psychopaths but incapable of contemplating ordinary American life without feeling contempt and condescension (and this last applies less to Capote than to the other two) is not the formula for producing enduring literature.

With Vidal’s death, it is interesting to look back on all the fine writers who first published books at around the same time as these three did but who, although very successful, failed somehow to make the long-term “A” list.  In 1948, for instance, the big book was Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which pretty much everybody who mattered decided was the great novel of World War II – but which, try though I might, I’ve always found it impossible to get into.  The same year saw the publication of Irwin Shaw’s war novel The Young Lions, which is compulsively readable, not to mention considerably more interesting and intelligent than anything Mailer ever wrote.  But an even finer novel that came out in 1948 was Ross Lockridge’s now forgotten Raintree Country, a story set in an imaginary Indiana town before, during, and after the Civil War.  I consider it a credible candidate for the title of Great American Novel.  No novel written by Vidal, Mailer, or Capote can touch it.

Now that Vidal is dead, many commentators have proclaimed that the postwar literary generation is now gone.  But what – just to name one more author who comes to mind – about Herman Wouk, who was born in 1915?  Author of The Caine Mutiny (1951), Marjorie Morningstar (1955), The Winds of War (1971), and War and Remembrance (1975), he’s still with us.  And the more one looks at his supposedly middlebrow novels alongside the allegedly highbrow efforts of Mailer, Vidal, and Capote, the more one recognizes that such terms are not always as useful as one thinks.


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