It’s hard to succinctly describe what Gore Vidal, who died on the 31st July aged 86, due to the sheer breadth and consistent quality of his works. He displayed an acid tongued wit and intellectual clout in his prodigious output as a novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, political activist, polemicist and perhaps most importantly as a self promoting, iconoclastic public intellectual.
His output as a writer and public figure even outshine his fascination biography, which can be perused by anyone with access to Wikipedia. He was Christopher Hitchens before there was a Christopher Hitchens, indeed, the two were good friends, with Vidal even anointing Hitchens (who coincidentally died before Vidal in December 2011) as his successor and heir before they fell out. Vidal blazed a trail which Hitchens and his ilk are still following today. He was openly bisexual, and boasted that he had sex with over a thousand men and women in his memoirs.
It was his sexual openness which lead to one of his greatest literary and cultural achievements. His novel The City and the Pillar outraged conservative critics and the literary establishment when it was released in 1948 due to its subversive and pioneering depiction of unambiguous homosexuality. Vidal suffered professional repercussions for the novel but in the end history vindicated him the novel claimed its place as a work of historical cultural significance and as he emerged as one of America’s foremost literary figures.
Vidal’s willingness to provoke and attack orthodoxy combined with his literary talent and caustic wit lead to some very eloquent and powerful ‘fuck yous’. Vidal’s own fervent, almost narcissistic, belief in his creative, intellectual and moral superiority gave him the impetus to attack figures such as Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway and the Kennedys. The most famous target of his acerbic rage and poison dipped pen was however the United States, having taken a very dim view of its aggressive foreign policy agenda and its quasi-democratic two party system. He was a constant thorn in the side of the second Bush administration, lobbing literary grenades at the Bush administration while advocating for the impeachment of its president for war crimes. Vidal also famously proclaimed that the United States was rotting away and would end up subservient to China.
Although he is acclaimed for his daring intellectual and creative exploits, Vidal had a definite streak of crazy in him which could not simply be attributed to or dismissed as due to the senility of old age His penchant for conspiracy stretched back to the Pearl Harbor attacks: he claimed President Roosevelt had advance knowledge and even hoped for an attack by the Japanese. He later stirred up controversy by accusing the United States government of passively facilitating the 9/11 attacks despite knowing they would happen. Clearly his intellect was not infallible and his unshakable faith in his own intellectual fortitude was a weakness as much as a strength.
Even if Vidal, the enfant terrible of 20th century American literature and public political discourse, was shamelessly vain and was by all accounts personally unpleasant, the world is a poorer place for having lost a man of both great talent and conviction as well as a potent public voice for political dissent.