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Read a 2007 Essay in Smithsonian by Gore Vidal, Last Writer of His Kind

Why more writers should be as fearless, and as prickly as Vidal.

smithsonian.com

Gore Vidal: Left in 1948 (Image: Library of Congress) Right, in 2008 (Image: Mark Coggins)

They just don’t make writers like they used to. Gore Vidal, a man who was part author, part playwright, part essayist, and part political activist, died yesterday at age 86 from complications of pneumonia.

There are a lot of reasons why Vidal is worth holding up as an example for writers today. The New York Times writes:

Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, putdown or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy.

And, in a lot of ways, Vidal was indeed the last of a breed. What writer today has run for political office twice, pushed the boundaries of sexuality of the time, and written an original play in two weeks? His third novel, The City and the Pillar, was one of the first novels to depict obvious homosexuality.

Smithsonian magazine published an essay of his in 2007 called Salad Days, where he reminisces about a photograph taken in 1949 that captures a garden lunch full of seemingly unconnected characters:

So there we sat one day in the Manhattan garden of the Café Nicholson: Tanaquil Le Clercq of Balanchine’s ballet company; Buffie Johnson, a painter; writers Donald Windham, Tennessee Williams and me. For me, Karl Bissinger’s picture is literally historic, so evocative of a golden moment when we were neither at war—our usual condition, it now appears—nor in a depression. Look at the civilization we could have created!

Even in old age, Vidal was a feisty critic and rabble-rouser. At CNN, they sum up just a few of his controversial, and characteristic stunts:

He once compared author Norman Mailer to the infamous killer Charles Manson, which prompted Mailer to headbutt him before a show.

… 

And in a live TV debate, conservative author and journalist, William F. Buckley Jr. famously called him “queer.” To be fair, Vidal had called him a “crypto-Nazi” first.

“Well, I mean I won the debates, there was no question of that,” Vidal recounted in a CNN interview in 2007. “They took polls, it was ABC Television… And because I’m a writer, people think that I’m this poor little fragile thing. I’m not poor and fragile. … And anybody who insults me is going to get it right back.”

Not long ago, The Atlantic spoke with Vidal about politics. Here’s what he had to say about Obama, and Hillary Clinton in 2009:

She would have been a wonderful president. As for my support for Obama, remember that I was brought up in Washington. It was an all-black city when I was a kid. And I’ve always been very pro-African-American – or whatever phrase we now use. I was curious to see what would happen when their time came. I was delighted when Obama appeared on the scene. But now it seems as though our original objection to him – that experience mattered – was well-founded.

And, in classic Vidal style, here’s what he thinks about Obama’s books:

Barack Obama’s books seemed to persuade many people to support him. Have you read them?

No. Does one ever read a politician’s books?

Well, Obama actually wrote them himself.

I’m sure he did. He’s highly educated – and rather better than a country like this deserves. Put that in red letters.

With Vidal gone, the world loses yet another prickly old writer. And we’re probably worse off for it.

 

More at Smithsonian.com:

Salad Days

 

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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