That Time When Gore Vidal Spiced up the Smithsonian

We take a look back at one of the late author’s lesser-known novels that imagines a history a little too close to home

Author Gore Vidal, who died yesterday, published 25 novels in his lifetime. “The Smithsonian Institution” is one you’ve probably never heard of. Amazon

Prolific author, playwright and personality, Gore Vidal, died yesterday at age 86 due to complications from pneumonia. Among a group of literary writers like Normal Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal was a “special breed” of writer, known for his controversial works of historical fiction—novels like Burr, Lincoln, and The City and the Pillar. But perhaps his upbringing in the Washington D.C. area influenced his lesser-known—and rather strange—1998 novel, The Smithsonian Institution.

The fictional tale, set in 1939, tells the story of “T.,” a super genius, “decisive, tall lad of thirteen,” who is mysteriously beckoned to the basement of the Smithsonian to help develop the atomic bomb. To be clear, The Smithsonian Institution is a work of historical fiction—the Manhattan Project did not come to fruition within the secret passageways of the museums and there are no time machines on the premises. Vidal’s use of humor and allusion in constructing the work of fiction, however, is calculated and often downright absurd.

Historical figures including Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Abraham Lincoln make cameos, while wax museum exhibits, including a tribe of aboriginal Iroquois Indians, come to life in the first chapter alone.

“T. tried the door handle; it turned; he pushed the door open just wide enough for him to poke his head into–another world!

A sign identified this world as the Early Indian Exhibit room, a favorite exhibit of T.’s childhood. A couple of dozen Indian braves and their squaws and papooses—papeese?—were going about their business in and out of wigwams on a sunny day, while a realistic painted backdrop, called a diorama, showed their native environment: trees, a distant plain with buffalo roaming, blue mountains.

But something had radically changed since his earlier visits. The Indians were no longer artfully molded and tastefully painted figures of plaster; instead, they were now real men and women and children in colorful native garb, while the mock fire–over which a cauldron of stew had been placed–was very much a real fire, with eye-stinging black smoke, and the pot had a section of what looked to be a real moose floating in it. The background was no longer painted but real: tall aboriginal trees, endless grassy plains where buffalo ambled in the middle distance and a hawk suddenly soared across the intense blue sky of yesteryear.”

In a 1998 New York Times review, Christopher Benfey notes the absurdity of Vidal’s imagined Institution and the novel’s “mumbo jumbo about the space-time continuum.” But Benfey also suggests that the work is very much like the technology applied in the novel itself: “A stable two-way linkup between past and future”:

He who comprehends the Smithsonian Castle comprehends the universe.’ The old Washington proverb, playing the riches of the museum collection off the maze of the floor plan, takes on new meaning in Vidal’s fantasy, when T. stumbles on a coven of nuclear physicists huddled in the Smithsonian basement. They’re eager to capitalize on T.’s amazing ability to ‘visualize’ the implications of certain formulas, which make possible all sorts of earthshaking maneuvers: time travel, newfangled weaponry (the neutron bomb, ‘the Realtors’ Dream Bomb,’ because ‘the people die but the buildings are left intact’), the manipulation of the ‘crossroad in time’ in order to alter not just the future—any politician can do that—but the past.

The Smithsonian Institution is no Night at the Museum—Vidal’s work is sophisticated and offers a cerebral twist with the combined forces of historical and science fiction genres. The hilarity of characters like Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, one of many presidential wives name-dropped in the novel’s first few pages, brings the historical figures and the Smithsonian’s secret’s to life:

Probed, Mrs. Harrison nodded. “Naturally, you can leave whenever you like. But if you mean to penetrate the mystery of the Smithsonian, which is the mystery of life itself…” Mrs. Harrison was now redoing her hair in the cloudy mirror of the Empire armoire; she was also, T. could tell, speaking tonelessly, as if she had no idea what she was saying. “Rest assured that here, somewhere in the bowels of this ancient structure, past all the monsters both living and dead, past blockades and safe places, doublets, penalties …”

“Monsters?” T. perked up considerably. He liked monsters and whenever he could get time off from his busy classroom schedule, he would play hooky from school and go up to the Capitol and look at the Senate.

“Oh, yes. Monsters. Or so they say. We first ladies are sheltered from the worst of the horrors in the basement…”

The novel revisits some of the key events of the 20th century, captures the imagination behind the Institution’s creaky walls, while still finding room for awkward teenage lovemaking scenes. As Benfey says, “the jokes, good and bad, keep coming, and the Presidents really are brought to life. Vidal’s eye for the freaks and foibles of Washington has retained its sharpness.”

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