Gore Vidal died yesterday. I hope someone remembered to put a coin in his mouth for the ferryman.
He was, make no mistake, not pals with Jesus, and he delighted in tweaking his fellow countrymen on their puritanical obsession with other people's sexual behavior. For this he was anathema to the bovine element of the Republic, who will surely vote to boot him from Heaven if he has the temerity to show up. Better he should keep company with those Romans whom he so much resembled.
To my astonishment, one of my followers on Twitter has never read anything by Vidal, and other friends on Facebook rather sourly object to the accolades being heaped on him. So, as someone who has been reading him with enjoyment for forty years, I would like to make a case for him.
First, the fiction. I shan't try to make a case for Myra Breckinridge, which I thought hilarious when it came out but have not re-examined it. But I think that Burr was a remarkable attempt to imagine the most enigmatic figure in American political history, a devious schemer who left few traces. ("Things written remain," he cautioned his clerks.) My favorite is Lincoln, also deeply imagined and thoroughly researched, a more compelling portrait of our melancholy sixteenth president than you will find in most straight biographies.
It's the essays I most love and keep re-reading. One example: In 1959 he reviewed Robert Graves's translation of Suetonius. It was less of a review than a meditative essay which with great penetration used the Twelve Caesars as case histories about power and the effects it has on those who wield it. Start there.
He was an amused observer of our own homespun Caesars, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt though his bush league successors, commenting on how they, like Augustus, but with considerably less skill, pulled off the feat of establishing an imperium while pretending to be just plain republican folks.
For these observations, he has often been dismissed as a lefty, but I think he was more complicated than that. In his suspicion of the centralization of great power in one man, Caesar or president, he takes on what looks very much like a conservative tinge.
He was bitchy and endlessly quotable. I expect that in time he will join Mark Twain and Winston Churchill in receiving Internet credit for remarks he never made. This morning, and I hope it's authentic, someone quoted him as answering the question what were the saddest words in English, "Joyce Carol Oates."
Mr. Vidal did, in his last decade and a half, grow increasingly and embarrassingly cranky. I heard him interviewed on the radio some months ago, and the flashing epigrams had decayed into mechanically repeated talking points. It was sad, sad in the way it was painful to watch Erin Fleming shopping around the elderly Groucho Marx on talk shows in the 1970s. But, like the star of Duck Soup, the author of Burr and Lincoln and Homage to Daniel Shays deserves also to be remembered when he was at the height of his powers.
Whatever you may think of his person or his proclivities or his politics, this remains to be said: He was a better writer than you and I ever hope to be. I honor his shade.