American originals

Some of you have been generous enough to inform me, here or on Facebook or at Twitter, that you do not share my esteem for the writings of Gore Vidal. You perhaps do not care for his politics or his prose style or his morality or his person. Perhaps his patrician hauteur irritates you; I'm sure that he would have wanted it that way.

That's as it should be, rather than the bland, stagnant world we would live in if all our tastes agreed. That said, I'm about to quote him, so clear out. Everyone else can stay.

It's a good thing to stand at the grave of Samuel Johnson in Westminster Abbey or to read the plaque on the house on Park Avenue in Baltimore where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while writing Tender is the Night. But the best way to honor a writer is not by plaques or monuments but by reading the work the hand composed. I have, as I wrote the other day, been reading and re-reading Gore Vidal's work for four decades (not, mind you, uncritically or finding every scrap of equal value). Today, since writers should be read, I offer you a paragraph from an essay he wrote thirty or so years ago about another American original, Edmund Wilson. Linking Wilson with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, he wrote:

Meanwhile, the contemporary of these three blasted stars, Edmund Wilson, outlived and outworked them all. Well into his seventies, Wilson would totter into the Princeton Club and order a half dozen martinis, to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously--six shining glasses in a bright row, down which Wilson would work, all the while talking and thinking at a rapid pace. To the end of a long life, he kept on making the only thing he thought worth making: sense, a quality almost entirely lacking in American literature where stupidity--if sufficiently sincere and authentic--is deeply revered, and easily achieved. Although this was a rather unhealthy life in the long run, Wilson had a very long run indeed. But then, he was perfect proof of the proposition that the more the mind is used and fed the less apt it is to devour itself. When he died, at seventy-seven, he was busy stuffing his head with irregular Hungarian verbs. Plainly, he had a brain to match his liver.




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