The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal's essays are marshaled into two halves – literary and political – in this streamlined, eminently readable volume
Reviewed by Wells Dunbar, Fri., June 20, 2008
The Selected Essays of Gore Vidalby Gore Vidal
Doubleday, 480 pp., $27.50
Often offering his observations and remembrances under the guise of a book review, Gore Vidal's essays are marshaled into two halves – literary and political – in this streamlined, eminently readable volume. Ire for lit profs, those "Hacks of Academe," course through the first half – Vidal hilariously dismissive of "those places wherever English is taught but not learned." He's similarly incisive discussing underwhelming authors: "I daresay as an expression of one man's indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society we must honor if not the art the author. Fortunately the Nobel Prize is designed for just such a purpose." He's even more satisfying in memoir: "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self," a halcyon depiction of Rome, 1948, with Tennessee Williams and other expatriates, unfurls at a time when "none of us knew where history had placed us."
Politically, Vidal's prescient of current predicaments: 1963's "Passage to Egypt," noting "nations traditionally must have the Enemy to prod them into action," describes the "holy war against Communism" almost interchangeably with our so-called war on terror. "Homage to Daniel Shays" says a bloated bipartisan "Property Party" of governors subverts democracy for corporate, war-making benefactors. "[T]he middle-income American is taxed as though he were living in a socialist society. But for the money he gives the government he gets nothing back. He does pay for a lot of military hardware, and his congressman will point to all the jobs 'defense' (that happy euphemism) contracts bring to his district, as if the same federal money could not create even more jobs doing things that needed doing as well as benefiting directly the man who paid the taxes in the first place." There's personal politics, too: In "Pornography" ("when freedom of expression is joined with the freedom to make a lot of money, the dream of those whose bloody footprints made vivid the snows of Valley Forge is close to fulfillment"), Vidal argues that humanity is hardwired for bisexuality.
Vidal's gift is to illuminate the broader human condition in the set of subjects he discusses; whether experimental French novelists or a subject as outsized as the Kennedys, he always extrapolates their importance to the larger world.