The work of Gore Vidal transcends genre and form, inspiring his international and faithful readership through a rich literary career. Known best for his stirring fiction and critically celebrated essays, Vidal also made exciting contributions to both stage and screen in addition to his passionate involvement in American politics. His literary career should not be limited to the controversy that often surrounded his works, but it should be defined by his courageous interrogation of American politics and socio-economical issues.
Eugene Louis Vidal was born in West Point, New York on October 3, 1925. Born and bred amongst a lineage of dedicated American Democrats, Vidal later adopted the name ‘Gore’ as a tribute to Oklahoma Democratic Senator Thomas Gore – his grandfather. The son of a New York City debutante and a first lieutenant of the US Army, Vidal developed a fervent love for literature early on. After a transatlantic education path entailing time spent in France, Gore enlisted at the age of 16 and was deployed for active duty during WWII – an experience that would forever influence his prose.
Upon his return from war, Vidal chronicled his personal war experiences through a fiction book about an enlisted serviceman. Published in 1946, when he was just 19 years old, Williwaw marked Vidal’s debut fictional career. Its follow-up, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was as equally controversial as it was revolutionary in its portrayal of a homosexual man living in a post-WWII conservative America. Violent attacks disguised as book reviews forced Vidal to adopt the nom de plume ‘Edgar Box’ for his next literary endeavour, a series of thriller and mystery novels. But in the mid 1950s, Vidal went back to writing under his real name. He also began working in Hollywood as an illustrious screenwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Screenplays were soon followed by stage scripts that were produced in the late 1960s, (Weekend) and early 1970s (An Evening with Richard Nixon).
But the best of Vidal was still to come. Vidal established himself as a truly accomplished writer with the publication of highly celebrated essays featuring meticulous commentaries on American politics and history, in addition to thorough explorations of sexuality, gender and popular culture. His essays, memoir and non-fiction volumes tally nearly thirty – including the collections Rocking the Boat (1963), Matters of Fact and Fiction (1977), Armageddon? (1987), Decline and Fall of the American Empire (1992) and Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare (2009). As a gifted craftsman, his effortless transition between, and fusion of, fact to fiction earned him critical praise and an ever expanding devoted readership.
When exploring the sheer longevity of Vidal’s rich literary legacy, it is perhaps Narratives of the Empire that remains a true anchor of the author’s canon. Written over an almost 30-year period, Vidal’s masterpiece is an epic seven novel series featuring various key figures in American politics. The series includes some of his most celebrated works such as Burr (1973), Washington D.C. (1967), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000) – although they were not published according to their historical chronology (Vidal was insistent that reading the series non-sequentially would not compromise their narrative clarity).
With a career as productive as critically celebrated, Gore Vidal should be remembered as an author who never became a victim of tradition and establishment. In fact, Vidal did not seek to be the literary voice of a nation, but strived to write as honestly as he could. Perhaps it is one of his famous quotes that best sums up his career: concluding his 1974 interview with The Paris Review, Vidal said: ‘Strange business, all in all. One never gets to the end of it. That’s why I go on, I suppose. To see what the next sentences I write will be.’