Does Gore Vidal (1925-2012) merit the title “artist?” Yes, but not for the reasons generally cited.
Born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal in West Point, New York, Vidal was a prominent (and often badgering) voice in American politics, a writer of contemporary novels, and an occasional actor. As an arts blog, politics are largely out of the purview of The Jade Sphinx, so we will simply note that Vidal was more often right than wrong in his views of America’s political and cultural decline, and leave it at that.
As a contemporary novelist, Vidal was certainly a mixed bag. His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), caused a furor over its frank (for the time) depiction of homosexuality. It was a bold move for a bold artist, but one that had considerable consequences: he was blackballed by much of the literary establishment in a show of faux outrage. (For example, Orville Prescott of The New York Times blocked any reviews of Vidal’s next five books.)
One can’t but wish that all of the outrage was for something slightly more worthwhile, as Pillar is … slight, at best. One of those largely plotless as-we-live-now novels that have choked novelistic creativity for the last 70 years or so, Pillar is remarkable only in that is has a gay character. As a social document The City and the Pillar is fairly interesting, as an artistic achievement, it is largely unimportant.
When not writing mainstream novels, Vidal wrote three mysteries under the pen-name Edgar Box. These novels, Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Death Before Bedtime (1953) and Death Likes It Hot (1954), are agreeable without profundity. He also spent time writing screenplays, notably doctoring most of the script for Ben-Hur in 1959. Though lauded with Academy Awards, Ben-Hur never reaches the levels of art; it is certainly a diverting spectacle, but never nearly as serious as it takes itself to be. Ever puckish, he sneakily inserted a gay subtext in the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala without Charlton Heston ever noticing.
Perhaps feeling constrained by the reigning literary aesthetic of bland realism, Vidal wrote several fantasias or crypto-science fiction pieces, all to disastrous effect. Live From Golgotha (1992) concerned time travel and the crucifixion, and may be the single worst novel of that year (or decade). The Smithsonian Institution (1998) involved historical figures somehow alive in the basement of the Smithsonian (think Night at the Museum with a soupcon of pretention) and his 1957 play Visit to a Small Planet was a vehicle to skewer American foreign policy. Planet was made into a film in 1960 with Jerry Lewis, which was, damningly, an improvement on its source material.
However, Vidal was a masterful essayist, and his books of essays are among the finest in the language. Matters of Fact and Fiction (1977), The Second American Revolution (1983), Armageddon (1987), Screening History (1992), and Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995) are all extremely absorbing and deftly written. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Addams and Jefferson (2004) and Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare (2009) also have much to commend them. In his essays, Vidal’s writing is clear and coherent, filled with memorable aphorisms and soundly reasoned. In fact, Vidal may have been America’s finest 20th Century essayist.
Finally, we come to Vidal the historical novelist. It is hard to assess his contributions to historical fiction “cleanly,” as Vidal the novelist was compromised by Vidal the polemicist who often had an axe to grind. However, overlooking that major flaw, Vidal’s historical fiction managed to do something his contemporary novels could not: involve well-rounded, three dimensional characters in a compelling plot. Of his historical fiction I strongly recommend Burr (1973), 1876 (1976) which is amazing for detailing the Hayes/Tilden election which would in so many ways prefigure Bush/Gore in 2000, and Empire (1987), which includes a somewhat bitter look at the emergence of contemporary American journalism.
Gore Vidal wanted to become a Great American Man of Letters, and, instead, became an important literary voice and often acted as the conscience of the nation. His ambition may not have been achieved, but his achievements were ambitious. Our nation is poorer for his loss.