The Gore Vidal obits mainly got it right. He was a fine novelist as well as a talk-show friendly celebrity writer. He was a pompous egghead who could also swear and get scrappy when caught short for the right words. And he did more things, at a higher level, than he gets credit for.
When I was a kid, reading Gore Vidal was an adventure. He was writing this about Roman emperors which I would never learn in Latin class, and changing everybody’s views about the essential nature of Abraham Lincoln. He wrote sympathetic portrayals of everyone from Aaron Burr to Billy the Kid.
And that was just his historical fiction. When limited only by his own imagination, he unleashed Myra Breckinridge and its underrated 1974 sequel Myron and recast the popular sense of transsexuality to include camp, comedy and personal empowerment.
Gore Vidal’s famous 1969 statement (in Esquire magazine, a publication that seemed ) that “we are all bisexual,” and various follows-up he made concerning that philosophy, had a significant impact on how I dealt with my own sexual awakening as a young man. His embracing of pop culture—as a golden-age TV playwright, as a mystery novelist when The New York Times refused to review his loftier books, as the initial screenwriter for Bob Guccione’s Roman porn extravaganza Caligula, as an ‘80s satirist with the Dallas-skewering novel Duluth, as a commentator at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1968 and as a frequent Tonight Show guest—made me consider his otherwise stuffy persona to be a sort of act. It’s a pose which he indeed perfected for his portrayal of Senator Brickley Paiste in Tim Robbin’s political comedy Bob Roberts. Gore Vidal made it cool to be smart and funny at the same time. He was an inspiration to shy but silly library-trawlers throughout America. A lot of modern essayists and novelists don’t realize how much they owe to Gore Vidal, not just in finding appropriate topics to tangle with, but how to structure those debates so that you’re always on top of them.
Or maybe I was OK with his Vidal’s old-world patrician persona. He made it cool to be intellectual. He wielded his power responsibly, at least when using his access to literary journals to singlehandedly reignite the careers of then-unsung authors such as Dawn Powell and Italo Calvino.
Some of his late-life political protestations are admittedly confounding, but not so much that they kept him from being awarded the first-ever PEN/Borders Literary Service Award in 2007 for “his lifelong commitment to democracy” and being “"a truly distinguished American writer whose critically acclaimed work helps us to understand the human condition in original and powerful ways."
Can’t say I was impressed with everything about Gore Vidal. The more I read about his sex life, including all the bragging he does in his memoirs, the more sickened I get by his superiority complex and blasé approach to personal relations. He also did write some inexcusable crap, and make plenty of embarrassing off-the-cuff statements. He also failed twice as a political candidate, the role which he seems to have spent more time grooming himself for than the writing career which came easily to him.
But now that he’s gone, I am really going to miss seeing his name on the cover of a haughty literary journal and having to buy that rag because he was in it.