- Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain
Gore Vidal is arguably one of the most important writers of his generation. Unusually prolific, he has published over twenty novels, several collections of essays, a volume of short stories, five Broadway plays, and several screenplays. Moreover, his treatment of gay male experience in such novels as The City and the Pillar (1948) and Myra Brickingridge (1968) helped pave the way for the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. Vidal's refusal to treat gay male identity as a form of ethnicity deeply influenced postwar gay male activists who looked forward to the end of "the homosexual" as a category of individual. Despite his importance, however, he has not been taken seriously by academic critics. He continues to be overshadowed by his contemporaries Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow whose masculinist cultural politics were more appealing to readers in an era marked by the rise of the "organization man." Nor does the recent emergence of queer studies as a legitimate academic discipline promise to reverse this situation. Vidal's influence on the gay liberation movement has been all but ignored in recent studies of postwar gay male writers.
In Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, Jay Parini seeks to rectify the lack of serious critical response to Vidal's work by "uncovering some of the best writing that has already been published about [him]." In addition to important essays and reviews by Italo Calvino, Stephen Spender, Harold Bloom, and Richard Poirier that have appeared elsewhere, Parini includes essays by a number of leading academic critics (William H. Pritchard, [End Page 377] Catherine R. Stimpson, and Donald E. Pease) that were especially commissioned for the volume. The diversity of writers and critics Parini has brought together not only indicates the extraordinary range of Vidal's achievements but also attests to his importance as both an essayist and a novelist. He emerges from these essays and reviews as a writer of undeniable weight whose place in American literary history deserves reexamination.
Although Parini has succeeded admirably in providing the most comprehensive portrait of Vidal that has yet been published, it seems unlikely that the volume will accomplish his goal of increasing scholarly interest in Vidal's work. The essays are overwhelmingly belletristic. Except for those by James Tatum, Richard Poirier, and Donald E. Pease, none of the essays stresses the relevance of Vidal's work to the issues in which academic critics are currently most interested, issues such as the politics of identity, multiculturalism, the critique of the subject, postcoloniality, and so on. Nor do they make use of recent developments in literary and cultural theory. Especially disappointing in this regard is Claude J. Summer's "The City and the Pillar as Gay Male Fiction," which is one of the few essays in the volume that specifically addresses Vidal's identity as a gay male writer. Summers reads The City and the Pillar as a "typical" coming-out story in which Jim Willard, the novel's gay male protagonist, learns to accept his homosexuality as the "truth" or esssential core of his identity. In so doing, he suppresses the novel's interrogation of the logic of identity, an interrogation that anticipated the gay liberation movement.
For a more subtle analysis of Vidal's achievement as a gay male writer, one must turn to Donald E. Pease's essay "America and the Vidal Chronicles." Pease situates Vidal's literary career in relation to the Cold War construction of "the homosexual" as a national-security risk and stresses his role in the emergence of the counterculture of the 1960s. He also links Vidal's revisionist construction of American history in the chronicles to the emergence of New Historicism as an important critical practice. In so doing, he accomplishes what the other writers and critics included in the volume assert but do not demonstrate, namely that Vidal's work can sustain rigorous theoretical and critical engagement. Parini has wisely placed Pease's essay last so that readers will come away from the volume with a...