Gore Vidal’s America

Dennis Altman,
Gore Vidal’s America.
Cambridge, U.K: Polity Press.
ISBN: 0 7465 3363 3
14.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Polity Press)

Someone told me recently that software is now available which allows people to uncover recurrent uses of a word or phrase within a text (this is a boon, apparently, for fans of discourse analysis). Such a tool would scarcely be necessary for decrypting Dennis Altman’s analysis of the life and work of Gore Vidal. One word resounds throughout the book and is used variously to imply praise or criticism – clever. Appropriately to my mind, Altman develops a picture of a writer/commentator of rare versatility and perceptivity who, nonetheless, has never quite been able to shake off a parallel reputation as a world champion clever dick.

Early on, Altman describes his book as a counterpoint to Gary Wills’ famous work of cultural history John Wayne’s America; he wants to show how Vidal’s writings express a moral and political worldview which is directly opposed to the normative republicanism of the Wayne movies, viz gender, patriotism and economic philosophy. This idea of Altman’s turns out to be a bit of non-starter. For one thing, it’s obvious that Vidal’s World is the antithesis of (erm) “Wayne’s World”. Moreover, Vidal and Wayne differ widely in their sphere of influence. The Wayne movies (as Vidal himself has observed) were pungent in their cultural effect because of Hollywood’s power as an everyday force of hegemony; Wayne’s right-wing claptrap was promulgated through the beguiling realism of the popular film. Conversely, Vidal has been a marginal figure within popular culture, a strange – and entirely personal – cross between celebrity and intellectual.

I should state at once that the above criticisms matter not a jot. Altman’s main purpose is to provide a detailed analysis of Vidal’s long and prolific career and he succeeds brilliantly in this aim. Vidal’s extraordinary productivity means that Altman has a great deal of primary material to work with, but he marshals his forty and more key texts with remarkable ease. It is a long time since I’ve experienced such clarity in a critical work of this kind; Altman has a positive but open style, which directs the reader without ever shutting out the possibility of alternative readings of the Vidal oeuvre.

By the end of the book, we realise that Altman has known Vidal for thirty years. In this context, it speaks well both of the author and his subject that Gore Vidal’s America never sails close to becoming a work of hagiography. Far from it – Altman is frequently highly critical of the esteemed author/commentator. Altman does nothing to conceal Vidal’s arrogance and vanity. He writes that his subject has both “a monstrous ego and a huge intelligence”, that he is frequently “hubristic” and that he has never lost his need to dominate any social gathering. (This trait of Vidal’s was also observed, if disingenuously, by his one time paramour Anais Nin). Amongst other criticisms, Altman also suggests that Vidal is guilty of occasional political misjudgement. Vidal’s splenetic outbursts against American Imperialism, whilst welcome, have not always been built on sure understandings. Moreover, Altman avers that Vidal’s limited grasp of racial issues represents the “greatest blindness” within his otherwise persuasive work on the politics of identity.

Whether by design or accident, the presentation of Vidal becomes more glowing as the book proceeds. This is a great relief to liberal souls like me who really want to believe in the good of Gore Vidal. Very rightly, Altman points to the intellectual and moral courage of the author, as expressed, for example, in his deconstruction of the sacred cows of American history (Lincoln, Kennedy amongst them) and his forthright condemnation of the Bush regime. Altman also praises Vidal as “a first rate historian” who has made expansive use of the historical novel and he takes great pains to recover Vidal’s reputation as a writer and humanitarian (Altman debunks thoughts of Vidal’s ‘anti-semitism’). Not surprisingly, Altman – himself an important figure in Gay activism – reserves most praise for Vidal’s contribution towards sexual politics. If some interested parties despair at the vagueness of Vidal’s “pansexual” personal credo, Altman is adamant that the author should be recognised for his positive and, again, courageous participation in sexual politics. From The City and the Pillar (1946) through to Myra Breckinridge (1968) and beyond, Vidal has suggested new approaches to the way we perceive ourselves as sexual beings. Reading Altman’s analysis, one feels quite able to accept his assertion that “Vidal said more to subvert the dominant rules on sex and gender in Myra than is contained in a shelf of queer theory treatises” (149).

I wrote earlier that Gore Vidal’s America provides an insight into “the life and work” of its subject. This is not to suggest that it is a straightforward biography. Rather, this book is a thoroughly engaged and strongly reasoned critical biography. To some extent (perhaps the best possible extent), we get to know this most inscrutable personality via his works. It is a moot point, I think, how influential Vidal’s work will prove to be; neither am I convinced that he really is, as Altman claims, the most important writer of the late 20th century. However, one leaves Gore Vidal’s America strongly convicted of the human and social need for impassioned writer/critics like Gore Vidal.

Laurie N Ede,
University of Portsmouth, UK.

Created on: Thursday, 9 November 2006

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

Laurie N. Ede is a Principal Lecturer in Film, Media and Applied Writing at the University of Portsmouth.View all posts by Laurie N. Ede →