Over the years Gore Vidal has spilled a lot of ink telling readers how the mass media murdered serious book culture in the United States, but he is the only living US novelist to have his own coffee table book. Snapshots in History’s Glare is a photo album of fine design and no small expense ($40.00). It is published by Abrams, the preeminent art book publisher in the US. To be sure, the fact that Vidal knew the jet set’s most beautiful people and lived in beautiful places provides ample justification. A photo album dedicated to Saul Bellow or John Updike or Philip Roth might not be so exciting to the Vanity Fair demographic.
Long-time readers of Vidal’s essays and earlier volumes of autobiography (Palimpsest  and Point to Point Navigation ) will be familiar with the narrative arc of Snapshots in History’s Glare: born to a privileged political-military family; a precocious youth spent in New Deal Washington, DC; the early splash as a very serious post-war novelist; writing for theater, TV, and Hollywood in the 1950s; a return to the novel and many decades of hard work and high living. Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, JFK, and dozens more of the famous from politics, movies, TV, and visual arts make their appearances.
The tone throughout the book clearly indicates Vidal is much preoccupied with “last things” as he makes another tour through his life. Many, if not most, of the old friends are gone: Howard Austen, Paul Newman, Johnny Carson, and Tennessee Williams. Even old TV opponents like Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr. have taken their places in the underworld. The pessimistic weltanschauung Vidal deploys is similar in range to that of Leopardi.
A Stance, Not a Program
Few US novelists have been as successful as Vidal while at the same time being defiantly and outspokenly a rationalist, an atheist, a bisexual, and supremely derisive about the two-party electoral system (even when himself descending into the fray of electoral cretinism). His career nicely illustrates the deep contradictions imperialist culture reserves for the independent-minded artist: taking a critical and contrarian stance to the most ignorant, vulgar, and hypocritically squalid aspects of life under capitalism, but embracing a merely individual, negative view of opposition, sooner or later leading to quietist cynicism.
Vidal, like most petty-bourgeois radicals of his generation (Chomsky, Mailer, Sontag, et cetera), is strongest when exposing the many crimes and base motivations behind Washington and Wall Street’s bloody rule at home and abroad. But when it comes time to give an answer to the “question of questions” that naturally arises from such criticism — “What Is to Be Done?” — all he can muster is nostrums: in response to Nixon and Reagan, Vidal could only suggest a new constitutional convention or replacement of the federal government by a parliamentary system. Tired of “perpetual war for perpetual peace”? Mourn eloquently, but don’t organize.
Vidal has been a consistent left radical in bourgeois politics since the Vietnam War. While many of his friends or fellow cultural travelers capitulated over the years and embraced Reagan, the AEI, “ending welfare as we know it,” and the theory of Islamofascism, Vidal has remained faithful to the fully justified and honest outrage he first felt when he realized what the US did around the world in the name of its people. Today Vidal still cannot but intuit the reactionary nature of U.S. imperialism from what he sees around him: it commits any crime and indulges in any lie to justify the maintenance of its exploitive rule.
Rejecting all potential for progressive mass struggle and independent labor political action, however, Vidal often succumbs to snake oil ideas ubiquitous in middle-class radical politics today: apocalyptic conspiracism and fatalism. Vidal waxes and wanes, from praising the Machiavellianism of Clinton, decrying the Bush “junta,” to finally ending up predicting that Obama’s presidency will be overturned by rightists. His Cassandra sound bites present no fighting perspective. Like Chomsky, he sees every turn of events in the world as making a fightback ever more impossible. He sees the U.S. ruling class as unbeatable, both politically and militarily.
“A Better Essayist Than a Novelist?”
Attention given to Vidal’s polemics against imperialist war, loss of democratic rights, and the “end of the republic” (which Vidal has been eulogizing for about four decades) has pushed his novels into the background, safely ignored or written off. This is unfortunate, as few novelists are as meticulous and graceful in their style, and as confident in the organization of material.
Messiah (1954) is a richly textured fantasy perfectly delineating a stultified and increasingly irrational Cold War hothouse culture. In it, a Madison Avenue pro helps create and market a pseudo-science death cult that quickly overruns the US before the real meaning of life — “more life” — is discovered. Duluth (1983) is a brief, hectic, and funny novel about everyday life in the US as it might be narrated by a Martian (or an expatriate novelist). Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), and The Golden Age (2000) tell the story of Vidal’s finest fictional creation, Caroline Sanford. From 1898 onward, she participates in everything from Hearst journalism to pre-code Hollywood to the Cold War. Along the way she meets such Vidal touchstones as Henry Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt. The power and drama of these novels, and the faultless unity they attain in following the growth and triumph of a single character, give them a matchless authority. Vidal’s novels embrace the contradictions history imposes on characters (real and invented) who have a sense — like their creator — that they inhabit history and are being judged accordingly.
The theory that Vidal’s essays are superior to his fiction is a too clever pose among reviewers eager to question the validity of everything Vidal writes. Certainly many of his essays (one on Tennessee Williams, another on the French New Novelists, two on Italo Calvino) are intelligent and provocative, a spur to the reader. But most of his political essays, especially those that reviewers particularly praise in order to damn his novels, are bitterly small-minded. Though larded with amusing anecdotes and acerbic bon mots, they never rise above the level of contrarian nay-saying.
Speaking truth to power is only the beginning of knowledge. For a Marxist even the cleverest castigations and send-ups of the two-party system or the national security state or the neo-cons will not serve. A mordantly skeptical bourgeois radicalism can lead to a Tea Party as easily as to a vote for John Kerry or Barack Obama. The social function of such a stance, ultimately, is to discourage any serious considerations of independent working-class political action. Vidal knows the rich run the world; after all, he went to school with a few of them. But sarcasm alternating with reformist vote-mongering hardly answers the damning bill of particulars Vidal himself lays at the feet of this ruling class. To the extent Vidal has ever given a thought to the toiling majority of humanity, it is to see it as an undifferentiated mass of complacent and somnolent consumers forever doomed to be tricked by those smarter than themselves.
Artists need not be held to account for their politics alone. The contradictions of bourgeois politics and culture confronting an artistic avant-garde that has never enjoyed the tutelage of a politically ascendant and mobilized proletariat typically produces authors with a far lower level of historical imagination and political consciousness than Vidal. Happily, his youth among the Washington, DC potentates and an early reverence for the most exacting of bourgeois novelists (Henry James, Thomas Mann) made for fertile ground, and the glare of history has done the rest.
Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio. His blog is Marxist Update. He is on Facebook.