It has been fascinating watching reactions to Gore Vidal's death, because his is a career that will resist short and immediate summary. There are those, like my friend Michael Goldfarb, who lamented the way, in his words, Vidal 'went up his own arse' late in his career, and many others noted that he had not really fulfilled the promise of his talent, and similarly blamed it on a louche sort of self-indulgence. There were those who had always disliked his politics, particularly as they smacked of a kind of class-treason, and because Vidal was so capable of expressing his views with dismissive venom for those who disagreed.
I can sympathise with those who feel Vidal at some point stopped being a man of letters and started playing one on TV, but it's going too far to call him a dilettante. Man of letters is an apt description, and the problem is more that our society no longer has a place for men (or women) of letters, in the old sense, and instead has given their public platform to cable TV shouters and standup comedians, while reserving their intellectual platform for academics and privileged journalists.
Vidal came of age as a man of letters in a time when novelists were still figures of public profile, but also at a time when television was beginning to erode their standing. We can see in the clips of his famous TV encounter with Norman Mailer (and even those with William Buckley, though Buckley was far more the 'privileged journalist' than man of letters) the seeds of Vidal's self-reduction: he's put down by Dick Cavett, who's far more instinctive and comfortable with the situation. Vidal learned, but very quickly he (and Mailer, the more relentless self-promoter) were relegated to the fringes. Vidal and John Kennedy, related by multiple marriages, are a good match in the analysis of such considerations: Kennedy transformed our politics and got us Reagan (and Obama, in that sense) and pushed many of the figures of old-style machine politics out the back-doors of their smoky back rooms.
Like Truman Capote, Gore courted celebrity, but he was a far more prolific and active writer. As an aside, it's fascinating that Capote's best book, like Mailer's, is in the 'non-fiction novel' category; what they were doing was writing contemporary historical novels, where Vidal's best books were traditional historical novels, and he confined his contemporary work to straightforward non-fiction and broad, and less successful, satires.
The traditional historical novels were his best books, Julian, and four of his American (or Narratives Of Empire) septet (including his the earlier political novel Washington DC) Burr, 1876, Lincoln, and Empire. I'd suggest Burr is the best of the six, because, as with Julian, Vidal works with a central character who is strong enough to overcome his own voice and push his own persona to the background, while still containing it. Lincoln may be the most interesting, because despite his evident desire to deflate the Lincoln myth he still can't help but be impressed with the man himself. These books made such a mark in good part because their re-interpretation of history was both factual and understated—with considerable sympathy for history's failed heroes, and with a perspective that still isn't being taught in American schools. His later efforts, like Live From Golgotha, or Hollywood in the Empire series, tried too hard to be shocking, too much in thrall to their own revealing of emperors and their new clothes, though Creation, which I enjoyed greatly, despite its treading much of the same ground as Julian with early Christianity, was entertaining in its audacious ultimate conspiracy theory, a sort of shaggy-dog finish to a novel worthy of Vonnegut.
Vidal's reputation was originally based on the scandal of his 'coming-out' novel, The City And The Pillar, though his first, Williwaw, a World War II novel is more interesting precisely because its so different in style, somewhat Hemingway-esque, from virtually all that followed. After that book, he preferred, it seemed, to approach sexuality as a side issue, or to have great fun with it, as in Myra Breckinridge. He also wrote mysteries, as Edgar Box, and I have to confess that I've never read any of them. My standards in crime fiction are rather different from the kind of thing I assumed Vidal might write, though I should probably give him the chance to prove me wrong.
Vidal was astute as a social critic, but perhaps weakened by his natural artistocratic hauteur. He made much of his run for Congress in 1960, where he ran ahead of Kennedy's Presidential vote, but he knew he was never going to actually win the election in staunchly conservative Duchess County, NY--I think he secretly longed to be the sort of imperial president he saw Franklin Roosevelt as having been, and indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt was a major backer of his campaign. It was probably a more serious effort than Mailer's famous run for mayor of New York. Vidal understood the power of what might be called 'meta-politics', the entrenched interests for whom government becomes merely a tool, and he understood it both from personal experience and also from study of it historically—control of resources and trade was just as important for the Romans as it is today. Even in death he was roasted for his willingness to consider, and promote, 'conspiracy theories', which he sometimes seemed to be doing simply to get his audience to consider the possibilities. Evidently, he had been doing this since his school days: Vidal is supposedly the basis for the character Brinker Hadley in the novel A Separate Peace, written by his Exeter classmate John Knowles. One of my favourite Vidal pieces was an essay in the New York Review of Books some 40 years ago, in which he 'proved' to my satisfaction that the Watergate burglar and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt had in fact written the diaries of Arthur Bremer, whose wounding of George Wallace put Wallace out of the 1972 Presidential race, where he might well have siphoned considerable votes away from Hunt's employer Richard Nixon.
He proved it with literary analysis, something he did very well, and something which especially in recent years I found very interesting. Another of his most impressive essays was a long re-evaluation, again in the NYRB, of William Dean Howells. And it occurred to me when reading it, and more recently when trying to get back into Howells, that Vidal's championing of his talents lay as much in self-awareness as in retrospective championing. Howells, of course, was known in his time as The Dean Of American Letters, and as both editor and writer was a campaigning journalist and astute literary critic. He also championed the fiction of realism—as any students who have read The Rise Of Silas Latham, which is really the only one of his novels still in currency, will know. Howells wrote humour and farces, indeed some satire, and it was hard for me when reading the essay not to think that perhaps Vidal saw himself in Howells, and saw his fate to be remembered for one, or maybe a few, novels of historical realism. It also occurred to me how much different his career would have been in the 19th century, where his status among society would have precluded his need to chase celebrity. I wonder whether, a century from now (assuming people are still reading), Burr or Lincoln will be read, whether they will be texts set in history classes, exist to be read solely in American Studies classes as artefacts, or whether it will be only Vidal's bitchy TV videos that will be available to a new generation. Yesterday I watched Vidal narrate a documentary on the growth of the National Security State, and realised how different Washington had become for him since his youth. It made me realise how much I had enjoyed his work, and how much I had learned from it. All the self-indulging egotism in the world can't take that away.