The Latest Salvo From Gore Vidal, The Last Of The Great Wits:
April 24, 2002 7:53 AM   Subscribe

The Latest Salvo From Gore Vidal, The Last Of The Great Wits: He's a tremendous snob, infuriatingly opinionated and sets out to upset all and sundry, left, right and centre. But Gore Vidal is still the meanest, fastest wit in the West. Harry Kloman runs a magnificent fan site, bursting with goodies and verbal violence which is an education in itself. Or, for a contrarian view, check out rival wit John Simon's demolition job. But come on - can anyone compete with the Master? Christopher Hitchens? Fran Lebowitz? James Woolcott? Clive James? I think not.
posted by MiguelCardoso (29 comments total)
Who else could have written this post?
posted by y2karl at 7:59 AM on April 24, 2002

Vidal's historical fiction: Burr, Lincoln, Empire, etc. is exhaustively researched, insightful, witty, and always relevant. Having read one (I forget with which I started) I consumed them all within a two week period, furiously turning the pages, learning more and more about the American experiment. The rest of his work never interested me.
posted by gnz2001 at 8:38 AM on April 24, 2002

I very much enjoyed the twisted Hollywood satire that is Myra Breckenridge.
posted by muckster at 9:19 AM on April 24, 2002

Up until about "Lincoln" (a piece of total hackwork), Vidal has been an absolute genius (avoid at all costs anything recent). And if you really want to read some brilliant writing, check out his more obscure works like "Judgement of Paris". His essays (collected in "America") might form, along with those of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and a few others, the core of an outstanding education in literature -- better than you'd find in 98 percent of our universities. However, they man's political essays have always been totally bananas. The subtlety, insight and restraint of his literary judgements is abandoned in his political commentary for paranoid ramblings. To measure the irrelevancy of his political thought, just go back over the past 35 years or so of his annual "State of America"-type essays he used to do for Esquire magazine. He's been predicting an apocalypse of one type or another for the US for ages - especially an apocalypse of rights. But in fact, over the past 30 years, American has simply grown freer and freer. Our rights have expanded tremendously, and just about everything else that Vidal has warned about has gotten better, rather than worse. But that's okay. No writer has it all together. Tom Wolfe has a much clearer view of America, and what he calls the "happiness explosion" we've experienced over the past 40 years or so -- but Wolfe isn't in Vidal's league as a litterateur. "Williwaw" the Edgar Box mysteries -- more Vidal brilliance.
posted by Faze at 9:26 AM on April 24, 2002

Ai-yi-yi -- I meant to say (above) that Vidal's essays are collected in the volume called "United States". (How could I ever mistake that for "America"?)
posted by Faze at 9:30 AM on April 24, 2002

The American legacy books are outstanding, as is the Roman stuff. If you haven't read it however, Kalki is a terrific, brilliant change of pace: Vidal does apocalyptic cult drama. He's wonderful.

There's a great Salon interview from 1998 here.
posted by Marquis at 9:40 AM on April 24, 2002

And just one more thing: Vidal is always snootily correcting people in the popular media for misusing language (check out the first paragraph here), but it appears to me that he uses the phrase "begs the question" wrongly in piece linked to by Miguelcardoso. Vidal confuses the meaning of the phrase "begs the question" as if it meant "suggests the further question." A vulgar error. Which suggests the further question: Is Vidal even writing his own pieces anymore? The man is quite old.
posted by Faze at 9:51 AM on April 24, 2002

But in fact, over the past 30 years, American has simply grown freer and freer.

Um, Faze? Bullshit: 30 years ago, if you got pulled over by a state cop, he'd need a search warrant to open your trunk--just one of many examples brought to you and me courtesy of the war on drugs. What planet are you from and what have you been smoking? Just don't carry it outside of your house--or you'll be in deep...

Creation has its moments as well. I must say that I agree with Gore on all points in the link above. And he's dead on about Clinton's largely unpublicized war on the Bill of Rights.
posted by y2karl at 9:54 AM on April 24, 2002

Have to agree with y2karl, tougher drug laws, drinking laws, copyright laws, gun laws (though not everywhere), smoking laws, and expanding digital surveilance, and America is freer? Hardly.
posted by bobo123 at 10:02 AM on April 24, 2002

I very much enjoyed the twisted Hollywood satire that is Myra Breckenridge.

Please tell me you're talking about the book and not the movie.
posted by aaron at 10:05 AM on April 24, 2002

John Simon--yes, I remember when he went after SchlockEmpress Jackie Susann on the David Frost Show. At one point he suggested she wore dentures and started baiting her with "Shall we call you Jackie "Gums" Susann?" What a class act, what a man of stature.
posted by y2karl at 10:06 AM on April 24, 2002

I always get him mixed up with Vidal Sassoon.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:22 AM on April 24, 2002

I think Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker could have given old Gore a run for his money in the devestatingly clever wit department, don't you, Miguel? I noticed you called him the last of the great wits - who are the others on your list?
posted by iconomy at 10:25 AM on April 24, 2002

freer and freer... and freer... and freer... and freer...

Now, Faze, care to back up that assertion up there?
posted by y2karl at 10:32 AM on April 24, 2002

Of course the road to greater freedom has not been a straight line, Y2Karl and Bobo123. However, freedom of expression has expanded enormously over the past 40 years -- you can say just about anything anywhere these days. Children are free to speak and dress as they like in public schools. The internet has introduced a whole new category of individual freedom beyond the wildest dreams of Jefferson. Homosexuality is wide open and accepted by the mainstream. Individual marijuana use is virtually legal. I can't believe that anyone who is alive today who was alive 40 years ago would say that we haven't lost a thousand shackles -- legal and societal -- over that period. Ask an African-American if he or she feels more free today than in 1963. Vidal's "we are on the brink of catastrophe" rhetoric just hasn't panned out. (By the way, his Roman novels ARE spectacular. Don't miss "Julian" about Julian the Apostate who tried to rub out Christianity and re-establish the old gods.)
posted by Faze at 10:34 AM on April 24, 2002

You really have to appreciate Vidal "live" -- I've been lucky enough to hear him lecture twice, once in DC and once in the New York Public Library.
Well, listening to Vidal is even better than reading his essays.
I do like his non-historical fiction (Williwaw, City and the Pillar), the theater is very good, I'm a fan of Lincoln, but it's his essays and Palimpsest are really amazing, amazing stuff -- it's hard to name another American intellectual like Vidal since Edmund Wilson's death 30 years ago
Oh, and Americans have to thank him for discovering Italo Calvino, who was basically unknwon in the US before Vidal began reviewing his books -- he's got this amazing taste for great literature. And it was Vidal who reintroduced Paul Bowles to the American public as well
I'm Italian and I consider it a privilege that il maestro chose to live for six months a year in my country
I just wish he won the Democratic primaries for Senate in California and the general election when he ran in '82 -- I mean, imagine him on the Senate floor, making fun of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond in that unique Vidal style
Well, we'll just have to watch him as a Senator in "Bob Roberts".
posted by matteo at 10:39 AM on April 24, 2002

(Freedom continued...) Abortion is legal, women enjoy legal freedoms unheard of a generation earlier. We're so free today that the 9-11 terrorists were able to plan and train for and execute their whole plot in the clear light of day. Of course someone, especially someone in government, is always looking to take freedom away. It's an ongoing struggle (as in your links, y2karl). But the trend over the period of time in which Vidal has been predicting doom, has been toward greater freedom from government interference in private lives. And long may it continue.
posted by Faze at 10:47 AM on April 24, 2002

(soft, female voice)

"gentleman, 2 minutes until interzone"

Vidal: "Bill, when are you going to write something worthwhile"

Burroughs: "hit the red button ...I will when you you get off this Lincoln kick"

Vidal: "well, i'm considering a run for the senate..."

Burroughs: "no senators where we are going Gore"

Vidal: " No, in the states..."

Burroughs: "...then pin this on...."

Vidal: "Wilkie huh"

Burroughs: "wheres that sense of humor"

Vidal: "right along side your sense of timing"

(both laugh)
posted by clavdivs at 11:07 AM on April 24, 2002

posted by clavdivs at 11:07 AM on April 24, 2002

Gore is getting to be too much like a Chomsky with humor.
Best moment: on TV in a bout with Norm Mailer.
posted by Postroad at 11:15 AM on April 24, 2002

Individual marijuana use is virtually legal.

Bullshit! Yeah, and if you're in college on a student loan and get busted? Test positive in a urine test for a job?Three words: Zero Tolerance Policy. Not to mention the dozens of encroachments you chose to overlook and ignore in the links provided.

Clarence Thomas is on the Supreme Court now, not Thurgood Marshall. That should be a clue. It's not the 70s anymore, Faze--get a grip--the pendulum's been swinging back for nearly thirty years now, Pollyanna.
posted by y2karl at 12:01 PM on April 24, 2002

We're so free today that the 9-11 terrorists were able to plan and train for and execute their whole plot in the clear light of day.

I'm curious about what it is about 1950 that would have stopped them?
posted by vbfg at 12:48 PM on April 24, 2002

Probably the police, vbfg, who would have racially profiled them on the basis of having seen Bing Crosby and Bob Hope "Road" movies set in the Middle East, where Arabs and Moslems were caricatured as wild-eyed, scimitar-swinging manics. "Hey, there's a couple a them A-rabs. Bet they're fixin' to do somethin' crazy. Pull 'em over."
posted by Faze at 1:13 PM on April 24, 2002

Children are free to speak and dress as they like in public schools.

Unless they want to express their religion, or dye their hair, or wear a trenchcoat, or even be anti-social.

The schools are just one example. We are more free today? Societal constraints are different then goverment restraints, unless they manifest themselves in the state, the way they do today. Today, we have dozens of government agencies vying to tell us what to do, and moralists on the Left and the Right trying to be in control of these agencies. We have the EPA trying to tell us how much water we can flush our toilets with, and we have the FDA, ATF, DEA, and FBI forcing us to use only the drugs which they 'approve' of.
posted by insomnyuk at 1:15 PM on April 24, 2002

I think I'm going to tip-toe out of this thread before someone calls "Dog pile on Pollyanna!"
posted by Faze at 1:44 PM on April 24, 2002

posted by ed at 4:36 PM on April 24, 2002

"Creation" is my favorite Vidal work, "Live from Golgotha" is pretty good, if a little overwrought.

Vidal holds the distinction of having caused William F. Buckley to spectacularly lose his cool during a series of head to head television commentaries during the 1968 party conventions.

At the Aug. 22 debate in Chicago - the penultimate encounter in the series, with an estimated 10 million people watching - things began with relative calm. But it didn’t stay that way, and before long the men began exchanging words that one simply didn’t hear on TV at that time. Vidal called Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi," a modest slip of the tongue, he later said, because he was searching for the word "fascist" and it just didn't come out. Inflamed by the word "Nazi" and the whole tenor of the discussion, Buckley snapped: "Now listen, you queer," he said, "stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in you goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered." (moderator) Smith attempted to calm the exchange with "gentlemen, let's not call names," but the damage had been done. The two men, considerably subdued, met the following night for the last of their week of debates.
posted by Ty Webb at 9:54 PM on April 24, 2002

At the Aug. 22 (1968) debate in Chicago

I was about 14 at the time, and I remember it. I had no clue as to what a liberal or a conservative was (I was aware that outside the convention, kids not much older than me were getting their heads knocked in by the Chicago PD, however) but I knew a good fight when I saw one. As I recall, my mom turned off the TV after the "f" word utterance.
posted by groundhog at 1:33 PM on April 25, 2002

Err, "q" word, that is.
posted by groundhog at 1:34 PM on April 25, 2002

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