So passes perhaps America’s last great man of letters, Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. Novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, actor, and social critic; Gore Vidal has been an unmistakable, unforgettable voice in American culture since the late 1940s.
Scion of two wealthy and rather aristocratic families (his maternal grandfather was a U.S. senator, and his father was one of the founders of the American civil aeronautics industry), Vidal was groomed for a life in politics, as part of the patrician ruling class.
He chose instead, in his own words, the role of a populist. He came out as openly bisexual in the 1950s (pause for a moment and reflect on the bravery of that; in that time, in that place). The doors of power effectively closed to him, he dedicated himself to writing. His books included Lincoln and Empire, and his screenwriting credits include Ben Hur and Caligula.
But it was his career as an essayist, which led to a lasting reputation as a commentator and political critic, for which he’s probably best known and will certainly be best remembered. His political positions were doubtlessly populist, just as he claimed – yet articulated in a strikingly patrician, maybe even eastern elitist, voice.
And oh, could he articulate. Agree with his positions or not, one had to recognize and salute his intelligence and his knack for oratory. He never spoke down to his audience, never pulled his punches, never missed a chance to speak his mind. His televised debates in the ’60s versus his conservative nemesis William F. Buckley remain legendary, and still make for fascinating viewing.
That directness, that brashness, coupled with that cutting intelligence, is precisly why there’ll never be another Gore Vidal. A mind like his belongs to another era. This century will produce no one like him.
He leaves behind, thankfully, a body of remarkable work. So now, even though he’s gone, would you like to get to know Gore Vidal? Read his books. Read them all. And in them enjoy a mind and talent the likes of which will never come again.