“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”
Last week marked the death of american author and satirist Gore Vidal. Since I have a preference for nonfiction I was exposed to Vidal through his essays, commentaries and interviews, and in my opinion he was one of the greater American novelists and satirists to emerge in the post-World War II era. Often remembered more for his harsh wit and mean-spirited one-liners than his literary works, the essence of Vidal was the dual role he played as painfully self-conscious critic and outsider while at the same time being the consummate insider.
The aspect that strikes me most about Vidal’s work and critique was how he attempted to always provide a reality check against the mythological beliefs that contemporary American culture attributed to United States’ founding fathers. Vidal’s ideal was republicanism – that is, a community rule and governed by the people – and his greatest lament was a country that abdicated their responsibility to govern themselves and allowed the country to drift into imperial ambitions, demagogues, and economic elites.
The entire American Chronicle series is a testament to that critique and vision of what the ideal of America could be compared to what it has become: Lincoln, Washington, D.C., and Empire were pleas of what Vidal thought America stood for and should strive to be. In a certain sense, through his hard-headed realism, Vidal was an idealist of a very high order.
The other side of Vidal was the very post-modern one that we can easily recognize today: that of the social critic whose primary goal is to shock and scandalize. His references and essays to homosexuality in works like “The City and the Pillar” and Sexually Speaking sound more quaint than scandelous to our 21st-century ears.
Although Vidal is neither the first writer to raise the question of America losing its way nor the only one to poke the eye of a complacent society demanding conformity and respectability at cost to individual expression, he took his issues seriously and was, as remembered in The Economist earlier this week, a man of “a dying breed.” As USA Today stated on August 2, 2012; “The world without Gore Vidal is ‘a duller place'”. Indeed!