United States: Essays, 1952-1992 – Gore Vidal

United States collects 114 essays written by Gore Vidal over the last four decades. Despite the reproduction of Jasper Johns’s forty-eight-star flag on the dust jacket, less than half of them are about politics. The rest describe books, places, and people he has known. Johnson’s Dictionary had hard words for the essay: ‘an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.’ Vidal serves the form better than that. He found his range when Eisenhower was president, and stuck to it. Most of these pieces are anchored to a discussion of some book. If it is a book he likes, Vidal provides a summary that is both detailed and interesting. He favors a bright, staccato prose, which draws its variety from the length of its sentences. Short fragments. Good for facts. These will be followed by long, elliptical tendrils of analysis or appraisal, occasionally wise, often witty, and when neither, at least … bitchy. Vidal’s model for his political and historical pieces is Henry Adams. ‘I cannot remember when I was not fascinated by Henry Adams’—a fascination based on identification, for as Vidal reminds us several dozen times, he too grew up in a political family, although admittedly one of humbler achievements. Adams’s grandfather, John Quincy, was author of the Monroe Doctrine, and sixth President. Vidal’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was one of the first two senators from Oklahoma. Adams’s father, Charles Francis, was minister to England during the Civil War. Vidal’s father, Eugene, was director of the Bureau of Air Commerce during the first Roosevelt administration. Only in the third generation does Vidal’s family nose ahead, for while Henry neither held nor sought public office, Gore has run twice for Congress (finishing second, the author’s bio notes, in the 1982 California Democratic senatorial primary). … When the Times doesn’t do the job, the moneyed interests turn to the likes of Howard Hunt, whom Vidal accuses of masterminding the shooting of George Wallace (to insure Richard Nixon’s re-election) and possibly the assassination of John F. Kennedy as well. Given Vidal’s opinion of the Kennedys, you would think he would approve of Hunt, but he evidently feels a professional rivalry. …”
The New Criterion: State of the essay?
NY Times: Two Score of Gore
Gore Vidal mastered the art of the burn.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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