Our book today is Gore Vidal’s 1973 essay collection Homage to Daniel Shays, containing high-point pieces from 1952 to 1972, spanning subjects from literature to cinema to theater to politics, presented in chronological order. The old Vintage paperback I’ve had for years is 450 pages long, which is a whole hell of a lot more hospitable than the wrist-straining 1100 pages of Vidal’s surpassing masterpiece United States. I’ve praised that latter volume as one of the 20th century’s greatest works of nonfiction (although it occurs to me I’ve never posted the whole 50-item list here at Stevereads), but as a certain Dutch humanist well knew, sometimes we need a psalter in the field even more immediately – and more personally – than we need the big Bible back at home. You can carry Homage to Daniel Shays around in your pocket, and you should.
Vidal considered himself a multi-form genius, a Renaissance man capable of brilliant performance in almost any kind of endeavor. He was disastrously wrong, of course: his plays are almost unactably preachy, his novels are ill-disguised (and often ill-digested) history lectures, his screenplays are embarrassingly lachrymose, and his forays into actual politics exuded a dangerously Borgia-esque self-delusion that would make any sane person seek the good old-fashioned self-interest of a Johnson, or a Bush.
But as an occasional essayist, he was brilliant. And as a literary journalist, writing up long, discursive pieces for Commentary or The New York Review of Books or Esquire (pieces that were supposed to be book reviews but inevitably ended up being much more), he was unsurpassed in his century.
True, he has his hobby-horses, but any consistently good public writer will have those; they constitute a signature and are to be treasured in equal measure as they’re lamented. If you read Homage to Daniel Shays with an evaluative squint, you can watch these writer-tics slowly worming their way right to the center of the apple (the collection’s idiotically sensationalistic title is a good tip-off). Vidal’s besetting hobby-horse was his megalomania, and it’s a bit disconcerting to see it in embryo even half a century ago. In his famous essay on the writers of the 1940s, there’s more than a hint of self-regard (which, for Vidal, is always mixed with self-pity):
On a social level, the hostility shown these essential artists is more important than their occasional worldly successes, for it is traditional that he who attempts to define man’s condition demoralizes the majority, whether relativist or absolute. We do not want ever to hear that we will all die but that first we must live; and those ways of living which are the fullest, the most intense, are the very ones which social man traditionally dreads, summoning all his superstition and malice to combat strangers and lovers, the eternal victims.
But reading Vidal – and especially reading as taut and snapping a collection as Homage to Daniel Shays – with this kind of evaluative squint is just plain wrong. Not only are you thereby blinding yourself to the full register of what our essential artist is doing, you’re depriving yourself of the wonderful sharpness of his wit – a quality that was never more obvious or brought to higher pitch than when he was using it to estimate the worth of wits that equaled it. Vidal could be an unforgiving colleague; in prose as in life, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. When Mary McCarthy wrote a scathing review of Tennessee Williams’ absurd play A Streetcar Named Desire, Vidal was outraged. But when it comes time to assess McCarthy’s theater criticism as a whole (that criticism forms a briskly bracing little book we’ll get to in the fullness of time here at Stevereads), he’s not only fair but happily quotable:
But aside from Miss McCarthy’s forty whacks at [Tennessee] Williams, when I finally came to read her collected criticism I was struck by her remarkable good sense. Uncorrupted by compassion, her rather governnessy severity, even cruelty, derives from the useful knowledge that the road to kitsch is paved with good intentions, and that one must not give the “A” for ambition without also giving simultaneously the “E” for the thing poorly effected. The theater needs continual reminders that there is nothing more debasing than the work of those who do well what is not worth doing at all.
Naturally, Homage to Daniel Shays includes pieces on the Kennedys. How could it not? Their very existence in the realm of politics fundamentally upset Vidal’s preconceived role as youthful denouncer of the musty exclusivity of the halls of power. If you’ve gained a large measure of your notoriety at Georgetown parties by being the best-looking anti-Eisenhower in the room, it’s a bitter turn of events when a better-looking anti-Eisenhower gets elected lord of all Georgetown parties. Vidal took that bitter pill, wrapped it (poorly) in civic concern, and tried for thirty years to force it down his readers’ throats, with no success whatsoever. But in the attempt, Vidal’s unmatched eye for detail caught moments and currents that deserved preservation, as painful as they are to read today:
As Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges (at sixty-two the oldest member of the Cabinet) remarked, “There I was a few months ago, thinking my life was over. I’d retired to a college town. Now … well, that fellow in there” (he indicated the President’s office) “he calls me in the morning, calls me at noon, calls me at night: Why don’t we try this? Have you considered that? Then to top it all he just now asks me: Where do you get your suits from? I tell you I’m a young man again.”
As with most public pundits who overestimate themselves sufficiently to write about politics (as the aforementioned Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t should shut the fuck up”), Vidal was never better than when writing about literature. Here as everywhere else in his writings, he was the voice of enlightened conservatism, the holder of standards, the champion of “the thing done right.” He was too much the craftsman ever to agree with the young writer’s disdain of craft (however, eh, personally pleasing he might find the young writer himself), and he was too much the traditionalist not to agree in spirit with Norman Podhoretz’s famous gripe, “A feeling of dissatisfaction and impatience, irritation and boredom with contemporary serious fiction is very widespread.” (He might have added, in that dry patrician tone of his, “of course when Norman says that, he means he’s impatient and bored,” but what difference would that make? In this, Podhoretz was a pure weather-vane: brainless and accurate).
Hence if the avant-garde ever looked to Vidal as the most promising of the older literary lions on the scene, they were sorely disappointed to encounter after all an unapologetic purist:
No doubt there are those who regard the contradictions in [the charlatan Alain] Robbe-Grillet’s critical writing as the point to them – rather in the way that the boredom of certain plays or the incompetence of certain pictures are, we are assured, their achievement. Yet it is worrisome to be told that a man can create a world from nothing when that is the one thing he cannot begin to do, simply because, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot dispose of himself. Even if what he writes is no more than nouns and adjectives, who and what he is will subconsciously dictate order. Nothing human is random …
United States is the gigantic banquet of which Homage to Daniel Shays is the exquisite sampler; here are all the strengths of Vidal the essayist with almost none of the weaknesses that began to creep to the forefront of his work in the late 1970s, as biting turned to gnawing and acid turned to acid reflux. The kind of death Vidal should have had – in an expensive hotel room, atop Bret Easton Ellis, after a glorious PEN/Faulkner speech, in 1990 (with United States to then be the posthumous volume it was so obviously meant to be) – has eluded him (only truly lucky bastards get what they deserve), and despite the counter-example of Vidal’s eerily sedate doppelganger Louis Auchincloss, all work must eventually decline. But we’ll always have these magnificent words, and it seems only fitting to let them have center-stage at the end:
Affluence, publicity, power, can these things be said to “corrupt” the artist? In themselves, no. Or as Ernest Hemingway nicely put it: “Every whore finds his vocation.” Certainly it is romantic melodrama to believe that publicity in itself destroys the artist. Too many writers of the first rank have been devoted self-publicists (Frost, Pound, Yeats), perfectly able to do their work quite unaffected by a machine they knew how to run. Toughness is all.