Icon of the Left, Warts and All

Gore Vidal—ambivalent, defiant, and genuinely radical

Gore Vidal seduced me when I was just a youth. We were in the paperback book section of the now-defunct department store E.J. Korvette’s, and he, or rather his alter-ego, a transsexual avenger named Myra Breckinridge, got me hot and bothered with her clinical account of stripping and strap-on riding an all-American straight boy called Rusty.

I bought “Myra” and took her home, and realized that, hey, there was something politically subversive about this conquering of the heterosexual male. “Myra Breckinridge” was the first of Vidal’s creations I encountered, but hardly the last. Over the next few decades I’d find much enjoyment, instruction, and transgressive thrills in his novels, essays, and public interventions.

But our relationship had its rough spots, especially as I got older, read more widely about politics, and became politically active. It’s not that I ceased to admire him or to learn from him. When I was beginning to come to grips with my sexuality, I saw Vidal as a hero, a public figure who apparently was homosexual and yet shattered the stereotypical image of homosexuals as effeminate weaklings that I had grown up with. But why didn’t he just come out and say he was gay, why this “everybody really is—or should be—bisexual” routine, which struck me as coy and disingenuous?

Even more off-putting was Vidal’s WASP hauteur, and his proprietary attitude towards the United States, as if he and others of his class and ethnicity owned America, and therefore were most qualified to save it from itself. And why did he say so little about race and racism, which should be at the heart of any radical critique of America?

Vidal recently turned 80, and although age has slowed him down a bit, it hasn’t dimmed his contrarian spirit, or his rage against the nation he loves but doesn’t much like. In this dire age of Bush, he has been an unremittingly fierce polemicist against the president and his policies. For many on the left, he is something of a patron saint.

And that’s a problem. Too much liberal and leftist commentary about Vidal has been celebratory, even hagiographic. So Dennis Altman’s new book, “Gore Vidal’s America,” is particularly welcome for its warts-and-all treatment of the great man’s life and work. Altman’s book is unique in being a critical assessment of Vidal by a writer who, like his subject, is left-wing and homosexual, and who also has made major contributions to the literature on (homo)sexuality, sexual politics, and social change.

Altman established himself as a leading theorist of gay liberation in the 70s, with such landmark titles as “Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation” and “Coming Out in the Seventies.” During the 1980s, he wrote about the convergence of gay and straight experience in the United States in “The Homosexualization of America: The Americanization of the Homosexual” and AIDS in “AIDS in the Mind of America.” An Australian, he brings a valuable outsider’s perspective to his treatment of Vidal as an American literary and political figure.

Altman goes light on biographical detail, deferring to Fred Kaplan’s “exhaustively” thorough life of Vidal published in 2000. He focuses on Vidal as an author and public figure whose work constitutes “a half-century meditation on sex, religion, power, and above all the nature of the United States.”

Vidal’s longtime refusal to identify as gay or homosexual originally was a strategic choice, according to Altman. He wanted to be taken seriously “as a mainstream writer, not confined to a particular niche.” Vidal instead insisted on a supposedly universal bisexual potential in humans, while working gay references and themes into his writing.

Had Vidal publicly identified himself as gay, he would have been pigeonholed as a special-pleading spokesman for an unpopular minority. This stance may seem retrograde today. But given the repression of any public discussion of homosexuality when Vidal was a young man, not to mention the marginal status of homosexuals in America, Altman finds Vidal’s “determination to neither deny nor be defined by his sexuality… remarkable for his time.”

Altman observes that in publishing a gay novel, “The City and the Pillar,” and a gay-themed short story collection, “A Thirsty Evil,” in 1948 and 1956 respectively, Vidal demonstrated greater bravery than today’s public figures who acknowledge their gayness in a more tolerant society.

But Vidal still maintains, if less insistently, that “homosexual” refers to behavior, not social identity. This has led to absurdities, as when in an essay—not mentioned by Altman—he chided his friend Christopher Isherwood for speaking of “gay culture” as if it actually existed. Since there were no gay people, there could be no gay culture, according to Vidal. Given the unmistakable evidence of gay culture—or rather, many gay cultures—in the sense of both artistic creation and a social group’s shared purposes and meanings, Vidal’s clinging to this notion is just silly, even willfully obtuse.

Altman’s assessment of Vidal’s sexual politics as a “mixture of ambivalence, defiance, and genuine radicalism” seems just right to me.

Vidal, observes Altman, has always opposed the American romanticization of war and violence, connecting both to a style of masculinity embodied in the iconic figure of John Wayne, the mucho macho Hollywood star who, unlike Vidal, never actually served in the military. In the author’s writings there is “a clear connection” to the feminist critique “that links masculine dominance and political repression.”

Altman notes that the U.S. tolerates self-criticism only when “it ultimately re-affirms the American Dream.” Vidal not only has refused to affirm that ideological construct but has savagely criticized it, in his fiction, essays, and public appearances.

But the frequent charge made by conservatives that Vidal is “anti-American” is ridiculous, and Altman demolishes it: the very term is “largely nonsense, usually applied not against those who would destroy the United States but rather against those who are motivated by patriotism to re-make it.” Vidal indisputably belongs to the latter camp.

Altman charts Vidal’s increasing radicalization at the end of the 20th century, but, while agreeing with him on key points, such as the absurdity of the idea of a “war on terror,” he also regards Vidal’s analysis as sometimes simplistic and flawed. He criticizes Vidal for his “reduction of power in the United States to a simple equation of wealth and political power,” and for slighting the impact of mass movements, such as the Civil Rights struggle, on American society and politics.

Altman acknowledges that Vidal has managed to bring leftist analysis to such inhospitable environments as prime time television. But he faults Vidal for lacking a “sociological imagination,” that is, an understanding of social structure and “the ways in which individual choices are limited and conditioned by social conditions.”

Vidal’s writings on class, Altman notes, lack “any coherent analysis of what class means and how it affects political behavior.”

Though Altman says that Vidal’s views on American power and foreign policy can be simplistic, he shares Vidal’s concern with American imperialism and its consequences, including perpetual military intervention abroad and the erosion of democracy and constitutional rights at home. And as Altman points out, Vidal’s critique, which to some seems overstated, is shared by many “experts in international relations, within and outside the United States.”

But the Australian Altman believes that Vidal’s emphasis on American power as determining virtually everything that happens around the globe makes him as “America-centric as any of the neo-conservative ideologues he despises.”

America is not omnipotent or even close to it; there are limits to its power and its ability to impose its will on other countries, as the continuing disaster in Iraq demonstrates.

Altman further claims that Vidal ignores the “mix of ideological self-serving and genuine idealism that underlines much of American foreign policy.”

I agree. The notion that the U.S. can and should bring “democracy” and “freedom” to other societies can seem a cynical cover for the real aim, the securing of American global hegemony. But even if it is a myth in the sense of a self-serving fiction, the myth would have no power if at least some didn’t believe it. This idealism can be even more dangerous than cynical realpolitik. American administrations’ belief in the righteousness of their causes, whether waging war to prevent “falling dominoes” in Southeast Asia or to eliminate “Islamofascism,” has produced disaster for the targets of American Messianism, and for us as well. It’s hard to argue with Altman’s observation that a leftist critique should “take the ideological framework of American policymakers seriously, rather than dismissing it as mere cover-up.”

Altman acquits Vidal of the recurring charge of anti-Semitism, noting that his criticism of Israeli policy and of Jewish American neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, while often ferocious—and, though Altman doesn’t say so, frequently hilarious—does not shade into an anti-Jewish animus.

Altman does, however, reproach Vidal for lacking “a great deal of empathy for those oppressed due to race or ethnicity,” while also noting “an almost total absence of non-Europeans from his vision of America.” In his fiction, Vidal’s “patrician satirical tone strikes a wrong chord when it comes to racial issues.” Vidal has denounced racism, but as Altman notes, never with the “passion and specificity” of his other critiques. I’d add to that Vidal’s failure to recognize how inequality and poverty have been and continue to be racialized in the U.S., as Hurricane Katrina recently laid bare.

Vidal’s shortcomings and blind spots notwithstanding, his stature as a public intellectual, as a historical novelist, essayist, and creator of subversive, postmodern “inventions”—novels such as “Myra Breckinridge,” “Duluth,” and “Live from Golgotha”—is unequaled. Whether he “identifies” as gay or not, he is our ruthless and unfailingly witty deflator of American sexual hypocrisy. Dennis Altman’s book gives us the measure of the man, making it invaluable for anyone interested in this towering figure of American letters and life.