One thing about the year 2010 is that it contains more than enough hot-button issues to go around. (photo of celebrated author Gore Vidal)
Between ongoing debates over governmental reforms, the plight of illegal immigrants, same-sex marriage, and a world economy as fragile as the Gulf Coast marshland, conversations focused on politics and sexuality have rarely been as heated as during the sweltering summer of 2010. The debates may be progress now but many elements of what they address were tackled head-on by venerable author Gore Vidal in his 1999 book, Sexually Speaking, Collected Writings.
Although the campaign slogan “You’ll Get More Gore” failed to help the celebrated author win his 1960 bid for Congress, it succeeds well as an apt description––and for some perhaps a warning––of what readers encounter in Sexually Speaking . Stamp such a title onto a book by nearly any other American author and one’s imagination might do a fair job of conjuring images likely to sigh and moan their way from one page to the next. Place that same title on a book of some fourteen essays by the ever razor-tongued Mr. Vidal and one must allow time and space for serious reconsiderations.
Ins and Outs of the Subject Game
Matters of sexuality and gender have throbbed heatedly throughout the pages of the author’s work since his classic 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar. However, equally represented in Sexually Speaking are engaging Gorian takes on the vices and virtues of politics, the highs and lows of the literary life, the illusions of sanctioned history, and disillusionment with anything resembling hope for the future.
Reading Vidal on politics and sexuality is like listening to Michael Jordan on basketball, or to Oprah Winfrey on pretty much anything. He knows the ins and outs of the subject game because he grew up immersed in it. Born the grandson of legendary Senator T.P. Gore, and the son of Eugene Vidal, a man who served as director of the Bureau of Air Commerce (under Franklin D. Roosevelt) the future writer grew up with a front-row view of major changes in the American political guard during the mid-1900s. He even came to claim some family ties to the Kennedys and in his first memoir, Palimpsest, gives a friendly nod to his “little cousin,” known to lesser mortals as former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Al Gore.
Accustomed to the workings of political power and the very human flaws of those who wield it––a theme he dearly loves and which most political leaders probably do not–– Vidal writes with as much insight and outrage as he does wit and impunity. Such scribblers are few indeed who could, or would, report as he does in the essay “Eleanor Roosevelt.” While noting that one of American history’s most revered political couples, cousins as well as man and wife, made a dynamic political partnership, he observes also that they were among the oddest of bedfellows: “For one thing, Eleanor did not like sex, as she confided in later years to her daughter. Franklin obviously did.”
Moreover, it would take the satirical audacity of William Burroughs’s ghost to propose Vidal’s idea that a certain former president and statesman plotted the creation of a certain republic––a.k.a. the United States of America–– simply to enjoy each other’s… well, company. (This author, lacking the level Mr. Vidal’s audaciousness, can only refer readers to pages 269-270 of Sexually Speaking for further details.)
Since most of the essays in this volume were published initially, starting in 1965, as book reviews for such publications as The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement (London), Vidal frequently locks literary horns with a number of other writers. One telltale clue to his approach to book reviewing can be found in the Random House Dictionary definition of his first name, Gore: “1) Blood that is shed; 2) to pierce with the horns or tusks.” In other words, pity the author who fails to meet Vidal’s own standards of literary excellence. Not only will he dismiss said writer as a closet buffoon but employ the intended review as a forum for his own considerable erudition on the subject at hand.
Notes on a Glorious Bird
One superb example is the essay, “Tennessee Williams: Someone to Laugh at the Squares With.” And laugh he does when taking on two biographies of his late great playwright friend–– “One is a straightforward biography of the sort known as journeyman; it is called The Kindness of Strangers (what else?) by Donald Spoto. The other is Tennessee: Cry of the Heart (whose heart?) by a male sob sister who works for Parade Magazine.” Whereas he acknowledge the writers’ attempts at serious biography, he also uses the occasion to set records straight, refuting charges of misogyny against Williams, and yawning at erroneous references to himself.