Definition–“essay”: “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretive.” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language)
Crossword puzzle clue–“opinion piece”; answer–“essay.”
[Note: I’ve been writing essays since I was a youngster, and, along the way, I’ve spent time with books by writers who are acknowledged masters of the essay form, like Charles Lamb (AKA “Elia”); and Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, most of whose “essays,” at least in the volume I owned, were long reviews of books that I had not read.
As I got older, the need to write essays grew. There is no question that I enjoyed working with the essay form, thanks to “encouragement” from a bunch of experienced English and History teachers who required that I write “book reviews” and “term papers,” which were of course “essays.”
When I eventually became a teacher, first as a TA at My Old Graduate School (MOGS) and, later, as a member of the high school History faculty at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), I insisted that my students learn to write essays as a means of conveying information about historical topics in an organized, thoughtful, and persuasive way.
How dedicated was I to teaching my students to write essays? In a course I developed at AFPS, “Introduction to History,” an elective for 9th and 10th-graders, my charges spent more time learning to write essays than memorizing historical “trivia”; in my AP U.S. and European history classes, I also emphasized the essay (both the documents-based question [DBQ] and the “standard” one) rather than bombard my students with a steady diet of multiple-choice (or, as I called them, “multiple-guess”) questions.
When I began teaching at AFPS, one of the first supplementary works I used with my senior American History students (both AP and “Regular”) was Gore Vidal’s novel Burr, because I thought Vidal’s cynical–and, to my students, counterintuitive–view of the Founding Fathers, as seen through the eyes of Aaron Burr, would challenge their preconceptions. And it did!
I also read several of Vidal’s other “American History” novels over the years, though I never used them in class. And then, a few years after I retired from teaching, my son David gave me a paperback collection of Vidal’s magazine journalism, United States: Essays 1952-1992 (New York, 1993), which won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1993. Once I began reading these pieces, I became convinced that Gore Vidal, whatever his other literary accomplishments, was a master of the essay form.]
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United States includes roughly 2/3 of the magazine pieces Vidal published over four decades. These essays, according to Vidal, fell “naturally into three categories: literature, or the state of the art; politics, or the state of the union; personal responses to people and events, not to mention old movies and children’s books, or the state of being. So, herewith, my three states—united.” (vii)
State of the Art—this section includes 47 essays (519 pp), mostly what Vidal refers to as “book chat,” i.e., book reviews and other essays on literature. These treat, for instance, the works of American writers like Henry Miller, William Dean Howells, Edmund Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, and John Dos Passos. Vidal also was interested in introducing to American audiences authors from other parts of the world like Frederic Prokosch, Vladimir Nabakov, Leonardo Sciascia, and Italo Calvino. Then, there was Vidal’s favorite American expatriate, Henry James, whom he of course referred to as “the Master.”
A constant theme throughout this section is Vidal’s hearty disdain for the efforts of professors in American college and university English Departments to “teach” literature— Vidal evidently felt that those “scholar squirrels,” as he termed them, would not have recognized a true work of literature if it had bitten them on the leg! (Oh, and the fact that Vidal’s own books received scant attention in the airy realms of academe I’m sure had absolutely nothing to do with his opinion!)
I’m an historian, not an English professor, so this section was not of much interest to me at the outset, but once I got into Vidal’s “book chat” pieces I was hooked. Because Vidal knew many of his literary subjects personally, anecdotes were frequent, and these held my interest, even if books by the author being discussed didn’t hold much appeal for me.
State of the Union—48 essays (535 pp), on politics, the section I thought I would be most interested in, and I was, although I was disappointed by the absence from this collection of much about Vidal’s long-time rivalry with conservative Republican luminary William F. Buckley, Jr.
After all, one of the images seared into my memory by the tumultuous year of 1968 was the “coverage” of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago provided by ABC, which, in its wisdom, decided to hire ideological opposites Vidal and Buckley as commentators. Their angry exchanges on the air became so menacing that the network’s lead anchor, the usually courtly Howard K. Smith, practically had to step between the two combatants to keep them apart. I also wish this section had included more discussion of Vidal’s two unsuccessful political campaigns, as a Democratic congressional candidate from Duchess County, N.Y. (1960), and in California, for U.S. Senator (1982).
“State of the Union” goes well beyond a mundane understanding of the term “politics.” Vidal considers also the nation’s sexual mores, fascination with pornography, religious views, and even the sad fate of the “American Empire,” which he believes existed from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to September 16, 1985, when “the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation…. Like most modern empires, ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic primacy.” (1007)
Of particular interest to me in this section were three essays on Abraham Lincoln, all in connection with Vidal’s fine historical novel on the nation’s first Republican president. Perhaps not surprisingly, academic historians did not fall in love with Vidal’s portrait of Lincoln, so the novelist identified another group of “scholar squirrels” upon whom he could heap scorn.
Moreover, during the 1980s, presided over by President Ronald Reagan, a man he had little use for, Vidal suggested that, to ensure the nation’s future, the former American Empire must somehow arrange an alliance with Russia. While that didn’t quite work out, Reagan’s rapprochement with Soviet Chairman Gorbachev is now seen by many observers as a turning point on the road to ending the Cold War.
State of Being—19 essays (214 pp). This part of the collection has some of Vidal’s most autobiographical writings, so they are interesting for that reason if for no other. They include memoirs of his days as a screenwriter in Hollywood; his time writing plays for television (during that medium’s so-called “Golden Age”) and for Broadway; and Vidal’s recollections of his relationship with that bizarre Hollywood “genius,” Orson Welles.
I also enjoyed Vidal’s treatment of the Oz books of L. Frank Baum and the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, both of which he had read as a youth—who’d a thunk it! Another area where Vidal demonstrated skill as an essayist, as well as a wonderful sense of the absurd, was in his few excursions into travel writing included here—his articles on Nasser’s Egypt and on Mongolia are delightful!
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Gore Vidal was an inveterate name-dropper. He also was an elegant stylist much of the time, though, when he mounted one of his many hobby horses, Vidal could create some rather distracting terms, e.g., “homosexualist” and “Christer.” The bulk of the essays selected for this volume first appeared in the New York Review of Books, which certainly seems to have given Vidal the freedom to write on topics of his own choosing much of the time (i.e., a guaranteed source of income).
In a 2014 documentary film by Martin Scorcese and David Tedeschi, “The 50 Year Argument,” commemorating the first half century of the New York Review of Books, the narrator says that the NYRB was famous for feuds among its contributors, including “Gore Vidal v. Everybody.” Since Vidal had died before the film was made, he is represented in it mostly by voiceovers of passages from his writings. There is, however, a dandy excerpt from a discussion of feminism and sexism on TV’s “Dick Cavett Show” between Vidal and Norman Mailer, during which Mailer walked across the stage and grabbed a copy of an article Vidal had written to which Mailer strenuously objected. Unlike the clash between Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., at the 1968 Democratic Convention, this televised difference of opinion ended with neither fisticuffs nor the threat of them.
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According to Charles McGrath’s New York Times obituary of Vidal, his “ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays.” McGrath believed that the essay form “suited [Vidal] ideally: he could be learned, funny, stylish, show-offy and incisive all at once.”
Vidal’s long-time editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, “admitted that he preferred the essays to the novels, calling Mr. Vidal ‘an American version of Montaigne.’” In Epstein’s words, Vidal “had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn’t subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist.”
Charles McGrath also argued that some of the political positions expressed in Vidal’s published essays were “similarly quarrelsome and provocative” to the ones he engaged in during his many television appearances: for example, he criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; wrote sympathetically of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; and argued in Vanity Fair that the U.S. had brought the September 11 attacks upon itself “by maintaining imperialist foreign policies.”
To television host Dick Cavett, Gore Vidal was a welcome guest, even if he sometimes repeated a story he had told on an earlier visit: “The best at repeating himself was Gore Vidal, because his delivery was so delicious you didn’t mind hearing something a second time.”
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In short, as an essayist, whether in print or in person, Gore Vidal did everything a graceful writer with strong opinions should do. His essays were varied, clearly written, and provocative. Vidal was a clever, though cynical, American master of the essay, whose work should be read and preserved for future generations. (As should his great historical novels, Burr and Lincoln!)
Nicholas Haramis, “Perfect Strangers: When Dick Cavett Met Seth Meyers,” NYT Style Magazine online, Sept. 5, 2016.
Charles G. McGrath, “Gore Vidal Dies at 86; Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 2012.
“The 50 Year Argument,” Produced by BBC Arena, Sikelia Productions and Wowow in association with Verdi Productions and Magna Entertainment. Directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi. (2014)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: