I read Henry Adams before I read Gore Vidal, but I liked Vidal better. Both were funny, but only Vidal was having fun. Which is not something everyone understands, that you can have great fun at the apocalypse. It was perhaps his least American trait.
A critic complained about the versions of Henry Adams and Henry James that Vidal made up. Vidal responded, but they made me up. He shared with Adams an apparent sense that American politics ought to have belonged to him, and as it didn’t, American history would. As motives to write history go, it isn’t the worst. He knew that the affairs of the republic were run by a small group of people who wanted to protect its property. He judged each faction of the group more or less by its tendency to agree with him.
In consequence, he had mixed feelings about FDR, who employed his father and disagreed with his grandfather; he held enduringly strange views of the president. And indeed, although he oftener invoked Adams, he was much more clearly influenced by Charles Beard in his thinking about US history – the acerbic humor, the radicalism born of a kind of conservatism, and the extent to which FDR made him a little crazy all chimed with Beard, whom Vidal acknowledged as a “master.” With Beard he also shared the inability to see any of American history – even the Civil War or the Second World War – as having redemptive, or even moral, features. But I think there is more than enough of that in the literature as it is. He sparred with academic historians, whom he disliked, but I don’t think he hated us quite the way he loathed literary scholars.
With him one feels an era has gone: Mailer, Capote, the Kennedys; Louis Auchincloss, Brando, Kerouac, Dawn Powell; Buckley – all the names of his circle and prime predeceased him, often by quite a lot. Whether it was a better era, it is hard to say. Vidal himself was suspicious of golden ages though he claimed that the only true one lasted from 1945 to 1949. I once watched Vidal with Mailer and Janet Flanner on the same television panel and I am persuaded it was an era with better talk shows.
While Myra Breckinridge is surely going to be remembered as groundbreaking, and I’m sure Lincoln is going to be admired as his best novel, his essays as collected in United States will always be my favorite. Smart, mean, and beautifully written.