Chris Uggen's Blog: reading gore vidal

Friday, August 03, 2012

reading gore vidal

Writing an essay for Gore Vidal reminds me of picking up a guitar after Segovia passed -- any attempt pales in such close proximity to the master. But I'll offer a few notes in hopes of drawing some new readers to Mr. Vidal's exemplary writing and powerful social critique and analysis.

I encountered many of Mr. Vidal's essays long before encountering sociology, so my mind was effectively pre-blown before entering the field. Just as early exposure to The New Yorker opened new worlds to young Gary Keillor, those wicked-smart essays brought this Minnesota kid a new vision and perspective on American society. He made historical and literary allusions that were new to me, but the writing was richly rewarding and accessible to any 10th-grader with a little patience and a lot of dictionary.

I inhaled the entire Vidal collection in the public library, but today I'm recalling two basic insights. He wasn't the first to make them, of course, but he made them so clearly and elegantly that they quickly took root. First, he offered a sharp-eyed insider's analysis of how wealth and power might really operate in the United States. Now, I can't say I ever swallowed this vision hook, line, and sinker, but it did seem to comport with the evening news about as well as the facts I'd been taught in my history and social studies classes (Dems versus Republicans? That's splitting hairs, my boy. Think: who's pulling the strings?). And by the time I got to college and discovered sociologists like C. Wright Mills and William Domhoff, I could approach their arguments with some degree of familiarity and preparation.

Second, Mr. Vidal's sensitive (and, at times, hilarious) writing on sexual diversity convinced me that the putatively fundamental categories I'd taken for granted were surely oversimplifications. Here too, Mr. Vidal's perspective provided a better fit to the social facts I was encountering as a high school student and music writer. Here's a passage touching on both power and sex, from a 1979 Playboy interview that I likely read behind Ralph's grocery at Charlton and Wentworth:
Today Americans are in a state of terminal hysteria on the subject of sex in general and of homosexuality in particular because the owners of the country (buttressed by a religion that they have shrewdly adapted to their own ends) regard the family as their last means of control over those who work and consume. For two millennia, women have been treated as chattel, while homosexuality has been made to seem a crime, a vice, an illness."
Some of Mr. Vidal's obits hint that his essays are too historically specific to stand the test of time, but I'm guessing that Bernard Shaw's obit writers said the same things about his remarkable prefaces. The excerpt above suggests that either American society has not changed all that much in 33 years or that, like a good sociologist, Gore Vidal's analysis transcends the particular moments and controversies of his research sites. Judge for yourself, perhaps starting online or with United States: Essays 1952-1992.

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