“Eckerman: I’m delighted that The New York Review of Books is still going strong after–what is it now? Fifty years?”
Gore Vidal tells us that he collected these essays and split it into three defining sections, each counting as a “state” which gives us the title United States. His sections: “State of the Art” which is about writing, literature, and culture, “State of the Union” about politics, and “State of Being” containing personal essays. Because this is a more than 1200 page book, covering 40 years of writing, and divided into three distinct parts, I will review them separately.
“State of the Art”
This first section comprises about 500 pages and covers art and writing primarily. There’s some loose essays here and there that discuss things in different directions from that, but the main avenue is literature. The beginning essay is a fictive conversation between a figure named Eckerman and an interviewer from the New York Review of Books, and it’s one of the more recent essays in the section, and covers the sense of what Vidal feels about writing of the forty years previous to this. In general, I would say that when writing varies from the kind of writing that Vidal writes, he’s dubious of it. This includes things like popular genres which he seems to think of himself above, writing that he decides could work because it’s the right type of writing but is bad which he also thinks himself above, and then writing that is falsely complex or artificially complex which he calls something like classroom fiction which he thinks himself above. His sense of what good writing is: good writing, with two firm feet in reality, and with a level of complexity and depth. In short, he likes well-wrought realism. Which is fair enough when it comes down to it, but certainly does not exhaust the possibilities of good writing.
His biggest issue, from the standpoint of what works here and what doesn’t, is that because he is a fiction writing and has achieved success (some critical, some financial, some both) that things that stray from this is dubious. He does like the classics in general and misses some of the forms of writing we seemed to have lost (like good satire — again, just the claim), he is skeptical of modernism (which I am too a little, but that’s more because I don’t tend to enjoy reading it). He’s downright antagonistic to anything that even whiffs of postmodernism. I am interested, especially in the older essays where I am able to learn more about writers we don’t tend to read much (a concept that Vidal admits is fair — it’s not really worth it if people aren’t reading) and of course the irony is that no one really read Vidal any more, except for me?, and I only do so because I like looking into writers who used to be huge and then kind of disappear. I am always interested in a given state of the public intellectual.
“State of the Union”
State of the Union begins with several essays and sex and politics, sometimes repeating, but circulating around the assertion that Vidal makes in an essay in Playboy that “Sex is Politics” — he goes into several different ways in which this is inherently true in his viewpoint, a view that I would summarize too reductively as “if it’s controlled by the state, it’s political”. He also distinguishes his view of homosexuality as a description of actions versus a more existential defining of some who is homosexual. He rejects the existential element, using the Kinsey scale to more or less discuss what he considers a range of different feelings someone had regarding their sexuality and what they choose to do about those feelings. He’s vehemently against any kind of legal restriction of personal actions sexually (that are consensual) and believes that not only are these homophobic (not a word he would use) political actors moralizing in anti-American and anti-democratic ways, but in ahistorical ones. His biggest sin in this section is the use of the awkward phrasing of “homosexualists”.
The essays in this collection are political, but they also trend both historical with discussion of new translations of Suetonius’s The Twleve Caesars.
The best essays here are the defenses he gives for his novel Lincoln, which I haven’t read, in which he takes historians’ criticism of the novel (which he most staunchly defends on the premise that fiction is different from history) often by citing their own scholarship, that he sometimes used to write the novel. It’s Vidal at his most contentious. He may or may not be a better historian or thinker than the critics, but he’s most certainly the better writer.
“State of Being”
This last, smaller part of the wider collection covers personal essays, which often look a lot like the other essays in the book. Vidal’s personal life (not meaning sexual exploits and romantic relationships) tend to involves connections and friendships with famous people. He’s a name-dropper, but it seems very apparent he’s not really exaggerating or overblowing these connections. He’s the grandson of a senator, cousin to a vice president and to a president. His father was an airline innovator who had an affair with Amelia Earhart and worked with the FDR administration to help usher in commercial air travel. He was friends with Norman Mailer, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, Mary McCarthy, and Orson Welles. And he wrote several movies, so he had plenty of friends in Hollywood too. So these essays are sometimes the travel writing that accompanies the political writing he was doing at various times. Sometimes these are kinds of obituaries like in the case Orson Welles, and sometimes it’s just stories. Like with the other writings, if he covers the same topic more than once, he has a penchant for repeating himself, but then again, this is 1200 pages of his nonfiction, and he wrote a handful of other nonfiction books along the way. So this makes sense. This is a nice soft landing for the more heated of the political writing that preceded it.