Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, who died last week, was a ruling class dissident—a radical leftist who came from the establishment. Many admire him for his elegant, incisive essays on US politics. But just as radical in their way were his novels and plays.
Vidal came from a conservative background, and his earliest novel, Williwaw (1946), was a conventional wartime disaster story. But his second novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), was a frank story about homosexual love. The New York Times, scandalised, refused to review his next five books.
During the Cold War he moved to the left. In 1960, he stood for Congress as a Democrat. His sardonic demeanour did not necessarily help him. As he put it, “I say 80 percent of what I think, a hell of a lot more than any politician I know.” He lost.
He continued to associate himself with the Democrats. As President John F Kennedy and his successors bloodied themselves in Vietnam, however, he was radicalised—and wrote some of his best books.
These ranged from pungent, gossipy historical epics like Julian (1964) to the masterful sex comedy Myra Breckinridge (1968). In this the heroine assails the patriarchy and “balls” the unfortunate Rusty.
In the 1970s, he supported left challenges to the Democrats. His “State of the Union” addresses surveyed the decadent state of American capitalism.
Vidal also reproved the growing repressive moralism in the name of “the family”. As he suavely explained, he was all for the return of the birch, as long as it was between consenting adults.
Vidal’s politics had some interesting ambiguities. He was a radical, but also a patriot of the American republic. He argued it was despoiled by empire. Though close to the Democrats, he acknowledged their role as a wing of the Property Party.
Like that other upper class radical, Oscar Wilde, Vidal was a supreme stylist, classicist and wit. He confounded bourgeois received wisdom and scourged the party of morality and property.