Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal R.I.P.

Writer Gore Vidal died Tuesday, 31 July 2012 at the age of 86. The cause was complications from pneumonia.

Gore Vidal was born Eugene Louis Vidal, Jr 3 October 1925 in West Point, New York. His name would be changed long after his birth to Eugene Luther Vidal Jr. (his father's name was Eugene Luther Vidal) and "Gore (his mother's maiden name) would be added at his christening. When he was fourteen he simply shortened his name to "Gore Vidal." His maternal grandfather was Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma.

Gore Vidal grew up in Washington, D.C. As his grandfather was blind, Gore Vidal often read to him and functioned as his guide.  Gore Vidal attended Sidwell Friends School and St. Albans School.  Mr. Vidal left St. Albans School to study in France, only to return after the outbreak of World War  II. He then studied at he Los Alamos Ranch School in 1940 and later at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Navy where he served as a warrant officer and later a mess officer. He served in the South Pacific.

It was following the war that Gore Vidal published his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946. His second novel, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, would prove to be controversial for its portrayal of homosexuality.  This would result in his next five novels being banned from being reviewed in The New York Times. As a result, Mr. Vidal took to writing mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box.

It was 1954 that Gore Vidal began writing for television. His first work was an episode of the long forgotten drama Janet Dean, Registered Nurse. Over the next several years he would write episodes of Suspense, Omnibus, Danger, Studio One, Goodyear Playhouse, Climax, and G.E. Theatre. By far his most acclaimed teleplay would be for Goodyear Playhouse. Aired in 1956, "Visit to a Small Planet," in which an alien visits the planet Earth. Meant as a satire of post war anti-Communist paranoia and proved enormously successful. He adapted it as a play in 1957. It was in the Fifties that Gore Vidal began writing screenplays, including ones for The Catered Affair (1956), I Accuse! (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).

As a novelist Gore Vidal was very prolific. Although he would only write three novels in the Sixties (Julian; Washington, D.C., and Myra Breckinridge), he would write several more over the next few decades, including Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Hollywood, and The Golden Age. His novels were often based on history. Lincoln dealt with the personal struggles of Abraham Lincoln and was based on letters, memoirs, diaries, contemporary news sources, and so on. The Golden Age covered the United States' entry into World War II, the war itself, and the post-war years. Mr. Vidal did not simply deal with contemporary history, but delved into ancient history as well, as shown by his novels Julian and Creation. His novels also often focused on gender and pop culture, the prime example of which may be Myra Breckinridge.  In all he wrote around 30 novels.

Gore Vidal also wrote plays. His first was Visit to a Small Planet, an adaptation of his own teleplay. He would go onto write such plays as The Best Man, Romulus, and An Evening with Richard Nixon. He would also occasionally write for television and film. He adapted his own play The Best Man (1964) and wrote the original screenplay for the controversial film Caligula. He had his name removed from the latter when it was changed dramatically from his original script. He also did some uncredited rewriting on The Sicilian (1987). For television he adapted his play On the March to the Sea for Theatre 625, and wrote the teleplay for the TV movie Billy the Kid.

While Gore Vidal was famous for his novels, he may have received the most acclaim for his essays and memoirs. He wrote essays for various publications for nearly six decades. In the end his collections of essays would number nearly as many as that of his novels. Gore Vidal could often be controversial in his essays and he could often rely more on aphorisms than logical arguments. Regardless, he was well known for his wit and the elegance of his writing. He published two memoirs, Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation.

Among the writers of the late 20th Century Gore Vidal is among those I admire the most. I did often disagree with him. Indeed, I thought some of his views were utter rubbish. That having been said, Gore Vidal was a writer that wrote with such eloquence and elegance that even one disagreed with him, one could not help but admire his work. His writing was often funny, often acerbic, almost always eloquent, and always learned. Whether one agreed with Mr. Vidal on any given point of view, one could not help but admire his writing.

As acclaimed as Mr. Vidal was for his essays, I admired him more for his novels, particularly his historical novels. His fiction was every bit as elegant as his non-fiction. What is more, he had an attention to detail that allowed him to capture any given moment in time perfectly. After reading his various historical books, I felt that I knew Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Very few writers of the late 20th Century were capable of the eloquence and the ability to create realistic characters in the way that Gore Vidal was. He was also quite talented when it came to television and motion pictures. If "Visit to a Small Planet" is considered one of the great teleplays of all time, it is perhaps because it is so well written. While I disagreed with his idea often, I have to admit that he will probably be one of the few writers of the 20th Century to be remembered for years to come.

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