By PAUL BERMAN
THE LAST EMPIRE
By Gore Vidal.
465 pp. New York:
ore Vidal's new book, ''The Last Empire,'' contains 48 essays, four or five of which are quite good -- lively, instructive, lucid and amusing. Vidal has a carefree touch and a humorous air, and when he sits in front of some other author's book, turning its pages and quoting the good parts and interjecting comments of his own, he can conjure several of the pleasures and even some of the romance of reading. The fat volume of Edmund Wilson's diaries of the 1960's opens before him. Vidal thumbs through, noticing Wilson's polemics and friendships, his observations on blacks, Jews, the Civil War, books, old age and sundry writers. ''He is certainly at his best,'' Vidal says of Wilson, ''when he turns the lights on a literary figure whom he knows and then walks, as it were, all around him.''
That is pretty much what Vidal does in his essay on Wilson, and again in essays on Wilson's friends, the Greenwich Village novelists Dawn Powell and Isabel Bolton, and even on Sinclair Lewis, the Prairie Bard, of whom Vidal turns out to be surprisingly fond. He has no particular thesis to hammer home about those people. But, with his lights on, he does glance at their achievements and personalities and, in the case of Wilson and his women friends, at the sexual tensions among them. Vidal is shrewd on sexual matters. He cringes at Wilson's prejudices about homosexuality.
And in his chatty manner Vidal succeeds at last in evoking an atmosphere that is now long gone -- of a midcentury era when the last dust motes of the 19th century had not yet scattered, and literature could thrive because (as viewed through the gas-lit shimmer of Vidal's attractive nostalgia) the stately pace of life encouraged a habit of thoughtfulness.
On the other hand, even in these literary essays, where he finds himself most at ease, Vidal can't help slipping from time to time into what seems to be one or another obsessive mania. The essay on Wilson, which opens the book (a characteristic gesture by Vidal: his megacollection of essays from 1993, ''United States,'' likewise began with a homage to Wilson), introduces us at once to the first and most insistent of his bugbears, which is the horribleness of Abraham Lincoln. Having scrutinized all these essays -- on literature, American history and politics, in nearly equal portions -- I have come to know Vidal's manias, and to fear them. Apart from the horribleness of Lincoln (which is owing to Lincoln's dictatorial behavior in the Civil War, which ruined America forever), they are, in no particular order, the perfidy of Franklin Roosevelt in regard to Pearl Harbor, the income tax and Harry Truman's decision on Feb. 27, 1947, to put up a fight against the Soviet Union, thus replacing America's republican traditions with a sinister American empire.
The merest mention of one of these delicate topics has an electrifying effect on Vidal. Out comes his bugle, and he plays ''charge'' and dashes up the stairs, like the madman in ''Arsenic and Old Lace.'' He never seems to tire, either. In an essay that first appeared in Vanity Fair, he tells us that ''Harry Truman replaced the old republic with a national-security state whose sole purpose is to wage perpetual wars, hot, cold and tepid. Exact date of replacement? Feb. 27, 1947. Place: White House Cabinet Room. Cast: Truman, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a handful of Congressional leaders.''
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
|Gore Vidal |
Vidal does seem to recognize that on these particular points his excitement may have carried him away, or at least that other people may think so. But in self-defense he invokes proper authority by pointing out in his title essay and elsewhere that Edmund Wilson himself, the hero of heroes, clung to certain of these views. Here Vidal is on strong ground. By a bizarre coincidence, Wilson was prone to the identical manias, with a few variations. The tyrannical character of Abraham Lincoln, the Rooseveltian perfidy vis-à-vis Pearl Harbor, the loathsomeness of the income tax, together with the oppressively imperial nature of modern America -- those were Wilson's ideas exactly, during his later years. Like Vidal, Wilson even managed to write about those notions with an unmistakably cranky sound, as if thumping his cane.
In Wilson's case, though, the occasional fits of crankiness only testified to the authenticity of his thinking and emotions. His ideas were his own, and he was not going to subject them to the conventions of taste or fashion or even (here his cane began to thump) to the tests of evidence and common sense, unless he damn well felt like it. Crankiness, for Wilson, was a kind of superiority. Anyway, Wilson knew how to keep his own worst ideas from getting the best of him -- to speak his mind and move on. But in Vidal's case the ideas are Wilson's, and the crankiness, being obsessive, does not move on.
Certain of Vidal's ideas strike me as singularly repulsive. He pauses to consider the origins of racism and seems to conclude that its roots lie in Judaism -- though, in order to fend off any suggestion that he is being unfair to the Jews, he hastens to add that Christianity and Islam, ''Judaism's two dreary spinoffs,'' inherited the peculiar odiousness of the Jewish inspiration.
Some years ago in The Nation, Vidal caused a stir by urging the white race to put up a sterner resistance to ''more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics,'' and in ''The Last Empire'' he returns to this theme by advocating a defensive alliance of the white race -- a northern confederacy'' (as opposed to the Southern Confederacy, of which he is, in other essays, rather fond) ''of Europe, Russia, Canada, the United States.'' He insists that in advocating his white-race confederacy, he is not indulging in any sort of objectionable fantasy but is merely recognizing racial realities, deplorable as they may be. He would not wish to be taken as a screwball of the extreme right, a loutish racist or anti-Semite of the old school.
On the contrary, he insists on his left-wing credentials. He clobbers Kenneth Starr from time to time with an admirable zest. But then, as if to underline his leftist bona fides, he explains that Starr, in going after President Clinton, was an ''agent of corporate America.'' Many explanations have been offered of the persecution of Bill Clinton, but Vidal's has got to be the least convincing.
Still, he draws sufficient confidence from his left-wing identification to feel justified in hanging the awful label ''reactionary'' on people he doesn't like, and especially on John Updike, ''a born reactionary.'' Vidal says, ''I've never taken Updike seriously as a writer,'' and that does seem to be the case. He glances at Updike's ''In the Beauty of the Lilies'' and describes it as ''the most intensely political American novel of the last quarter-century,'' though a closer examination might have revealed to him that it is actually a novel about Christianity. And Vidal begins to jeer. Updike, he says, ''has taken to heart every far-out far-right piety currently being fed us'' -- which, given his own flights of fancy about race and federal tyranny and the patriotic greatness of Charles Lindbergh, might be an example of what the literary critics call chutzpah.
It is true that Vidal can be a marvelous wit, when the spirit moves him. I laughed with delight at his parody of Henry James in his essay on Isabel Bolton. Sometimes the spirit moves elsewhere, though. About George Washington, he writes: ''George farmed. He also invented a plow so heavy that no ox could pull it; he was grimly competing with crafty fellow farmer Jefferson, who had invented the dumbwaiter. Never an idle moment for the Founding Dads.''
There is a forced tone in this kind of jocularity. The tone stems, I would imagine, from the same nervous anxiety that leads Vidal to emphasize again and again what a powerful influence he was on Jerry Brown's failed presidential campaign of 1992, and how many famous people he has known, and how large is his own celebrity, and what a distinguished novelist he is, and how thoroughly he knows American history. Why, he was even invited to join a historians' organization. His book is more than 450 pages, but I'm afraid that well before I reached the halfway point, the boasting and the manias and the clowning made me feel that someone was braying in my ear.
Paul Berman is the author of ''A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968.''
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United States: Essays 1952-1992
Release date: 05/01/1993