What I’m reading: Gore Vidal – America’s gay pioneer


Continuing my intermittent trawl through through the ‘classics’ of modern gay literature, I’ve just re-read this novel from 1948, which I think is the very first ‘home-grown’ gay novel in the US. The literary establishment – and the critics – were vicious in their condemnation of Vidal. He rewrote the book in 1965 with major changes and this version, still reprinting today, has sold millions. The revised ending is less melodramatic than the original (murder) but the hero’s “hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-wronged-faggot” action seems equally out-of-character.

Vidal’s writing, especially in the later volumes of his American History series, became verbose and flatulent, almost a parody of Henry James. The City and the Pillar, like many early novels from writers in the 40s and 50s (and still all too often today), shows clearly the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald: lean, finely-honed prose with a kind of muscular elegance, which works supremely well for this chronicle of the coming-of-age and the coming-out of a gay high-school senior during WW2 and its aftermath. Jim Willard’s briefly reciprocated love for a fellow student casts a shadow over the next decade of his life as he becomes a sailor, then a tennis-coach (and kept boy) in Hollywood and New York.

Scenes in NY and LA offer early glimpses of the archness that were to characterise the author’s public persona in later life and reach an apotheosis in Myra Breckinridge and Myron, the two-volume high-octane farce which for many readers is at once his best and his worst writing. Ronald Shaw, the closeted actor who keeps Jim for a while, an on-screen macho-man who is privately needy and insecure, calls Rock Hudson to mind although the time of the story means he’s more likely to be based on Randolph Scott or perhaps another version of the author. Paul Sullivan, the writer Jim comes close to loving, doesn’t suggest Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, the ‘obvious’ candidates for a gay author, but again he may just be a twist on Gore, as Jim obviously is. In fact there are many moments that seem to demonstrate how a writer chops his own life into pieces to provide the basis for different characters, although in his autobiography Vidal insists his protagonists are not based on real people except for Bob Ford, Jim’s lost love, and a woman ‘inspired’ by Anais Nin, whom Gore claims to have romanced. Many scenes – and many of the characters – could as well belong to New York or Los Angeles of today as to the 1940s. Except for some clunky conversations exploring the ‘Nature Of Homosexuality’ which must have seemed insightful as well as daring in 1948, this is a lot less dated than other gay novels of the era.

The sex scenes are almost as discreet as Mr Forster’s – there’s nothing as lurid or as dazzling as Gore would later concoct for Myra/Myron. But overall The City and the Pillar is not only an outstanding piece of gay fiction (better than many that were to come after Vidal opened the floodgates) but also one of the best novels of its era, different from but as exquisitely readable – still – as the early works of Capote and Carson McCullers.

In later life Gore overdid the bitchiness and bitterness, perhaps disappointed by his failure to make it as a realm presence in US politics, the role he most craved. But his output as novelist, historian and essayist was prodigious. Other writers may have left a bigger footprint (Roth, Mailer, Updike, Irving,), but Vidal deserves to admitted to the literary pantheon. He wouldn’t thank me for this, but he is probably, as Somerset Maugham is supposed to have said of himself, “in the very front rank of the second-raters”.

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