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mass disenfranchisement). But in history Scott was the great conservator of dying traditions, the fast-flowing channel through which forgotten and misunderstood cultures could travel once more. He did not serve them up unconditionally, but neither did he do so unaffectionately. This is in fact one of the most remarkable qualities of Vidal as a novelist. His early works include The City and the Pillar, which offered a voice to a culture then officially declared wholly invisible and inaudible - that of homosexual life. We can find a parallel in the struggles of Old Mortality to give surviving voice to his dead Covenanters; we can find a different, but equally relevant discussion in Scott of the love of man for man, as exhibited in Alan Fairford and Darsie Latimer in Redgauntlet. But in a post 1945 world, which now wrote explicitly about sex in its fiction, Vidal saw one form of sexual expression damned into literary silence. He made it speak and gave it a universal signiﬁcance. The work not only allows the isolated homosexual male a voice, but also confronts Everyman with his own homosexuality. With less sympathy Vidal does something of the same thing when he shows Everyman the Nixon within himself, in his profound and hilarious play, An Evening With Richard Nixon (which Deutsch should lose no time in adding to his list).
Vidal’s historical writing bears a curious resemblance to Scott in his deployment of folklore, but in his case it is the folklore of high politics. His hold on that gives him a singular link with the perspective of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and additionally offers him an affinity with his two recent and formidable additions to his cast of characters, Henry Adams and Henry James, for like them he is a Northerner drawing on the defeated South to offer a critique of the new, all-conquering American giant of the Gilded Age and the Rising American Empire. His grandfather was born in Reconstruction Mississippi and became Senator from Oklahoma. He was one of the brave men who withstood the mounting pressure for entry into World War One and he was faced with the vilest of recriminations by chauvinistic demagogues. His grandson takes comfort in that inheritance when cascades of fury from rabid Rightists and Cold War Liberals burst around his head for his opposition to belligerent American foreign policy. But he is also a critical force in informing Vidal’s understanding of the past, and in questioning the elitist North-Eastern American society in which Vidal himself was born and whose aristocratic values he initially absorbed from his exclusive school, the Phillips Exeter Academy. We get some sense of this, placed in the context of defeated Persia and aggressive little Greece in his
Creation, dedicated to his grandfather’s memory and portraying a blind Persian ambassador reminiscing to his Hellenized nephew. It is not that he imagines the Old South was privy to some approximation to the vast Asian world that the old Persian brings to life in that book, but that he shows how defeat may shroud a more complex and cosmopolitan heritage than victory, with its eyes narrowly on a parochial success with obvious sequels.
Gore senior’s Oklahoma may have come to his grandson’s aid, also, in his opening up of an alternative American history, first seen through his Burr. There was a touch of the enfant terrible about the choice: as America reared into a self-applauding Revolutionary Bicentennial, Vidal turned his resentful, but fascinated audience to the outcast of the revolution, the man who killed Hamilton and almost ousted Jefferson. But Burr was not a reprobate in the South-West, with whose settlement he was ambiguously associated. In fact, Vidal’s work was deeply researched, and its iconoclastic gossip of the unquestionably great men of the Revolution was what would have been natural for the aged Burr, if not necessarily accurate.
The next work, 1876, was equally deflationary, but its perspective was almost orthodox. As for the third, Lincoln, it is one of the greatest historical novels ever written , and an incredible achievement in presenting the Civil War President through the eyes of his contemporaries. By now the enfant terrible is the Master. Hence I decline to give you a rush-review of Empire. It is a peculiar charm of the United States that its greatest historian, Henry Adams, should above all else have abounded in irony, and now, so also does its greatest historical novelist, Gore Vidal: his adoption of Adams as a character is additional insurance on that.
It may simply be that we will see the confrontation of a great novelist by a great critic: Ailan Massie is a critic of wisdom, strength and above all positive appreciation. It may be that we will see some very real exchange of wisdom: each has much to learn from the other, and the ironies will be powerful, whether they do or they don’t. But if we think of that dialogue of two worlds in Vidal’s Creation, the best of all our hopes must be that this will be exactly what the title says. In a small planet, that Vidal so rightly sees as teetering on the verge of its own self-extinction, for once we have the opportunity of witnessing the mutual inspiration of artists and celebrating the glory of creation.
Gore Vidal and Allan Massie are at the Queen ’3 Hall, Edinburgh on 20 Nov, 6.30pm. Tickets£3 (£1. 75) avail. from Queen’s Hall, Waterstone’s and Thin ’s Bookshops in Edinburgh and John Smith '3 Bookshop in Glasgow.
48 The List 13 — 26 November 1987