Wit, writer, ‘modern Oscar Wilde’: Gore Vidal dies

Author and contrarian Gore Vidal in his younger years (L), and toward the end of his life (R).

After a life at the heart of American glamour and controversy, author and essayist Gore Vidal has died. Many say the world has lost one of the last real celebrities of intellect and wit.

He is the author of 25 novels, two memoirs, several books of essays and reams of screenplays and TV shows. But many think Gore Vidal’s greatest masterpiece was his own remarkable life.

Vidal, who died on Tuesday, lived in the glamorous, powerful heart of America. After publishing his first novel at 19, he spent years partying with legends: actor James Dean, writer Jack Kerouac, playwright Tennessee Williams. He ran for political office alongside president-to-be John F. Kennedy. He indulged a lifelong feud with literary giant Norman Mailer, who headbutted him after a star-studded talk show. ‘Lost for words again, Norman?’ was Vidal’s alleged response.

This wit was Vidal’s ticket to a glittering adventure. Dubbed a modern-day Oscar Wilde, he was brimming with devastating put-downs and one-liners. His words always implied an intelligent, critical and arrogant mind. One particularly telling quip? ‘There is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise’.

According to one close friend, Vidal saw life as ‘a permanent battle for social and intellectual supremacy’ – and clever words were his armour. Few were allowed beyond the prickly facade: Vidal himself once remarked that he had ‘met everyone, but knew no-one’.

In another paradox, he passionately loathed America – even as he waltzed through its glittering centre. Disgusted by foreign, he felt his country was close to devastating decline.

‘The United States,’ he said, ‘was founded by the brightest people in the country – and we haven’t seen them since.’

These radical politics led to Vidal’s most disturbing friendship. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up a government building in Oklahoma, killing 168 people. Shortly after, he wrote to Vidal – to say his essays had inspired the attack. The two began writing to each other, sharing their frustrations at America’s government. For years, Vidal defended the terrorist – even calling him a ‘noble boy’.

Despite this, Vidal is remembered with admiration. Only a few doubted him: the late essayist Christopher Hitchens, for example, wrote that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a ‘crackpot’ anti-American trend tainted Vidal’s writing.

Soul of wit

Should this come as a surprise? Vidal’s witty quips and controversial wrangling, some say, have never been the mark of intellectual integrity or profound thought. They put show over substance; though enormously clever and complicated, Gore Vidal was a performer first.

But an intelligence that is challenging and outspoken, others say, is much more valuable than one that hides away. Vidal’s mind was provocative and entertaining; the world would be a smarter place if more intellectuals had his sharp, showy wit.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to be showy and witty or reflective and thoughtful?
  2. Do you think one-liners and witticisms usually contain important truths?

Activities

  1. Compose a witticism that reflects something you think is true about the world.
  2. Do some further research into the glamorous literary and political scene of the 1950s or 60s. Imagine a meeting between a politician and a literary celebrity, and write a short story describing the encounter.

Some People Say...

“Constant wittiness is just exhausting.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How come I haven’t heard about this guy?
Vidal wrote many books, but wasn’t as successful as a novelist as he could have been. When at school, he fell in love with a fellow pupil – but while serving as a soldier, and at the age of just 19, the young man was killed. Vidal’s third novel –The City and the Pillar – was partly based on the relationship between the two men. When it was published in the 1940s it caused a scandal, and effectively destroyed Vidal’s potential to be a successful novelist.
Who is the new ‘modern day Oscar Wilde’?
The generation that Vidal was a part of has mostly passed away. But there are still many outspoken writers and thinkers out there – think of people like Richard Dawkins, Martin Amis or Germaine Greer. Many use sites like Twitter to share their ideas.

Word Watch

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was President of the United States from 1961 until 1963, when he was assassinated. A Democrat, he famously made the speech that included the lines ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’. He is often referred to as JFK, and was a member of the iconic political and intellectual Kennedy family.
Oscar Wilde
Writing as the 19th Century met the 20th, Oscar Wilde pioneered a literary philosophy of ‘aestheticism’, that prized the beauty in fleeting and artificial things. He was renowned for his witty one-liners and put-downs, that formed much of the entertaining dialogue in plays like Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Government building in Oklahoma
Until September 11, the Oklahoma City Bombing was the deadliest terror attack ever to have taken place on American soil. It involved a truck bomb that was detonated outside a government building, killing 168 men, women and children. Bomber Timothy McVeigh said he targeted the US government in response to the Waco Siege, a confrontation with law enforcement officers and the members of an American Christian cult, that resulted in the death of 70 people.

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