Monday, June 4, 2018

Gore Vidal's "United States: Essays 1952-1992:" Still Relevant After All these Years

          I picked up a copy of Gore Vidal’s 1,271-page tome, United States: Essays 1952-1992, for a dollar at a recent estate sale. I figured I might find a few interesting essays, and I did.
          First, let’s note that this August is the fiftieth anniversary of the famous (or infamous) debates between Vidal (1925-2012) and William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008) which culminated with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto Nazi” and Buckley calling Vidal a queer and threatening to punch Vidal in his “Goddamned face.” And both of these men were World War II veterans. Ah, the joys of live broadcasting. By the way, this exchange is available on YouTube.
          I will have to confess here that I am a fan of both of these gentlemen. They were both highly intelligent and articulate, a combination not often seen these days, especially on television.
          I’ve read several of Vidal’s books including his historical series including Washington, D.C., Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age. I’ve often thought these books should be used to teach high schoolers history. True, there’s sex, but wouldn’t that appeal to teens more than the dry politically whitewashed pablum served in textbooks these days?
          What surprised me about this book is how relevant many of Vidal’s essays still are. For example, in a review of John Dos Passos’ 1961 book Mid-Century, Vidal says, of Dos Passos’ criticism of the youth, the labor movement, James Dean, and in general the civilization of the times as mistaking “the decline of his own flesh and talent for the world’s decline.” (Dos Passos would have been 65 at the time.) This brought to mind the books I recently discussed by Rod Dreher and Patrick J. Deneen, both of whom are in the “civilization today is going to hell in a handbasket” frame of mind.
          In a 1985 essay about Tennessee Williams, which morphs into a discussion of homosexuality, Vidal says, “In order for a ruling class to rule, there must be arbitrary prohibitions. Of all prohibitions, sexual taboo is the most useful because sex involves everyone. To be able to lock someone up or deprive him of employment because of his sex life is a very great power indeed… .” Indeed! And as we saw in Mr. Dreher’s book, in his world homosexuals can only get into heaven if they have no sex life.
          In a review of Robert A. Caro’s 1974 book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vidal says, “The United States has always been a corrupt society. Periodically, ‘good’ citizens are presented to the public as non-politicians. Briefly things appear to be clean. But of course bribes are still given; taken. Nothing ever changes nor is there ever going to be any change until we summon up the courage to ask ourselves a simple if potentially dangerous question: Is the man who gives a bribe as guilty as the man who takes a bribe?” I guess we can ponder that one as we watch the latest corrupt limited vote on the rigged streetcar extension unfold.
          In a 1963 essay on Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), who discovered he was a tax dodger, Vidal says, “In public services we lag behind all the industrialized nations of the West, preferring that the public money go not to the people but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich. This dazzling inequity is reflected in our tax system where the man on salary pays more tax than the man who lives on dividends, who in turn pays more tax than the wheeler-dealer who makes a capital gains deal.” Warren Buffet has said the same thing for years, and this could have been written about who got financial assistance from the government in the recent crash (banks, not homeowners) as well as who benefitted most from the tax cut enacted last year.

          After finishing this book I felt so much better. It occurred to me we’ve been through the same old shit before. Many times. Between 1952 and 1992 we had the McCarthy era, Watergate, Iran-Contra, St. Ronald, the election of Slick Willy, and a whole host of characters and crises that threatened the Republic. And we’ve survived.

We can do it again.

© 2018 Larry Roth


  1. As ever, great stuff herein. To your point I recall a panel discussion a while back with some prominent Internet doomers and Russian Expatriate Dmitri Orlov noted if you are conerned about the present state of affairs, go read some Suetonius - we have been through worse.

    Vidal's writing was always a good investment - even if you disagree with him. And I lament the loss of the public intellectual on TV. We have gone from the good protein of Buckley and Vidal to the equivalent of a stale Rice Krispie treat with the Kardashians leading the parade. I will stick to books.

  2. Oh, I so agree with you on the stale Rice Krispie treat. I have friends who watch the morning TV shows (including the View), and I keep telling them that stuff will rot their brains. But they keep watching.

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