"Write something, even if it's just a suicide note."
Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was a novelist, essayist, and playwright whose career spanned sixty years, beginning in the years immediately following World War II
and continuing into the early phase of the new millennium
. In the world of literature, he was best known for his breakthrough work The City and the Pillar
, the first post-war novel to feature a homosexual
protagonist who isn't bumped off
at the end of the story. A quarter-century later, Vidal began penning a series of historical novels based on the formulative years of the United States, including a third-person account of President Lincoln
which met with high accolades.
Best known by a later generation as procreator
of two dubious cinematic efforts, Myra Breckinridge
. Vidal tried disowning
the latter, but his lawyers moved too slowly and thus his screen credit remains.
Nevertheless, he did appear in a fake trailer
for a Caligula
remake, so at least he was a good sport about it.
Vidal was politically active throughout The Fifties
, appearing on television as a spokesman for the "New Left" and sharing a panel with his ideological opposite
William F. Buckley Jr. This arrangement didn't last long, as their exchanges became increasingly heated
until Buckley threatened to punch him in the face on-air
Gore died at his home in California on 31 July 2012 at the age of 86 from complications of pneumonia. His death has largely been considered a loss to the literary and actual world.
Tropes in the works of Gore Vidal:
- Ambition Is Evil : A major subversion. Vidal believed that ambition was a natural and worthy quality and nobody, including heroes like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt made it far without wanting to get there. That said his works aren't blind celebrations of achievement either and he has himself described and spoken of his own political and artistic ambitions without any qualifications.
- Deconstruction : Vidal was himself highly critical of the academic study of Postmodernism and deconstruction, but his own works are highly subversive and corrective of received ideas of Christianity, American politics and American history.
- Gray and Gray Morality : Never set truck by conventional values and ideas of "good" and "evil".
- Realpolitik : A stated theme in his books, especially his book on Lincoln was to show how politics actually worked and what kind of person you have to be to last in the arena, even if you are a "good" politician.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids! : His general tone as a writer, in his essays and novels, is to subvert and criticize America's self-perception of innocence and naivete and his insistence on grown up adult discourse.
- Word of Gay: Gore Vidal intended Messala in his screenplay of Ben Hur to be Ben Hur's spurned lover, thus explaining his hatred for him later on. Stephen Boyd (the actor who played Messala) was let in on the secret, but Charlton Heston was deliberately kept in the dark.
Partial Bibliography & Related Tropes
- Julian (1964)
- Anachronic Order
- Badass Beard: Subverted with Julian, who insists on combing his long beard into a point (Everyone tells him it looks ridiculous).
- The Caligula: Gallus in Julian is depicted throughout the novel as a sociopath who delights in others' pain.
- The Chains of Commanding: Constantius.
- Dirty Old Man: Priscus has an eye for the ladies.
- End of an Age: The book highlights Julian's brief reign as the end of the Ancient world with Christianity setting a Reset Button and changing civilization forever. Hellenistic religion despite Julian's fervent efforts to revive it are in total decay and in the end it will die out.
- Got Volunteered: Literally in the case of Julian, who is offered a choice between declaring himself Caesar of Gaul, or being murdered by said Gauls. It's unclear whether or not Julian is embellishing events to disguise his ambition.
- Incest Is Relative / Unholy Matrimony: Gallus and Constantina.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: Julian is killed by one of his own soldiers, who makes it appear as if he was felled by an enemy Persian's spear.
- No Hero Discount: The 'margin notes' repeatedly note Priscus' exorbitant fees in exchange for pages from Julian's memoir.
- Off with His Head!: Gallus' punishment for insulting Constantius.
- Phony Psychic: Maximus.
- Religion Is Wrong: Julian focuses on the eponymous Emperor's (failed) attempt to stem the rising tide of Christianity in Rome. (Vidal himself is a lifelong atheist.) While it extends much sympathy to Julian's religious tolerance and his attempt to halt Christianity without persecuting it, both Libanius and Priscus point that his attempt to revive Hellenistic religions only highlighted that it was Not So Different from Catholicism in the end with practice becoming just as rigid and rigorous as Christianity.
- Short-Lived Big Impact: Julian has a short reign but he sets about so many reforms and is such a poignant, modern figure that he set an example for the whole of history in his short life.
- Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Libanius and Priscus.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: One of the more entertaining sides of Julian is a scathing letter exchange between Libanius and his collaborator Priscus, who is busy covering his posterior (and his wallet).
- Unreliable Narrator: Julian's deference to the facts of his own life are spotty. His transcribers step in from time to time to fix any inconsistencies.
- The Best Man (1964)
- Dark Horse Victory: In the play (and subsequent film) The Best Man, a bitterly contested fight for a party's Presidential nomination ends when one of the candidates withdraws and throws his support behind a previously-ignored third man.
- The Fettered: William Russell.
- Kingmaker Scenario: Inverted in the ending of The Best Man, in which two presidential candidates, (Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson) are tied in their race for the nomination. Fonda's idealist, unwilling to falsely smear Robertson's crooked politico as a homosexual in order to win — yet also unwilling to let Robertson claim victory by twisting some facts related Fonda's medical history — throws his support to the dark horse candidate who has been mired in third place throughout the balloting, who goes on to win.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Joe Cantwell.
- Realpolitik: The title of the play is ironic. Cantwell is implied to be the 'best man' because he's more devious, whereas Russell is a well-meaning schnook who can't hold onto power.
- And, in the end, the nomination — which is widely viewed as tantamount to the election itself — goes to some guy no one knows anything about at all.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Vidal always denied this, but most viewers tend to identify Cantwell as Richard Nixon, Russell as Adlai Stevenson, and Art Hockstader as Harry Truman. (According to Vidal, when he asked John F. Kennedy to read a draft of the script and offer technical advice, Kennedy was concerned that the womanizing Russell was based on him.)
- Sleazy Politician: A conversed trope. Hockstader is of the opinion that only someone willing to be utterly ruthless is truly qualified to handle the responsibilities of the presidency, while Russell counters that such a person can't be trusted to do what's right if it might be unpopular.
- To Be Lawful or Good
- Myra Breckinridge (1968)
- Gender Bender: Myra's true identity is that of a male film critic who underwent a sex change.
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male
- Refuge in Audacity
- Unusual Euphemism: Myron, the follow-up book Myra Breckinridge. In the original version of the book, Vidal replaces all the swear words with the names of Supreme Court Justices who had just voted in favour of some pro-censorship measure or other. So we have Burger = bugger, Father Hill = tit, Rehnquist = dick and so on (This was done to avert the book's censorship.)
- American Chronicles (aka Narratives of Empire) series (1973-2000)
- Achey Scars: Jess Smith's appendectomy scar. It aches whenever somebody is sniffing around his operations.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Holluwood caught negative reviews for inventing a female newspaper publisher in 1939; however, Vidal was quick to point out that Eleanor Patterson took control of a D.C. paper less than twenty years later.
- Antagonist in Mourning: Woodrow Wilson's nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge, doesn't know what to do with himself once Wilson is deposed and living out his last days on S Street.
- Big Screwed-Up Family: The Sanfords.
- Bus Crash: Clay Overbury in The Golden Age.
- The Casanova: John Hay, Lincoln's aide and confidante, is a self-styled one. Aaron Burr in Burr is presented as another one, considered to have fathered more than a few illegitmate children, with future president Martin Van Buuren cited as one as per rumor, and the other one being the protagonist Charles Schuyler.
- Comically Missing the Point: The Senate Majority Leader, Henry Cabot Lodge, is shattered when he learns of Warren Harding's death. When asked if they were close, Lodge says of course not; he's upset that Calvin Coolidge is now President.
- Da Editor: Caroline Sanford and her brother, Blaise.
- Deadpan Snarker: When Eleanor Roosevelt returns from seeing the doctor, FDR wheels past and jokingly asks "What did he have to say about that big ass of yours?" Without pausing, Eleanor replies "I'm afraid you weren't mentioned."
- Driven to Suicide: Burden, after Overbury throws him under the proverbial bus.
- Eagleland : A real Deconstruction of the same showing how the image was built and sustained over several different decades for political purpose. In Burr, Aaron Burr and Hamilton, while they were still friends discuss the new republic with Burr admitting that for all its aspirations, political life in America was the same as it was in the English Parliament and indeed in Ancient Rome, not really the break from the old that its Founders envisioned or made the public believe in.
- Environmental Symbolism: Woodrow Wilson's White House is an ice palace, with padlocked fences and all activity concentrated in a tiny upstairs study. Contrast with Harding, whose White House is open to the public and exudes warmth. By the end of the novel, though, it becomes as chilled and empty as it was under his predecessor.
- Foregone Conclusion: Harding's inexorable rise to the Presidency is observed with awe by Hollywood's main characters. For a time, he seems to be just what the nation needs, making the abrupt collapse of his administration and Harding's sudden death all the more shocking.
- Any scene with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nobody believes that this sickly naval clerk will amount to anything.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: Gore Vidal doesn't believe in heroes or villains, with even Historical Domain bad guys like Aaron Burr revealed to be a more complex and likable figure than his notoriety would allow, showing the context of the actions that would define him and largely putting the entire generation of the founders into perspective.
- I Have No Son: Burden's father, a veteran of Chickamauga, disowned him for leaving the People's Party to run as a Democrat.
- Incest Is Relative: Peter and Enid in Washington D.C. The novel is a semi-biographical account of Vidal's early life, with Enid as an avatar of Nina Gore, his mother. So, yeah. Considering his vocal dislike of Freudian analyses, this might be Lampshade Hanging on the author's part.
- Lady Drunk: Enid.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: In Burr, Martin Van Buren is posited to be an illegitimate son of Aaron Burr. The last page of the novel unmasks the narrator, Charles Schuyler, as yet another of Burr's children.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Peter Sanford in Washington D.C, and The Golden Age.
- Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: The subject of Burr goes to great lengths to paint himself as this.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Warren G Harding surprises many of his so-called supporters by revealing himself to be a crafty politician. Internally, Burden wonders if Harding's image as a folksy, third-tier candidate was all an elaborate ruse.
- Old Media Are Evil
- Passive-Aggressive Kombat: The Roosevelts are blackbelts.
- Real Person Fic: The books loosely follow the Sanfords, a clan of Gumps who mix with Washington society. A secondary protagonist, James Burden Day, is introduced in Washington, D.C.
- Riddle for the Ages: Who killed Jess Smith? It's implied in the book that Smith was assassinated as part of a coverup of the Teapot Dome scandal.
- Sanity Slippage: Mary Todd Lincoln.
- Sibling Rivalry: Blaise keeps hoping (indeed, praying) for his sister to fail at something.
- Sleazy Politician: Clay Overbury in Washington D.C is portrayed as a Kennedy-esque charmer whose cutthroat true nature is mostly hidden.
- Stage Names: Movie mogul Caroline Sanford goes undercover as "Emma Traxler."
- Stealth Insult: In their one scene together, Theodore Roosevelt is busting FDR's balls for being a Desk Jockey. Franklin, trying not to grimace, agrees with him and laments, "We must serve where we can do the best for our our country, and not ourselves." (This subtle jab does not escape T.R.'s attention.)
- Straight Gay: Blaise Sanford is an in-universe example of this trope.
- Thanatos Gambit: In the novel Burr, it is strongly suggested (citing actual historical evidence) that Alexander Hamilton took pains to ensure that if he were killed in the duel, he would ruin Burr's political career in the process and disgrace him forever.
- Tragic Hero: Sen. James Burden Day.
- Verbal Tic: Jess Smith's "Whaddaya know?" He also can't stop whistling a folk tune, "My God, How the Money Rolls In", a hint to his role as Harding's bag-man.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Blaise Sanford prizes his protégé, Clay, over his own family. Burden's relationship with his father is noted to have been similarly testy.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: Burden's quest for the presidency. Teddy Roosevelt seems a shoe-in for the 1920 race, then abruptly dies. Wilson is slated to appoint Burden his VP for an unprecedented third term — until the League of Nations implodes on him. Finally, once the curtain closes on the Ohio Gang, no one is left standing but Coolidge, whom Burden will "inevitably" trounce in the '24 race.
- Yes-Man: Since little is known about John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirator David Herold, he's depicted in Lincoln as one of these. Up to Eleven with Jess Smith, who is even more sycophantic.
- You Remind Me of X: W.G. Harding's "Voyage of Understanding", a transcontinental tour to rally the people to support his policies, reminds Burden of a similar trip made by Harding's predecessor. It is not meant as a flattering comparison.