Like many people, there are a few books that I have returned to again and again throughout my life. Since my preferred form of writing is the essay and my preferred tone is highly educated cynicism, I imagine that two of those books will surprise few of my readers: A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing and United States, Gore Vidal’s handpicked selection of essays written between 1952 and 1992. In each, I have consistently found new nuggets of insight through a third, fourth, fifth rereading.
In the early 20th century, Mencken was unrivaled as America’s greatest essayist. After his decline in the late 40s that title was handed to Vidal, who was better known as a novelist and playwright. The two men shared much. Both were almost entirely self-taught men of prodigious learning; both were masters of the lost art of the intellectual insult; both lampooned the many flaws in America’s system of self-government; both could eviscerate an opponent with but a single well-turned phrase. And both made me feel inadequate because, on my very best day, I could not hope to match their staggering skill with the written word. Neither, I dare say, could ever be justly called humble, but then neither had much reason to be.
For a look at just how good a writer Vidal was, particularly when engaging in polemics, I give you this, from an essay entitled Sex is Politics:
The sexual attitudes of any given society are the result of political decisions…
Although our notions about what constitutes correct sexual behavior are usually based on religious texts, those texts are invariably interpreted by the rulers in order to keep control over the ruled. Any sexual or intellectual or recreational or political activity that might decrease the amount of coal mined, the number of pyramids built, the quantity of junk food confected will be proscribed through laws that, in turn, are based on divine revelations handed down by whatever god or gods happen to be in fashion at the moment. Religions are manipulated in order to serve those who govern society and not the other way around. This is a brand-new thought to most Americans, whether once or twice or never bathed in the Blood of the Lamb…
At any given moment in a society’s life, there are certain hot buttons that a politician can push in order to get a predictably hot response… It is good politics to talk against sin–and don’t worry about non sequiturs. In fact, it is positively un-American…to discuss a real issue such as unemployment or who is stealing all that money at the Pentagon.
To divert the electorate, the unscrupulous American politician will go after those groups not regarded benignly by Old or New Testament…
In desperation, the nation’s ownership has now gone back to the tried-and-true hot buttons: save our children, out fetuses, our ladies’ rooms from the godless enemy. As usual, the sex buttons have proved satisfyingly hot.
That was written in 1979 but rings as true today as when he wrote it.
Unfortunately, those decades of such matchless brilliance and wit made it all the more painful to watch his decline over the last 15 years or so, as he descended into bitterness and became a purveyor of dark conspiracies. He claimed, for example, that George W. Bush had knowledge of the World Trade Center attacks in advance and let them happen. Christopher Hitchens took note of that sad decline in 2010 and thereafter refused Vidal’s naming of him as his delfino (which he was, having taken from him the title, in my mind at least, as the nation’s greatest essayist a couple decades earlier).
But in his death, I will choose to remember him for what he was when I first came under his spell. One can easily point to a lineage of writers over the last 150 years that led perfectly, one to the other, from Twain to Mencken to Vidal and then to Hitchens. Though each has their flaws, some of them quite dramatic and seemingly damning, they were men of extraordinary intelligence and wit who found no greater joy than in the slaughtering of sacred cows. And we have now lost the last two of them in less than a year. If there is a successor to that lineage alive today, they remain sadly unknown to me. And that may be the greatest loss of all.