The death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012 at the age of 86 has humanists mourning the loss of perhaps American’s best known public intellectual. As honorary president of the American Humanist Association since 2009, Vidal added an enthusiastic, progressive and dynamic voice to the AHA and the humanist movement.
“The progressive and humanist values Gore Vidal repeatedly espoused moved the culture in a positive direction,” said David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association. “He spent his life pointing out the places in society that needed the most attention without worrying who might be embarrassed or upset by his opinions.”
He’s been called an iconoclast, a provocateur, and a misanthrope,” said Humanist magazine editor Jennifer Bardi. “And of course Gore occasionally said things that gave humanists pause. But he was forever dedicated to the cause of enlightenment and exposed injustice and hypocrisy at every turn.”
Vidal succeeded Kurt Vonnegut as the AHA’s honorary president, saying he would be “most honored to succeed my old friend as honorary president of the Association: Although he himself is hardly easy to replace, I will do my best to fill the great gap.” A seven-part video interview featuring Vidal can be seen here.
The targets of Vidal’s criticism included the Religious Right, American expansionism, political changes done for “national security,” and the military-industrial complex, among others items. His advocacy for individual liberty, separation of church and state, and reason and rationality embodies the mission of the American Humanist Association.
Vidal first made a name for himself with the 1948 publication of The City and the Pillar, a book that created turmoil because its main character is openly homosexual without also being seen as unnatural. He was forced to write several subsequent novels using a pseudonym because reviewers and advertising outlets blacklisted him.
In 1969, Vidal wrote in Esquire, “…homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime . . . despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word ‘natural,’ not normal.”
At first known for his novels, he later became known for his essays. John Keats praised him as “[the twentieth] century’s finest essayist.” John Keats is identified as a critic in Vidal’s Wikipedia entry but here one is thinking, John Keats the Romantic poet? I’d take him out: “…he later became known as one of the greatest essayists of the twentieth century.”
In 1950 Vidal met his long-term partner Howard Austen, who died in 2003.
While Vidal was seen as one of the early champions of sexual liberation, he was also politically active in many areas. In 1960 he launched an unsuccessful campaign for New York’s 29th congressional district seat, and in 1982 he failed to unseat California Gov. Jerry Brown.