Gore Vidal…a great one gone

I regret to report that Gore Vidal has died. He was one of my favorite authors, and a notable atheist and humanist. The American Humanist Association has noted his death.

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.


  1. nohellbelowus says

    What a tremendous loss. Vidal was a brilliant writer and a truly courageous man.

  2. McC2lhu does not have gerseberms says

    I always feel a sense of true loss when someone who was a genuine intellectual passes away. He had a fine sense of humour too, so I will shoot a hotdog into my mouth in his honour.

  3. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    Damn, damn, damn!!

    You know what Vidal liked to do? When he went public speaking, he asked to be placed, as often as possible, in front of his detractors: for example, the Daughters of the American Revolution. What’s the use, he said, of preaching to the choir? The man’s natural environment was hot water.

    He was a man with guts. And a HELL of a sharp tongue (oral or written), as anyone who attracted his ire or impatience quickly knew.

    On the other hand, in the last few years he had written eloquently about how much he missed Howard Austen, and how much he looked forward to death (without doing anything active to hasten it, bar drinking heavily to anesthetize his sadness).

  4. Crudely Wrott says

    I am saddened and I know that many feel a sudden hollow space within upon this news.

    He made a difference. He will be missed.

    I trust his shoes will be filled.

  5. Crudely Wrott says

    This is from an AP article I found on myway.com. Unlike some, I find this statement most honest, indeed, most comforting. It is reason enough to love one another:

    “Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge,” he once wrote, “all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”

  6. amoeba says

    Gore Vidal was many things, and among those things he was a truly great American and well respected internationally.

    Feats that are rarely achieved, even by those who get themselves elected as President.

  7. marinerachel says

    Golly, I’m sorry to hear this.

    And it always comes as such a surprise, even regarding a man pushing ninety.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    Kurt Vonnegut gone, Stanislaw Lem gone, Ray Bradbury gone…Now this.

    Fortunately, you should have 25-30 years to build a pyramid in my honor before I croak. (Make a sphinx in the likeness of Bender in front of it)

  9. says

    Vidal was also a mystery writer, under the name ‘Edgar Box’. His three mystery novels are not particularly memorable, but he deserves a mention for them.

  10. jamesmchale says

    I worked security at Edinburgh Book Festival a few years back, I was assigned to him during his visit. We didn’t get to interact other than a brief greeting, but I got to stand behind his seat as he met the public and signed books. He was pleasant and quite witty despite the rush of trying to see so many people in so short a time.

  11. marcus says

    I still remember him squaring off against William F Buckley,Jr at the 1968 Democratic Convention and Buckley threatening to “sock” Vidal “in the goddamn face” after Vidal called him a “proto-crypto-Nazi”. Now there was some political theater.

  12. says

    in 1982 he failed to unseat California Gov. Jerry Brown

    That’s not quite right. Brown and Vidal both ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1982. Brown won (but later lost to Republican nominee Pete Wilson).

  13. thisisaturingtest says

    I remember, as a teenager, reading Vidal’s Burr and 1876, and thinking, “wow, these were real people.” IOW, Vidal’s novels made me think beyond caricatures and stereotypes of historical figures. Not so, apparently, Michele Bachmann- her reaction was to turn off her critical faculties in favor of maintaining the stereotypes:

    I was a reasonable, fair-minded Democrat…Until I was reading this snotty novel called ‘Burr,’ by Gore Vidal, and read how he mocked our Founding Fathers. And as a reasonable, decent, fair-minded person who happened to be a Democrat, I thought, ‘You know what? What he’s writing about, this mocking of people that I revere, and the country that I love, and that I would lay my life down to defend — just like every one of you in this room would, and as many of you in this room have when you wore the uniform of this great country — I knew that that was not representative of my country.
    And at that point I put the book down and I laughed. I was riding a train. I looked out the window and I said, ‘You know what? I think I must be a Republican. I don’t think I’m a Democrat.’

    I don’t think Bachmann could have remained a “reasonable, fair-minded Democrat” (or person) for long under any circumstances; but, I think it’s interesting how she credits (blames?) Vidal for the watershed moment that made her what she is. Shallow thinking at its finest.

  14. McC2lhu does not have gerseberms says

    thisisaturingtest @19:

    Wouldn’t thinking that shallow be more like meniscus thinking?

  15. thisisaturingtest says

    McC2lhu- yep, I’ll buy that. A skim of thought with just enough surface tension to bear its own weight, but nothing else.

  16. KG says

    Not many who are both a superb essayist and a serious novelist*. Orwell is the only other who springs to mind.

    *Which reminds me: I must get round to the rest of his historical series on the USA (the only one I’ve read, Lincoln, is excellent, as is Julian), and Myra Breckinridge.

  17. Doug Hudson says

    Before the hagiagraphy of Vidal gets out of hand, let me point out what he said when Polanski raped a 13 year old girl:

    “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?”

    Vidal was a misogynistic douchebag who would have fit right in with the other side of the DEEP RIFTS.

  18. thisisaturingtest says

    KG: They can be read independently, but, to get the full historical flow and essence of the series, I recommend reading them in historical order- Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire (my personal favorite, if only because the McKinley-Roosevelt era is a particular interest of mine), Hollywood, and Washington, D.C.

  19. ixchel, the jaguar goddess of midwifery and war ॐ says

    Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated is a decent reference book. Concise.

    Vidal was a misogynistic douchebag


  20. Doug Hudson says

    Also, apparently Myra Breckinridge is deeply transphobic, though I haven’t read it myself.

  21. IndyM, pikčiurna says

    @ Doug Hudson: You beat me to it. He may have been a great writer, but he was also a piece-of-shit rape apologist.

  22. KG says

    Doug Hudson,

    Thanks for the info re Gore Vidal on Polanski – I had not heard that. Not so much feet of clay as feet of shit, eh? As for Myra Breckinridge, it’s perhaps pointless to discuss a work neither of us has read, but novels of any sophistication are seldom reducible to a single viewpoint. The critic Dennis Altman is quoted as saying:

    It is tempting to argue that Vidal said more to subvert the dominant rules of sex and gender in Myra than is contained in a shelf of queer theory treatises.

  23. sc_b606d96be3a9d79b5f47f915b6533b7e says

    I am actually reading a Vidal novel right now. When I saw that he died I sort of laughed; not in a happy way, but just in a “well, there goes another important piece of our rotting culture.”

    I never heard his thoughts on Polanski, but there is plenty of things that Vidal said that I disagreed with. I think some of his thoughts on McVeigh, as an example, are just as negative as these alleged quotes on Polanski. But I think that is sort of the point about Vidal; he is interesting even when you disagree with him, and I would feel poorer if I didn’t know of him. I often felt that way about Hitchens. I couldn’t say the same for Sean Hannity, for instance.

    Along with his books, particularly Julian, I would recommend his interviews with Charlie Rose. There was one from the early nineties that I saw a year or so ago where I felt as though Vidal was predicting the next twenty years of American history. He was brilliant, if not always likable. And of course he could care less what people thought of him, which is an underrated quality.

  24. canadianchick says

    I have to admit, Vidal has always been in my “should read someday, I guess” category. The misogyny kept him in the “someday, I guess” category, but my enjoyment of the occasional ascerbic quip I’d hear kept him in the “should read” part.

    So, since I’m home sick today (again…) would someone please recommend a collection of essays or a good novel to start with? Hopefully I can find something reasonably priced on Kindle…

  25. sc_b606d96be3a9d79b5f47f915b6533b7e says

    Well as I said, I think Julian is probably his best novel. At least of those that I have read. Burr would be the next best if you’re not interested in ancient history. But I haven’t read Lincoln yet.

    I should re-phrase something I wrote above; I didn’t mean that his quote on Polanski is interesting, I just mean that he as a person was interesting even if he would more than occasionally say something that I found insane. But he was generally worth listening to, even if that quote isn’t evidence of it.

  26. Doug Hudson says

    I mean, I’m not one to hold historical personages to an unreasonable standard, but it just seems unfortunate to be lauding a vile misogynist while vile misogyny is running amuck in the atheist and skeptical communities.

  27. ChasCPeterson says

    Buckley threatening to “sock” Vidal “in the goddamn face” after Vidal called him a “proto-crypto-Nazi”. Now there was some political theater.

    Actually Buckley responded directly with “Listen, you queeeeer…” out loud; live national television, 1968 (note to the kids: there were only 3 TV networks!; ‘queer’ was as yet unreclaimed; even ‘gay’ had barely yet been heard; your choices were ‘homosexual’ or a nasty slur).

    I remember Vidal most clearly from his acting role in Bob Roberts (1992), in which he has a soliloquy, seemingly ad-libbed, in which he very accurately and eloquently predicts the last (to us) 20 years of US foreign policy, with an overall affect of supremely weary resignation to the inevitable. I’m going to watch it tonight; it’s a great movie for that and many other reasons.

  28. sc_b606d96be3a9d79b5f47f915b6533b7e says

    @32 He should be lauded as a writer; beyond that is another question. Few things are black and white. But I do think that you have to separate the art from the artist. Taking Polanski himself, I think he should be in jail for the rest of his life, and I loathe his apologists, but I don’t regret seeing Rosemary’s Baby. And it would be a mistake to talk about Vidal as though he were a Rush Limbaugh. He had many enlightened things to say on quite a number of issues. He could also be idiotic. That is the nature of most prominent and not so prominent people.

  29. Doug Hudson says

    @34, I agree with you, but the point of my posts is that I have seen a lot of posts eulogizing Vidal without mentioning his misogyny and transphobia.

    Take Polanski–his vile act (and decades of denial) does not diminish the value of his work, but neither should he be praised for his art without mentioning that he raped a child.

    Or, take a popular historical example, Thomas Jefferson. The fact that he owned slaves does not diminish his genius, but nor should he be lauded for his genius without mentioning that, oh yeah, he owned slaves.

  30. lpetrich says

    Gore Vidal also believed in some curious conspiracy theories: that GWB had allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen, and that FDR had allowed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.

  31. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    Actually, what Gore said about 9/11 was not that he believed that Bush & Pals DID allow the 9/11 attacks to happen, but that he believed that Bush and his Pals were CAPABLE of it. That is, that Bush & Co. were irredeemable fascists contemptuous of human life, and if it were ever proven that they knew about 9/11 beforehand, he would have no problem believing that they LIHOP (let it happen on purpose).

  32. ericatkinson says

    Gore Vidal also believed in some curious conspiracy theories: that GWB had allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen, and that FDR had allowed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.

    He was that nut that claimed the US Navy shot down TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

    He will not be missed by me.

  33. jnorris says

    Ernestine from the Phone Company: Gracious good afternoon, Mr Vidal won’t be answering the phone anymore.

  34. McC2lhu does not have gerseberms says

    Before the hagiagraphy of Vidal gets out of hand, let me point out what he said when Polanski raped a 13 year old girl:

    “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?”

    Having had the misfortune of living through the ’70s, I can tell you that about 95% of the population would have given you this exact same response. The question is whether Vidal maintained this sentiment up until he died, or if he, like many I know now, gained a whole lot of perspective and wisdom regarding social issues and would have taken a sympathetic tone towards the girl and properly vilified Polanski for statutory rape. I know things that have been said by my parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends through the years that if uttered on this weblog would have netted them a mile of abuse and likely a banning. Most of those things, or all of them in some instances, would be vehemently argued against by those very same people now. Citing something from the ’70s is worthy of mention, but I can’t condemn someone for saying them unless I know that the idea was maintained to present-day or if the person would now regret having said those things.

  35. KG says

    As for “statutory rape”, yes that (“unlawful sex with a minor”) is what he was convicted of after a plea bargain, but here is a transcript of the victim’s testimony. There is no reason at all to believe she was a willing participant.

  36. McC2lhu does not have gerseberms says

    Well then, that’s not right at all. Considering when it happened I thought the quote would have been from around that time. I guess he should have hung around some of my friends and rellies for a gradual enlightening, because saying something like that in 2009 is ‘some word meaning more than shitty,’ as my forgetful grandmother once said.

  37. says

    Doug Hudson: THANK YOU.

    More about that here.

    Googlemess, #29:

    But I think that is sort of the point about Vidal; he is interesting even when you disagree with him, and I would feel poorer if I didn’t know of him. I often felt that way about Hitchens. I couldn’t say the same for Sean Hannity, for instance.

    It’s a lot easier to feel that way when you aren’t the target of his bigotry.

    McC2lhu, “those were the times” doesn’t cut it as an excuse IMO. There were plenty of feminists in the 1970s calling attention to rape culture.

  38. Doug Hudson says

    @46, I was going to include the link to Tiger Beatdown myself, but then I forgot. Thanks for posting it.

    @45, Raping a 13 year old is vile in any time period.

  39. sc_b606d96be3a9d79b5f47f915b6533b7e says

    @46 “It’s a lot easier to feel that way when you aren’t the target of his bigotry.”

    I didn’t express any sympathy for Polanski apologists, and I didn’t say that I liked Vidal personally, I merely said that he was a good writer. He wasn’t my favorite author, mind you, but he had some worthwhile things to say. Ignoring every author who had a negative side to them is a path to illiteracy.

  40. Doug Hudson says

    Googlemess @48 (couldn’t you fix that?)

    I believe Ms. Daisy Cutter is referring to Vidal’s rather vicious views on gender, which are discussed in great detail at the Tiger Beat link.

    In posts above, we discussed whether Vidal’s views on child rape should impact how we viewed his work.

    But in the Tiger Beat link, they are discussing actual negative effects of the work itself.

    To use an extreme example, Mein Kampf might be brilliantly written (its not), but that would not justify the vile concepts contained within.

    Likewise, Myra Breckinridge might be a brilliant book, but its treatment of Trans* people is atrocious.

  41. sc_b606d96be3a9d79b5f47f915b6533b7e says

    I haven’t read Myra Breckinridge, I’ll take everyone’s word for it that it is offensive. But I never suggested that Vidal shouldn’t be open to criticism, as I have my own criticisms (and that was before I saw the Polanski quote.) I merely said that I admired him as a writer and sometimes for his thoughts on other issues. PZ said he admired him as well. That doesn’t excuse Vidal’s bad points, but I never implied that it did, and I doubt PZ would either.