In the end, Harvard got all of Gore Vidal's money ($37M) in return for linking his name to Harvard in perpetuity. Not bad for a barefoot boy with an Exeter (barely) diploma. As a more worldily (Old World) observer would say: "Only in America." In a way, the old boy would have enjoyed the irony of it all. If this is (fair & balanced) praise of folly, so be it.
Gore Vidal vs. Academe
By Jay Parini
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Some three decades ago, I spent a sabbatical leave on the Amalfi Coast of Southern Italy. It was an idyllic period for me and my family. Within days of my arrival, I met Gore Vidal, the American writer, who lived nearby. I admired him and his work, and a kind of father-son relationship developed between us that lasted until his death in 2012. We often traveled together, and I would visit him every year in Italy. We talked on the phone every week, sometimes every day. But there was always a certain awkwardness about my academic side. "You must give up teaching," he would say. "It’s a terrible distraction."
Writers of his generation rarely found the university an agreeable setting, and many considered it a failure to take a professorial job. Gore noted that most of his contemporaries — Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, and William Styron, among others — earned a living by their pens. In that, they emulated the great generation that had gone before: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Only a few writers had strayed into the world of teachers, among them Saul Bellow and Richard Wilbur (both of whom Gore knew and admired). But they were exceptions.
American writers had rarely been involved with the academic world, especially novelists who could expect to earn a living from their writing. Even poets with academic credentials, such as T.S. Eliot (a doctoral candidate at Harvard who never defended his thesis and so never got his degree), worried about being stifled by teaching, gravitating instead to the worlds of journalism and business when they needed income. If anything, it was journalism that was the school for modern writers. Steinbeck had spent some desultory years at Stanford University, but he was an indifferent student and was able earn a good living from his fiction — the idea of teaching never seemed an option.
Gore’s own relationship with higher education was an especially anxious one. He was never gifted in any academic way, squeaking into Phillips Exeter Academy, the fancy prep school in New Hampshire, with help from his wealthy stepfather, an alumnus. His pedigree was fine enough for the elite schools: His grandfather was Senator Thomas P. Gore, a Democrat who represented Oklahoma for many years. His father, Eugene L. Vidal, served in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration as director of air commerce. The fact that Gore struggled to get decent grades at Exeter soured him on the idea of college; getting a degree when the war ended seemed to him utterly pointless. Writers needed books and what Gore always called "voluntary readers," a phrase that he used to distinguish his own audience from that of many university-friendly writers whose books were assigned in class.
That attitude masked a deep insecurity. He wondered if he were missing something, and he worked maniacally to overcome any deficiencies by industrial-strength programs in reading. His knowledge of ancient and modern history was superb, and he had read most well-known writers in the English and American literary traditions. That "learning" undergirds his magnificent essays, as in "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s," where he shows off his erudition: "One could invent a most agreeable game of drawing analogies between the fourth century and today. F.R. Leavis and Saint Jerome are perfectly matched, while John Chrysostom and John Crowe Ransom suggest a possibility. The analogy works amusingly on all levels save one: The church fathers had a Christ to provide them with a primary source of revelation, while our own dogmatists must depend either upon private systems or else upon those proposed by such slender reeds as Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot, each, despite his genius, a ritual victim as well as a hero of literary fashion."
After graduating from high school in the midst of World War II, Gore enlisted in the army, where he soon became a junior officer on a transport ship in the Aleutians. One night the ship was caught in an ice storm, and Gore suffered severe frostbite, leading to a serious arthritic condition that landed him at 19 in a military hospital in California. It was during this time as an invalid that he finished his first novel, Williwaw (1946), which tells the story of a young man on a transport ship in the Aleutians. He was obviously following Hemingway’s famous injunction to write about what you knew.
The novel was published when Gore was 20, with a decent advance. A formal education seemed to him superfluous, as he was already a voracious reader. Throughout his long life, he remained fiercely dedicated to plunging into heavy tomes, taking notes. It was as if he were always studying for an exam that never quite occurred. Never in my life have I met anyone as deeply focused on his self-education, or as determined to expand his intellectual horizons in whatever ways he could. (I recall staying with him one time in the early 90s, when he was reviewing a new translation of Montaigne’s essays for The New York Review of Books. He sat for days on end with the French edition of the essays on his lap, rereading them, underlining passages, taking notes, comparing various translations. A dozen studies of Montaigne piled up on his desk. When he finished a long day of study, he would want to sit and discuss his ideas.)
Gore knew that, to earn a living as a writer, he must become the consummate salesman of his own work. And so after the war, he traveled about the country to give lectures and readings. "Gore’s reputation was beginning to expand in academic circles," Richard Poirier, a well-known literary scholar who met Gore in the early ’50s when he came to lecture at Williams College, later told me. "But he never actually liked colleges or universities, and they didn’t like him back. As an autodidact, he didn’t approve of those who didn’t fit that mold." It was obvious to Poirier and others who met him that Gore worried that campus life would somehow suck him into its vortex. "Gore kept his eye on New York, on Broadway, on Hollywood — always looking for what he believed was the main chance," Poirier noted. "He didn’t especially like being among ‘teachers,’ as he called us."
One can’t imagine Gore in an English Department in the ’50s or early ’60s, where polite decorum of a certain kind remained in place. "I didn’t want to wear a jacket with elbow patches," he once said to me. "I never smoked a pipe." And he liked to travel freely, on a whim. He also wanted to have lots of sex with men, preferably guys he picked up on the streets for anonymous sex. (Always ambivalent, he would say he liked gay sex, but he was not gay.) His irreverence toward authority would have put him at odds with any college administration, especially before the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the late 1960s and ’70s began to take hold. And his irascible temperament would have gone down badly in the faculty lounge, where he would have specialized in insulting colleagues. His own kind of writing — fiction, personal essays without footnotes — would never have earned him tenure. Yet he wanted to be seen as someone who was smart, well-informed, and very much on top of the intellectual world — the equal of Edmund Wilson, whom he admired.
In a sense, it was book-reviewing that became Gore’s Harvard and Yale. In the mid-’50s, he began writing for a variety of publications, including the New York-based biweekly The Reporter and, beginning in the ’60s, The New York Review of Books. He liked to take on fairly academic subjects, such as the experimental French Nouveau Roman, literary theory, or postmodern fiction. Nevertheless he could not conceal his contempt for academic writing. "The Hacks of Academe," a famous essay that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1976, was ostensibly a review of a collection of essays on the novel by the literary critic John Halperin, but Gore used the occasion to bash academic pretensions and bad writing, sometimes in a decidedly snooty voice: Critics in the volume like Meir Sternberg, Robert Bernard Martin, Irving H. Buchen, Alan Warren Friedman, Max F. Schulz, and Alice R. Kaminsky "have nothing urgent or interesting to say about literature," he declared with undisguised glee, attacking their prose, inelegant phrases, and clumsy writing, damning their reliance on stock phrases and jargon. He wondered why they bothered to write at all, guessing that it was probably because "the ambitious teacher can only rise in the academic bureaucracy by writing at complicated length about writing that has already been much written about."
In 1950, Gore took up residence at Edgewater, a grand Federal-style mansion on the Hudson River, near Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he met one academic who impressed him deeply: F.(rederick) W.(ilcox) Dupee. Known as Fred, Dupee, a professor of English at Columbia University, had a Ph.D. from Yale. His interests ranged widely and his essays appeared regularly in The Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books. His genteel manner and easy erudition appealed to Gore, who was always somewhat insecure about his own social and intellectual status, and they quickly became friends.
Indeed, Gore quickly became Dupee’s informal student, later recalling to me, "Fred had written on Henry James, and he had read everything worth reading. Nobody else could talk about literature in quite the same way, with such passion and clarity. He had been a Marxist in the ’30s, a fan of Trotsky, but then had settled into a clear-eyed humanism, somewhat apolitical, very shrewd. He edited The Partisan Review for a period when it was actually readable — not a long period."
Gore also associated with such notable figures as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith — scholars who had advised presidents and had positions of leverage in the "real" world of American politics. With the examples of his grandfather and father before him, Gore was never sure whether he could live up to the family name. Being among "important" people reassured him. One evening in 1960, he accepted an invitation to Schlesinger’s house in Cambridge,MA. As Schlesinger recalled in his letters, Gore behaved badly. The other guests at dinner included Reinhold Niebuhr, Edmund Wilson, and the British economist and Labour politician John Strachey — three of the most eminent thinkers in their respective fields. According to Schlesinger, a drunken Gore "dominated the evening, instructing Niebuhr in theology, Wilson in literary criticism, and Strachey in economics and strategy. Next morning he called up and apologized for being tight."
A turning point came when Harvard invited him to give the William E. Massey Sr., Lectures in the History of American Civilization in 1992. That prestigious series had previously featured Eudora Welty, Irving Howe, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Toni Morrison, so Gore felt in good company. He told me that, after the war, he had given a reading from his first novel at Harvard, and that stayed in his memory as a glorious event, as several of his former classmates from Exeter had attended. Now he felt ready for a return to Cambridge, and his lectures became Screening History (1992), a wonderfully unorthodox blend of gossip, personal history, film criticism, and reflection on what he considered the primary art of the time. "Today the public seldom mentions a book," he told the standing-room-only audience in Memorial Hall on the first night, "though people will chatter about screened versions of unread novels."
The invitation to give the lectures had been the handiwork of the historian David Herbert Donald, who had advised Gore about his bestselling novel Lincoln (1984). I remember going to the Harvard Faculty Club on Gore’s first day in Cambridge, for lunch with Donald and Galbraith. Gore seemed quite excited to take his place among those luminaries: "They’re really the two most important professors in this school," he told me. "I met Ken during the 1960 election, in Los Angeles. He was running the brains trust for Jack."
My diary captured the moment:
As we approach the stairs of the red brick building, he grows somber: "My friends from Exeter came here right after graduation. I preferred the army, real life, war. They invited me to give a reading after the war. I wasn’t yet 24. I think I was the only person of my generation to speak at Harvard who had never gone to Harvard, never spent a day in any college."
"Do you wish you’d gone to college?"
"No, but you do. You’re like the rest of them. They think it’s only possible to think if you’ve been properly trained. But I trained myself. I read everything. The classics, history, literature, politics. I didn’t need professors like yourself telling me what to do."
"When did I ever tell you what to do?" It’s a rhetorical question, and he ignores me.
"Gore!" says Galbraith, waiting for us, an absurdly tall man with thick white hair, a baritone voice. He exudes professorial gravitas. "You’re lecturing tonight. I can’t make it. But my emissaries will take notes. Break a leg."
Gore frowns. Donald, the most genial man in the world, comes into view, smiling. He welcomed us warmly. Gore seemed in heaven in the oak-paneled dining room.
"Gore is talking about the movies tonight," says Donald to Galbraith. "His own experience of the movies. Is that right, Gore?"
"It’s the history of my times. And your times, Ken."
Galbraith responds: "We miss you around here."
"Miss me? I’m here."
"You live in Italy. You ran away from home, lit out for the territory."
"So did you. Aren’t you a Canadian?"
As ever, Gore has done his homework. And remembers it.
"Gore is our national historian — among novelists," says Donald.
"I’ve read one or two of your novels," says Galbraith. "It’s the essays that interest me."
I wonder if Gore is going to like his time at Harvard. Somehow I don’t think so.
In fact, I think Gore did like Harvard, and he would be invited back a few years later to give another lecture.
In the fall term of 1993, he came to visit me at Oxford University, where I was a visiting fellow at Christ Church College. He had seemed eager to be there, and I did my best to provide social occasions that might interest him. One night, I invited Isaiah Berlin — the great historian of ideas — to join us, as I knew Gore liked meeting people with a reputation for intelligence and wit. Again, my diaries captured the moment:
After a long dinner at high table at Christ Church — roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and string beans followed by lemon tart — Gore and I sit with Isaiah Berlin in the hushed Senior Common Room under a portrait of John Locke, one of the most illustrious of former students of the college.
In the tradition of Oxford, I get a bottle of port from the drinks table, although Gore wonders if there is any Scotch. There is, of course. Berlin looks at him sternly.
"That’s John Locke," I say, nodding to the picture. "He was here in the middle of the 17th century. They pray to him every night after dinner."
Berlin has intimidated Gore throughout the evening: I’ve never seen that before. He wore a look of childlike amazement on his face throughout the meal. Of course everyone in Oxford considers Berlin the best talker in the university, possibly in Britain. His lectures are flawless performances, without notes, full of quotations that he has memorized verbatim. He seems to have read everything, exuding a wisdom and calm that Gore has rarely encountered.
"I’m sure you know, Gore, that Locke influenced Jefferson," says Berlin. "Called him the most important man in history, with Bacon and Newton his closest rivals."
Gore shuffles through memory, looking for the correct notecard. "I think he quoted Locke in the Declaration of Independence," he says.
"Indeed," says Berlin. "He was among the first to see that the separation of Church and State was essential in a sane republic."
"I would get rid of the Church altogether," Gore says.
"No! We need the Church. I’m a Jew, but I like the fact that people pray. It opens them to an experience beyond the self."
"Do you believe in God?" Gore wonders.
"That depends, as always, on one’s definition. We’d be very small in this universe without the idea of God."
"Locke argued for tolerance," I put in. "He’s the father of tolerance, when it comes to religious belief."
Berlin nods eagerly. "We’re all liberals, aren’t we? We owe that to our man here."
"Me?" Gore teases.
"Of course we mean you," says Berlin. "You’re our guest tonight."
Both of those extracts highlight the way Gore simultaneously wanted to compete with scholars on their own ground, showing off his knowledge of whatever field spread out before him, and wished to remain aloof, someone who didn’t need to teach to earn a living. But he was, in many ways, made for the high table or faculty club, being a sharp wit, full of wry asides and memorable aphorisms, able to quote passages from favorite authors at length, eager to debate ideas. And he was, I think, a compulsive teacher: I listened to the equivalent of long lectures from him on many occasions. He would, as any good tutor might, cross-examine me, testing my theories, insisting that I support my arguments with appropriate references and sound logic.
That’s part of the reason Gore would seek out academic settings, giving lectures in his later years at the University of California at Berkeley and other universities, where he enjoyed playing the role of professor — a role he took on, quite literally, in 1994, when he played a Harvard professor in "With Honors," a minor part in a minor film about a student who loses his thesis in vaguely amusing circumstances. Around the same time, Gore had a brief residence at Dartmouth College, which he hugely enjoyed. Nevertheless, his many fans (and surely his family) were stunned when, soon after his death, they discovered that he had left his entire fortune, estimated at $37 million, to Harvard, which would house his papers. My guess is that, in a strange way, the gesture was his attempt to associate in perpetuity with academe at what he considered its highest level.
Gore’s complex, even troubled, relations with the academic world weren’t atypical of his generation of writers, but by the 1960s it had become commonplace for serious writers to take up residence on campuses, where they would teach their craft to aspiring authors. That, I know Gore believed, rightly or wrongly, represented an incredibly dark turn for American literature, and he found little to interest him in fiction by writers in creative-writing programs.
"Teaching has killed more good writers than alcohol," he once said to me. I found it a chilling thought. Ω
[Jay Parini is the D. E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College. Parini also has written more than 20 books (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry) and most recent will be Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal (forthcoming October 2015). Parini received a BA (English) from Lafayette College and a PhD (English) from the University of St. Andrews.]
Copyright © 2015 The Chronicle of Higher Education
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..
Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves