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Gore Vidal as Teacher

June 21, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Gore Vidal has his work cut out for him.

In order for historical fiction like his to work as literary art, it is necessary that it not be required to do all of history's work for it. History must be knowledge already held in common if the central, poignant effect of historical fiction is to work properly; that effect, namely, by which the reader knows in advance what the characters of the novel only uncover step by step. Dickens' and Tolstoy's first readers did not learn from "A Tale of Two Cities" and "War and Peace" all t1751480608Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

But all too many of Vidal's readers do learn from his novels--like the latest, "Empire" (Random House)--all that they know of American history. At The Times recently for lunch, Vidal lamented the fact that this is true even for journalists (not to speak of reviewers). On the other hand, he has more respect than some writers do for fiction as instruction. I asked him somewhat apologetically whether he intended through his work to correct the notorious historical amnesia of his countrymen. "Of course," he answered, "Why else would I go to all this trouble?"

I had to ask because many another writer has been at pains to renounce any such socially ameliorative purpose. "I am an artist," the refrain goes, "not a schoolteacher or some kind of busy do-gooder." Vidal's refrain is different. Having run for public office twice, he sees writing as simply an alternative form of public career. If he wants now to teach, this is only because he wanted earlier to lead. He still wants to lead.

Unfortunately, the duties of his educational office sometimes interfere with his art. Presuming little historical knowledge in his readers, Vidal carefully provides them all that is necessary. But all that is necessary for historical understanding is more than is convenient for realistic fiction. His solicitude slows his exposition. And for those readers (too many) for whom Vidal's account of a set of events is their first and who therefore must experience the events pari passu with his characters, the mentioned central effect of classical historical fiction is radically undercut. It is no accident that so few writers who know the American audience attempt anything but the utterly unanalytical, "saga" variety of historical fiction--fiction as "painless" history. Vidal aims much higher. He certainly does not aim to be "painless." But he has set himself a task of almost impossible difficulty.

He succeeds best, I think, with those who need him least as a teacher. "I consider him our greatest living novelist. I have read 'Lincoln' three times," said a brilliant economist, visiting The Times on the day when Vidal was here. Journalist/biographer Ronald Steel, reviewing "Empire" in USA Today, wrote: "Because (Vidal) entertains so well, it is easy to forget how much he constructs and reconstructs. One of our finest novelists, he is also perhaps our most interesting historian."

A reader as well-prepared as Ronald Steel may forget how much Vidal constructs and reconstructs. The more usual kind of reader will not fail to notice the many times when he is sat down for a lesson. Vidal may be most in his element when mischievously revising some bit of American civic hagiography, but he is anything but a systematic historical skeptic. That kind of attitude would undermine the teaching.

"History is the agreed--" he began at one point in our lunch. "--the agreed-upon lie," I chimed in. But it was time to chime out. The familiar version is not the one he had been about to cite. Rather: "History is the agreed-upon facts," those facts, to be sure, being few and never more than a part of the truth. The rest of the truth, as Vidal sees it--but note well: only the rest, never the whole--is open for intelligent invention by journalists first, then by historians (who depend on journalists), and last by novelists (who read historians). This is not the methodology of fast and loose but that of slow and steady. It is the modus agendi of the determined teacher. Vidal wants us to get it and get it right.

There is more to history than politics, of course, even politics enlarged, as Vidal enlarges it, to include the private lives of the great and their symbiotic relationship with journalists. The period covered by "Empire" is a period when America experienced its heaviest immigration, but of this--of the sort of thing one reads about in, for example, Irving Howe's "World of Our Fathers"--Vidal has little to say. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a contemporary of Thomas Edison (1847-1931) and of the Wright brothers, but of their impact on the country "Empire" is equally silent.

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