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Gore Vidal's 'Empire' Was a Letdown of Epic Proportions

September 21, 1987

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty

Some weeks ago I took my children to West Point. We visited the military museum, and since I was at the time reading Gore Vidal's historical fictions, I was drawn to a glass case containing exhibits from the Philippine war (which is one of the subjects of Empire), "The cession of the Philippines to the United States in 1899," the labels explain, "as a result of the Spanish-American War prompted those Filipinos who wanted complete independence to rise against the Americans. The Insurgent Army…began hostilities in February, 1899… A total of 120,000 American soldiers participated before the Insurgents were finally suppressed." Pondering this succinct piece of historiography, I went to the souvenir counter, where my son fixed upon what might best be called an equestrian statuette of George Washington. As 1 asked for it, someone remarked, "You've got to call him Jorge now. Today everything's going Spanish." And just then a stream of visitors came through the turnstiles: a heavily Hispanic group from New York.

The episode was strangely consistent with my reading. There was something more than a little grotesque about walking through a museum of conquest with the admiring descendants of the conquered (there were quite a number of Filipino addresses in the guest book). I wondered if Vidal, who was born at West Point, had had his introduction to American history in this place.

Empire, the latest volume in Vidal's series of historical fictions, is composed with a comic technique made up largely of the grotesque. President McKinley shovels his bulbous stomach out of the way so that he can kneel in prayer for divine guidance on the question of the Philippines. (God, of course, tells him to annex.) Mrs. McKinley's tongue pops out of her mouth as she winks at the secretary of state during an epileptic fit that the secretary at first thinks a lascivious gesture, and that the president conceals by carefully draping a handkerchief over his wife's twitching face. William Randolph Hearst plucks out a Scott Joplin rag on the banjo while plotting to rescue Alfred Dreyfus from Devil's Island in order to get a front-page story at the expense of the French. Del Hay, the secretary's son, falls to his death out of a dormitory window at his Yale reunion, and his betrothed, shrieking in horror, crawls about the sidewalk looking for the opal that has broken off from his ring. Teddy Roosevelt cheats at arm wrestling.

One chuckles, but there is something drearily repetitive about these caricatures. They have, in many cases, only the truth of cliché. As history, the novel is badly truncated. A serious inquiry into the roots of American imperialism must begin at least with the Mexican War, if not with the Louisiana Purchase and the post-colonial westward expansion. Vidal treats the former not at all; the latter he dealt with rather glibly in Burr: A Novel (1973). And as fiction Empire is tired. The book is one long expression of disgust. Its female lead, the castrating Caroline Sanford, is a rather mechanical combination of Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg and Henry Adams's Mrs. Lightfoot Lee—a sprightly witch who lends the book a certain energy, but who is really just another version of Vidal's frequently portrayed nouveau riche: "I have found," says Charlie Schuyler in 1876 (1976), "that when one starts to think ofmoney, one cannot, finally, think of anyother subject. More worries of this sortand I shall be a proper New Yorker . . .no longer alien." Empire is largely an extensionof that remark. At its center is aforeign-born woman who converts toAmericanism, by which Vidal means essentiallycarnivorous greed.

Vidal's fictions oscillate between revulsion and fascination for such people. He shuffles them into two piles: one for the stupid and reprehensible, the other for the sharp and delectable. The ultimate point of this game is to explode all received platitudes about the visible makers of American history. And so he works into Empire some bits of platitudinous decoration—public recitations of Kipling's poem on "the white man's burden," applause lines from Manifest Destiny speeches, dormant missionary instincts strategically revived. He writes very much in the voice of Henry Adams (who is his intellectual model) on the American conjunction between historical ignorance and technological genius: "McKinley barely knew of Caesar and Alexander; yet he had conquered almost as much of the earth as either, without once stirring from the ugly national house with its all-important telegraph-machine and no less potent telephone." Justin Kaplan has rightly said that the soundtrack for Empire would be selections from John Philip Sousa. Vidal, I think, would want the band to play slightly off key.

Empire is interesting only to the extent that it is a book shadowed by its extraordinary predecessor, Lincoln (1984). "The Major," says Secretary Hay, meaning McKinley, "is quite alone, it seems to me, which makes him very like the President." "He is the President," his daughter reminds him. "Hay smiled; pushed a crumb out of his beard. 'When I say the President like that, seriously, I mean only one.'" John Hay shuffles through Empire, a dying man, wondering aloud how his idol, Lincoln, would have judged him. At one point, about to take another step toward securing American interests against the waning Spanish hegemony and the kaiser's waxing dreams of lebensraum, he poses the question to his old colleague John Nicolay:

"The empire we're assembling. Do you think, . . that the Ancient would approve?"
Nico's response was quick. "The Ancient, no. The Tycoon, yes. He was of two minds, always."
"But he acted with a single view."
"Yes, but he thought for such a long time before he acted. The cautious Ancient and the fierce Tycoon held long debates, and Mr. Lincoln, in the end, arbitrated, and handed down his decision."

This is typical Vidal in one respect: rulers chit-chatting over the fate of supine millions. But in another sense this moment in Empire is quite atypical; Vidal embraces here exactly what he everywhere else condemns: the conviction that there was once a better time than the present. "There was never a golden age. There will never be a golden age and it is sheer romance to think we can ever be better than we are now." (The character who says this—it might as well be Vidal himself—is "radiant in his despair.") Under Lincoln, however, the cause of the Republic once had dignity. There is a sense in which the new novel is the working out of the hideous paradox that a great man's unrelenting defense of the Union made it possible for his pygmy successors to play the imperial game.

Lincoln has been Vidal's one concession that something other than tawdriness and hypocrisy might have been present in American political life. It was composed in a spirit quite unlike anything, except for Julian (1964), that Vidal has done. The publication of Empire, which marks a reversion to Vidal's customary mode of knowing ridicule, furnishes an occasion to ask why.

There are some clues in the first book in which he tested his American theme, Washington, D.C. (1967). As a literary performance it was negligible, the work of a cartoonist playing with stock figures. Washington, D.C. reproduced, among other predictable characters, a sinister financier with a Mephistophelian whisper who buys politicians; a Southern senator who, haunted by visions of his father gloriously wounded at Bull Run, tries to repeat the rebel victory by conquering that ultimate Yankee, FDR; and a king-making newspaper magnate (the Blaise Sanford who reappears as a young man in Empire) willing to commit his own daughter to an asylum to ensure the fortunes of his disciple, for whom he has carnal as well as political uses.

This was, as Wilfrid Sheed put it when the novel first came out, "Trollope in the world of Allen Drury," Today it reads like the higher Falcon Crest. But at the center of the book there was a genuine emotion: disgust for all those in possession of power. The emotion was especially directed at the sexually ruthless political climber about whom a story of heroism in the Pacific is concocted, and who, prudently neutral on Joe McCarthy, rises by the novel's end to the verge of the presidency. With a conspicuous flinch, Vidal later characterized the enterprise of Washington, D.C. as "the history of the United States from the Revolution to—well, the beginning of Camelot."

At one point in this barely veiled assault on the Kennedys (whom Vidal had trashed in an essay entitled "The Holy Family," and to whom he felt himself "related" by his mother's having followed Jackie's in the succession of Hugh Auchincloss's wives) he reflects on a parade in 1940 that carried the American president and the English king and queen from Union Station to the White House: "People lined the avenue, staring at the chauffeur-driven cars which contained their masters." The envy this sentence expressed for the principals of the motorcade was matched only by its contempt for the gaping multitude, among whom Vidal was shocked to find himself. If he had once honored the wrong royalty (he had seen in John Kennedy the stirring of "a torpid society…by its youthful leader") he made abundant amends in "The Holy Family." Washington, D.C. was published in the same year, and amplified the same sentiments: "Between the middle class to which he belonged," says a character in the novel, "and the [upper] class whose existence he often denied, there was plainly a division more significant than any he had suspected: the guilty dreams of the one were suddenly revealed to be the essential acts of the other."

Such was the beginning of Vidal's full-scale assault on the American ruling class, whose chief defect sometimes seems to be its exclusion of Gore Vidal. From the Dutch gentry to the Gilded-Age "Astorocracy" (he had lived among remnants of both in his Barrytown mansion), they became the subject for which Vidal was destined. His contempt for them matches his longer-established disdain for the common people whom they manipulate, but who did not sustain his energy of invention. His interest in common folk was already petering out in his first novel, Williwaw (1946), which mocked its cast of enlisted men for their pathetic competition over string-haired prostitutes and which documented their quarrels, when assigned to mess duty, over whether the cutting edge of the knife should face toward the plate or away. Vidal has always seen the world of ordinary Americans through the eyes of Kreton, his Visitor from a Small Planet (1955), who tells the suburban zombies who receive him that "I'm here to intoxicate myself with your primitive minds."

But this intoxication was a passing pleasure. Only power—the acquisition of which requires a certain kind of intelligence—could truly arrest Vidal's attention. And so in Burr he contrived a pockmarked and explosive General Washington, readier to send his men into the jaws of the British military machine than to listen to subordinates' suggestions. Jefferson is a randy and crafty liar, about whom Vidal spares no opportunity to remind us that his life of gentility was built on the labor of slaves. Hamilton is a monarchist fop. Only Burr, with whom Vidal identifies as a figure (very like Adams) on the outskirts of power, comes off well: "Of an entire generation of public men, Burr was free of cant; he never moralized unless to demonstrate a paradox."

The trouble with this mode of historical satire is not that it offends against pieties that have some claim to legitimacy, but rather that it is delivered with more spite than wit. Its point is essentially to fill the gallery with famous figures in order to debunk them as rogues; Vidal wants us to laugh again and again as he paints the mustache on Mona Lisa. Apparently the method works. Empire is a strong seller; copies are getting bleached and sandy at all the right beaches. Vidal has also become one of the few authors who bridge the gap between upper- and middle-brow readers; Empire was excerpted before publication in both Harper's and Cosmopolitan.

But if we read him as anything more than a gifted purveyor of salable fictions, a further trouble comes into view. Whenever Vidal raises genuine historical questions, he tends to answer them with unrelieved flippancy. Was the outcome of the Revolutionary War really a French victory, with the Continental Army an incidental band of roughnecks? Is it true that "except for a handful of ambitious lawyers, there were very few 'patriots' in 1776"? Is it an accurate assessment of Burr's relation to his evangelical lineage (he was Jonathan Edwards's grandson) that the only reader of Edwards is the madam of the local brothel?

Most such opinions are filtered through an observing consciousness-—the newspaperman Charlie Schuyler, or the resentful Burr himself—and cannot, therefore, be fairly attributed to Vidal in every case. Yet he delights in the composite picture into which they converge: a vision of the Revolution in which the people are a duped herd, doing the dirty work for rich men tired of giving up their profits as taxes or bribes to British bureaucrats. As the series of fictions builds its cumulative indignation, such conclusions begin to constitute a coherent version of the American past, a sorry tale of political sleazehounds and sheer greed—sometimes for power, almost always for money, occasionally for status or sex. (One tiresome constant from the Revolution to the cold war is that all politicians love to whore.)

Vidal's next stop, avoiding Lincoln, was the easy target of Grant and his cronies in 1876. Still, after the frolic of Burr, even as he extended and enlarged its tone in 1876, there were signs of a preparatory change. As the political bandits in the centennial novel—a book encouraged, no doubt, by Watergate—refer to the dimming memory of "Old Ape," we have the sense that Vidal is no longer laughing with them. His portrait of the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, goes briefly somber, as Tilden speaks with conviction on behalf of the increasingly exploited poor, and Vidal's journalist-spokesman, an older Charles Schuyler who has returned from decades in Europe, even wonders if the governor might have the makings of a great national leader. But he does not. Robbed of the presidency by Lincoln's Republican heirs, Tilden is actually no more than a belching invalid, potentially our first "virgin president."

As for the victorious opposition, Henry Adams thought that “the progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin," and Vidal appears to agree. The country was now being run by simian fools—but unlike Adams, Vidal has no theory of declension (and does not therefore have to contend with the implications of such a theory for his own pride of family descent). Between Washington and Grant there is no distance. The gossip journalism of Leggett and Bryant in Burr is not fundamentally different from the yellow journalism of Hearst in Empire.  Everyone in or near power is always the same.

Given the convulsive cynicism that produced this historical vision, the phenomenon of Lincoln was all the more remarkable. It was stylistically an entirely different work—written with a new tranquility and intensity, rarely spinning off into the almost hysterical mockery that characterizes its predecessors. Some of the familiar trappings remained: the canny madam who knows her generals and senators better than their wives know them; Lincoln's constipation that leads him to carry on discussions, like LBJ of the famous story, while seated on the pot. But this sort of joke has become dutiful; in fact it serves the purpose of demonstrating the pettiness of the men around Lincoln (who gossip over the question of whether he has syphilis and what its symptoms might be) in comparison to his capacious and undistracted understanding.

Vidal's Lincoln, who grows a tactical beard to add some distinction to his bony lawyer's face, is "the first politician to understand the importance and influence of photography." He is, in such respects, the ancestor of the political marketeers Vidal loves to upbraid. But Lincoln is vastly different because his strategies are in the service of a transcendent purpose: the preservation of the Union. This portrait incorporates an element of the fanatic, as Lincoln's lesser contemporaries, each in thrall to some limited constituency, recognize their helplessness before him—cut off from his superior imagination by "the wall of marble in his mind from which he read his finished texts."

The distance of Lincoln from the other volumes in Vidal's series is simply amazing. By far Vidal's commanding book, Lincoln was unpredicted by its predecessors and is unchallenged by its successor. It deflected satirical contempt from its center to its periphery, from Lincoln to the figures who surround him—Secretaries Seward and Chase, the bloodsucking bankers, the prancing Union generals, and a variety of office-seekers and functionaries. Early on we meet a "bald young man" who hangs about the edges of political huddles in the Willard Hotel, trying to learn what the new president's plan might be for his eminent father, a loyal Republican congressman from Massachusetts who expects to be named ambassador to the Court of St. James's. The young man, again Henry Adams, is attached to his father as a private secretary, but hopes the prize will be withheld: "I'd rather miss out on London than on Lincoln," he says. Hay asks why. "Well, if he should fail, there will no longer be a country. And since my family believes that we invented the whole thing, I'd certainly like to see what becomes of the remains."

Lincoln, like the passages of the Education in which Adams looked back to the Civil War, seems to have marked for Vidal a brief lapse from habitual mordancy into sudden fervor—an imaginative return home to confront the meaning of the Republic. He handles language differently as well. His management of imagery had previously been hesitant or mannered, but in Lincoln he exerts much more control. Earlier tropes tended to be conventional ("Enid," in Washington, D.C, rises from the "tub like a sleek wateranimal") or to strain for effect (when Governor Tilden fixes his gaze in 1876, "It was as if two large round gray clamshad, of their own accord, opened andlooked up at me, as from the half-shell.Were I holding a lemon, I might havesqueezed it"); Lincoln is free fromarchness.

The language is worked with a new adroitness and consistency. Metaphor tends to function as an index to the observing consciousness that formulates it. The Midwestern Chase sees Lincoln, dully and provincially, "as cold and dense as the Ohio River in February." Seward, the ward politician from New York, listens to the president explain his decision to suspend habeas corpus, and feels "as if two millennia of law had been casually erased by this peculiar lazy-limbed figure, now twisted in his chair like an ebony German pretzel." Such effects have a new precision, and a purpose beyond authorial self-display. They are part of a technique that reveals Lincoln at a remove—as Melville does the whale—through the limited minds with which he is masterfully in dialogue. Throughout the novel Vidal keeps a respectful distance from the central man, willingly unable to invade him and survey him from within. Lincoln is different because, despite his irreverence and impatience with dogma, he is fundamentally religious. His religion is Union. The imperialists, the abolitionists, the party opportunists—all wither in the heat of his faith.

And so the writing in Lincoln reaches for sublimity, as in the moving account of the president's visit to the Confederate wounded, or the telling of Willie's death and Mary Todd's encroaching madness. There are passages that make one weep. This novel will, I suspect, maintain a permanent place in American letters. There has been no better prose in the last 50 years than that with which Vidal narrates the streaming of the panicked people down Pennsylvania Avenue to the "soft thud of cannons" from the debacle of the first Bull Run. The portrait of Winfield Scott, in whose face the "wonns [were] at work" as he absorbs the meaning of the disaster, is one of many small masterpieces within the masterful whole.

Next to Lincoln, Vidal's new novel is a series of miniature lampoons. Empire is soundly researched and sporadically entertaining, but it has no center, and its point is easily made: America, spouting democratic ideals, ravages the world in order to satisfy the appetites of its fat-cat owners, who always want more. And it is in this unmasking of America's international behavior as pure, crude imperialism that Vidal lodges his claim to being a man of the left.

Empire does constitute a sort of Marxist history lesson; and it has a certain topicality, with Marcos dreaming of his return to Manila and pro-contra stars-and-stripes speeches playing well. "The last best hope of earth," Vidal wrote recently in Newsweek,  "two trillion dollars in debt, is spinning out of control, and all we can do is stare at a flickering cathode ray tube as Ollie 'answers' questions on TV while the press, resolutely irrelevant as ever, asks politicians if they have committed adultery. From V-J day 1945 to this, has been, my fellow countrymen, a perfect nightmare." (We may imagine Vidal muttering that Henry Adams at least got closer than a TV screen—he lived on Lafayette Park—to observing the events and principal actors of his day.) Vidal lays claim to radical convictions. Yet one may ask how far his critique of American political culture extends beyond tirade into a vision of social transformation.

He can have it, in effect, both ways, because he can tell the New Left Review (with a cheerfulness that must have been discomfiting for the interviewer) that he is "a left-wing conservative Puritan." That is as good a phrase as any to describe his hybrid political instincts. In an essay on Dos Passos he confesses to having "enjoyed, even admired, the dottiness of his politics. His political progress from Radical Left to Radical Right seems to me very much in the American grain." This is quite right. The tropes of right and left fiendish conspirators bilking the people—often run together. And Vidal's own writings offer a reprise of the theme.

The American people remain in his fiction mostly a blur, and when they do come into focus it is not a pretty picture. (The wartime portraits in Williwaw are, for example, far less generous than those in Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead.) Vidal's fictions are a record of what Brooks Adams (who gives pro-annexation speeches at the beginning of Empire)  called "the degradation of the democratic dogma." Vidal is not just outraged at the distance between ideals and reality; he is skeptical of the idea of democracy itself. One imagines him walking through the West Point museum with contempt for both the memorialized soldiers and the public that comes there with some vague intent to honor them. And yet he calls himself "a correctionist," which is a fair synonym for liberal: "If something is wrong in society it must be fixed."

Vidal writes that "when Confucius was asked what would be the first thing that he would do if he were to lead the state—his never-to-be-fulfilled dream [Vidal, as every book jacket reminds us, ran well for Congress as a Democrat in Republican Dutchess County]—he said rectify the language. This is wise. This is subtle." These terms—"correctionist" and "rectify"—are revealing. Vidal harbors a secret vision of return to a lost condition of proper relations, social and linguistic. There is an ideal order; and therefore there is a certain fastidiousness in Vidal's brand of satire, a kind of hold-the-nose distaste for everyone. His aspiration to "rectify the language" (which is a pretty wild claim, given his usually cavalier diction) belongs, I think, not to the radical native tradition of American writers who have wanted, with Whitman, to see the national language inflamed into an unprecedented and open future—"fann'd by the breath of nature"—but to the reactionary tradition of Fisher Ames, who wrote, in Burr's day, that "of all flattery, the that the voice of the people is the voice of God."

Vidal was lifted out of such vitriol only once, and only by Lincoln, whom he treats as the indispensable commoner at a time when the Republic almost perished. Since the Civil War, he seems to believe, the problem of American politics has become the problem of consolidated power—too much in the hands of too few, who are insufficiently answerable to the people. But given his dim view of the citizenry, this involves him in a paradox. It locates him rather close to those honorable, if superannuated, figures in his fiction (like Senator Day of Washington, D.G.) who cling to the oldest form of American liberalism (now become conservatism), laissez-faire. In its degraded form, this amounts to the belief that the only political crime is to interfere with the legitimate fulfillment of other men’s greed. New Deal economic interventionism thus becomes a form of graft. Vidal feels the insufficiency of such a reactionary political instinct, but he is not wholly free of it.

There is no one writing historical novels (and precious few historians) who can compare with Vidal in his flair for his material. Yet one has the sense that his friction with the subject is rubbing him raw. His considerable achievement has been to see that Lincoln's triumph was to guarantee that there would never be another man like him. After reading through what is now Vidal's quintet, one feels that political greatness cannot coincide with a personal vision of the transcendent purposes of power. But if it can now come only in the form of restraint on the immensely destructive potential of power, that is, among other things, bad news for writers. Self-abnegation is an old theme for fiction, but generally a dull one; and Vidal shows no interest in reversing his procedure and writing American history "from the bottom up." For one thing, he would lose his audience, which surely prefers to read about the misdeeds of the rich and powerful than about the consequences for everyone else.

I suspect that Vidal once thought that the exception to the post-Lincoln rule might have been John Kennedy. He "seemed always to be standing at a certain remove from himself, watching with amusement his own performance. He was an ironist in a profession where the prize usually goes to the apparent comball. With such a man as chief of state, all things were possible." But Kennedy died too soon; and he had, according to Vidal, already begun to succumb to the delusive thrill of office. Perhaps Vidal will yet find another figure who can lift him out of his bile. But he will probably have to imagine such a person. The historical record has not, I think he believes, provided him with more than one.