May 29, 2004


The Essential Gore Vidal
Edited by Fred Kaplan

Fine Whine – These excerpts and reprints from a range of factual and fictional writings are Vintage Vidal: insightful, bitchily funny, occasionally awkward and often brilliant. Why is Vidal one of our nation’s most revered – and reviled – writers? Because, in fewer than 230 words, he can execute a shattering dissection of American life that a thousand phony writers, talking heads and blowhards could never even conceive, let alone deliver. Here, from a 1983 New York Review of Books essay ostensibly on William Dean Howells, is a taste:

Obviously, there is a great deal wrong with our educational system, as President Reagan recently, and rather gratuitously, noted. After all, an educated electorate would not have elected him president. It is generally agreed that things started to go wrong with the schools after the First World War. The past was taught less and less, and Latin and Greek ceased to be compulsory. Languages were either not taught or taught so badly that they might just as well not have been taught at all, while American history books grew more and more mendacious, as Frances Fitzgerald so nicely described (America Revised, 1979), and even basic geography is now a nonsubject. Yet the average ‘educated’ American has been made to believe that, somehow, the United States must lead the world even though hardly anyone has any information at all about those countries we are meant to lead. Worse, we have very little information about our own country and its past. That is why it is not really possible to compare a writer like Howells with any living American writer because Howells thought that it was a good thing to know as much as possible about his own country as well as other countries while our writers today, in common with the presidents and paint manufacturers, live in a present without past among signs whose meanings are uninterpretable.

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