Beneath it all – the cruelty, the bitter humour, the prose as gleaming as polished silver – Gore Vidal was naive.
There was, for him, a Platonic America: a small, pure, free republic of the caring, corrupted at the very moment of its creation – rather Christian, for a man who despised the religion – and now so depraved that it deserved the fate of Sodom.
I learned my American history from him. He introduced me to Lincoln, the one human being Mr. Vidal seemed so in awe of that he could only report him, not explain him. It took me years to overcome his grudge against Theodore Roosevelt.
Getting over Gore Vidal was an important life lesson for many of us. It took a while to realize that seeing America through his eyes required the capacity to hate. He was capable of hate; few others are.
Instead, the world briefly notes his passing, discounting the anger, remembering that he was from such a different world and such a distant past. His death reminds us of how sad a life can be that extends too far beyond its time. He lived too long.
Mr. Vidal shocked because he could. He was born into a very small but important world: the elite of the American northeast at the height of the empire. His grandfather was a U.S. senator. His parents knew, and sometimes divorced, the very best people. Mr. Vidal dropped names because he could.
He wanted to be a rebel within their cause. He went into the Army rather than attend university. He was openly and comfortably homosexual at a time when homosexuality was supposed to be uncomfortable. Politically, he was more liberal than they were, and they were more liberal in those halcyon postwar years than we are.
He would have become a parody – a public figure known for being a public figure, famous only for his insults and quarrels – but for the writing. Many, including his own editor, loved the essays best of all. The plays have proved remarkably resilient. (The Best Man is back on Broadway.) But I loved him for his historical novels.
They were catty and contrarian. He lampooned revered figures as grasping opportunists: He loved Jeffersonian democracy but had no illusions about Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton got what was coming. Theodore Roosevelt started an unnecessary war to prove he wasn't a sissy.
But the prose was beautiful, the research was meticulous, and if you received a rather skewed education in the finer points of the election of 1876, there were worse teachers.
And there was, behind it all, like a reflection on the wall of a cave, a half-glimpsed portrait of an America that could have been: an America that stayed small, that stayed true to the words that Jefferson failed to stay true to in his Declaration, that treated all men as equal, though none were quite so equal as Mr. Vidal and his friends. For him, American history was a betrayal of American possibility.
But even at the height of his powers, few really believed. He ran for Congress and lost, for a Democratic Senate nomination and lost. Worse, far worse, he started to fail to shock. You had sex with a thousand people by the age of 25? Is that all? You took illicit drugs? Who hasn't? You believe the United States is in terminal decline, bankrupt and headed for a military coup? Join the crowd.
All the worthy opponents – William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote – not only died on him, they became irrelevant along with him. No one listened to the old elites any more, not even the saucy ones. And that flickering, Platonic America he dreamed of? Even he never believed it could have existed outside the imaginations of the Framers.
Do not go back and reread Lincoln, as I did earlier this year. It's so much wordier than you remember, and so irritatingly knowing. And it's worse than that. Mr. Vidal can't love his characters. A great writer must love his characters, even if he hates everyone else in the world. But his characters are just vehicles to allow Gore Vidal to be Gore Vidal.
He was once deeply in love with Jimmie Trimble. They had met at school. Trimble was killed at Iwo Jima. That love was the foundation of The City and the Pillar. Mr. Vidal once said he only realized years later that Trimble had been "the completion of myself," his one great love.
Or a love that would remain perfect because it had never really been tested, because it was more idea than experience. Rather like the America that Mr. Vidal could glimpse, that he invited us to imagine.
Not that his death isn't a loss, even if it came after he had long since been outside his time. (He had declared Mr. Capote's death to be "a wise career move.") The world is a grubbier place now than it was when Mr. Vidal was a great man. Politics and prose today are as casually savage as he ever was, but with none of his elan. Gore Vidal has been replaced by Jon Stewart.
The class he came from has been replaced by a new set with new money and new, and much cruder, ideas.
Worst of all, the tributes over the past few days have been mostly affectionate. He would have hated that. Worship him or punch him (as Norman Mailer once did. He responded: "Words fail Norman, again"), but don't treat him like a loveable but increasingly cranky old uncle finally going to his reward.
He lived too long.