The range and size of Gore Vidal's literary achievement is remarkable. He is a master of the historical novel, in which he has explored American history, ancient history, and the history of religion. He has developed his own style of science fiction combined with satire, and in the books he refers to as his "inventions" he writes cautionary tales about sex, politics, art, and philosophy. He is at once a contrarian, a wise man, and a romantic. He is also wickedly funny, and often outrageous. All of these qualities are evident in his essays, which deal with things about which he feels passionately.
He writes about other writers--Tennessee Williams, Henry James, Montaigne, Edmund Wilson--and about public life, and his own life, which has been complicated and rich. This collection (the only single volume that includes both Vidal's fiction and his essays) contains two complete long works--Myra Breckinridge, perhaps his most famous novel, and The Best Man, a play about the American presidency. There are selections from The City and the Pillar, his early, controversial novel about homosexual love, and excerpts from such later works as Julian, Duluth, and Live from Golgotha. Selections from the American history novels--Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C.--have been woven together to provide a continuous narrative. There are twenty-five essays here, on the many subjects that have engaged Vidal during his long career. The editor, Fred Kaplan, who is writing the first major biography of Vidal, has provided an introduction to the work as a whole as well as an introductory explanation of each selection. He has also prepared a biographical chronology and a bibliography.
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Nobody can accuse Gore Vidal of having narrow interests. The author of such diverse books as the historical novels Burr and Lincoln, the transgender satire Myra Breckinridge, and the imaginative religious epic Creation has one of the busiest--and most eclectic--intellects in literature today. A prolific novelist, Vidal has also enjoyed a career as playwright, essayist, and political commentator. In both fiction and nonfiction, Gore is mainly known for his cutting, satirical wit. Consider for example, this description from "Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures": "I first saw Ronnie and Nancy Reagan at the Republican convention of 1964 in San Francisco's Cow Palace. Ronnie and Nancy ... were seated in a box to one side of the central area where the cows--the delegates, that is--were whooping it up." But underneath the rapier verbiage is some serious food for thought. In an article about the Kennedys entitled "The Holy Family," Vidal concludes: "They create illusions and call them facts, and between what they are said to be and what they are falls the shadow of all the useful words not spoken, of all the actual deeds not done."
The Essential Gore Vidal includes excerpts from his finest novels, his play The Best Man, some of his early fiction, and his most memorable essays on subjects as variegated as homosexuality, feminism, and the writings of Thomas Love Peacock. Though not comprehensive, this volume does contain the cream of Vidal's output and makes for an excellent introduction to one of America's great men of letters. --Alix WilberAbout the Author:
Gore Vidal was born in 1925 at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His first novel, Williwaw, appeared in the spring of 1946, when he was nineteen years old and just out of the Army. Since then he has written twenty-two novels, five plays, many screenplays, short stories, well over two hundred essays, and a memoir.
Fred Kaplan is Distinguished Professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Thomas Carlyle: A Biography; Charles Dickens: A Biography; and Henry James: The Imagination of a Genius.
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