If a man’s legacy were to be gauged by the immediate response to his death, then Gore Vidal’s is very much in danger of being reduced to a succession of pithy and caustic sentences that will forever rattle round the internet, and cheapened by the descent into hysteria that warped his political views in his final years. As quotable as he was—for good and for ill—it’s worth remembering Vidal the novelist, whose writing helped define the postwar American novel because his subject—whether he was writing about religious strife in ancient Rome or middle America as a gaudy soap opera—was always the United States itself.
Vidal’s most substantial body of work is his seven-book series “Narratives of Empire,” a chronicle of the United States tinged with the Vidalian view that the nation has morphed since its inception from republic to empire. Often, Vidal’s heterodoxy affected the quality of his work; as Christopher Hitchens noted in his attack on Vidal in Vanity Fair, by the time The Golden Age was published in 2000, Vidal’s obsession with conspiracy pertaining to Pearl Harbor had overtaken him.
But Burr—his novel on the founding of the republic—and Lincoln are unsurpassed in the field of American historical fiction. Ever the contrarian, Vidal made his Lincoln a leader with dictatorial tendencies who would suspend habeas corpus and lead the North into sanguinary conflict to keep the republic together. Vidal deployed verifiable quotations to make his case that the Great Emancipator did not care much for emancipation at all: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”