Like his National Book Award-winning United States, Gore Vidal's scintillating ninth collection, The Last Empire, affirms his reputation as our most provocative critic and observer of the modern American scene. In the essays collected here, Vidal brings his keen intellect, experience, and razor-edged wit to bear on an astonishing range of subjects. From his celebrated profiles of Clare Boothe Luce and Charles Lindbergh and his controversial essay about the Bill of Rights-which sparked an extended correspondence with convicted Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh-to his provocative analyses of literary icons such as John Updike and Mark Twain and his trenchant observations about terrorism, civil liberties, the CIA, Al Gore, Tony Blair, and the Clintons, Vidal weaves a rich tapestry of personal anecdote, critical insight, and historical detail. Written between the first presidential campaign of Bill Clinton and the electoral crisis of 2000, The Last Empire is a sweeping coda to the last century's conflicted vision of the American dream. From the Trade Paperback edition.
Gore Vidal admires Edmund Wilson, Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, W.D. Howells, the recently resurrected Dawn Powell ("our best mid-century novelist") and the almost entirely unknown Isabel Potter. His praise, however, often seems a form of self-portraiture: when he remarks on Wilson's "powerful wide-ranging mind," one gets the feeling that he's glancing at a mirror. And in a public-relations first, he manages to extract a posthumous blurb of sorts from Thomas Mann 47 years after the publication of Vidal's novel The City and the Pillar (the German novelist had ignored the novel when Vidal sent it to him in 1948, but Vidal publishes here extracts from Mann's diary which describe the work as "brilliant" in parts but "faulty and unpleasant" overall). Vidal despises academics and the humorless, two groups apparently synonymous in his mind. There is a cautionary illustration here of the folly of answering a negative review: when Vidal trashes a Mark Twain biography and the author replies, Vidal's response is a crippling artillery blast. But that salvo is nothing compared to the tonnage he drops on arch-rival John Updike; Vidal devotes the longest of these essays to a merciless bombardment of Updike for being shallow and jingoistic, undeterred (or perhaps spurred on) by Updike's superior critical reputation. When not settling literary scores, Vidal turns to politics, where he belies his patrician background by consistently rooting for the little people in their struggles against an impersonal empire. In one especially choice paragraph, Vidal observes that two months after The City and the Pillar was published and its same-sex themes put an end to the political ambition his family had for him, his cousin Al Gore was born in a moment of "weird symmetry... whose meaning I leave to the witches on the heath." Commenting on Gore's central flaw, his Jimmy Carter-like obsession with flawless order, Vidal observes that the greatest presidents, such as FDR, knew that nothing really connects and that the best political minds simply adapt and move on. Vidal's ninth collection of essays, this one shows the mandarin populist to be at the height of his powers of both vituperation and sagacity. It leaves one impatient already for the tenth. (June) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 11, 2002
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Excerpt from The Last Empire by Gore Vidal
Edmund Wilson: Nineteenth-Century Man
"Old age is a shipwreck." Like many a ground soldier, General de Gaulle was drawn to maritime metaphors. Of course shipwrecks are not like happy families. There is the Titanic-swift departure in the presence of a floating mountain of ice, as the orchestra plays the overture from Tales of Hoffmann. There is the slow settling to full fathom five as holds fill up with water, giving the soon-to-be-drowned sufficient time to collect his thoughts about eternity and wetness. It was Edmund Wilson's fate to sink slowly from 1960 to June 12, 1972, when he went full fathom five. The last entry in his journal is a bit of doggerel for his wife Elena: "Is that a bird or a leaf? / Good grief! / My eyes are old and dim, / And I am getting deaf, my dear, / Your words are no more clear / And I can hardly swim. / I find this rather grim."
"Rather grim" describes The Sixties, Wilson's journals covering his last decade. This volume's editor, Lewis M. Dabney, starts with an epigraph from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," thus striking the valetudinarian note. New Year 1960 finds Wilson at Harvard as Lowell Professor of English. He suffers from angina, arthritis, gout, and hangovers. "At my age, I find that I alternate between spells of fatigue and indifference when I am almost ready to give up the struggle, and spells of expanding ambition, when I feel that I can do more than ever before." He is in his sixty-fifth year, a time more usually deciduous than mellowly fruitful. But then he is distracted by the people that he meets and the conversations that he holds, all the while drinking until the words start to come in sharp not always coherent barks; yet the mind is functioning with all its old energy. He is learning Hungarian, as he earlier learned Hebrew and before that Russian, a language whose finer points and arcane nuances he so generously and memorably shared with Vladimir Nabokov, unhinging their friendship in the process.