Gore Vidal: A Biographyby Fred Kaplan
Few writers of recent memory have distinguished themselves in so many fields, and so consummately, as Gore Vidal. A prolific novelist, Vidal also wrote for film and theater, and became a classic essayist of his own time, delivering prescient analyses of American society,/b>
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Fred Kaplan’s insightful biography of the inimitable and brilliant Gore Vidal
Few writers of recent memory have distinguished themselves in so many fields, and so consummately, as Gore Vidal. A prolific novelist, Vidal also wrote for film and theater, and became a classic essayist of his own time, delivering prescient analyses of American society, politics, and culture. Known for his rapier wit and intelligence, Vidal moved with ease among the cultural elite—his grandfather was a senator, he was intimate with the Kennedys, and one of his best friends was Tennessee Williams. For this definitive biography, Fred Kaplan was given access to Vidal’s papers and letters. The result is an insightful and entertaining portrait of an exceptional and mercurial writer.
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GORE VIDAL'S last name is his father's family name, his first his mother's. Born October 3, 1925, at West Point, New York, he was named, and thirteen years later baptized by the canon of Washington's Episcopalian National Cathedral Church, Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, Jr. His father, who had a poor memory for such things, could not remember for certain whether his own name was Eugene Louis or Eugene Luther. He mistakenly put Louis rather than Luther on his son's birth certificate. His exasperated son remarked, years later, that since his father was then an instructor at West Point, "He might have asked the head of his department what his name was. "You know, I've forgotten my name. Could you tell me?'" At his baptism the Luther was restored. He also added, as another middle name, his mother's maiden name. His maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, the young boy's highest model of worldly achievement, was a United States senator. Then, at the age of sixteen, Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, Jr., decided that a partial act of self-naming would anoint him with the best of both traditions. He wanted a sharp, distinctive name, appropriate for an aspiring author or national political leader. "I wasn't going to write as Gene since there was already one. I didn't want to use the Jr." He dropped his first two names and the Jr. Thenceforth he was, so to speak, just Gore Vidal.
The Gore family saga is aggressively American, mostly Southern and Southwestern. When, in the early seventeenth century, the first Gores arrived in America from their Protestant Anglo-Irish origins, one brother went to New England, the other to Maryland, apparentlynever to meet again. The brothers probably came from Ireland, where the English Gores (of whom there were many) had been awarded land for service to the crown. They settled in Donegal, resolutely Anglo-Irish and anti-Catholic. Where they originally came from in England is unclear; so too is the nature of their service to the crown, though it probably had something to do with putting down the Irish. In Maryland, James Gore flourished, the patronymic father of seemingly innumerable farmers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, soldiers, politicians--three hundred years of ambitious, stubbornly assertive individualists. English and Irish origins faded into family legend and historical mist. They later associated themselves with the category Scots-Irish, which proved useful to those who wanted to make clear that though they were from Ireland, they were not Catholics. From generation to generation American Gores were to have names like James, Thomas, Manning, Austen, Albert, Notley, Elias, Ellis, Ezekiel.
The immigrant James and his immediate descendents leased and owned substantial tracts of land in what is now part of central Washington and in the Georgetown-Rock Creek Park area. They fought in the French and Indian and then in the Revolutionary War, by the time of the latter apparently staunchly anti-British. They were fruitful and multiplied. As each died, land had to be divided or sold or both. Each needed a property, a stake, an opportunity. Fortunately, there was always land to the west. Toward the end of the French and Indian War, one of the immigrant James's grandsons, Thomas, was granted or bought land in South Carolina. Selling extensive property in Maryland, part of the large family moved, before the Revolution began, southward and westward, to Chester County, near Spartanburg, in northwestern South Carolina. Thomas Tindal Gore, perhaps Thomas Gore's nephew, the son of his brother Manning, was born in South Carolina in the celebratory year 1776, and became the patriarch of the next generation. With his wife, by whom he had eight sons and five daughters, he raised cotton along the fertile banks of the Sandy River. In 1817, in wagons, Thomas Tindal moved his family south and westward, probably looking for better land, more land, more autonomy, some release for a combination of restlessness and ambition. His willful individualism traveled with the word of his Methodist God and the assumption that the Gores were a chosen people. Once more there was someplace better to the west. White American settlers and their government in Washington had from the beginning conspired to buy or conquer (whichever was more practical) the lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River.
First the Thomas Tindal Gores went to Alabama, on the northwestern border of Alabama with Mississippi, where whites were rapidly replacing Indians. Apparently Thomas Gore kept an inn and ran a livery barn in Pickens County. In 1830 he was elected a county commissioner and then ran for the Alabama state senate. In 1840 the patriarch took part of his family directly westward into north-central Mississippi to Choctaw County, which had once been the heartland of the Choctaw Indian nation. Some Choctaws remained behind, never to be assimilated, but most were forced farther west, by economic and military pressure, across the river to what was later to be part of Oklahoma. With other white settlers, the Gores seized the opportunity. Thomas Tindal Gore purchased from a Choctaw Indian for two hundred dollars a large property along the Yalobusha River in what is now Calhoun City, then a hardscrabble frontier town in a county in which the land was tough, resistant, and hilly, and no one wealthy. As the Gores moved westward, they farmed whatever was the best local crop of the region. They preached the Word. They healed the sick. They were quick-tongued, sharp-witted, smart. They talked and argued and argued and talked, sometimes for sport, always with passion. Thomas Tindal Gore's descendants were soon to fight (and some to die) in the Civil War, regional patriots, small slaveowners, hill-country farmers, Methodist ministers, noticeably idealistic, argumentative, hot-tempered, and clannishly loyal. "If a snake should bite one Gore, the entire family would swell from it." They were mostly unionists who found themselves trapped by local patriotism and pressure into fighting an enemy with whose underlying principle of national union they agreed. When the war came, they did their duty. They cared little about freeing slaves; they themselves had few or none. Plantation life and rule from Richmond were as alien as Northern factories and rule from Washington. But local autonomy was a rallying principle. Fighting for home rule, numbers of Gores were killed in battle.
Thomas Tindal's thousands of Calhoun County acres had to be divided among a large number of heirs, the most memorable of whom was Ezekiel Fletcher Gore, Gore Vidal's great-great-grandfather, an evangelist at the distant end of the Second Great Awakening, nicknamed "Rock," a Methodist minister of stubborn rectitude. With his Georgia-born wife, Mary Green, he populated this new world with twelve children. He was an indefatigable circuit rider with a flair for the dramatic. On one occasion he was summoned by the organizing committee of a revival to breathe new life into a passionless series of meetings. They did not know if he would come. "The next day the eleven o'clock hour was approaching, the congregation had assembled, and no word from "Rock' Gore. As several men . . . stood outside looking in the direction from which he would arrive, they saw him rounding a curve in the road with his horse at full gallop. He rode up, tossed the bridle reins to someone nearby, took his Bible and went into the Church singing one of the great old revival hymns."
The next generation brought Ezekiel Gore's strong-principled religious assertiveness into the tumultuous post-Civil War politics of northern Mississippi. His numerous children were always politicians, and imbued their politics with the same passionate rhetoric that their grandfather had brought to his religion. The Civil War had impoverished a never particularly prosperous county. Postwar recovery was slow, cash scarce, crops poor. Reconstruction seemed to most Southern whites an abomination, though Choctaw County had relatively few blacks to enfranchise. And with the end of military rule in 1869, the Democratic Party that had dominated the county before the war gradually regained control, though not before the 1874 Reconstructionist Mississippi state legislature divided the county and named the northern part Sumner, after the Massachusetts abolitionist.
Republicans began to disappear from Mississippi. In 1882 the leaders of Sumner County succeeded in having its name changed to the less offensive Webster. Daniel had some of the mitigating afterglow of a belated Founding Father. Reconstruction had been beaten back, and demographics made white power secure; only 25 percent of the county's ten thousand residents were black. The pervasive problem was agricultural depression. People lived spartan lives, close to the proverbial bone. Material sophistication hardly rose above the level of their pioneer grandparents', though Ezekiel's sons were slightly better off than the average. Children of the Book, they were bookish enough to pursue professions as well as farm. To some extent they all became caught up in the tumultuous political events that dominated Webster County in the 1880s.
Meet the Author
Fred Kaplan (b. 1937) has written biographies of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Abraham Lincoln, Gore Vidal, and Mark Twain, as well as Sacred Tears, a study of sentimentality in Victorian literature. His biography Thomas Carlyle (1983) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Kaplan is distinguished professor emeritus of English at both Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
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