The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000

Overview

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 ...
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The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000

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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Love him or hate him as a novelist, you have to agree that Gore Vidal is one of our finest and most provocative essayists. His last major collection, United States: Essays 1952-1992, won the National Book Award. This grouping contains some dandies, such as his tributes to Dawn Powell and Mark Twain; his scourging of recent American presidents; and "The Shredding of the Bill of Rights," his much-discussed Vanity Fair piece on the national security state.
From the Publisher
“Gore Vidal is the master essayist of our age.” –The Washington Post Book World

“Lively, instructive, lucid and amusing. Vidal has a carefree touch and a humorous air. . . . [He] can be a marvelous wit.” –Paul Berman, The New York Times Book Review

“Indispensable. . . . An excellent read. . . . Provocateur, scholar, historian, novelist, scoundrel, whatever you want to call Gore Vidal–make sure you include ‘national treasure.’ . . . [He] is an original mind, who thinks and sees without regard to convention. That alone makes him required reading.” –The Sunday Oregonian

From The Critics
Vidal, one of America's most respected dissident, has over the years published many such collections of book reviews and historical and social commentary. Vidal, now in his seventies, occasionally appears to be self-consciously clawing for a place in history, but his themes bear repeating and his essays may be the only place one finds appreciation for authors such as Dawn Powell and C.P. Cavafy. Vidal is from an old political family (Al Gore is a distant cousin) and personally knows many of the political and literary figures he writes about. This unique position inspires pieces full of both original insight and catty gossip.
—Kevin Grandfield

Library Journal
Beginning with essays about Edmund Wilson, Isabel Potter, Isabel Bolton, and Dawn Powell is a subtle launch, since many listeners haven't thought about these literary luminaries since college, if ever. But soon more familiar names and events from literature and politics ignite sparks of interest: Bill Clinton, FDR, Al Gore, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Lindbergh, Harry Truman, Mark Twain, the Bill of Rights, World War II, and the war on drugs. Whether describing events the public witnesses through the news media lens (one chapter is titled "Birds and Bees and Clinton") or as legend (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's marriage), Vidal's perspectives are neither ordinary nor vernacular. The result is a satisfying intellectual workout for those who missed his original works in issues of The Nation, New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the like. This, Vidal's ninth collection, picks up where his 1993 National Book Award for Nonfiction winner, United States: Essays, 1952-1992, left off. Narrator Dan Cashman's neutral and unbiased tone is the perfect trumpet for Vidal's snappy vocabulary and literary allusions. Recommended, but repackaging will be a must the original box is flimsy. Judith Robinson, Univ. at Buffalo, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
More political and literary essays from Vidal (The Golden Age, 2000, etc.). Vidal's style is unmistakable: erudite, contrarian, self-aggrandizing, elegant. Cranky. Never has it been more Vidal-ian than here, in his ninth volume of essays, a collection of pieces written between 1992 and 2000 that occasionally borders on self-parody. By far the strongest works are the literary and historical sketches grouped at the beginning: witty, knowing, insightful, and carefully written, taken together they comprise a prickly tour of the midcentury world of American letters. The last 20 essays are far more problematic, however. In these Vidal rants endlessly about the National Security State and the American Empire, two self-identified postwar political structures that he claims have ruined everything good about America. If one hasn't read Vidal's take on these issues before, perusing one of these essays might be fun-but reading 20 of them is not. Although they have different titles and are nominally written on different subjects, the monotony of analysis is numbing. (Plus, it's hard to take Chicken Little seriously when, after nine volumes, the sky still hasn't fallen.) But no matter, there are plenty of fireworks in the literary and historical sections-most compellingly, in a wonderful riff on Sinclair Lewis that interlocks with a controversial defense of Charles Lindbergh in an attempt to revive an intriguing pre-WWII American icon: the plainspoken, isolationist, independent hero from the Great Plains. Amazingly, Vidal, for all his namedropping and urbanity, can't help but see himself in this role. A similarly palpable identification warms, to fascinating effect, the pieces on writersas diverse as Cavafy, Dawn Powell, and Mark Twain. And a merciless attack on Updike is not only provocative but wickedly funny, a flash of the younger Vidal's dead-on comic sense. Vidal's gossip can feel as stale as his (very dated) political concerns, but few today have what he still displays in abundance: the desire, the intelligence, and the wit to continue living as a true man of letters.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375726392
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/11/2002
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 483,853
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal divides his time between Ravello, Italy, and Los Angeles.

Biography

As a prominent post-WWII novelist, socialite and public figure, Gore Vidal has lived a life of incredible variety. Throughout his career, he has rubbed shoulders and crossed swords with many of the foremost cultural and political figures of our century: from Jack Kennedy to Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote to William F. Buckley.

From his early arrival on the literary scene, Vidal's fascinations with politics, power and public figures have informed his writing. He takes his first name from his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, a populist Senator from Oklahoma for whom neither blindness nor feuds with FDR could prevent a long, distinguished career (Incidentally, T.P. Gore belonged to the same political dynasty into which Al Gore was born). Vidal's best-received historical fictions, like Julian, Burr, and Lincoln, re-imagine the personal and political lives of powerful figures in history. In his essays, he frequently chooses political subjects, as he did with his damaging assessment of Robert Kennedy-for-President in an Esquire article in 1963.

At the same time, Vidal's assets as a writer have made him a dangerous public figure in his own right. His sharp wit has discomposed the unrufflable (William F. Buckley) and the frequently ruffled (Norman Mailer) alike, and did so terrify his congressional campaign opponent J. Ernest Wharton that the latter refused to engage Vidal in debate. Even since he's left his aspirations as a politician behind, Vidal's attraction to controversial political issues continues in his provocative essays and public appearances.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edgar Box (mysteries), Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (full name)
      Gore Vidal
    2. Hometown:
      La Rondinaia, a villa in Ravello, Italy; and Los Angeles, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 3, 1925
    2. Place of Birth:
      West Point, New York
    1. Education:
      Attended St. Albans. Graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, 1943. No college.

Read an Excerpt

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.

During his last decade, Wilson published Apologies to the Iroquois, a project that he had set himself as, more and more, he came to live in the stone house of his mother's York combination of Ulster and Dutch; and so, in a sense, he had come home to die. Also, to work prodigiously. He made his apologies to the Indian tribes that his family, among others, had displaced. In O, Canada, he paid belated attention to the large familiar remoteness to the north which he had visited in youth with his father. He wrote book reviews; spent time at Wellfleet where he had a house; visited New York; went abroad to Israel, Hungary.

The decade was made unpleasant by the fact that he had neglected to file an income tax return between the years 1946 and 1955. The Internal Revenue Service moved in. He was allowed a certain amount to live on. The rest went to the Treasury. He was also under a grotesque sort of surveillance. Agents would ask him why he had spent so much money for a dog's cushion. Wilson's response to this mess was a splendid, much ignored polemical book called The Cold War and the Income Tax, which he saw as the two sides to the same imperial coin. The American people were kept frightened and obedient by a fear of the Soviet Union, which their government told them was on the march everywhere, as well as by the punitive income tax, which was needed in order to pay for a military machine that alone stood between the cowed people and slavery. It was better, we were warned, to be dead than red--as opposed to just plain in the red.

Maximum income tax in those days was 90 percent. Wilson's anarchic response was later, more slyly, matched by the Reagan backlash; instead of raising money to fight the enemy through taxes, the money was raised through borrowing. The result is that, today, even though we have not only sailed to but made landfall in Byzantium, the economy remains militarized, as Wilson had so untactfully noted. At sixty-eight, his present reviewer's green age, he writes, "I have finally come to feel that this country, whether or not I live in it, is no longer any place for me." Not that he has any other country in view: "I find that I more and more feel a boredom with and scorn for the human race. We have such a long way to go. . . ." He, of course, was a professional signpost, a warning light.

Despite boredom and scorn Wilson soldiered on, reading and writing and thinking. He published his most original book, Patriotic Gore. He acknowledges a critical biography of him. The book has a preface by a hack of academe who refers to Patriotic Gore as a "shapeless hodgepodge." Since remedial reading courses do not exist for the tenured, Wilson can only note that his survey of why North and South fought in the Civil War

is actually very much organized. . . . I don't think that Moore understands that with such books I am always working with a plan and structure in mind. As a journalist, I sell the various sections to magazines as I can. . . . He is also incorrect in implying, as several other people have, that I studied Hebrew for the purpose of writing on the Dead Sea scrolls. It was the other way around: it was from studying Hebrew that I become curious to find out what was going on in connection with the scrolls.

He ends, nicely, with a list of errata, even "though I doubt whether your book will ever get into a second printing."

In the introduction to Patriotic Gore, Wilson broods on the self-aggrandizing nature of nation-states, one of which, he is sad to note, is the United States, in all its unexceptionalism. Apropos the wars,

Having myself lived through a couple of world wars, and having read a certain amount of history, I am no longer disposed to take very seriously the professions of "war aims" that nations make. . . .

We Americans have not yet had to suffer from the worst of the calamities that have followed on the dictatorships in Germany and Russia, but we have been going for a long time now quite steadily in the same direction.

Why did North want to fight South? And why was South willing, so extravagantly, to die for what Seward had scornfully called their "mosquito republics"? Through an analysis of the fiction and rhetoric of the conflict, Wilson presents us with a new view of the matter while dispensing with received opinion. He also places his analysis in the full context of the cold war just as it was about to turn hot in Vietnam. Before anyone knew precisely what our national security state really was, Wilson, thirty years ago, got it right:

The Russians and we produced nuclear weapons to flourish at one another and played the game of calling bad names when there had been nothing at issue between us that need have prevented our living in the same world and when we were actually, for better or worse, becoming more and more alike--the Russians emulating America in their frantic industrialization and we imitating them in our persecution of non-conformist political opinion, while both, to achieve their ends, were building up huge governmental bureaucracies in the hands of which the people have seemed helpless.

Predictably, this set off alarm bells. At the Algonquin, May 15, 1962, Wilson meets Alfred Kazin. "I took Alfred back to a couch and talked to him about his review of Patriotic Gore. He showed a certain indignation over my Introduction: I and my people "had it made" and didn't sympathize with the Negroes and people like him, the son of immigrants, who had found in the United States freedom and opportunity. He is still full of romantic faith in American ideals and promises, and it is hard for him to see what we are really doing."

In Patriotic Gore, Wilson questioned the central myth of the American republic, which is also, paradoxically, the cornerstone of our subsequent empire--e pluribus unum--the ever tightening control from the center to the periphery. Wilson is pre-Lincolnian (or a Lincolnian of 1846). He sees virtue, freedom in a less perfect union. Today's centrifugal forces in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia he anticipated in Patriotic Gore where, through his portraits of various leaders in our Civil War, he shows how people, in order to free themselves of an overcentralized state, are more than willing, and most tragically, to shed patriotic gore.

To be fair, Wilson set off alarm bells in less naive quarters. As one reads reviews of the book by such honorable establishment figures as Henry Steele Commager and Robert Penn Warren one is struck by their defensive misunderstanding not only of his text but of our common state. At times, they sound like apologists for an empire that wants to present itself as not only flawless but uniquely Good. Commager zeroes in on the Darwinian introduction. He notes, as other reviewers do, Justice Holmes's Realpolitik: "that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men." But Commager is troubled that Wilson "does not see fit to quote" the peroration of "The Soldier's Faith," Holmes's memorial address, with its purple "snowy heights of honor" for the Civil War dead. Yet Wilson quotes the crux of Holmes's speech,

There is one thing that I do not doubt, no man who lives in the world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he little understands.

Surely, that is quite enough patriotic tears for spilled gore.

In 1963, as pontifex maximus of the old American republic, Wilson is speaking out with a Roman hardness and clarity, and sadness at what has been lost since the Union's victory at Appomattox. Our eighteenth-century res publicus had been replaced by a hard-boiled soft-minded imperium, ever eager to use that terrible swift sword, presumably for ever, unless, of course, we are struck down by the current great Satan who threatens our lives and sacred honor in the high lands of Somalia. Wilson has no great sentimentality about the Indian-killing, slave-holding founders but he is concerned by the absolute loss of any moral idea other than Holmes's bleakly reductive "every society rests on the death of men." It is not this sad truth that Wilson is challenging, thus causing distress to the apologists of empire; rather it is their clumsy ongoing falsifications of motives, their misleading rhetoric all "snowy heights of honor" (try that one on a Vietnam veteran), their deep complicity in an empire that is now based not only on understandable greed but far worse on a mindless vanity to seem invincible abroad and in full control of all the folks at home. Just as the empire was about to play out its last act in Southeast Asia, Wilson's meditation on the Civil War and war and the nature of our state was published and: "There is shock after shock," as Penn Warren put it, "to our official versions and received opinions." But, surely, shock is what writers are meant to apply when the patient has lost touch with reality. Unhappily, many others are in place to act as shock-absorbers. They also shroud the martyred Lincoln with his disingenuous funeral address at Gettysburg in order to distract attention from the uncomfortable paradox that his dictatorship--forbidden word in a free country--preserved the Union by destroying its soul.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Edmund Wilson: Nineteenth-Century Man 3
Dawn Powell: Queen of the Golden Age 16
Lost New York 30
The Romance of Sinclair Lewis 46
Twain on the Grand Tour 68
Reply to a Critic 79
Twain's Letters 83
Rabbit's Own Burrow 87
A Note on The City and the Pillar and Thomas Mann 114
Anthony Burgess 122
Pride 125
Lindbergh: The Eagle Is Grounded 129
Sinatra 149
C. P. Cavafy 153
George 161
Amistad 166
FDR: Love on the Hudson 179
Wiretapping the Oval Office 190
Clare Boothe Luce 202
Truman 217
Hersh's JFK 220
Nixon R.I.P 238
Clinton-Gore I 240
Bedfellows Make Strange Politics 247
Clinton-Gore II 254
Honorable Albert A. Gore, Junior 265
Kopkind 283
Bad History 292
Blair 301
How We Missed the Saturday Dance 307
The Last Empire 313
In the Lair of the Octopus 334
With Extreme Prejudice 339
Time for a People's Convention 341
The Union of the State 351
Mickey Mouse, Historian 357
U.S. out of UN - UN out of U.S 368
Race Against Time 372
Chaos 379
Shredding the Bill of Rights 397
The New Theocrats 419
Coup de Starr 424
Starr Conspiracy 426
Birds and Bees and Clinton 431
A Letter to Be Delivered 436
Democratic Vistas 444
Three Lies to Rule By 448
Japanese Intentions in the Second World War 457
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