cover image THE LAST EMPIRE: Essays 1992–2000

THE LAST EMPIRE: Essays 1992–2000

Gore Vidal, . . Doubleday, $27.50 (480pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50154-5

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)