For all the searing wit, sharp observations and sometimes just plain bitchiness and good old-fashioned gossip in Gore Vidal’s incredible body of non-fiction, one also gets an unmistakable sense of melancholia. Here, evidently, is a man who is horrified by the direction his country has taken politically, particularly since the end of World War II, and one who is in mourning for the strange death of American literature.
I have just read this startling collection for the second time in ten years, this time around in only seven weeks whereas, the first time, I read it intermittently over twelve months or so. While I still found it invigorating stuff, I would recommend not reading United States in chronological order, nor all at once, as the repetitiveness of Vidal’s key arguments might sometimes become tiresome, even to one who agrees with much of what he has to say and enjoys the way he says it.
Vidal brings a wonderful, often satirical, candour to his subjects, particularly in his personal recollections. (It seems that he has, at some point, meet every significant president, novelist, playwright, politician and social figure of 20th century America - and a fair few prominent Europeans as well.)
One of the best aspects of Vidal’s work is that he always avoids hagiography. Even when he has great respect or admiration for those he writes about, it is guaranteed that you’ll get the whole story. This is particularly refreshing in the case of presidential ‘gods’ such as Lincoln, Kennedy and Washington. It reminds us that these people were only human, with all the frailties and faults that it entails. It is also interesting to think that much of what Vidal was warning about even as far back as the ’50s and ’60s has come to pass, particularly in relation to the National Security State and the erosion of rights, never more so than in the past few years.
Vidal’s sense of the historical and his knowledge of literature and politics are second to none. For more than a half a century he has been one the sharper thorns in the side of the American Right. If, from time to time, you’re in the mood for some intelligent, biting - and often humorous - insight into the cultural and political world of the American empire, you really can’t beat United States.