Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship
by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown, 255 pp., $5.95
Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship is a collection of twenty-five essays, most of them on topics related to literature, which Mr. Vidal has published since 1963. Several first appeared in this journal. Together, they constitute the second volume of unassuming but distinguished work which is, I believe, quite unlike anything else in American letters today. Though parallels can surely be found in British writing as late as that of E. M. Forster, who blends criticism, history, politics, and journalism in proportions similar to those Vidal favors, Vidal is one of America’s most civil writers. Civility is a form of civic virtue; Vidal has long been politically active in the classical rather than the contemporary sense: he ran unsuccessfully for Congress from the district that includes his Dutchess County home; several of his novels have political themes.
If Vidal’s style is classical, there is surely nothing archaic about his presence. He is about as likely to be where the action is as Norman Mailer, though rather less likely to compete with it. His piece on the Republican Convention in Miami Beach is among the best in the book; while his essays “The Holy Family” and “The Manchester Book” are original contributions to knowledge about the peculiar place of the Kennedys in American society and folklore. They are also more interesting than the other essays because Mr. Vidal’s heartfelt dislike for the Kennedys occasionally breaks through and enlivens his usual detached irony. His decision to retain “The Holy Family” in Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship despite the assassination of Robert Kennedy, whom it portrays most unfavorably, adds to the credibility of the book, as does his postscript observation that “It is curious how often one prefers his enemies to his friends. Although I certainly never wanted Bobby to be President, I had largely come to accept him as a useful figure on the scene—and now that he is gone I find that I genuinely miss him.”
Mr. Vidal tends usually to combine literary and political criticism in a single essay. The “Notes on Pornography” and the essay, “Edmund Wilson, Tax Dodger,” are excellent examples of the analysis of a distinctly literary topic through the extraction of its quite basic political implications. “A Passage to Egypt” was written in 1963 as a pure piece of political reportage on the State of Gamel A. Nasser; yet Vidal was also concerned, as the title of the essay implies, with the cultural effects of Egypt’s efforts to play us against the Russians in the interests of its own economic development; it is his observations about these matters that have survived six years of Middle-Eastern political conflict, while the political observations themselves have dated.
“E. Nesbit’s Use of Magic” and “The Waking Dream: Tarzan Revisited” are the sort of thing E. M. Forster used to do in redirecting attention to works of minor but unique talent whose peculiar merits had been lost in undeserved obscurity. Such oblivion is itself more a …