Live From Golgotha
M.I.A. or Mythmaking In America
For his delightful, rather reticent memoir Screening History, Gore Vidal apologizes that he has at last succumbed to “the American writer’s disease, the celebration if not of self, of the facts of one’s own sacred story.” He has “always been able to imagine what it is like to be someone else, but now I begin to wonder what it is like to be me, a figure that keeps cropping up in the lives of others, usually wearing an impenetrable disguise.” In fact he does not really succumb to the American writer’s disease, which is ordinarily to write about how I became Me. This is an autobiography in the nineteenth-century, or even eighteenth-century mode, about how the writer’s case illustrates some trend or constant of human history, more or less as John Stuart Mill wrote an autobiography to illustrate the efficacy of Headstart.
Vidal was born in 1925 to attractively rakish, prominent, rich parents. His glamorous mother married three times, once to a man who would later marry Jackie Onassis’s mother, and “she never baked a pie, but she did manage to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka.” His father, a founder of airlines, and Roosevelt’s director of Air Commerce, let him solo in a plane at the age of ten. It was from his formidable, blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, that he derived his interest in politics and his sense of coming from a ruling class that ought to be involved in politics—here was a boy who kept a diary at age fourteen in which he recorded instances of labor unrest.
Uprooted throughout childhood, sent off to private schools, at seventeen he joined the Army and served on a freight supply ship. (“I was a dangerously poor navigator, but at least my luck was better than Lord Jim’s.”) After the war he returned, took up writing novels, and, boycotted by critics for treating the subject of homosexuality in his early novel The City and the Pillar, supported himself by writing for film, and eventually for the stage and television. He wrote some brilliant essays, more novels, both historical and satirical, including several whose formal innovations were more or less obscured by their racy charm, and also ran for Congress, later for the Senate, unsuccessfully.
It is from his love of films that he comes to the central thesis of Screening History, “How, through ear and eye, we are both defined and manipulated by fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience of a reality become as irreal as the Turkey of Oblomov’s coffeehouse, or the Alaska of my dreams” (or, one might add, the Duluth or Golgotha of his novels).
“In the end, he who screens the history makes the history.” Since the world sees whatever a producer chooses to make it see, to understand America we must understand “how …