When asked about the gender of his first sexual partner, Gore Vidal replied, “It was dark, and I was too polite to ask.” This essentially sums up the attitude towards gender of a man who believes that “everyone is bisexual”, so why make distinctions? Gore Vidal, a prolific novelist of the 20th Century, is still living in Italy now with his male lover of over 40 years. He once commented ironically, “My father warned me to never date a girl who called her mother Mummy. So I dated her brother and lived happily ever after.” A novelist ahead of his time even today, Gore Vidal began in his earliest works creating a controversy with The City and the Pillar, then continued to cause a stir with Myra Breckinridge and Myron, while publishing essays throughout his career that reflect his views on gender and sexuality.
Gore Vidal began his artistry early, with his first novels published more than half a century ago. Born to a wealthy political family, Gore Vidal had his first break in writing at the precocious age of 20. His first novel, Williwaw, published in 1946, was inspired by his time at sea in the army. In his 1946 review of the book, “Books of the Times”, Orville Prescott commented, “With such a good beginning there is no reason why Vidal should not go far indeed.” When John W. Aldridge wrote his work After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Novels of Two Wars, he praised this first novel, saying that Vidal “seemed to have learned early the trick of narrative scope, of tight focus. While most young writers try to grapple with an outsized situation and too many characters and succeed only in revealing their youth, he apparently saw the advantage of leaving certain material alone until he was up to it.” Aldridge’s opinion was to change, however, with the publication of Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar.
The City and the Pillar marked the end of Vidal’s early career and the transition to his more mature writing. The story follows the misadventures of a young homosexual man who leaves home on a search for an idealized childhood love but finds instead shallow relationships and broken dreams. The critics’ response to the novel was far from warm, and it cost Vidal his earlier prestige in the public eye. The New York Times was so scandalized by the book that they refused to publish any reviews of Vidal’s next five novels. John W. Aldridge, who had been so approving of Vidal’s first books, was also scathing when he discussed The City and the Pillar. He criticized, “At bottom, this is a thoroughly amoral book- not amoral in the conventional sense, because it deals with homosexuality, but amoral in the purely ethical sense, because there is no vitality or significance in the view of life which has gone into it.” Of course, such reactions seem more understandable considering that The City and the Pillar was published long before homosexuality was legitimate in the eyes of the people. As late as 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that a Georgia law making sodomy a crime was in fact constitutional.
Following these negative critical reactions, Vidal backed off from such blatant sexual themes for a time and published some of his more respectable historical novels and plays. However, as Vidal regained his prestige, he published several of what he calls his “inventions” that took his themes to a new level. The most notable of these novels was the 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge, along with its 1975 sequel, Myron. In an essay written to preface a 2001 edition of Myra Breckinridge, critic Harry Kloman commented that “By Vidal’s estimate, Myra's arrival measured 6 on the cultural Richter scale - a literary earthquake of major proportion in a dis-United States fighting an unpopular war and itself.” Myra Breckinridge, featuring a character that had undergone a surgical change in gender, caused such a stir that some countries went so far as to have it banned. On April 16th, 1970, Judge Aaron Levin in Sydney, Australia ruled to have a customs department ban on the book, declaring that, in his view, “the story of a man who becomes a woman through an operation and then decides to become a man again transgressed the standards of decency accepted by the community.” Of course, the Judge also claimed that the fact the novel dealt with “the perverted behavior of an aggressive homosexual” had nothing to do with the ruling. The “aggressive homosexual” in question, Myra Breckinridge, formerly known as Myron, was a figure out of place in the world. Of Myra Breckinridge the character, Kloman could only comment, “Ahead of her time in 1968, the 21st Century still hasn’t caught up with her, and one suspects it probably never will.”
In the sequel to Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal did not produce so much a great novel—for Myron was hardly that—but rather a sharp commentary on the events of the day. Prior to Vidal’s writing of Myron, the Supreme Court had handed down its decision to allow communities to set their own standards when defining what is obscene. Disgusted by that blow to the First Amendment, Vidal decided to be on the safe side and make sure that his work could not be labeled obscene. So, he replaced any potential obscene language throughout the book with the names of the five justices who delivered the ruling in favor of the new standard.
Like his character Myra/Myron, Gore Vidal is a man the 21st century has yet to catch up with. His essays and social commentary never lose their sharpness as he criticizes what he sees as the failings of the modern world. Many of Gore Vidal’s essays center on the “moral” code society imposes on the people, including the archaic religious views on homosexuality. In Gore Vidal’s own words, homosexuals are “the only minority it is still socially acceptable to hate.” Vidal blames this on the dominance of monotheism and the Judeo Christian tradition in America today. He commented in a 1998 interview, “If one were sensible—not possible in monotheistic societies as we know them—the homosexual act, as it leads to no little stranger, is ‘safer’ than the heterosexual act as far as the planet’s future is concerned.”
Despite these strong views, Gore Vidal would deeply resent any attempt to characterize his works as gay literature. When asked about such literature, he replied, “What on earth is that? Does that mean the book only hangs out with other books?"