Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Essays are boring. Nearly everyone I’ve met shares this opinion because of their experiences in the classroom with teachers. To be fair, perhaps those classrooms and teachers aren’t guilty because educating hot-blooded children whose attention span shortens with each passing second is a tall task, certainly one that I know little about. But I do know that all writing is hard and if most people must put pen to paper—or fingertip to keyboard—they do so with the motive that the writing in question must be done. For them, it’s a job wanting completion. For my part, I was once a member of that crowd. Every time I was assigned an essay in class, I thought: what’s the point of this five-paragraph-thesis-topped piece of tedium that we learned in the sixth grade and will monotonously repeat until we step off a graduation stage?
For a long time, I thought it had no purpose except in education and academia. Then at the beginning of last year, I bought a book I never thought I would buy: a compilation of essays by the late Gore Vidal. Vidal, a scandalous and liberal expat (he lived for many years in Italy during his life), had piqued my curiosity over the previous semester. My internet browsing had offered some delightful appetizers of his wit that made me envy his skill with language. One of my favorites was an antique video from the eighties, when Vidal appeared on the now-defunct Merv Griffin Show to discuss the recent election of Ronald Reagan. The brief appetizer follows thusly:
Merv says, “He said he will get government off the backs of the people.”
Gore’s response: “I wonder then where he will put it?”
The first time I heard it, a smile split my face. It was delicious, yet succinct, highly entertaining, and I wanted more.
Over the course of two months, I read the paperback many times. When I finished, I understood that the essay could be a poignant, witty, informative piece of writing for anyone to adapt for any style or subject. Since reading Vidal’s essays, I now write with them beside my computer as reminders of the fun and potential of the written word.
I think I first heard of Gore Vidal while watching a rerun of the sitcom Frasier. “Gore Vidal?” the titular character exclaims. “He hates everything!” In all honesty, that’s pretty spot on from a first glance. Vidal was infamous for having a bark on par with his bite; he routinely made enemies and prided himself on being a provocateur. His work bounces with the vocabulary of a well-read debaucher who moonlighted as a classicist and failed politician.
I once read somewhere that the essay is a great exercise in caring. Vidal certainly wrote with a twist on that definition — his essays show a great deal of caring masked with barbed language. The two subjects that defined his life and thus his literary preoccupation were literature itself, in the world and at home, and his eventful residence that was the United States. America’s history and politics took center stage in his work. His essays tackle diverse subjects ranging from the Kennedys (“The Holy Family”) and the Roosevelts (“Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”) to religion (“Monotheism and Its Discontents”) and private property (“Homage to Daniel Shays”). For me, they continue to remain insightful and relevant in today’s politics in addition to being enjoyable to read.
There are some pieces that are mostly meaningless to the current reader, acting primarily as telescopes into the time in which they were written. His “Novelists and Critics of the 1940s” and the laboriously titled “The Top Ten Best-Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973” are such examples. By reading a variety of Vidal’s work, I learned that a good essay is not just timeless but also a period piece. It plays both parts in equal measure.
His own life—recorded with the determination of a historian and the slight revisionism of an embarrassed man—pops up now and then to highlight a point, usually thematic, and is often humorous and colorful. In doing so, he changes his essays into subjective pieces of opinion and that makes reading them all the more interesting.
In “Dawn Powell: The American Writer,” Vidal remembers a bombastic encounter with the novelist at a Broadway theater when she berated him for switching to playwriting for oh-so-horrid commercialism. In “Calvino’s Novels,” he remembers visiting and living in post-war Rome, enjoying the flowering sights of the ancient city and reading the delightful works of the eponymous Italian. His essays reflect vivacious memories, which also taught me something important about life in general: live your work. Go and find something worthy of your passion; eat and drink and cry with friends and strangers alike; try new things to get the fullest portrait of whoever you want to be and once you have it then commit to it (perhaps on paper so others can take your advice and thoughts into new exciting paths for themselves).
It is said that life imitates art or that art imitates life. Both are true because living and expression are inextricably linked. Vidal would sometimes veer into the role of a celebrity rather than a serious writer, but he was often both and he relished it. Each role informed the other and commented on the culture of his livelihood, which was filled with erudition and punditry. In Vidal’s essays, this combination is seamless and shines clear. His fiction, though fat in both breadth and depth, cannot compete with his non-fiction, which is equally fat but packed with far more meaty and tasty sentences.
Essays can be vulgar, unruly pieces of rhetoric that, if deftly handled, can cut themselves close to the heart of a topic. They can be as personal and shameless as the frivolous Snapchat; as erudite and stylish as the polished novel. They don’t have to be literary tedium. They can be literary firecrackers. Under Vidal’s pen, a luminous fireworks show is always waiting to be enjoyed with either a cappuccino or beer at hand.
Image courtesy of www.nytimes.com