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Gore Vidal: Our Montaigne, Our Wilde, Our Edmund Wilson

By Dennis Abrams

My first attempt at reading Gore Vidal was in 1973. I was 13, and his novel Burr was, at the time, the best-selling novel in the U.S. Unfortunately, though, it turned out I wasn’t quite ready for it yet – my taste in historical novels still leaned heavily towards Gone With The Wind. But I learned. And since that time, I’ve read and reread many of his books and essays countless times, and I can say with great certainty that there are few authors who have influenced the way I read and look at history and politics and religion as much as he has.

Vidal was our Montaigne, our Wilde, our Edmund Wilson.

More than a great novelist, he was at heart, I think, an educator and critic, or, as he would say “explainer;” one from whom I learned so much, especially about the power of elegant and concise prose, how to use wit as a weapon, as well as an understanding of American history and politics that went far beyond what I learned in school. Writers that he introduced me to with whom I fell in love include Italo Calvino, William Dean Howells, Dawn Powell, Logan Pearsall Smith. And he taught me the joy of sitting down and reading an author’s work whole and straight through.

He was our Montaigne, our Wilde, our Edmund Wilson.

Will he last? My best guess is yes. I suspect that the major novels in his American history series — Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire — will, along with Julian, Myra Breckenridge, the memoir Palimpset and of course the essays, will be read long after most of the books by his contemporaries have been forgotten. I know for certain that they’ll  always have a place of honor on my bookshelves.

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