Gore Vidal's new book, "At Home," is the best possible argument for reviving the essay as a popular literary form, political platform and entertainment.
Vidal's collection of 23 previously published essays is a landmark of contemporary English usage by a master of the language. His essays fascinate the reader as much for their form as their content.While the Byzantine political machinations of Vidal's credo soar and swoop in unexpected parabolas, they often are self-serving. But they excite the imagination, coming as they so often do from left field.
Every student of the English language would do well to read Vidal's iconoclastic observations if for no other reason than his free, unfettered and adventurous use of the word.
Never stuffy and almost always amusing, Vidal - novelist, playwright, filmmaker, pundit and unsuccessful political candidate - nevertheless strikes intellectual sparks with swift, incisive forays against the sacred cows of conventional thought and social shibboleths.
He is a loose cannon one moment and a provocative and philosophical gadfly the next, often in consecutive paragraphs.
But he is an unflinching American patriot by his own lights, and overall, a delight to read.
At lunch one day, Vidal began lamenting the passing of the essay as a mainstay of American letters.
"I suppose the heyday of the essay in America in this century was the '20s and '30s in the old New York World (newspaper)," he said, a tinge of Eastern establishment embellishing his words.
"Those were the days of Walter Lippmann, Heywood Broun and H.L. Mencken. They were letter writers who were proud to be journalists. They wrote about everything and anything. Now, unhappily, there are only journalistic specialists. Newspaper space limitations have killed off the essay."
He defined the essay as a means for a writer to attempt to make sense of things for the reader and himself. Most of the essays in "At Home" (Random House, 303 pp., $18.95) were published in the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement of London.
All include sharply angled opinions and observations on widely diverse subjects. Vidal mixes wit, diatribe, cynicism, humor and passion with equal enthusiasm. There is a surprise on almost every page with gaudy splashes of knowledge.
Several essays blast both political parties with insightful, amusing and sometimes murderous observations that alone make "At Home" an outstanding work.
"Essays are an interior dialogue," he said. "I suppose some people would call George Will and Murray Kempton essayists. They're not. Will is a publicist for the right wing and Kempton for the left.
"An essayist is supposed to tell the truth and a publicist can't tell the truth because he works for a product.
"John Chancellor's three minutes on TV is a verbal essay of sorts, but there's nothing to be learned from it," he said.
"The greatest age of essayists was the 18th and 19th centuries when Walpole, Macaulay, Addison, Steele, Hazlitt, Shaw and Wells were in full flower. They could, and did, write on everything. They were generalists."
Typically, Vidal's considerable ego could not allow him to leave his assessment there, especially when it was suggested that he is perhaps the outstanding essayist of his time.
"I'm flattered to be called the best contemporary essayist in years," he sighed, "but, hell, there is no competition.
"When I was a kid I wanted to know everything. When you start out that way, you come to know what you don't know. Today I still want to know everything, especially about economics, so I can save money for the coming crash."
Vidal finished lunch and said, "Our literary culture has broken down thanks to the educational system, TV and recent politicians. The last president to write his own speeches was Woodrow Wilson. Even Roosevelt couldn't write a letter.
"And there appears to be no great minds except those which have been trivialized or demonized by the culture. (Linguist) Noam Chomsky is a genius, but he can't get published because he criticizes society and knows what's wrong with it. He also knows who owns and runs this country."
So, it seems, does Vidal.