Gore Vidal
THE SELECTED ESSAYS OF GORE VIDAL, edited by Jay Parini, Doubleday, 458 pages, $27.

Gore Vidal is known by many as "America's premier man of letters."

He is a novelist, playwright, critic, screenwriter, memoirist, commentator and essayist. Out of perhaps 200 of his essays, the editor has selected 25 to be included in this volume — just enough to whet the appetite.

The essays display Vidal's widespread interest in just about everything and his unequaled talent in reviewing, political commentary, memoir, portraiture and occasionally, just plain "score settling."

Vidal is a man of vast learning, subtle wit and a huge ego. He was 19 years old and serving in the army when his first novel, "Williwaw," was published. Twenty-two more novels followed, including "Myra Breckenridge," plus five plays, many screenplays and a number of short stories.

Opening this book is one of his best-known essays, "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s," written in 1953, in which Vidal demonstrates his prominent prejudice against academicians acting as critics. He refers to these critics as "bookish men" who make "erratic judgments" and cultivate "a sense of complacency."

According to Vidal, there is a difference "between the reviewers for popular newspapers and magazines, whom no one interested in literature reads, and the serious critics of the Academy, who write for one another in the quarterlies and, occasionally, for the public in the Sunday supplements."

Vidal also argued that critics "go about dismantling the text with the same rapture that their simpler brothers experience while taking apart combustion engines: inveterate tinkerers both, solemnly playing with what has been invented by others for use, not analysis."

Vidal even named Carson McCullers, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner as examples of great novelists who never graduated from a university.

In a piece written in 1973, Vidal decried the "Top Ten Best-Sellers," criticizing such books as Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War," 885 pages. Wouk, wrote Vidal, made "strange assumptions" about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying he "wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt" and also imitated TR's "booming manly manner and prissy, Harvard accent."

Not right, said Vidal. FDR, if he imitated anyone with the pince-nez, was thinking of his mentor, Woodrow Wilson; besides, those glasses were commonly worn in that era. "T. Roosevelt's voice was not booming but thin and shrill. FDR's accent was neither prissy nor Harvard but Duchess County."

All in all, Vidal was unimpressed with all the 10 bestsellers, concluding that reading them was "like being trapped in the 'Late, Late Show,' staggering from one half-remembered movie scene to another, all the while beginning to suspect with a certain horror that the Wise Hack at the Writers' Table will be honored and remembered for his pix ... "

All the authors were also allegedly guilty of "polluting the language."

In an essay titled "The Second American Revolution," Vidal alleged that future generations would "date the second American Revolution ... from the passage of California's Proposition 13 in 1978, which obliged the managers of that gilded state to reduce by more than half the tax on real estate. Historically, this revolt was not unlike the Boston Tea Party."

In an edgy satire on American government, Vidal said that Americans take it for granted that the United States is "the greatest country on Earth as well as in the history of the world." But he offered a corrective, saying that "none of the hundred or so new countries that have been organized since World War II has imitated our form of government — though, to a nation, the local dictator likes to style himself the president. As for being the greatest nation on Earth, the United States's hegemony of the known world lasted exactly five years: 1945 to 1950."

Then he noted that the United States had since dropped to ninth place in per capita income, and living standards are higher for the average citizen in more than eight countries."

Vidal's collection includes superior biographical studies of writers Edmund Wilson, William Dean Howells, Mataigne and Teddy Roosevelt.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com