Gore Vidal bought a house upstate for $16,000 in 1946—a full 62 years ago. His Barrytown home, called Edgewater, is one of the only Hudson Valley mansions located on the west side of the railroad tracks. (It’s now owned by the financier and historic preservationist Dick Jenrette, who purchased it from him in 1969 for $125,000.)
Considering that the Hudson Valley seems to get rediscovered every 10 years or so, it’s tempting to view Vidal as the original “newcomer,” except that he was born at West Point. But apart from his birthplace, Vidal must have come across to his new neighbors on the River as the ultimate City interloper. A novelist, critic, playwright, occasional actor, Army veteran, quipster and quixotic political candidate, Vidal was also a tart-tongued tastemaker: contrarian, iconoclastic, left-wing, blue-blooded and promiscuously bisexual to boot. (He claimed a tally of conquests that rivals Wilt Chamberlain’s.)
Theatrically immodest, Vidal said that “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” He was much more out of the British mold of journalist/authors, cultivating high-profile feuds (with Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Charlton Heston, et al.) both out of personal conviction and also to milk their publicity value.
Unlike his sparkling earlier essays, Vidal’s later work could feel a bit overly-vehement and repetitive, even when one agreed with his politics. Though celebrated as a supreme stylist, the prose of his well-known historical novels is less than fluid, though still enjoyable for their imaginative leaps, bordering on outright fabications—such as his attempt to rehabilitate Aaron Burr, at the expense of Hamilton and Jefferson. More purely enjoyable is lighter fiction, such as Kalki (about a hapless would-be savior arriving on earth near the end of the world). His late-life cameos on TV and film, from The Simpsons to Gattaca, made better use of a persona that was long-since established, and by his own admission a relic of a different time in American history.
Intellectually and socially elite, Vidal was at the same time a political populist, writing that “The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”
Of his time in the Valley, Vidal wrote:
When a writer moves into the house that he most wants or needs, the result is often a sudden release of new energy. Henry James's move to Lamb House produced The Wings of the Dove, Somerset Maugham's move to Villa Mauresque resulted in his only satisfactory novel, Cakes and Ale. In my case, there was a burst of energy and imagination of a sort not accessible to me before. Overnight—the result of the octagonal library?”I jettisoned what I called ‘the national manner,' the gray, slow realism of most American writing, not to mention the strict absence of wit and color...
According to The Poughkeepsie Journal, the actress Joanne Woodward told Vidal he “never should have sold that house,” and that the writer “dreamed” all the remainder of his life of moving back.
It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. […]
I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.
Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind? […] Insist on yourself; never imitate.
[T]yranny has finally achieved its foul purpose when among the many, scattered at large, there are acquiescence, apathy, complacency, bland acceptance of outrage, pride in vulgar triumphs, blurring of the meaning of words, confusion in moral standards—in short, a blight of communal character. It is when people who are thought of as good solid citizens, whose who make up the backbone of the populace, become touched by this blight and do not realize it, become not only infected but the infectors—this is when tyranny has won the day. The ‘good’ citizens then say: What a beautiful day! What a fine year this has been! Are you going to the amphitheater this afternoon?.
There is no real direction here, neither lines of power nor cooperation. Decisions are never really made – at best they manage to emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and all around assholery.
Driver’s having a cup of coffee over at Iggy’s. He’s a good boy, friend of mine. ... It pays to have friends in low places. I find they do more for me in the long haul than the average maker and shaker.
A recently-completed project for the Burrill B. Crohn Research Foundation—the redesign of a new edition of my great-grandfather’s final book—can be read online at Issuu.com. “Baba,” as I knew him, is the namesake of Crohn’s Disease. (His memories of practicing medicine in the first half of the previous century are surprisingly lively and vivid, this wholly biased reader found—having not revisited the text in about 15 years before this redesign.)