"What matters finally is not the world's judgment of oneself but one's own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America." -- Gore Vidal
The above line is from Vidal's review "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements" (1960), reprinted in United States, a wrist-achingly large volume that I keep within easy reach of my writing desk because it's a great book to pick up and read at random. Almost every one of its 1271 pages (not counting index) contains something perfectly phrased, elegantly provocative, deliciously witty, and/or shockingly true. United States is one of my bibles, and I frequently turn to it for leftist inspiration. Along with his fabulous memoir Palimpsest, this is the essential nonfiction Vidal (there's no such thing as 'essential Vidal' in fiction; his novels are so varied and consistently good that pretty much everything is essential, from Julian to Myra Breckinridge to Creation to Lincoln and beyond), and the vast intellectual range in evidence both here and in his novels marks Vidal as that rare thing, an authentically cosmopolitan writer, a literary citizen not just of America, but of the world. Those European critics who accuse American writers of insularity and provincialism (Nobel bigwig and all-around Swedish dork Horace Engdahl comes to mind) should be politely reminded that Vidal and Paul Bowles and W. E. B. Du Bois and William T. Vollmann and even Paul Theroux are all, yes, American writers. And their wildly cosmopolitan works, as much as the more domestic fictions of Updike, Carver, Oates, et al, constitute American literature.
True, Vidal calls the book United States, and the 'matter of America' is a focus of much of the work herein, but these essays also range from modern Rome to modern Mongolia, from the mafia-infested Italy of Sciascia to the fantastical one of Calvino, from the far out worlds of Doris Lessing's science fiction to the even farther out ones of neoconservative homophobia (in the deserves-to-be-classic essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star"). Vidal was writing against the neocons before most people even knew their collective name. He was criticizing and satirizing the French new novel at a time when most readers were still trying to understand it. (Myra Breckinridge is, among much else, a killing parody of the ecole de Robbe-Grillet.) And his warnings about the dangers of the academicization of literature now appear dismally prescient. Elsewhere in this endless Borgesian book of sand we find entertaining memoirs of Vidal's friends Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles, a survey of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, essays on Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy (another friend of Vidal's), an assessment of Yukio Mishima, an account of a 1963 trip to Egypt, and a scathing polemic against monotheism. It's all here, most of it's true, and every word of it is worth reading. If you don't already own a copy of United States, get your hands on one ASAP. It is not to be missed.