Speaking this summer at a Conference on Sir Walter Scott, I suggested that Gore Vidal, in his series of historical-political novels, was doing for the USA something like what Scott did for Scotland. An American academic was perturbed: ‘not Gore Vidal, please.’ He suggested Faulkner instead, as an American equivalent of Scott. Well, I am as happy to take Faulkner as the next man may be – probably a great deal happier, since the market in Faulkner stock is, I think, currently a bear one; but I still stick to my admiration for Vidal. Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood and Washington D.C (even the last) are giving American History back to the people, just as Scott provided a reading of Scottish History for my compatriots. These novels of Vidal’s are serious in the way that very little American fiction is. They respect character and contingency, and they are intelligent about the way politics work and the way people deceive themselves into believing what suits them best.
They are of course big novels, and they demand close attention from the reader. This is perhaps why, over here, there is a tendency to prefer Vidal’s essays to his fiction. The essays read more easily. Some people go further, and even prefer his television performances, which are easier still.