When Gore Vidal published “The City and the Pillar” in 1948, he was committing what many considered career suicide.
The book was the first American novel to address the issue of homosexuality. Only 21-years-old at the time, Vidal challenged accepted sexual norms and profoundly unsettled American society. Critics responded to the work with vitriolic, moralistic reviews. The New York Times not only refused to review it, but also did not critique the next five books Vidal wrote.
The famed iconoclast and others discussed Vidal’s life and work at a symposium honoring the 55th anniversary of the publication of “The City and the Pillar.” The event, sponsored by the Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies, drew roughly 200 people to Davies Auditorium Wednesday.
Writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer ’57, as well as author David Leavitt and University professors Donald Pease, Michael Moon and Marcie Frank, spoke during the first portion of the symposium. Each speaker analyzed an aspect of Vidal’s career. Some discussed themes in his literary works, such as his efforts to dispel the stereotypes of effeminacy and promiscuousness associated with gay males. Others addressed ways in which Vidal’s writings and political activities shaped a post-World War II society wracked by upheaval. Frank explored Vidal’s work in television and playwriting.
Each speaker also shared the ways in which Vidal had affected him or her personally.
“He was the first public figure I was aware of to be witty about sex,” Moon said.
Leavitt said Vidal played a crucial role in his development as well.
“You provided my first written turn-on,” Leavitt told Vidal, describing an erotic passage from Vidal’s novel “Myra Breckinridge.”
Kramer told the audience about an interview he had with Vidal in 1992, during which the novelist told Kramer about his theory that the success of Alexander Hamilton’s career was due to his ability to make older men, including George Washington, fall in love with him. Kramer also said he was impressed by Vidal’s willingness to continue to fight tirelessly for the acceptance of homosexuality despite the lack of progress Vidal has seen during his lifetime.
“You have never ceased, for a single day, to be anything less than extraordinary,” Kramer said to Vidal.
The symposium presented, piece by piece, a portrait Vidal’s remarkable life. Vidal has written social satires, historical novels, screenplays, essays and Broadway plays during his lifetime and has run for political office twice.
During a question-and-answer period that followed the presentations, Vidal gave his opinion on everything from the Bush administration to the arrest of Michael Jackson. Vidal said he distrusts and disapproves of the Bush administration, even going so far as to liken Bush’s actions to those of Hitler during World War II. He cited what he called “incompetent” leadership and a “massive” national debt.
“This is the worst period in American history,” Vidal said.
Vidal had less definitive views of Jackson’s arrest.
“As for Michael Jackson, I have no idea — I worry about his face,” Vidal said, eliciting audience laughter as he did frequently throughout the night.
Alice Brown, 65, a Boston resident who said she drove two hours to hear Vidal, said she enjoyed the symposium.
“It was an intellectual feast,” Brown said.
Brown runs a Yahoo Internet Group dedicated to the discussion of Vidal’s works, and said her notes from the symposium will fuel the group’s discussions for “an entire year.”
“His books are like Shakespeare,” Brown said. “Every time I reread them I see something new.”
Eric Shiner GRD ’08, a Ph.D. candidate in history of art, described Vidal as “a living legend.”
“In the age of gay rights activism, we can all learn a lot from what he’s done and what he’s said,” Shiner said.
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