"VANITY," wrote Lord Chesterfield to his bastard son, "or to call it by a gentler name, the desire of admiration and applause, is, perhaps, the most universal principle of human actions; I do not say that it is the best; and I will own that it is sometimes the cause of both foolish and criminal effects. But it is so much oftener the principle of right things, that though they ought to have a better, yet considering human nature, that principle is to be encouraged and cherished, in consideration of its effects."
Lord Chesterfield's Letters were published, posthumously, in 1774, thereby anticipating by two years Adam Smith's complementary formulation, that it is self-interest (or to call it by a less gentle name, greed) that is the great motivator, which, contrary to traditional moral doctrine, is to be "cherished in consideration of its effects." The difference between Chesterfield and Smith is the difference, simply, between the patrician and the bourgeois. The man who has everything needn't bother himself with mere money-getting, though he expects, in the natural course of things, to get money. His ambitions rather take the form, in Chesterfield's words, of "an insatiable thirst, a rage of popularity, applause, and admiration."
Gore Vidal is an American patrician with the same insatiable thirst and the same paradoxical penchant for spelling out, with often dismaying candor, the foundations on which patrician prestige and authority are based. Here, for instance, in the collection's title essay, which calls for a new constitutional convention, is Vidal's summing-up of our whole socio- economic shebang: "Those with large amounts of property control the parties which control the state which takes through taxes the people's money and gives a certain amount of it back in order to keep docile the populace while reserving a sizable part of tax revenue for the oligarchy's use in the form of 'purchases' for the defense department, which is the unnumbered, as it were, bank account of the rulers." Now, while most thinking people would not take grave exception to this assessment, it is rare for a thinking person of Vidal's class to give expression to it in so public and straightforward a way. One of the decorums the very rich are expected to observe--their way of paying, as it were dues to the rest of us, who envy and resent their unearned privileges--is a hypocritical allegiance to the conventional morality of Sunday schools and civics classes. This allows those in the bleacher seats to enjoy the periodic spectacle of scapegoat millionaires or senators--such as, currently, the smarmy Harrison Williams--squirming to maintain their evidence even as they are crushed by the evidence against them. The drollest of the essays in this latest collection, Vidal's fifth, "How to Find God and Make Money," concerns the ritual sacrifice of Bert Lance and is so funny it had me laughing out loud while I waited in line at the supermarket. Short of their public flogging on satellite television, there's not a better way to savor the Lances' comeuppance than to read this patient paraphrase of LaBelle Lance's awesomely sanctimonious This Too Shall Pass.
Though Vidal is most entertaining as a prosecuting attorney or a debunker of inflated reputations (this collection kicks off with a jim-dandy demolition job on Scott Fitzgerald), Vidal has generous praise for such diverse figures as Edmund Wilson, Cecil Beaton, Thomas Love Peacock, and L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Oz books. Admittedly, it is mainly the illustrious dead and some few extremely senior statesmen of literature whom Vidal honors, while his peers are, by and large, ignored --as, by and large, they have ignored him, or at least his claims to preeminence. Though his books are on the best- seller lists, they seldom appear on prize lists. He has said too many unkind things about literary academics to have been taken up as one of theirs, and in any case his work requires no more in the way of exegesis than Voltaire's.
Is this the secret of what makes Vidal run? That fame is the spur, and that so long as adequate laurels are denied him he must continue the pursuit? Vidal, of course, would never be so wanting in the right tone as to complain that he has been undervalued, but he does allow Random House to publicize his book with somewhat wistful quotes from the New Statesman ("America's finest essayist") and the Boston newspaper columnist George Frazier ("our greatest living man of letters").
Somehow I feel these are the wrong superlatives. John Gross has made a strong case, in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, for declaring that particular species extinct, except in the shrunken domesticated form of the literary journalist, i.e., a mere reviewer of books. As to Vidal's being our "finest" essayist, fine essayists of the first rank are as incommensurable as fine painters, fine film directors, or fine artists of whatever breed. "Finest," in such cases, usually boils down to the one I enjoy the most, or most agree with, or most would like to emulate, and in those three regards I would have to second the New Statesman's nomination. But that doesn't mean he has the cleanest prose style, for in lazier moments he relies too much on his skill as a raconteur, and so meanders; nor has he the keenest nose for unexplored territory (Susan Sontag excels in that); nor is his wit inerrant, for he's capable of cheap shots and false aphorisms. But that he's one of our best essayists is undeniable, and his faults rarely bulk so large as even to be visible unless you squint.
My own sense of the heap Vidal is legitmately and goldenly at the top of would be that of celebrity author, a much more select game with higher stakes and certifiable winners (and losers). In this arena, where the creation of an image is as important as the accretion of an oeuvre, Vidal's wit, common sense, and durable good looks stand him in good stead. It's hard to imagine him making a public spectacle of himself in quite the careless ways that Mailer and Sontag have recently done. Vidal may sometimes write in haste, but he is always deliberate in his judgments, if only from a profound horror (with which Lord Chesterfield would have sympathized) of being seen with egg on his face. I imagine him forever seated outside that trattoria in Fellini's Roma, delighting everyone about him with his conversation, the life of the party.
As I came to the end of The Second American Revolution, I found myself still hungry for more, and accordingly imagined two other genres of nonfiction (as The List styles all books that aren't novels) in which Vidal has yet to exercise his gifts and by which I think he might extend his man-of- letters claim. The obvious one is memoir-writing. His essays continually yield tantalizing glimpses of his family background, and his life away from the nest seems to have been equally rich in anecdote. I trust that he is only biding his time and has no illusions that authors of his celebrity will be able to preserve anything like privacy. If James could not escape Leon Edel, what hope has Vidal to keep a single secret?
The other possibility, which Vidal may not have considered, since the genre has fallen into such desuetude, is the etiquette book. Since Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son and Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, no writer of the first rank has produced a guide to civilized comportment in all its aspects from good grooming to bedroom protocols. I can't think of any writer more certain to have exactly the right opinion on absolutely everything.