We recently caught up with renowned cultural commentator and LaTrobe University academic Dennis Altman to talk about his new book, Gore Vidal’s America.
What do you find most interesting about Gore Vidal?
His versatility: here is a man who wrote one of the more successful novels of World War II (Williwaw), and 60 years later was appearing in films like Gattaca. In-between he ran for Congress, wrote plays, film scripts and essays - and major historical novels, such as Julian and Lincoln, as well as black satires, such as Myra Breckinridge and Duluth, which tell us a huge amount about the contemporary US. Not a bad career.
How has Vidal proved ‘eerily prescient’ in his fears about America’s relationship with imperial adventure, big money and religious moralism?
Go back to his writings in the 1960s, especially after his shortish infatuation with President Kennedy (whom he knew quite well) and one finds someone who was writing of American Empire, genderf**k and ecological concerns long before they became fashionable. The most interesting warnings come in his fiction: Myra preceded the gay movement, Kalki warns of overpopulation long before academia.
Did your own friendship with Vidal made it easier or harder to write this book?
I have known Gore, though not well, for 30 years, and as I make clear in the book, nothing I wrote about him cannot be found on the public record. I did value enormously Gore’s comments on the manuscript once it was in process, but other than correcting a couple of grammatical mistakes he did not change what I wrote. My respect for him was increased by the fact we did discuss the book on various occasions and he accepts that I’m quite tough on him in some places, tougher indeed than I would be now. (I had underestimated the extent to which he is disliked by the American literary and academic establishment, but after six months at Harvard I share more of his disdain for the pretentious wankiness that passes for scholarship in much of the Ivy League.)
Complete this sentence: ‘I would urge Readings customers to read Gore Vidal’s America because …’
It is as much a book about the last half-century of politics, sex and religion in the United States as it is a book about Gore Vidal. I can think of no author who is a better launching pad for writing about America’s place in the world, and the strange contradictions that can produce both the religious right and the counter-culture.