The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal

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Vintage International, 2009 - 458 síđur
Gore Vidal—novelist, playwright, critic, screenwriter, memoirist, indefatigable political commentator, and controversialist—is America's premier man of letters. No other living writer brings more sparkling wit, vast learning, indelible personality, and provocative mirth to the job of writing an essay.This long-needed volume comprises some twenty-four of his best-loved pieces of criticism, political commentary, memoir, portraiture, and, occasionally, unfettered score settling. It will stand as one of the most enjoyable and durable works from the hand and mind of this vastly accomplished and entertaining immortal of American literature.

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LibraryThing Review

Umsögn notanda  - Fledgist - LibraryThing

Edited collection of the essays both literary and political of the great American novelist, from the 1950s to the 2000s. This is, as is to be expected, an idiosyncratic, occasionally dyspeptic, highly ... Read full review


Umsögn notanda  - Kirkus

A splendid, savvy distillation of the best from the veteran novelist and essayist.This lively volume's raison d'etre is the inclusion of recent politically charged commentary, but most readers will ... Read full review


Novelists and Critics of the 1940s 1953
Tarzan Revisited 1963
The Top Ten BestSellers According to the Sunday
Theories of the New Novel 1967
Calvinos Novels 1974
The Hacks of Academe 1976
William Dean Howells 1983
The American Writer 1987
Passage to Egypt 1963
The Holy Family 1967
Homage to Daniel Shays 1972
An American Sissy 1981
Monotheism and Its Discontents 1992
State of the Union 2004

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Common terms and phrases

Um höfundinn (2009)


It is a rare and lucky physician who can predict accurately at birth whether a child is to become a dwarf or a giant or an ordinary adult, since most babies look alike and the curious arrangements of chromosomes which govern stature are inscrutable and do not yield their secret order even to the shrewdest eye. Time alone gives definition. Nevertheless, interested readers and writers, like anxious parents and midwives, forever speculate upon the direction and meaning of current literary trends, and professional commentators with grave authority make analyses which the briefest interval often declares invalid. But despite their long historic record of bad guesses, bookish men continue to make judgments, and the recorded derelictions of taste and the erratic judgments of earlier times tend only to confirm in them a sense of complacency: they are not we, and did not know; we know. To disturb this complacency is occasionally worthwhile, and one way of doing it is to exhume significant critical texts from the recent past. Those of the last century, in particular, provide us with fine warnings.

For instance: "We do not believe any good end is to be effected by fictions which fill the mind with details of imaginary vice and distress and crime, or which teach it instead of endeavoring after the fulfillment of simple and ordinary duty to aim at the assurance of superiority by creating for itself fanciful and incomprehensible perplexities. Rather we believe that the effect of such fictions tends to render those who fall under their influence unfit for practical exertion by intruding on minds which ought to be guarded from impurity the unnecessary knowledge of evil." This was the Quarterly Review on George Eliot''s The Mill on the Floss, and it is really quite well said: the perennial complaint of the professional reviewers and the governors of lending libraries ("enough unpleasant things in the world without reading about them in books").

Or the following attack on preciosity and obscurantism (Blackwood''s Magazine, 1817): "Mr. Coleridge conceives himself to be a far greater man than the public is likely to admit; and we wish to waken him from what seems to us a most ludicrous delusion. He seems to believe that every tongue is wagging in his praise. . . . The truth is that Mr. Coleridge is but an obscure name in English literature." [Coleridge was ?forty-five years old at this time and his major work was long since done.] "In London he is well known in literary society for his extraordinary loquacity . . ." And there follows a prolix attack upon the Biographia Literaria.

Or this excerpt from an 1848 Quarterly Review, deploring the pagan, the sexual, and the vicious:

At all events there can be no interest attached to the writer of Wuthering Heights--a novel succeeding Jane Eyre and purporting to be written by Ellis Bell--unless it were for the sake of more individual reprobation. For though there is a decided resemblance between the two, yet the aspect of the Jane and Rochester animals in their native state, as Catherine and Heatfield [sic], is too odiously and abominably pagan to be palatable even to the most vitiated class of English readers. With all the unscrupulousness of the French school of novels it combines that repulsive vulgarity in the choice of its vice which supplies its own antidote.

Differently worded, these complaints still sound in our press. The Luce editors who cry for an "affirmative" literature echo voices once raised against George Eliot. When middlebrow reviewers deplore "morbidity" in our best writers, they only paraphrase the outrage of those who found the Brontës repellent. And the twitterings of an Orville Prescott when he has discovered a nice and busy book echo the same homely song of those long-dead reviewers who found in the three-volume novels of forgotten lady writers so much warm comfort.

As the essential problems of life remain the same from generation to generation, despite altered conditions, so the problems of literary recognition remain, for contemporaries, peculiarly difficult. Despite the warnings of other times, the impetuous and the confident continue their indiscriminate cultivation of weeds at the expense of occasional flowers.

To consider the writing of any period, including the present, it is perhaps of some importance to examine the climate in which the work is done, to chart if possible the prevailing winds, the weather of the day.

Today there is a significant distinction between the reviewers for popular newspapers and magazines, whom no one interested in literature reads, and the serious critics of the Academy, who write for one another in the quarterlies and, occasionally, for the public in the Sunday supplements. The reviewers are not sufficiently relevant or important to be considered in any but a social sense: they reflect the commonest prejudices and aspirations of the middle class for whom they write, and they need not concern us here.

The critics, however, are significant. They are dedicated men; they are serious; their learning is often respectable. They have turned to the analysis of literature with the same intensity that, born in an earlier time, they might have brought to formal philosophy, to the law, to the ministry. They tend, generically and inevitably, to be absolutists. They believe that by a close examination of "the text," the laws and the crafty "strategies" of its composition will be made clear and the findings will provide "touchstones" for a comparative criticism of other works. So far so good. They have constructed some ingenious and perhaps valuable analyses of metaphysical verse whose order is often precise and whose most disparate images proceed with a calculable wit and logic.

Unfortunately, the novel is not so easily explicated. It is a loose form, and although there is an inherent logic in those books we are accustomed to call great, the deducible "laws" which governed the execution of Emma are not going to be of much use in defining The Idiot. The best that a serious analyst can hope to do is comment intelligently from his vantage point in time on the way a work appears to him in a contemporary, a comparative, or a historic light; in which case, his opinion is no more valuable than his own subtlety and knowledge. He must be, as T. S. Eliot put it so demurely, "very intelligent." The point, finally, is that he is not an empiricist dealing with measurable quantities and calculable powers. Rather, he is a man dealing with the private vision of another, with a substance as elusive and amorphous as life itself. To pretend that there are absolutes is necessary in making relative judgments (Faulkner writes better than Taylor Caldwell), but to believe that there are absolutes and to order one''s judgments accordingly is folly and disastrous. One is reminded of Matthew Arnold and his touchstones; it was his conviction that certain lines from a poet by all conceded great might be compared to those of lesser poets to determine their value. Arnold selected Dante as his great poet, an irreproachable choice, but then he misread the Italian, which naturally caused some confusion. Arnold''s heirs also demand order, tidiness, labels, ultimate assurance that this work is "good" and that work is "bad," but sooner or later someone misreads the Italian and the system breaks down. In our time there are nearly as many critical systems as there are major critics, which is a pleasing anarchy. The "new critics," as they have been termed (they at least dislike being labeled and few will now answer when called), are fundamentally mechanics. They go about dismantling the text with the same rapture that their simpler brothers experience while taking apart combustion engines: inveterate tinkerers both, solemnly playing with what has been invented by others for use, not analysis.

Today''s quarterlies are largely house organs for the academic world. They seldom publish imaginative work and one of their most distinguished editors has declared himself more interested in commentaries on writing than in the writing itself. Their quarrels and schisms and heresies do not in the least resemble the Alexandrians whom they occasionally mention, with involuted pride, as spiritual ancestors. Rather, one is reminded of the semantic and doctrinal quarrels of the church fathers in the fourth century, when a diphthong was able to break the civilized world in half and spin civilization into nearly a millennium of darkness. One could invent a most agreeable game of drawing analogies between the fourth century and today. F. R. Leavis and Saint Jerome are perfectly matched, while John Chrysostom and John Crowe Ransom suggest a possibility. The analogy works amusingly on all levels save one: the church fathers had a Christ to provide them with a primary source of revelation, while our own dogmatists must depend either upon private systems or else upon those proposed by such slender reeds as Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot, each, despite his genius, a ritual victim as well as a hero of literary fashion.

But the critics are indefatigable and their game is in earnest, for it is deeply involved not only with literature but with such concrete things as careers in the Academy, where frequent and prestigious publication is important. Yet for all their busyness they are by no means eclectic. In a Henry James year not one will write an analysis of George Meredith. They tend to ignore the contemporary writers, not advancing much later than F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose chief attraction is that he exploded before he could be great, providing a grim lesson in failure that, in its completeness, must be awfully heartening when contemplated on the safe green campus of some secluded school.

Of the

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