Homage

Gore Vidal was one of three rather important gay male writers who emerged from the wreckage of World War II (the others being Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote), and I have always enjoyed reading his work–even if it’s not page turning material; I like the way he writes and I like the way he tells his stories.

He wrote six or seven major works of fiction based in American history that tell, in their own way, a more clear-eyed vision of what American history was and how the nation developed; called the Narratives of Empire, they certainly weren’t published in order but rather, I gather, in the order that struck his fancy; he was also busy writing other things and feuding with other writers–notably Capote, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley–and he obviously had a flair for the outrageous and controversial; The City and the Pillar, a very frank and daring and sympathetic look at the experiences of one young man navigating the world as a gay man, made him so controversial he was unpublishable for a number of years; he spent the time writing mysteries under the name Edgar Box and writing screenplays. Myra Breckinridge, which undoubtedly does not hold up to modern scrutiny and eyes; the book was clearly intended as satire, examining societal gender constructs and views on sexuality as well as the role of women. I read it for the first time maybe ten years ago, and it struck me as quaint; an artifact of a time certainly less enlightened, but trying to head for the light. (It may be worth a reread.) He also wrote Julian the Apostate, which I greatly enjoyed and read one year beside the pool during Saints & Sinners, back when it was in May and we used to always spend the weekend at the Olivier House on Toulouse Street.

But the Narratives of Empire began with, I think, Washington DC, followed by 1876 and later Burr; he also wrote about the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the growth of the American empire in Empire, which I have also read and greatly enjoyed. I’ve not read all the titles yet; but reading Lincoln next after Empire made the most sense to me as some of the real-life characters depicted in that book are also in Lincoln, and it’s been a very long time since I read anything about Lincoln.

Elihu B. Washburne opened his gold watch. The spidery hands shows five minutes to six.

“Wait here,” he said to the driver, who said, “How do I know you’re coming back, sir?”

At the best of times Congressman Washburne’s temper was a most unstable affair, and his sudden outbursts of rage–he could roar like a preacher anticipating hell–were much admired in his adopted state of Illinois, where constituents proudly claimed that he was the only militant teetotaller who behaved exactly like a normal person at five minutes to six, say, in the early morning of an icy winter day–of the twenty-third of February, 1861, to be exact.

“Why, you black—!” As the cry in Washburne’s throat began to go to its terrible maximum, caution, the politican’s ever-present angel, cut short the statesman’s breath. A puff of unresonated cold steam filled the space between the congressman and the Negro driver on his high seat.

Heart beating rapidly with unslaked fury, Washburne gave the driver some coins. “You are to stay here until I return, you hear me?”

Growing up with Southern parents and the so-called “Southern heritage”, Lincoln’s place in history was, to say the least, still resented. The lionization of Lincoln after his death was, in some part, made possible by his murder; there’s not telling what the judgment of history would be on him had he lived to serve out his second term. Would we revile Lincoln for the reconstruction policies he would have followed? How different would the face of our present day nation be had he lived? An enormous mythology has sprung up around Lincoln since his death; “Honest Abe the rail-splitter” is a tale told to school children to this day, or how a young girl told him to grow a beard, and so on and so forth. The Civil War has been analyzed and written about endlessly; no one person could ever hope to read and digest all the documentation that exists of the conflict, let alone all the books published centering the war. I was always interested in Lincoln–even as a child I couldn’t wrap my mind around the mentality that people claiming to be “patriotic Americans” reviled Lincoln and glorified the Confederacy; I still am unable to consider such without triggering a massive amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain–and read lots of children’s books about him, but by the time I was an adult I was no longer interested in reading further biographies of the man. I am relatively uninterested in the possibility that he may have had relationships with men; without definitive proof that will always be a theory, and let’s face it, there is more evidence (although nothing conclusive) about his predecessor James Buchanan’s sexuality than there ever will be about Lincoln’s–hence my story “The Dreadful Scott Decision” I wrote for The Faking of the President.

Lincoln’s task was to preserve the Union in the face of its collapse, and that is what he strove to do. Was secession constitutional? Lincoln didn’t think so; the Constitution did not provide for the dissolution of the Union but at the same time it stated that any rights or restrictions not granted to the federal government in the document thereby fell to the individual states. So, does that mean the states held the right to leave the union? Andrew Jackson certainly didn’t think so, since he threatened to send federal troops into South Carolina during the nullification crisis. Part of the reason I actually wanted to read this book at this time was because of the stark reminder that Lincoln’s presidency, and the Civil War, serve as proof that mollifying white supremacy and continually compromising with an angry volatile minority, never ends well. (We are seeing it again now with the old Confederate states allied with their rural midwestern states…and of course as always, the ones threatening insurrection or secession claim to be “true patriots.”

Whatever, Mary.

Lincoln serves to humanize the man, and is also equally frank about Lincoln’s own white supremacist beliefs. Is Vidal’s assertion that Lincoln wanted to take the freed slaves and colonize them into Central America or somewhere back in Africa while reimbursing the slave owners for the loss of “property” accurate? It’s not the first time I’ve heard this (never heard it in school, though) and it seems likely to me. I also liked how Vidal got the panic of what it was like to live in Washington during there war so spot on; we never think about that, or how Maryland was a slave state surrounding the district, or that slavery existed and was legal in the district itself; slaves built the White House and the Capital. We never see into Lincoln’s head or from his point of view in this book–a masterful trick of Vidal’s, who thus leaves Lincoln a mystery to the reader.

It’s a compelling narrative, and it also shows us the point of view throughout of one of the conspirators who were hanged for plotting to kill him–David Suratt–and this jumping around from points of view–either of those who admired Lincoln, hated him, or thought him incompetent–gives a more three-dimensional view of the man we have deified for the last 156 years. He was definitely smart, a master politician, and, as Vidal says in the closing paragraphs of the book–if Washington was the father of our country, Lincoln was the father of our modern country.

Highly recommended.

Weirdo

What a lovely night’s sleep I had last night. I’m not sure what’s been up lately, but my sleep hasn’t been as good as it could be (or should be) but yesterday I got my order of pillow spray from This Works (I’ve used it before; my friend Lauren recommended it to me years ago. It’s what they give the first class passengers on British Airways flights to spray on their pillows to help them sleep during a flight; it does work…it’s just not inexpensive. I ordered two bottles with my stimulus check and they arrived yesterday–and last night I slept deeply, restfully, and well–and through the night.) I woke up at six–thanks, early mornings–but was able to go back to sleep for a few more hours. This is a very good thing, as I have–outside of some errands to run this morning–to spend the entire day working on my book–the same with tomorrow. It’s due on Thursday–but I may take the next weekend to go over it one more time.

I finished reading Gore Vidal’s Lincoln yesterday; it’s been quite a voyage. I’m not sure, frankly, how long it’s taken me to read it–I think I started it sometime last year–but I was reading a few pages a day rather than curling up with it. I love the way Vidal writes–he uses a weirdly distant, almost but not quite omniscient third person point of view–and the characters he follows are interesting choices. I’ve read another one of his chain of books Narratives of Empire (Empire) and rather enjoyed it; I’ve enjoyed most of Vidal’s work that I’ve read (Julian the Apostate is a particular favorite) and now I suppose will seek out others in the series; 1876 sounds kind of appealing, if for no other reason that it is a little-known but incredibly important year in American history. I’ll do an entry about Lincoln at some point, but I did really enjoy this, and do recommend it.

It’s very weird feeling so rested this morning–it makes me realize all those other mornings when I thought I was actually rested, well, I was wrong. It was just an improvement over insomnia, I guess.

It’s sort of gray outside again today–my windows are covered in condensation, which means it’s very definitely humid outside this morning. I am going to drop off two boxes of books at the library for their sale this morning and I need to stop at Whole Foos–I’ve been carrying a gift card valued at $25 in my wallet for nearly two years at this point, and as horrific as the Whole Foods on Magazine will be on a Saturday with all the uptown Karens out with their yoga pants or tennis skirts with a latté in hand will inevitably prove to be, I may as well make use of the extra trip uptown. I made groceries yesterday already, so I am just going to check out their berry situation as well as see if they have blackened catfish at the prepared food bar–it’s been a long time since I’ve had that, and Whole Foods’ is pretty good–and then head home to hibernate. Tomorrow all I have to do is work on the book and go to the gym–I am also doing some cleaning around the house, when I need a break and to clear my head–and hopefully, will be able to make some great progress on the book. We shall see, shan’t we?

The World Figure Skating championships are also currently going on in Stockholm–spoiler! I just checked results and Nathan Chen made a comeback from third place in the short to win the free skate by enough points to win the gold medal by a decisive margin–he hasn’t lost since the Olympics in 2018–which makes him the favorite for the Olympics next year. Pretty cool. We may win two medals in the ice dance, which finishes later–and the ladies finished fourth and ninth, so we can send three women to the Olympics next year as well. Our best pairs team finished seventh–not bad, since they’ve only been skating together for less than a year, and they are probably the best pairs team we’ve had in decades; they certainly have the potential to be at any rate. I just wish we could get another ladies’ champion again….particularly when you take into consideration we won two medals (gold and bronze) in 1992; a silver in 1994; gold and silver in 1998, and gold and bronze in 2002 (also a silver in 2006; the last time an American woman won an Olympic medal in figure skating).

The Tennessee Williams Festival also comes to a close this weekend, and I will shortly have my marriage back. Paul was actually home last night in time for me to make dinner–the Festival is virtual, so he doesn’t have to live at the Monteleone this weekend and can actually come home and watch things as they air on his computer–so we actually had dinner together for the first time since Valentine’s Day, really; and even that dinner together was an outlier. I’ve barely seen him for several months now, and perhaps that’s part of the reason I slept so well last night; because it was also a return to some semblance of what passes for normal around here; we ate dinner together and watched the rhythm dance competition.

It was kind of nice, actually.

I also reas Sara Paretsky’s introduction to a new edition of Dorothy B. Hughes’ Ride the Pink Horse. Hughes is one of the great crime writers of the past, probably best known for her In a Lonely Place, which is certainly stellar; but I’ve never been disappointed by a Hughes novel, just as I never have been with anything written by her contemporaries Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar. I got a cheap ebook edition of Dorothy Gilman’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, which I remember enjoying tremendously–I loved the early books in the series, but in one of them Gilman gave her a love interest whom she also married, and I felt the books weren’t really the same after that and I stopped reading them. I reread the first two pages of the book last night and was instantly charmed, just as I had been decades ago when I read it for the first time (I honestly don’t know why I picked up the first one in the first place), but the idea of the CIA hiring a widowed grandmother as a courier because no one would suspect the nice elderly American lady always has entertained me tremendously. It also occurred to me, as I set my iPad aside to come make dinner, that I am currently reading John LeCarré’s The Russia House..another novel of spies and international intrigue, and that I should perhaps read the two books back to back, comparing and contrasting them; spy thrillers coming from such vastly different perspectives…and voices.

Ah, my coffee tastes marvelous this morning. My brain is shaking off the vestigial fog from the sleep and my body is waking up. I am going to take this delicious cup of coffee with me to my easy chair, where I shall spend the next hour reading LeCarré, before doing the dishes and then venturing out to get my errands completed. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader, and I will talk to you again tomorrow.