Gore Vidal's Historical Novels and the Shaping of American Political Consciousness

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As a writer of sophisticated historical fiction, satirical fantasies and incisive essays on the political and cultural condition of America, Gore Vidal’s reputation is well-established. This study explores Gore Vidal’s use of classical scepticism in his historical novels and in his politics. While a great deal has been written about Vidal, there has not yet been published a serious analysis of his philosophical approach to the reading and interpretation of history, and how this in turn informs the writing of his historical fiction. What this study offers is a full understanding of how Vidal’s sceptical and dissenting views reflect the mind of a politically committed and serious thinker, and, in turn, how these views directly inform the creation of a body of writing that is as intellectually challenging as it is engagingly varied in form and character.


“At one point in Burr, the eponymous hero muses briefly in his memoir upon the private life of Thomas Jefferson ... he remarks that ‘Eventually all things are known. And few matter.’ ... Those words of the fictional Burr directly pertain to two of the issues which the author addresses in this volume. The first is Vidal’s public persona and its role in his ambiguous status within American letters and American politics. The second is the dilemma at the heart of the study of history: if the ‘truth’ about the past is ultimately not recuperable, then how can the historian – or the historical novelist – assert with any authority that certain versions are more true or more false than others? ... The author engages ... in a detailed exploration of both Vidal’s skepticism ... and of the historical novel, a genre apparently undergoing a resurgence in popularity ... This study of Vidal’s work is a timely and significant contribution to the assessment of this hitherto underestimated figure.” (from the Commendatory Preface) – Heather Neilson, Senior Lecturer – English, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy

“In this new study of Gore Vidal’s historical fiction, the author cuts through the persiflage of Vidal-as-media-personality and brings a critical intelligence to bear on Vidal’s profound privileging of history as inspirer and arbiter of humane values. This is a welcome approach, refreshing in its lucid explanation of the paradoxes inherent in Vidal’s practice as writer of historical fiction and non-fiction as deft performer in public ... This is a book that will provoke readers of Vidal to engage with his ideas at a deeper level than each book’s individual drift, and to consider the ways in which each historical ‘present,’ including the reader’s, is embedded in a past whose composition is endlessly open to interrogation.” – Michael Sharkey, Senior Lecturer – School of English, Communication & Theatre, University of New England, Australia

“Harris’ study of the historical fiction of Gore Vidal is excellent reading – expert, entertaining, and clearly worthy of publication. It addresses significant writing with originality and astute insight, and relates its literary conclusions to the world (especially American) situation with a lucid intelligence that establishes the central relevance not only of Vidal’s work but of all literary study of this thoughtful quality ... This book is informative, insightful, interesting and pleasurable to read ...” – Roger Robinson, Professor, School of English, Film and Theatre, Victoria University of Wellington

Table of Contents

Preface by Heather Neilson
1. Politics and History
2. Literary Histories/Historical Reviews
3. Historical Fictions and the Politics of History
4. Writing the Historical Self in Burr
5. Making History in 1876 – Politics in America

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