Veteran biographer Fred Kaplan, praised for his evocative portraits of 19th-century masters like Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, turns with aplomb to a contemporary writer in this lengthy yet cogent work. Indeed, the multifaceted Gore Vidal, born in 1925 but positively Victorian in the breadth of his interests and achievements, is fortunate to have a biographer as wide-ranging as Kaplan. He traces the familial roots of Vidal's lifelong political engagement (his maternal grandfather was a U.S. senator) and lucidly assesses his nonfiction as well as his bestselling novels such as Washington, D.C. and Burr, reminding readers that Vidal has for decades been an astute, sardonic observer of the American scene. Vidal's personal relations are depicted frankly but briskly, as befits a staunch defender of homosexual rights who is open about his own orientation but refuses to be pigeonholed as a gay writer. The famous feuds with William Buckley, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote get enjoyably full treatment, properly situated in the context of larger issues. If the inner workings of Vidal's psyche remain ultimately elusive despite Kaplan's access as authorized biographer to thousands of unpublished letters, that too seems right for someone of whom a friend once remarked, "I've always thought that Gore is a man without an unconscious." --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Kaplan has written esteemed lives of Henry James, Dickens and Carlyle and is a professor of English at Queens College. He candidly admits, in a "prelude" that opens the book, "I prefer my subjects dead," and perhaps having a subject not yet dead has made it more difficult for Kaplan to synthesize the life and work, to put Vidal into context and to pinpoint the telling details of his subject's productive life. For this extremely long biography showcases erudition at the expense of selection, and the book drowns in encyclopedic detail. Much of the detail, drawn from Kaplan's access to Vidal's papers, is enlightening. Kaplan is especially good on Vidal's relationships with his editors at publishing companies and magazines and his friendships and feuds with Joanne Woodward, Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, William Buckley and others. His analysis of Vidal's multifarious work (novels, essays, plays, screenplays) is often elucidating. His accounts of Vidal's various runs for office are also useful. Yet it is annoying to read long-winded prose with a disappointing lack of immediacy. (Compare, for instance, Gerald Clarke's scintillating biography of Truman Capote, also about a contemporary writer known for his wit and style, and also written with the cooperation of its subject.) Kaplan, falling far short of that standard, convinces the reader that Vidal's unusually vast involvement with the political and literary life of his times is impressive, without seeming to draw much inspiration from Vidal's own biting prose, which, though cited dutifully, fails to spark in this context. Rather than coming to life, Vidal seems entombed within the pages of this book. 12 pages b&w photos. (Nov.)
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