Writers: Two Deaths and a Birth

This has been a week of literary milestones. Controversial novelist, essayist and commentator Gore Vidal died Wednesday.  Best known in later years for his political journalism, he broke onto the American literary scene in 1946 with his novel Williwaw, based on his wartime service. He gained notoriety with his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar, a coming-out story that is tame by today's standards but considered obscene when it was published (The New York Times actually refused to review it). He turned to writing mysteries under a pseudonym and wrote under contract for MGM (he contributed to the screenplay for Ben-Hur and wrote the screen adaption of his friend Tennessee Williams' play Suddenly, Last Summer). His historical novels are considered his most successful works. Julian (1964) was about the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to restore paganism.  Washington, D.C. (1968) is a political novel covering events from the late thirties to the McCarthy Era.   His historical novels about the U.S. came to be known as the American Chronicles. The others are Burr (1973), 1876 (1976),  Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000). And on a completely unrelated note, fans of YA fiction may be interested to learn Vidal was the inspiration for Brinker Hadley in A Separate Peace (Vidal went to school with Knowles). For two very different takes on Vidal and his significance to the American intellectual and literary scene, here's the New York Times obituary and here's the assessment of Slate's David Greenberg. One of the era's most prominent military historians left us on Thursday. John Keegan wrote about almost every martial topic you could think of, from the generalship of Alexander the Great to the use of "smart weapons" in the Iraq War, writing about them all with style, learning and authority (or presumption, depending on which critics you read). His judgments were often controversial: he argued that battles such as Gettysburg and Vicksburg were less significant in determining the course of the Civil War than lesser known battles such as that of Wilson's Creek, Missouri, and to the end of his life he defended American involvement in Vietnam. Historians generally agree that The Face of Battle--an examination of the nuts-and-bolts of combat in the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme--is one of his best works. John Horgan of Scientific American recommends A History of Warfare. SPL has 15 of Keegan's 23 books. Minuteman has the others. If  military history interests you, you owe it to yourself to sample Keegan's work. Thursday was the eighty-eighth birthday of an accomplished novelist and one of America's most insightful commentators on race.  The deck was stacked against James Baldwin from day one. He was born black forty years before the Civil Rights Movement. He grew up in poverty. Being gay made him a minority within a minority, and having  a strict religious stepfather made his formative years even more difficult.  He found refuge (and books) in the New York Public Library. As he wrote years later, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." After leaving high school he worked various odd jobs. When he was twenty he moved to Greenwich Village and began  Go Tell It on the Mountain,  his most highly acclaimed novel. Around that time he met Richard Wright, who recommended him for a Eugene Saxton Fellowship, which enabled him to write full time.  Despite this promising beginning to his career, his life in New York was not a happy one.  His struggles with American prejudice against blacks and gays convinced him that he had to leave the U.S., so in 1948 he moved to France. where he lived there rest of his life. I know Baldwin's nonfiction better than his novels. My favorite of his works is Nobody Knows My Name (1961). And my favorite essay in this collection is "A Fly in Buttermilk," Baldwin's account of his visit to the family of the first African-American teen to attend a previously all-white high school in Charlotte, NC. This piece provides a terrifying glimpse of the brutal choice this young man's parents faced: keep their son in a dead-end school where the boys inevitably drop out and get in trouble with the law, or enroll him in the white school where he'll face the hostility of both teachers and students and know years of loneliness. Another work of Baldwin's I read again and again is The Fire Next Time, which I love particularly for the beautiful, terrible sad autobiographical essay "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind," a meditation on race and religion. This passage, a recollection of the hopelessness that pervaded his youth, conveys the tone of at least part of "Down:" One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one's situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long...One would never defeat one's circumstances by working and saving one's pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies...

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