Gore Vidal was a true “man of letters”. His first novel was published when he was 21 and in the 75 years that followed he wrote novels, nonfiction, plays, screenplays and essays. He was also an actor, activist, politician and an acerbic wit. For better and for worse, his face is the image that comes to mind whenever I hear the word “intellectual”. When I read of Vidal’s death, almost a year ago, I made a mental note to finally get around to reading his novel The City and the Pillar. Sometimes the wheels grind slowly in the short-attention-span arena I call ‘Harper’s Valley’ but, last month, I read it.
Listed towards the top of every LGBTQA reading list I’ve ever seen, it is the story one man’s journey, both real and metaphorical, from his adolescence in small-town Virginia to maturity and self-discovery. It is a good read and not just because it is exceptionally well written. Reading it is like going back in time; not because of what it says about the time in which it is set, but because of what it shows us about the time in which it was written.
My BFF, Wikipedia notes;
“The City and the Pillar is significant because it is recognized as the first post-World War II novel whose openly gay and well-adjusted protagonist is not killed off at the end of the story for defying social norms.”
This is misleading. The term “openly gay”, in this case, means only that it is clear to the reader that Jim Willard, the protagonist, encounters and, at times lives among, homosexual men. He never identifies himself with them. This calls to mind the scene in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America; The Millennium Approaches when Roy Cohn says; “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man…. who fucks around with guys.” To Jim’s mind, the relationship he longs to establish, or reestablish, with high school friend Bob Ford is unique and totally unrelated to what the homosexuals he meets do with other men; himself included. For their part, many of the homosexuals he meets see him as “trade” and not as a member of their community.
BFF’s use of the term; “well-adjusted”, is misleading as well. In this case, I think it is a euphemism for the contemporary term; “straight acting”. Jim Willard is an athlete; a star of the high school tennis team. He eschews college, runs away to New York, ships out on merchant and passenger ships, becomes a professional tennis player and joins the army in WWII. What is overlooked in their description is that he does all of this in a Quixotic pursuit of the relationship he hopes to recapture with a Ford who, all indicators lead us to conclude, does not share his feelings.
The novel was groundbreaking by not depicting the protagonist as an effeminate stereotype, though these are represented, who leads a miserable life culminating in suicide. That said, Jim’s story is not a happy tale. The novel is evocative, well-crafted, and moving but the emotional impact is very similar to that of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys In The Band. It is true but it is neither uplifting nor empowering.
In many ways the story of the novel is more fascinating than the story in the novel. Published in 1948 with the first wave of post-WWII novels, the depiction of homosexuality was shocking and scandalous. So scandalous, in fact, that the New York Times refused to advertise the book and Vidal was ‘blacklisted’ for 6 years during which time no major newspaper or magazine would review his work. During this period he published using pseudonyms. Notwithstanding, the book sold well. It was among the first “gay” novels to be widely published as a mass-market paperback and enjoyed several reprint editions.
In 1965, Vidal released an updated version of the novel titled The City and the Pillar Revised. In the rewrite, Vidal changed the book structurally. The original was divided into two sections; “The City” and “The Pillar” whereas the revised version tells the story in a continuous narrative. Apparently some politically offensive language was changed as well. Most significantly, the ending for the book was changed. Trying to avoid any spoilers; it was widely reported that editorial pressure was brought to bear on Vidal to give the original story a more cautionary ending. Vidal denied this however. Critics said the original ending was too melodramatic. Regardless of the cause, almost 20 yrs after its original publication, the ending of the story was changed. I like the new ending better than the descriptions I’ve read of the original. I think the new ending is more ambiguous. Most modern printings contain the updated text but use the original title. The most recent edition includes a fascinating forward by the author. I would love to find a copy of the original book so I could ‘compare & contrast’.
In a 2006 NPR interview, Vidal, who along with Christopher Fry, had been hired to re-write the screenplay for the movie Ben-Hur, said some of the dynamic between the two central characters in The City and the Pillar had been applied to the relationship between the characters played by Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Heston denied this was true.
The book is an important artifact from a somewhat less enlightened time. Highly recommended reading.