Looking back at Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar
How odd to discover Gore Vidal for the first time one week after his death. I picked up his 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar at the OutWrite LGBT Book Fair in DC last week and then proceeded to devour it. I was fascinated by this coming of age novel as it was set in such an important historic period, the 1940s, and because it was written with such subtle colorations by the 22 year old writer. Gore Vidal had already achieved fame with his earlier work and was securely set on a trajectory of fame and fortune when he decided to risk it all by pubishing this loud and proud gay novel in that era of virulent homophobia. It must have taken great courage, as well as foresight, and the knowledge that his novel was an achievement that could defy all the doomsayers. In fact, his novels were pretty much blacklisted for the next six years after this publication, but with his persistent genius, he managed to overcome.
The City and the Pillar is the story of Jim Willard, a young man in Virginia who leaves home after high school and drifts to Seattle, Hollywood and Manhattan learning his way in the semi-clandestine society of homosexuals and yearning for his impossible love. The story ends tragically for that love affair, but one has the feeling that Jim, now an experienced gay man, will survive. I loved the way that this character develops during his travels, gaining self-confidence and stature in his dealings with others. Although he is closed up in himself and not entirely sympathetic, the reader can’t help but root for him wholeheartedly as he navigates the hostile waters of post-war society. Even his transgressive and unconscionable acts at the end of the story felt good, though I would have prefered something a bit more amiable and better motivated. Gore Vidal writes in his introduction that he revised the ending for a new edition in 1965, because the original ending, which ended in death, was too melodramatic. Good call, Gore. He also revised the entire text at that time, so if you read an old edition, make sure it includes these 1965 changes. With my own novel, Nickel Fare, so forward in my mind (I was at OutWrite to read from the novel), I greatly appreciated seeing the parallels that I could draw between this young man Jim Willard and my own coming of age character, Nicangelo. They are both loners adrift without family or close friend and they both must control the demons that eventually rise up from their subconsciouses, so tried by the misfortunes they’ve endured. A critic, using the literary landmarks of the day, called Jim Willard “l’ètranger,” that is, an existentialist stranger drifting through an absurd world. That could describe my Nicangelo as well, as he watches all the certainties and truisms of his youth turn to caricatures before his eyes.
The title puzzled me, as it is not referenced anywhere in the story. In his introduction Gore Vidal seems to indicate that it connotes the idea of an impossible idyll but a google search yielded no results. And then I noticed the epigraph at the beginning of the book, refering to Lot’s wife, who looked back and became a pillar of salt. Jim’s fatal flaw was his retrospection which paralyzed him and made him incapable of finding love, in effect, turning him to stone. There are some blatant stereotypes and some heavy handed Freudian psychology in this story, which I think reflect the primitive level of openly gay literary tradition of that time, more than anything else.
The City and the Pillar clearly deserves a high profile in the library of gay literature, and it did come in at number 9 on the Lambda Book Report’s January, 2000 list of the 100 most influential LGBT books. But I suppose that in a society like ours where the latest trends and newest innovations are always preferable to the old and tried (and often tired), I guess it is no wonder that there is so little mention of the book. Now, with the death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012, a look back at this classic and highly entertaining novel is in order – don’t worry, you won’t turn to stone, but you will be fascinated.
Check out The Gore Vidal Pages
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