Review

Shaping American Thinking Through the Silver Screen

  • Screening History, by Gore Vidal. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992. Hardcover. 97 pages. Photographs. ISBN 0-674-79586-5.

Reviewed by Theodore J. O'Keefe

Few contemporary American writers pretending to serious literature have boasted as wide a range of concerns, poses, feuds and accomplishments as Gore Vidal. He's run the gamut from littérateur (novelist, playwright, essayist, screenwriter) to unsuccessful politician (Democratic candidate for Congress in New York, 1960, and Democratic candidate for senator in California, 1982), to television talk-show oracle (from his days as a fighting liberal on Jack Paar's "Tonight" show to his contemporary command performances, seemingly uncurtailed even by his much criticized public antipathy toward Israel).

Sometimes the stern classicist and defender of America's Old Republican polity, Vidal has been, just as often, the salacious gossip and subject of gossip, which only begins with Vidal's frank and long-standing affirmation of his own homosexuality.

Vidal has been slugged by Norman Mailer, traduced by Truman Capote, called a "goddamn queer" on television by William F. Buckley, Jr., excluded from Jack Kennedy's White House, and grappled with the politruks of American's English and Comparative Literature departments for thumbing his nose at what he calls in Screening History their "hacking away at the olive trees of Academe while seeding the Cephisus River with significant algae" (p. 4).

Vidal can offend and enlighten, often doing both at once. This slender book, which contains the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, is no exception. Catty stabs at antagonists and rivals, cutting vignettes of cherished personages (from Franklin Roosevelt to Frank Capra), snide slaps at cherished institutions (Vidal lets his long-standing war with Christianity seep into these pages) combine with sharp insights into American history, particularly as to how America's West Coast (Hollywood) establishment successfully supported the East Coast establishment's dragooning of a fundamentally anti-interventionist populace into the Second World, and subsequent, wars deleterious to the Republic.

The focal point of Screening History is the role of moving images (chiefly filmed, although Vidal hardly slights the influence of television "news" casting) on the popular perception of politics and history in America. Vidal, an author of numerous best-sellers, dismisses the import of literature in today's "Agora."

("Today the public seldom mentions a book, though people will often chatter about the screened versions of unread novels." [p. 3] Vidal would surely nod approvingly at these lines of Goethe: "One can talk nonsense, write it too. It will die in his life and soul, everything will stay the same. Idiocy, however, placed before the eye, has a magic right: since it binds the senses, the spirit remains enslaved.")

Chapter One, "The Prince and the Pauper," defers direct comment on history and politics to interweave premise with plot, which largely concerns Vidal's precocious artistic maturation in an extraordinary, moveable household headed by his mother, Nina Gore Vidal Auchincloss Olds, and the succession of fathers, natural and step, designated by that lady's imposing train of married surnames. (For her risqué evaluation of her three mates, according to the author, see page 11.) Vidal's telling of the initial effects of such movies as "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Mummy," and "The Prince and the Pauper" on his personal consciousness and aesthetic vision may be of little interest to most readers. Intriguing, though, is his account of his extended family and "tribe," with its ramifications even into the Kennedy White House (through the Auchincloss connection to Jackie), the Carter White House (the author claims to be Jimmy's fifth-cousin), and even unto Bill Clinton's administration (Al Gore is a distant cousin).

Brought up in Washington, Vidal drank deep in the history and symbolism of the "American Republic." (He is one of the few writers honored in the New York-Hollywood agora who can write that last phrase unselfconsciously.) He had various preceptors. Perhaps more than his father, Eugene, who founded three airlines and served as Director of Air Commerce in FDR's first term, the man who placed his stamp on the young Vidal was his grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, who despised the pro-war policies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. As a boy, Gore Vidal spent many hours reading to the blind senator, and clearly imbibed much sense from the old man's aristocratic-populist American republican notions.

Of the first of his grandfather's two great enemies, Vidal writes (p. 34):

It had been hard enough for Wilson to maneuver us into the First World War, as my grandfather believed that he had meant to do as early as 1916. We got nothing much of that war except an all-out assault on the Bill of Rights in 1919 and, of course, the prohibition of alcohol. The world was not even made safe for democracy, a form of government quite alien to the residents of our alabaster cities, much less to those occupants of our fruited plains.

Of the second great enemy of his grandfather (as of all decent men), Vidal recalls (p. 72) his learning of Franklin Roosevelt's death:

I was delighted, of course. He had got us into the war; he had established a dictatorship; he had defeated my grandfather in the election of 1936. He was also the only president that I could remember, and I was bored to death with him.

Vidal devotes an entire chapter to British-made and -inspired films that, produced in the late 1930s, skillfully promoted British propaganda aims, above all the notion of a special American kinship with and duty to the "mother country" ("a phrase calculated to put on edge," the author writes, "my grandfather's Anglo-Irish false teeth"). Whether produced in America or England, such films as "Henry VIII," "Fire over England," and "That Hamilton Woman" revived the myth of the small, plucky island nation, gallantly striving for its own liberties and those of other countries against dictatorial oppressors. To the young Vidal, and to many other impressionable Americans of the time (p. 39),

On our screens, in the thirties, it seemed as if the only country on earth was England, and there were no great personages who were not English, or impersonated by English actors. I recall no popular films about Washington or Jefferson or Lincoln the president.

On the influence in those years of the large English colony in Hollywood, Vidal writes (p. 33):

For those who find disagreeable today's Zionist propaganda, I can only say that gallant little Israel of today must have learned a great deal from the gallant little Englanders of the 1930s. The English kept up a propaganda barrage that was to permeate our entire culture, with all sorts of unexpected results. Since the movies were by now the principal means of getting swiftly to the masses, Hollywood was subtly and not so subtly influenced by British propagandists.

This propaganda offensive buttressed the interventionist forces and battered America's peace party, both then and now, as follows (p. 33):

In the thirties -- as in the teens -- the country was divided over whether or not the United States should join England and France against Germany. But the division was not exactly right down the middle. I have not consulted any ancient poll, but it is my impression that something like two thirds of our people wanted to stay out of the European war. The so-called liberals -- as they are always so-called -- included Franklin Roosevelt. The so-called conservatives, like Senator Gore, were against war in general and any war to help the British Empire in particular. Today, when the meanings of so many words have been reversed, the conservatives speak fiercely against the, so-called by them, isolationists on the left, while the left (also known as Paleolithic conservatives) speak of minding our own business and restoring a wrecked polity, thanks to forty years of profitless -- for the people at large -- imperialism.

(Vidal's strictures on the British cinema offensive should be read in conjunction with Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black's Hollywood Goes to War, which details the operations of FDR's wartime Office of War Information, including its recognition of widespread "Anglophobia" among the reactionary American masses, and the attempts by decidedly un-Anglo-Saxon functionaries working in the OWI's Bureau of Motion Pictures to combat English films as aristocratic propaganda that supposedly endangered Allied unity. (The view that such films scanted the sweating serfs of Uncle Joe's "worker's paradise," as well as the Joes and Rosies of FDR's "war effort," revealed a profound misunderstanding of the force of snob appeal to, above all, the wretchedest of the earth.)

In the third and concluding chapter of these lectures, Vidal turns to American history as enacted in Hollywood, above all in of movies about Abe Lincoln (notably John Ford's "The Young Mr. Lincoln," which starred Henry Fonda). The author finds these productions wanting, both for cementing the treacly myth of the "democratic," plastic saint, and for neglecting the all-important war years. Vidal himself has dealt with the Great Emancipator's war years in his historical novel, Lincoln, which offended professional keepers of the Lincoln flame by its depiction of a hard-headed, calculating Abe for whom freeing the slaves was just another move in the brutal chess game by which he ultimately saved the Union.

American nationalist that he is, Vidal despises the sanctimonious myth, although he accepts Mr. Lincoln's war, not even pausing to muse on the fearful toll in the best American blood it exacted. And this in spite of the fact that he gave the lectures that comprise this book at Harvard's Memorial Hall, a giant cenotaph to the university's Civil War dead, the names of hundreds and hundreds of whom line its walls. (The names of the Harvard fallen in Southeast Asia could easily be writ large on the roof of a rabbit hutch, although the university seems to have profited enormously from the Vietnam-era prosperity.) Hollywood's failure to present that the Civil War as rivetingly as, say, "Exodus," Vidal regards as a signal national loss, one arguably not unrelated to the lack of regard of America's present cultural elite for any US history before the New Deal, a disdain expressed most eloquently by Norman Podhoretz, who once horrified Vidal by sniffing to him, "Well, to me, the Civil war is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses."

At the close of Screening History, conscious of the inefficacy of almost everything that passes for "education" in the United States today, Vidal advocates a television- and movie-based curriculum that would inculcate pupils with world history. Not entirely irreligious, he urges "screening not only Lincoln but Confucius and the Buddha." (He'd better not let his friends in the Civil Liberties Union hear that one -- or perhaps it's just Christianity that has to stay banned from our schools.)

For all the present impracticality of Vidal's schemes (Jefferson and Washington and Robert E. Lee and Patrick Henry and Stephen Decatur would be "screened" today by Hollywood either as hate-crazed, slavocratic, racist, sexist bigots or as deeply closeted homosexuals), his suggestion clearly has merit.

As to what sort of republic may remain to be enjoyed by a species of television watchers, Vidal considers this question realistically, and with his customary saturnine joviality. Musing over the various nations currently resident in what he calls "the lost republic and the eroding Bill of Rights," he entertains the solution of devolution, perhaps on the Swiss model, with separate enclaves for the Latino and Asian populations. (In such a set-up, one is allowed to think, there may even be a place for the European-derived American nation that founded, sustained and lost the first [or is it the second?] republic.)

One needn't accept Gore Vidal as the rebirth of Cicero to read, profit from, and snicker at his amusing stories (why Robert Lincoln, Abe's son, stopped seeing Senator Gore; why Eleanor looked so stern at FDR's funeral; how Frank Capra wanted Vidal's "Best Man" to be screened), his mordant insights into historiography, moviemaking, and how the two have been woven into a double propaganda whammy that has injected a far speedier and more potent fix of false history into the brains of more of our fellow citizens than any number of textbooks or dime-store novels. (What is it people say when we tell them we don't believe the Holocaust?: "What about the films?")

Even at $14.95 for 97 pages, Screening History is well worth buying. Apprentice Latinists will have fun correcting "in hoc signes" and "annum mirabilis" (pp. 37, 44) -- doubtless let stand by the Harvard University Press entirely for that purpose -- while nearly every reader will wince at "Cleo" for "Clio" (p. 78). Such imperfections aside, and its author's occasional Old-Left fetishism and (veiled) evocations of the joys of Sotadic sex disregarded, Vidal's essays are a valuable contribution to the common weal, particularly in this Augustulan Age of American letters. As the old adage has it, we may choose our friends and our enemies, but we can't choose our allies.

Anyway, who wouldn't welcome an ally who writes (p. 91) of the latest ex-president, and a couple of earlier icons:

For George it is always 1939, the year of "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone with the Wind," and "Young Mr. Lincoln." It is the year that Hitler invaded Poland; that Japan was conquering China. It is the year when that magnificent windbag, Churchill, was speaking up for war, and that truly amoral and cynical politician, Roosevelt, was trying simultaneously to get us into the war while carefully staying out of the war. This sort of statesmanship deeply puzzles school teachers in Gettysburg, where one is either great and good and always right, or not.


From The Journal of Historical Review, January/February 1994 (Vol. 14, No. 1), pages 33-36.

About the Author

Theodore J. O'Keefe is book editor for the Institute for Historical Review, and an associate editor of the IHR's Journal of Historical Review. He previously worked at the IHR from 1986 until 1994, serving as chief editor of this Journal from 1988 until April 1992. He also addressed the IHR Conferences of 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992. Educated at Harvard College, he is the author of numerous articles on historical and political subjects that have appeared in a range of periodicals.