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Man of letters

Aug 5, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

There are fewer of them, and fewer of us who even know what they are

A spot check around the newspaper office in recent days found that not more than one in 10 had heard of Gore Vidal when he was alive. Now that he is dead, the term "a man of letters" was used to describe the irascible Vidal.

A man of letters? "What's that?" asked several members of the office assembly.

The question wasn't a surprise. Vidal himself said that men of letters were going out of style decades before his own death Wednesday at age 86.

Generally, the term refers to people who carve out both and internal and external existence through reading, writing, studying, conversing and informing, all in the realm of the word, chiefly the written one.

Gore Vidal wrote 22 novels, spanning a period of 56 years. He wrote plays, eight of them in all, the first in 1957, the last in 2005. He wrote 26 other books -- memoirs, essays, criticism, history, biography and more. He wrote screenplays. The first was an adaptation of "Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1954 for a television show. The most famous were "Ben Hur" in 1959, for which he got no screen credit, "Suddenly Last Summer" in 1959, and the more or less notorious "Caligula" in 1979.

More controversial in its time was a book called "The City and the Pillar" in 1948. It might have been the first mainstream American novel to feature an openly gay character, fully "out" and not masked by the language of symbolism and innuendo. For that, Vidal was blacklisted for a decade or so and wrote under another name, usually "Edgar Box."

He appeared from time to time as an actor in movies (he's there as a senator opposite Tim Robbins in the political near-comedy "Bob Roberts"). And he made thousands of appearances on television talk shows, news interview shows, panel discussions and debates.

Always there was a new book or play to discuss, or the recent editorial or piece of criticism from someone else. As a man of letters, this pattern -- writing, promoting, discussing and writing again -- were his stock and trade.

He was a wickedly smart man, fearless in his displays of wit, rejoinder and sarcasm, both in print and in person. He also was a frequent and willing target of attacks by others. As a liberal and bisexual, he was never far from a well-armed critic. Yet he never shied from battle, and he took heat as well as he dished it out. He was sued for defamation in the 1960s by another man of letters, William F. Buckley, with whom Vidal quarreled publicly for decades.

One obituary mentioned that Vidal "referred to himself as the last of a breed, and he was probably right." No, that breed is not the witty, left-wing, intellectual gay man -- there seem to be many of those around -- but, rather, the man of letters, the person whose bank account and mind were fueled by writing, reading, thinking and discussing.

Today there aren't so many men of letters. Instead we have men of video games, men of "apps," men of sports talk radio, men of sound bites, men of reality television.

It's easy in today's open-and-shut world of cultural and political diatribes to write off men like Gore Vidal based on their politics or their personal lives. Think what you want of Gore Vidal the man, now that you've heard of him.

Yet the country ought not to dismiss the man of letters, or at least not forget what the term even means.

Elsewhere in today's edition, a wire service writer wonders if there would be a place in today's cultural landscape for Marilyn Monroe. Somehow, though, the world today appears quite receptive to the buxom blonde who pretends to be stupid. We wonder, instead, how much longer there will be room for the acerbic man of letters who is proud to be smart.

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