Why did Pope Francis pray at the wall? - for CNN

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote Robert Frost. This something is someone now: Pope Francis.

In a strong, apparently unscripted move on his recent visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, on Sunday the pontiff suddenly waved to the driver of his Popemobile, asking to get out. Surrounded by guards and by children waving Palestinian flags, he got out, walked over to the wall that separates Israel from its Palestinian neighbors, and he did something remarkably simple but with astonishing power: He prayed.

This symbolic gesture occurred at a well-known portion of the wall, a segment covered with graffiti. Somebody had spray-painted a message in black: "Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto." In bold red letters the Pope could read: "Free Palestine." While Israeli guards looked anxiously down from a nearby tower, wondering what on Earth was going on, Francis touched the wall with his right hand, bent his head, and prayed for several minutes. Afterward, he kissed the wall, then walked slowly back to his vehicle.

I've myself experienced several times the haunting power of Bethlehem for Christians. My father was a Baptist minister, and once -- in 1989 -- I took him to the Church of the Nativity, the spot where (by tradition) Jesus was thought to have been born.

This is a place of pilgrimage for those devoted to the Christian path, and it's also an important city on the West Bank for Palestinians (among them a mix of Muslims and Christians, with Muslims the vast majority).

This holy city, described in the Hebrew scriptures as the City of David, was under Ottoman and Egyptian rule for centuries. The British controlled much of Palestine from 1920-1948 during the period known as the Mandate. The United Nations partitioned Palestine after the war, but Jordan took possession of Bethlehem after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It became a refuge for Palestinians at this time, largely under the control of Jordan until the Six Day War in 1967.

The Israelis kept control until 1995, when an agreement was reached with the Palestinian National Authority, although it has been a place of unease, especially during the 2000-2005 era known as the Second Intifada, when for a period (in 2002) the Church of the Nativity itself became a battle zone for 39 days.

Some 150 people then (mostly Palestinian civilians, with numerous Catholic and Orthodox monks and nuns) took refuge in the Church of the Nativity from an Israeli siege known as Operation Defensive Shield. A tense stalemate occurred, with the Franciscan Order asking the Israeli government to let everyone inside the church go free on the 10th day. There was no response, although an Armenian monk was shot and wounded that day.

Ultimately, Israeli snipers shot dead eight people in or around the church; they wounded at least 22, all of them designated as terrorists by the Israeli army.

Against this history, this pope exercised his unerring sense of symbolism. It's not for nothing that he took the name of Francis of Assisi, in memory of a saint who, in the 12th century, was regarded as the person who most embodied the life and teachings of Jesus. Although born into a rich merchant family, he humbled himself, trying his best to conform to the pattern of life established by Jesus, with a dedication to peace, to bringing down barriers, to expressing love in whatever ways he could.

Pope Francis invites Israeli, Palestinian leaders to Vatican peace talks Francis of Assisi lived without pretense. He understood symbolic gestures like Jesus himself, who washed the feet of those around him, who sought out those -- such as prostitutes, lepers and beggars -- on the margins of society.

Through the Middle Ages, that earlier Francis was commonly known as alter Christus -- "the second Christ." One could say that Pope Francis, in turn, follows him as a man who lives without pretense, who understands symbolic gestures.

In stopping to pray by this wall of separation, he implicitly cries: Tear down this wall! He has pointedly asked Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres -- the Palestinian and Israeli presidents -- to join him for a time of prayer and reconciliation in Rome. He has called the conflict in Israel "increasingly unacceptable," which is a marvel of understatement. (In a gesture of reconciliation, the pope did — on Monday — accede to an Israeli request to pray before a memorial to Israeli victims of the conflict as well. As ever, he understands that it will be necessary to listen carefully to both sides in this tragic dispute.)

As the pope's unexpected pause by the wall near Bethlehem makes terribly clear, this ugly partition that weaves through the West Bank has become a potent symbol of the Israeli occupation, and it's an affront to all reasonable Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Good fences do not, in this case, make good neighbors. It's time to pull down this barrier to freedom.

 

See this post at CNN.com.

School Year Beginnings - for VPR

As a college teacher, I pay attention to the beginning of the school year. It always moves me to see the first year students arrive on campus, eager and tentative and wondering what their next four years will be like.

They understand that they’ve taken a step toward adulthood, and that what happens to them during this crucial time in their lives will matter – or it should.

This year my sense of the new academic year is enhanced – because the youngest of my three sons has left for college at UVM. As I watch him negotiate the beginnings of his first term, with all the excitement and uncertainty that is necessarily involved, I can’t help but think back to my own freshman year. I recall those days as vividly as if they occurred only last week, not half a century ago, but the calendar doesn’t lie.

I was a freshman in 1966, at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Being the first person in my extended family to attend college, I was uncertain about my prospects – to put it mildly. In fact, I was terrified. A few weeks into the first term, I actually wondered if I’d made the right decision. The work seemed very hard, and I thought I lacked the kind of discipline and focus it would take to push through four years of study.

One morning in late September, I sat on a wooden bench overlooking a lovely stretch of the campus. It was about seven a.m. – rather early for me to be up and about, but I couldn’t sleep. Suddenly I became aware of a presence looming behind me. I turned to see a late middle-aged man, who asked if he could sit with me. I said of course. He introduced himself as Roald Bergethon, the college president. He was on his way to his office, and he’d seen me sitting alone. Was I a freshman, he wondered?

I admitted to this, and he asked how it was going. When I told him frankly about my uncertainties, he didn’t try to persuade me of anything. He simply asked what I was reading. I told him about an essay by E.B. White I’d read for my English class, and soon found myself eagerly talking about White with him. When he left – after maybe ten minutes – I felt strangely at ease, and happy to move forward with my studies. The personal connection had made a huge difference for me – as it does with many students.

I often think of a line by James Garfield, who attended Williams College and studied with the famous president of Williams, Mark Hopkins. Garfield famously defined a college education as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” That’s pretty much the bones of the thing: a good teacher, a student, and a log.

So as the school year starts around the country, I hope there will be many good teachers, with eager students and solid logs for them to sit on.

- "School Year Beginnings" originally aired 08/29/13 on Vermont Public Radio. See the commentary at vpr.net. 

 

 

On Fathering - for Vermont Public Radio

For more than thirty years, I’ve had a kid at home – the last one leaves for UVM this fall – and I am starting to wonder if I will, in fact, begin to ask myself what I’ve been doing all this time.

We get into fatherhood for obvious reasons, probably related to the nesting instinct. Every year I watch the swallows on our porch as they nest. They begin with a fury, bringing the bits and pieces of straw and mud to exactly the same spot where we’ve previously knocked out their nests after the birds flew away. We watch the babies hatch, see them go, and wonder how they all made out. Are they the same ones who return the next year with more straw and mud?

Are we, like them, condemned to repeat this cycle?

In my classes at Middlebury College, I often talk about the word generation. In his poem “Jerusalem,” William Blake, the great English poet, wrote: “O holy generation, image of regeneration.” He was thinking of generation in its root sense, traced back to Greek and Latin, where “gens” means people. Hence, genealogy, gender, genocide, progeny, and – of course -- genitals.

Probably Father’s Day and Mother’s Day should fall on the same day, as it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Generation requires a mix of genders, male and female, unless we ramp up our efforts to clone human beings, and I’m not seeing that as something near to hand, but who knows?

In the meantime, as I think about the work I’ve done as a father, I look for an example to the person nearest at hand, my own father, who died over a decades ago.

Leo Parini was born from Italian immigrants, one of five children: Nello, Leo, Antonio, Julio, and Geno: what in poetry we might call a rhyming quintet. Then again, in Italian, even the phone book rhymes.

Leo left school early, to help support the family. He eventually made his way through a succession of odd jobs – bean pickers, gas station attendant, roller skate repairman, and so forth – to become, in later life, a Baptist minister, leaving his Roman Catholic origins behind. He was a kind and gentle man: that word gentle has root-associations with the word gens as well.

One hopes, sometimes, that the good things follow the generations, and that gentleness survives – from grandfathers and fathers to children, on and on. I often think of some lines from the poem “April Inventory” by W.D. Snodgrass, about the passing of seasons and lives. In the last marvelous stanza, he writes: “Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives, / We shall afford our costly season; / There is a gentleness survives / That will outspeak and has its reasons.”

This year, that’s my only Father’s Day wish: that a gentleness survives, from generation to generation.

- "On Fathering" originally aired 06/07/13 on Vermont Public Radio .  See the commentary at vpr.net.

 

How grading software fails students - for CNN

I've been teaching English in college for 40 years, and I've never met a single professor who likes grading. "Hate" is too strong a word for what they feel. But nobody likes it. The fun stuff is talking to students, holding classroom discussions, thinking about your subject in complex ways and trying to convey your enthusiasm for the subject. Education is about leading students in useful directions, helping them to discover their own critical intelligence, their own voices.

Now a company has come up with software that can grade our papers for us. EdX is a nonprofit company started by Harvard and MIT. It also creates online courses called MOOCs (for massive open online course). With this new software, students submitting their papers online can get immediate feedback: no more waiting until the lazy professor gets around to grading their work, probably leaving coffee rings and inky fingerprints on the pages.

Having a program grade papers would apparently free teachers to do other things, but I think it would be a mistake. Why? As a teacher, I may begin to understand students by their conversation or how they respond in class, but when they actually have to put their thoughts on paper, I can learn a huge amount in a relatively brief time. I can see how they think and feel in relation to the material before them, and if (and how) they have problems in making connections, marshaling arguments, drawing conclusions. Needless to say, I can also get a sense of where they are with the material at hand. Have they learned enough to progress to the next stage?

The truth is, students rarely come to college -- any college -- knowing how to write well. This takes a lot of what one of my old profs used to call "correction." I remember sitting beside him in his office as he went over my papers. He would draw a red pencil through adjectives, suggesting that I find stronger nouns, not more bolstering words. Don't say it was a "long narrow street." Kill the adjectives. Call it an alley if it's an alley.

He also told me to get rid of those adverbs. Get a stronger verb and you won't need an adverb, he would tell me. So don't say: "He ran swiftly down the narrow street." Instead, try something like this: "He sped down the alley." I learned from this guy how to put my sentences into a more active voice, how to subordinate clauses, to embed them in a rolling syntax, making thoughts more subtle, arguments more persuasive.

Now that was teaching.

Mark Twain once said that all you need for education is a student, a teacher and a log. I've often recalled that line as I've sat side by side with a student going over a paper. This is where real education lives, in the face-to-face exchange of ideas and feelings. But grading papers often represents the beginning of a good exchange.

I think my best teaching moments have occurred off-stage, late at night. I would spot a problem in a student paper and respond at length, in writing, in the margins. This would lead to an affecting moment in my office, where the student would come back at me to discuss. The conversation would continue, often for a very long time. In some cases, for years.

I don't think any software program is ever going to replace people in education. It may offer some help, but it's not the real thing. To quote Twain again, it's the difference between lightning bugs and lighting. Sometimes, we need the flash itself, even the jolt, to push us in the right direction. I don't believe software, however sophisticated, will ever provide that kind of jolt.

Iraq Anniversary - for Vermont Public Radio

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I was in Egypt and Jordan, giving some talks on American literature at the behest of the U.S. State Department. The idea was for American writers to meet with students and other writers from the Middle East - a form of cultural diplomacy that seemed, at least to me, a good way to promote serious conversations, especially at a time when American bombs were falling nearby on Iraqi civilians - not a particularly useful way to promote ties between people. 

While in Amman, I was introduced to an army general who had spent a good deal of time in the region, and he was heading to Iraq the next week. I remember our conversation vividly. I asked him where Iraq would be in ten years, and he said: "Well, for a start, we'll be long gone from the region. American troops will have been pulled out because this war is going to prove unpopular and wildly expensive, and it will have a very negative effect on the U.S. economy. Second, the Shiite majority will have taken control in Iraq, and they will largely be directed by Iran, their Shiite cousins. The fight between the Sunnis and the Shiites will continue, as only Saddam Hussein, using brutality, could have kept this country together. I don't see that the US will have gained anything but an enemy in the region. On top of which, millions of refugees will have left Iraq for safer places." 

Now, ten years later, I often think back to this chance conversation. It was spot on, and the situation in Iraq is possibly even worse than the general predicted. Every week there are bombings, usually in Shiite neighborhoods, and Al Qaida, once barely present in Iraq, has found a footing there. The cost in Iraqi lives has been staggering - more than a hundred thousand dead, and many more wounded. Most communities still lack basic infrastructure and services, such as water and electricity. 

And with Nouri al-Malaki in charge, American-Iraqi relations are strained - to put it mildly. The Shiite strongman supports the Syrian dictatorship and has allied himself with Iran. Ned Parker and Raheem Salman - two longtime Middle Eastern correspondents - have written in the World Policy Journal that "...the reign of Maliki is an object lesson to other nascent Islamist leaders across the Middle East of how to consolidate one's rule from the rubble of a toppled state." 

Calculating the cost to the American public in actual tax dollars is even more problematic. Millions in no-bid contracts were awarded to civilian companies like Blackwater - and it's impossible to calculate the effects this conflict has had - and will continue to have - on members of our military and their families. One way or another, we'll be paying for this war for decades to come. 

Given this moment of retrospective, it's hard to imagine that anyone could ever again choose war as a rational or moral option. One can make a compelling argument that events like the U.S. invasion of Iraq simply make difficult matters worse. 

- "Iraq Anniversary" originally aired 03/26/13 on Vermont Public Radio .  See the commentary at vpr.net.

  

Cultivate Leisure - for Vermont Public Radio

The word essay has associations. By etymology, it has French roots in the term "essai" from "essayer" - meaning "an attempt." The great essayist was, of course, Montaigne, who would take up a general subject, such as friendship or the education of children; but the topic at hand was a starting point. He went off into the deep woods of reflection by himself, unsure of his destination, stopping to smell the flowers or sit quietly by the banks of a stream. He claimed he would write "for the private benefit of friends and kinsmen," and that his essays would reflect "some traits of my character and my humours." 

His so-called "humours" were his moods, and he moved through a range of these, being sometimes gentle and charming, other times fierce and testy. "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself," he wrote. 

We all have a variety of monsters and miracles residing in our heads. And it's good sometimes to allow them room to wander, especially on Sunday, which is, for many, the Sabbath. In Genesis we read: "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done." 

The tradition begins with the Judaic concept of Shavath - a day set aside from the others, when meals are elaborate and slowly savored, when poetry and music are enjoyed, when families gather to tell stories. It's also a day of reflection, which includes prayer and meditation, a celebration of the spirit. It's not that Israel has kept Shavath, as the saying goes, but that Shavath has kept Israel. 

Life in the modern world often doesn't allow much opportunity for meditation, let alone deep and self-reflective thought. We're just too busy, living life at a pace our ancestors would not have believed. 

I have to remind myself to keep the Sabbath, as it takes reminding. Many years ago, as a young professor and writer, with a growing family and obligations that seemed endless, I found myself unable to write. I went to my old friend and mentor, the poet Robert Penn Warren, who is buried in West Wardsboro. Red and I often took a long hike on Sunday afternoons up the back side of Mount Stratton. I remember him stopping dead in his tracks one day, putting a hand on my shoulder, and saying: "Cultivate leisure." 

I didn't understand what he meant, but I do now. One needs to set aside time to cultivate ease, to reflect, to savor life's genuine pleasures, to wander without an obvious destination. That might take place in a synagogue or a church. We might find it on a trail up the mountain. But wherever we're headed on this Sunday morning, the critical thing is that we continue to search, to open ourselves to the wonders that lie all around us, even deep within.

- "Cultivate Leisure" originally aired 03/03/13 on Vermont Public RadioFind the commentary here.

Gore Vidal Obituary - for The Guardian

Gore Vidal, the American writer, controversialist and politician manqué, who has died aged 86, was celebrated both for his caustic wit and his mandarin's poise. His public career spanned seven decades and included 25 novels, numerous collections of essays on literature and politics, a volume of short stories, five Broadway plays, dozens of television plays and film scripts, and even three mystery novels written under the pseudonym Edgar Box. After 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned to centre stage with a series of blistering pamphlets and public pronouncements that led many, including his former friend Christopher Hitchens, to pounce on him. But Vidal never looked back.

Despite his output as a novelist and playwright, many critics considered Vidal's witty and acerbic essays his best work. Often published first in such journals as the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, they were collected at regular intervals between the novels. In 1993, his volume United States: Essays, 1951-91, received the National Book award. As Stephen Spender wrote in a review, "Vidal's essays celebrate the triumphs of private values over the public ones of power. They represent the drama of the private face perpetually laughing at, and through, the public one. At the same time, their seriousness lies very largely in his grasp of the conditions and characteristics which make up the public world." Vidal liked to present himself as an insider – a man who understood the world and how it worked. This knowing quality, registered in the tone of his prose, permeates the essays. Their edge and vitality derive from his complete mastery of the scene he described, whether ridiculing Ronald Reagan as "a triumph of the embalmer's art", reassessing the presidency of John F Kennedy, outlining the theory of the French "new novel" or reconsidering the importance of Montaigne or Somerset Maugham.

Vidal's critics disparaged his tendency to formulate an aphorism rather than to argue, finding in his work an underlying note of contempt for those who did not agree with him. His fans, on the other hand, delighted in his unflagging wit and elegant style.

Probably no other American writer since Ernest Hemingway lived his life so much in the public eye. His father was Eugene Vidal, Franklin Roosevelt's director of air commerce from 1933 to 1937. His maternal grandfather was the senator Thomas Gore, a commanding figure in Washington politics for many decades. His mother, Nina Gore Vidal, divorced his father in 1935, then married the financier Hugh D Auchincloss, who in turn divorced her and married Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, thus establishing a connection between Vidal and the Kennedy clan that persisted through the presidency of John F Kennedy. Vidal's unflattering view of the Bouvier sisters was registered in Two Sisters (1970).

In 1940, he entered the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was an indifferent student. After leaving in 1943, he joined the Army Transportation Corps as an officer, whereupon he was sent to the Aleutian Islands. In December 1944 he began his first novel, Williwaw. Suffering a bad case of frostbite, Vidal was invalided back to the US, where he finished the novel in less than a year. Williwaw focused on a rivalry between two maritime officers; in style it owed something to Hemingway and Stephen Crane. For a writer barely out of his teens when it was published, in 1946, the book was an unusual achievement. He was compared favourably to the best writers of the generation, including Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Saul Bellow.

Vidal worked briefly in publishing in New York, but the critical success of Williwaw emboldened him, and he decided to live by his pen. Having little money, he moved to Guatemala, where he shared a house with Anaïs Nin, who wrote a good deal about him (some of it not very complimentary) in her diaries.

By any standard, the postwar years were amazingly productive for Vidal, who published eight novels between 1946 and 1954, including The City and the Pillar (1948), an explicitly gay novel that challenged the homophobia he believed was ingrained in American culture. It was a bestseller, but the consequences were severe, and Vidal's literary career nearly ground to a premature halt. His next five novels were largely dismissed by the mainstream press and one can feel the hostility in the reviews. The reaction of John W Aldridge was typical: "His writing after Williwaw is one long record of stylistic breakdown and spiritual exhaustion. It is confused and fragmentary, pulled in every direction by the shifting winds of impressionism. It is always reacting, always feeling and seeing; but it never signifies because it never believes."

After a period of wandering through Europe with his friend Tennessee Williams (in Paris he was greeted by André Gide as a prophet of the sexual revolution), Vidal settled along the Hudson River Valley. There, in 1950, he bought Edgewater, an impressive Greek revival mansion. He met his lifelong companion, Howard Austen, around this time. They lived together for 53 years, until Austen died in 2003.

Always intent on living well, Vidal needed more money than his fiction attracted, and turned to television, Hollywood and Broadway to expand his income. "I am not at heart a playwright," he explained at the time, with typical candour. "I am a novelist turned temporary adventurer; and I chose to write television, movies and plays for much the same reason that Henry Morgan selected the Spanish Main for his peculiar – and not dissimilar – sphere of operations."

His finest moment in the theatre was Visit to a Small Planet (1957), a play that ran for more than 300 performances on Broadway. This satire about a visitor from outer space who arrives in Virginia with the hope of starting a third world war recalls Wilde and Shaw, though it reverberates with Vidal's own unmistakable tone. The Best Man, a political play, was a hit in 1960, and was made into a widely acclaimed film starring Henry Fonda, with a script by Vidal, in 1964. It has been successfully revived many times, including in 2012 on Broadway.

Vidal's screenwriting assignments included a vivid adaptation of Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer, in 1959. He also revised the final script of Ben-Hur (1959) for William Wyler, although he did not receive a screen credit. To the end, he kept a hand in screenwriting and also played minor parts in several films, most notably as a senator in Bob Roberts (1992).

Having harboured political ambitions since adolescence, Vidal tossed his hat in the ring in 1960, running for Congress as a Democrat in New York's traditionally Republican 29th District. He spoke out for the recognition of communist China, limiting the Pentagon's budget and increasing federal aid to education. Not surprisingly, he lost the election, though he made a respectable showing at the polls. In 1982, he ran in the Democratic primary for the US Senate in California, although he was beaten for the nomination by Jerry Brown.

Vidal's politics were always on the left side of the spectrum, and he derided the two-party system in his native land, arguing in the 1970s: "There is only one party in the United States, the Property party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties."

Soon after losing his first election, Vidal moved to Italy, where he would spend the bulk of each year until 2003, when he moved to a large home in the Hollywood Hills after Austen's death. In Rome, where for several decades he kept an apartment overlooking the Largo Argentina, he wrote Julian (1964), a bestselling novel about the enigmatic Roman emperor who rejected Christianity and embraced paganism. This novel brought together preoccupations that had been present in his fiction from the beginning, such as the perceived hypocrisy of Christianity and a fascination with power. Vidal's attraction to the ancient world yielded another popular novel, Creation, in 1981.

The late 1960s were a heady time for Vidal, who feuded with William F Buckley on TV during the Chicago presidential convention of 1968 – those debates are enshrined in the memory of most Americans of a certain era. That year, he lifted his satire to a new level of outrageousness with Myra Breckinridge. His narrator, Myra, was formerly (before a sex change) Myron, nephew of Buck Loner, a retired horse-opera star. A proto-feminist, Myra opens the novel boldly: "I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess."

Of all his works, it is his sequence of novels on American history that may be his most lasting achievement. Vidal, however, had nothing like a sequence in mind when he published Washington, DC (1967), a fairly conventional novel about politics during the era of FDR. While there is much to admire in the book, nobody could have foreseen how Vidal's American chronicle would unfold. Burr, the next to appear (in 1973), brings into play virtually all the author's various talents. It was finished about the time Vidal moved from Rome to Ravello, where he purchasedLa Rondinaia, a palatial villa perched on a cliffside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The narrative voice in Burr belongs to Charlie Schuyler, a young law clerk and journalist who works for Aaron Burr, the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and who, two years later, initiated a secessionist conspiracy that challenged the assumptions of America's founding fathers, all of whom Burr knew well.

Next came 1876 (published in 1976), a novel that continued the story of Schuyler, who returns to New York on the eve of America's centennial year. It draws a portrait of the gilded age with an acid pen and an eye for authentic, and telling, detail. Schuyler takes in everything from a discreet distance. He sees, but is rarely seen – the ideal Vidalian narrator. Vidal's readership had expanded after Julian, but Lincoln (1984) was a huge bestseller. The very weight of the historical material pushed the author to one side (and it is to Vidal's credit that he knew enough to stay in the background). Joyce Carol Oates suggested that Lincoln was "not so much an imaginative reconstruction of an era as an intelligent, lucid and highly informative transcript of it, never less than workmanlike in its blocking out of scenes and often extremely compelling. No verbal pyrotechnics here, nothing to challenge a conservative aesthetics biased against the house of fiction itself. By subordinating the usual role of the novelist to the role of historian-biographer, Mr Vidal acknowledges his faith in the high worth of his material."

The last three books in the sequence – Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000) – in many ways constitute one novel appearing in three instalments. Vidal was uncanny in the way he linked his heroes and heroines to history and to each other. As Richard Poirer noted in a review of Empire: "Vidal manages inextricably to mix the fictive and the historical, the social and the legendary. These elements are so fused in his style that none can be differentiated from the others. All partake of the same issues of inheritance, legitimacy, rivalry, deception and ambition." The Golden Age brings the series full circle, revisiting the Roosevelt era, when Vidal was on the scene as a young man in Washington.

Vidal continued to write satires, alternating them with his American historical novels. These included Myron (1974), a sequel to Myra Breckinridge; Duluth (1983); and Live from Golgotha (1992). He also wrote two satires on apocalyptic religion: Messiah (1954) and Kalki (1978). The historical and satirical veins of his writing mingled dexterously in The Smithsonian Institution (1998), a slight, whimsical novel about a 13-year-old boy wandering through the museum of history.

He published a gossipy but moving memoir, Palimpsest (1995), which cut back and forth between the author's present, mostly in Ravello, and his first four frenetic decades. Portraits of his friends and enemies were sharply drawn, including the Kennedys, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Mailer, Capote, Jack Kerouac, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He followed this memoir with two sequels, Point to Point Navigation (2006) and Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare (2009), a volume of photographs and brief recollections.

Vidal seemed to have known everyone and been everywhere, slipping easily from the political corridors and back rooms of Washington to the poolside patios of Hollywood and the salons of European writers and intellectuals. His witty remarks became the stuff of tabloid gossip, as when a friend asked him to be the godfather of his new child, and Vidal quipped: "Always a godfather, never a god." When his editor in New York telephoned with the news that Capote had died, he responded: "A wise career move." Another time, he remarked: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

Although one can easily find connections between Vidal and previous American writers, from Mark Twain and Henry James to HL Mencken and Edmund Wilson, he remained sui generis – an American original.

Vidal is survived by his half-sister, Nina, and half-brother, Tommy.

• Gore Vidal, writer, born 3 October 1925; died 31 July 2012

Gore Vidal, the American writer, controversialist and politician manqué, who has died aged 86, was celebrated both for his caustic wit and his mandarin's poise. His public career spanned seven decades and included 25 novels, numerous collections of essays on literature and politics, a volume of short stories, five Broadway plays, dozens of television plays and film scripts, and even three mystery novels written under the pseudonym Edgar Box. After 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned to centre stage with a series of blistering pamphlets and public pronouncements that led many, including his former friend Christopher Hitchens, to pounce on him. But Vidal never looked back.

Despite his output as a novelist and playwright, many critics considered Vidal's witty and acerbic essays his best work. Often published first in such journals as the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, they were collected at regular intervals between the novels. In 1993, his volume United States: Essays, 1951-91, received the National Book award. As Stephen Spender wrote in a review, "Vidal's essays celebrate the triumphs of private values over the public ones of power. They represent the drama of the private face perpetually laughing at, and through, the public one. At the same time, their seriousness lies very largely in his grasp of the conditions and characteristics which make up the public world." Vidal liked to present himself as an insider – a man who understood the world and how it worked. This knowing quality, registered in the tone of his prose, permeates the essays. Their edge and vitality derive from his complete mastery of the scene he described, whether ridiculing Ronald Reagan as "a triumph of the embalmer's art", reassessing the presidency of John F Kennedy, outlining the theory of the French "new novel" or reconsidering the importance of Montaigne or Somerset Maugham.

Vidal's critics disparaged his tendency to formulate an aphorism rather than to argue, finding in his work an underlying note of contempt for those who did not agree with him. His fans, on the other hand, delighted in his unflagging wit and elegant style.

Probably no other American writer since Ernest Hemingway lived his life so much in the public eye. His father was Eugene Vidal, Franklin Roosevelt's director of air commerce from 1933 to 1937. His maternal grandfather was the senator Thomas Gore, a commanding figure in Washington politics for many decades. His mother, Nina Gore Vidal, divorced his father in 1935, then married the financier Hugh D Auchincloss, who in turn divorced her and married Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, thus establishing a connection between Vidal and the Kennedy clan that persisted through the presidency of John F Kennedy. Vidal's unflattering view of the Bouvier sisters was registered in Two Sisters (1970).

In 1940, he entered the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was an indifferent student. After leaving in 1943, he joined the Army Transportation Corps as an officer, whereupon he was sent to the Aleutian Islands. In December 1944 he began his first novel, Williwaw. Suffering a bad case of frostbite, Vidal was invalided back to the US, where he finished the novel in less than a year. Williwaw focused on a rivalry between two maritime officers; in style it owed something to Hemingway and Stephen Crane. For a writer barely out of his teens when it was published, in 1946, the book was an unusual achievement. He was compared favourably to the best writers of the generation, including Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Saul Bellow.

Vidal worked briefly in publishing in New York, but the critical success of Williwaw emboldened him, and he decided to live by his pen. Having little money, he moved to Guatemala, where he shared a house with Anaïs Nin, who wrote a good deal about him (some of it not very complimentary) in her diaries.

By any standard, the postwar years were amazingly productive for Vidal, who published eight novels between 1946 and 1954, including The City and the Pillar (1948), an explicitly gay novel that challenged the homophobia he believed was ingrained in American culture. It was a bestseller, but the consequences were severe, and Vidal's literary career nearly ground to a premature halt. His next five novels were largely dismissed by the mainstream press and one can feel the hostility in the reviews. The reaction of John W Aldridge was typical: "His writing after Williwaw is one long record of stylistic breakdown and spiritual exhaustion. It is confused and fragmentary, pulled in every direction by the shifting winds of impressionism. It is always reacting, always feeling and seeing; but it never signifies because it never believes."

After a period of wandering through Europe with his friend Tennessee Williams (in Paris he was greeted by André Gide as a prophet of the sexual revolution), Vidal settled along the Hudson River Valley. There, in 1950, he bought Edgewater, an impressive Greek revival mansion. He met his lifelong companion, Howard Austen, around this time. They lived together for 53 years, until Austen died in 2003.

Always intent on living well, Vidal needed more money than his fiction attracted, and turned to television, Hollywood and Broadway to expand his income. "I am not at heart a playwright," he explained at the time, with typical candour. "I am a novelist turned temporary adventurer; and I chose to write television, movies and plays for much the same reason that Henry Morgan selected the Spanish Main for his peculiar – and not dissimilar – sphere of operations."

His finest moment in the theatre was Visit to a Small Planet (1957), a play that ran for more than 300 performances on Broadway. This satire about a visitor from outer space who arrives in Virginia with the hope of starting a third world war recalls Wilde and Shaw, though it reverberates with Vidal's own unmistakable tone. The Best Man, a political play, was a hit in 1960, and was made into a widely acclaimed film starring Henry Fonda, with a script by Vidal, in 1964. It has been successfully revived many times, including in 2012 on Broadway.

Vidal's screenwriting assignments included a vivid adaptation of Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer, in 1959. He also revised the final script of Ben-Hur (1959) for William Wyler, although he did not receive a screen credit. To the end, he kept a hand in screenwriting and also played minor parts in several films, most notably as a senator in Bob Roberts (1992).

Having harboured political ambitions since adolescence, Vidal tossed his hat in the ring in 1960, running for Congress as a Democrat in New York's traditionally Republican 29th District. He spoke out for the recognition of communist China, limiting the Pentagon's budget and increasing federal aid to education. Not surprisingly, he lost the election, though he made a respectable showing at the polls. In 1982, he ran in the Democratic primary for the US Senate in California, although he was beaten for the nomination by Jerry Brown.

Vidal's politics were always on the left side of the spectrum, and he derided the two-party system in his native land, arguing in the 1970s: "There is only one party in the United States, the Property party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties."

Soon after losing his first election, Vidal moved to Italy, where he would spend the bulk of each year until 2003, when he moved to a large home in the Hollywood Hills after Austen's death. In Rome, where for several decades he kept an apartment overlooking the Largo Argentina, he wrote Julian (1964), a bestselling novel about the enigmatic Roman emperor who rejected Christianity and embraced paganism. This novel brought together preoccupations that had been present in his fiction from the beginning, such as the perceived hypocrisy of Christianity and a fascination with power. Vidal's attraction to the ancient world yielded another popular novel, Creation, in 1981.

The late 1960s were a heady time for Vidal, who feuded with William F Buckley on TV during the Chicago presidential convention of 1968 – those debates are enshrined in the memory of most Americans of a certain era. That year, he lifted his satire to a new level of outrageousness with Myra Breckinridge. His narrator, Myra, was formerly (before a sex change) Myron, nephew of Buck Loner, a retired horse-opera star. A proto-feminist, Myra opens the novel boldly: "I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess."

Of all his works, it is his sequence of novels on American history that may be his most lasting achievement. Vidal, however, had nothing like a sequence in mind when he published Washington, DC (1967), a fairly conventional novel about politics during the era of FDR. While there is much to admire in the book, nobody could have foreseen how Vidal's American chronicle would unfold. Burr, the next to appear (in 1973), brings into play virtually all the author's various talents. It was finished about the time Vidal moved from Rome to Ravello, where he purchasedLa Rondinaia, a palatial villa perched on a cliffside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The narrative voice in Burr belongs to Charlie Schuyler, a young law clerk and journalist who works for Aaron Burr, the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and who, two years later, initiated a secessionist conspiracy that challenged the assumptions of America's founding fathers, all of whom Burr knew well.

Next came 1876 (published in 1976), a novel that continued the story of Schuyler, who returns to New York on the eve of America's centennial year. It draws a portrait of the gilded age with an acid pen and an eye for authentic, and telling, detail. Schuyler takes in everything from a discreet distance. He sees, but is rarely seen – the ideal Vidalian narrator. Vidal's readership had expanded after Julian, but Lincoln (1984) was a huge bestseller. The very weight of the historical material pushed the author to one side (and it is to Vidal's credit that he knew enough to stay in the background). Joyce Carol Oates suggested that Lincoln was "not so much an imaginative reconstruction of an era as an intelligent, lucid and highly informative transcript of it, never less than workmanlike in its blocking out of scenes and often extremely compelling. No verbal pyrotechnics here, nothing to challenge a conservative aesthetics biased against the house of fiction itself. By subordinating the usual role of the novelist to the role of historian-biographer, Mr Vidal acknowledges his faith in the high worth of his material."

The last three books in the sequence – Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000) – in many ways constitute one novel appearing in three instalments. Vidal was uncanny in the way he linked his heroes and heroines to history and to each other. As Richard Poirer noted in a review of Empire: "Vidal manages inextricably to mix the fictive and the historical, the social and the legendary. These elements are so fused in his style that none can be differentiated from the others. All partake of the same issues of inheritance, legitimacy, rivalry, deception and ambition." The Golden Age brings the series full circle, revisiting the Roosevelt era, when Vidal was on the scene as a young man in Washington.

Vidal continued to write satires, alternating them with his American historical novels. These included Myron (1974), a sequel to Myra Breckinridge; Duluth (1983); and Live from Golgotha (1992). He also wrote two satires on apocalyptic religion: Messiah (1954) and Kalki (1978). The historical and satirical veins of his writing mingled dexterously in The Smithsonian Institution (1998), a slight, whimsical novel about a 13-year-old boy wandering through the museum of history.

He published a gossipy but moving memoir, Palimpsest (1995), which cut back and forth between the author's present, mostly in Ravello, and his first four frenetic decades. Portraits of his friends and enemies were sharply drawn, including the Kennedys, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Mailer, Capote, Jack Kerouac, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He followed this memoir with two sequels, Point to Point Navigation (2006) and Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare (2009), a volume of photographs and brief recollections.

Vidal seemed to have known everyone and been everywhere, slipping easily from the political corridors and back rooms of Washington to the poolside patios of Hollywood and the salons of European writers and intellectuals. His witty remarks became the stuff of tabloid gossip, as when a friend asked him to be the godfather of his new child, and Vidal quipped: "Always a godfather, never a god." When his editor in New York telephoned with the news that Capote had died, he responded: "A wise career move." Another time, he remarked: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

Although one can easily find connections between Vidal and previous American writers, from Mark Twain and Henry James to HL Mencken and Edmund Wilson, he remained sui generis – an American original.

Vidal is survived by his half-sister, Nina, and half-brother, Tommy.

• Gore Vidal, writer, born 3 October 1925; died 31 July 2012