“The City and the Pillar”–the beginning

Vidal, Gore. “The City and the Pillar”. Vintage, 1948, re-released 1965, 1995.

The Beginning

Amos Lassen

Looking back at my gay life I must say that there were three books that influenced me deeply, “Dancer from the Dance” by Andrew Holleran, “Faggots” by Larry Kramer and “The City and the Pillar” by Gore Vidal. Having finally met Andrew, I only have two more to go now and hopefully that will happen soon. “The City and the Pillar” written in 1945 was the first mainstream novel to look at homosexuality in a way that did not make us look like we did not belong. Vidal has long been a man of letters and his name alone gives credence to what he writes and what he says. He is the author of twenty-four novels, seven plays and screenplays, over two hundred essays and two memoirs as well as winning several major awards. He has been a voice that America has listened to and has succeeded despite his sexuality. We are proud to have him among us.

When “The City and the Pillar” was first published, it shocked the literary establishment as well as Vidal’s family and friends. Looking back at it now, it seems so tame but we can examine the reaction of sixty years ago. If you just stop to think how far we have come in the last few years, you can imagine how scandalous the homosexual novel was in 1945. Yet even today the words that were written six decades ago are relevant, meaningful, important and sexy even by standards of the twenty-first century. Vidal has never been one to compromise and this book was definitely a harbinger of that fact. What are so astounding about “The City and the Pillar” are the realism and the intelligence. Once you read it, you will definitely not see things in the same way. The book is so realistically familiar that one who “comes-out” as gay today in a society that is far less repressive than the one in the book will be able to identify with it. It is not an epic story but it is large and is in the tradition of Forester and Wilde. The conception is artistic and the prose is in a class all its own.

The book can be read in two ways—either as a look back at the way things were as a look at the way things are. Remembering that gay life before the late 80’s was clandestine; it is amazing that Vidal wrote about it all. He is even quoted as saying that his gay friends would not only be shocked but would abandon him for what he did was to put the actions of gay men out in the open. The book was way ahead of its time as it explores the relations between men—both gay and straight. It was not only the age of “don’t ask, don’t tell” but it was the age of “don’t even consider it”.

As serious as it is in subject matter, the book still entertains. Dealing with an extremely serious subject, it still manages to amuse.

Even at its age, it is still one of the best novels dealing with the subject. Even if it were not still important, it is a compelling read. It is restrained and highly effective. Some think that this is the book that heralded the modern sexual revolution and that America was never the same after its publication. “The City” shocks and penetrates and it moves the reader to his very being. The writing is crystalline and lyrical and the detail is profound. It is outrageous and unsentimental and a very brave expose of the way we lived. I think every gay person and every straight person owes it to himself to read this brilliantly beautiful book.

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