The late Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was an unlikable person for many reasons. Despite the acclaim for his (allegedly) brilliant writing, or his acid-tongued attempts to establish a persona using a mimicry of gravitas, Vidal made the most of his long life by coming up with ways to make you thankful you had never met him. Apart from his often clichéd leftist essays, which became more and more the work of a conspiratorial anti-Semite as he grew older, his poor attempts to rewrite pornographic novels as works of literature rather than smut, or penning historical works which betrayed his lack of a formal education, what was perhaps most unlikable about Vidal was his desire to be more liberty-loving (and more libertine) than Robespierre on a bender, while simultaneously trying to pass himself off as being a member of the aristocracy.
The notion of an “American aristocracy” is a ludicrous one. One of the reasons why Europeans have always laughed up their sleeves at American pretensions to New World nobility is that in most cases it betrays a kind of naiveté. The American public has come to believe, through films, fiction, and the watered-down use of the term, that if you are wealthy or famous, you must therefore be an aristocrat, rather than simply wealthy or famous. In time, using this line of reasoning, no doubt we will be told that the Kardashians are members of the modern American aristocracy, in the same way we were convinced that JFK was, as well, even though his grandfather ran a saloon and his father was a bootlegger.
Vidal, like another psychologically twisted writer, Truman Capote, was fascinated by the rich, and wanted to be around them because he both loved and hated them. Like other souls from modest backgrounds with faint connections to the rich and powerful, Vidal came to believe that he was a member of the aristocracy simply because he hung around people with money. In one of his more celebrated remarks, Vidal remarked that Nancy Reagan was a social climber born with a silver ladder in her hand – though this was because in his case it took one to know one. Neither line of parentage in Vidal’s case could reasonably permit him to think of himself as an aristocrat, but he certainly did so, acting like what he thought an aristocrat ought to play, but which came off something like Basil Rathbone’s performance in “Anna Karenina”.
In an interview toward the end of his life, for example, Vidal noted that Alexander Hamilton “married into wealth and became an aristo [sic]. And it is he who argues that we must have a government made up of the very best people, meaning the rich.” While there are many rich people who are aristocrats, there are many aristocrats who are not rich. Confounding the two was something that Vidal did throughout his career, betraying his lack of understanding of the subject but taking advantage of the gullibility of the American press in assuming that he himself was an aristocrat because he was able to talk about them with such apparently deep understanding – an understanding which was quite patently false.
Fortunately for all of us, America does not have an aristocracy, for by definition aristocrats inherit titles, powers, and privileges as a right of birth. With the abolition of the monarchy in this country and the establishment of a republic, there are no such persons here, however much people like Gore, or academics, or the mainstream media, with its sloppy understanding of the term, may have claimed. If you are well-off in this country, but do not manage to hold on to your wealth or work hard, you will end up on government benefits just like everyone else, and no one will care or give you any deference if your last name is Jones or Vanderbilt. And perhaps in the end this was something that Vidal himself realized: there is no American aristocracy, and even if there was, he himself would never be a part of it.