The Smithsonian Institution.
Gore Vidal has just about done it all: twenty-three novels, a book of short stories, five plays, nine collections of essays, and Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995; see WLT 70:3, p. 704). So what could he possibly imagine for his latest novel? Why not drop a thirteen-year-old boy genius, named T., into the Smithsonian Institution, where he meets just about everyone in America's past, exhibitions come to life, Lindbergh takes him for a ride (within the building) in The Spirit of St Louis, he is seduced by Mrs. Grover Cleveland in the guise of a twenty-two- year-old white maiden held captive by the Iroquois, and past presidents get a chance to explain some of their decisions.
The main action revolves around T.'s encounter with nuclear scientists working in the Smithsonian basement to beat Germany to the atomic bomb, and includes the startling discovery that he will die in 1945 on Iwo Jima. From then on T. tries to manipulate the past to change history. He turns out to be a composite of Vidal himself and the author's lover at St. Alban's, Jimmie Trimble, who died in World War II. It is this autobiographical infusion that gives this not so great novel some warmth.
Vidal's knowledge of and lifelong interest in American history add substance to the novel. But in its totality, and at this point in Vidal's long professional career, The Smithsonian Institution raises once again the question I am certain bothers Vidal and the many admirers of his writing: why doesn't he hold a higher place among American writers of the twentieth century? Perhaps a couple of quotes that Vidal apparently thinks are clever will begin as explanation. "T. perked up considerably. He liked monsters and whenever he could get time off from his busy classroom schedule, he would play hooky from school and go up to the Capitol and look at the Senate." Probably his cheapest shot is placed in the mouth of a worker at the Smithsonian: "Joe Kennedy is our bootlegger. We call him the Great Hyannis Hyena." Human existence is a profound experience. Those writers who have a claim to greatness express that experience profoundly. Next to some other American authors of the twentieth century - Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, for starters - Vidal just doesn't measure up, and that's always a disappointment.
Marvin J. LaHood
SUNY College, Buffalo