This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.
Fan mail is not usually considered worthy of exhibition. In the Gore Vidal Papers, the letters of celebrities live amongst those of literary and political figures of the 20th century: Tennessee Williams, Susan Sarandon, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Anaïs Nin, Elaine Dundy, Paul Bowles, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Plimpton, John F. Kennedy, and so many others. Because of these correspondents, Vidal’s archive has been called a “window to the 20th century” – so why fan mail for an exhibition?
As soon as Gore Vidal (1925-2012) became a known writer, the fan mail began to pour in, especially after 1948 when he published his third novel, The City and the Pillar, significant because it is recognized as the first post-World War II novel with a gay protagonist portrayed in a sympathetic manner. It has been called one of the “definitive war-influenced gay novels,” being one of the few books of its period dealing directly with male homosexuality.
But the critical acclaim was not immediate. Even though it was among the few “gay novels” reprinted in inexpensive paperback form as early as the 1950s, The New York Times would not advertise it. Vidal was practically blacklisted after the book’s publication, to the extent that no major newspaper or magazine would review any of his novels for six years. This forced him to write several subsequent books under pseudonyms, such as Edgar Box. He would later resume using his true name with bestsellers such as Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), and publishing countless essays in publications such as Esquire, The New York Review of Books, and Playboy. But all the while, as evidenced by his fan mail, The City and The Pillar built a following despite its critical fallout.
Numerous examples of this fan mail are published in Vidal’s book, Snapshots in History’s Glare . “[F]or the first time, I have found a character…to whom I find myself similar,” wrote one. “As a homosexual, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” wrote another. The academic and pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey thanked Mr. Vidal for his “work in the field.”
And finally the letter I chose for the Houghton 75th anniversary exhibition, whose South African author wrote, “I cannot tell you how much it meant to me…”
They were not alone. The book, among others, was chipping away at the walls holding back gay writers and other disenfranchised communities. It was evidence to publishers that there was a market for such work, as it sold very well. But it was also simply an inspired novel about the human experience, a great Bildungsroman.
The City and the Pillar has been published in countless editions in over 30 languages, and is still in print today. It continues to spread to new cultures, and to evolve. Most recently, it was translated into Farsi and Turkish in 2005 and 2008. In 1965, Vidal released an updated version of the novel titled The City and the Pillar Revised. (While most modern printings contain the updated text, they retain the original title The City and the Pillar.) But its success would not have been possible without the support of fans with whom Vidal struck a very personal chord.
Jennifer Lyons, Manuscript Cataloger, contributed this post.