Gore Vidal and Harvard

October 19, 2012

Gore Vidal, who died in July, was one of our greatest novelists and essayists – and yet he never went to college. In a 2007 interview I asked him why not.

"I graduated from [Phillips] Exeter,” he explained, “and I was aimed at going to Harvard. Instead I enlisted in [the Navy] in 1943. When I got out, in '46, I thought, 'I’ve spent all my life in institutions that I loathe, including my service in the [Navy] of the United States.' I thought, 'Shall I go for another four years?'

"My first book was already being published" — it was the novel Williwaw, and it got good reviews. "I said ‘I'm going to be told how to write by somebody at Harvard.’ I said, 'This is too great a risk.' "

The audience of 2,000 at a book festival at the University of California at Los Angeles laughed and applauded.

"But I did go there to lecture," he added. "This was about '47 or '48. There was a big audience, and many of them were my classmates from Exeter, who were overage juniors and seniors in what looked to be their mid-forties. I came out cheerily, as is my wont, and I've never felt such hatred radiating. They’d all predicted my total failure, because I was not to go to Harvard and meet a publisher or an agent -- which is, I think, why they went."

But what about getting a college education? "I graduated from Exeter, and you really don’t need any more education after that," he replied, "unless you’re going to be a brain surgeon. I had read Plato and I had read Milton. I had read Shakespeare. I had had fair American history. And a lot of Latin. That’s all you need."

At another book event, this one on the University of Southern California campus, he arrived wearing a Harvard athletic letter jacket. He opened the event by explaining "I didn’t go to Harvard, but I have gone on, as you can see, to be a professor of Harvard. I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.”

The "terrible movie" was the 1994 film "With Honors." In it, a student finishing his senior thesis — Brendan Fraser -- finds it being held hostage by a homeless man — Joe Pesci — who ends up teaching him "a thing or two about real life." Vidal played the student’s faculty adviser, a conservative professor of government.



Sample dialogue:

Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from?"

Vidal as the professor: "At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions."

Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from, asshole?"

The New York Times reviewer Caryn James called it "a half-baked movie" with a plot that "shouts cliché." However, James, added, "Gore Vidal is absolutely on target as Monty's priggish mentor.”

Two years earlier Vidal had gone to Harvard to give the prestigious Massey Lectures, for which he wrote a memoir about his early love of film. Vidal later recalled that, "When I gave the Massey Lectures at Harvard, I had mostly graduate students in the audience, Very bright. A great many Chinese from mainland China, who know a great bit more about American civilization than the locals know. So it was quite a treat talking to them.

"But I noticed something interesting whenever I took on a class at Harvard, undergraduate, postgraduate, whatever: no one ever mentioned a book, or a poem, or anything to do with literature.

"I finally broke the ice with my Chinese friends. I said, 'Has anybody here seen 'The Doors?’ " (The Oliver Stone film starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.)

"Well the whole room fell apart. Everybody had seen 'The Doors.' I got away with an hour without having to do anything while they told me about 'The Doors.' "

If the student audience wasn’t engaged with the lectures, the critics loved the book of the lectures, which Harvard University Press published in 2004. The Atlantic called it "witty and sweepingly disrespectful." Michael Kammen, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described it as "vibrant" and compared it to Eudora Welty’s "wonderful" memoir One Writer’s Beginnings. And in the daily New York Times, reviewer Herbert Mitgang called the book "a small gem."

"On almost every page there is an observation worth admiring," he wrote, "whether it is about Hollywood and television, politics and history, or the paranoia and hypocrisy of the commercialized American dream."

In the 1960s Vidal had donated his papers to the University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, at a time when he was working primarily in theater, television, and film But in 2002 he transferred those papers and the rest of his archives to Harvard’s Houghton Library. That collection consists of 394 boxes, cartons, and film reels, and includes "drafts of GV's novels, theatrical plays, television scripts, screenplays, essays, poetry, short stories, and speeches," as well as legal records including files on the lawsuits William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal v. Truman Capote.

So although Vidal did not start out at Harvard, his work, and the record of his life, ended up there.


Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and teaches history at the University of California at Irvine. The essay is adapted from I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics - Interviews with Jon Wiener (OR Books).


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