Last week Gore Vidal and John Keegan died. I recalled John Keegan in a post which may be read here. Gore Vidal I did not recall. Although I enjoyed two of Vidal’s novels, Julian and Creation, I could not write a post about him without violating the maxim De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Fortunately my favorite living historian, Victor Davis Hanson, does not share that inhibition:
Among those guests in 1964 was Gore Vidal, who was not yet 40. I was about eleven and remember him as a stylishly dressed non-stop hair-toucher. He was also vain and condescending — and a big hit at his lecture with the conservative rural crowd. In those days he acted what was known as “witty.” I recall asking my dad whether he was “English,” given that his nose was angled upward and his accent did not sound American (and that he did not seem to like the U.S.). My dad, in the Swedish fashion of honoring work for work’s sake, answered that I should respect any man who could crisscross the country, giving 30 lectures in 30 days.
Vidal certainly had an instinct for saying outrageous things with such erudite authority that we yokels found him fascinating rather than repulsive. As I remember (it has been 48 years since that evening), Vidal spoke for about 30 minutes, but then he wowed the crowd to a standing ovation in the question-and-answer period (his forte), as he advocated the legalization of drugs and prostitution and went on rants about “small town” values.
The night before the lecture (in an unusual fashion for this lecture) we had driven with Vidal three miles into Selma to my aunt’s house (she taught English at Reedley College) for dinner. After the desert, he “shocked” us by declaring that masturbation was the sex act of choice, and then referred nonchalantly to his male friends. I noted one other thing about the evening. Vidal kept trying to namedrop literary tidbits; but my aunt, the JC English teacher, was of the old school (English literature BA, MA Stanford, where she had mastered the canon of Anglo-American classics) and had memorized verbatim many of Shakespeare’s plays and much of Chaucer and could quote by memory pages of Milton.
Each time Vidal would say something like “I think it was so-and-so who once said of so-and-so,” my aunt would smile and say something polite like “yes, it was” or “perhaps it was not.” By the end of dinner, he grew more and more sullen with us rubes who were not playing our unenlightened parts. I remember that my mother, the more pragmatic lawyer, sister of the JC teacher, and worshiper of my dad’s efforts, scolded her afterwards with something like “Lucy, he could have gotten mad and given a poor performance.” Sometime in the evening, before slipping away, Vidal showed one flash of sincerity, and remarked to my mother, “Do you mean to say that your old father mortgaged his farm to send his girls to Stanford? Hmmm.” He also said that he had preferred going to war to going to college. (That got my dad’s attention, who had done both, and went over Japan 40 times on bombing runs.)
A far better man — in both the ethical and literary sense — died this last week, Sir John Keegan. The Face of Battle is the most beautifully written and imaginative military history of the last 50 years. For a period in the 1980s and 1990s, about every two years a new military history followed from Keegan — Six Armies in Normandy, The Price of Admiralty, The Mask of Command, A History of War, etc., as well as general histories of World War I and World War II, and dozens of other titles too numerous for instant recall.
It is true that some of these books were written quickly, but they were written with engaging prose, were full of ideas, and were usually right in their main assessments. Keegan was a British public figure in the best sense of the word, writing newspaper columns, editing volumes, offering pocket biographies, at service to a larger society he loved. As a classics graduate student, who preferred sneaking around military history to the required fare of the manuscript tradition of Aeschylus’s Suppliants, non-literary Hellenistic Papyri, and moods and tenses in Xenophon’s Hellenica, I came across Keegan’s name in the late 1970s in a number of his original, now-obscure academic studies of the Waffen SS and German generals on the Russian front — before the breakthrough of The Face of Battle.
He was a master of the personal voice, but in such a way that was never chatty or self-indulgent. It never seemed to bother him that his unapologetic pro-Americanism, support for the idea of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars, and general British conservatism might imperil his literary career — perhaps because he judged rightly that his historical acumen, innate humanity, fairness toward historical figures, and above-the-fray temperament made him exempt from ideological vendettas. Keegan’s success, fame, and productivity at times earned scorn from academic historians who could spot occasional errors of fact, but usually their nitpicking was not so much over matters of substance, and so their criticism often, in boomerang style, becomes self-reflective.
Here I confess a bias toward Keegan, because I knew him somewhat and owed him much. To know him was to like him. In 1983 a small Italian academic press published my doctoral thesis Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (in elegant but cumbersome folios with the pages uncut) — to zero readership. By that time I had finished graduate school and abandoned a stillborn academic career. I liked farming full-time and had no plans to reenter academia or write again. But when the publisher wrote from Pisa and said I could send 10 free copies to journals, I instead sort of randomly picked the names of ten well-known military historians.
None ever wrote back — except one John Keegan, at the pinnacle of his post-Face of Battle success. A postcard in elegant ink arrived to the farm, with something like “Dear Dr. Hanson. Accept my gratitude for the publisher’s copy of your engaging thesis. Are there plans for more of the same?”
In those dark days (raisins had just crashed from $1400 to $400 a ton, and we were trying to figure out how to repay a $150,000 crop loan shortfall accruing at 15% interest), that brief note seemed to make all the difference in the world. At night after tractor driving, I suddenly started to write what would become The Western Way of War, coming in about 6 p.m. from hours on the tractor and littering the floor with Greek texts. In my newfound confidence (remember, authors, what a single act of kindness can do for others), I began applying for jobs at local JCs and California State University, Fresno.
The next year I was hired at nearby Fresno State as a part-time Latin teacher (one class, $375 a month), which was a godsend, after peaches and plums hit $4 a lug and our income dipped to about 30% of what it had been in the early inflation-roaring late seventies and early 1980s.
Go here to read the insightful rest. After we are gone our work remains behind us, but how we are remembered often depends much more on how we treated those we encountered on our journey through this vale of tears.