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Required Reading: Gore Vidal

The American writer Gore Vidal died on Tuesday, at the age of 86. Familiarise yourself with one of the defining voices of 20th-century American letters with our guide.

Born in 1925 into the high Wasp American elite (his grandfather, Thomas Gore, was a senator), Vidal drew on his experience as a Naval warrant officer in Alaska during the Second World War for his first novel Williwaw (Abacus, Dh46). Published in 1946, when he was just 19, this taut, compelling book told the story of a treacherous journey from Alaska to Russia under enemy fire. Vidal followed it quickly with The City and the Pillar (Abacus, Dh57): that novel shocked mid 20th-century America, almost wrecking his literary career in its infancy.

The American writer Gore Vidal died on Tuesday, at the age of 86. His death takes from us one of the defining voices of 20th-century American letters, and ends a career spanning seven decades as well as multiple forms: novel, play, screenplay and the form for which, in the end, he was most noted: the long essay. It all amounts to a literary legacy few will match; enough, certainly, to bewilder the curious reader who is new to Vidal.

Vidal made a run for Congress in 1960 and lost. But by then he'd already established himself in a new form. His 1957 play Visit to a Small Planet (Signet, Dh30), a satire about an alien who visits Earth and attempts to start a war, ran for 300 nights on Broadway.

Meanwhile, in long-form essays now collected in Essays 1952-92 (Abacus, Dh98), he developed his idea that the US had lost touch with its Republican roots, and honed his talent for aphorisms: "Success is not enough. One's friends must fail."

Vidal's literary legacy, though, inheres most in the series of historical novels he wrote about America from the mid-1960s onwards. Lincoln (Abacus, Dh86), his take on the Civil War president, was a bestseller, and remains the best regarded.

After all that, let the man himself have the last say. In Point to Point Navigation (Abacus, Dh57), Vidal looks over a life in letters, and a social whirl that included Jackie Kennedy, Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles.

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