Gore Vidal - Probably the Most Important Man of American Letters Since Mark Twain

01/08/2012 10:05 BST | Updated 30/09/2012 10:12 BST

The great American novelist, screenwriter, playwright, political and cultural commentator, essayist and polemicist, Gore Vidal, has died at the age of 86 after a battle with pneumonia.

His series of historical novels charting seminal events in US history are classics, as is his fictional account of the life of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate - Julian (1964) - who tried but failed to resist the spread of Christianity during the late Roman Empire.

The first of Vidal's novels to come to mainstream attention was his second - The City and the Pillar (1948). Inspired by his own experiences, it attracted huge controversy for its honest and unapologetic treatment of homosexuality and depiction of openly gay characters, which made it way ahead of its time.

Born into one the America's oldest political dynasties, the Gores, Vidal's colourful and eventful life included service in the army during World War II, two failed attempts at running for political office, and a career in Hollywood in the sixties, during which he worked uncredited on the script of Ben Hur. According to his account of the experience, he attempted to add a gay subtext to the relationship between the main characters Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) but only Boyd understood and was able to carry it off. Heston, whom Vidal described as "charmless", did not.

Vidal was a contemporary of every major US literary, political, and Hollywood icon of the 20th century, a man who could count among his friends, associates, and enemies the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the aforementioned Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, William F Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and many many others. His immense literary talent earned him scandalously few literary awards and prizes in his long career, which included 25 novels, two memoirs, numerous plays, screenplays, and several volumes of essays. But then again Vidal revelled in the status of outsider and was scornful of literary awards and the literary establishment in general. When he was first offered a National Book Award, he turned it down with his now famous quote:

"I don't want anything. I don't want a job. I don't want to be respectable. I don't want prizes. I turned down the National Institute of Arts and Letters when I was elected to it in 1976 on the grounds that I already belonged to the Diners Club."

He later accepted a lifetime achievement award at the 2009 National Book Awards.

For a man of such caustic wit and a critical instinct, Vidal enjoyed collecting enemies. His notorious feud with the arch-conservative writer and commentator William F Buckley resulted in a famous TV debate, and he had similar TV spats with Norman Mailer, whom he compared to Charles Manson, and Truman Capote, whom he sued for libel after Capote alleged that Vidal had been thrown out of a Kennedy White House function on one occasion.

Politically, he was consistent in his attacks on the US political establishment, particularly the right, but also the Demcorats. He was a champion of the civil rights movement, a vocal critic of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and an opponent of America's foreign policy overall. Post 9/11 he began to veer towards conspiracy theory and controversially voiced his sympathy for Timothy McVeigh in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. On a personal note, I had the privilege of meeting him at an antiwar demonstration in Los Angeles in 2003, at which he spoke.

Though a man of the left, Vidal carried the air of a patrician who could give any English aristocrat a run for their money when it came to emitting an aura of superiority. However, in Vidal's case, a sense of arrogance was well deserved given his abundant talent and intelligence.

He lived during the high water mark of US literature, when novels and those who wrote them were considered important. In later years, Vidal lamented the state of American literature, encapsulated in the following quote: "Writing fiction has become a priestly business in countries that have lost their faith."

The range, wit, and sarcastic bite in Vidal's quotes over decades were redolent of Oscar Wilde, with far too many to include in one obituary. He was probably the most important man of American letters since Mark Twain.