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Gore Vidal, Lost and Found

Like many stories, this one began at an improbable distance in space and time from where it ended. The saga of how the Harvard Review (see sidebar) came to publish a previously unknown short story by Gore Vidal begins with the fact that Christina Thompson, the Review’s editor, lived in Australia for 15 years.

While earning her Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne, Thompson edited an Australian literary journal, and acquired an article by Australian sociologist Dennis Altman. Last year, Altman arrived at Harvard for an appointment to the Australian chair, an endowed faculty position that rotates annually among scholars in Australian studies. “I always have lunch with the Aussies when they come,” Thompson says. Over lunch, she learned that Altman was writing a book on Vidal, his stature in American culture, and the role of celebrity in society. “I told Dennis that we might want to excerpt his book in the Harvard Review,” Thompson recalls, “and then said, ‘Let’s see if we can find something like a letter in the archives that we could run along with it.’”

“The archives” are Vidal’s papers, which he donated to Houghton Library in 2002. (The papers had resided since the 1950s at the University of Wisconsin, but Vidal, dissatisfied with Wisconsin’s stewardship, removed them to Houghton at the recommendation of his friend David Herbert Donald, Warren professor of American history emeritus, who met Vidal when asked to review his 1984 novel Lincoln for historical accuracy.) Houghton project archivist Jennifer Lyons is sorting and cataloging Vidal’s material, which includes manuscripts of 27 novels and eight short stories.

Vidal quit writing short stories half a century ago. “Unlike most fiction writers, I am not a master of the short story,” he says. “I am a real novelist — and, of course, very few [fiction writers] are.” Seven of Vidal’s stories appear in A Thirsty Evil (1956), his only published collection of short fiction. But an eighth short story in his papers, “Clouds and Eclipses,” written circa 1954, wasn’t in the book. “We read it and liked it,” says Thompson, “and we thought we’d see if it really was unpublished.”

Leslie Morris, curator of manuscripts in the Harvard College Library, phoned Vidal at his home in California. The author believed that A Thirsty Evil did include “Clouds and Eclipses,” and added that he had wanted to use that title for the collection, but the book’s publisher had vetoed it. “In his mind,” Thompson says, “that story was associated with the book.”

Thompson telephoned Vidal and described the story. It concerns “an Episcopalian priest, a stern man of rectitude. The narrator is his teenaged nephew, who lives with him, and at the end, the uncle is revealed to be a sinner,” she recaps. “That doesn’t sound like my kind of territory,” Vidal replied, laughing. “That sounds like Tennessee Williams.” (The two authors were close friends.) Vidal even mused, “Maybe I didn’t write it!” — begging the question of whether work by another author, possibly Williams, had accidentally ended up in his papers. Then Vidal remembered “this story that Tennessee used to tell about his grandfather, Reverend Dakin, an Episcopal clergyman in Mississippi” who was being blackmailed by two men. Thompson said, “Yes, that’s the story.” When Vidal asked, “Is there a bonfire at the end?” the answer again was yes.

Once Vidal saw the manuscript, all became clear. In “Clouds and Eclipses,” he had recounted a true story that Williams had told him about his grandfather, fictionalizing certain details: for example, an actual homosexual relationship became a fictional heterosexual one. (When Thompson wondered that the outspokenly gay Vidal would use this literary fig leaf, he replied, “You don’t know what it was like then.”) But Williams had asked Vidal not to publish the tale. Reverend Dakinwas still alive, if unlikely to read the story, “but there is always Edwina,” said Williams, referring to his mother. “She sees everything.” So “I pulled the story,” says Vidal. “And wish I hadn’t. It’s pretty good.” The Williams family protagonists, like Williams himself, have now gone to their reward; Vidal not only gave the Harvard Review permission to publish “Clouds and Eclipses,” but wrote a brief afterword summarizing its history.

Although the Vidal archive will not be open to scholars until 2006, “Clouds and Eclipses,” the author’s note, photographs of Vidal and Williams, and Altman’s sociological essay will all appear in issue number 29 of the Harvard Review, to be published in early November. The author’s note explains, among other things, that he took the story’s title from Shakespeare’s thirty-fifth sonnet: “No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:/Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;/Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,/And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.”