T. for Two: Gore Vidal’s The Smithsonian Institution (1998)

By September 21, 2022Journal Entries

[T]he mystery of the Smithsonian […] is the mystery of life itself…

– Gore Vidal, The Smithsonian Institution.

One of Gore Vidal’s favourite classical quotes declared that ‘the end lies in the beginning’, and his penultimate novel seems to bear that out. Published fifty years after The City and the Pillar (1948), the pioneering gay novel that first made his name, The Smithsonian Institution (1998) represents something of a companion piece. Few remember the novel today, and it is rarely mentioned when Vidal’s writings are discussed. Yet, during his sixty-year career, he rarely produced as personal a work. A decade on from his death in 2012, it seems opportune to revisit one of Gore Vidal’s most revealing literary inventions.


I first read The Smithsonian Institution when I was fourteen years old. My choice of reading could not have been more apt, since one could argue that the novel represents Vidal’s sole attempt at writing young-adult (YA) fiction. Few projected a more venerable, patrician demeanour than Gore Vidal, yet he once admitted that ‘I’ve never ceased to be, more or less, what I was at fourteen’. His one-time lover Anaïs Nin agreed with this assessment, writing that there was ‘something of the frozen adolescent’ about Vidal. The Smithsonian Institution gives full rein to the re-emergence of this youthful spirit in his writing.


In many ways a naïve work, the novel does not feel like the product of a veteran writer approaching the end of his career, but, at times, one at the beginning. Not that The Smithsonian Institution lacks sophistication, yet there is an innocence about it that we rarely associate with the world-weary, vainglorious Gore Vidal. But there are also remarkable depths to the novel that raise it above the ordinary, when placed in the context of Vidal’s formative experiences.


In his time-travel fantasy, Vidal revisits his Washington youth, his passion for American history, and, most importantly, his romantic relationship with his schoolfriend Jimmie Trimble. Indeed, in The Smithsonian Institution, he effectively reanimates Trimble as the novel’s protagonist T., creating an alternative reality in which Vidal seeks to spare his young lover from being killed in the Second World War.


Classical mythology often features a katabasis, or a hero’s descent into the underworld, often to reach a damned or departed loved one. In its own way, The Smithsonian Institution represents a katabasis of sorts for Gore Vidal. In the novel, he descends into the underworld of American history and his own past to rescue Jimmie Trimble from his fate in fictional terms in a way he never could in reality.


The novel begins on Good Friday 1939, as the shadow of war grows over Europe. The thirteen-year-old T. has been invited to the Smithsonian Institution to use his superior mathematical skills to help the United States to develop an atomic bomb. But he soon discovers that it might be possible to use his powers to change history and stop the imminent Second World War from ever happening.


The Smithsonian Institution turns out to be a multi-dimensional place, whose exhibits come to life and provide portals into different historical periods. (Vidal incorrectly suggested that the film Night at the Museum (2006) was illicitly based on his novel.) During the course of the narrative, T. meets a succession of historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln, Charles Lindbergh and Albert Einstein. He also finds time to fall in love with an Indian squaw, Frankie, who – amid the quantum leaps of Vidal’s elaborate plot – also turns out to be the young wife of President Grover Cleveland.


But the soul of the novel centres on T.’s efforts to avert his predestined fate of dying at the age of nineteen in the closing months of the Second World War – exactly as Jimmie Trimble did. In one of the most moving scenes of the novel, T. unknowingly encounters his future self, now a maimed mannikin in the Military Exhibit, who pleads with him in a whisper, ‘Save me. Save us’. He is haunted by the encounter and begins a quest to rescue himself from perishing in the impending conflict, during the course of which he stretches the very limits of time and space.


Upon its publication, The Smithsonian Institution was greeted by most critics with a mixture of puzzlement and hostility. ‘Eccentric’, ‘convoluted’ and ‘silly’ were just some of the epithets used to describe it in reviews. Its juvenile, adventure-novel style, in particular, baffled many more familiar with the detached, ironic style of Vidal’s mature fiction. As the author of several mystery novels written under a pseudonym in the early 1950s, however, Gore Vidal understood how to write – and pastiche – pulp fiction.

Referring to his historical fiction and his literary experiments, Gore Vidal divided his fictional output respectively into ‘reflections’ and ‘inventions’. Harold Bloom once suggested that Vidal had never managed to write a novel that united both approaches. But I would contend that The Smithsonian Institution is arguably the only occasion in which Vidal combined the two successfully. In doing so, he created a work as interesting as it is idiosyncratic; half historical fiction, half science fiction, half fact and half fantasy.


Throughout the narrative, Vidal makes explicit the connection between T. and Jimmie Trimble. We learn, for instance, that the future T. joins the Third Marine Corps, fights in the Pacific, and dies at nineteen at the Battle of Iwo Jima. These facts cover Trimble’s war record. Vidal goes further, however, transferring to T.’s narrative the grim details of Trimble’s death in a foxhole on the island at Hill 362A during a Japanese suicide attack. But, while T. appears to be merely a simple reincarnation of Jimmie Trimble, Vidal’s protagonist is actually a composite creation.


In fact, combining their contrasting characteristics, T. is a merger of Trimble and Vidal. For instance, we learn that T. has the former’s keen eyesight, rather than the latter’s lifelong myopia; but his eyes are green like Vidal’s, instead of blue like Trimble’s. The mathematically-gifted T. also reveals that he is ‘barely passing English’ and hates studying American history – the exact opposite of Vidal. Yet, in the same way that the cinema-obsessed Gore Vidal claimed he saw pictures in his head when he wrote, we learn that T. can simply look at mathematical formulae and render them into visions of their real-world results.

Standing for Time (as well as Trimble), T. may seem a curious, even arbitrary, name for a protagonist. Yet it is likely that Vidal meant the intersecting lines of the letter T to signify the meeting of time and space. Vidal had a lifelong obsession with the figure of twins and the double, which he repeatedly deployed in his writing for structural, stylistic and symbolic purposes. In this context, his use of the letter T allowed him to denote two realities converging at one point; suggesting not only the meeting of past and future in the present, but also the brief romantic juncture that once occurred between Vidal and Trimble.


Gore Vidal makes two metafictional cameos in the novel: firstly, in T.’s recollection of the real-life incident of Vidal flying a plane at the age of eleven and, secondly, when T. glimpses him through a quantum portal riding a horse at the Los Alamos Ranch School. But Vidal is portrayed merely as T.’s ‘best friend in the dormitory’ at school and not his lover. In fact, T. evinces no sexual interest in either boys or men during the narrative. Louis Auchincloss once suggested that the gay-sex scene in a Gore Vidal novel was as common as the fox-hunting scene in Anthony Trollope’s fiction. If so, the lack of a homosexual theme in The Smithsonian Institution stands out as being deliberate and meaningful.


Gore Vidal’s romance with Jimmie Trimble has been a well-known part of gay literary history since he first wrote about it in his memoir, Palimpsest (1995). But his account is one-sided: we lack Trimble’s version of events. As a result, we can never know for certain what really passed between them. But what matters is the importance of Trimble as an ideal to Vidal – a perfect human in an imperfect world – whose untimely death robbed him of a potential life partner, possibly even ultimate happiness. Transmuted into T. in The Smithsonian Institution, Vidal grants Trimble an alternative existence to his depictions in The City and the Pillar and Palimpsest, one in which he transcends both his short, tragic life and his identity as a gay icon.


Half descent to the underworld, half resurrection narrative, The Smithsonian Institution remains one of Gore Vidal’s most fascinating, yet overlooked works. In its pages, he abandons his characteristic patrician hauteur to plumb a series of personal and philosophical depths. Despite its pulp-fiction style, its narrative centres ultimately on how we can find resolution between the finality of death and the limitlessness of eternity. In reality, Vidal could never revive Jimmie Trimble or restore the romantic idyll they once enjoyed. But, in The Smithsonian Institution, he creates a striking fantasy that unites past and present, fact and fiction, words and numbers, capturing to a T. how two halves might be made whole again.


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