The Smithsonian Institution

By Gore Vidal

The Smithsonian Institution is a diversion, a literary lark that is also a pleasant surprise.

What makes it surprising is the fact that intellectuals rarely do a good job with light fiction. In fiction, the line between playfulness and being cute can sometimes get pretty thin, and for better writers (like Gore Vidal) there must be an awful temptation to descend to irony in order to show how superior you are to your material.

Yes, I had my doubts about Vidal’s latest “invention,” doubts that were quickly put to rest.

The story is set within the walls of Washington’s Smithsonian Institution in the year 1939. Sort of. You see, this Smithsonian is a magical place where scientists have developed a way to travel through time and bring all of the exhibits to life.

The hero is a boy named T., a figure at least partially patterned on the young Vidal. After doodling a breakthrough in quantum physics on a high school algebra exam, he is brought to the Smithsonian, where he teams up with Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Charles Lindbergh, and a host of eminent and animate “dummies” drawn from various displays (including a cross-dressed James Buchanan and a lusty Mrs. Grover Cleveland from the Hall of Presidents).

Even Abraham Lincoln has an office, though it isn’t the “real” Honest Abe. This Lincoln was rescued from John Wilkes Booth’s bullet and brought back (or forward) to the Smithsonian, where he now heads the ceramics department. Because he has lost his memory, the new Lincoln recreates his identity out of Carl Sandburg’s biography, becoming a walking, talking “Sandburg’s Lincoln” (which is to say, “a cornball Disneyland waxwork” – Gore Vidal, 1981).

If anything, the plot is as confused as the metaphysics. By going back in time, T. plans to nip both World Wars in the bud, as well as save himself from a sticky death on Iwo Jima. Such behaviour involves T. in all of the impossible situations that veterans of time travel stories have come to expect.

Will the poor boy be able to handle all this and puberty too? At least there is an obliging older woman.

And so the American Experience meets Disneyland meets sex. The Smithsonian Institution is a tremendous wet dream of culture, and Vidal – the self-identified biographer of the United States – is an ideal guide through its plastic halls. The humour is good-natured, the observations are sharp, and the writing, even when layered in allusion, is fast and full of wit.

A profound work of fiction? Not at all. But a wonderful excursion.

Review first published March 28, 1998.


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