As literary feuds go it has the all the hallmarks of a classic. In one corner, the journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens. In the other, America's great man of letters, Gore Vidal.
The latest salvo is in this month's Vanity Fair where, in an article headlined "Vidal Loco", Hitchens launches a stinging attack on Vidal, claiming that the events of 9/11 "accentuated a crackpot strain" in the author. He claims that Vidal's work after the terrorist attacks consists of "a small anthology of half-argued and half-written shock pieces [which] either insinuated or asserted that the administration had known in advance of the attacks."
"He openly says that the Bush administration was 'probably' in on the 9/11 attacks, a criminal complicity that would 'certainly fit them to a T'; that Timothy McVeigh was 'a noble boy', no more murderous than generals Patton and Eisenhower; and that 'Roosevelt saw to it that we got that war' by inciting the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor," Hitchens writes.
Vidal's reaction to the Vanity Fair article is not yet known. But yesterday, a British academic, who was also criticised by Hitchens, leapt to the author's defence. Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, of Sussex University, described Hitchens' attack as "extraordinarily vitriolic". He claimed there was a "sense of jealousy he never did quite get to Gore's level of literary flair and his almost iconic status. It does seem like a kind of bizarre personal vendetta being carried out on the pages of Vanity Fair, replete with factual inaccuracies and not very much substance."
Dr Ahmed, director of the London-based think tank the Institute for Policy Research and Development, claimed Hitchens failed to contextualise Vidal's comments.
"Hitchens has taken them very literally and Gore is being much more playful and much more provocative," Dr Ahmed said.
Vidal was not trying to absolve the Oklahoma City bomber, McVeigh, he added, but to make people think critically.
Hitchens referred to Dr Ahmed, who wrote The War on Freedom, used by the 9/11 Commission, in the article as a "risible individual wedded to half-baked conspiracy-mongering". Dr Ahmed said he had not suggested there was a conspiracy, rather a "dereliction of duty", and that he used the word "complicity" in a legal sense.
Hitchens wrote that he did not mind Vidal rewriting their personal history, after the American publicly distanced himself from Hitchens, but he did object "to the crank-revisionist and denialist history he is now peddling about everything else".
Hitchens claims in the article that Vidal once wrote to him offering to nominate him as his "dauphin". Such was Hitchens' admiration for Vidal that he asked to use a letter from the 85-year-old author on the jacket of his books. But since the 9/11 attacks he has stopped the practice.
But last October, Vidal told a New York audience: "Hitchens identified himself for many years as the heir to me ... unfortunately, for him, I didn't die."
Hitchens was unavailable for comment.