‘Burr’ – Gore Vidal

511MKvzxfoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We certainly judge historical fiction with a cynical eye here at Living with Lit. Readers will remember our derision of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime for mocking reader’s trust, countered by the effusive admiration we gave Robert Graves fictional autobiography I, Claudius. Gore Vidal’s ‘Burr’ utilizes techniques from Doctorow and Graves but, thankfully, doesn’t propagate fantasy as non-fiction.

Released in 1973, Vidal returns readers to the Tammany Hall laden, rough-and-tumble streets of  New York City. The time is 1834 and Charles ‘Charlie’ Schulyer is law apprentice by day, journalist by night. While the nightlife enthralls Charlie’s imagination (and desire), the daylight hours are never without excitement from his eccentric boss – former Vice President Aaron Burr. Despite being far removed from his younger years, old Burr’s mind is consistent as a well-wound clock. And with the presidential election only months away, Charlie’s editors want their young journalist to glean all the gritty details about Tammany’s tricks from the former Vice President – particularly a rumored filial connection to candidate Martin Van Buren.

Since Burr was published only a year after Ragtime, comparison is too tempting. Both texts utilize the dazzling prose to rehash history that we find so alluring here at Living with Lit (see Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel). Yet unlike the congestion of narrative strains in Doctorow’s work, Vidal sticks to clearly separated structured. Burr is composed of Charlie’s personal life, Burr’s reflective memoir spanning 1783 – 1806, and the former vice president’s tumultuous last days. While entertainment is not prejudiced to a sole section, the book is naturally focused on Burr’s memoir. Bounded with Revolutionary War adventure, quotes, and exposé worthy anecdotes, the author proves a fastidious researcher. Certainly an interpretation, Vidal admits in the Afterword, dissenters will have to dig if they seek to refute the stated historical claims. See an embellished, but telling conversation with Jefferson:

“The old face lit up. We were in agreement. We were friends. He could trust me. Out it poured, his fear of the courts, particularly of the Supreme Court in the hands of a monocrat like John Marshall. ‘The issue is so simple! Marshall believes that the courts have the right to set aside acts of Congress. This is intolerable! This strikes at the heart of our system of government! And, by Heaven, the fact that these judges can hold office for life – why, that sort of tenure invites tyranny!'”

Vidal unleashes theatrical prose to reveal (and revel in) the ironies of early American politics. The exchanges between between characters are consistently laced with an urgency frequently seen in dramatic writing. As expected, these passages prove Vidal’s erudite wit, as well as darkly prophetic conclusions. These excerpts are a happy reminder why ‘The Best Man’, the author’s Broadway play, is so celebrated. Much like the hilarious contradictions apparent in that piece, the laughs in Burr are similarly sardonic:

The vice-presidential carriage arrived, splattering us with mud. As the groom descended, Adams turned to me.

“I trust, Sir, that this Congress will be the better for your attendance.”

“As it is better, Sir, for your presidence of our chamber.”

A wide cold start raked my face like grape-shot. “I fear this Congress may be like the first, full of faction. I also fear those members who are too attached to France’s vicious revolution.” 

“I fear all attachments which are excessive.”

Adams took this ambiguity in stride. “We are in danger of government by professional office-holders…”

“Come, John.” Mrs. Adams was impatient and uneasy.

Adams was not finished. “By men of party rather than by men of state.”

“It is sometimes hard to tell the difference.” 

“I can tell.” From inside the carriage Mrs. Adams yanked har at her husband’s arm which was just inside the door.

“Can you also tell change when it comes Mr Adams? And whether it be for good or ill?”

“When it is for ill…”

Mrs. Adams and the groom had now got the Vice-President by sheer force into the carriage.

Mine was the last word as the groom shut the door. “New occasions, Mr. Adams, require new men and new ideas.”

Vidal once admonished historical authors for their appropriation – and occasionally unaffected hagiography – of political leaders. The author’s ‘Narratives of Empire’, which Burr opens*, seeks to rebuke these apropos impressions. “We must now turn to the novel for truth.” Minnesota representative Michelle Bachman found this approach “snotty” and cited the novel as her defining pivot to conservatism. Yet the image conceived of the former vice-president in Burr is not literal history, but the examination of an individual:

“This was the first time I had been alone with Hamilton since the election. Before 1800, I had always thought of him as a friendly rival. Now I knew otherwise. Letters he had written about me had come my way. It seemed that every thought, whim, fancy that came into his irritable mind was sooner or later put in writing. I ought to have hated him, but did not. Some flaw in my nature has made me indifferent to slander – and thus much slandered? Certainly my indifference seems to excite such attentions.”

Apr. 10, 1978: Times staff photo of author Gore Vidal for obit.

Born at West Point in 1925, reared in Washington D.C., the grandson of Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore, his father a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, it seemed Vidal was apt for a political career. However, the author noted after two unsuccessful campaigns, “An author must tell the truth the way he sees it – while politics is about not giving the game away.” Never a stranger to controversy, Vidal would clash with Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams, and of course William F. Buckley. Posthumous claims of pedophilia, anti-semitism, – even conservatism – swirl around the late author’s legacy. After sifting through offered evidence though, the claims seem unsubstantiated.

Vidal would continue the ‘Empire’ series three years later with ‘1876’, followed by ‘Lincoln’ in 1984, and three more novels – ‘Empire’, ‘Hollywood’, and ‘The Golden Age’ – until the year 2000.


*Burr, though chronologically first, is technically the second of the series – 1967’s Washington D.C. being the first. The previous novel follows the political atmosphere during F.D. Roosevelt’s and Truman’s tenure; subjects expounded upon in the series final novel ‘The Golden Age’.

‘The 42nd Parallel’ – John Dos Passos

48318Readers interested in early 20th century American literature have undoubtedly heard the name ‘Dos Passos’ amongst their rummaging. Notary no doubt derives from his many friendships with the giants of the time: a strange murder with Hemingway, criticism from friend Upton Sinclair, finally a late move to conservative political theory found him a home at William F. Buckley’s National Review – and effectively against everything the author ever stood for. Published in 1930, The 42nd Parallel contains none of the latter Right leaning ideology. Instead, the first entry of the ‘U.S.A.’ trilogy is a left-leaning, dazzle paced read detailing the socio-political world of the Jazz Age.

Set against America’s recently concluded 20’s, The 42nd Parallel follows a winding omnibus of five central characters: working socialist rebel Mac, budding stenographer Janey, marketing whiz J Ward Moorehouse, blue collar mechanic Charley Anderson, and the social climbing Eleanor Stoddard. Located across the country – as to promote an adequate social sample – these five characters all share similar working class origins. Randomly filtered throughout the novel – and divided with the author’s ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’ techniques – the characters build up to periphery contact, but never fully intertwine. As the first section of the Trilogy concludes, their separate story arcs (and social standings) prepare for US entry into World War I.

Mentioned above, Dos Passos employs two techniques to divide character narratives: the ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’. Each of these sections care little about cohesive subject and serve better for atmospheric purpose.  The former offers autobiography in the bildungsroman stream of consciousness” and an American spin on Joycean prose (or so my Introduction tells me.) Certainly not the easiest literature for the casual reader. The latter technique’s title carries inherent understanding, yet is equally confusing on first read. “The Newsreels offer newspaper copy, advertisements, and popular song lyrics to narrate the history and zeitgeist of the period.” Essentially, Dos Passos rattles off snippets of headlines not necessarily meant for comprehension. It should also be mentioned the author crafts marginalized biographies of contemporary historical figures like Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and Bob La Folette, to name a few. (Notice the persons featured in these short histories do not come under the author’s then left-leaning scrutiny):

The Camera Eye (5)

“and we palyed the battle of Port Arthur in the bathtub and the water leaked down through the drawing room ceiling and it was altogether too bad but in Kew Gardens old Mr. Garnet who was still hale and hearty although so very old came to tea and we saw him first through the window with his red face and John Bull whiskers and aunty said it was a sailor’s rolling gait and he was carrying a box under his arm and Bickie and Pompon barked and here was Mr. Garnet come to tea and he took a gramophone out of a black box and put a cylinder on the gramophone and they pushed back the teathings of the corner of the table. Be careful not to drop it now they scratch heasy. Why a hordinary sewin’ needle would do maaam but I’ave special needles

and we got to talking about Hadmiral Togo and the Banyan and how the Roosians drank so much vodka and killed all those poor fisherlads in the North Sea and he wound it up very carefully so as not to break the spring and the needle went rasp rasp.  Yes I was a bluejacket miself miboy from the time I was a little shayver not much bigger’n you rose to be bosun’s mite on the first British hironclad the ‘Warrior’ and I can dance an ‘ornpipe yet maam  and he had a mariner’s compass in red and blue on the back of hs head and his nails looked black and thick as he fumbled with the needle and the needle went rasp rasp and far away a band played and out of a grindy noise in the little black horn came ‘God Save the King’ and the little dogs howled”

Unlike the intentionally obtuse ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’ sections, Dos Passos wields a unadorned colloquial style in the character threads. This is where and why the novel succeeds. “The prose is constantly moving and descriptive, almost making the reading cinematic.” Surely anyone can adequately comprehend not only the language employed in 42nd Parallel, but thematic essence. Imbued with proletarian fervor, Dos Passos is most lucid while presenting the reasons for labor reform:

“They worked for the C.P.R. all summer and by the first of October they were in Vancouver. They had new suitcases and new suits. Ike had fortynine dollars and fiftycents and Mac had eightythree fifteen in a brandnew pigskin wallet. Mac had more because he didn’t play poker. They took a dollar and a half room between them and lay in bed like princes their first free morning. They were tanned and toughened and their hands were horny. After the smell of rank pipes and unwashed feet and the bedbugs in the railroad bunkhouses the small cleanboarded hotel room with its clean beds seemed like a palace.”


Dos Passos forces his creations to endure the dizzying world of the 1930’s in this first book of the U.S.A. Readers, much in the same way, are compelled to comprehend the ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’ sections, ambiguous or not. In retrospect, more rigorous curation of these technique heavy interludes would improve the  novel’s entertainment – but possibly sacrifice the eccentric energy of the author and overall intent. We can attribute highest praise to the scope and spectrum of Dos Passos. The novel effectively merges observation, experience and personal theory into pleasant little packages – as if manufactured with the precision on a Ford assembly lines. This is seen best in the working class take on Jazz Age prose and varying national vernacular of the characters. The final product – and the reason 42nd Parallel  is necessarily relevant – is a well written compendium of thought leading up to World War I and social reform on a national scale.

Black Spring – Henry Miller (1936)

miller - black spruong

It is no secret that Henry Miller is venerated a bit higher than a literary god here at Living with Lit. Our reviews of Sexus and Tropic of Cancer are glowing; they even appeared at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Thus, every few months a selection from my favorite author’s canon is required. The latest?: the second book from Miller’s Obelisk Trilogy – Black Spring.

Black Spring features Miller at his most surreal. The chapters (if they can be labeled such) are held together by loose strands concerning the author’s childhood in New York and observations throughout Europe, particularly Paris. Miller’s voice and artistic energy acts as the narrative in the novel, which is filled with those characteristic peaks and valleys:

“There is something about the little stretch from the Place Clichy to La Fourche which causes all the grand obsessional walks to bloom at once. It’s like moving from one solstice to another. Supposing I have just left the Cafe Wepler and that I have a book under my arm, a book on Style and Will. Perhaps when I was reading this book I didn’t comprehend more than a phrase or two. Perhaps I was reading the same page all evening. Perhaps I wasn’t at the Cafe Wepler at all, but hearing the music I left my body and flew away. And where am I then? Why, I am out for an obsessional walk, a short walk of fifty years or so accomplished in the turning of a page.”

Miller’s peculiar works of autobiographical fiction are powered with a prose that stampedes, whether the subject be everyday reality or the obscure metaphysical. In Black Spring, life and dreams are too intertwined for consistent enjoyment, but the author occasionally hits the right note. Embracing a mystic voice – something wonderfully prevalent in the following  Crucifixion trilogy – Miller speaks with past writers, his influences:

“So Robinson Crusoe not only found a way of getting along, but even established for himself a relative happiness! Bravo! One man who was satisfied with relative happiness. So un-Anglo-Saxon! So pre-Christian! Bringing the story up-to-date, Larousse to the contrary, we have here then the account of an artist who wanted to build himself a world, a story of perhaps the first genuine neurotic, a man who had himself shipwrecked in order to live outside his time in a world of his own which he could not share with another human being, ‘meme un sauvage’. The remarkable thing to note is that, acting out his neurotic impulse, he did find a relative happiness even though alone on a desert island, with nothing more perhaps than an old shot-gun, and a pair of torn breeches. A clean slate, with twenty-five thousand years of post-Magdalenian ‘progress’ buried in his neurones. An 18th century conception of relative happiness! And when Friday comes along, though Friday, or ‘Vendredi’, is only a savage and does not speak the language of Crusoe, the circle is complete. I should like to read the book again- and I will some rainy day.”

In Black Spring‘s rare moments of entertainment, Miller is an eloquently lucid craftsman, despite the seemingly superfluous subject matter. It is the virile and visceral author, rather than the overly dilated voice seen throughout the novel, that readers search for:

“One of them was the Baron Carola von Eschenbach. He had earned a little money in Hollywood posing as the Crown Prince (of Germany). It was the period when it was considered riotously funny to see the Crown Prince plastered with rotten eggs. It must be said for the Baron that he was a good double for the Crown Prince. A death’s head with arrogant nose, a waspish stride, a corseted waist, lean and ravished as Martin Luther, dour, glum, fanatical, with that brassy, fatuous glare of the Junker class. Before going to Hollywood he was just a nobody, the son of a German brewer in Frankfort. He wasn’t even a baron. But afterwards, when he had been knocked about like a medicine ball, when his front teeth had been pushed down his throat and the neck of a broke bottle had traced a deep scar down his left cheek, afterwards when he had been taught to flaunt a red neck-tie, twirl a cane, clip his mustache short, like Chaplin, then he became somebody. Then he stuck a monocle in his eye and named himself Baron Carola von Eschenbach. And all might have gone beautifully for him had he not fallen for a red-haired walk-on who was rotting away with syphilis. That finished him.” 


Black Spring was published in Paris in 1936 and finally in the U.S. after the infamous 1964 obscenity trial, which “declared Miller’s works to be literature.” Though these three books lack a sequential narrative “the style is totally unique. Fragmentary, with the unities of time and place cracked asunder, and influenced on Miller’s own admission by the prevailing surrealism and existentialism of the thirties…” Like his many other works, the author reads like a pariah yet product of the time.

Miller once labeled the act of writing a ‘bloody orgasm’. To readers of Black Spring, this mad euphoria is overwhelmingly apparent. The writer, though discussing those always intriguing subjects, tests the limits of patience. The chic Surrealist influence swarming through Paris grasps Miller too well, which causes the objective of Black Spring – destroying any memory of past – to be labeled ‘hifalutin pedantry’. Yet, as I finish sifting personally highlighted passages and lauded reviews, opinion wobbles:

“O the wonderful recesses in the toilet! To them, I owe my knowledge of Boccaccio, or Rabelais, of Petronius, of ‘The Golden Ass’. All my good reading, you might say, was done in the toilet. At the worst, Ulysses, or a detective story. There are passages in Ulysses which can be read only in the toilet – if one wants to extract the full flavor of their content. And this is not to denigrate the talent of the author. This is simply to move him a little closer to the good company of Abelard, Petrarch, Rabelais, Villon, Boccaccio – all the fine, lusty genuine spirits who recognized dung for dung and angels for angels. Fine company, and no rari nantes in gurgite vasto. And the most ramshackle toilet, the more dilapidated it be, the better. (Same for urinals.) To enjoy Rabelais, for example – such a passage as ‘How to Rebuild The Walls of Paris’ – I recommend a plain, country toilet, a little out-house in the corn patch, with a crescent silver of light coming through the door. No buttons to push, no chain to pull, no pink toilet paper. Just a rough-carved seat big enough frame your behind, and two other holes of dimensions suitable for other behinds. If you can bring a friend along and have him sit beside you, excellent! A good book is always more enjoyable in good company. A beautiful half-hour you can while away sitting in the out-house with a friend – a half-hour which will remain with you all your life, and the book it contained, and the odor thereof.”