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.”
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’.