Vidal signed my copy of his early novel, The Judgment of Paris, at the West Hollywood Book Festival some ten years ago. I read it, enjoyed it, but did not give him much more thought.
When The Best of Enemies, about the 1968 Buckley-Vidal debates, came out, I rushed to see it with a friend at the E Street Theater downtown and, for the first time, saw Vidal as a monumental figure.
But, in a way like Christopher Hitchens (who had a fraught relationship with Vidal), you wonder whether there will be any cultural memory of him twenty years after his death. Will his books and essays be read?
So, I decided to read one of his most famous (and best reviewed) novels, Burr.
Will Burr last?
Maybe. Yes. No.
A little, is probably the best answer. Much better than middlebrow (midcult?), but a shade below masterpiece or classic. It’s far, far, far, far, far, far better than Gone With the Wind, but I can see it having a similar lifespan. Mitchell’s novel has maintained an incredible cultural cachet and readership over the years, but is, I think, finally fading (mainly because it is unreconstructed claptrap).
But the real novel in question.
The character of Aaron Burr himself is a fantastic creation and the novel acts as a fantastic apology/redemption for the figure. For those who don’t the story of the novel, a man named Charles Schuyler finds himself becoming the biographer – or, really, the scribe for a memoir – of Burr. The novel jumps between first person sections from Schuyler’s perspective on his own life in New York City in the 1830s and then first person sections from Burr’s perspective, narrating major parts of his history (and, necessarily, the founding of America).
Based on my own (admittedly slight) readings of original texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Vidal has a nice sense of an earthy, pre-Victorian mindset for Burr (though it’s still a modern novel; also, thankfully, with regular and recognizable spelling) – less so for Schuyler. His Burr’s depiction of a craven, political Thomas Jefferson is as frighteningly hilarious as his thin-skinned, conniving, and barely competent George Washington.
American history during this period is not really my forte and I’m not going to act as judge on much of the accuracy of this – I just don’t know enough of Revolutionary and early post-Revolutionary American history to stand in judgment – and I know enough about Vidal to believe that, even if he would fudge for literary reasons, he did voluminous research. It’s certainly not news to say that Vidal is deliberately revisionist, in the sense of changing how we view the sacred icons of our founding fathers.
I have read that Vidal’s so-called ‘Narratives of Empire’ (of which this was the first book) is intended to show the evolution of America into an empire, but Burr ultimately feels elegiac. You could say an elegy for a dream lost to dreams of empire, but that’s not what it feels like to me. Schuyler missed the Revolutionary War and is somewhat in between epochs. Around long enough to hear the myths and truths of a great age, but not old enough to have experienced it.