Friday, August 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: 1876 by Gore Vidal

Way back in 2011, I read Gore Vidal’s Burr, and didn’t like it. Too dense, too dull, and the protagonists (the aged Aaron Burr and the young Charlie Schuyler) were not sympathetic characters. I couldn’t see why Vidal got such rave reviews. Nevertheless, an interest in the post-Civil War years and the Gilded Age led me to pick up Vidal’s 1876.

Schuyler is now a successful journalist/historian, who has spent the last 39 years in Paris, sending home occasional articles and writing a few books. Against his inclination, he must return to his native country. He arrives with his daughter, Emma, a Frenchwoman through and through, and a princess to boot. He has returned because he lost his fortune in the crash of 1873, his daughter is widowed, and he is desperate to earn enough by his writing to support them both. Additional goals are to find a comfortably wealthy husband for Emma. And to see Governor Samuel Tilden (the reformer who brought down Boss Tweed) elected President. Schuyler believes it likely that he will be appointed ambassador to France if Tilden, a friend, is elected.

The novel traces the political maneuverings of 1876 that culminated in Tilden winning the popular vote by a comfortable margin, but nevertheless having the election stolen by Rutherford B. Hayes. It also follows the fortunes of Schuyler and Emma. Finally, it showcases the New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia of 1876, including its socialites and politicians.

Although the novel started a bit slow, it quickly became engrossing. Vidal’s gift for writing vivid historical detail makes the book truly read like a first person account. He manages to present the complicated politics, the corruption, the role of the press – all filtered through Schuyler’s biased, dry, cynical viewpoint in a way that is depressing and amusing at the same time.

Schuyler as an old man, not in the best of health, in a financially precarious state, yet still very much respected by movers and shakers, is a much more interesting protagonist than the young Charlie in Burr. He is funny. At various times, his observations of people and situations had me laughing out loud.

This book was so enjoyable, I’ve changed my mind on Gore Vidal. Not only do I want to read more of his work, but I’m considering going back and re-evaluating Burr.