Thursday, March 10, 2011

GOLDEN OLDIES: Burr by Gore Vidal

This time around, my historical fiction book club chose to read Burr by Gore Vidal. I’ve always felt I should read something by Gore Vidal, one of the historical fiction grand masters, and I vaguely remembered Burr as a book my father read way back when it came out in the 70's. So I was game to give it a go.

This is, essentially, Aaron Burr’s fictional memoir. Burr was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president and Alexander Hamilton’s rival. Burr is remembered because he fought a duel with and killed Hamilton. Shortly afterward, he became embroiled in a confusing scheme to either conquer Mexico or to separate the western states (at that time Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana) from the eastern states. Or perhaps he planned to do both. The scheme may or may not have constituted treason depending on your reading of the Constitution of the very young United States. He was acquitted and lived to a ripe old age, but never lived down his notoriety.

Well, in some ways he did, because he’s not much remembered today. And even in this book where Burr’s made to be the hero, he’s portrayed as a gentleman and a consummate politician with a high opinion of his own military skills, but it’s hard to tease out any actual accomplishment to put to his name.

The novel is presented as a relationship between two men, the aged Burr and the young law clerk who would rather be a writer, Charlie Schuyler. Charlie works for Burr, who still practices law though he is in his seventies. Charlie also freelances for the local newspaper. Charlie is apolitical but his editor, Leggett, is fanatically anti-Martin van Buren. Leggett is convinced that van Buren is Burr’s illegitimate son. He believes that if Charlie can find proof of this (or convincing enough innuendo) and publish it, van Buren’s chances of being elected president will be ruined. Although Charlie admires Burr, he is desperate for money and takes on the challenge.

With this premise, we follow Charlie as he interviews Burr and assorted other historical figures searching for clues to the Burr-van Buren connection. We see a little of the current day private lives of Burr and Charlie along the way, but mainly we listen to Burr reminisce. In a manner that somehow charms Charlie, Burr flatters himself and tears down military and political rivals. Politics and war make strange and ugly bedfellows. Politically, Burr does what he must, but the other fellow is always conniving and hypocritical. In battle, Burr is brilliant. The fact that he lost or retreated was always because his superiors would not listen to his plans which surely would have succeeded. Eventually the story of the duel is told—Hamilton deserved it. And finally the whole muddy mess concerning the treason comes out—everything was Jefferson’s fault.

If the reader is concerned about the van Buren connection, that thread too continues, introducing a moral dilemma for Charlie. He has taken money to publish the story. He doesn’t want to hurt Burr. He can’t afford to pay the money back. He’s in a bind. Etc.

I had some difficulties with the book, partly because this is not a time period that particularly interests me and partly because I had a hard time interesting myself in the various dilemmas. I knew the basic historical outcome, so I wasn’t reading to see if Burr would win the duel or if he would be found guilty of treason. I was reading for the mechanism. How did it all come about? And, unfortunately, in this book, it all came about through petty jealousies, politics for the sake of personal ambition with no real higher principles (at least none that filtered through Burr’s lenses), and geographical rivalries. As far as the present day situations, I found myself detached from all that was going on. I didn’t care any more than Charlie did about van Buren’s political future. Nor did I care what happened to the others. Aside from a semi-parasitic bond that developed between Burr and Charlie, the characters were devoid of emotional depth. The plot(s) meandered.

It could very well simply have been that the book is dated. In his narration, Aaron Burr debunks all the myths of our heroic forefathers. He chops the giants off at the knees. This may have been shocking good fun back in 1973, but nowadays, the reputations of the heroes are so tarnished people are polishing them back up again. To have Burr the character go after them all in bulk only serves to make him seem small and the story that much the pettier.

The point of the book might have been that politics has always been an ugly mess. Politicians have always been self-serving hypocrites. We can’t even look to the creation of our nation for example of how it should be, because it was just as bad. I’m not sure if I should hope to find that reassuring – we’re still here, after all. Or if it’s as depressing a message as it sounds.

Still, I’ll see what my fellow book club members have to say. I’m glad I read the book. (It counts toward the historical fiction challenge!) But I preferred Waverley.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your review. Honestly, I'll probably never read this book -- but now I at least know a little more about it. Thanks!