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Gore Vidal's "Narratives of Empire"
Gore Vidal, probably the greatest novelist produced by the United States, was a patrician born into money, power and opportunity. Throughout his childhood and life, he was surrounded by politicians, New York heirs to vast fortunes, celebrities of countless fields, Washington bureaucrats, military officers and revolutionaries. He read over 100 books before the age of 18. During his life, he wrote numerous novels, essays, plays and television screenplays. He was also a sometime soldier, journalist, political pundit, actor, expatriate, critic, fashion model and even a failed politician. Considering himself something of an expert on the nature of power within the republic of the United States of America, power became the subject of many of his novels. Though he enjoyed satire and liked to write on themes defining human sexuality or in exposing organized religion, he often found himself coming back to the subject of power and influence in history. And it was here where Vidal, who opted on a literary career rather attending an Ivy League University as a young man of the establishment, became an adept historian. After the 1970s, his great subject in novels and essays was almost exclusively on the US republic; its growth into empire and its downfall. A series of seven historical-fiction novels that were written between 1967 and 2000 (often mistakenly referred to by journalists as the "American Chronicles") were loosely dubbed by him to be his "Narratives of Empire".
History of the Series
This “series” actually came together in a sort of meandering way. It is nothing like the more-serialized historical novels written by talented historians, like Colleen McCullough or Bernard Cornwell. With Vidal’s novels, you can read them in any order (or even one or two randomly-selected works only) and they would still make perfect sense as standalone stories. In 1967, a politically-disillusioned Vidal published a novel called Washington, D.C. about a subject he knew as well as anything: society and the political culture in Washington during the 1930s through the 1950s. The principle characters were all fictional, but were loose amalgamations of real people he had known. This is evident by the story’s easy flow. Any historical figures and events of the time period stayed in the background to lightly influence the various plots. Partway through writing the story, Vidal clearly became interested in the history of what he was writing about. He wanted to re-trace the founding of the US republic. He wanted to discover just when and why exactly the government had drifted into corruption and imperialism. What had sparked the political landscape of the late 1930s? Were things always so bad? In going back to the beginning, Vidal’s research led him to select Aaron Burr as the perfect voice to tell the story of the nation’s birth. For one thing, Burr was very clever and funny in his writings. For another, he was hated by the other founding fathers and so he would be the perfect subject to give a less-conventional assessment of them. The novel Burr was published in 1973. It received a light smattering of criticism, mostly from political types and the press, due to the book’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson as a duplicitous schemer and George Washington as an incompetent tactician. What every critic in this case forgot was that the opinions expressed in the novel were not those of Gore Vidal, but of Aaron Burr. In the year of our bicentennial, Vidal published a novel about the disastrous year of our centennial aptly entitled 1876. With this third novel, Vidal brought together the origins of the American empire, the increased corruption in politics and the emergence of the extreme gap between rich and poor. This lightly told the tale of how the US came to be as it was in 1937, when the "benevolent" President Roosevelt made a grab to hijack the republic in exchange for an empire. But then history always raises new questions in search for details.
Interested in the most-important events of American history, in 1984 Vidal published his nearly 700-page masterpiece called Lincoln. Lincoln was his first historical novel featuring almost no fictional characters and yet was told entirely from the third person perspective of various protagonists. Though a best-seller, it was attacked by the press due to what friendly historians called “putting a human face on Lincoln”; and for what Vidal simply called “stating facts”—or at least the truth as best anyone may know it. From those he called “court historians”, who built tenure on immortalizing Abe Lincoln as a god, Vidal received assaults via the press in what was deemed irresponsible storytelling, distorting facts or making little mistakes. Though he conceded to some minor errors that did not involve characters in the novel or anything relevant to the plot, Vidal defended himself with his primary sources. He remained upbeat due to successful book sales. Yet the irritation at being taken to task for so much hard work in research and writing led him to respond by accusing the press of having a political agenda. Some of the bitterness at the cool public reception of Lincoln was apparent when Vidal published the novel Empire in 1987. The novel was written on a subject and in a style that seemed calculated to make any “court historians” or Lincoln scholars feel like ignorant yokels. Almost as a seeming jab to historians, who love wars, the story begins right after the Spanish-American War has ended. He even takes a shot at the advent of corrupt modern journalism, which is one of the two central themes of the novel. But instead of focusing on Vidal’s seemingly-critical treatment of another American hero named Teddy Roosevelt, the press preferred to keep going back to Lincoln. In 1988, a made-for-TV miniseries of Lincoln, called Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, aired. Vidal had overseen some of the production and contributed to the screenplay adaption. However, the final product of the series was a dull and watered-down movie omitting principle themes, subplots or important characters. Worse; historical facts were altered from the novel and inaccuracies were introduced. Thus, in 1990, Vidal published Hollywood. This was a historical novel of how the film industry was first hijacked and used to distort perceptions for political purposes in the 1910s. That was meant to be the last of his American history novels.
Then in the year 2000, Vidal completed a seventh US history novel called The Golden Age. He used this last novel as a way to wrap up the historical series at last and to report on some recently-published facts regarding connivances of men like Franklin Roosevelt, Dean Acheson and Harry Truman. The novel annoyed some readers because it re-covered the same time period as Washington, D.C.; though the story and themes are very different.
From here, I will give you a brief summary of the settings and major themes of each novel.
(Published in 1973 by Random House)
The year is 1833. Charles Schuyler, a young New York writer, is tasked by an editor of the New York Evening Post to investigate the 75-year-old lawyer Aaron Burr and discover evidence that Vice President Martin Van Buren might be Burr’s illegitimate son. Though the Post supports President Jackson’s administration, a progressive editor prefers to support another candidate in the 1836 Presidential election against the shifty Van Buren. Charlie is tagged for this political antic because he works as a clerk in Burr’s law office and the two are fairly close. Aaron Burr, himself a former Vice-President, is considered one of the most notorious scoundrels in the US, in spite of his genteel style and manners. In his attempts to ferret out “the Colonel”, as Burr is called, Charlie comes across Colonel Burr’s fascinating memoir of the Revolutionary War. He then finds himself taking dictation on the Colonel’s new political memoir. We learn the early history of the United States and its government told from the dry and witty perspective of Aaron Burr. In between sessions, we are treated to contemporary accounts of his land speculation schemes and financial troubles as well as encounters with historic figures like Washington Irving, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Edwin Forrest, William Leggett, William Cullen Bryant, John Jacob Astor, Eliza Jumel, Davie Crockett, and even Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Burr’s memoirs put a human face on such figures as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilkinson, Edward Livingston, John Marshall, Edmund Randolph and Benedict Arnold.
(Published in 1984 by Random House)
President-elect Abraham Lincoln has just arrived in Washington from Springfield, Illinois wearing a new beard and dressed in a disguise with two bodyguards. Seven slave states have left the union and he is determined that, on taking his oath of office, he will hold the states together at all costs. Washington, deep in southern territory, is full of a hostile population that has repeatedly threatened to kill him before he has a chance to be inaugurated. Lincoln is the story of a president who, for four years, destroys himself, his family, the Constitution and the society he is trying to protect through his long and disastrous war to hold the seceded southern states in the federal republic. The President deals with personal tragedy and a mad wife from whom he receives criticism. He is up against a hostile press, a cabinet of political rivals, a divided House of Representatives, a Senate dominated by radical abolitionists (who want to destroy the south), and a mutinous corps of incompetent generals who lead the nation into bloodier and bloodier defeats on a scale never before seen on the American continents. On most occasions, Lincoln brilliantly persuades politicians and navigates the ship of state with a light touch; though he also suspends Habeas Corpus and orders wartime proclamations to jail secessionist publishers, judges and politicians. President Lincoln imposes conscription to raise the largest army in the world to invade the south and he institutes the selling of bonds and the printing of fiat currency (and even a tax on income) to pay to for the war. The world is both intrigued and appalled by the American President as he seems driven by his one high purpose to keep the nation intact.
(Published in 1976 by Random House)
A now-elderly Charles Schuyler returns to New York City after 38 years abroad. Long ago, after serving four years as a consular officer under President Martin Van Buren, Schuyler decided to stay on in Italy and France as he had already married into Napoleonic titular royalty. A widower in 1875, he is accompanied by his recently-widowed daughter, the Princess D’Agrigente, to the city where he grew up. Though she does not know it, they are both practically broke. But luckily he is well-connected. Schuyler’s goals are to earn a living through his writing, find a suitably wealthy New York husband for his daughter and assist Governor Samuel Tilden in the upcoming presidential campaign so that he might be appointed US minister to France. What he was not prepared for is the fact that he does not recognize his old New York of the 1830s at all. Not only has the city changed, but it is overflowing and the people are quite different. The wealthy citizens now live like royalty in extreme opulence on Fifth Avenue (once a mere country road). The wealth is contrasted by a mass of hopeless poverty. Fat, well-dressed and bearded men of the business class scramble to make money. Men are all calling one another by military titles in this post-bellum America. All of the charming places of Schuyler’s youth have either gone to ruin or have completely disappeared. In visiting Washington, Schuyler observes firsthand the level of corruption that has descended upon Congress. The executive branch is in the midst of a pile of scandals, which the president seems willing to condone or cover up. Through Schuyler’s writings, he describes in his critical way the Centennial Exhibition, as well as the entire procession of events surrounding the scandalous presidential election of 1876.
(Published in 1987 by Random House)
The war with the Spain has ended and the US now controls the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba. It was a war egged on and essentially started by the New York Journal and its owner, millionaire journalist William Randolph Hearst. He is a man who claims to create history by inventing the news. Working for him is the young and wealthy Blaise Sanford, who dreams of starting his own paper one day. Blaise’s half-sister, Caroline, is the granddaughter of Charles Schuyler and great-granddaughter of Aaron Burr. Both Blaise and Caroline were raised in a palace in France by their twice-widowed expatriate father from New England. Now that their father is dead, they will inherit and move to the United States. John Hay, once the personal secretary to President Lincoln, is US ambassador to Great Britain when he is summoned to Washington to become Secretary of State. In Empire, we are treated to the epic story of W.R. Hearst trying to control the political flow of the nation against the sheer energy and willpower of Theodore Roosevelt, a character Hearst himself “invented” for the public. Meanwhile the US has accepted a new and unpopular role on the world stage as a colonial power and even arbiter of international disputes. The US military fights a long war to dominate the Philippines while racing against Europe to control Chinese ports. Back in Washington, corruption is a of fact a life. Reform is becoming a dying cause. As the government takes on imperial airs with its ongoing military presence in the world, it becomes remote from the common folk, mostly immigrants, who filled up the industrial cities and the Great Plains. Only through newspapers are they informed.
(Published in 1990 by Random House)
President Woodrow Wilson has begun his second term of office on a platform that he managed to keep the US out of Europe’s latest and bloodiest of an endless series of wars. Blaise and Caroline Sanford, now in middle age, are also at peace as business partners. William Randolph Hearst notes that the future of American media is motion pictures. He suggests that the sleepy Hollywood district amid the sands of Los Angeles will be where New York’s film industry is migrating. Where once ours was a nation of states with New York and Washington as the two cities of power, Los Angeles becomes yet a third city. It is a dreamy city able to captivate American citizens and conjure excitement. Sadly, certain intellectuals in the US government realize this and take advantage of film, in collusion with the studio owners in New York, by using it as a way to promote US entry into the “Great War”. In the course of the novel, we see a reluctant nation brought into Europe, which a few men in the White House want to control. There are secret police throwing outspoken critics of the war in prison. German music is banned, despite the fact that half the nation is descended from German immigrants. In the end, the US gets nothing out of the war other than a political backlash in the form of prohibition of wine, beer and spirits. There is a spike in crime and corruption. And the nation gets a decent man who fell into the office of the presidency almost by accident. Propaganda is a new and exciting concept for leaders in both politics and business. The film industry becomes more commercialized and, thus, less creative. Along the way, we are treated to the culture of early Hollywood when writers and silent film actors reigned.
(Published in 1967 by Little, Brown and Company)
In the summer of 1937 in Washington, 16-year-old Peter Sanford is full of youthful angst as he runs through the grounds of his family’s estate during a nighttime thunderstorm. Inside the big house, his father Blaise, the 60-year-old publisher of the Washington Tribune, hosts a dinner party celebrating the senatorial defeat of President Roosevelt’s Judiciary Bill. For Peter, life can’t move quickly enough. He is ready to enter the world of adults. Spanning nearly 20 years, this novel is the story of a small southern city of political opportunists and socialites that is changed by world war and by a President and the political undermining of his progressive policies. The elderly Senator James Burden Day, a conservative democrat, finds himself in a struggle to succeed a President who will not stop running for office and who deliberately holds him down. Clay Overbury is a young and ambitious lawyer working for Senator Day. He will do anything to advance his own political career. Where once Washington’s top issue was social reform and where a radical and somewhat popular element of leftists was tolerated, the city becomes a militarized place full of federal police and war bureaucrats. Many in the public limelight are accused of being communists and are persecuted for their old associations. Television emerges as the new medium by which citizens can get their information. The void of power left open by the death of President Roosevelt is filled by the defense industry, military enthusiasts, soldiers and youthful opportunists. The country seems to have gone mad in its singular views that lack all of the old objectivity of peacetime. The novel leaves us with a question of how the American republic got to this point. Or was it always this way?
The Golden Age
(Published in 2000 by Doubleday)
Film director Timothy X Ferrell has arrived in Washington in 1939 to film a documentary. The film is about public opinion on whether or not the US should join Britain’s war against Nazi Germany. Everyone; from politicians, business leaders and journalists to celebrities and even common folk, are adamantly opposed to fighting another world war. But Washington’s intellectual circles have been infiltrated by British spies trying to shift opinion. President Roosevelt, like Wilson two decades earlier, is eager to fight Germany and take over Europe. Caroline Sanford, now in her 60s, returns from France and reunites with Ferrell, Senator Day and her brother Blaise. In the novel, we see the White House exposed for the ways in which it maneuvers the US into a war with Japan simply to get into a war with Hitler. The public swings from being solidly against world war to being in a state of maddened war frenzy. After Roosevelt’s death, we see that President Truman is out of his element when he drops atomic bombs on a defeated Japan for no discernable reason. But, worst of all, the US falls under the power of the new military industrial establishment. The executive branch of government decides to make war, not only on its Soviet allies, but on any nation-state with a communist government; or with any government deemed to be under communist influence. But between 1945 and 1950, the US experiences its great “Golden Age”. After everyone leaves Europe, the untouched United States becomes the world center of high culture with ballet, symphony, literature and theatre that take the form of a unique “American” style. this of course doesn’t last as the US prefers perpetual war with drafts, mobilization and propagandized media.
In spite of a vast number of brilliant and groundbreaking novels, Vidal will probably always be remembered for his political essays and works of historical fiction. He once said that to write these novels was hard work. He did it out of a sense of obligation since this sort of history was not being taught to anyone anywhere. He felt the door to the makers of history should be opened to the public. His favorite books to write were the whimsical and imaginative tales, like Duluth, Kalki or Myra Breckinridge.
In his final years, Vidal, no longer able to walk or even steadily hold a pen or type, stated on several occasions in speeches that he was in the midst of writing a new novel on the US-Mexican War. Today, sadly, the task of this is left to another writer willing to take up the challenge. While there will be plenty of historical fiction writers like Jeff Shaara who can tell stories of the war, few would be skilled enough to combine literary talents and storytelling with historical knowledge and a firsthand experience surrounding the "engine room" and "pilot house" of the nation. Vidal’s histories were not of the American people. Vidal’s struggle was to teach us about the centers of power and influence in the country. The events in the novels do not take place in trenches or coal mines or forests with Indians. Our nation’s leaders did their work in offices, salons, private booths and drawing rooms while the masses of citizens charted courses, built bridges and fought wars that these leaders started. There is nothing action-packed and most of the dialogue is genial, regardless of how someone really feels about someone else. As one can imagine, it is difficult to write about this today and still make it interesting without a score and dramatic camera work. But Vidal reflected reality in his novels. The characters are never pure villains or pure heroes. They are complex and driven by different ideals. Like reality, there are comedic moments of absurdity in the stories, even when things are solemn. This is what most brings the series to life and what makes Gore Vidal a true literary master.