You probably remember Aaron Burr as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. To be honest (and humble) (and ashamed of my history education), before I read Gore Vidal’s Burr, I didn’t even know that. But Vidal’s novel will tell you much more about this infamous man and maybe even convince you that he’s not such a villain. He’s flawed, yes, but he’s also principled, and he bucks a corrupt system.
The people in this novel (except the narrator) are real, researched historical characters﹣everyone from the presidents to the prostitutes﹣and all events (with three exceptions which Vidal notes) are also established history. Of course, detailed dialogue is necessarily construed, but it supports the official events. So even though this book falls under “fiction” in my lineup, don’t consider it a fabrication. “Historical novel” is the genre the author ascribes.
The story begins when Burr is old but still spry and newly married to a wealthy French widow. The narrator, Charlie Schuyler, is Burr’s young law clerk, but he prefers his side gig as a newspaper writer. Burr asks Charlie to write his biography and gives him drafts of his history from the time he was a young soldier in the Revolutionary War, throughout his political career﹣including details of the fateful duel﹣until his fall from society’s graces. During their meetings, Charlie grows to love Burr, but he has also been tasked by a powerful newspaperman to secretly discover whether a scandalous rumor is true: Is Burr is the biological father of Martin Van Buren?
Even though Charlie is the narrator of the novel, the bulk of the book is Burr’s narrative via his own biographical notes. Naturally, Burr comes off as a hero﹣charming and witty, a masterful soldier and military strategist, a balanced politician. But he’s occasionally self-deprecating and admits that he’s a lousy master of his money and his libido.
The glaring takeaway from this book is that politics has always been a nasty business. The pages are filled with sex scandals, bribes, hot tempers, lies, secrets, irrational egos, and mercenary military plots. There’s great dirt on Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. After reading Burr, you’ll have no rose-colored views of your favorite founding fathers.
|Gore Vidal, Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, 2008|
Photo by Mark Coggins from San Francisco
- Gore Vidal, CC BY 2.0,
Gore Vidal is a prolific author, but this is my first reading of his work. He’s eloquent and sharp. He constructs vivid settings. I love his depiction of historical New York City, but especially intriguing is nascent Washington, D.C., while the White House is under construction, and the city is so dank that people hate going there. My only criticism reflects my deficiency, not Vidal’s. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I’m meh on politics, and some of the detail in this book was beyond my scope of interest. But the great writing and history made it more than worthwhile. I recommend Burr the book for its broader perspective on Burr the man, and also on our founding fathers. Vidal helped me see that modern politics is really just politics as usual, since the very beginning of our country.