The Shadow of Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal and friend

Anyone who writes about Aaron Burr — like me, for example, in American Emperor — has to wrestle with the shadow of Gore Vidal.  Vidal rendered Burr as a marvelous three-dimensional character in his rollicking historical novel with the admirably simple title, Burr. 

I read Vidal’s Burr when it came out in 1973 and ate it up.  It was funny, it was intriguing, and its history was really quite good.  When I set out on my own efforts to write about Aaron Burr, I decided not to re-read the Vidal book; I was afraid that Vidal’s imaginative depiction of Burr would hijack my own imagination, and I would be left to produce a pale imitation of Vidal’s.  If you’ve already read mine, go ahead and read his.  (But not before mine!)

Vidal wrote five other novels of American history, and I heartily recommend at least two of them:

  • Lincoln (1984) is a terrific evocation of that remarkable and towering figure (so different from Burr!) and the strains of the White House durng the Civil War.
  • 1876 (1976) attempted to revive the reputation of Ulysses Grant as a president, a worthy goal and (from my perspective) a largely successful one.
  • Hollywood (1990) attempted to revive the reputation of President Warren Harding, and I have to admit that I fell off the Vidal train here.  Harding a brilliant politician?  That was a bridge too far for me.
  • I never got to Washington, D.C. (1967) and The Golden Age (2000), both of which are set in the 1940s, or thereabouts.  A bit modern for my taste.

Vidal’s view of American history could be distinctly astringent.  Heroes often were no longer heroes in his versions, while anti-heroes were the characters Vidal liked best.  By many accounts, Vidal was never a particularly nice person.  But his books are always interesting and always literate.

The historical novels were only part of his writing.  There were polemics, plays, non-fiction laments over America’s course in the world.  The obituary in the New York Times discloses much about him that I didn’t know, including that he was an uncredited screenwriter of the movie Ben-Hur.  Vidal was a true man of letters.  I regret his passing.

Note on commerce:  Putting this short tribute together reminded me of the sorry truth that dying is an excellent tactic for juicing up your book sales.  Vidal’s current Amazon ratings are:

  • Lincoln: #259
  • Burr:  #482
  • 1876:  #1544
  • Hollywood:  #1923

I’m not ready to try that tactic quite yet.

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