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.