An Introduction to Revisionism: The Historical Fiction of Gore Vidal: The 'American Chronicle' Novels

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This
is chapter two of Jeff Riggenbach’s new book, Why
American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism
.
The preface, table of contents, etc. are here.

I: Burr
and Lincoln

Washington,
D.C. (1967) was followed six years later by Burr
(1973), which covers the period 1775 to 1840 as it was lived
and understood by the notorious Aaron Burr. Another three years
went by, and Vidal published 1876 (1976), portraying
the events leading up to and immediately following the hotly
contested presidential election campaign of the U.S. Centennial
year, which pitted Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York against
Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.

It was
nearly a decade before Vidal would add another volume to the
American Chronicle series. That next volume was the celebrated
Lincoln (1984), which follows events in Washington from
Abraham Lincoln's surreptitious arrival in the city to be inaugurated
for his first term in the White House to his assassination scarcely
four years later. Lincoln was followed, in quick succession,
by Empire (1987), which focuses on the years 1898 to
1906, and Hollywood (1990), which focuses on U.S. involvement
in World War I and its immediate aftermath — the years 1917
to 1923. Then, after a decade of work unrelated to the American
Chronicle, Vidal published the final volume of the series, The
Golden Age (2000). Oddly, this volume does not depict a
previously undramatized period of years. As Harry Kloman puts
it, u201CRather than simply taking place after Washington, D.C.
— which covers the years 1937 to 1952 — The Golden Age
loops back to re-cover the same years, 1939 to 1954.u201D It also
features almost all of the same characters. And, of course,
the major historical events in the two novels are the same.
As Kloman writes, The Golden Age u201Cis the narrative Washington
D.C. might have been had Vidal written the books chronologically.u201D
Thus u201CYou might think of the new book as an alternative version
of the older one.u201D Kloman points out that u201C[w]hen Vidal published
Washington, D.C. in 1967, he had no plan to tell America's
story from the Revolutionary War through the present.u201D Accordingly,
he counsels, u201Cnow that Vidal has completed the series, one might
just consider it to be six books in length, with Washington,
D.C. standing off to the side, in part an accidental beginning
to a Chronicle that it no longer fits, and in part an alternative
conclusion that's more literary and introspective than historical.u201D [91]

In the
following pages, I take Kloman's advice: I use the term u201CAmerican
Chronicleu201D to refer to the following set of six novels, arranged
and discussed in correct historical sequence: Burr, Lincoln,
1876, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden
Age.

Burr
is narrated by a fictional character, Charles Schermerhorn (u201CCharlieu201D)
Schuyler, a young clerk employed in the New York law office
of Aaron Burr. Charlie moonlights as a journalist, writing
fairly regularly for the poet William Cullen Bryant, in the
latter's capacity as editor and publisher of the New York
Evening Post. It is 1833, Andrew Jackson has just begun
his second term in the White House, and the political cognoscenti
are already debating who should be his successor. Jackson himself
favors his vice president, Martin Van Buren, as does Bryant.
But Bryant's assistant on the Post, William Leggett,
is not convinced of Van Buren's suitability. He has heard rumors
that Van Buren is one of Burr's many illegitimate children,
and he believes that a book or pamphlet proving the truth of
that rumor to the public's satisfaction would have the estimable
effect of ruining Van Buren's chances for the presidency. He
hires Charlie to research and write such a book or pamphlet.

In the
course of his research, Charlie will discover that he himself
is one of Colonel Burr's illegitimate offspring. But in the
beginning he thinks of the Colonel as merely his elderly boss
(Burr is seventy-seven when the novel begins), who turns out
to be more than willing to have his brain picked. He gives
Charlie his journal of the Revolutionary War period to read.
He dictates his further memoirs to Charlie in a series of meetings,
some of them at the law offices where both of them work, some
of them in Burr's home. Burr's narrative is alternated with
Charlie's own so that the reader is gradually filled in on the
history of the United States from the beginning of the Revolution
to the last days of the second Jackson administration. This
history is not, however, the conventional one which most of
Vidal's readers have presumably had presented to them in school.
As Donald E. Pease puts it, what Burr presents in these pages
is u201Can alternate American narrativeu201D in which the founding fathers
look somewhat different from the way most readers are accustomed
to seeing them. u201CInstead of finding them to be representative
of American civic virtue and American democracy, for example,
Burr explains Washington's belief in a strong central government
as an effort to protect his vast landholdings in Mount Vernon,
and Thomas Jefferson's espousal of states' rights simply as
a political strategy to win votes.u201D
[92]

Burr is
appalled at what he considers to be Washington's u201Cincompetenceu201D
as a military leader.
[93]
He notes that Washington u201Cdid not read booksu201D and
that though he u201Cwas always short of money, he lived grandly.u201D
He looks back on Washington as having been u201Cdefective in grammar
and spelling, owing to a poor educationu201D and as having been
u201Cmost puritanical.u201D He speaks derisively of our first President
as having been u201Cunable [...] to organize a sentence that contained
a new thought.u201D [94] He tells Charlie that when u201Cin September
1777 the British out-manoeuvred Washington once again and occupied
Philadelphia,u201D

the
Philadelphians did not at all mind the presence of the British
army in their city; in fact, many of them hoped that Washington
would soon be caught and hanged, putting an end to those disruptions
and discomforts which had been set in motion by the ambitions
of a number of greedy and vain lawyers shrewdly able to use
as cover for their private designs Jefferson's high-minded platitudes
and cloudy political theorizings. [95]

Jefferson
makes out no better than Washington in Burr's eye view. u201CHe
was the most charming man I have ever known,u201D Burr tells Charlie,
u201Cas well as the most deceitful.u201D All in all, in Burr's view
(as imagined by Vidal), Jefferson was a prize hypocrite. u201CProclaiming
the unalienable rights of man for everyone (excepting slaves,
Indians, women, and those entirely without property),u201D Burr
sneers, u201CJefferson tried to seize the Floridas by force, dreamed
of a conquest of Cuba, and after his illegal purchase of Louisiana
sent a military governor to rule New Orleans against the will
of its inhabitants.u201D [96]

Not only
did Jefferson betray his supposed individualist ideals, he refused
to fight for them when the time came — at least, as Aaron Burr
sees it. u201CI do remember hearing someone comment,u201D he tells
Charlie, u201Cthat since Mr. Jefferson had seen fit to pledge so
eloquently our lives to the cause of independence, he might
at least join us in the army.u201D But did he? No. Instead, while
Washington's army suffered at Valley Forge, Jefferson u201Cspent
a comfortable winter [...] at Monticello where, in perfect comfort
and serenity, he was able amongst his books to gather his ever-so-fine
wool.u201D [97] Later, when the British army closed in on
Richmond,

Governor
Jefferson fled to Monticello, leaving the state without an administration.
At Monticello he dawdled, thought only of how to transport his
books to safety. Not until the first British troops had started
up the hill did he and his family again take to their heels.
Later Patrick Henry's faction in the Virginia Assembly demanded
an investigation, but fortunately for Jefferson the proud Virginia
burgesses did not want to be reminded of the general collapse
of their state and so their hapless governor was able to avoid
impeachment and censure. He did not, however, avoid ridicule;
and that is worse than any formal censure. [98]

Not only
was Jefferson a coward and a fraud, according to Burr, he was
also u201Ca ruthless manu201D who u201Csimply wanted to rise to the top.
Odd how Jefferson is now thought of as a sort of genius, a Virginia
Leonardo. It is true he did a great number of things, from
playing the fiddle to building houses to inventing dumb-waiters,
but the truth is that he never did any one thing particularly
well — except of course the pursuit of power.u201D [99]

The pursuit
of personal power is, however, difficult to reconcile with the
ideal of individual liberty proclaimed in Jefferson's Declaration
of Independence and enshrined in the Bill of Rights. On the
other hand, according to Burr, Jefferson never really believed
very fervently in such individual liberty. Consider freedom
of speech and of the press, for example. Burr quotes Jefferson
as having told him in late 1803 or early 1804, that

u201C[i]n
1789, Madison sent me a copy of the proposed amendments to the
Constitution, and I wrote him that I thought he should make
it clear that although our citizens are allowed to speak or
publish whatever they choose, they ought not to be permitted
to present false facts which might affect injuriously the life,
liberty, property or reputation of others or affect the national
peace with regard to foreign nations. Just the other day I
reminded Madison of that sad omission in our Constitution, and
he agreed that today's monstrous press is a direct result
of the careless way the First Amendment was written.u201D

Still,
as Burr relates it, Jefferson did not advocate federal action
against members of the press who published u201Cfalse facts.u201D On
the contrary. u201CAs usual, Jefferson had a way around the difficulty
[...]. u2018Since the federal government has no constitutional power
over the press, the states can then devise their own laws.'u201D [100]

Perhaps
worst of all (at least in the eyes of some), there was the matter
of Jefferson's slave, Sally Hemings — or, as Burr refers to
her, u201CJefferson's concubine Sally, by whom he had at least five
children.u201D Sally was an illegitimate daughter of John Wayles,
Jefferson's father-in-law, Burr tells Charlie, u201Cwhich made her
the half-sister of Jefferson's late wife. [...] Amusing to contemplate
that in bedding his fine-looking slave, Jefferson was also sleeping
with his sister-in-law! One would have enjoyed hearing him
moralize on that subject.u201D
[101]

Nor are
Washington and Jefferson the only Founding Fathers to rank low
in Aaron Burr's estimate. There is also Alexander Hamilton,
whom Burr had met and befriended during the Revolution — or
so, at any rate, he tells Charlie. As the years passed, however,
the two men not only grew apart but also came more and more
regularly into conflict. In the end, Burr killed Hamilton in
a duel. Burr does not explain to Charlie why he called Hamilton
out, but an old friend of Burr's, Sam Swartwout, the customs
collector of the port of New York, does the job for him. Hamilton,
Swartwout tells Charlie, had accused Burr, a widower, of living
in incest with his lovely, intelligent, and accomplished daughter.

The 1804
duel with Hamilton is perhaps the most famous event in Burr's
life. The second most famous is probably his arrest and trial,
four years later, on charges of treason. As Burr tells Charlie
the latter story, it reminds him (unsurprisingly) of Jefferson's
hypocrisy and lust for power. According to Burr, Jefferson
tried to suspend habeas corpus so he could continue to
hold two of Burr's alleged associates in a military prison and
u201Cbeyond the reach of the Constitution.u201D In his defense, Jefferson
argued that u201C[o]n great occasions, every good officer must be
ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of law,
when the public preservation requires it.u201D His political opponents,
Jefferson acknowledged, u201Cwill try to make something of the infringement
of liberty by the military arrest and deportation of citizens,
but if it does not go beyond such offenders as Swartwout, Bollman,
Burr, Blennerhassett, etc., they will be supported by the public
approbation.u201D Burr's summary of Jefferson's view is succinct
and unsparing. u201CIn other words,u201D he tells Charlie, u201Cif public
opinion is not unduly aroused one may safely set aside the Constitution
and illegally arrest one's enemies.u201D [102]

In the
next novel in Vidal's series, Lincoln, another president
employs the same tactics, and justifies his actions in a very
similar way. It is now more than fifty years after Jefferson's
abortive attempt to suspend habeas corpus. Abraham Lincoln
is making war against the Southern states that seceded from
the Union at the beginning of his first term in the White House.
In his attempt to ensure that Maryland does not join those seceded
states, he imposes martial law, orders the arrest of u201Canyone
who takes up arms — or incites others to take up arms, against
the Federal government,u201D and orders further that those arrested
be held u201Cindefinitely without ever charging them with any offense.u201D
His justification is reminiscent of the one Burr attributes
to Jefferson, who spoke of u201Cthe public preservation.u201D u201C[T]he
most ancient of all our human characteristics is survival,u201D
Lincoln tells his Secretary of State, William H. Seward. u201CIn
order that this Union survive, I have found it necessary to
suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, but
only in the military zone.u201D As Lincoln sees it, he is merely
exercising what he calls the u201Cinherent powersu201D of the presidency
when he takes actions of this kind. And, as he tells Seward,
u201CAn inherent power [...] is just as much a power as one
that has been spelled out.u201D
[103]

Lincoln
is not narrated in the first person as Burr is. Rather
it is narrated in the third person — not an u201Comniscientu201D third
person, but one whose point of view hops around among a short
list of important characters: Lincoln's secretary, John Hay;
Secretary of State Seward; Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase;
First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; and David Herold, the pharmacist's
clerk and Southern sympathizer who was later convicted of conspiring
successfully with John Wilkes Booth and others to assassinate
Lincoln early in his second term in office.

The Lincoln
thus presented might well be expected to resemble the proverbial
elephant as observed by several different blind men. But in
fact Vidal's Lincoln is much more coherent than that, for his
observers are not blind. They differ widely in their opinions
and interpretations of what they see, but what they see is identifiably
the same man. Harold Bloom looks at Vidal's Lincoln and sees
u201C[a] minority President, elected with less than 40 percent of
the total vote.u201D

Though
his election committed him only to barring the extension of
slavery to the new states, and though he was a moderate Republican
and not an Abolitionist, Lincoln was violently feared by most
of the South. Vidal's opening irony, never stated but effectively
implied, is that the South beheld the true Lincoln long before
Lincoln's own cabinet [...] The South feared an American Cromwell,
and in Vidal's vision, the South actually helped produce an
American Bismarck. [104]

Vidal's
Lincoln, says Donald E. Pease, is u201Cinterested mostly in self-aggrandizement,u201D
though his interest in sex was sufficient in his younger years
that he u201Ccontracted syphilis from a prostitute and communicated
this disease to his wife and children.u201D
[105]
To Fred Kaplan, Vidal's Lincoln is u201Ca pragmatic
and manipulative politician with one overriding vision: to save
the Union and by saving it to transform it into a modern, industrialized,
national state so powerfully and tightly coherent that nothing
can tear it apart again.u201D
[106]

This mania
for u201Csaving the Unionu201D cannot be overestimated as a central
factor in the motivations and behavior of Vidal's Lincoln.
As Bloom notes, Vidal's Lincoln is u201Ca respecter of neither the
states, nor the Congress, nor the Court, nor the parties, nor
even the Constitution itself.u201D
[107]
Pease makes the same point when he writes that u201CVidal's
Lincoln is a political heretic who believes in none of the political
instruments supportive of union (the Congress, the Courts, the
Constitution) except insofar as they can supplement his will
to absolute executive power.u201D
[108]

Vidal's
Lincoln is also no Great Emancipator. Vidal's Lincoln, as Pease
points out, u201Cbelieves the emancipation of slaves entails their
exportation to the West Indies or Liberia.u201D [109] For, as Kaplan notes, though he is u201C[o]pposed
to slavery, Lincoln does not believe slavery an issue worth
fighting about.u201D
[110]
Vidal's Lincoln tells the assembled delegates of
the Southern Peace Conference that met with him shortly after
his election that u201CI will do what I can to give assurance and
reassurance to the Southern states that we mean them no harm.
It is true that I was elected to prevent the extension of slavery
to the new territories of the Union. But what is now the status
quo in the Southern states is beyond my power — or desire —
ever to alter.u201D u201CI have never been an abolitionist,u201D he tells
his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.To a delegation of black
freemen that comes to meet him at the White House, Vidal's Lincoln
declares that u201Cyour race is suffering, in my judgment, the greatest
wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be
slaves you are still a long way from being placed on an equality
with the white race.u201D His secretary, John Hay, sitting in on
the meeting, reflects that the president u201Cwas unshaken in his
belief that the colored race was inferior to the white.u201D

The
fact that Lincoln had always found it difficult to accept any
sort of natural equality between the races stemmed, Hay thought,
from his own experience as a man born with no advantage of any
kind, who had then gone to the top of the world. Lincoln had
no great sympathy for those who felt that external circumstances
had held them back.

Early
in his second term, Vidal's Lincoln informs Congressman Elihu
Washburne (R-Illinois) of his intention to u201Creimburse the slave-ownersu201D
for their freed slaves. This, he tells Washburne, u201Cwill [...]
be a quick way of getting money into the South for reconstruction.u201D
In addition to the money he'll need for that plan, he adds,
u201Cwe'll need money to colonize as many Negroes as we can in Central
America.u201D Washburne is somewhat astonished that the president
still favors such a plan. u201CWhen you get hold of an idea,u201D he
says to Lincoln, u201Cyou don't ever let it go, do you?u201D Lincoln
replies: u201CNot until I find a better one. Can you imagine what
life in the South will be like if the Negroes stay?u201D [111]

Vidal's
Lincoln is firm in his belief that slave-owners should be compensated
for their loss and that the freed slaves should be deported.
He is also firm in his belief that both these issues are merely
tangential to the war raging between the United States and the
Confederate States. Late in 1861, when the rogue Union general
John C. Frmont declares martial law in Missouri (a border state)
and announces that he will u201Cconfiscate the property of all secessionists,
including their slaves, who were to be freed,u201D Vidal's Lincoln
declares u201Cwith anguish, to Seward, u2018This is a war for a great
national idea, the Union, and now Frmont has tried to drag
the Negro into it!'u201D As Vidal sees it, this understanding of
the war was not only Lincoln's, but also that of other prominent
Americans of the time. Early in 1863, for example, not long
after the president has delivered his annual message to Congress,
Vidal's John Hay finds himself in conversation with the lawyer,
diplomat, and newspaperman Charles Eames (1812-1867), who assures
him that u201Cwhat the war is aboutu201D is u201Cthe principle that the
Union cannot be dissolved, ever.u201D Later that year, when Union
forces under General George G. Meade finally won a decisive
victory over Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg,
Pennsylvania, Meade telegraphed the White House, according to
Vidal's account, that he now looked u201Cto the army for greater
efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence
of the invader.u201D Vidal's Lincoln does not like Meade's choice
of words. u201COf course, Pennsylvania is our soil,u201D he tells Hay.
u201CBut so is Virginia. So are the Carolinas. So is Texas. They
are forever our soil. That is what the war is about and these
damned fools cannot grasp it; or will not grasp it. The whole
country is our soil. I cannot fathom such men.u201D [112]

Fully
in keeping with this understanding of what the war is all about
is Lincoln's view of how reconstruction should be handled once
the war is won. The Radical Republicans take the formation
of the Confederate States of America at face value: u201Cthe states
in rebellion were out of the Union and should be treated as
an enemy nation's conquered provinces.u201D

But
Lincoln's line was unwavering. The Union was absolutely indivisible.
No state could ever leave it; therefore no state had
ever left it. Certain rebellious elements had seen fit to make
war against the central government, but when those elements
were put down all would be as it was and the Southern states
would send representatives to Congress, exactly as they had
done in the past. [113]

But, of
course, after the war, nothing was as it was before the war.
Not only had 600,000 Americans lost their lives in the conflict,
but another 400,000 were wounded, many of whom were crippled
for life. Altogether, nearly 1,000,000 Americans were casualties
of the war, out of a total population of a little more than
31,000,000. If three percent of the current U.S. population
were to be killed or wounded in a war, we would be looking at
nearly 9,000,000 casualties. There was also extensive property
damage, particularly in the South — damage so extensive it would
be many decades before anything resembling a full economic recovery
could be said to have taken place there. Perhaps most important
of all, in Vidal's version of the years 1861-1865, a series
of precedents was laid down by the Lincoln administration which,
in the years ahead, would justify the steady erosion of individual
liberty in the United States.

For Vidal's
Lincoln does not limit his assault on the Constitution to the
suspension of habeas corpus. He tells Seward not long
after his first inauguration, u201CYesterday, at three in the afternoon,
I ordered every U.S. marshal in the country to seize the original
of every telegram that has been sent and a copy of every telegram
that has been received in the last twelve months.u201D Seward wonders
aloud about u201C[t]he legal basis for this seizure,u201D and
Lincoln answers, u201CThe broader powers inherent in the
Constitution.u201D Vidal's Lincoln censors the press, locking up
editors who oppose his policies. Vidal's Baron Gerolt, the
Prussian minister to Washington, tells Seward that his own boss,
Otto von Bismarck, u201Cvery much admires the way that you arrest
editors but he dares not do the same in Prussia because he says
that, unlike you, he is devoted to freedom of speech.u201D That
Vidal's Lincoln is not in fact devoted to freedom of speech
is made evident by his action against the former Ohio Congressman
Clement Vallandigham, who u201Cheld that Lincoln's war measures
were illegal and unConstitutional [sic] and so far worse than
the defection of the Southern States.u201D Vidal's Lincoln has
Vallandigham arrested and forcibly exiled to the Confederacy.
Vidal's Lincoln threatens to place New York City under martial
law to suppress opposition to the nation's first military conscription
law. Vidal's Seward reflects in 1864 that there is now u201Ca single-minded
dictator in the White House, a Lord Protector of the Union by
whose will alone the war had been prosecutedu201D and that u201CLincoln
had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever
letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking,
timid backwoods lawyer.u201D Charlie Schuyler, the narrator of
Burr, reappears briefly in a couple of scenes in Lincoln,
and, in the novel's closing pages, observes to John Hay that
Bismarck u201Chas now done the same thing to Germany that you tell
us Mr. Lincoln did to our country.u201D [114]

II:
1876, Empire, and Hollywood

1876,
the third novel in Vidal's American Chronicle series, is once
again narrated in the first person by Charlie Schuyler (now
in his early sixties), who has returned to the United States
after spending thirty years in Europe, first as a member of
the diplomatic corps, then as the husband of an independently
wealthy member of a noble family. His wife is now long dead,
Charlie's money has run out, and his wealthy son-in-law's recent,
unexpected departure from this world (followed by the discovery
of his carefully concealed penury), has left him responsible
once more for his accomplished daughter, Emma, whom he had thought
well married and safely provided for. Charlie has continued
to dabble in journalism over the years, has even published a
book or two. So he and Emma come back to the United States
in 1875 on a triple errand: Charlie will attempt to earn a sufficient
amount from freelance writing for newspapers and magazines to
support the two of them in decent style; Charlie will meanwhile
do what he can to help New York Governor Samuel Tilden get himself
elected president in the upcoming 1876 election (and to persuade
Tilden to send Charlie right back to Paris as U.S. Ambassador
to France); and Charlie will also see if he can find another,
comparably well fixed husband for his daughter. In the course
of covering both the presidential campaign and the Centennial
Exhibition in Philadelphia, and in the course of marketing his
daughter to financially qualified suitors, Charlie meets and
profiles numerous luminaries of the period — Tilden, Republican
Congressman and presidential aspirant James G. Blaine, Republican
Senator and presidential aspirant Roscoe Conkling, Chester Alan
Arthur (the customs collector of the port of New York), President
U. S. Grant, journalist Charles Nordhoff, and Mark Twain among
them — but the emphasis here is not, as it was in Burr
and Lincoln, on the sayings and doings of these actual
historical figures. Nor does Vidal's vision of these famous
people conflict with the conventional understanding of them
in the way that his vision of Lincoln and the Founding Fathers
does. He presents the Grant administration as riddled with
corruption, but this is a commonplace. He portrays Tilden as
the legitimate winner of the 1876 election, who was defrauded
of his rightful presidency by the Republican Party and the U.S.
Supreme Court — but this is another commonplace. The emphasis
in 1876 is on the imaginary characters, on Charlie and
Emma and on the rich new husband they find for her, William
Sanford.

In terms
of historical chronology, Sanford made his first appearance
in the American Chronicle in the pages of Lincoln, where
he was seen as a wealthy young Union captain, an aide to General
Irvin McDowell, who devoted his spare time to romancing Kate
Chase, daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. u201CI plan
to leave the army the first of the year,u201D Sanford tells Kate
late in 1862. u201CWe could go to France. There is a house there
I've had my eye on since before the war. At St. Cloud, near
Paris. We could have a wonderful life. I'd study music. You
could be at court, if you wanted that.u201D [115]

Kate doesn't
take Sanford up on his offer. Instead she marries the equally
wealthy, if somewhat drunken, senator from (formerly governor
of) Rhode Island, William Sprague. Sanford moves on, then meets
and marries another woman, who turns up in 1876 as the
delightful Denise Sanford, another of the imaginary characters
whose sayings and doings dominate the pages of this third novel
in Vidal's series. Denise becomes pregnant, then dies in childbirth;
the Sanfords' infant son Blaise is spared. Within weeks, Sanford
has wooed and wed Emma. Within a year, she herself is dead
in childbirth, leaving behind a daughter, Caroline de Traxler
Sanford, the illegitimate great-granddaughter of Aaron Burr.

As the
fourth novel in Vidal's series, Empire, opens, the year
is 1898 and Caroline is twenty. She attends a luncheon party
which also includes John Hay, Henry James, and Henry Adams.
Hay and Adams are familiar to us from Lincoln, in which
Hay functioned as one of Lincoln's two secretaries, and as an
important point-of-view character, and in which Adams functioned
as Hay's young friend, scion of the famous Adams family but
determined to make it on his own as a journalist. Hay is about
to be appointed Secretary of State by Republican President William
McKinley, who has just led the nation to victory against Spain
in the Spanish-American War. We learn that Caroline's father
has just died and that she and her half-brother Blaise are quarrelling
over the estate. In an effort to gain leverage over her brother,
Caroline appropriates some valuable paintings from their family
home, sells them, and uses the proceeds to buy a dying daily,
the Washington Tribune, which she proceeds to transform
into a journalistic success story. She does so, in no small
part, by carefully following the lessons never spelled out but
always implied by the successive triumphs of Blaise's employer,
William Randolph Hearst. Thus, though Blaise works as Hearst's
personal assistant, and though he lusts to own a paper in his
own right, it is his half-sister who proves to be Hearst's more
talented student.

Caroline
runs the Tribune alone for seven years, during which
time she becomes pregnant by a young, married Congressman, James
Burden Day, and quickly marries an impecunious cousin to provide
her daughter Emma with an official father and herself with an
official mate, sparing Day a scandal that might ruin his career,
settling her husband's many troublesome debts, and never revealing,
either to her husband or to her daughter, the identity of Emma's
actual father. After she finally collects her inheritance,
Caroline brings Blaise into her newspaper operation as co-publisher.
She decides to invest in real estate in Georgetown, despite
the fact that it is u201Cstill mostly Negro,u201D because u201Chere and
there, eighteenth-century townhouses were being restored by
the canny white rich. Caroline had taken two row houses and
knocked them into one.u201D [116]

It is not
long, however, before Caroline is living only part time in Georgetown.
By 1917, as Hollywood, the fifth novel in Vidal's series,
opens, she is adopting a new identity, as silent film actress
Emma Traxler, and a second part-time home, this one in Los Angeles.
Blaise, meanwhile, has also married and produced children, the
younger of whom, Peter Sanford, will follow his father into
journalism, except that he will eschew the world of newspapers
for the world of magazines, devoting his career to a journal
of analysis and opinion called The American Idea. In
the epilogue of The Golden Age, the sixth and final volume
of Vidal's American Chronicle, it is the turn of the 21st
Century and the now elderly Peter Sanford is being interviewed,
along with his friend Gore Vidal, at Vidal's home in Italy for
a TV documentary. The producer-interviewer who is putting the
documentary together is Aaron Burr (u201CA. B.u201D) Decker, grandson
of Caroline's daughter Emma and thus great-great-great-great-grandson
of the original Aaron Burr, with whose story the series began.

The last
three novels of the series focus more attention on the sayings
and doings of the Sanford family, James Burden Day, and other
imaginary figures, and comparatively less on the historical
events and personages of the times in which they take place.
The three are, in fact, all of a piece with respect to this
issue. Fred Kaplan tells us that Vidal had originally planned
for the first two of these three novels to be a single book:

[T]hrough
much of 1985-86 he had worked on Manifest Destiny, the
tentative title of the next novel in his American history series.
When the manuscript became too long, he used much of it under
the title Empire [...], published in June 1987 [...]. The
remainder became the core of Empire's successor, Hollywood,
which was published in February 1990. [117]

Harry Kloman
suggests that Empire is overly u201Cconcerned with frivolities,
name-dropping, and gossipy historical deconstruction,u201D [118] and Andrew Sullivan faults
The Golden Age in very similar terms:

The
characters in the novel — writers, senators, proprietors of
political magazines and their countless relatives — are all
so well-heeled that their conversation [...] amounts to little
more than chatter. [...] At times the book reads like one of
those interminable Vanity Fair pieces about cocktail
parties in the 1950s given by society hostesses no one but a
complete snob would give a hoot about.
[119]

On the
other hand, it must be acknowledged that all this frivolous
chatter and gossipy name dropping is not entirely irrelevant
to Vidal's purpose in the American Chronicle series. For a
large part of that purpose is to make certain points about journalism
— as a shaper of the historical record, as an influence on public
opinion, and as a center of social power. Journalism is a prominent
presence throughout the American Chronicle, as are individual
journalists, both real ones like William Cullen Bryant, Henry
Adams, and William Randolph Hearst and invented ones like Caroline,
Blaise, and Peter Sanford. The sayings and doings of these
journalists do have thematic significance, however frivolous
they may seem at certain times and to certain readers. Indeed,
it might be argued that their very frivolity and superficiality
are meant to tell us something about journalists and journalism
in the abstract.

Also, though
the last three novels in the series do focus to a greater extent
than the first three on the sayings and doings of imaginary
journalists, they are by no means limited entirely to depictions
of these journalists. The politicians who figured large between
1898 and 1954 are depicted also, and in ways that differ markedly
from more conventional accounts of the period. Secretary of
State John Hay, for example, minces no words in describing the
frank racism and imperialism behind the foreign policy he recommends
to President McKinley, when the latter seeks his guidance on
the matter of the Philippines, newly u201Cliberatedu201D from Spain.
u201CI have always thought,u201D Vidal's Hay says,

u201Cthat
it was the task of the Anglo-Saxon races, specifically England,
now shrinking, and ourselves expanding, to civilize and to,u201D
Hay took a deep breath and played his best if most specious
card, u201CChristianize the less developed races of the world.
I know that England is counting on us to continue their historic
role, and they believe, as I believe, that the two of us together
can manage the world until Asia wakes up, long after we're gone,
I pray, but with our help now, a different sort of Asia, a Christian
Asia, civilized by us, and so a reflection of what was best
in our race once history has seen fit to replace us.u201D [120]

Lest there
be any misunderstanding, Vidal's Hay also assures the president
that he has mercantilist as well as racist and imperialist reasons
for believing the United States should hold onto the Philippines.
u201CThe European powers are getting ready to divide up China,u201D
he tells McKinley. u201CWe'll lose valuable markets if they do,
but if we are entrenched nearby, in the Philippines, we could
keep the sea lanes open to China, keep the Germans and the Russians
and the Japanese from upsetting the world's balance of power.u201D [121]

Hay's
views are shared fully by the bellicose governor of New York,
Theodore Roosevelt, who is destined to become McKinley's second
vice president a scant two years later, and, after McKinley's
assassination only a few months into his second term, the youngest
man ever to have assumed the American presidency up to that
time. u201CHave you read Admiral Mahan on sea-power?u201D Vidal's Roosevelt
demands of Blaise Sanford during an interview. u201CPublished nine
years ago. An eye-opener. I reviewed it in the Atlantic
Monthly. We are fast friends. Without sea-power, no British
empire. Without sea-power, no American empire, though we don't
use the word u2018empire' because the tender-minded can't bear it.u201D
[122]
Then the governor really gets going.

Roosevelt
was now marching rapidly in a circle at the center of the room.
He had been seized by a speech. As he spoke, he used all the
tricks that he would have used and [sic] had Blaise been ten
thousand people at Madison Square Garden. Arms rose and fell;
the head was thrown back as if it were an exclamation mark;
right fist struck left hand to mark the end of one perfected
argument, and the beginning of the next. u201CThe degeneracy of
the Malay race is a fact. We start with that. We can do them
only good. They can do themselves only harm. When the likes
of Carnegie tells us that they are fighting for independence,
I say any argument you make for the Filipino you could make
for the Apache. Every word that could be said for Aguinaldo
could be said for Sitting Bull. The Indians could not be civilized
any more than the Filipinos can. They stand in the path of
civilization.u201D
[123]

I speak
now only of savages,u201D Vidal's Roosevelt insists.

u201CWhen
Mr. Seward acquired Alaska, did we ask for the consent of the
Eskimos? We did not. When the Indian tribes went into rebellion
in Florida, did Andrew Johnson offer them a citizenship for
which they were not prepared? No, he offered them simple justice.
Which is what we shall mete out to our little brown brothers
in the Philippines. Justice and civilization will be theirs
if they but seize the opportunity. We shall keep the islands!u201D [124]

Later,
after he has become president and asked Hay to stay on as Secretary
of State, Vidal's Roosevelt defends the diplomatic and military
chicanery by means of which he obtained the right of way through
Panama to build a canal in that Central American country. u201CThe
point, John, is that we have done something useful for our country.
Our fleets can go back and forth, quickly, between Atlantic
and Pacific.u201D Hay is perplexed. u201CYou see a future so filled
with war?u201D he asks the president. And Vidal's Roosevelt replies,
u201CYes, I do. [...] I also see our own mission, which is to lead
where once England led, but on a world scale…u201D [125]

Still
later, when President Woodrow Wilson has led the United States
into involvement in World War I, Vidal's Roosevelt shows up
at the White House to offer to lead a volunteer division in
France. While there, he takes the opportunity to offer the
president some advice on his conduct of the war. He points
out to the president that u201Cthe German-language press [...] has
been, from the beginning, disloyal to this country. I would,
as a military necessity, shut all those papers down.u201D Wilson
is taken somewhat aback. u201CIsn't this — arbitrary?u201D he asks
Roosevelt. u201CSurely, they are guaranteed the same freedoms –u201D
But Roosevelt cuts him off. u201CThis is war, Mr. President. Lincoln
suspended habeas corpus, shut down newspapers, and we'll
have to do the same….u201D Nor is this all he recommends to the
startled president. u201CMany would-be traitors — German sympathizers
— pretend to be peace-lovers, to be — what's their phrase? —
u2018conscientious objectors.' Well, I would treat them conscientiously!
I would deny them the vote. If they are of military age and
refuse to fight for their country, then they must forgo their
citizenship.u201D
[126]

Vidal's
Wilson, for his part, a u201Cprofessional historian, who preferred
the British parliamentary system to the American executive system,u201D
is not at all averse to the idea of helping the British with
just about anything they might want to undertake. Once he decides
to intervene in World War I to aid the British, he follows Roosevelt's
advice and harshly censors the press. But he finds to his sorrow
that, even with his critics silenced, there is insufficient
public support for his war. As a result, there are u201Ctoo few
volunteers.u201D He has a solution, though: u201CWe must conscript
the young men. Draft them. Find a new word for draft, if necessary,
but no matter what the word, there is so little time to do so
much in.u201D Accordingly, Vidal's Wilson wastes no time in making
sure that u201C[c]onscription was [...] swift and absolute and under
another name. On June 5, ten million men between twenty-one
and thirty had been registered under the National Defense Act
for u2018selective service' in the armed services, which sounded
rather better than, say, cannon fodder in France.u201D
[127]

III:
Hollywood and The Golden Age

Wilson's
successors in the White House, Warren G. Harding and Herbert
Hoover, are both much more wary of foreign entanglements. (Vidal
pays short shrift to Calvin Coolidge, who served between Harding
and Hoover, perhaps because Coolidge merely carried out Harding's
foreign policies.) Blaise Sanford looks at Harding and muses
that

[t]he
fact that Harding's career had been one of astonishing success
could not be ascribed solely to brute luck or animal charm.
Without luck and charm, Harding would probably not have had
a political career. But he had had the luck and the charm and
something else as well, hard to define because he was so insistently
modest. [128]

So modest
is Vidal's Harding that he publicly gives all credit for his
administration's triumph at the Washington Naval Disarmament
Conference in 1921 to his Secretary of State, Charles Evans
Hughes. In fact, as Vidal tells it, all Hughes had done was
u201Cread off the particulars of Harding's secret plan,u201D under which
u201Cthe United States was willing to scrap thirty capital shipsu201D
and u201CGreat Britain, Japan, France and Italy were invited to
rid themselves of close to two million tons of war-ships.u201D [129]

Harding
had figured that if any word of his plan were to leak to the
press, military expansionists everywhere would have time to
rally public opinion against disarmament. Hence the thunderbolt,
hurled by Hughes in the presence of the benign presidential
author. It was Harding's theory that once world opinion was
appealed to, there would be no way for the various governments
to back down.

Harding's
theory proved correct. His u201Cgamble paid off. The world was
enthralled, and in the course of a single morning Harding became
the central figure on the world's stage, and the most beloved.u201D [130]

Herbert
Hoover, who entered the White House as president six years after
Harding's sudden death, attempted to continue his predecessor's
peace-loving foreign policy, only to be brought up short by
the machinations of his own Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson.
Stimson, according to Vidal's Hoover,

u201Cwanted
to make all Asia our responsibility. That means if the Japanese
would not let go of Manchuria, we would go to war with them.
When I realized what he was up to, I called a Cabinet meeting
and read Henry the riot act. I agreed that although Japanese
behavior on the mainland of Asia was deplorable, we were in
no way threatened, economically or morally.u201D [131]

Making
war under such circumstances is repugnant to Vidal's Hoover.
u201CI would never sacrifice any American life anywhere,u201D he states
forthrightly, u201Cunless we ourselves were directly threatened.u201D
u201CPeople forget,u201D Vidal's Hoover complains, u201Cthat when I was
elected president we were occupying most of Central America
and the Caribbean. I pulled the Marines out of Haiti, out of
Nicaragua, and then when our war lovers insisted that we invade
Cuba and Panama and Honduras, I said no.u201D [132]

After
1932, Hoover is helpless to prevent war so easily, for he has
been voted out of office and replaced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
a distant cousin of the earlier, Republican Roosevelt, who had
been so bellicose and eager for hostilities. The new, Democratic
Roosevelt u201Cgoes on and on about how he hates war because he
has seen war,u201D Vidal's Hoover declares with evident contempt.
u201CAs usual, he lies. He toured a battlefield or two after Germany
had surrendered. And that was that. He saw no war. Does he
hate what he has never experienced? Who knows? But I had to
feed the victims of that war and I don't want anything like
that to happen ever again. But Stimson does. Roosevelt does.
I find them unfathomable.u201D [133]

By the
time Vidal's Hoover utters these remarks the two unfathomable
creatures at whose motives he so marvels are busily working
together, for Roosevelt names Stimson his Secretary of War just
after winning an unprecedented third term in the White House
in November 1940. And thereafter, Vidal's Stimson and Vidal's
FDR conspire to turn American public opinion around 180 degrees
so that it will favor the course they themselves fervently advocate:
U.S. intervention in the European war that began in 1939. Another
of their co-conspirators is Harry Hopkins, the former social
worker turned presidential confidante and adviser. u201CA principal
architect of the New Deal, as the President's largely unsuccessful
plan to end the Depression was called, Hopkins was the man in
the shadows, forever whispering into the President's ear, as
they experimented with programs and secretly manipulated friends
and enemies.u201D [134] And, as luck would have it, Hopkins also becomes a close
friend of Caroline Sanford, who returns to Washington in 1939,
at the beginning of The Golden Age. She is sixty and
has spent the last decade in Europe, but is now bent on playing
an active part once again in the daily publication of the Washington
Tribune. Her friendship with Hopkins makes her privy to
much interesting information.

There
is no way,u201D Hopkins tells Caroline,

u201Cthat
we — this administration anyway — will let England go down.
We can always handle the isolationists here at home [...] [w]ith
some protective camouflage for Churchill, for England. The
fact is they haven't been a great power since 1914. But we
all kept pretending they were until Hitler came along. Up till
then the whole thing has been a sort of bluff. That's why we
keep going on about a special relationship between the English-speaking
nations, [...] [d]isguising the fact that we are the world empire
now and they are simply a client state. A bunch of offshore
islands. Certainly they are close to us in many ways, but they
aren't necessary to us. To be blunt, we can survive — even
thrive — without them, which is the wicked wisdom of the intelligent
isolationists who are not just for America First, as they like
to say in their speeches, but for Amerika ber Alles.u201D [135]

The question
is how the president is going to involve the United States in
the European war, coming to the aid of the British, when most
Americans clearly oppose such an intervention. Former U.S.
Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, the blind politician
turned out of office in 1936 by his constituents (perhaps for
his outspoken criticism of the popular, if u201Clargely unsuccessful,u201D
New Deal), remains in Washington, where he has spent so much
of his career, practicing law, talking politics with his numerous
friends in and around the District, and relying on his grandson,
Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr. (who will later become famous as the
novelist, playwright, and essayist Gore Vidal), as an assistant
and guide around the Capitol. In a conversation with the fictitious
Senator James Burden Day, Vidal's Gore declares unequivocally
that u201Cthe President has a plan, even some sort of timetable,u201D
and that he is u201Cprovoking Japan into attacking us so he can
live up to his campaign promise that, if elected, no sons of
yours will ever fight in a foreign war — unless, of course,
we are attacked.u201D In that event, if the attacker were Japan,
not only would u201Cthe nation [...] be willing to enter the war,u201D
but the United States would also be involved in the European
conflict, u201Cbecause Germany and Italy would have to honor their
military treaty with Japan.u201D [136]

u201CIt's
a very clever game.u201D Gore's one glass eye had strayed northward,
while the blind eye was half shut. u201CEighty percent of our people
don't want us to go back to Europe for a second world war and
nothing will ever persuade them, no matter how many of our ships
the Germans sink. So we at least learned that lesson from last
time. But to get the Japanese to strike first is true genius
— wicked genius.u201D [137]

Hopkins
instructs Caroline on the wisdom of this plan. u201C[I]t is wisest
for the President to let them make the first move. We think
they'll attack Manila, and if by some miracle they should manage
to blow up that horse's ass MacArthur, our cup will truly runneth
over.u201D Even if they don't blow up MacArthur, however, u201Cthere's
no going to war unless all your people are united behind you.
Well, they are nowhere near united even though we keep losing
ship after ship to the Nazis and no one blinks an eye. So we
must take one great blow and then…u201D

Hopkins
pauses and Caroline prompts him by asking, u201CThen what?u201D

u201CThen
we go for it,u201D Hopkins replies. u201CAll of it. And get it.u201D

u201CWhat
is it?u201D Caroline demands, frustrated.

u201CThe world,u201D
Hopkins tells her. u201CWhat else is there for us to have?u201D
[138]

Vidal's
Roosevelt succeeds in provoking the Japanese into an attack
on Pearl Harbor. He succeeds too in concealing his foreknowledge
of this event from the naval command in Hawaii, thereby insuring
that the u201Cone great blowu201D his nation must take is a great one
indeed — great enough, devastating enough, to bring about the
complete turnaround in public opinion that is necessary for
the president to take the nation into a foreign war without
committing political suicide in the process. However, FDR does
not live to see the end of the war he leads his nation into.
That pleasure falls to his successor, the unassuming Missouri
haberdasher Harry S. Truman. And Truman minces no words in
making it clear that he favors precisely the sort of U.S.-dominated
world envisioned by Roosevelt and Hopkins. When Blaise Sanford's
son Peter covers one of Truman's early speeches on foreign policy
for his magazine The American Idea, he finds that

[t]he
President not only briskly assumed for the United States global
primacy but made it clear that from this moment forward the
United States could and would interfere in the political arrangements
of any nation on earth because u201CI believe that it must be the
policy of the United States to support free peoples who are
resisting attempted subjugation by outside pressure.u201D
[139]

On the
other hand, this is not to say that everything in President
Truman's foreign policy would have met with the approval of
either Roosevelt or Hopkins. On the contrary. As Hopkins puts
it to Caroline,

u201CHenry
Wallace says Harry will agree with you before you've actually
said what you mean. Then he'll go around telling everyone he
gave you hell. Now it looks like he wants to give Stalin hell.
That's bad news. The Boss was always willing to treat Stalin
in a normal way. As the head of the other great world power.
That's why Stalin trusted him, to the extent Russians ever trust
anybody. Then Harry goes off to Potsdam and starts to renege
on every agreement we made at Yalta. All because he's got the
atomic bomb and they don't. So we're going to have a very expensive
arms race and trouble everywhere.u201D [140]

In summary,
then, Gore Vidal's American Chronicle novels tell a tale of
American history that would seem passing strange to anyone whose
understanding of the subject is confined to what has long been
conventionally taught in American public schools and colleges.
In Vidal's American history, the Founding Fathers are not graven
saints, but fallible mortals driven as often by vanity, greed,
and lust (whether for power or for the flesh of attractive slave
girls) as by any belief in the nobility of their cause, and
more often bent on benefiting themselves and the members of
their social class than on benefiting Americans in general.
In Vidal's American history, Abraham Lincoln preserved the Union
at the cost of destroying everything about it that had made
it worth preserving — the protections supposedly afforded by
the Constitution to the inalienable individual rights of American
citizens. In Vidal's American history, a cabal of racist imperialists
had seized control of the federal government within scarcely
more than a hundred years of the Constitution's ratification,
and sent its young men on a rampage of international meddling
and mass murder that culminated in the total destruction of
two Japanese cities. In Vidal's American history, it was the
United States, not the Soviet Union, which launched and then
prolonged the Cold War.

NOTES

[91] Harry Kloman, u201CGore Vidal's American Chronicles:
1967-2000.u201D Online at http://www.pitt.edu/~kloman/vidalframe.html

[92] Donald E. Pease, u201CAmerica and the Vidal Chroniclesu201D
in Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, ed. Jay Parini
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 269.

[93] Gore Vidal, Burr (New York: Random House,
1973), p. 14.

[94] Ibid., pp. 55, 56, 58.

[95] Ibid., p. 83.

[96] Ibid., pp. 154, 160.

[97] Ibid., pp. 58, 87.

[98] Ibid., p. 177.

[99] Ibid., p. 219.

[100] Ibid., p. 257.

[101] Ibid., p. 196.

[102] Ibid., p. 351.

[103] Gore Vidal, Lincoln (New York: Random
House, 1984), pp. 153, 152.

[104] Harold Bloom, u201CThe Central Man: On Gore Vidal's
Lincolnu201D in Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain,
ed. Jay Parini (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992),
pp. 223-224.

[105] Pease, op.cit., pp. 272-273.

[106] Kaplan, op.cit., p. 740.

[107] Bloom, op.cit., p. 224.

[108] Pease, op.cit., p. 272.

[109] Ibid., p. 272.

[110] Kaplan, op.cit., p. 740.

[111] Vidal, Lincoln, op.cit., pp. 38, 556,
356, 635.

[112] Ibid., pp. 240, 391-392, 447, 448.

[113] Ibid., pp. 430-431.

[114] Ibid., pp. 126, 273, 389, 421, 437-438, 457-458,
459, 656.

[115] Ibid., p. 347.

[116] Gore Vidal, Hollywood: A Novel of America
in the 1920s (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 18.

[117] Kaplan, op.cit., p. 766.

[118] Kloman, op.cit.

[119] Andrew Sullivan, u201CThe Greatest Generation
(Revised).u201D New York Times 1 October 2000. Online at
http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/10/01/reviews/001001.01sullivt.html

[120] Gore Vidal, Empire (New York: Random
House, 1987), p. 73.

[121] Ibid., p. 72.

[122] Ibid., p. 127.

[123] Ibid., p. 129.

[124] Ibid., p. 130.

[125] Ibid., pp. 373-374.

[126] Vidal, Hollywood, op.cit., p. 70-71.

[127] Ibid., pp. 33, 69, 82.

[128] Ibid., p. 376.

[129] Ibid., p. 366.

[130] Ibid., p. 367.

[131] Gore Vidal, The Golden Age (New York:
Doubleday, 2000), p. 166.

[132] Ibid., pp.166-167.

[133] Ibid., p. 167.

[134] Ibid., p. 56.

[135] Ibid., pp. 58-59.

[136] Ibid., p. 172.

[137] Ibid., p. 173.

[138] Ibid., p. 195.

[139] Ibid., p. 307.

[140] Ibid., p. 262.

Why
American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism

by Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff
Riggenbach [send him mail],
the author of In
Praise of Decadence
, is a member of the Organization of American
Historians and a Senior Fellow of the Randolph Bourne Institute.
His articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times,
USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago
Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington
Times, Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty, among
other publications.

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