Thursday, November 23, 2017

Fiction | A Villain's Side to History

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Consider this the year of checking titles off my circa-2002 Gilmore Girls reading list. First, I conquered Proust, and now I can check off Gore Vidal, as well. Something about this year has inspired me to read more in-depth—partly, I think, because I enjoyed reading David Copperfield so much last Thanksgiving. It's one of those instances of reading the right book at the right time, being in the right mindset and such. (Plus, I've probably gotten much more out of them now than I would have in high school, anyway.) As such, these chunksters have brought me some perfectly lovely and gratifying reading experiences lately—ironically, a welcome respite from the almost-mindlessness of breezing through middle grade titles for work.

When I decided to pick up a Gore Vidal novel, I had two options from my own bookcases—Empire and Hollywood. Upon further research, however, I discovered these were just two titles in his "Narratives of Empire" series, a saga of American history spanning post-Revolution to mid-twentieth century. Obviously it wouldn't do to start in the middle, where either of these titles begins, so I decided to jump back to the first in the series, chronologically. [They can be read in either chronological or publication order.]

That brought me to the premier novel of Vidal's series, Burr, a narrative that challenges the myth of many of America's founding fathers, taking place in the early 1800s.

The premise of Burr centers around one such man with historical renown of nearly-mythological proportion, the villainous Aaron Burr—traitor, murderer of Alexander Hamilton, anti-hero of early American history. The story is narrated by the fictional Charles Schuyler, a young law clerk in Burr's law firm who has no political interest, nor connections, but dreams of becoming a writer and is hired to collect Burr's memoirs as his foray into journalism. While the present-day narrative spans just a few years in the early 1830s, time frequently jumps to Burr's past, 30-50 years prior, as the titular character recounts monumental episodes and pivotal moments in his life and that of his country.

Per the author's afterword, this story told is "history and not invention." In detailing so many conversations and interactions between these figures of American lore, Vidal says, "...the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did. Obviously I have made up conversation, but whenever possible I have used actual phrases of the speaker." I find this enlightening, because to Vidal, in writing this book, there is not much difference between this, a "historical novel," and history itself. And that matters because Burr shares the conflict of character, the dark side of personalities and relationships, the nuance of politics—pieces of history that have been lost or overshadowed by their myth and legend, the story that has become unquestioned truth over the course of the past 250 years.

So in Burr we are given a front row seat to such historical events as the infamous 1804 duel with Hamilton and his trial for treason, ordered by Thomas Jefferson, involving the conquering (or liberation, depending on whose side you're on) of Mexico, as well as insight into relationships with such figures as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and Van Buren.

My knowledge of such figures and events doesn't span far outside what an AP US History textbook may tell me. I've never delved into biographies that share the more personal side to these people; I don't know their backgrounds, their motivations, their conflicts. And because of this, Burr read to me like a television drama in which each person has their own reasons for being and doing—again, an angle and consideration that has disappeared from the story told in textbooks. Whether entirely accurate or not, Vidal presents a much more realistic, human side to a mythic story—one in which (by using Burr's perspective for storytelling) Washington is regarded as an inept military leader; Jefferson is hypocritical and conniving, bribing his way into political power; and Hamilton is an opportunist, using others to gain power and scheming a back-stabbing case against Burr as a last plot of vengeful competition. These are figures presented with their flaws in tact, not erased by a revisionist history that remembers them only as America's greatest heroes.

Another realization I had while reading Burr is how much detail to a story is lost over the years, how history is simplified over time and there are so many pieces that, once so important, may be forgotten entirely. The political climate of Burr's years as Jefferson's Vice-President (beginning 1801) were still rife with lingering Revolutionary conflict. The Federalist Party clashed with the Democratic-Republicans, who believed Federalists too nationalistic and too sympathetic to ties with Britain. And news (though not surprising) to me, these party lines were mostly drawn between New England and the lower states, between the old guard of British-born politicians and populist figures of the new America. Did you know there was an early suggestion the newly-born US be split into two countries, with a dividing line of...the Hudson River?? Or that states maintain a Constitutional right to secede from the union as they wish? Though most likely these were huge conflicts at their time, they are details that have been lost to historical summation.

In a sense, it makes me feel better about politics today. It's not necessarily that things have gotten so utterly complex, such a multi-faceted mess, just now; there have always been fighting factions and too many sides and issues to keep straight, much less figure out how to solve. It's just that we remember history by its headlines and trends—a linear plot that we can easily follow how A led to B and to C. When you're looking back on the big picture of change, it's the cause and effect that seems to matter, not all the details of how we got there. Vidal may present a more cynical history than some care to read, but it's fascinating and enjoyable to experience such a side of the story.