Reviews – Vidal, “Burr”

Gore Vidal, “Burr” (1973) – My first Gore Vidal novel! Without quite meaning to, it seems that Gore Vidal set himself up pretty well for posthumous approval. I don’t know how many people my age or younger actually read his work, but plenty of them quote approvingly encounters with his long list of enemies: William Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Henry Kissinger. He was also on The Simpsons that time! Enough to endear yourself, much more than similar big white chiefs of midcentury American literature have done with twenty-first century literate types.

I got “Burr” from a library free pile, and hence, am violating my usual practice- I like to read series in chronological order. I didn’t know when I picked it up that “Burr” is part of Vidal’s “Chronicles of Empire” series, where he does his thing by following American history and writing scabrous thing about respected patriotic idols. “Burr” is the volume that takes place earliest in American history, but is not the first published. Rats! 

Anyway, as the title implies, Aaron Burr, revolutionary war hero, lawyer, vice-president, guy who shot Alexander Hamilton, alleged would-be conqueror of Mexico and/or the American west, all around scoundrel and bon-vivant, is the central figure in this book. The book takes place in the 1830s, after Burr has returned to the United States after being pseudo-exiled for treason and murder. He’s old, now, and has worked for some time as a lawyer in New York, leveraging his reputation for clever wickedness to his professional advantage. The narrator, Charlie Schuyler, is a young lawyer with literary dreams who is tasked with taking dictation of Burr’s memoirs, but with a hidden agenda. Various political poo-bahs in New York want Charlie to prove that Martin Van Buren, current president Andrew Jackson’s heir apparent, is Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son! Charlie is a somewhat angsty, weak-willed type, so he never quite commits to either Burr or to his handlers, or to the political passions that roil the city, or to anything other than a bad “Captain Save-A-Ho” fantasy in his love life. He’s a good receptacle for Burr’s story. 

Burr details the Revolution, his politicking in New York (he helped found Tammanny Hall, among other deeds), forming the Democratic-Republicans with Jefferson, almost becoming President, fighting the duel with Hamilton, and his shenanigans out west in fine high style. Burr prides himself on being an eighteenth century-style gentleman: urbane, disinterested, something of a scoundrel, adventurous, horny. In this, he sees himself as vastly superior to the rogue’s gallery we call the Founding Fathers: through Burr, Vidal depicts Washington as a vain blunderer with a gigantic ass, Jefferson as a sinister egomaniac who believes his own ever-changing lies, and Hamilton as tragic in large part through his failures to be the upper-class gentleman he desperately aped and sucked up to, despite the talents Burr acknowledged he had. 

In general, Burr and Vidal depict the era of the American founding as less of an epic of genius and more as a rather grubby tale of ego and greed. He reverses most of the conventional valuations of the period, not just about personalities. Burr didn’t mind the Articles of Confederation and saw the Constitution as a scam. Gentlemen as Burr understood them continually lost, and schemers – a class reading would say “proto-bourgeoisie” or vaguely caesarist/ideologue types ala Robespierre and Jefferson – won out. Out of the first five Presidents of the US, Burr has the most time for John Adams, who was at least a straightforward and intelligent opponent, and James Madison, whose brains Burr acknowledges but pities for letting himself become an appendage of Jefferson. 

Jefferson is the heavy for much of the book, and really, he makes a good one. A gentleman is always himself- Jefferson makes himself whatever is convenient for Jefferson. Burr depicts the various twists and turns in Jeffersonian thought — from borderline Rousseauian anarchism when he was in opposition, to interpreting the Constitution to mean he could buy a third of the constitution — as having even less to do with principle than most scholars now, emerging from decades of filiopiety towards the founding fathers, would find in it. Jefferson wanted power, wanted to throw red meat to the mob so they’d approve his tyranny, and only his incompetence — Burr carefully notes his shabby dress, his broken down houses with unworkable “inventions,” his generally ungentlemanly demeanor — kept him from being a Robespierre. 

Burr, for his part, models himself after that other half of the French revolutionary (shitty) outcome coin- Bonaparte. I’ll need to read more of Gore Vidal to really make this call, but in this one, Vidal comes off as squarely an American Bonapartist. It’s not so much that conquering Europe is good. It’s just that out of bad options, a smart dictator is preferable to feeble febrile weirdos like Jefferson. Burr considers himself a gentleman above the democracy- but his honor and good humor doesn’t allow him to despise the people, like Hamilton does openly or Jefferson does on the sly. To the extent Burr had a politics beyond frank (as opposed to secret, hypocritical) self-advancement, it was giving the people what they wanted- glory, conquests and adventures to either participate in or live vicariously through, and beyond that, being allowed to live their little lives in peace and relative prosperity. 

This is where Burr’s western adventures come in. Vidal, contrarian that he is, still can’t quite land on treason as being cool- if nothing else, that would cut across the rep he builds for Burr as being an honest crook. So he doesn’t represent Burr as trying to break off the (then-) western parts of the US as a private empire, or to sell it to Britain or Spain, with which the Jeffersonians accused him. Instead, Burr recounts a somewhat confused but fun tale of trying to gather armies of western pioneer folk to take over Mexico, and make him King or Emperor Aaron. He would have gotten away with it, too, if not for that lousy meddling James Wilkerson! But really, he implies, what gentleman of character wouldn’t want to get out from under Jefferson’s Virginian oligarchy and light out for conquests new?  It’s no coincidence that the major political figure of the time that Vidal paints in a relatively positive light is Andrew Jackson, who, it seems likely, at least paid Burr’s schemes some attention before Burr got pinched. Jackson’s a rougher-hewn, less interesting Burr, as far as Vidal is concerned, the best we’re going to get. But Burr was in Europe for most of Jackson’s career, exiled as a traitor (even if he was cleared by a federal court) and murderer (he argues Hamilton basically set himself up as a martyr for… well, a martyr for the elimination of Aaron Burr from polite society). He can’t get the real Napoleon interested in any schemes, alas, so he slinks back to New York to practice law and romance widows out of their money. 

This book is a little over seven hundred pages in my edition, and quite action packed. Charlie has his own life, involving literary and political intrigue, trying to “redeem” a working girl, and bloody murder, and beyond the political there’s shocking personal revelations about both Charlie and Burr. These are a little less interesting to me, and the big one about Charlie you kind of see coming. Most of these come down to questions of birth legitimacy and illicit love, and you can see why Vidal would incorporate this into his historical vision. The real America, he implies, is the one from the other side of the sheets, not in some Howard Zinn history from below sense (though there’s a soupcon of that), but in the sense of a subversion, sometimes just a plain inversion, of the received story. Burr is a devil figure in the sympathetic version of “Old Nick,” as a gentleman you can rely on to be naughty, and it appears Vidal has taken bits and pieces of old American lore, the Progressive school of history that would have been coming out of favor around the time Vidal was in college, with its emphasis on the venality of the great figures of the American past, some personal grudges (there’s a sort-of funny Buckley pastiche character), and his own interest in transgressive sexuality and behavior to make a sort of devil’s dictionary of American history. I look forward to reading the other installments. ****’

Reviews – Vidal, “Burr”

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